James Cohen studies novel ideas to teach English during Fulbright visit to Uruguay

James Cohen
James Cohen

James Cohen will remember the dirt roads, and the long drives to reach the most rural schools in Uruguay.

He’ll remember touring those buildings, seeing the kitchens where the teachers and students eat and the bedrooms where the teachers sleep during the week. He’ll remember the incredible food, including the best gnocchi he’s ever tasted.

But what the associate professor of ESL/Bilingual Education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction will remember most are the 450 amazing educators he met, their intense commitment to teaching and their eager participation in whatever ideas and programs will make them better teachers and benefit their students.

“We can learn from these teachers,” says Cohen, who visited Uruguay from May 13 through Aug. 7 as a Fulbright Scholar.

Established in 1946 under legislation introduced by then-Sen. J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, the Fulbright Program is administered by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the U.S. Department of State.

Fulbright awards approximately 8,000 grants each year to roughly 1,600 U.S. students, 4,000 foreign students, 1,200 U.S. scholars and 900 visiting scholars, in addition to several hundred teachers and professionals.

Aldo Rodriguez
Aldo Rodriguez

Cohen’s summer in the South American country was partly a research trip, focused mainly on studying the effectiveness of a “phenomenally progressive,” three-tiered government initiative to teach English as a Foreign Language.

Like many countries, he says, Uruguay considers English the “language of power” in the world and pledges considerable resources to make sure its children are fluent in more than Spanish.

Working with NIU College of Education doctoral alum Aldo Rodriguez, national director of Second Language Policy for the Uruguay Department of Education, Cohen learned about classrooms in the larger cities where English teachers visit 45 minutes each day.

In schools without English teachers – and that’s most of them, Cohen says – children learn English online through the government’s CIEBAL program.

“They pipe these teachers into the classrooms,” he says. “The remote teacher and the cooperating teacher, who is the actual classroom teacher, work together as partners to teach the kids English, even though the cooperating teacher doesn’t know English. It works to varying degrees.”

Most exciting, however, and what Cohen really wanted to see in action, is the third tier.

Rural schools lack not only English teachers but Internet access, which inspired Rodriguez and his team to create an instructional DVD. It includes lessons, dialogues and even songs.

A one-room schoolhouse in rural Uruguay.
A one-room schoolhouse in rural Uruguay.

Next, he invited teachers from across Uruguay’s rural areas to the capital city of Montevideo, where they were trained in how to use the DVD with their students.

Even without a mandate, several hundred dedicated teachers made the bumpy, long drives down those dirt roads for professional development in the urban metropolis of 1.4 million people.

“Aldo then sent them back to teach, and we went to observe this – and the kids actually were learning English,” Cohen says.

“There’s a power dynamic shift that happens when the students are learning faster than the teachers, and we wanted to learn how this power dynamic shift was manifesting itself in the classroom and the teachers’ perspective on that,” he adds.

Overwhelmingly, and not surprisingly, the teachers were pleased with this and excited that the students were learning faster than they were.

It’s how teachers everywhere should respond, Cohen says.

Students inside the one-room school sing.
Students inside the one-room school sing.

“We should not be afraid that the kids are learning faster than we are, but to be accepting and open to it, and to allow the kids to teach the teachers various things,” he says.

“And what does that do? It motivates the students. It acknowledges that the teachers are human beings who don’t know everything, and it sets the students on a path of having really high self-esteems, which all kids should have. There’s nothing more exciting than when you see the eyes of students who you made feel really confident about what they know.”

Cohen and Rodriguez plan to write and publish their findings in a refereed journal and to present their work around South America, where relatively little research is available on the teaching of English.

It also will serve as a good catalyst for external funding.

“I plan on writing grants in the future so that I can implement a similar program in different countries,” Cohen says. “There’s money out there from the State Department.”

Cohen presented on “Writing in the EFL Classroom” to 45 teachers in the city of Maldonado.
Cohen presented on “Writing in the EFL Classroom” to 45 teachers in the city of Maldonado.

Part of his time in Uruguay involved the development of a needs assessment of teachers while also presenting his theories on teaching English as a Foreign Language, multicultural education and social justice to teachers, preservice teachers, Fulbright teaching assistants and university faculty.

Some of these workshops took place at the National University of Río Cuarto in Argentina, where Cohen spent three days on a Fulbright travel grant.

What Cohen learned about the Uruguayan teachers and schools didn’t surprise him.

Similar to issues in U.S. schools, classrooms are overflowing with students, some of whom are struggling to engage because they bring the problems of their home lives with them. Some students are hungry. Others are experimenting with drugs. Others lack parents willing or able to serve as educational partners with the teachers.

A “remote” teacher delivers English lessons through the computer to a classroom of eighth-graders in Montevideo.
A “remote” teacher delivers English lessons through the computer to a classroom of eighth-graders in Montevideo.

“With that said, and perhaps despite the obstacles,” Cohen says, “students are indeed learning, and teachers are there for their students.”

Financial resources, meanwhile, are stretched.

Professional development is available, and if the presenter is a native English-speaking Ph.D. like Cohen, teachers ae more than happy to attend Friday nights or Saturday mornings – the only times their schedules allowed.

“Talk about being hungry!” he says. “There’s something inside teachers that motivates them to be the best teachers they can,” he says.”

It’s energized Cohen.

“I came back physically exhausted but completely jazzed, emotionally and psychologically,” he says. “They put a spark under me to continue what I’m doing, and the kind of work I do is very difficult because you’re constantly being told to stop and to shut up, and that the status quo is OK. It can become depressing talking about social justice issues, something I discussed in my presentations all across the country.”

Yet he realizes that he must keep talking.

“As a white man, I have nothing to complain about – and I’m not complaining,” he says. “What this did was teach me that I need to push harder, and I need to fight harder, and that we all need to step up to the plate and continue fighting for what’s right and against all that’s wrong in our countries and our educational systems.”

Cohen worked with preservice teachers in Argentina.
Cohen worked with preservice teachers in Argentina.
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