By Jessmaya Morales
From thousands of feet above the West coast, I reflect on our recent Sandanona Conference at SIT Graduate Institute. By “we” I mean the 29th class of the Summer Master’s in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) graduate students. Over the course of the summer, we planned a conference together.
While, traditionally, a conference has a keynote (or two), and perhaps a few plenary speakers, in addition to workshops; our class decided we’d like to do something that both reflected us as a group, and honored the fact that many of the people who’d been foundational members of the faculty for the MA in TESOL program would be in Brattleboro over the summer. We would take some of the essential ingredients of our program and really embody them in our conference: experiential learning, group process, and culture.
We opened the conference with a performance of sorts, each of us entering the crowded auditorium with suitcases and bags, greeting each other and our guests in different languages as we made our way to various places in the room, in which everyone was seated in a circle. Beginning and ending with a song, each of us shared a few words of welcome and inspiration with our attendees, and then asked everyone to envision what they’d like to take away from our conference.
After the opening, we began our workshops. The topics were varied and engaging, and each of us brought something totally different. Attending our workshops were current Summer MA in TESOL students, professors, community members, friends, and family.
The highlight of the conference was our diwaniya, a departure from the traditional conference keynote. It was a gathering we held in which chairs were arranged in a circle, and we asked our SIT ‘elders’ to come and talk about their experiences at SIT, their visions for the future of TESOL, and what they hoped we would take away from our experiences at SIT. With humor, candor, and thoughtfulness, all of the 13 ‘elders’ in attendance spoke to us and told their stories.
Some of them are published and renowned authors in the TESOL field; others have been key stakeholders and pioneers in the field. All of them have been co-creators of a master’s program that is world renowned for its perspectives and approaches to teaching and learning language. What distinguishes this group typifies why teachers don’t get a lot of attention in the press: it is not the long list of famous people they’ve met with, nor their relation to world politics at the macro level. Instead, they are distinguished by years of work and inquiry in the field, and their unflagging dedication to thinking critically about the micro-politics and dynamics of the classroom, the role of culture in language teaching and learning, and the day-to-day practice of building an incredible program that sends thoughtful, skilled, and reflective teachers out into the world to do amazing work.
Our cohort was excited to bring all of these key people together for a conversation in a manner that has never really happened before.
Toward the end of the meeting, Leslie Turpin quoted Myles Horton, founder of the Highlander School in the late 1960s, and encouraged us to remember the idea that he expressed when authorities wanted to close the Highlander School down, something to the effect of, ‘you can’t close this school, because this school is not a building, it’s people.’ Leslie encouraged us to take with us the experience of working in relationship to each other, and the legacy our program has created for groups of people working together over many years.
As I travel at high speeds through cloud clusters over the lakes and peaks and valleys of the Cascade mountain range, I reflect on what I had in my ‘suitcase’ as I came into the Summer MA in TESOL program at SIT. Gone are the values of individual performance, competitive learning, and traditional testing and assessment I came with. Upon leaving SIT, I’ve re-packed my suitcase with what I see as the truly revolutionary tools of a teacher. I’ve got the principals of collaborative group process; the experiential learning cycle; active listening and reflection; and the knowledge that my strength and success as a teacher is dependent upon how I relate to my students, my colleagues, and my cultural context. I also have the contact information for an extraordinary group of teachers who have done or will do the kind of revolutionary work that changes lives, however quietly at first, and lay groundwork for the networks that change the world.
This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes of Arundhati Roy’s: “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”