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November 2004

Advocacy in ESL

Transition, Turmoil & Hope

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"How September 11th Changed the ESL Profession"
Excerpts from Chapter One of New ESL MiniConference Book

The following are excerpts from the first chapter of "Transition, Turmoil, and Hope," a new book which compiles the first two years of Achievement Profile interviews, as published in the ESL MiniConference Online. The full text is available as a pdf file at A paper version is forthcoming.

Chapter One Excerpts:

New York City is like one big ESL classroom, with hot dog and coffee vendors reinforcing a newcomer’s first efforts at communication; busses with advertising messages supported by powerful visuals lurching through the streets; an endless flow of diverse cultures articulating and gesticulating to convey everything that unites and everything that separates them.

When the World Trade Center fell to the ground on September 11, 2001, it crushed the lives, hopes and dreams of more than 3,000 New York City residents and visitors to the city. Every day for months following the attacks on the towers, the New York Times ran several pages of short biographies and photos until readers had learned about nearly every person who died that September morning. Reading those stories no one could miss the multicultural, multiethnic, multinational dimensions of the pain and sadness felt by families and friends of the victims.

If your subway ride to work each morning took you through Times Square-42nd Street Station, you would have walked respectfully through a makeshift shrine in the space between four pillars, with flyers posted by those searching for missing relatives, messages of condolence and faith, and, on the cement floor, candle flames in honor of those lost. Quietly grieving New Yorkers experienced about six weeks of a spiritual bond bridging their differences as they sojourned through once familiar and routine pathways during their daily commutes, before things slowly returned to something like ordinary life and the posters and candles were cleared away. There were immediate effects at ESL programs in the New York City. As academic director at a language school based at Manhattan College, in the Bronx, I remember clearly how the campus responded to news of the terrible attacks downtown.

The day of the attack on the World Trade Center, classes continued as normal at our program. About 11:00, teachers read a brief bulletin to their students about what had happened, and then proceeded with their lessons. At the 12:10 lunch break, many ESL students joined Manhattan College students outside at the prayer vigil. During the lunch hour that day, the computer lab was also a busy place, with students alternately e-mailing friends and family, and checking Web sites for information about what had occurred.


By Wednesday afternoon, floods of e-mail messages had arrived from former students and our associates all over the world, expressing their grief and solidarity. "God bless you all, God bless liberty, God bless America," concluded a statement from a former student of ours now living in France. "I know it's a terrible moment in your lives," wrote a student from Peru, "but I also know that American people never give up and that you are bigger than your problems." The marketing manager at HIT International Education in Turkey wrote, "Our hearts are with the whole American nation."


As a member of the program committee for NYSTESOL’s annual conference scheduled for October 19-20, 2001, I also remember serious consideration being given to possibly canceling the event, but it turned out to be one of the most memorable ESL gatherings in the history of the New York affiliate. Whether examining new ESL materials while sipping coffee provided by McGraw-Hill, celebrating at the opening night reception and Saturday's President's ball, or standing outside enjoying the autumn splendor of the woods that surround the Rye Town Hilton, this year's 600+ conference-goers showed a strong interest in exploring the deeper issues facing our profession, in the somber aftermath of September 11th's World Trade Center, Pentagon and Pennsylvania airplane crashes, the more recent anthrax scares and the ongoing U.S. military strikes on Afghanistan.

In the subdued atmosphere that prevailed at the NYSTESOL convention in Rye Brook, there were a number of poignant moments. The fire-orange, red and yellow leaves in the woodlands surrounding Rye may have offered a reassuring signal that the cycle of nature continues unabated, even in the face of horrible experiences such as New York and America had recently seen. There is a certain predictability to the change of seasons, and participants in the weekend at the Rye Town Hilton likely returned home with steadier nerves and a clearer shared vision of the future of our chosen vocation.


During the year following the Al-Qaeda attacks in America, intensive English programs at colleges and universities across the country struggled to protect teaching jobs while applications from international students dropped precipitously. By early 2003, prestigious ESL programs at the University of Berkeley and the University of Minnesota were shut down, and career ESL instructors were being retrained for new occupations. Programs which survived were moving quickly to a new model, less dependent on elite, educated students from abroad; ESL publishers shifted resources to the development of new materials better suited to meet the needs of first- and second-generation immigrants whose less-schooled dialects differ significantly from the standard English required for academic success at the university level (Reid, J., March 13, 2004. “Ear Learners and Learning Styles,,” Keynote speech at KATESOL Conference.).

Repercussions from 9-11 were felt not only at university programs. The rhetoric of the “War on Terror” rekindled the anti-immigrant sentiments of mainstream America; Massachusetts passed English-only legislation prohibiting bilingual education in K-12 public schools; Western Kansas elected a state board member whose campaign advocated refusing to educate the children of undocumented immigrants. At the same time, “No Child Left Behind” brought a renewed focus on the academic performance of English language learners in public schools, requiring schools, districts and states to show “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) in disaggregated data for this group. ESL teacher education programs grew as districts sought ESL endorsements for regular classroom teaching staff in an effort to meet AYP.

I started the ESL MiniConference Online in the months following September 11, 2001, in an effort to fill the gap between annual conferences and the workaday lives of ESL teachers. During the past two and a half years, ESL MiniConference has documented methodology debates; concerns about poor working conditions for part-time teachers; political arguments for and against bilingual education; the controversy over the restructuring of the ERIC Clearinghouses; and, primarily, new information generated at local workshops and regional conferences in the U.S. and around the world.


One lasting impression for me from the emotionally charged days and weeks following September 11th was the importance of remembering the people who influence our lives, and helping to make their ideas, experiences, insights and suggestions more widely accessible to others who may benefit from them. That is where the idea for the “Achievement Profile” interviews came from.

The first five profiles were published in April, 2002: Marianne Celce-Murcia, Betty Azar, Edward Erazmus, Renee Lajcak, and Robert O’Neill. Marianne Celce-Murcia is the co-author of The Grammar Book (Celce-Murcia, M. & Larsen-Freeman, D., 1983, 1999. The Grammar Book, Heinle & Heinle.), one of my prized possessions as a new ESL teacher heading overseas to teach. Betty Azar’s Understanding and Using English Grammar (Azar, B., 1981, 1992, 1998. Understanding and Using English Grammar, Prentice Hall.) was another key resource for me in my earliest ESL teaching experiences. I was overwhelmed with relief and quite honored when both of these well-known ESL professionals agreed to be interviewed for the ESL MiniConference Online.

The following note from Carol Gillespie, president of Washington State TESOL, is typical of responses to our interviews of high-profile members of the profession.

We had our WAESOL (Washington State TESOL) Conference and we had Betty Azar as our featured speaker. She was great! As I mentioned before to you, the theme of our conference was Languages of the Heart. I could tell from your interview that Betty Azar was influenced by the language of her heart, so I thought she would be perfect as the featured plenary of our conference…. Thank you for doing that interview, or I might never have had the tenacity to make all the contacts I needed to make to get Betty for our featured speaker.
(Gillespie, C., January, 2003. Letter to the Editor, ESL MiniConference Online.)

Professor Erazmus was a member of my masters research paper committee, 1983-1984, and it meant a lot to me when—with the assistance of his daughter via e-mail—I was able to reestablish contact and get his answers to my interview questions. I can still remember a KATESOL meeting in Salina, Kansas, in 1983, when keynoter James Alatis was talking with Professor Erazmus and referred to him as one of the early TESOL pioneers from the University of Michigan. Professor Erazmus helps to connect us to those early days when Kenneth Pike and Charles Fries were so influential in linguistics and English language teaching.

When I rated the top 10 sessions in five different categories in the weeks leading up to the 2002 TESOL Convention, I received the following message from Renee Lajcak, director of the Midwest Teacher Training Program, in Madison, Wisconsin:

I really enjoyed reading the article about the conference. I can't go to the big TESOL conference this year, so it's extra-important to have access to information like this now. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.
(Lajcak, R., March, 2002. Letter to the Editor, ESL MiniConference Online.)

I was intrigued by the fact that her TESL certificate program was not affiliated with a university, but was her own private enterprise, and as it turned out her interview was one of the most interesting we did.

It was difficult to locate an e-mail address for Robert O’Neill, but well worth the effort. I had been thoroughly entranced by his quick wit during two presentations he made at meetings of the Japanese Association of Language Teachers (JALT) in the early 1990s, and also thought his video (now CD-ROM) course, “The Lost Secret,” was ingeniously conceived. He warmed to the task of answering my interview questions, and then pushed the ESL MiniConference in an important direction when he encouraged me to find researchers to publicly debate his comments about grammar teaching on the Web pages of the newsletter.

The terms 'acquire' and 'acquisition' have far more intuitive appeal because they suggest a 'natural' or 'nativist' process, similar to if not exactly identical with the way children become competent native-speakers. And this also explains the popularity of other claims or current ideas such as 'the process of learning a foreign language can and should be much more like the process of L1 acquisition' and 'language is merely an instrument of communication'; two beliefs I regard as naive and childish.
(O’Neill, R., April, 2002. Achievement Profile, ESL MiniConferenceOnline.)

That summer debate grew to include an all-time hero of mine, Stephen Krashen, as well as a new star in the field of second language acquisition, Bill VanPatten. A number of readers contacted me to let me know that they were using the debate in teacher-education courses and as the focus for professional workshops.

The standard questions for these “Achievement Profile” interviews are the following:

What is your main ESL activity now?

What are your principal projects, and what is on the back burner?

How did you start your ESL career? Who influenced your decision? What were some important formative experiences in the early stages of your development?

What are the four or five language/culture backgrounds with which you are most familiar as a teacher? Which ones are you familiar with from the perspective of a language learner yourself? What insights have you gained in how to meet the needs of English learners from these cultures and language backgrounds?

If you had to give three pieces of advice to a new ESL teacher, what would they be? What do you see as the most important issues facing the ESL/EFL teaching profession today?

Further names of individuals to interview came from readers of the ESL MiniConference, as well as my own memories of people I thought would have something valuable to share. As the number of “Achievement Profiles” in our archives grew, I realized that through these online interviews a comprehensive, multifaceted snapshot of the ESL/EFL profession in transition was emerging.

In 10 or 20 years, few will be talking about September 11th anymore. Hopefully, the content of our discourse will be constructive, peaceful and optimistic, rather than further horrors of war. Nevertheless, something changed on 9-11 and our profession is undergoing tensions and stresses which are radically redefining the landscape for most of us and for anyone considering a career as an ESL teacher. It is my strong belief that the unguarded comments of these 39 teachers can help us remember what is best and what is most essential about the activity of teaching English to speakers of other languages.

Chapter One Preview by Robb Scott

2004 ESL MiniConference Online