“Asking questions is a way of demonstrating intellectual capital.” With these words, Christina Frei, the Executive Director of Language Instruction and Academic Director of the Penn Language Center, set us off on a three-day tour de force through the American classroom. Before traveling to our host institutions—the University of Oklahoma in my case—we jointly traveled the heights and depths of what to expect in our classrooms: the wondrous peaks of joyous meaning-making through communicative language teaching, the adventurous valleys and stormy seas faced by the average US student, ranging from a competitive grading scheme to a maze of bureaucracy.
We flew the highest when we stepped into the shoes of our future students and our future selves alike: A “shock language lesson” engulfed us in the poetic, sonorous beauty that is Quechua, and on the last day we delighted ourselves and each other with the closing paragraph of a grandiose prologue “Ready, Set, Teach!” that saw us teach our own languages to each other: from Thai, German, and Portuguese to Chinese, Turkish, and many more.
The most challenging aspect in the classroom, we were also told, is listening. Not speaking: speaking up, speaking loudly, speaking to explain. It’s the challenge to be fair, to be inclusive, to share our airtime – to give, to breathe, to listen. So we listened. And we shared. And together we laughed, we sang, we danced.
There were friendships born in those three days that will leave a footprint in our lives—not just for the upcoming months that we will spend in our classrooms, languages centers, cultural institutions, and event venues throughout the United States, but for the rest of our lives. Once a Fulbrighter, always a Fulbrighter – and as J. William Fulbright himself once said, “Our future is not in the stars but in our own minds and hearts.”
But that’s only the beginning.
Senator Fulbright also said that “[e]ducational exchange can turn nations into people.” Exchange, of course, builds on language, on communication. It is those visions that make endeavors like the Fulbright Language Teaching Assistant program so vital in today’s societal landscape.
To teach, to be a voice, to listen, to learn: I stand in the great, wide flats of the Midwest, and I have more questions than answers on my tongue—and I know, thanks to three days with my band of brothers and sisters, that it is not just alright; it is right.
Let the adventure begin.