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An Oldie But Goodie from Prolingua
Associates Why I Like Lou Spaventa's "Stranger in Town"
I have been teaching ESL since
1982, and I took my first TESL course in the spring of 1980. Over the
more than 25 years I have been aware of the ESL profession, I have reviewed
hundreds of textbooks and served on numerous curriculum committees selecting
books and materials to help ESL teachers and students. Nothing I have
seen or heard quite matches the creations of the four or five individuals
who started Prolingua Associates (www.prolinguaassociates.com) as a "mom and pop micro
business" in Brattleboro, Vermont, in 1980.
There is a smart simplicity
to the books and resources that they publish. Their company philosophy,
printed on the first page of every one of their books, is truly inspired.
At Pro Lingua, our objective
is to foster an approach to learning and teaching which we call Interplay,
the interaction of language learners and teachers with their materials,
with the language and the culture, and with each other in active, creative
and productive play.
I learned of ProLingua Associates
for the first time when I was teaching in Japan, because a number of
the best ESL teachers I had the good fortune to meet and work with there
came from either the School for International Training (now World Learning,
Inc.) or Peace Corps, or both, and that SIT-Peace Corps nexus is also
where several of the founders of ProLingua experienced the language
learning and teaching events which led them to eventually start publishing
their own materials.
One of my mentors in Japan--during
the year we both spent at the University of Nevada-Reno's Tokyo campus
as well as the two following years I spent working for him at Ohio University's
OPELT program in Chubu University--was Dave Hopkins, very well known
today for his sensitive and intuitively appealing approaches to ESL
teacher training, and someone whose cross-cultural leadership at OPELT,
from 1989 to 1995, helped to establish one of the most successful U.S.-Japan
educational exchanges of that era.
Dave is a native of Brattleboro
and one of the original SIT graduates--from the 1960s, when this innovative
campus did not even award a degree to those intrinsically motivated
early cohorts who, in turn, went on to fill many key administrative
posts in ESL and TESL programs, as well as peace corps projects, around
the world during the next three decades. "They eventually called us
back to campus for 'retreading'," Dave explained to me, "and a majority
of our group voted to accept the masters degree for our earlier work,"
although he quickly assured me that he himself had voted against it,
believing on principle that a piece of paper could never adequately
represent the special learning experience they had enjoyed together.
Anyway, my friend Dave Hopkins
knew Ray Clark, Mike Jerald, Pat Moran, and Andy and Elise Burrows when
they started ProLingua Associates, and he contributed to a text, "Experiential Language Teaching Techniques," that Clark
and Jerald edited. And we had a number of ProLingua products in the
OPELT Resource Room at Chubu, including the world-famous (among ESL
professionals, that is) Lexicarry--the old one, bigger, thicker, and
in black and white--and the ageless "ESL Miscellany." Both of these
books have been revised (radically so, in the case of Lexicarry, now
in color and online), and are two items no English teacher should
be without when venturing upon a trip abroad.
I met Ray, Andy, and Elise
for the first time at the 2001 New York TESOL conference, in Rye Brook, little
more than a month after September 11th. They were friendly and really
perked up when I mentioned their friend and mine, Dave Hopkins. I attended
a session at which Andy Burrows demonstrated one of their new publications
that year, "Celebrating American Heroes,," an ingenious collection
of 13 original plays, in clear and simple English, by Anne Siebert (with
wonderful illustrations by Marilynne K. Roach). Andy got 25 people in
a small room to take on roles and read their parts from scenes in several
of these plays. Anyone who doesn't have a specific role gets to read
and speak the part of a "Greek chorus," so no one is left out. I was
so impressed by this book that I made it one of the required texts,
along with Lexicarry, in an ESL Methods and Materials course that I
developed several years later at Fort Hays State University, in Hays,
Kansas. (The other text for that course was Diane Larsen-Freeman's "Techniques
and Principles in Language Teaching," published by Oxford--but Larsen-Freeman
is another member of the SIT-Peace Corps nexus.)
I had a nice chat with Ray
Clark a few months later, at the New York TESOL Applied Linguistics
SIG's 24th annual winter conference, and learned a little
more about his personal history and how he got into the field of ESL
in the early 1960s. I am hopeful that one day soon I can present on
the ESL MiniConference a full set of Achievement Profile interviews
with all five of the original founders of ProLingua Associates. If you
have attended any of the recent international TESOL conventions, it
is hard to miss this company's booth--there just is not the same "buzz"
at the others. I saw them at San Antonio and again this past year, at
Seattle, where I could not resist joining in the fray of avid lovers
of "interactive play" stretching to get a good position from which to
explore their new materials and some "oldies but goodies," too.
One of the nicest treasures
I came away with that day in Seattle last March was a play for ESL called
"Stranger in Town," by Lou Spaventa. I bought the play
book and a CD-ROM "radio play" with good quality voices and some nice
sound effects, and was excited about sharing it with my vocabulary class--students
from the lowest three of five levels in our intensive English program--when
I got home.
This play is about a main character
who arrives in a small town, and starts to go about getting settled
there. He meets nice people and bad people; some townsfolk are friendly;
others, downright rude and unwelcoming. Through it all, as the main
character goes through various experiences, his own personal history
is slowly divulged as well. The story hits a nice pitch, with a fair
amount of tension, and then the students are asked to imagine and create
the final scene.
Lou Spaventa developed this
play with the idea that ESL learners could readily understand and relate
to the common experiences faced by a "stranger" in a new place: ordering
food, finding a place to stay, looking for a job, making friends, etc...
And it really worked with my
students. We would go through each scene, reading much of the play out
loud, and with them also getting chances to act out certain parts. And
then we would listen to that scene (and review previous ones) on the
CD-ROM. It seemed like we really enjoyed tapping into this fictional
world, and the students clearly could tell that one purpose of the story
was to help them express (and understand) their own experiences as recent
arrivals to America. The illustrations by Patrick Moran were very helpful,
and I would use these sometimes at the start of a class to review different
parts of the story.
When you go through a story
with a group of students, it enriches nearly everything else you do
with them, because words, phrases, and situations have a certain familiarity
that everyone in the class shares a feeling for. The smiles, the laughter,
and other emotions tied to the meaning of the language are powerful
enablers and confidence builders.
I suggest taking a peek at
the one or two free scenes available for reading at the ProLingua
site, and I also invite you to take a glance at a short online quiz I prepared for my students on surveymonkey.com,
to give you some of the flavor of this language learning activity.
I firmly believe that products
like this would not exist if not for thoughtful "mom and pop" publishing
houses like ProLingua Associates. This article is my way of saying "thank
you" to the folks at ProLingua for the love, care, and artfulness that
they bring to their work.
Pro Lingua Associates ESL/EFL Book Publishers
74 Cotton Mill Hill, Suite A315, Brattleboro, Vermont 05301
Fax: 802 257 5117 Phone: 802 257 7779
Pro Lingua HOTLINE for information and orders: call Elise @
800 366 4775 email: firstname.lastname@example.org