STARTALK: Building Language and Leadership Capacity

By Laura Terrill

For more than 30 years my teaching and administrative career focused on the commonly taught languages and too many schools and universities were content to maintain the status quo. Today, many more Americans understand the need to develop a multilingual and multicultural perspective and STARTALK is contributing to that vision by offering technical assistance to local and regional programs K-16.

In 2006 the STARTALK program began with 34 Arabic and Chinese programs. STARTALK programs continue today with well over 100 programs in 10 languages — Arabic, Chinese, Dari, Hindi, Portuguese, Persian, Russian, Swahili, Turkish and Urdu. The goals are straightforward — STARTALK programs are designed to work with the language groups that are commonly spoken in the world, but less commonly taught in the United States. Students in STARTALK programs learn or improve their language skills in intensive immersion settings during the summer months. Practicing teachers or those aspiring to be language teachers receive training in standards-based instruction that emphasizes STARTALK endorsed best practices.

As one of the team leaders for STARTALK, I have the privilege of working with different critical need language programs in various states. I have observed the incredible energy and effort that goes into the design and execution of each program. Clearly, each program is unique and is designed to meet the challenges and identified needs of a local community. Prior to the start of a program, team leaders are responsible for working with program directors to answer questions that they may have and to assist if necessary in the development of the curriculum templates. During the program, team leaders visit programs to have the chance to see the proposed curriculum in action. They provide feedback and offer suggestions for program improvement.

My experiences with STARTALK have informed my thinking as a language educator. It’s impossible not to be impressed with the language diversity of the United States as I’ve traveled and encountered dedicated teachers and enthusiastic students who want to advance the linguistic talent pool of this country.

I’m thrilled to see heritage learners in situations where they are celebrated for the linguistic skills that they have and challenged to advance those skills to a professional level of competency. It’s inspiring to see native speakers of languages, those who have taught in community schools and in other settings taking the steps that are needed to become certified to teach in public schools. It has been rewarding to see teachers of all of the STARTALK languages coming together around the endorsed best practices.

As team leader, I’ve been able to observe the impact that the best practices have on student learning and I find myself regretting the fact that I did not have such a concise list of best practices when I began teaching in 1976. I know that I would have been a much more effective teacher much earlier in my career. STARTALK programs strive to:

       • implement a standards-based and thematically organized curriculum
       • facilitate student-centered learning
       • use the target language for instruction
       • ensure meaningful interaction in the target language
       • integrate language, culture and content
       • differentiate instruction based on student need

What do STARTALK classrooms look like? Visitors who enter STARTALK classrooms observe non-heritage elementary students who are fully engaged in the target language while commenting on the impact of pollution in the ocean. They experience tours led by STARTALK students who are serving as docents in community museums. They understand novice lessons in languages that they don’t speak as teachers make the language comprehensible using authentic visuals and many props. Students share their experiences of dining in the home of a local family while they practice their language skills in a real-life setting. They see students engaged in Skype conversations with students in other parts of the world. In some classes students perform by interpreting and acting out authentic folk tales using shadow puppets that they created. Visitors also see students who are assessing their own progress toward language goals and classes that are grouped to maximize learning for students according to their age and proficiency levels.

STARTALK instructors and teachers who work with teacher trainees and students have embraced a climate of continual improvement and have demonstrated a willingness to share resources, materials and strategies in ways that will surely have a lasting impact on how all languages are taught in this country. STARTALK students are clearly better prepared to communicate effectively with others in languages that are critical to the future of our nation. STARTALK is building enthusiasm for language teaching and for language learning in our country.

Laura Terrill holds a BA in French from the University of Missouri and earned her MA in Secondary Administration from Northeast Missouri State University. She taught French at all levels for 21 years before becoming the Coordinator of Foreign Language and English as a Second Language. She has taught second-language methods courses in Missouri and Indiana. She has been active professionally at the local, state, regional and national levels and most recently served as the Central States delegate on the Board of Directors for ACTFL. Laura enjoys presenting and has given several workshops and sessions locally, at Central States and ACTFL. She currently lives in Indianapolis where she is working as an independent consultant.

For more information about STARTALK, please visit STARTALK website