A new chapter

Howie Berman is the new executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, or ACTFL. Berman, who took the helm in January 2019, is responsible for expanding the influence of the 12,500-member nonprofit organization, plus overseeing the development and implementation of its policies, programs and services.

Berman has been with ACTFL since 2010, serving as chief operating officer and director of membership and administration. He spoke with SmartBrief about his vision for the association as it heads into this new chapter. The following conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

What's on the horizon for ACTFL? What are your top priorities for this year?

We have enjoyed incredible success over the last seven-plus years with Marty Abbott as executive director. Marty was and is a stalwart supporter of critical initiatives like the Seal of Biliteracy, Lead with Languages, and America’s Languages Working Group. During her tenure, she promoted the importance of advocacy and long-term strategic thinking, wanting ACTFL to be more proactive than reactive.

I come into this position keenly aware of this legacy and plan to build on it.

I want us to continue to innovate—in the way we develop and deliver professional development for language educators; in the way we assess our learners; and in the way we communicate both within the profession and outwardly so that our message resonates throughout this country.

I want us to focus on diversity and inclusion. How can we recruit and retain a more diverse teacher workforce to meet the needs of more diverse student populations, for example? How can we better leverage professional development offerings to satisfy the needs of diverse communities within the language profession? How can we make meaningful relationships with diverse communities outside the language profession, so they recognize and value the importance of language learning for all students? These are some of the questions a newly-convened Diversity and Inclusion Taskforce is currently asking. We are looking at how advancing issues of diversity, equity and inclusion in the language education community can help the long-term sustainability of the profession.

We also know that building our teacher capacity must be a high priority. In 2017, 44 states and the District of Columbia reported a shortage of qualified K-12 language or bilingual educators. We need to reimagine how we recruit and retain language educators. We’re already engaged in some activities that address this priority area:

  • Educators Rising, a nationwide initiative to engage high school students to explore language teaching as a career. We provide ready-to-use modules that introduce students to the profession and explain the tremendous impact they can have as role models.
  • Scholarships for high-school students going to college to become foreign language teachers.
  • Mentorship programs to help facilitate connections and provide support to language teachers, in particular to those who are in the first two years of their first teaching job.
  • Advocating for policies at the local, state, and national level that support language teachers and learners. Importantly, making advocacy a natural part of language education.

What are some of the big hurdles facing foreign language teachers today and how is ACTFL addressing those issues?

Many hurdles can be traced back to ill-conceived notions about what it means to learn and use a language other than the one you grew up with. Many people still think learning a language is too difficult. They harken back to the days of their childhood--“I took 4 years of X language and I can’t speak a word.” They don’t understand the cognitive, economic and social justice benefits of learning another language.

Some of that is on us as a community. We need to do a better job advocating for language programs at all levels, and that means taking the message outside our traditional constituencies. It means engaging with parents, students, business leaders and policymakers at the local, state and federal level.

This is why programs like Lead with Languages, the Seal of Biliteracy and Leadership Initiative for Language Learning matter—they underscore the importance of language programs in readying students for a global economy and providing teachers with the skills needed to fulfill this charge.

Coding and computer science seem to be encroaching on foreign language studies, both due to student interest and a lack of teachers of foreign languages. How does ACTFL respond to this as some districts have allowed computer science as a language?

First off, I think it’s unfortunate that this debate has been thrust upon us as if it’s a binary choice. ACTFL strongly supports the study of both world languages and computer science. Both are essential skills in a world that is connected across borders and through technology.  Both provide specific skills and impart a new and valuable way of thinking on its learners.

The perspectives and skills gained are not equivalent, however. For example, the study of computer coding does not allow students to gain the intercultural skills and insights needed to know how, when, and why to express an idea to someone, which is a central tenet of the World Readiness Standards for Learning Languages. It can’t be used by people to interact and negotiate meaning with other people. And it can’t provide an historical connection to society and culture.

Computer coding is part of the larger field of computer science, which deserves its own graduation requirement, but not as a replacement for one in world languages.

There's a huge emphasis on STEM and STEAM skills. Do you think we put this same priority on students developing foreign-language competencies?

In a word: No.

Language has long been characterized as a “nice-to-have” soft skill, often taking a back seat to more traditional “core” subjects. Like the coding debate, we contend that language education should go together with math, science and other subjects so students are globally and culturally competent, capable of operating in a 21st century global economy.

We know that demand for bilingual professionals is rising exponentially. Between 2010 and 2015, the number of US job postings specifically geared toward bilingual candidates more than doubled. Employers are increasingly seeking professionals who can communicate with customers in new and expanding overseas markets, as well as serve and sell to a large foreign-born population here at home.

The underlying message here is that regardless the career path a student chooses, language skills will give them a leg up in that process.

What can we expect to see at your conference this November in Washington DC?

Every ACTFL Convention and World Languages Expo provides a learning experience unlike any other for language educators from across the US and around the globe.

Last year’s convention included the ACTFL Playground and Student Discussion Pods, Confer-sation Corner, Collab Zone, and an unforgettable opening general session featuring keynote presenter Dan Buettner and our 2019 National Language Teacher of the Year, Rebecca Aubrey.

This year's program presents a particularly unique opportunity to focus on language policy and advocacy as we descend on our nation’s capital, Washington, DC. And while it is still early in the planning stages, I am confident saying there will be MANY surprises in store for our attendees as we focus on student empowerment, inclusion and respect for the profession. Registration will open in March. Stay tuned!

Kanoe Namahoe is the editorial director of SmartBrief Education.

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