Bringing Language to Life: Almost 200 Educators Attend the Excellence in Teaching Conference
It was Friday, October 26. Deborah Brown stared out the window of her Uber as it rolled down tree-lined Notre Dame Avenue, pulling into the Morris Inn. It was her first time visiting Notre Dame, and the foliage flanking the Dome exceeded every expectation an Alabama native could bring to the Midwest at the peak of autumn. Karina Chamorro, a 2018 Notre Dame graduate and resident of Seattle, pulled onto campus and without so much as a second thought, trekked toward the familiar light of the Grotto. Jesse White, in from Pennsylvania via an overnight Amtrak ride, toured campus with his daughter, a senior in high school and prospective Notre Dame student.
In October, it’s typically football that attracts people from all over the nation to Notre Dame’s campus. But the Irish were in San Diego the weekend of October 26, and Deborah, Karina, and Jesse, were drawn to campus not by the hope for another gridiron victory, but by their commitment to teaching. They were joined by 175 other teachers from every sector of education and from 26 states for Notre Dame’s Excellence in Teaching Conference.
Notre Dame’s Alumni Association began the Excellence in Teaching Conference in 1991 as a way for teachers and leaders from public, Catholic, and private schools nationwide to come together for a weekend of professional renewal on Notre Dame’s campus. This year, the Institute for Educational Initiatives, home to the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE), served as the hosting organization for the first time. Still, over 70 teachers attending the conference came thanks to the generous sponsorship of 50 local Notre Dame alumni clubs. The South Bend Schools Corporation and Diocese of Fort Wayne/South Bend also made their mark, with over 50 local educators attending this year’s conference.
The theme of the conference, “Bringing Language to Life: Strengthening Students’ Language Skills Across the Curriculum,” aspired not only toward the professional renewal of teachers, but also their spiritual renewal. Language, after all, and the way that teachers teach and engage with students’ languages, has important implications for students’ academic achievement and their identity, their sense of self-worth, and ultimately their ability to enter into communion with one another. Fr. Lou DelFra, CSC, ACE’s director of spiritual life, welcomed attendees on Friday afternoon for an opening Mass. Reflecting in his homily on Mark’s Gospel account of Christ’s healing of a deaf and mute man, Fr. Lou reminded each of the educators before him how powerfully they bear witness to this Gospel in their everyday work as teachers. “I don’t think we could possibly have a more fitting Gospel for this group of individuals,” he noted in his homily. “These are the words you, as teachers, say each and every day to your students. Gifting them with language, you say to them, as Christ said to that deaf and mute man in his moment of healing: ‘Be opened!’”
Language can be tricky though. No teacher or student is ever grappling with only a single language. English language learners represent the fastest growing population in U.S. schools. An estimated one in four students will be classified as an English language learner in the next 10 years, and it is predicted that they will represent 50 percent of the U.S. school population in the next 25 years. These demographics serve as a powerful reminder of the plurality of language. Layered on top of these demographics is the reality that even in the most culturally and linguistically homogenous school and societal settings, people move in and out of disciplines and content areas–each of which has its own language. No one studying geometry for the first time would deny the degree to which “linear pairs” and “vertical angles” and terms “complementary” and “supplementary” feel like a foreign language. This multiplicity of languages suggests that meaning is not something locked away in each of our heads. Meaning is something we negotiate and contest in and across social contexts.
The negotiability of meaning and the plurality of language are realities that increase the complexity of teaching, which regardless of content area of grade level, happens in and through language. This year’s attendees enjoyed keynote sessions by language and literacy experts Noshaba Afzal, national director of training for the Be GLAD (Guided Language Acquisition Design) Project, and Dr. Ernest Morrell, Notre Dame’s Coyle Family Professor of Literacy Education and the director of the Center for Literacy Education. Afzal and her Be GLAD team also led four hands-on workshops designed to support teachers in strengthening all students’ skills in reading, writing, speaking, and collaboration. Begun in the 1980s by Marcia Brechtel and Linea Haley, Be GLAD’s Guided Language Acquisition Design Project has become world-renowned, providing award-winning professional formation to thousands of educators for over 25 years, training teachers across the United States, as well as 11 other countries, in over six languages.
Aside from the professional formation teachers received in and through these workshops and keynotes, they also—through meals and conversation—found a sense of community in what felt a simultaneously smart and sacred space of educators trying to be ever more excellent in their vocations to teach. “Teaching makes you immortal,” proclaimed Morrell, invoking the words of his late father in his keynote address. The bricks of Notre Dame tell a similar story of many a teacher whose work and example live on: the legendary philosopher Frank O’Malley, larger-than-life chemistry professor Emil T. Hofman, and of course the Lady atop the Golden Dome–the first teacher of Christ himself.
The leaves have since fallen at Notre Dame. Deborah Brown is back in her classroom in Robertsdale, Alabama, where the leaves are only just beginning to turn. The Grotto that greeted Karina Chamorro upon her homecoming to Notre Dame still burns. Newcomers to Notre Dame from all over the world are touring campus, some hoping to one day be a student in the classroom of some legendary, larger-than-life teacher. And across the world, teachers and students are bringing language to life as the spirit of Notre Dame whispers to those teachers who grace campus with their presence each October: “Go and be immortal!”