February 2017
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Jessica J. Geil, Tokyo International University, Kawagoe, Saitama, Japan

I was nobody in a room of somebodies. I was sitting  outside the “round table” (a rectangle, actually) at the International Forum, located in one of the nautically  inspired areas of the big ship, Granship (Shizuoka Convention and Arts Center, Japan.)
I had no specific purpose at this forum. No definitive  reason to be here. I wasn’t pointedly invited to this discussion, but I took to heart “This is not to be  missed” from the Japan Association for Language Teaching (JALT) 2015: Focus on the Learner  pamphlet summary.

And so I came.
I’ve attended many conferences in my short career, including TESOL, RTESOL, and JALT. I’ve enjoyed them all for the breadth and depth of knowledge and resources provided by an array of speakers, workshops,poster presentations, and so on.
However, the “International Forum: Focus on the Learner” was one of those are scheduled events at a conference that I had absolutely no plan for materials and lesson plan acquisition. This was a forum! And I had never been to a forum.
The forum consisted of representatives that were prepared to exchange critical, regionally related information, and discuss the challenges and approaches concerning, among other issues, “policy considerations and typical teacher/learner attitudes” found in various regions and cultures throughout Asia.
I was drawn to this forum out of a kind of blind curiosity. Who were these panelists that represented JALT’s partners throughout Asia? What were the challenges and approaches found in the various regions represented? I needed to hear about typical teacher/learner attitudes…didn’t I?
I felt I did.
I was very excited to be there. Everything was new, and I had no expectations. I had entered a different culture within the many cultures ensconced in JALT, and I was about to get a glimpse of other cultures outside of my own insulated microculture, nestled within the vast array of Japanese universities. I also had the freedom to be anonymous and listen openly on the outer edges of the rectangle. I didn’t even have to introduce myself! No pressure! I awaited the proceedings eagerly and was prepared to listen closely.

I sat and listened.

I heard about things I had never heard of before in very accessible language from people who had (many!) years of experience, passion, and the drive to improve learning situations in their areas. For example, I heard about how the lost generation in Cambodia affected the school system and that now, this nation can’t build schools fast enough. I heard that in the Russian Far East, classes consist of small groups of students (fewer than 20) that stay together for 5 years. However, a new 4-year system is coming, which will have consequences on the current 5-year system. I heard that in Taiwan, despite the difficulty of students reaching a 785 score on The Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC), lowering the standards is not the solution. I heard about OPS English (oral proficiency in English for secondary schools) in Malaysia and how kids love it. They love to talk! I heard about the Big Book. I heard that in the Philippines, classrooms become extensions of the home, and in Indonesia, a learner’s primary focus is to pass the national exam.

I heard a lot at the forum. What I heard allowed me a glimpse of the practices, successes, and challenges these professionals are grappling with. I watched how articulately and graciously each representative spoke and interacted with each other. I heard the honesty, earnestness, and urgency in their voices as the speakers shared and discussed topics.

In the end, I wouldn’t say my grasp of the multitude of situations in the represented regions is clear. That would take many years and much effort and experience. However, I can say that it was absolutely enlightening. I witnessed a diverse group of educators combining strengths and skills to make sense of heavy topics. I can say I am now more aware of what different regions of the world may be struggling with in their fights to sustain and improve learner education. I can say I gained a limited, yet better understanding of policies, politics, and teacher/learner dynamics in Asia.

And this is a start.

So, why would I write about a forum where I knew nothing from the onset and left with only a glimpse of the magnitude of current issues? Simply to encourage you, the conference-goer, to go to a place you have never been. Explore an unfamiliar part of the next conference you attend. Attend a meeting (or forum) that you wouldn’t normally seek out or that no one (especially you!) expects to find you. Expose yourself to another cultural aspect of JALT or TESOL or…..

You, too, may witness cultural synergy—in action!!

Maybe you will even introduce yourself…and become part of the synergy!

Jessica Geil is a lecturer of academic literacy and English at Tokyo International University (TIU), located in Kawagoe, Saitama, Japan. She teaches public speaking to international students pursuing degrees in international relations and business, and reading and writing skills to students within the university’s English major. She is a co-coordinator of the TIU English Plaza Peer English Practice Program, which promotes intercultural communication among TIU’s diverse student population as well as fluency-building and confidence in students’ English production.

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