New Orleans TESOL 2011: Channelling “The Big Easy”

Gregory Strong, English Department, Aoyama Gakuin University


TESOL 2011 from March 16-19 drew at least some of its 5,800 participants from those curious to see New Orleans six years after Hurricane Katrina. Back on August 29, 2005, the city’s protective levees were breached in 53 different places and storm waters flooded 80 percent of New Orleans, causing 1,836 deaths. Then the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig caught fire on April 20, 2010, triggering the Gulf oil spill.

For those of us arriving from Japan, days after the earthquake and tsunami in Tohoku, the vitality of New Orleans proved inspiring. New York may be “the Big Apple,” but New Orleans remains “the Big Easy,” its motto, “Let the good times roll.” And roll they did during evenings of the 3-day conference. First came a St. Patrick’s Day parade, then one on Saturday for St. Joseph. Both ambled through the fabled French Quarter, a short walk from the Ernest N. Morial Convention Centre. It hardly seemed believable that at the same center, TV commentator Geraldo Rivera had appeared on camera during HurricaneKatrina, begging the authorities to rescue the 10,000 evacuees stranded there.

The opening address at TESOL 2011 by Thelma Meléndez, Assistant Secretary for elementary and secondary education at the U.S. Department of Education, reminded participants of TESOL’s advocacy of second language teachers in the U.S. The No-Child-Left-Behind Act of 2001 made schools more accountable for their students’ academic performance. However, it failed to support the country’s growing English Language Learner (ELL) population, something that both Meléndez and TESOL claim should be a priority. Further, as indicated in the position paper on their website, TESOL calls for such measures as requiring better ESL teacher credentials, defining ESL as a core academic subject, and separating ELLs from local, district, and state accountability statistics to avoid stigmatizing certain areas of the country.

The political issue of greater support for ELLs fit well with the conference theme of “Examining the ‘E’ in TESOL.” The theme explored the relationships between idealized dialects, global Englishes, and regional, social, and ethnic variations, such as those found in New Orleans and the Mississippi River delta. Plenary speakers like Jennifer Jenkins from the University of Southampton challenged the notion of standard English, at one point mocking Prince Charles for championing it. Shondel Nero of New York University pointed out that as immigration takes languages all over the world, Creole English speakers in American schools were being mislabelled as ESL students. In calling for greater acceptance of regional, social, and other non-native varieties of English, Walt Wolfram of North Carolina State University argued, “If presented to them in interesting ways, everybody is interested in dialect diversity.”

With more than 1,000 sessions and events, including presenters from some 100 TESOL affiliates, including JALT, the conference was a moveable feast replete with serendipitous associations, chance encounters with colleagues, and ideas from the best known contributors to the field. It might be Katherine Bailey on dialogue journals, indicating their uses in ethnographic research. It could be Julian Edge’s stirring session on teacher reflection calling for “lived examples of how we develop ourselves.” Presentations even came on integrating natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina into a curriculum, sessions with practical implications for those of us in Japan.

The Electronic Village and Technology Showcase not only provided sessions on CALL, but also Electronic Village Fairs. During these times, demonstrators took up places around the room to show the use of interactive whiteboards, MP3 players, and various handheld devices. Today, for $249, one can access many of the conference slideshow presentations along with streaming audio commentary at <> while 25 other slideshow presentations (search for “2011-tesol-annual-convention”) can be downloaded for free at <>.

However, fewer teachers came to TESOL than in 2010. Catherine Curtis, TESOL Coordinator of Conference and Exhibits Services and Job Marketplace attributed the smaller numbers to a knock-on effect from the recession and the choice of New Orleans for the 45thannual convention.

“Everyone who came thought it was a great location,” said Curtis. “But we do much better on the eastern seaboard. So, we’re expecting more next year in Philadelphia.”

Furthermore, according to Curtis, there were only 26 employers on site at the Job Marketplace. That’s compared to 40 last year when the conference was held in Boston. To TESOL’s credit, the annual convention moves around the country, connecting it to its members.

Hopefully, more teachers will attend the TESOL 2012 convention, March 28-31, and even more will join this worthwhile organization. According to an email from John Segota, Director of Advocacy, Standards and Professional Relations, there are 12,000 TESOL members today. That’s a drop from a high of nearly 14,000. New Orleans TESOL pointed out the value of this conference and of the organization and the underlying message of both language education and global Englishes,that diversity remains a source of strength.

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