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Saturday, May 2, 2009

JSOTF-P reaches out to Mindanao educators

By U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Fletcher Gibson
Joint Special Operations Task Force – Philippines Public Affairs

ZAMBOANGA, Republic of the Philippines -- Members of Joint Special Operations Task Force – Philippines are drawing on every skill they bring to the fight to help improve the lives and communities of the people of Mindanao. The latest effort focuses on reaching out to teachers to help them improve techniques for teaching the English language to their students.

Led by U.S. Army Major David Harper, a former English instructor at the United States Military Academy at West Point, JSOTF-P, in conjunction with the Armed Forces of the Philippines, has organized a series of education civic action programs, called EDCAPS, over the last several months to give teachers in Mindanao some tools and techniques to improve the quality of their English instruction in the classroom.

According to Harper, the chance to gather with fellow educators has been an unexpected but welcome opportunity for him and other members of JSOTF-P. The availability of a military instructor has provided the JSOTF and the Armed Forces of the Philippines a way to assist Philippine schools in areas deemed too dangerous for interagency and non-governmental organizations who offer teaching and English enhancement training.

“When educators from many disciplines come together to discuss the art of teaching and to improve their craft, students and entire communities benefit from their dedication,” he added. “There’s a real multiplier effect when knowledge is shared.”

Harper said that while many regions in Mindanao have their own local dialect, Philippine law requires classes to be taught in English or Tagalog.

“I’m somewhat in awe of these teachers who are required to teach in English and Tagalog when their and their students’ mother tongue is probably neither,” he said. “In some classrooms, four languages coexist – the local dialect, Tagalog, English, and Arabic.”

Harper’s workshops focus on ways in which teachers and students can gain cross-curriculum synergies from content-based English instruction. His workshop modules vary depending on the audience, but often include English across the Curriculum, Writing through Culture, “Velcro Vocabulary,” and Everyday English Every Day.

The 16-year Army veteran spent four years as an assistant professor teaching English Literature and Composition at West Point and was able to bring some of those experiences into his workshops. He encouraged the teachers to use small group interactions and hands-on techniques with their students.

Harper has conducted seven EDCAPS so far, providing instruction to more than 350 teachers of all disciplines, ranging from elementary to college level. He takes extra effort to match his exercises to the age group of each teacher’s students.

“With college teachers, I focus on integrating English teaching across disciplines by creating linked classes to leverage content-based English instruction. This reinforces English learning even in non-English classes such as science or social studies,” he explained. “For the elementary schools, the focus is more on vocabulary, listening skills, and ways to work productively with English in the classroom.”

Ultimately, the major sees the improvement of local education as a way to make the area safer and more secure for its residents.

“While the roots of conflict in Mindanao are complex, poverty certainly contributes to the perception of disenfranchisement that exists within some segments of the population,” said Harper. “Improving education leads to better jobs, increased prosperity, and ultimately socio-economic development, giving people alternatives to lawless activity as a means of support and a stake in the security of the region. Perhaps as importantly, education gives people a voice they can use within the political process.”

Harper, who departs soon for further schooling and assignment as an Academy Professor of English at West Point, is hopeful the program will be part of the JSOTF-P’s civic action repertoire in the future.

“The EDCAP provides a unique opportunity for instructors and professors at the service academies to contribute to the fight with their unique skills sets,” said the major. “We’re hopeful that instructors from the Philippine Military Academy will be conducting these workshops alongside U.S. Service Academy instructors in the future.”

While the EDCAP seems particularly suited to the Philippines where English is the legal medium of instruction, Harper believes it can be adapted to other theaters.

“English is an empowering language for any culture in this globalized society, so the English language EDCAP will be valuable in any theater. I can imagine engagement in other disciplines as well.”

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