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Diane Larsen-Freeman - 50th Anniversary NYS TESOL Conference Presenter (2020)
10/20/2020


We asked NYS TESOL 2020 presenters to answer a few questions about the unique times we are living in. Here is what Diane Larsen-Freeman shared.


In what ways does your work support, celebrate, and validate multilingual learners’ cultural, racial, and linguistic assets?

My worldview and work are informed by complex dynamic systems theory (CDST). One of the defining features of a complex system is the regard for diversity. A complex system, such as that which exists in a classroom of multilingual speakers, has been shown to be much more robust due to its diversity. It is also more innovative.

In addition, a CDS perspective has challenged a traditional view of language as a static, bounded system. In CDST, language is a fluid resource that changes as it is adapted by its users to make meanings and to reflect their identities in different contexts. Therefore, the assets of multilingual learners become more visible in the dynamics of language and its use.

What advice would you give to teachers of multilingual learners to face and advocate for their students and families during COVID-19 and systemic racism?

CDST is a relational theory. For teachers, this means in addition to cultivating mutually respectful relationships with their students, which is very important, teachers need to help learners establish a relationship with what they are teaching. While this has always been true, it seems to me the fact that the knowledge that COVID-19 has disproportionately affected certain communities cannot be ignored by teachers as they strive to have their students relate to what they are being taught. Additionally, while a teacher may not overtly address issues of this inequity and of systemic racism, their effects on our students must be recognized and dealt with empathically.

On a positive note, valuing and building on the diverse repertoires of multilingual learners not only can have a felicitous effect on their language learning, it can also reinforce their agency in a complex system. Agentive learners are more effective learners, and they are more prepared to work on pressing global issues with which we all must contend.

I would also point to the notion of tipping points, a phenomenon associated with CDST. I, myself, fervently hope that we can get through the current tumult when a tipping point is reached—one that launches us into a more just, welcoming, and sustainable future. So rather than despairing, I would say: stay the advocacy course.

What impact do you think COVID-19 and racial justice movements will have on TESOL Education?

I think both epidemics offer us an opportunity to revisit how we function as a society, including our means of education. Change is ongoing in a complex dynamic system. This time, though, one hopes that change will be positive and enduring.

On a more practical level, many have discovered the challenges and the rewards of teaching and learning online. I would expect some online teaching to continue, though I hope that it will never replace face-to-face TESOL education.

Also, racial injustice has existed for a long time—in this country, for hundreds of years. What we are seeing in the demonstrations these days is the enactment of collective agency. This enactment affords a powerful lesson. Creating the enabling conditions for supporting the agency of our students will not only continue to fuel such social justice movements; it will also encourage our students to be more agentive when it comes to increasing the choices that they do have in their lives, including ones concerning their TESOL education.

Diane Larsen-Freeman is Professor Emerita of Education, of Linguistics, and a former Director of the English Language Institute at the University of Michigan. She is also a Professor Emerita at the Graduate School for International Training in Vermont. Her major area of interest these days is Complex Dynamic Systems Theory.