“Everyone deserves respect and access to the world. World language classes are where cultural sensitivity and global competence are cultivated. We open students’ minds and hearts to a wider world and encourage them to reflect upon their own lives and communities. We are making the world a safer, more inclusive place every day in our classrooms while equipping all of our students to be successful in a globalized economy.“
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Many of my podcast guests have addressed, from their own experiences and perspectives, how language is a unique and powerful human phenomenon. They have also consistently pointed out that language study provides insights that lead to deeper understanding of the lives and perspectives of others, be they in the same home or neighborhood, or on the other side of the world. They’ve addressed the role of language in opening opportunities. My guest for this week, Jen Carson (bio), specifically targets the important corollary: it is a matter of justice that all have an opportunity to learn a language so as to have these opportunities and perspectives.
In this podcast you can hear us both apply the word “urgent” to the educational and societal circumstances in which we find ourselves nationally and globally. Bottom line: there is urgent need for study of other languages and cultures no matter where people live now.
A large continent no longer is a true reflection of the frontiers of our lives. We are global citizens now, whether or not we find the prospect and concept a source of joy or dismay, hope or anger, eagerness or distrust. We are one planet and there is not putting that genie back in the bottle.
The opportunities will come to those who are prepared to face this present reality with positive resolve to play a role that will ensure survival and flourishing for all nations and peoples. And we already know — data already show us, studies already prove to us, experiences already testify to us — that language and cultural studies from early on in our lives transforms our ability to see these truth clearly, enter into jobs fully, and succeed no matter where the future pivots.
Urgent indeed. And because we know already how success will work for the future, this access is a matter of justice.
Jen Carson has stepped up to take a leadership role to help insure access, inclusion, and justice. Let’s all get on board, and encourage others.
Enjoy the podcast.
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Norah Jones: It is a great pleasure for me to welcome today my friend, colleague, and guest Jennifer Carson. Hi, Jen.
Jen Carson: Hi there, Norah.
Norah Jones: I hope that you are doing well in this interesting time of life. Interesting nationally, interesting internationally. And since you have a fascinating history of having been a lawyer, career switching to language education, you have inside a very important sense of training in justice. How is it that you decided to switch careers and why is it, or how is it that justice plays a role in both your career as a lawyer and as an educator in the world language field?
Jen Carson: Interesting questions. I mean, as with any journey, mine has twists and turns. I think that’s the lesson for all humans on this journey. I studied French and Spanish in college, and I studied in France, but my degree was in English. And I went to law school to pursue my passion for justice. I think that that came from a family of immigrants, I think it came from being the eldest in the family of the children. And so I went to law school, and while I was there, I noticed that my favorite courses were more esoteric. They were centered on issues like the history of the civil code in Louisiana, Quebec, Puerto Rico, and Latin America.
Norah Jones: That’s not a typical thing that I think most young people are like, “Wow, that really floats my boat.”
Jen Carson: Exactly. They loved corporate law, criminal law. And instead, I was enjoying these really oddball classes. Of course, the light didn’t go on in my mind yet. So I clerked for a federal judge and I joined a large law firm and I had that stereotypical yuppie-type life. And then after I had children, I had offered to substitute at their school because I spoke Spanish. So I could substitute as a teacher or as the Spanish teacher. And I got a call that they immediately needed a Spanish teacher in grades K–8. So, that’s FLES all the way through credit bearing. And I jumped in with both feet. That lasted a year, and it really revealed to me that this is where I needed to be, connecting with young people and broadening their horizons.
So I did a lot of soul-searching and I went to the career switcher program at my local university here in Norfolk, Virginia—Old Dominion—and I started as a French and Spanish teacher for Norfolk City Public Schools. Now that I’m in the world language education field, it is the perfect place I was meant to be, and my training and my interest in justice suffuses what I do with curriculum training teacher candidates, and also in my work with national, regional, and state organizations.
Norah Jones: In what way? What are some of the specific pathways that you now follow in which that’s integrated so thoroughly that you would say that?
Jen Carson: Well, I think it’s as if I, not only am I self-fulfilled now by this, my mission, my career, my vocation, but I feel it incumbent on me to advocate wherever I can for opportunity for all students to have this life-enhancing opportunity. And that would lead them not only to be more tolerant of others, more accepting of themselves and their own home culture and home language, but also to be successful in a globally competitive economy.
Norah Jones: You speak there, Jen, of fulfilled life. Let’s start there first. What are some of the elements that you have seen in your own life, in the lives of others that, well, to put it more specifically, that you don’t see others seeing such that it needs advocacy?
Jen Carson: It’s such a multi-layered question, but I think about how when I was a lawyer we were trained to advocate, to be persuasive and to think about what might be the holes in our arguments. And I can take that, and when I go to the Virginia legislature or up on Capitol Hill to advocate for funding for world languages, for study abroad opportunities for students, and also for different types of certifications and pathways for people to become teachers, and most recently, dual language immersion elementary teachers, it’s the perfect marriage of those skills, but with the correct intention or the intention that resonates with me. And that, I find when I’m with world language educators, we connect on such a deep level. They’re very collegial and their worldview is in general very accepting and tolerant of others. Because what we do is we dig into the details of different languages and cultures, but we also look for the generalities and commonalities between people.
Norah Jones: Jen, because of your background in the legal profession, you have spent time, I assume, with documents and with case examples that demonstrate that people come at a particular question from different directions, with different attitudes, with different understandings, and that there is discussion between them. Would you say that I say something that’s true?
Jen Carson: Absolutely.
Norah Jones: So now let’s take a look at what you just said about the nature of the collegiality of those of us that are in language education, in language studies, in language use, there is a preaching to the choir kind of experience of saying, “It is good to know languages. It is good to know cultures. It is good to be connected.” What do you experience with that spirit of the lawyer that you have where you pick up where people disagree with some of those fundamental things that we in the world language community value? Or do you?
Jen Carson: Well, I think that if you stay with others just like you, and this is very important in this time of polarization, then it’s an echo chamber of your own views. And I think we need to always consider our own implicit bias when we’re teaching, when we’re living. But placing oneself in the uncomfortable situation of having to explain to a legislator that computer coding is not the same as a world language, that’s when I think the lawyer part kicks in. No, he and I will not connect on this issue, but I might be able to use the skills I learned in that other profession to persuade him. He won’t come over to my side, but he may understand better how to frame a bill so that it serves what his needs may be, but also my needs, what I think is the greater good, which is making world language education available to all students.
It levels the playing field in that global economy. And we cannot foreclose students by dint of where they reside or what school district they’re in from these powerful learning opportunities. And they’re powerful in that they allow students to reflect on how they live, how they connect in their own communities, and for them to recognize that there are other equally valid ways of living and communicating.
Norah Jones: Thank you for that beautiful exposition there. And I want to go back to the coding for just a moment, not to belabor it too long, but the nature of the way that people talk about coding as computer language, I think that this has been a tripwire for a lot of folks that are not language specialist, understandably, that the word computer language seems to imply a connection to the human language that is evoked. And I, for my part, as you know from our participation together in some of these initiatives, am especially disappointed to see that those students which seem most vulnerable in their learning would be denied an opportunity to study a language, which is a human experience, on behalf of, and you explained it so beautifully. It’s not either/or. Really, both can be served. We have to be careful how the bills are written in that case. But not to have replaced that which is human with that which is on a computer.
Do we have the education in place… Let’s be provocative for just a second, you and I. Do we have the education in place where we can say, the language that students are studying, the human language that students are studying are going to provide them with that cultural and linguistic insight that they need, going to provide them with opportunities no matter where they are on the spectrum of not only where they live, but also, if you will, their natural capacities, if I may put it that way?
Jen Carson: What’s interesting is when I was in high school, I studied computer programming and I learned Fortran and BASIC and COBOL, and I enjoyed it. It is a great, comfortable logic, but as you said, human language is completely different from machine language. It embeds culture and it cultivates something in students, not only seeing another way of living, but seeing how people live, think, and care for one another through the lens of language. Reading literature, and translation is wonderful, but better to read it in the original language. There’s just so much richness there.
Norah Jones: The conversations that young people have with each other, especially in this digital age where we are connected across the planet with a click of a digital button, which we hope has become even more available to all and will continue to be, also means that the emphasis on speaking to one another, as well as reading the words, but visually and orally connecting with others around the planet probably plays a larger growing role for world language education for the future. Do you agree with that?
Jen Carson: Absolutely. I mean, students come to our classes to learn how to speak to other people. That is their primary motivator. And so if you can bring them, through technology, to have text chats or video chats with people who speak other languages in other countries or regions, that is very powerful. And it grabs them where they live because their lives are digital. If we can… And this goes into what I do as a curriculum coordinator, working with teams of authors to create curriculum that is proficiency-centered with a lot of opportunities for true interpersonal communication. So when the NCSSFL-ACTFL Can-Dos came out in 2017, the revised ones with the Intercultural Communicative Competence, and we had them investigate and interact in the target language, that changed everything for me and the work that I do. Because we have to have these opportunities provided to all students. Technology just levels the world.
Norah Jones: It does indeed. Now, Jen, let’s go for just a second. There’s this beautiful ability to define things that you have, from your legal mind, from your training, and also from your general skill-sets. You’re standing in the middle of advocacy now. You’re advocating for languages. And we know that some of the advocacy, indeed for languages, has been to bring to people that have had a poor experience historically, who are often the adults that are in the legislature to understand that language education has changed, or is changing. Now you’ve just brought up your roles as curriculum developer working with publishers and so forth. How is it that you change? What do you see happening? What are the applications in classrooms? What’s the impact? What should people in society be looking for when they watch students now learning languages? What outcomes should they expect?
Jen Carson: Well, we hear all about these really important approaches, social-emotional learning, trauma-informed teaching, culturally responsive practices. All of these approaches actually reside in the world language classroom. They could be applied elsewhere, but they’re cultivated there. And I feel as if it is my mission to express that to the wider world, because I can share it with you, Norah, but you’re already on my team.
Norah Jones: That’s true.
Jen Carson: I need to express it in a way that is understood by others who have not had my experiences. So they may have gone to school where they learned [foreign language] after four years of Spanish and they don’t feel competent even ordering from a menu in a Latin American restaurant or a Mexican restaurant. So one of the projects that I’m most excited about is the initiative Global Virginia, and this now, it grew out of our state conference, FLAVA, in 2016, when I was then president of what is now the Virginia Organization of World Language Supervisors (VOWLS), and we created an articulation panel with early language learning immersion, K-12, community college, and four-year universities to talk about how we can speak the same language and bridge many four-year universities. They didn’t know about the Seal of Biliteracy and how it could be used as a placement test, how it is focused on performance and proficiency rather than on rote memorization.
And so in that conversation grew out a white paper that Dr. Kathryn Murphy-Judy at Virginia Commonwealth University, she gave this white paper, and it really was a call to action from the 2017 American Academy of Arts and Sciences, their paper, America’s Languages: Investing in Language Education for the 21st Century. So it’s really like the perfect storm of recognizing what we lack and what we need to do to compete on the global stage. And here in Virginia, we have a strong presence of the intelligence community, the defense community, and so a lot of need for languages.
Norah Jones: It plays a security role as well. I mean, security has been part of these reports now for decades, which strikes me always as confusing, if not shocking, that our very security is at risk, according to those that are specialists in this area. And that also is not necessarily having made an impact. What do you see as the methods, Jen, that will take this collaborative integration and these statements forward so that the message is clear going out into the world, people that normally don’t hear it?
Jen Carson: Well, I mean, Global Virginia has brought together… Now we’ve expanded beyond our educational echo chamber and we’ve included industry and governmental officials. We’ve had in this past year, even during the pandemic, we had two Global Virginia summits where we brought together thought leaders from all sectors of society to talk about how we can recognize the home language of English language learners, and also those who have not been identified as English language learners, but have a home language that is other than English. So, empower to use their languages in their vocation and not just as a teacher. So there are so many other ways that one uses. It’s their language and their cultural competence, just knowing deeply about other cultures and having lived in them allows you to work more collaboratively. And employers seek those softer skills like collaboration and problem-solving and critical thinking and creativity that are developed by learning and knowing other languages and cultures.
And so we need to continue to reach out to school counselors, human resource people who hire employees. Global Virginia’s vision is to empower Virginia’s students and workforce. So this is no longer just about student K-20 education. It becomes about career switchers, like myself, in an increasingly interconnected world. And our mission is to build a global-ready Virginia, hence the name, that has a strong multilingual, interculturally competent workforce. Prioritizing pathways to bilingualism and multilingualism, biliteracy and intercultural competence. So, that’s a mouthful.
Norah Jones: It is.
Jen Carson: But we’re on the road, bit by bit, step by step. It’s almost like when you think about Sister Cities International and how you had this citizen-to-citizen diplomacy. When you get to know one person overseas in another country, then you develop an appreciation for them, an acceptance of others. And so we do this. It may not be the hugest, biggest splash, but it’s connection by connection. And I think it will bear great fruit. Another thing is that we have a profile of a Virginia graduate, and that includes a lot of these work habits and skills that are developed in students in their world language classes, and making that connection so obvious will help.
Norah Jones: Absolutely. So now, it’s interesting. I’m going to tag onto what you had mentioned about the Sister Cities program, for example, and the outreach and tie it back to something you also had mentioned about heritage speakers. I mean, among the guests that I have had include Joy Peyton with the Community-Based Heritage Language Schools Coalition, and others that have referred to the nature of those communities, culturally and linguistically, which are already in this country. Empowering those seems to me to be a win-win. The engagement and the, frankly, the justice of including that more in our national conversation, national education program. And then on top of it, they’re right here. Is that playing a role for what you are working with?
Jen Carson: Oh, absolutely. I think that a lot of heritage speakers, they may have home language, but they may not have academic language. And if we can show them that we value their development of their own home language, first of all, that literacy, whatever they gain will transfer to English. So it’s not either/or. And then again, in terms of vocations or training, how they can pursue something they enjoy and also include their language with it.
So, I’m a big proponent of having coursework in languages, hopefully in secondary, but certainly in post-secondary. If you speak German, you could take engineering class in German, or medical terminology, or diplomacy in French. There are certain languages that are very good fit, and there are a lot of jobs that will pay extra, including the military, for language proficiency. So it’s not important that what the particular language is sometimes. The fact that one has a language is increasingly valued, and from a financial standpoint.
Norah Jones: And no matter which language it is too. That’s great. Now, this Virginia initiative care with which you and the group are working at, how many resources or how many connections have you made with other states in the country or beyond? But I’m especially interested here in the United States. And how replicable might this initiative be in states that don’t yet have a complete program like this or anything potentially?
Jen Carson: Right. Well, Dr. Ann Marie Gunter, who is the world language specialist in North Carolina at the Department of Education, she is on our steering committee. And North Carolina has done a lot of work. Georgia has done some work. Wisconsin has a really replicable program. And so just as with the Seal of Biliteracy, there becomes this upswell of interest, and we can all build upon one another. I think that is key to our success.
Norah Jones: That’s great. I’m delighted to hear. Not totally surprised, but I’m still astonished and delighted to a level that I didn’t even expect, that there are initiatives that are happening. And I hope that the coordination is something also, Jen, that continues to happen. Do you feel that cooperative spirit? Is there a sense of urgency of cooperation that’s part of the experience right now?
Jen Carson: Yeah, and urgency is a great word. Yes, I certainly personally feel great urgency, and the work is moving very quickly, but it’s because the time is right. That’s the same with the Seal of Biliteracy. These movements, they’re grassroots movements, and they happen simultaneously because the environment is ripe for it. But that’s where technology helps too. I mean, we can converse on Twitter about these concerns that we share and we can work together, collaborate and build off one another’s successes. Every state is different, every locality is different, but there are a lot of commonalities that we can draw from.
Norah Jones: That’s great. And it sounds again like the energy of people finding each other does tend to be an exponential growth, I guess, in that kind of experience. People realize, “Oh, there’s someone else out here.” That you’ve mentioned earlier about early language learning, and I think that we’re, as linguists and language educators, we understand that the natural ability of children to learn combined with the need for an extended integrated sequence of study means that early language learning is the basis for everything that we hope to accomplish at a high level. What movement do you see in Virginia, nationally, not only in the courses themselves, but in the attitudes towards that, Jen?
Jen Carson: Well, I think that it all starts really at the grassroots level, again, with parents demanding these opportunities for their students, for their learners. In Brooklyn, the Fabrice Jaumont, his, the immersion schools for French, they were worried that they couldn’t staff the schools, and they had the attitude, “We’ll create the schools, the staff will come.” And it worked.
Norah Jones: Yes.
Jen Carson: And so, it starts with the parents, but also, I oversaw dual language immersion elementary schools when I was a coordinator in Virginia Beach City Public Schools. And I also ran for eight years Mandarin Chinese and Russian STARTALK programs for elementary students. And the joy of these students in learning these new languages, the connections they make to their own language and culture, it’s just powerful to watch. And they can develop proficiency at lightning speed.
I worked so hard to create an articulation. There are some monies available for the NSA through DoDEA, the Department of Defense for these critical languages like Russian and Mandarin Chinese and others. And it still was a very difficult lift to have a self-sustaining program, because we don’t want to steal or poach students from the other nine languages that you teach, right? American Sign Language, Latin, Japanese, Spanish, French, German, they’re all so valuable. And giving students the opportunity to choose the language they wish to study will make them study more, want to learn more. So it’s a form of differentiation, so you don’t want to foreclose that. And yet there’s a limited availability of teachers, availability of buildings, everything. So I don’t know that this is all easily solved, but I think that Monsieur Jaumont was on the right track. Just do it.
Norah Jones: Just do it. And just recently he had that wonderful webinar with others, the America’s Bilingual Century, which I think that that ongoing development of possibilities there is just phenomenal. Well, Jen, this is such an important conversation to continue to inform and grow people’s understanding of what it is are the implications here. So, thank you so much for sharing that. And I’ve got an opportunity now for you to turn one more time to the podcast audience and say, “Okay, my last invitation, exhortation, warning,” however you would like to interpret it, please.
Jen Carson: I’ll come back to my issue, my personal and professional issue of justice. It’s what led me to a career as a lawyer, and to switch careers to become a world language educator. Everyone deserves respect and access to the world. World language classes are where cultural sensitivity and global competence are cultivated. We open students’ minds and hearts to a wider world and encourage them to reflect upon their own lives and communities. We are making the world a safer, more inclusive place every day in our classrooms while equipping all of our students to be successful in a globalized economy.
Norah Jones: When students are in a world language classroom, they are experiencing that which people are searching for in society; inclusion, justice, visibility, to be heard, to have a voice. Is that something, Jen, that you see as coming about here in the near future for our young people and for our country?
Jen Carson: Yes, that is my mission. That is my hope.
Norah Jones: I appreciate so much that you have provided insights, yes, but that your work itself is powerful and focused, in particular, the advocacy piece, the writing piece. And you have some resources that you’ve provided on my website. Specifically, you have provided, have you not, the connection to the GlobalVirginia.org? Is that the place where people can come and see what initiatives that you are working with?
Jen Carson: Yes. That itself is a work in progress, but yes.
Norah Jones: Right. So it’s in development. Virginians are certainly listening to this podcast, but those in other states and beyond the United States, are others able to learn by connecting up with that particular website or with you directly?
Jen Carson: Certainly with me directly. And as we develop the website, that will be another gathering place for sharing information, challenges, and successes.
Norah Jones: That’s great. And I’m sure that you have links to all sorts of resources there as well. Another thing that’s on my website from your resources are organizations that you refer to, district supervisors and Virginia district supervisors, and LanguagePolicy.org. Can you just do a brief here description of what it is that LanguagePolicy.org will provide for folks? Because that’s such an advocacy spot.
Jen Carson: Right. Well, we call it JNCL-NCLIS. LanguagePolicy.org is much shorter and easier to remember.
Norah Jones: Indeed.
Jen Carson: Yes. But with their Language Advocacy Days, they organize trips to Capitol Hill and they provide talking points for people. So, those who are interested in dipping their toe in world language advocacy, they can go through a short-term training and then go out with others who have done it before, put on their comfortable walking shoes, because it’s a big place, Capitol Hill, with lots of tunnels. But it’s a great way to support world language education and funding, and also learn how to be an advocate yourself.
Norah Jones: That’s fantastic. Thank you so much. And thank you, Jen, again for bringing the justice lens to all that you do. Going to encourage folks to check out Global Virginia to connect up with you and to enter into that movement of justice and accessibility for all, and appreciate everything you’ve shared today.
Jen Carson: Thank you so much, Norah. I appreciate the opportunity.
Norah Jones: Now, take good care, and may you have success. Let’s grow the world language, world culture and the inclusion life together. Shall we?
Jen Carson: Yes.