Episode 111 Language and the Art of Motorcycles: Michelle Olah

Episode 111 Language and the Art of Motorcycles: Michelle Olah

It’s a long journey. It’s a long trip. And it’s getting there and getting back. …We bought something because the new context called for it. And that’s okay. You need to be adaptable, you need to be flexible. That was a super easy decision to make, because we knew what our plan was. So when something went off plan, we could adapt very easily.”

In this particular podcast, guest Michelle Olah and I used a metaphor for language of a motorcycle, because a motorcycle is something that brings joy to my guest’s life.  

I want to dig a little bit more deeply into some of the implications for using such a metaphor as, in this case, a motorcycle, in order to take a look at how we address and approach language: mutual sharing of language, culture, and identities.  

What kind of motorcycle do we have? Is it shiny and up to date? The basics, no frills? Needing a bit of a tune up, maybe some new parts? Is it comfortable for a long ride, or just barely enough for a turn around town? Is it strong and loud, or are we hoping that it just makes it far enough for our purposes without breaking down?

If we’re going on a motorcycle trip, where are we headed? Why are we going there? What do we expect to see and learn? And how is our motorcycle of language going to make sure that we get there safely and well and happily with an adventure along the way?  

Episode 111 Language and the Art of Motorcycles: Michelle Ohla
Episode 111 Language and the Art of Motorcycles: Michelle Olah

What is the route of this motorcycle of language? Where will we stop and sit a while? Where will we find that the road of language and culture gets a little bumpy? Where will we find that it’s smooth? What familiar routes have we already travelled and what are routes that are brand new to us?  

Do we meet any travelers along the way that show us a new way of travelling? Who give us a shortcut? Who take us to someplace beautiful to see that which we had not planned on seeing, or joins us along the way to share more deeply?  

Where do we get ourselves refueled? Where do we feel most free?  

Michelle Olah in this podcast talked a lot about getting ready for the journey, and we need to take a look at that in our lives of language and culture no matter what our situation as well. What are we packing for the journey? Are we packing a heritage of our own language and culture? Are we packing fluent knowledge of a language and culture or just barely starting?  

Are we prepared to welcome that which is not anticipated or understood? What are the key supplies for our ability to get along with our workers, our family members, our community members, our organizational members, our students, our colleagues in education, our global partners?  

What preparations will we make that we hadn’t originally thought of, but that we realize as we begin to map out our journey on the motorcycle of language? And in what ways will we just keep on going ahead, understanding that we don’t have a perfect machine, that we still have some things to learn, holes to fill, and knowledge to bring about.  

When we finish the journey, how do we review how it went so that we ca be ready — and eager! — for the next journey?  

Perhaps a motorcycle metaphor is not precisely what you would choose based on your own history. Some of us have used for the language experience the metaphor of a dinner at which all people will have a seat at the table enjoying nourishment and the fellowship of celebration of a festival dinner. Some of us talk about building a “house of language.” (And will it be a simple lean-to? A cozy cottage? A palace?)  

What’s your metaphor?

How can you stand in the middle of your metaphr to think about the role of language and culture in connecting us all, helping us individually to grow and helping us as a world to be collaborative, full of understanding and joy and celebrating the sounds of diverse tongues and visions and experiences within our world?  

Choose your metaphoric language motorcycle — and get going on the road. A world awaits.

Enjoy the podcast.

Michelle Olah’s bio and resources

Michelle Olah was inspired to be a language educator by her own experience taking Spanish 1 as a student in Minnesota. Upon seeing a photograph of the painting “Las Meninas”, Michelle convinced her family to go to Spain to see it in person and came home a lifelong devotee of Spanish language and culture. 

Michelle applies that same passion to her work as the lead Instructional Strategist for Professional Development for Wayside Publishing.

Michelle blends current research with personal experiences gleaned from over seventeen years of experience working with students and teachers in Florida to facilitate learning experiences that empower teachers to learn, grow and thrive in their classrooms. 

Michelle also brings her voice to the world language teaching profession by hosting the “The Language Lounge” podcast where she has conversations with world language educators about language teaching and learning. 

Michelle is a Past President of the Florida Foreign Language Association (FFLA), member of Cohort 1 and past facilitator for ACTFL’s Leadership Initiative in Language Learning (LILL), Past-President for the National Network for Early Language Learning (NNELL), and current Board Member for The Southern Conference on Language Teaching (SCOLT).

She is also a frequent presenter at state, regional and national world languages conferences.

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/michelleolah/ 

X (Twitter): @michelleolah  

Instagram: @worldlangcoach  

Email: @worldlangcoach@gmail.com  

Language Lounge Podcast: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/language-lounge/id1583241169  

Books that have influenced me: 

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Episode 111 Language and the Art of Motorcycles: Michelle Olah

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0:00:01.3 Norah Jones: So, I was definitely looking forward to having Michele Olah as my guest today. She’s a personal friend, a fantastic colleague, an amazing professional in world language education, and, I have to confess, I really wanted to hear about her motorcycle trip. But we found, as we talked, about how it is that a motorcycle trip is exactly like world language instruction, world language use. I know you’ll enjoy this conversation with Michele Olah, the lead instructional strategist for professional development at Wayside Publishing, and a woman well-known around the United States as a professional that brings both joy and expertise to bear, compassion and excellence in all that she does with the teachers that are charged to bring language and cultural joy to their students. Enjoy the podcast.  


0:01:04.5 Norah Jones: Well, I finally got Michele Olah to get off her motorcycle and to come into the studio to give us a chance to hear about her. Welcome, Michele Olah.  

0:01:17.8 Michele Olah: Well, thank you, Norah. It was a long trip, in more than one way, for us to finally get this scheduled, but I’m very excited to be here with you today.  

0:01:25.4 Norah Jones: Well, the adventure of the motorcycle I bring up first, because in fact, language is such an adventure. You have made it an adventure with all of the passion that you’ve brought as an educator and as a leader of organizations. So many people that are listening in the educational field know who you are, but among my guests are many who want to learn more about language educational field in their love of language. So why don’t you tell folks what it is that you do and a bit of why you do it, as we get started?  

0:02:04.3 Michele Olah: Absolutely. It is funny because one of the things I love is a good analogy, and talking about a motorcycle trip and language learning, ooh, I think we’re going to dig into that today, because I can just… There’s so many things that are sparking in my brain right now. So my name is Michele Olah and I am a… I came late to teaching and to education. I had a whole another little career before that. I used to own a coffee house up in Northern Minnesota. I’m here in Florida now. I sold that, moved to Florida, became a teacher and have went down a different path. So I think that’s relevant because it does have to do with some different perspectives that I come to education with, as somebody that didn’t originally start out planning to be a teacher necessarily. So I taught Spanish, middle school Spanish, and I never truly understood until I had a middle schooler of my own. And then, I would have done things totally different. But that’s a different story. I also did virtual school, so I taught virtual school before everybody taught it during the pandemic, so I had that experience. And then I went to… I always loved working with teachers. I think it came in just as part of my personality. I really gravitated towards that. I loved being in the classroom with students. But I did find that I had a special talent or strength to work with teachers.  

0:03:27.7 Michele Olah: And so when I had an opportunity available to me here in central Florida, I went to the district office as a curriculum support, to all languages, K-12, Chinese, Spanish, French, German. And I got to work closely with teachers, coaching teachers, really helping look at their practice and reflect on what they do. And I really, really loved that. For various reasons, I then transitioned to a position now where I work for Wayside Publishing, which is an educational… World language educational resource company. And I still do professional learning. So that has been my career path and working with teachers, just in a different format. So now, I don’t work in a school system, educational system. I work in a private company. But I still get to work with teachers, I still get to help them grow and hopefully learn, and I grow and I learn through that experience.  

0:04:30.5 Norah Jones: Great trajectory. And I’m going to tap on a word there, zero in on a word that relates to some other things that we have chatted about, because I’m a certified Gallup Clifton Strengths coach and you are embedded with understanding the strengths, as a matter of fact, among the resources that are listed on my website, fluency.consulting, with this post about you and this podcast, includes references to Gallup materials. And so when you use the word “strength” there, you said in that statement, “Working with teachers were among my strengths.” What is it that you spotted when you were in the midst of the education experience with young people, that also said, “Hmmm, I’m really good at working with teachers.” What did you notice?  

0:05:23.7 Michele Olah: So I didn’t know at the time, I didn’t have the words to put a name on it, until I dug into Gallup strengths. And I am a total geek with that. And it’s really changed how I look at so many things, not in just my teaching and profession, but in my life. Now I know that I think one of my strengths is really strategic thinking and seeing the big picture. And so to me, I could always, I made an impact… I felt like I absolutely made an impact to my students, but I really felt that I could make a bigger impact if I could reach more people. So, not just in my classroom. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but I did feel a calling to influence or make an impact on other teachers so that they can make an impact on their students, and on and on and on. And that is still my overall goal, is to really impact individual teachers so that they can make an even bigger impact than they already do in their classrooms. So I think that’s part of it. I also, because I think I came in, not right out of college, but as a semi-fully formed adult with a business, and I did marketing and I did a lot of different things, I think I really was used to working with adults and adult learners. And I think that they’re different than with students, and not all people that work with adult learners realize that or treat them a little bit differently. And so I think I could connect in that respect with adult learners, in a way that is different than with connecting with students.  

0:07:03.7 Norah Jones: One of the strengths that’s listed in your top five, as a matter of fact, is ‘Relator.’ And you already referenced you’re strategic. And I point out to folks that happen to be listening to this, that you guys need to look up the Gallup’s…  

0:07:17.8 Michele Olah: I guess. [chuckle]  

0:07:18.3 Norah Jones: Clifton Strengths, friends, because among the other things that you have in your top five are ‘Activator and Maximizer,’ which tells a… And ‘Ideation,’ which tells a story of a person that’s about to create some really cool things and bring everybody in and do it well. So, there you go. There’s your summary of the top five.  

0:07:41.4 Michele Olah: And it’s interesting, Norah, because my top five now, because I’ve taken the strengths over the years, and they’ve changed. So it used to be more ‘Input’ and ‘Individualization’ and ‘Learner.’ And now, as you learn and get that input and do all those things, you kind of reshuffle things a little bit. But I will say my favorite one of my strengths, I think, is ‘Maximizer.’ To me, I love that idea of taking something good and making it great. And I think that’s what I really thrive on, is there are so many good teachers out there, they have so many good ideas, and they’re working super hard, and how can I support them and help them to feel great and to maximize their true potential? I love that one. That’s my favorite, I think, if I was going to pick.  

0:08:33.2 Norah Jones: It’s a motivating one.  

0:08:35.0 Michele Olah: It is.  

0:08:35.8 Norah Jones: And that good to great is really it. And there are a couple of words, too, that when we’ve chatted, when you’ve written things to me, that relate well, I believe, to this idea of making something good great, even when people don’t know it’s good. And those two words that you have shared with me include ‘authenticity’ and the idea of bringing the authentic selves into the classroom. And then I’m going to pair it with… You can take them apart as you talk now, but I’m pairing it with the minimalism in teaching. That is such a powerful concept, and seems to me, relates to that focus on personal authenticity. Can you take us down those pathways, please?  

0:09:38.0 Michele Olah: Yeah. So it’s funny because one of the things that goes around in my head a lot is eclecticism in teaching and also just in my thoughts. So these things that seem very kind of like, how is authenticity and minimalism related? To me, they are. It does make sense. And I like to pick things from different fields, whether it’s leadership or strengths or education or world language, second language acquisition, all these things. And so to me, when we talk about being authentic, it kind of sounds like I don’t want people to think it’s not that teachers aren’t authentic. That’s not what I mean. What I mean is that we don’t always feel comfortable bringing our true selves, the ones that make us happy, the ones that give us joy, our strengths. We don’t feel comfortable bringing all of that in.  

0:10:32.9 Michele Olah: And so I think we try a lot of things on and we try a lot of other people’s expectations on us. And so when I’m talking about… I go back to strengths a lot, but it’s a lot of things. When I’m talking about my strength as a strategic person, as a strategic planner thinking big picture, that’s a strength. But I also need somebody that’s good with the details. I also have weaknesses combined, or challenges that are combined with that strength. My son used to love Percy Jackson, that whole series. And one of the things that they say is something like, your greatest strength is also your greatest weakness. And that can be very true. I say that because I think most of us, not just teachers, but most of us focus on our challenges, the things that we’re not good at.  

0:11:25.0 Michele Olah: So I’m going to really work hard to be a woo and be this really exciting, motivating, big person, and to… And motivate my students, but that’s not me. And it doesn’t feel comfortable, and I don’t… That doesn’t make me do my best. Or I might work really hard at focusing on little details or whatever it is. And if that’s not my strength, it’s not going to make me happy, it’s not going to bring me joy, I’m not going to be bringing my best, authentic self to my students. And I’m not going to model that to them either. So I’m focusing on their deficits and I’m focusing on my deficits. And I’m looking on Instagram and I’m seeing all these amazing teachers doing all of the things.  

0:12:12.1 Michele Olah: And I think, “Oh, wait, I have to do all of these things. I have to be all of it and I have to be the best at all of it.” So that’s where I kind of connect it to minimalism, and paring down some of the extra that don’t really serve us well, because that’s what minimalism is all about. And I’m not a minimalist in my physical or… In my life. My desk is a mess right now. But I do like that idea of thinking about, what is the core, most important things in your life, in teaching, in learning, in languages? What is that core, and how can I focus on that and not try and add all of the other things that may or may not serve me? If I do bring something in, because I have no… I think it’s great. The way we become our authentic selves, I think is by trying things on, by having experiences that are different, that you try.  

0:13:13.0 Michele Olah: I may not be a real woo person, but I’m going to try it. I’m not going to know if I am or not until I try something. But it’s kind of like, going shopping for clothes. Eventually, I try a different color. I always try these bright patterns because I think I’m going to like them. And I get them and I buy them and I bring them home, and I try them out, and I’m just like, “Err, I don’t really like this.” But if I pair it with a dark sweater, I kind of like it. So, I’m going to adapt it. I’m going to edit it. I’m going to tailor it to me. And that’s how I feel like teachers and people become their authentic selves.  

0:13:45.6 Michele Olah: But don’t keep adding clothing. Don’t keep adding things on. You’re going to look like Joey from Friends in this episode where he puts on all of the clothes of Chandler. And those Friends references, people out there that like that will know what I’m talking about. But we can’t just keep adding things. And I think that’s where a lot of pressure comes in teaching in general, and in world language education. We keep learning new stuff and we want to add it all. And I think we have to be really… I know I just listened to the episode with Thomas Sauer and his… Two of our favorite words, we both love to talk about strengths and we both love to talk about intention. And an intention, being intentional in what we do, in how we look at what we’re doing and look at what others are doing, and saying, “You know what? That is amazing. That’s wonderful. That is meeting a core need in language education. But that’s not the way I do it,” and that that’s okay.  

0:14:42.7 Norah Jones: What a beautiful explanation you have just provided there, of all sorts of aspects of it. And I’d like to then, when you’re working with workshops, when you’re doing your consultative work, when you’re out there and when you’re hosting your podcast, getting in front of people, because the individual’s decision about how they work is within a system, an educational system where there can be pressures through grading, through organizational patterns, to focus on deficit, to grade everything, often from a deficit mindset, can be pressure on teachers, can be managers. And we know from our Gallup work that managers are often the part where the system either flourishes or begins to break down, where managers are focusing on what people need to fix versus celebrating the strengths and helping them to become even stronger. So in short, what stories do you have? What insights do you have through that work that you do, that helps individual teachers and groups of teachers to take some of that very healthy, powerful pathway you just described?  

0:16:11.7 Michele Olah: That’s funny because I think I did a podcast with Meredith White, and I know you’ve done one with her as well. And I think one of the things she keeps saying is like, “Don’t get fired.” Number one, you’re not doing anybody any good. You’re not going to make an impact on your students or on language learning if you get fired. So, first of all, don’t get fired. Because we do all have different contexts, and I think that is so important. In language education and in language, we talk about how important context is in learning a language. It’s also… In any sort of learning, that context is important. And so we do live in a system of public education or education, and in there are expectations. There are things put on us that we really can’t do a lot about. And so that can be frustrating for teachers. But I always tell them that there are so many things that you can do, but we stop ourselves. Nobody else is stopping us. We stop ourselves. We don’t feel empowered to do the things we know are right. And sometimes, that comes from a real pressure, and sometimes, it doesn’t. So one example for me is, teachers will often say, “Well, I can’t do this because of X, Y or Z.”  

0:17:33.1 Michele Olah: And, “I can’t do this in my classroom because my principal… ” this, that, or the other thing. And I will often tell them… So when I worked in the district office, one of my roles was to go in and evaluate teachers. And they would… When I’d ask them something, they’d be like, “But I can’t do that.” And I’d be like, “Why?” And they’d be like, “Well, I’m not allowed to.” And I said, “Who are you not allowed to do that? Who said that?” “Well, the district office.” And I literally said, “But I’m the district office and I have told you… ” [chuckle] I mean, that sounds… I was not, but you know what I mean? But I’ve done all of your professional learning and I have never told you that, never told you that. But again, that gets in a whole different area of what stops teachers from doing that. Like, we can talk about change theory. We can talk about a lot of things that hold teachers back on their own, and there are those other kind of systems, right? So really having that person understand the context that they’re in, is it a real context that is stopping them, or is it their own that they’re kind of putting on themselves, for whatever reason?  

0:18:39.0 Michele Olah: That’s the first thing. And the other thing is, I really do believe, and it’s probably my learner… Learner’s strength, is that you need to be able to vocalize and understand what you do. I think you have to name it sometimes, and that can really empower teachers when you name what you’re doing. So, there are natural teachers that are just amazing teachers, but they don’t really know why, what are they doing? But the rest of us, we have to think about like, if I say to my principal that comes in to observe me, and he says to me… And this happens all of the United States. They say, “I would like you to do this lesson in English, because I don’t understand Spanish, French, Chinese. So, I would like you to… The kids don’t understand what you’re saying, I don’t think you should use so much target language.” Let’s just say that’s the circumstance. I’m going to tell the teacher that this is why I can’t do that, I have to use more English because that’s the expectation. I would say, you go to that… You have a crucial conversation with that leader and you say, “My standards for my profession, my world language standards for the State of Florida, Virginia, my national standards say that this is what I’m supposed to do. The research in my field says… It’s very clear that this is what I should do. Are you asking me to ignore the standards of my profession?”  

0:20:10.8 Michele Olah: I’ve never, ever heard a principal that said, “Yeah, that’s probably a good idea. Let’s do that.” So teachers need to be empowered with their knowledge of our profession, our best practices in our profession, and have that language to be able to communicate that, because that does give them that power to make some changes or to do the things that might be tough. The TELL project that Thomas Sauer mentioned is an amazing tool for teachers, because it does help vocalize what the best practices of our field are, what are the best practices in education? because we do live in that system, so there is a lot of conflict between, if your beliefs of second language acquisition conflict with classroom general education practices that your school and everybody expects from you, there can be some conflict. And so I do believe that you have to have a very eclectic approach, you have to bring in general education practices because that’s the context that we all live in.  

0:21:17.1 Michele Olah: Most of us don’t have the luxury of just doing what we want. We have a context there, but still staying true to the literature, the research, the pedagogy that we know is right, doing what we can and not getting fired. [chuckle] Those are kind of the… Do what you can, not get fired.  

0:21:39.3 Norah Jones: The training, empowerment for teachers, I think that that’s an historical lack, but that’s such an important thing that you just brought up, among many, namely, it’s possible, it’s appropriate to turn and say to your administrator, “Here’s the research, here’s our best practices, here are the standards,” however it is that it’s best to say that, and to provide that context for the administrator. It’s basically our duty. And it’s part of that advocacy issue. And Michele, you have been a leader of several organizations. Help the listeners to understand what those organizations were, why you got engaged with them and what kind of role organizations can play in supporting the individual teacher in that scenario that you just put out there, and also the profession as a whole, as it moves forward in its understanding.  

0:22:45.3 Michele Olah: Yes, so I’ve got my fingers in a lot of things. So I started out presenting at conferences and doing that in Florida. I’m from Florida, and so in my state organization. And was tapped to kind of go and be a part of the FFLA, the Florida Foreign Language Association board or Florida Foreign Languages Board is what we now call ourselves. And so I became a part of that, I was the president of that. But honestly, in my leadership journey, I wasn’t really ready for that yet. I was able to take advantage of an opportunity through ACTFL/LILL, the Leadership Initiative for Language Learning, and I was able to go and get some more leadership skills, some more connection, some more experiences through that LILL organization, strengths, and digging into that purpose, mission, vision, a lot of these things that are really leadership issues, not so much world language issues, but that really impact each other. So I was a part of that organization, I was able to facilitate a couple of the cohorts. And so taking a leadership in that role has been very impactful for my personal growth as a leader, as a person and an educator. And then now I am currently on the NNELL, the National Network for Early Language Learning board.  

0:24:12.3 Michele Olah: I’m the past president, so I was able to be part of that board for the last four or five years, as the president elect, president, now past president. And I’m currently also serving… And again, I’m a glutton for punishment, but I just do really want to make an impact in any way I can, on the SCOLT board, the Southern Conference on Language Teaching, I think that’s the right acronym, which is the regional association. So I’ve kind of had my experiences on a state, a regional and a national level, and I think all of the things that I’ve learned from those has allowed me to really grow as a leader, and I hope I’ve had some impact on the organizations through my strengths. But some things that I think are really important is bringing other voices into these organizations, bringing some different perspectives into these organizations, really working… We’re all volunteers, we all are super busy and trying to get more involvement, more engagement with our leaders, because we all know that we’re stronger together.  

0:25:25.9 Michele Olah: And so, really making those connections, being able to provide some professional learning for teachers that are singletons out there in the world. Especially through NNELL, it’s been very, very rewarding to work because it’s a national organization, and early language teachers are just all over the place, geographically. They’re often the only ones in their school, they have ridiculous circumstances that they’re teaching in many times. And the reason that is so dear to my heart is, I’ve never taught that, but those are the people that I worked with and coached intimately at my district when I was there, and evaluated, and they were some of the best teachers I’ve ever, ever worked with, which led me then to NNELL, which again is amazing, the people in the organization. But I think that the role of organizations can be that expander for teachers, so expanding them out of their classroom, out of their district, sometimes out of their state, because states have personalities just like teachers and districts do. And so sometimes, being part of like NNELL, which is a national organization, you get to meet, hear voices, hear perspectives, see how other people are doing it.  

0:26:43.0 Michele Olah: One of the pandemic perks, as Kathleen Priceman, who was the president of NNELL at the time called it, is the bigger sense of community and connection that is available through Zoom and through more professional learning activities and experiences. So I think organizations can really expand people’s point of view and their experiences, and there’s no lack of learning opportunities out there now. So I think the next step is more, how do we collaborate and really reduce the workload of teachers? How do we work together? One of the things I… Obviously, I just listened to Thomas’ recently, because a lot of things that he said are resonating in my head, and that is that all the people that are out there in the world, planning for Spanish 1, when… We need to work together. We need to collaborate. And I think organizations are one way to kinda allow people to have bigger groups than just their school or their district, whatever that might…  

0:27:47.5 Norah Jones: You mentioned there then that vision about the future. I was going to ask you how you saw the trajectory of language in general, language learning, language use, language in the community, attitudes toward languages, including heritage languages, learned languages, languages of those that are refugees. And it’s nice to have a global kind of feel. We are based in the United States, so a United States kind of feel, if you wish. But you’ve been with pre, during, and now post-pandemic World Language feel, not only in education, but also in its attitudes in the world. What are some of the reflections that you have had and that you have, and some maybe of the dedications that you have going forward because of what you see and what you imagine?  

0:28:47.8 Michele Olah: Yeah, I think some of the things that I’ve seen pre, during and post or whatever these timeframes are, of the pandemic and COVID teaching, I think it really opened the doors to other… It opened teachers up to more collaboration and more relying on each other. When everyone was trying to figure out, how the heck do we do this, I think there was a huge spike in professional learning opportunities. There are so many webinars now, workshops, videos, there’s so many ways to access good, sound, pedagogical practices in language teaching and learning, that there’s no lack of opportunity to learn. But, I think it also… There’s almost a glut of it, and there’s also a little bit of like, okay, we know what to do mind-wise, [chuckle] but how do we actually do this? The practicality of implementing, I think, is where we’re really struggling right now. Like, how do we implement these best practices without going back to the pre-pandemic sort of overworking ourselves to death, being highly effective teachers doing this? because I also think there’s much less tolerance for that, and rightly so, of trying to have some work-life balance, having some…  

0:30:13.8 Michele Olah: Be able to do this in a manageable way is, I think, a struggle that’s happening right now. So in professional learning, I see a lot less… I don’t want to say tolerance, but a lot less desire to hear all the pedagogy and the deep reasons why, why, why, and they want to get right to the, like, “I get that. How, how, how, how? Help me know how. And how do we do this together so that we’re not all just reinventing the wheel?” So I think the way teachers are consuming professional learning has kind of changed. I also think that by opening up the different ways that teachers teach, so I maybe never knew how the person next door to me, let alone the person across the country from me, taught languages effectively. And so I think there is a lot of eclecticism. I think there’s a lot of teachers saying, “I was really far on this end of teaching it in maybe a traditional way, or a very strict proficiency performance-based way,” or whatever it might be. And we got people on the other end, “I was totally TPRS, I’m totally CI, capital C capital I, ADI,” all those sort of things.  

0:31:29.7 Michele Olah: And I see so much more going, “Yep, I’m that and I’m that. I can do this and I can do this. And I can base that on the needs of my students, I can base that on my own strengths and my own personality and my own preferences” And we need more of people saying, “That’s good teaching, and that’s also good teaching.” And they can look different, but we all have the foundational understanding of what should be happening with students and what their expectations should be. In the longer term, I’ve seen our profession just grow and grow and grow, and it’s definitely hitting a tipping point, I hope, of moving towards more proficiency, what students can do with the language, as opposed to what they know about the language. And I’ve seen so much more interculturality in a meaningful way, not a little dip into culture Fridays, but really digging deep in our curriculum and the way we approach students and identity and all of these sort of issues and this content through our language classes.  

0:32:32.1 Michele Olah: And I’ve seen so many great things. I hope, despite circumstances in the context of our country, [chuckle] that that does not go backwards. I hope that we continue to grow that, because those are the things that we really need, those are the citizens, those are the future leaders that we really need to cultivate. And our language classrooms are a really amazing place for those things to happen, and I do see that happening more and more, so it’s very encouraging. Despite all of the negative things we hear and the negative things we see, I think we’re really moving forward on some things like that.  

0:33:08.7 Norah Jones: It’s good to hear that you have a sense that we’re moving forward, the encouraging thing, because one of the aspects there is, dive just a little bit deeper into what you think the role is for international cooperation. We’re talking about world languages, and you just brought up such a beautiful commendation of interculturality being more complete and integrated focus. So, what’s the role of global society in this educational language use enterprise we’re engaged in here.  

0:33:52.8 Michele Olah: I think unfortunately… Well, fortunately and unfortunately, [chuckle] for us to have an impact on that international aspect, we have to really focus and continue to focus, every teacher, really focusing on what students can do with the language, because both… If we’re just having traditional classrooms where students are conjugating verbs and they are memorizing lists of words and they are not in context and they don’t have relevance, not only is that not effective, it’s just not effective, they’re not going to really acquire the language, it’s also not motivational, they’re not going to continue the language, because the language… We do have to have many, many, many years of experience. And unfortunately, we don’t have that culture in the United States, we don’t have a lot of early language programs. NNELL advocates for that a lot, we really focus on immersion, dual immersion, lots of different… All the languages, all of these sort of things. But it is important that we start that young so that our citizens that do come out, have both language proficiency, but also that cultural proficiency, so that they can truly interact in that global economy, that global world, that environment. And so, two years of a language, we can change the mindsets maybe, we can maybe change individual mindsets.  

0:35:21.3 Michele Olah: Some individuals are going to grab on to it, but if we really want everyone that enters into our world language classrooms to enter our world as a global citizen that is culturally and communicatively competent, we need years in, and in order to do that, we need students, we need learners to have experiences that matter, that are meaningful, that have purpose, that are relevant, that engage them, that motivate them. And so, how do we do that? That’s the big question, right? And so I do see a lot of growth. I do see a lot of teachers really asking… We talk about this a lot, what are you given as a curriculum and how do you intentionally look at that through eyes of, “Is this relevant to my students?” Because if it’s not, there’s a lot of brain research that says it doesn’t matter then. We are just wasting our time. We’re wasting a lot of time and energy, because we’re not doing the things that are going to matter in the long run. Our brains don’t let in things that are not interesting or not relevant or boring and we don’t care about. So, we can… And so it’s a challenge, but I think time in programs and quality programs are what are really going to get the United States back on this path of being a really, truly global leader and citizen.  

0:36:56.0 Norah Jones: Such an important vision. And it was interesting because in my mind here, I was going back to the… We love to talk about… Those of us that are thinkers in this direction, about the why; why language is important and why this particular approach? But that there’s so much… It’s like, how then? How do I implement it? How, how, how? So I’m going to do a strange thing here as we get a little closer towards the end of our conversation. I’m going to combine your skillset with…  

0:37:26.9 Michele Olah: Ooh. [laughter]  

0:37:30.0 Norah Jones: Yes, with the minimalism approach, the idea that the strategies and ideas are more than the physical items, because… I’m going to combine that with your motorcycle skills. Because part of a journey, I assume, with a motorcycle, is not attempting to take along everything from your home, just in case, that there’s a minimalist life motorcycling too. It seems to fit together, Michele Olah.  

0:37:58.8 Michele Olah: It does. We’re going to wrap this right around.  

0:38:02.5 Norah Jones: I’ll tell you what, so how is it? What is the motorcycle vision that you gave to the listeners, that you have been giving in your workshop? Where’s that motorcycle of language going?  

0:38:14.7 Michele Olah: I love that. I love that. So for context, my husband and I, we live in Florida and we took a trip to Newfoundland on our motorcycle. So, we went up and back. And obviously, here in Florida, it’s like a billion degrees. It’s hot. It’s hotter than Hades down here. Newfoundland is not. So really what… And we had very limited space. It was two of us on a bike, for three and a half weeks. And so we really had to look at every little thing that we brought. But before that, so I guess… And this is going to be kind of like… I don’t know, this is my other big thing I preach about a lot, and that’s that backwards thinking, and that end in mind. So first of all, we looked at, what are our goals? What are we going to do on this trip? So we had some very… We are going to see whales, we’re going to go on a whale… We’re going to see some puffins, we are going to see some icebergs. And I think that was like the top three. It was very… We weren’t going to museums and stuff. We were going to just experience the land and the people. So, we had our goals, like, these are the things we’re going to do. We weren’t going to stay in hotels with swimming pools, so that meant we are not going to bring certain things along. So based on that, based on our end results of the research that we did about Newfoundland, our route, we planned, we planned, we planned. We had in our head a very clear vision of where we were going and what we were going to do.  

0:39:41.6 Michele Olah: Only then did we start packing stuff. If we would’ve started packing stuff, we would’ve brought the wrong things. We would’ve missed some things. It just wouldn’t have worked out quite as well. So we packed, we had too much stuff, we got rid of stuff. We looked at what we were going to do, we added some other things. We checked the weather, we added some rain gear, we took out some shorts, because it was never going to get over a certain thing. So it was a constant… Up until we left, it was a constant evaluation of, what is the current circumstance that we have? What are we going to do? And how are we going to meet those goals? And I’ll tell you, if we would have under packed, over packed, not known, had a clear vision of what we were going to do, that trip would’ve not have been the trip it was.  

0:40:33.7 Michele Olah: And so it all kind of comes together. So, it’s so true, language is the same thing. And really, you’ve got to know what you want; what are your outcomes, what do you want your students to learn, be able to do? Those communicative, those cultural goals. And I’m talking at the… It doesn’t matter if it’s at the end of their school experience, the end of their year, the end of their quarter, or the end of the week. Having a clear vision of what needs to happen and how are you going to know that it happened? [chuckle] So that piece of, we knew what was going to happen when we were making these little videos, or we’re standing and we’re taking pictures of us in front of an iceberg. That was our evidence. And so what is the evidence that this worked? And only then do we go back and look at, what’s going to get us there in the most efficient and effective way.  

0:41:24.2 Michele Olah: And so then I’m going to look at everything. I’m going to lay out all those clothes on the thing, and I’m going to say, that would be… That’s a must-have. I must have my wool under layer. I must have this, I must have that. Ooh, if there’s room, this would be really nice to have. I think it would enhance the experience. Like, I should have one nice outfit just in case we go out. One, I’m not going to have eight just-in-case outfits. I’m going to narrow it down to a few, that these are the nice-to-have, if I have room, if I have time, if it’s appropriate. And then I’m going to look at things and go, nope, we’re not going to need a swimming suit. There might be some instance where there’s going to be a hot tub, but we’ll work it out then. We’re not going to bring certain things, we’re not going to do certain things, because all it is is weighing us down.  

0:42:09.9 Michele Olah: It’s just weighing our trip down, it’s us having to pack and unpack all of this stuff for three and a half weeks. It’s just a burden on us. And so really focusing on, what’s going to get the job done? What’s going to make the experience the best experience ever? And really having some… Just asking yourself, do I need this? Do I want this? Is this important or not important? And if you don’t have your goals, and you don’t have your vision, you can’t make those decisions very well, because you’re going to pick either too much stuff or not enough stuff. And so, you just can’t do that. So that would be my motorcycle philosophy of education, which is basically backwards design, [laughter] in so many ways. Thank you, Grant Wiggins and Stephen Covey and all that stuff. But I do think that is so relevant, and that is something that is extremely important, is not just having the vision but really being laser-focused and intentional on how you get there.  

0:43:08.9 Norah Jones: And proficiency is getting to Newfoundland, not just stopping in DC and deciding to give up.  

0:43:16.9 Michele Olah: Yeah, absolutely. It’s a long journey. It’s a long trip. And it’s getting there and getting back. And of course, there were things that happened along the way, and we went to Walmart, and we bought something because the new context called for it. And that’s okay. You need to be adaptable, you need to be flexible. But again, that was a super easy decision to make, because we knew our goals. We knew what our plan was. And so, when something went off plan, we could adapt very easily.  

0:43:47.7 Norah Jones: And I suspect that if you decided to take another trip to Newfoundland on your motorcycles, you would do things just a tiny bit different.  

0:43:53.2 Michele Olah: 100%. We’ve reflected when we got back, what things we would see, what things we wouldn’t see, how we would pack a little bit differently. I drug some things all the way to Newfoundland and back, that I didn’t use, which I’m like, oh, that’s such a waste of space. So there were definitely learning experiences along the way. And it doesn’t matter if I go to Newfoundland again or if I go to Hawaii, I don’t know, Mexico. It’s still the idea and the process that I think that is so important, that you bring that process with you and those kind of habits and routines. If you can change that mindset to thinking that way, I think your whole teaching experience, your whole life experience really, in many ways, really changes. Because it really does influence what you do and how you do it.  

0:44:44.6 Norah Jones: It sure does. And I think that listeners that are not engaged with the education as well as those that are engaged with the education community recognize the powerful, positive approach there, that one has a vision of what one wants to do as far as learning a language, using a language in one’s work, helping others to do so, and certainly within the educational context in which we’ve been primarily talking. And there’s a hope factor there, a joy factor there that is very much related to bringing out the best in oneself, that maximizer, but bringing out every single thing that can. Michele, in that sense of bringing that hope, bringing to conclusion, bringing a vision together, what do you want to make sure that you either repeat, because you said it, or that you say brand new, because you didn’t get to say it yet, before we leave today, that you’re like, you don’t want to end without people hearing you, Michele Olah, say.  

0:45:52.1 Michele Olah: Oh, that’s a tough one because we talked about so many things, but I really think knowing yourself, knowing your strengths and being brave enough to be your authentic self as a learner, as an educator, as a person, and not comparing yourself to what social media shows you is the ideal teacher. But that might be the ideal teacher for 60 seconds on TikTok. We can’t judge ourselves on snippets that we see. And it doesn’t matter if it’s any aspect of our lives, but getting away from that deficit approach and really focusing on, what can I control? What makes me happy? What are the strengths that I have that are good? How can I work with others if I have some challenges? How can I bring… I work on a team now and it’s so great, because I’m a in-your-head big thinker, I’m like the why, why? Like, let’s establish the why like forever. I know this about me, and one of my colleagues is like, teachers don’t want to know that. They want to know how, they want to know what. We need to be practical. And so, having somebody that has a different perspective, follow people you don’t normally follow, read books outside of your field, experience different things so that you can find that authentic self, because sometimes again, we get so dialed in. My Twitter or X or whatever or Facebook show me one view. They show me this curated view of the world that I’ve established.  

0:47:29.1 Michele Olah: And so reading leadership books, reading books on, if I’m a world language teacher, on TESOL, on dual language, on immersion, on heritage speakers. I might not teach that, but I still can learn so much from being outside. Minimalism, change theory, general education, but really find ways to expand your world so that you can find who you are as an authentic person and as an authentic teacher. And then, make sure you’re paying attention to your learners in front of you, if you are an educator, and allowing them to be their authentic selves. And make sure that you have those eclectic sort of toolbox to be able to meet their needs as well.  


0:48:15.4 Norah Jones: Powerful exhortations and certainly bring a lot of joy into life. Michele, thank you for sharing that joy that you have, your motorcycle journey of education, and in real life. And thanks for being my guest today. It’s been a great pleasure.   [music]   0:48:34.1 Norah Jones: I hope you enjoyed listening to this podcast with my guest, Michele Olah, as much as I enjoyed recording it with her. And I hope you’ll learn more about Michele, even if you’re already familiar with her work, by going to my website, fluency.consulting. I have not only information there about Michele, but also about the kinds of resources, directions and influences that she feels can help to grow your excellence, your joy, and your strengths. So keep thinking about your strengths, how to make them even more powerful, and how that can bring you and all that you do in your journey with language and culture, joy. Get on the motorcycle, and let’s go. Until next time.  


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