CMC Vail Valley professor teaches Panamanian teachers how to teach English
By Mike McKibbin
Colorado Mountain College
Dec. 12, 2023 – A beloved pen and paper game can help teach English to foreign language speakers, a Colorado Mountain College Vail Valley at Edwards educator told fellow teachers as part of an overseas federal government program.
Virginia Nicolai, associate professor of English as a second language at CMC Vail Valley, was chosen by the U.S. State Department for a two-week English language specialist project earlier this year.
One of approximately 240 educators through the U.S. that the department selects annually, the project in the central American country of Panama focuses on building a more diverse, inclusive and effective English teachers’ association.
This is not the first time Nicolai has traveled internationally to teach English. While on sabbatical from CMC, Nicolai was selected by the U.S. Embassy in the Central African nation of Cameroon as an English language fellow from September 2021 to July 2022. That experience put her in contact with an embassy official who recommended her for the Panama trip.
Why travel to Panama to teach Panamanian teachers to teach English?
Nicolai said that because English is the global language of business, more opportunities are available worldwide to those who can speak it. The Panama Canal brings an international array of people to Panama, and those who are able to communicate in English naturally can integrate themselves more readily. While Nicolai noted she doesn’t have students from Panama in her current ESL classes in Edwards, “seeing that culture gave me first-hand experience in a central Latin American country, where some of our students are from.”
Learning English through tic-tac-toe
Nicolai said during her time in Panama, she focused on how to make learning a different language fun.
“I taught a three-hour workshop on what we teach at CMC to get our students involved,” she noted. For example, Nicolai explained a variation of the classic tic-tac-toe game.
“We adapted the game to include some ‘fill-in-the-blanks’ of sentences in English and if the students do it right, they get a square” on the tic-tac-toe board, Nicolai said. Nicolai said she met around 100 Panamanian teachers from eight urban and rural provinces.
“They were all eager for professional development,” she said. “The challenges they face include motivating their students to speak English.” The teachers’ levels of English varied. Some were fluent while others were not quite as confident.
“I definitely got the sense that English is a foreign language for the younger children,” Nicolai said. “They have English in school throughout their school careers, one day a week sometimes. It’s a challenge for teachers outside the capital (Panama City), since people don’t see a need to have anyone speak English.”
Serving the community
Nicolai plans to share her experiences with CMC staff and faculty and “not just in ESL, since every class has multilingual learners,” she said.
“CMC was also recently designated as a Hispanic Serving Institution, so there’s increased interest in how we can better serve that community,” Nicolai added.
Dwenna Holden, CMC’s ESL program director, said Nicolai’s ESL work abroad not only benefits the countries she visits but her ESL students at CMC.
“Virginia’s selection for this state department program means that CMC’s current and prospective students have the opportunity to receive an elevated and unique ESL experience at CMC,” Holden said.
“Virginia’s contribution to the creation of curriculum and professional development means that we can offer ESL instruction that sets us apart from other entities offering English language acquisition services,” she said. “Our ESL and bilingual students have pathways available to them that can benefit their careers and their academic goals, whether they’re interested in a certificate or degree.”