Missing Voices: Making Conferences More Inclusive

I recently attended Missing Voices: 2016 Equity in Education Summit at St, Mary’s University in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In recent years, I have attended many conferences in various regions, but this one resonated with me for many reasons. As a TESOL member, I would like to share some of my experiences at this event and connect them with possibilities for TESOL conferences.

As the day progressed, I kept thinking about the theme of “missing voices”—whose voices are heard and whose voices are missing.  In his keynote, Gary Howard reflected, “Missing voices are not missing by accident.” This conference was noteworthy in how it sought to intentionally include voices often excluded—particularly youth, community members, parents, and family members. These people were not only invited, they were sought out and allowed free entry into the summit.

Wait, it gets better. This conference was actually led and co-organized by local youth—they were the emcees (and did a fantastic job!). They had breakout sessions exclusively for youth as well as intergenerational sessions. I was blown away by the wisdom articulated by these middle and high schoolers.

Breakout sessions included hip-hop spoken word artists, a Zen room set up with yoga mats, and Zen mindfulness exercises. Intentional mindful reflections were integrated throughout the day. Session endings were signaled with a hand chime, followed by a three-minute pause for silent reflection and mindfulness.

On top of linen table cloths, banner paper and art supplies were laid out, and attendees were invited to color, doodle, and express themselves however they wanted. All printed materials were in English, Spanish, and Somali, with simultaneous translations available for any session.

Keynote speakers integrated music, guitar, and hip-hop beats into their performances. Youth shared their poetry, inciting laughter, tears, and deep reflection. The students created a paper-mache Communitree and invited all to write reflections and wishes onto paper gold coins and toss them into the wishing well.

One powerful moment occurred when the students used one of Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed theatrical forms to perform a scene: They acted out a teacher feeling overwhelmed by students who were fighting about Black Lives Matter. They invited audience members, youth and educators alike, to come up on stage to re-create and improve the scene. As this activity progressed, it struck me that the students were not only impressively using Boal’s techniques, but they were also beautifully disrupting and reversing traditional teacher-student hierarchies. The students had become the teachers. They were supervising and allowing the educators the opportunity to participate in their theater, their summit, and their world.

In one activity, participants created a human train that circulated around the conference room. Partners would pause back-to-back, perhaps an 80-year-old woman and a 14-year-old middle school boy would briefly speak together, sharing their ideas for enhancing education equity, then switch, and suddenly the student is sharing ideas with a principal.

Since participating in this summit, I have been continuing to think about what was so inspiring about this summit and how it could be replicated at other conferences. With spring conference season nearing, I am eager for TESOL 2017 in March in Seattle. I wonder, too, what the TESOL International Convention could learn from the youth of Minnesota? Are there some voices missing from these TESOL conferences? What more can be done as a TESOL community to make efforts to listen to, to truly hear these missing voices? Many will agree that the International TESOL Convention is phenomenal–many, many voices are present and are heard. TESOL offers some great scholarships available for first-time attendees,  practicing teachers, and international participants. The convention also has tours to local area schools.

Yet, still, it seems many voices are missing.  How could TESOL conferences be more inclusive?  The possibilities are endless: What about including childcare options? Making translation available? Meditation zones? Being more cost-effective? I would love to hear your ideas in the comments sections! Let’s brainstorm and transform . . .

About Shannon Tanghe

Shannon Tanghe
Shannon Tanghe is the program director of the Master's in ESL program at Saint Mary's University of Minnesota. She has taught in South Korea for more than 16 years, and has also taught in Egypt, Guyana, and the United States. Shannon was selected as the 2016 TESOL Teacher of the Year. Shannon holds a PhD in TESOL & Composition from Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Shannon’s research interests are teacher collaboration, World Englishes, and teacher development.
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