Alumna Teaching in Azerbaijan
From Biloxi to Baku: Revolutionizing Education in Azerbaijan
by Dave Woods, Outreach Coordinator for
U.S. Department of State, The English Language Programs
Georgetown University, Center for Intercultural Education and Development
Baku, Azerbaijan — Have you ever had trouble learning new technology? Ever tried teaching it? How about teaching it to someone who doesn’t speak your language? Do all that—and do it 7,000 miles from home—and you’ll know what it’s like to be Biloxi’s Mary Catherine Boehmer.
Boehmer, a 2007 graduate of the Sally McDonnell-Barksdale Honors College at the University of Mississippi, is an English Language Fellow for the U.S. Department of State, living and working in Baku, Azerbaijan. There she supports the U.S. Embassy by training English teachers at the Azerbaijan University of Languages, but she’s also revolutionizing English teaching nationwide by pioneering the use of technology.
Boehmer is used to moving around. She went from Mercy Cross High School in Biloxi to Ole Miss and from there to teach in Russia and Germany (with a stop in New York for grad school at Columbia in between). In Azerbaijan, though, she found her travel capacity limited: “Any outreach outside of Baku is tightly restricted by the local and federal government,” she says. Still, she was committed to bringing the English language to every corner of her new home.
Boehmer turned to “MOOCs”—Massive Open Online Courses—that let students in distant areas connect to top-flight instruction over the Internet. She has now led or facilitated seventeen such courses for over 360 participants across Azerbaijan, a number that jumps by almost a thousand when follow-on viewers are added in. These courses have a real effect on participants. “Technology has an incredibly democratizing power, and it’s exciting to see how it can change lives for the better,” Boehmer says.
She’s also willing to go the extra mile to make sure students get real-world benefit from their virtual classrooms. Last month, realizing a group of kids would get more out of an upcoming science and tech program if they had some hands-on experience first, she teamed up with a local chemist in Baku to use ice cream, Play-Doh, and even recyclable lab coats to introduce the concepts that the kids would be learning in their online course.
Boehmer’s effect in Azerbaijan has been incredible and will make a difference for years to come. By the end of her fellowship, she will have taught hundreds of students directly, trained dozens of local online-course leaders, and reached thousands of Azerbaijanis through technology. For Boehmer, that’s just the logical outcome of a process she began almost two decades ago in Mississippi: “Growing up in Biloxi, I learned the importance of valuing relationships in your community. Knowing how to develop lasting relationships is incredibly important in making projects successful. In Azerbaijan, just like Mississippi, people come first.”
The English Language Fellow Program
U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs:
The English Language Fellow Program recruits both experienced English language professionals and recent master’s graduates trained in English as a foreign language and English as a second language. As Fellows, they travel abroad and assist with the improvement of English-teaching capacity around the world, with the ultimate goal of fostering a better understanding of the United States through cross-cultural partnerships. Fellows are placed at universities, teacher-training institutions, ministries of education, and NGOs for ten-month assignments abroad to assist in the teaching of English at all levels, curriculum development, workshop and seminar design, and program evaluation, among other things. The program is administered by the Center for Intercultural Education and Development at Georgetown University.
Photos 1 & 2: Service Learning Camp, a weeklong English language camp initiated and organized by Boehmer at the Baku American Center. The camp participants were children ages 8-16 at the Baku American Center. Students learned English through volunteer projects. 117 students participated in the camp and 31 pre-service teachers taught as volunteers in the camp. (June 2017)
Photo 3: First day Integrating Critical Thinking Skills MOOC group. This is an Azerbaijan-wide MOOC group with virtual participants watching the livestreamed session in the cities of Kurdamir, Lankaran, Salyan, Khachmaz, and Ganja.
Photo 4: Graduates pose with their recyclable graduation caps and lab coats made with materials from local environmental organization Eco Baku.
(Photos by Dilare Umudova)