29 April 2020

My work in ELT: Boston / English Language Center

After Seoul, I travelled some and returned to the US in May of 1993. I took time to relax, catch up with family and friends, and travel around the US. I then decided to settle in Boston, a couple of hours from my hometown, and was fortunate to find a place to live and a teaching job within a couple of weeks. The ELC (English Language Center) was much like the school in Seoul but classes—grammar, conversation, reading and writing—ran from 8.30 to 3.30 every day. Students were aged from 16 to whenever, and my oldest student, Mr Kwan from South Korea, was 72.

I enjoyed the teaching and students immensely, but I had a lot to learn. I remember one day being in the middle of a lower intermediate grammar class (Azar’s Fundamentals of English Grammar) and having students give me the look of death—boredom. I felt a pain in my chest that day and knew I had to do something to up my game. And so it began—studying and parsing the grammar so that I could go into class with simple or step-by-step explanations. This along with pair or group work/feedback for activities, asking students to explain answers, finding ways to play games with the grammar, etc.

I started breaking down other lessons into smaller steps as well, e.g. vocabulary needed for a reading text, structures needed for conversation or writing, steps needed to achieve a conversation task. I also made a conscious decision, especially in conversation classes, to talk as little as possible, that is, to get students set up as quickly as possible, let them practice, as I listened, supported, noted, corrected as necessary. In doing this, I discovered a method for myself that I later learned was called PPP (Present, Practice, Produce) which was also related to TTT (Teacher Talking Time).

Life was good at the ELC and I started experimenting with video in the classroom for prediction, sequencing, writing conversations, gap-filling, role plays, and so on. I also started looking at ways to more closely link reading and writing. Why are we reading this text? What do students need to understand about it? Are there features of grammar or language that help us understand what this text is? How do I want students to respond the text? Should they imitate it, summarize it, paraphrase it, respond to it, agree or disagree with it, add to it, transform it’s register? I was super excited to be experimenting, trying different things, and classes ended up being great fun. I remember my boss at the time asked me to put together a reading/writing pack. I went way overboard, printing copies of more than 100 texts, all with ideas for reading and writing.

While at the ELC, I also arranged and taught English writing/grammar classes at the Boston Conservatory of Music. This was an arrangement between the conservatory and the ELC. The classes were three mornings a week at 8 a.m. and they weren’t easy. Students were often absent, tardy, distracted, tired. It was understandable, of course, as they wanted to focus on their instrument or art, but the theory or basic language arts courses required writing research papers about a musical composition, a composer, or The Iliad. I was given a composition book to teach with at first, but it was too compartmentalized and very heavy on teaching language. I also tried to talk to the teachers to get an idea of the issues they were seeing in the classroom. A couple of them were open with me, helpful, while others were busy or even resistant to talking to me.

With the permission of the Head of International Students, I switched to teaching a mix of grammar and writing and tried using group work, tasks. But the students didn’t connect like the ones at the ELC. Maybe their focus was somewhere else, or with so many absentees, they just weren’t invested. I couldn’t find a way to make any ground. I was unable to find a solution and that frustrated me.

I talked with the head and wondered if the students weren’t talking the class seriously partly because it was seen as an extra class taught by an extra teacher. I was frustrated and wanted out and was looking for solutions. I encouraged her to hire a part-time English teacher for the school, someone who would be considered part of the part of the staff and maybe the English writing programme could be integrated and aligned with the academic classes. She said she’d think about it.

What the head did was hire an English Coordinator to assess the situation and one day the coordinator popped in to see a class. And what a day it was. Five of 12 students were absent and I was disappointed because homework hadn’t been done. I assigned three pages of grammar exercises as a kind of punishment. Not very exciting. And worse, when we were revising the answers, I found I was unable to explain the grammar (advanced relative clauses) clearly. It was definitely not a nice class to observe and I believe it expedited the decision to hire an English teacher to be on the conservatory staff.

I look back on my time there as a failure. I was hired to do teach a class and I couldn’t make it work they way I had with classes at the ELC. When I returned to my normal schedule at the ELC, I decided to level up and asked to teach advanced grammar lessons. It was an area in which I was lacking and a good way to move forward is to teach what you need to learn. It went well. I learned a ton and fortunately didn’t embarrass myself too much with students.

16 April 2020

My work in ELT: Nepal & Seoul

I won’t spend too much talking about the early days in Nepal or the three months of language and cultural training. I’ll just say it mostly went well and I, for one, wasn’t feeling clear on what I had gotten into. No doubt it was a mix of nerves and the churning of culture shock.

I arrived in my village in the Eastern foothills of Nepal in early January 1991. My headmaster had arranged a for me to live in the school office building where a few students boarded. The school was a long, ranch style building with six classrooms. Primary classes ran in the morning, secondary classes in the afternoon.

This was it. I had a degree in English literature, a poor understanding of grammar fundamentals, and little practical education related to teaching. To say I wasn’t prepared would be an understatement. I taught Primary 1–3 and my smallest class was 54 students—the largest was 92! I liked being with the students, especially as they were very eager to learn. But without any background in lesson planning, my classes were haphazard and I moved far too slowly through the material. I was just able to cover half the material for the year. I loved it, and I remember singing a lot with them, but looking back, I can only smh.

In my second year, I moved to Dhankuta, the capital of the eastern region, to become a primary school English teacher trainer. Yep, after just a year of teaching, I had become a teacher trainer. That meant I would get an assignment, bus or hike to a district center, work with local teacher trainers to conduct a 35-day training and then return to the office to prepare for the next training. Fortunately for me, there were tons of material to work with and every class was time-tabled. And the teachers were a blast to work with. I learned a lot during those trainings from my counterparts and was appreciative of their support and dedication.

Three teacher trainings, a couple of short treks, and the monsoon season took me into October 1992. My last weeks as a volunteer in Nepal were spent working with a batch of incoming volunteers, providing training, observing classes, making plans for the next step … which was teaching English in Seoul for three months. So I went back out to the primary school and the education office I had worked at, and to the family I had lived with, to pack up my things and say goodbye to teachers and friends. I then returned to Kathmandu for blurry days of farewell parties, feasts, and shopping for gifts to bring home.

I landed in Seoul in early January 1993 and began teaching English conversation to young adults right away. Wow! What a difference! After two years of teaching with little or no electricity or running water, in classrooms with dirt floors, benches crammed with dozens of students, blackboards made out of wooden boards, I arrived at a school with copiers, computers, and shelves of materials; classrooms with folding desks, whiteboards, carpeting, climate control, glass in the windows … and class sizes of 14 to 18 students. And the surroundings! My views went from foothills, trees, and trails to modern concrete towers, five-lane highways, and packed subway lines. The smells went from fresh mountain air, wood fires, and lentils to urban pollution, perfume, and kimchi. And do you remember that song ‘Gangnam Style’? Well, the school I worked at was right in the heart of Gangnam, one of the wealthiest areas of Seoul. It was time-travelling without time travel. Woo-eee!

Classes were run monthly and met for an hour two or three days a week. As the students were university aged or 20-somethings, it made preparing and facilitating lessons easy. I guess I had learned something in Nepal. Classes went smoothly and the students were amazingly friendly. They would ask me to lunch with them, for coffee after class, or even out to bars or clubs in the evening. They took me to museums, historical sites, amusement parks, shopping malls, outdoor markets; we went hiking, ice-skating, shopping; played table tennis and billiards. And at the end of each month, students gave their teachers gifts: shirts, belts, socks, lighters (I used to smoke), change purses, wallets, caps. Their kindness was sincere, warm, touching. It was hard to leave, and a couple of fellow teachers tried to persuade me to stay, but I’d been away from my family for 28 months and it was time to return.

14 April 2020

My work in ELT: University days

So how did I get into ELT and publishing? To be honest, it just happened. I didn’t really have a clear plan all those years ago when I was at university, for the second time. My first attempt at university, in a junior college architecture program, ended after one year when I was put on academic probation. It took some time for me to get it together after that, and after six months or so, I landed a job in a fast-food restaurant, something similar to Dairy Queen. That went on for just over five years, and in that time I realized I enjoyed reading, watching movies, and discussing what I had read or watched. One day thought came to me—I guess I was 22 or 23 then—why not go back to school and become an English teacher?

One might think that normal, not a big deal, but what one wouldn’t know is that I had never performed well academically. Never. And worse than that, English was my poorest subject in secondary school. Still, it felt right and I followed that feeling to matriculation at Anderson University (then Anderson College) in September 1986 as an English literature/Education major. I wasn’t fearful of returning to school. Fear never entered into it, that I can remember. I was content and for the first time pursuing something I wanted. Sliding into the first year back at uni, I found the professors thoughtful and entertaining, the material stimulating and compelling. I glided into student life and managed to perform well, better than I ever had before.

When I entered university, I had thoughts of working as a missionary and becoming a youth pastor alongside my English lit/education degrees. Yes, I was ‘religious’ and Anderson was the global home of the Church of God, the church I had been attending for some time. By the middle of my second year, though, I had shed the idea of becoming a missionary and youth pastor, which is a story for another blog. Still, the idea of living and working in another culture was rooted in me.

Classes continued and in the middle of my second year, I also decided to drop my education degree. The history and educational theory classes just didn’t excite me. And a practical experience at a local high school didn’t go well, which, with some years of hindsight, I could see was my fault. Anyhow, I moved forward with my literature degree and soon decided the US Peace Corps was the path for me. On a wintry day in March of 1990, I drove to Chicago for an interview and in early June learned that I had been accepted into the Peace Corps as primary school English teacher. (The educational theory classes really helped!) I waited for an appointment, which came in mid-July, and at the end of August I was off to Nepal to serve for 27 months.