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.

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