Effortless English Archives

Automatic English For The People

Sunday, January 29, 2006


by AJ

All this is new to me-- caring about my job, pouring energy into it, constantly brainstorming to improve things, wanting to excel. Never before have I pushed so hard to improve my job performance... risking the ire of bosses in the process. Teaching English is the first job I have loved. Its the first job Ive felt passion for.

But maybe thats a problem. My best friend recently gave this advice to me, "Chill AJ. Since when have you cared so much about a job. No one cares if you do a great job or not. Stop worrying about it. Stop being so serious about it."

Perhaps this is good advice. What, exactly, have I gained from this passion? While students have generally expressed gratitude, bosses and administrators have not. Job security comes from blending in,... doing what's normal and expected. In the end, its the administrators who determine my hours, pay, and the tranquility of my work life... not the students.

Am I mis-appropriating my energy. In the past I always focused my passions outside of work... on girlfriends, on writing, on learning, on friends, on hobbies, on travel. I gave work the bare minimum... conserved myself for more meaningful activities... activities that directly enriched my life.

I love Littky's ideas. I love teaching. I want to do a GREAT job at it... to be innovative, interesting, effective, and extraordinary. But this may be energy ill-spent. In the end, its likely to gain me nothing but frustration, criticism, and hassles.

Perhaps work is a poor beneficiary for my passion and energy.

Perhaps my friend is right...

Saturday, January 28, 2006


"Don't let excuses stop you from dreaming, or stop you from doing something (even just one thing) to change your school or the schools in your community for the better. And don't let wrong-minded policies or systems get in your way, either. Someone once said to me, 'School bureaucracies do not change because they see the light, but because they feel the heat'. A study I recently read found that the one thing the greatest managers in the world have in common is that they do not hesitate to break the rules.

If you start doing something that works, people take notice and want to do the same thing in other places. This is how bad rules get broken and replaced by better policies."


This could also be called he Nike principle, ie. "Just Do It".

Or, as I like to put it, "Just try shit". Im lucky to be in an open and flexible school now. But in most organizations so much time is wasted on debate. When someone has an interesting idea, they discuss it. They debate it. The devil's advocates come out of the woodwork. Will it work? Will it fail? Round and round and round.... when all that is necessary is to give it a try and see.

Trying stuff is so much more efficient. In the time it takes a typical department to consider, debate, modify, and improve one new idea... I can experiment with ten, discard the failures, keep the successes, reflect on both, and generate 10 new ideas. Since Ive taken this approach, my teaching methods have evolved rapidly.

But its not just for teachers. Im realizing I need to encourage this same approach with my students. Rather than analyzing the language endlessly.... they need to get out there and try to communicate. They too will "fail" often. But they'll learn faster... and just as importantly, their confidence will grow. As their peers consider the possible uses of the present perfect, they'll be learning communicative English that works.

We waste so much time in virtual reality.. debating hypotheticals.

Therein lies the real point of our upcoming trip to the retirement home. Maybe the students will hate it. Maybe their activities will "fail". But at least they will be trying to communicate outside of class. We'll learn from the experience regardless of its outcome.

And then we'll try something else.


by AJ

"They say knowledge is power. We say the use of knowledge is power."
-- Elliot Washor

Seems obvious. Yet most schools operate on the "knowledge is power" belief. Few care about actually using this knowledge. And nowhere is this more evident than in TESOL.

According to most schools, "superior" EFL/ESL students are those who score well on tests... and get good grades. Most schools (and teachers) dont seem to care if these students can actually use English in real-life situations. Real-life, after all, is totally unrelated to school.

But Washor is absolutely right. Knowledge of English is useless unless the student can use it. Can they read a newspaper or magazine? Can they function in an English speaking country? Can they use English on the job? Can they order a pizza over the phone? Can they make friends and communicate with them? If they are academics, can they read and understand professional journals? Can they watch an English language movie and understand it? Can they convey their ideas, needs, and desires in English?

If they can't, who gives a damn about their test scores?

My Asian students, for example, typically have tremendous linguistic knowledge. They can tell you the difference between the past progressive and the present perfect. They can define large number of vocabulary words. They do well on standardized tests. They are then shocked to discover that they can't function in America outside the classroom. Simple conversations are incomprehensible. They can't understand movies without the subtitles.

Something is wrong with this picture. If a student can't understand a basic transaction at McDonalds, after 6-8 years of English study, what exactly was the use of those 8 years? For example, Ive got students who, after almost a decade of study... still dont know how to respond to the greeting, "What's up?"

As language teachers we need to pay less attention to memorized linguistic knowledge and MUCH more attention to practical communication. That means getting out of the school and out of the textbook. It means frequent encounters with "the real world". It means learning English as it is actually spoken.... not as its presented in formalized texts (by prescriptivist grammarians). It means that successful communication, not grammatical accuracy, should be our first priority.

Friday, January 27, 2006


by AJ

"The atmosphere of a school is so important... a school [can become] like a great newspaper office, bustling with excitement, everyone busy and engaged, working together and working on their own projects with purpose and passion. If you put good people in an environment that allows them to continue learning and that reinforces their risk taking, their passion, and their commitment, then you can make good people great. You can make ordinary people extraordinary just by giving them the right environment in which to do their thing and letting them grow."


Reinforce their risk taking. Thats the key for me. Traditional school creates timid students. Traditional education scares the shit out of them... pounds them every time they take a risk. "The nail that sticks up gets hammered", thats the anthem of most traditional schools.

Small wonder that my students are skeptical. They are afraid of risk... especially when I up the stakes by pushing them into the "real world". But "the real world" is why they are in school. They want to function in America. They want to understand ordinary Americans, to socialize with Americans, to communicate with Americans. They want to understand movies. They want to make friends. They want to attend American universities... or get jobs. Theyll never accomplish these things unless they start using English outside of school.

Most students tell me they rarely use English once they leave class. They spend their days alone, or with other students. Clearly this is a problem. For most, social & cultural opportunities were the reason they left home and came to SF to study. They are frustrated.

But that doesnt mean they jumped for joy when I announced the retirement home visit. Our past field trips were passive... we walked through a museum and library. But this time they will meet new people and interact with them. They will lead an activity. To do that, they must communicate in English. There will be no grades, of course. But as Littky notes, real world activities have real world consequences.. and those are much more powerful than grades.

I know what the students are thinking. They're afraid they won't be understood. They're afraid the residents will not join their activity.. or won't like it. They're afraid it will flop. Well, welcome to the real world!! I feel that way everyday, before every class :) But Ive learned to live with the uncertainty.

It comes down to confidence. Confidence doesnt come from test scores. Confidence comes from meeting real-world challenges.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006


by AJ

"Exhibitions encourage students to go deeper with their learning by requiring them to create and present a portfolio of their work. Where studying for a test may involve students looking at class notes and rereading textbooks, preparing a portfolio requires students to look at and define the many layers of their learning. This can mean sharing successive drafts of a paper, showing photos of a project in various phases of construction, and all sorts of other things. Deep learning is so important, and such a thrill to do and to watch."


I was recently given a class called "Advanced Oral English Proficiency Development". This class is part of a Masters degree program, and I must provide a grade at the end (uh oh :). The good news is that I was given complete control over the syllabus and evaluation. I decided to use presentations and portfolios only... not tests.

Here are the assignments the class will do:

* Weekly speeches & discussions
Each student will give a mini-speech during every class. They will talk about a specific experience for 2-3 minutes. Following their speech, they will conduct a 10 minute class Q & A plus discussion related to the speech.

* Midterm Movie Presentation
Each student will choose an English language movie. Their job is to teach the movie to the rest of the class. This means they need to watch the movie several times to learn new vocabulary and slang from the movie. Ive encouraged them to use English subtitles if they need them.... and to email me with questions about words/phrases they cant find in a dictionary.

Each of them will give a 30-40 minute presentation to the class. They will show a scene from the movie, teach us the vocab/grammar in the scene, then replay the scene a few times till all the students can hear & understand the language used. They'll do this with 2-3 scenes. Of course, this is basically the Focal Skills movie technique... but the students are using it to teach each other (instead of just me doing it).

The student will then lead a class discussion about issues related to the movie scenes they showed.

* Interview Presentations (2)
Students will first choose a topic they are interested in. This could be anything-- cooking, skateboarding, computer programming... whatever. They then must find an expert on this topic and interview them. They will record the interview.

Next, they'll replay the recording at home and decipher any words/phrases they didnt understand, making sure they completely understand what the person was sayiing (Ill help them with this, of course).

Finally, they will present the interview to the class. Theyll teach us difficult words (such as jargon specific to the topic). They'll play their recording. They'll discuss what they learned from the interview. And then they'll lead a discussion on ideas related to the interview. Students will do two of these interviews during the semester.

* Final Project & Presentation
Each student will summarize their learning for the semester.... what they learned from the interviews and movie (and the other students). Theyll also include books, articles, documentaries, conversations, and other ways they learned about their topic (and/or oral English). At the end of their 30 minute presentation, they'll conduct a Q & A session and lead a discussion.

While I believe the presentation/portfolio approach can work with any class... this one seems ideal as my first try. Since this is an ORAL English class, oral presentations make sense to the students. When I told them, "There won't be any written tests because this is a speaking/listening course", they immediately accepted the logic.

Stay tuned.....


by AJ

"Why not take the time to find people in the community who have the same interests as our students and get the students working with them? Every time we get a student an internship we are adding a new teacher to our staff. When I visit our students on site at their internships, I am blown away by how committed the mentors and their coworkers are to what we are trying to do. They are so excited to talk to our kids, to pass on their knowledge and enthusiasm."

--Dennis Littky

I dont know why I never thought of this. What Littky describes is EXACTLY what I did as a social worker. I linked my clients with mentors, internships, counselors, support groups, and other experts in the community. While I did my share of counseling, the bulk of the work was done by community members and the clients themselves.

When I entered teaching, I swallowed the traditional educational approach: teacher stands in front of class, students listen and take notes.... and occasionally do "groupwork" assigned by the teacher. Its taken me several years to re-discover the power inherent in my old social work approach.

Unfortunately, Ive got quite a task ahead of me. My social work clients (most of them) did not have decades of authoritarian social work conditioning behind them. So they were generally open to the community approach.

But students are another story (especially Asian students, who have endured the most rigid school systems in the world). They have 20+ years of conditioning to overcome: conditioning that ingrained the following messages:

* School is boring
* The teacher is the BIG expert & leader. Good students obey and don't take initiative.
* Rote learning, drills, grades, and textbooks are "real & serious". Real-world activities are "soft & not serious".
* Mistakes are bad.
* Risks are very bad.
* Learning is a chore.
* The teacher is responsible for learning... his/her job is to "push" knowledge into the student.

These are deeply held beliefs for many students.... beliefs with a strong emotional component.

I realized this as I discussed our upcoming visit to the retirement home. While my students have no problem doing "groupwork" in class... the idea of leading an activity outside of school... for "real people" not attached to the school... clearly made them nervous.

I naively expected smiles and enthusiasm. Instead, their faces were pinched and they were silent.

It was worse when I discussed the newsletter... the idea that they would act as reporters and could research and write about anything they wanted to. I imagined they'd get excited and say things like, "Cool, Im gonna write about hip-hop". Ha!

That wasnt quite the reaction. They glared at me! The word "write" immediately triggered feelings of dread and humiliation.... memories of red ink marks, criticism from teachers, grammar lectures, hours spent creating outlines, etc....

In retrospect, these challenges are hardly surprising. It takes some effort and time to change a classroom culture. It takes positive experiences. It takes successes. I thought about pleading with them then realized the futility... they dont need more talk, they simply need to get in the thick of things and discover that not only can they do it... they can have fun at the same time.

I now imagine a progression of real world challenges... starting with the relative ease and safety of field trips and guest speakers, then moving into the more scary (at first) realm of internships, mentors, and community service projects.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Real Work, Real Language

by AJ

"When we were starting [our school], I looked back at what really worked in my other schools and saw that it was real work. When it's real work, students do it-- no matter what the subject. A lot of the time, though, the work that is done in schools LOOKS like real work, but it is not real ENOUGH. I have always thought it's hysterical that inside the school building we work really hard to make lessons that look and feel real, when all the while, the real world is going on outside. Why don't we just step back outside? The world is this huge resource, and schools have to start taking advantage of it.

The work must be real. And not what I call 'fake real'. The best teachers in a traditional school can develop activities that seem real. What I'm saying is, that isn't good enough. The traditional curriculum just doesn't inspire every student to get excited about learning, nor does it meet the expectations of highly motivated or gifted students. So my teachers and I began looking outside the school and into the community for help. That triggered a formal apprenticeship program, which became very successful. It allowed us to meet some of the students needs and had the bonus effect of bringing the community in as a partner in the school.

A person's deepest learning usually results from authentic experiences-- those whose results really matter to an audience beyond the learner and teacher. Authentic experiences, such as work with a mentor or a community service project, motivate profound learning for several reasons. First, the work has real consequences. Second, the resources for learning are limitless when students are not confined to one building and a predetermined set of materials. Third, a student develops personal relationships with experts in areas of his/her passion. Aside from motivational concerns, a growing body of research indicates that for students to apply knowledge in real situations, they need to learn in those situations. Abstract knowledge gained inside schools is poorly applied by students in real situations outside of school".

--Dennis Littky

This is the direction my thoughts are taking me. That last sentence really hits home. Its consistent with my personal learning experiences: "A growing body of research indicates that for students to apply knowledge in real situations, they need to learn in those situations. Abstract knowledge gained inside schools is poorly applied by students in real situations outside of school."

How might this look for language education? It means, I think, that vocabulary, grammar, slang, etc. would be best learned from real situations... not textbooks, nor role-plays, nor other classroom simulations.

Here's how I might apply this idea for learning "restaurant English". As a class, we'd visit a restaurant. We would tour the facility. We'd talk to cooks, waiters, and the managers. We'd get copies of the menu. Then we'd sit down and order. During the meal, we'd discuss our opinions of the food.

Id record all of this... with an audio or video recorder. Id take notes on difficult vocab/jargon.

After our visit, Id use these recordings in the classroom. We'd rlisten to the conversations we had and review them as often as needed. After that, we'd discuss the experience. We'd read over the menu and other printed material.

Finally, we'd visit another restaurant (of a different kind) and repeat the process. Students with a particular interest in food, cooking, etc. might follow up with a job or apprenticeship in a restaurant... or some other authentic project connected to the subject. The rest of the class, if sick of this subject, would move on to another one... using this process as a general template.

Thus the "lesson" starts and ends with real-world experiences... and projects grow out of these encounters. The classroom becomes the place where these experiences are processed (including learning the relevant language involved).

My first attempt at this process will be the Retirement Home visit.... Stay tuned.

My Planned Response To Student Suggestions

by AJ

My regular students, and others as well, have recently made a number of interesting suggestions (and complaints). My first response was, "Oh no, more stress and work for me". But Ive since relaxed and realized I dont need to do everything at once. This will, undoubtedly, be a several months process.

Here are my plans for addressing their complaints & suggestions:

* Lots more guest speakers. As I learn the students' passions, I plan to find people in the community who are experts on these subjects. This will take time, as Im new to the city. But I should be able to gradually build the necessary connections.

* Record conversations & interviews with friends and community members. I plan to use a videocamera to record casual conversations with my friends. Also, Ill interview some of our guest speakers (and other community members).. then use the recordings in class. In time, Id like students to take more responsibility for this... seeking out and recording conversations of interest to them.

* Community Involvement. I plan to take a lot more field trips... and to focus these trips on the students interests. Also, I plan to focus more on communicative/interactive trips... rather than just visiting museums.

My first attempt at this will be on Feb. 6th. We will visit a retirement home. A small group of my students will plan and lead an activity with the seniors at the home. We will do this twice. One group is planning to teach the seniors songs, and sing with them. The other group is planning interviews, conversations, and games.

I will document the activities with my videocamera and then use the tape to review (and teach vocab/grammar/etc. that they might not have understood).

Finally, the group will make a presentation to our class... discussing how their activity went, what they learned, and how they felt about visiting the home.

Another trip Im planning is a visit to a vet clinic. Some of my students like animals.... so I hope to have a vet (or tech) visit our school and talk to the class. We'll also read some articles about cats... and finally we will visit and tour a clinic.

* Volunteer Social Activities. Im joining a group called "Hands on Bay Area". This group organizes volunteer activities for non-profits... they help train and recruit the volunteers. After attending their orientation on Jan 31st, Ill talk to them about organizing a regular social activity for our students (and their American volunteers).

* School Newsletter. Im now responsible for our monthly school newsletter... so Im hoping to use it as a teaching tool. I plan to treat the classroom as a mini-newsroom. Students will be the reporters, Ill be the editor. We'll go through the same process used by other publications... the class will brainstorm story ideas or pitch their story ideas, each student will then choose a story, they'll research their story (including recorded interviews, notes, and pictures), they'll then present their research to the class & discuss the angle they plan to take with it (the class will give feedback and suggestions), and they'll write their first draft alone.

Then they'll meet with me (the editor) to refine, correct, and re-organize their story. Finally, the story will be published in the school's newsletter.

* Movie Technique. Of course I loved the movie suggestion. Unfortunately, I dont have a TV or DVD player in my class. But once I get a few more paychecks in my bank account, Ill go shopping at thrift stores and see what I can find. If I can find a dirt cheap TV & DVD player.... Id like to start using the movie technique 30-60 minutes each day.

* Demand More... High Expectations! I like this suggestion, of course. But it was made by the most motivated students (ones who come to the free extra classes). Unfortunately, when I presented the retirement home visit & project most of my students were not happy. They got nervous. They clearly saw it as "extra work".

This is probably my fault.... I was probably too serious about it. But Im hoping that once they go there and meet the very nice & appreciative seniors... they will have a good time and change their attitude.

Likewise, when I introduced the newsletter idea they scowled. "Too serious", they said. "Too difficult". "How will we talk to other people... they wont understand us." Again this is my fault... moving too fast, perhaps. But again, hopefully if I help them make the connections and keep a loose, fun, relaxed attitude... they'll loosen up too.

The Student Knows Best

by AJ

I began today's "workshop" class planning to play Pictionary. The workshop is an extra, free class at our school.... open to all levels. Usually we play games or do other light and enjoyable activities.

However, today my school put a suggestion basket in the lobby. This seemed to stimulate the students.. when I asked how they were doing, one student complained about her English learning experiences. That led the other students to jump in. Rather than cut them off and "get back on topic", I started asking questions such as:

"What frustrations have you encountered with your English learning?"
"How could the school better meet your needs?"
"If you were the boss, what would you add, delete, or change at the school?"
"What are your needs outside of school?" "How might the school help you meet these needs?"

I got more than I bargained for.... we talked for an hour. As they talked, I recorded their comments on blank pieces of paper. At the end of class, we dropped them into the suggestion box.

The experience showed me, once again, that students already know what's best. The motivated & articulate ones (of any level) are eager to give suggestions. They know what they want. Here's a brief sample of their suggestions:

* "We want more practical English. We learn formal English in class, but when we leave school we can't understand people. We want to learn real conversational English as used by native speakers."

* "Instead of focusing the curriculum on grammar, focus it on practical life uses. For example, why don't we study doctor's office English, have a nurse visit us as a guest speaker, then tour a hospital. We could learn how to talk to doctors and nurses... not from a textbook... but from real medical people."

Other ideas: As above.. but visit a market, a wedding, a funeral, a party, etc..... Use class time to pre-learn some vocab, read articles on the topic, role play related situations, and listen to guest speakers. Then get out of school and visit these places and interact with people.

* Record and use real conversations in class. Teachers should record conversations with their friends... and use those to teach students (instead of using textbook dialogues that are too formal). Students could also record conversations and bring them to their teacher for use in class.

* Use movies every day. "Americans learn a lot of slang and casual conversation from Hollywood movies. We could watch movies everyday.... not all at once though... maybe 30 minutes each day. We could replay each scene several times, learn the vocabulary and slang... and practice listening skills".

* Demand more-- have higher expectations. We came to America to learn English... because we are serious about learning English. We should have more homework, projects, and out-of-school work.

* HELP US MEET AMERICANS!!!! All of the students expressed extreme frustration in regards to their out-of-school social life. They stated that it was difficult to make friends with Americans and therefore they get little practice outside of class (despite living in the US). They pleaded for help.... for the school/teachers to somehow help them connect with Americans in the community.

* Variety. All of the students expressed appreciation for the school and their teachers. However, they said they got bored having the same teacher every day. They want to change now and then.... to help them maintain interest and freshness.

* More repetition of vocabulary. Students complained that they dont review new vocabulary enough, and thus they quickly forget. "We should continue to practice the new words the next day... and later."

* Focus more on listening skills (especially everyday conversational English): "I can use classroom English when I speak and people understand me. But when they talk I can't understand them, because they dont speak the way that teachers do. They use different words. They use more slang. They talk faster. We should practice listening more."

Sunday, January 22, 2006


by AJ

"The old and infirm and the timid, of whatever age or sex, thought most of sickness, and sudden accident and death; to them life seemed full of danger,-- what danger is there if you don't think of any-- and they thought that a prudent man would carefully select the safest position.... The amount of it is, if a man is alive, there is always danger that he may die, though the danger must be allowed to be less in proportion as he is dead-and-alive to begin with. A man sits as many risks as he runs."


Such is the mindset of most teachers. They too think mostly of "safety" and "security". They too worry about danger... though the danger they fret about has to do with losing their job.... or other threats to their reputation and finances.

They too carefully select the safest position. They obediently follow "policy", regardless of how ridiculous it may be. They stick to the required text, the established curriculum, the accepted standards of behavior. They rarely fail because they never try anything risky.

After decades of exposure to such teachers, most students adopt the same stance. They shun risk. They shun initiative. They are ever calculating the safest course.... continually angling to meet expectations.

As such, they often seem more dead than alive. Where is the enthusiasm? Where is the love of learning, growth, life?

These folks dont realize that they are following the riskiest course of all-- one that deadens the mind and crushes the heart. They are selling their vitality for a false sense of security.

There's a deeper issue here, one that has nothing to do with education. Its a question of what kind of life we hope to lead. Will we forever slink in the shadows, cynically "covering our asses"? Will we forever deny our wilder impulses? Will we exterminate all that makes us unique, special, interesting, alive? Are there not higher principles than obedience and "professionalism"?

Teaching (or any other job, for that matter) cannot be separated from the rest of our lives. This is a lie. If we spend 4-8 hours a day doing dull things, playing it safe... we will inevitably become dull human beings. We are what we continually do.

How will you spend the bulk of your day? What kind of thoughts will dominate your mind?

Fear? Routine? Obedience? Policy & Procedure? Security?

Or will you choose a richer life full of love, enthusiasm, risk, play, vitality, independence, learning, loss, and laughter?

There's more at stake than your career.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Common Schools

by AJ

"I do not wish to flatter my townsmen, nor be flattered by them, for that will not advance either of us. We need to be provoked,-- goaded like oxen, as we are, into a trot. We have a comparatively decent system of common schools, schools for infants only;... but no school for ourselves. We spend more on almost any article of bodily aliment or ailment than on our mental ailment. It is time that we had uncommon schools, that we did not leave off our education when we begin to be men and women. It is time that villages were universities, and their elder inhabitants the fellows of universities, with leisure-- to pursue liberal studies the rest of their lives. "

Written about 150 years ago, by Henry David Thoreau

Not much has changed, in the sense that our schools are still terribly common and infantile. "It is time that villages were universities....", and perhaps time that schools were villages.

Today we are just as complacent as were Americans in Thoreau's time. We lumber along, content with mediocre schools. We accept boring as "normal". We treat our adult students like children... infantilizing them.

This was the most maddening thing, for me, about teaching at Thammasat University. I couldnt accept that 18-22 year olds should be controlled, scolded, and babied. Jesus, exactly when do we acknowledge people as autonomous adults? For most schools, apparently never.

We do indeed need to be provoked and goaded. We live in a rapidly changing world. Technology is hurtling us towards unknown vistas. Cultures, societies, and races are mixing. Now, more than ever, we need uncommon schools.

Im often criticized for being "unrealistic". Or for being "shrill" or "too openly subversive". Yet my little blog posts are amazingly tame. If Im what passes for subversive and radical in education, mediocrity is more entrenched than I ever imagined.

Can we not at least aim for something greater? Where has "realism" gotten us?

Sure, its easy to reach common goals. But where does that lead except to a mean and common life?

"Instead of noblemen, let us have noble villages of men/women. If it is necessary, omit one bridge over the river, go round a little there, and throw one arch at least over the darker gulf of ignorance which surrounds us." (Thoreau)

Friday, January 20, 2006

An Alternative to Textbooks

by AJ

Most schools have a required textbook. Students typically pay 30-40 dollars for it. Yet most texts (to put it mildly) are boring, irrelevant, grammar-translation focused, and artificial.

What if we did something else with that money? What if, upon enrollment, each student instead received a mini-tape recorder and a couple of mini-cassettes? What if we told them... "This is your textbook. Go out and record conversations. And while you're at it, collect reading material that is interesting and/or necessary for you."

Send them swarming into the city.... collecting authentic language of direct use to their lives. Students as content-generators. Students as publishers. Students as curriculum designers.

Student Generated Content

by AJ

Having built rapport with my class, this week I had a feedback discussion with them. I prodded and poked to determine what they liked about my class, what they didnt, and what they wanted.

The number one comment... which all the students strongly supported... was that they wanted more of a focus on practical, everyday, conversational English. They want to focus (first) on the English they need everyday: applying for jobs, sending packages at the post office, ordering food at a restaurant, performing their job duties (waitress, receptionist, cook, etc.), getting a cell phone, answering ads for apartments or jobs,..... One Korean student was particularly outspoken. She works as a waitress in a Japanese restaurant. But she struggles to understand her customers.

As we talked, it hit me... Ive been going about this ass-backwards. I shouldnt be choosing the content & materials we use in class... they should.

And so I made this suggestion: "Carry a tape recorder with you at work and througout your day. Record the conversations you find difficult. Bring them to me. I will use your tape in class-- we'll learn the vocabulary, practice listening and comprehension, and role play responses." Likewise, I suggested that THEY choose their own reading material. I asked them to bring me applications, articles, emails, ads, and other materials that they want to understand (this could also extend to songs, TV shows, and movies).

This was one of those "duh" moments for me. Such a simple solution. Turn the students into content-gatherers. Put the responsibility on them. Let them decide what is important to their education. Let them choose the language that is important to their lives.

Its "wu wei" in action. The teacher works less. The students get content that is more relevant and interesting to them. Less work, more effective. Thats the spirit of "Effortless Acquisition".

SW Principle Number One

by AJ

"Never work harder than your client". Thats a maxim in social work.

As I continue to comtemplate lessons learned from my previous career... this one frequently occupies my mind. Perhaps we should adopt this mentality in education. Never work harder than your students.

There's great merit in that approach. Too often, we assume we are responsible. WE must force learning upon the student. WE must motivate them. WE must work our asses off. WE must be creative, innovative, interesting, inspiring. We must direct them.

But perhaps we are doing our students a disservice. Perhaps we should flip those expectations... make it clear that we expect motivation, creativity, inspiration, and responsibility from our students.

Social workers (and other counselors) are usually very careful to shift responsibility to the client. If a client asks, "What should I do?".... we do not tell them. The typical response is a question, "What do you think you should do?". While this sometimes annoys the client... it eventually sends the message that they, and not the social worker, are ultimately in charge of their life. Likewise, most social workers insist that clients define their own goals and define success in their own way.

But as teachers its often different. We love to tell students what to do. We tell them what to read. We determine which activities they do. We choose the materials. We dictate the terms of success and failure.

No wonder they are bored and disengaged.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Effortless Teaching

by AJ

Full of grand ideas and compelling visions. Imagining a beautiful classroom, full of artwork, plants, warm lighting, comfortable chairs... a place you'd want to spend time in. Imagining an individualized curriculum... each student delving into their unique passions-- using them as springboards to greater English proficiency. Imagining a rich and constantly updated stream of authentic, real-world materials-- timely, interesting, visually stimulating, fun, fascinating.

But each day the harsh reality-- my class is no where near these lofty visions: the source of endless agitation, maddening frustration.

Perhaps its my level of commitment. Im not one of these workaholic teachers who spends 5 hours a day planning classes. I have a life outside work and I prefer to keep it that way.

This dilemma echoes a similar crisis from my social work career. Gung ho, working at a youth shelter.... given the task of facilitating groups for abused/neglected teens. I did a decent job at first, then began to imagine a bigger & better program. I thought, "we can reach more kids, we can create a mentor program, we can expand the peer-mediation program". And so I took on more groups, more kids.... and stressed about my counseling skills.

But couldnt reach those lofty goals. Frustration grew. Fatigue crept in. The agency Director finally intervened. She loved my ideas and pointed to the obvious-- I couldnt do it alone, "You need to change your focus AJ. Stop trying to do everything yourself. Think of yourself more as a leader and coordinator. Do less. Get help."

And so I radically REDUCED my counseling load... used the extra energy to write grants, recruit interns, fund another social worker, and network with school counselors. The grant was accepted and funded another fulltime social worker. We got 5 enthusiastic interns from the University of Georgia. The program exploded. Quality improved. Our reputation grew.

My goals were realized by doing less, not more.

And so a sense of deja vu. Right back where I was at the beginning of my social work career: filled with great ideas, overwhelmed by the work necessary to actualize them.

Do the same principles apply to teaching? Is less, more?

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Physical Space (Yet Again)

by AJ

"Eventually, you begin to see that there's a blurred line between the world of human experience and the world of physical things. The physical arrangements in which people find themselves are quite determining. For example, there's a big difference between a conversation held at a long, rectangular table and one held at a round table. The same participants, the same time, the same agenda, but the discussions are completely different."

--Richard Farson

I came to this same realization while working as a social worker. I saw how powerfully space, decor, seating, lighting, and other factors effected people. A teen who was bored and listless at school would quickly come to life in our shelter... which had a warm and homey decor.

But it wasnt just the clients. Physical space had a powerful effect on the social workers too, including me. The second I entered the "Welfare Office" lobby, I felt a twinge in my gut. The walls were dingy. No colors (browns, greys, etc.). The receptionists sat behind a thick glass wall, so visitors had to crouch over and speak to them through a small hole.

In the back offices, the hallways were like a rat-warren.... twisted, dingy, and cramped. You needed no knowledge of the agency's policies to realize this was a place designed for humiliation and degradation.

Most schools remind me of the "welfare office". The same drab browns and greys. The same drab office furniture. The same inadequate lighting. And its getting worse. Many new public schools are now designed completely without windows... apparently the bureaucrats deem windows "too distracting"!! These structures are often surrounded by tall fences, sometimes topped with barbed wire. Desks are typically small... and the chairs are hard and uncomfortable.

This is more than just depressing... this type of decor actively works against the brain's natural learning systems. The brain craves stimulation, novelty, color, movement, and images. Deprived of these, is it any wonder so many students find it difficult to stay attentive in class... whatever the lesson... whoever the teacher.

All teacher education programs should include a required course in environmental design (or hell, interior decorating :) !!!

Monday, January 16, 2006

Get Help

by AJ

"The problem with most corporate/adult learning programs is that they're just like school. And the problem with school is that it sucks. It works against the way the brain wants to learn. Forcing people to sit in a chair and listen (or read) dry, formal words (with perhaps only a few token images thrown in) is the slowest, least effective, and most painful path to learning.
Yet it's the approach you see replicated in everything from K-12, to universities, to adult/corporate training.

One of the biggest mistakes adult learning programs and learners can make, in my opinion, is to use traditional school as the model. It doesn't work for kids, and it doesn't work for adults. Because it doesn't work for the brain."

--Kathy Sierra

How quickly we forget. As students, most of us complained about school. We knew it was boring. We knew it was irrelevant.

But as soon as we become teachers.. what do most of us do? We revert to the same tired bullshit that bored us to tears as students.

Im guilty of it. Last week I scanned my students faces.... they looked sleepy and disinterested. Some stifled yawns.

And no wonder. While Ive tried to inject enthusiasm into the lessons... Im still doing what Sierra described: "Forcing people to sit in a chair and listen.... the slowest and most painful path to learning". Yes we do trite "pairwork" and "groupwork" activities. Yes I try to find interesting articles and create interesting stories. But Im still choosing the content.

We've got to find a way to go deeper... much deeper... to connect with our students passions. They have them. They might not share them right away. They might feign boredom. They may say that their hobby is "sleeping" (a popular comment among Japanese students, for some reason).

But they are lying. They do have things they care deeply about. It might be their boyfriend. It might be animals. It might be video games. Or comic books. Or a music group. Its there.

But we've got a mountain to overcome. Adult students have been beaten down by nearly two decades of traditional school. They arent going to instantly respond the first time a teacher says, "tell me about your passions... lets do some great projects". The most likely first response to this will be suspicion, skepticism, or cynicism. They're thinking, "Yeah right".

In the past, I underestimated the damage traditional school had done to my students. I thought I could overcome it quickly. I was wrong. It takes time. It takes persistence... relentless efforts over time. And in most cases, it can't be done alone.

This is a compelling reason to seek help. You, as the teacher, automatically carry baggage. Its unavoidable... the students associate you with the boring-as-hell education system they were raised with. But a guest speaker, or volunteer-mentor, is free of that association. As outsiders, they carry more weight with the students... and no baggage.

But this is good news. We dont have to do it alone. In fact, we CAN'T do it alone.

Yes, we can do our little song and dance in class. But we can also act as connectors. We can recruit a pool of talented and wildly interesting volunteer-mentors.... we can help our students connect with them. We can gather resources, coaches, advisors.

Of course this takes time. And its not necessarily easy. But in the long run, its a helluva lot easier than trying to go it alone... up against the entire juggernaut of traditional education alone.

Build an army of passionate mentors. Build connections. Build a community.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Is the Student Really the First Priority?

by AJ

"Motivation--especially when it comes to a deep concern for the students--does not come from saying it. It comes from a culture of meaning it."
-- Kathy Sierra

Every school, and probably every teacher, SAYS the same things:
"The student is our first priority", "We are dedicated to being on the cutting edge of education", "Teaching comes first", "We are dedicated to excellence". I have yet to find a school that didnt spout these cliches. For that matter, every COMPANY Ive ever worked for,... from IBM to social work agencies... has professed to follow some variation on these themes.

But they have all, uniformly, failed to make the slightest effort to actualize those cliched sayings. In fact, there seems to be an inverse relationship between the amount of motivational sloganeering and true caring and excellence.

IBM and Greenville Hospital were, far and away, the two worst offenders. While at IBM I had to endure an endless litany of this sort of bullshit: "We dont sell computers (or whatever), we sell solutions"... "The customer (or patient) is number one"... You get the idea. The thing is, both of those organizations were, in fact, rigid, boring, stifling, and clueless. They seemed to thrive on creating obstacles for customers, rather than "solutions". I still, many years later, have a visceral reaction to the word "solution". I hate it. When I hear that word spoken by a corporate drone... I know its synonymous with boredom and apathy.

Kathy Sierra writes about this phenomenon in her most recent post.

And sadly, its even worse in education.

20/20 had a special this week called "Stupid In America". It was typical fear-mongering news hype... and yet, close to the mark. Their conclusion: traditional education is hopelessly boring and irrelevant. Unfortunately, the show chose to scapegoat teachers and their unions.

But they missed the point. Yes, most teachers (that Ive had at least) are boring, burned out, and overwhelmed. But to be fair, I think most are very well meaning. I think most STARTED their careers full of energy. I think most wanted to be good... to help... to make a difference.

But most are quickly ground down by organizations, systems, and cultures of mediocrity. Teachers who buck the rules get in trouble (no, Im not referring to myself here :) Innovators are tamed or driven out of the profession. Those who stick around tend to be conformists... the butt-lickers and rule followers. The worst of them usually graduate to administrative positions... where they institute yet more micro-management, bureaucracy, procedures. The policy manuals grow. Excellence is extinguished.

And so, when you ask students to describe their educational experience in one word, the most common response is:

Friday, January 13, 2006

Next Step: Customization

by AJ

This week I FINALLY got into a flow with my students. We've got a basic daily routine of TPR Storytelling, Textbook (unfortunately :(, Authentic articles, and Interview/Discussions. While Ive got a lot of work to do to improve my use of these techniques.. things are basically going well.

So far so good. But there's one BIG problem. This is a one-size-fits-all curriculum. Im doing exactly the same thing with all of the students. They all read the same article, do the same stories, and work through the same activities. Which is fine to a point. But...... I want the class to evolve a step further.

Here's a quote from Dennis Littky about the direction I hope to go:

"Most schools are boring and irrelevant for a great deal of students. Our underlying principle is to take one student at a time and try to help them find their passions and their interests. And then allow them to find people in the community to help them with those passions and those interests.

And so every student has their own curriculum. There is a reason why we have such a high attendance rate, why we have a low dropout rate—it's because students get to work around something that's very important to them.

We have a school where probably 98 percent of the students will talk to you about a passion they have. They will talk about loving animals and working in the zoo and doing research on penguins. Or they will talk about their love of music, and working in a music studio with a Brown professor. And then we get them to read, write, and think around that.

The students actually create products related to their passion. The students working in the music studio would create a CD of their band, or the student working in the zoo might create a proposal to the zoo staff about what kinds of habitats they need to develop in order to support the acquisitions of new animals they're considering. So, it's real products."

Im now in the perfect setting to try this approach. When at Thammasat University, I had several large classes... perhaps 150-200 total students per semester. No way I could take an individualized approach with them.

But I now have only one class of about 12 students. And I see them everyday for four hours. Its an ideal setting for a customized approach.

After reading several interviews with Littky, I think the key (for me) will be connections. Part of Littky's success is a result of the excellent volunteer mentors that work with his school. Obviously, one teacher cannot be an expert on everything. Ive got students who are interested in cooking, hip-hop dance, music, custom cars, ballet, salsa dancing. I have no expertise with any of these subjects.

What I need to do is find experts in each of these areas, recruit them as volunteers, and pair them with the appropriate students. I then need to work with the mentor & student to map out research and projects related to their interests... including a means of presenting what they learn to the rest of the class.

Will this completely replace other class activities (TPRS, articles for the whole class, etc.)? No, of course not.

But I do envision custom learning activities gradually absorbing more class time.

Love & Audacity

"Love, Energy, Audacity, and Proof. Cultivating love is really the foundation of it because, ultimately, love generates energy and love inspires audacity and love requires proof. As in, you can't just say I love you once every 30 years, you have to prove you mean it every day. But what I tried to do was turn that around and say, okay, let's make this into more of a road map for the extreme teacher."

--- Steve Farber

"Teachers should see themselves as being in the service of the people that they're teaching. You're creating the best possible environment for them to do the best possible work."

---Steve Farber

I like Farber's choice of words. He states that the foundation of leadership/teaching is love. Its a word we shy away from. It sounds too "touchy feely".

But love is the perfect word for what we need. Its the essential intangible... what makes the nuts & bolts work. To truly serve our students we must connect with the heart, not just the head. We've got to genuinely care about them as human beings. We've got to learn about them, accept them as they are, respect them as they are.

Comprehensible input is not enough.

I also like Farber's use of the word "audacity".... and really, love requires audacity. Because the traditional system is one that encourages dehumanization. We are told that to be "professional" we must be less than fully human. Supposedly, the "professional" teacher extinguishes their own emotions (or at least dampens them). The traditional teacher is encouraged to be "objective" and "rational".

But we are emotional creatures as well.... and so are our students. "Objectivity" is, in fact, a lie. Hard science now acknowledges that "objectivity" is impossible. There are no objective teachers or scientists. Every one of us is a participant. Life, and teaching, are inherently subjective experiences.

Rather than jettison a part of our humanity... we should embrace it. We need more emotion in the classroom... more caring,... a deeper and more human connection with students.

Dare to love your students and love what you are doing..... dare to challenge the factory-education system with audacity.

Lesson Plans: About.com

by AJ

About.com has a quick and easy one-stop-shop for TESOL lesson plans. In a hurry? Need a game or activity for class. Check out their extensive collection of lesson plans at: http://esl.about.com/od/englishlessonplans/

Yesterday I used one of their lesson plans called "The Guilt Game" and it was fantastic. Here's how the game works:

First you set up a situation.... There has been a crime. I told my students the following story, "Yesterday our school director found a bomb in his office. He was out of his office between 1:00 and 1:30 pm... so we suspect the bomb was planted at that time. We also believe this was the work of two people. In fact, we suspect that two students in this class did it".

Next, explain the world "alibi". Tell students they must work in pairs to create an alibi... where they were and what they were doing (together in pairs) yesterday between 1 and 1:30. The students should be creative and have fun with their alibi story... and should think of as many details as possible.

Once the student pairs have created their alibis.... they are questioned. One member of the pair leaves the room. The other students then interrogate the remaining student of the pair.... asking detailed questions about their alibi. When finished, this student leaves and his/her partner comes into the room. Students then question this partner... trying to uncover inconsistencies between the pair's stories.

My students had a great time with this.... they asked lots of detailed questions... while the "suspect" had to remember details or create them on the spot. It was good practice for using questions and the past tense in a natural and fluid way. And it was fun.

At the end of the activity, the students vote and decide "who did it" (ie. which pair had the most differences between their stories) (The students finger me!)

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Deferring to Excellence

by AJ

Ive decided to abandon my efforts to create an online course on my own. The truth is, my passion is for direct teaching... not materials development. The good news is that the world is full of great teachers who love to develop materials and courses.

So, I will focus my efforts instead on face-to-face teaching and one on one online tutoring using Tutopia. Theyve got great tools... much better than anything I could create on my own.

For cheap online self-study.... an excellent program already exists...one I highly recommend-- The Linguist. I have great respect for the Linguist approach. And at about 30-40 dollars a month... its affordable for almost anyone.

If you would like an affordable way to study English on your own... give The Linguist a try!!


by AJ

Blaine Ray lays it all out in his book, "Fluency Through TPR Storytelling". He walks you through the technique step by step. He gives lots of suggestions for maximizing the technique.

But thats been part of the challenge for me. There is so much to learn in order to use the technique at maximum effectiveness. Typically, when I focus on one aspect... I forget to do other things.

For example, Ive been focusing a lot of energy on questions and getting plenty of repetitions. Its helping. We are getting more repetitions of key vocab and grammar.

But when I began to focus on questions/repetitions, I forgot "BEP". BEP stands for Bizarre, Exaggerated, and Personal. These are the qualities that make stories fun and interesting for the students. Unfortunately, when I started to focus on questions and repetitions, I became lazy with the actual stories.... they became more normal... and thus much more boring.

I could tell by looking at my students sleepy faces that something wasnt right.

But today I solved the problem through personalization. Today's stories used one of the students as the main character. His name is Mike (his American name). But personalization requires more than using a student's name. You also need to include details about them. Mike, for example, loves custom cars. He owns a customization shop in Taiwan. So today's story also included custom cars.

The effect was immediate and powerful. Students perked up. They laughed and paid attention. They seemed to remember the story more easily.. and certainly seemed to enjoy telling it more.

When we told part 2, I added exaggeration. Mike became a hip-hop gangster in a customized car with huge speakers. I strutted around the room, pretending to be Mike.

The key to doing this is to learn about your students... learn about their hobbies, their interests, their history. Learn what they do in their free time. What do they like? What do they hate? What are they good at?

Its also important to maintain a fun and friendly attitude. Of course we should never mock our students or insult them (I always use myself as the main character if the story is humiliating or insulting... which CAN be funny to the students).

What all this boils down to is, quite simply, an attitude of fun and playfulness. Thats what I lost when I over-obsessed about getting those repetitions. To work well, TPRS should feel like PLAY, not work.

Thats its true power.... ideally, the students are having so much fun... and are so focused on the story.. that they "forget" they are learning new words and grammar. Done well, TPRS facilitates unconscious and involuntary language acquisition. The students learn and remember with no effort..... whether they want to or not!

Monday, January 09, 2006

Piecing Things Together

by AJ

Slowly piecing together a daily routine with my intensive English students. I underestimated how different this setting is from what I was doing at the University. With bigger classes, bigger rooms, and a shorter time..... I tended to use a fast and intense pace at Uni.

But the intensive program requires adjustments. Small classes. Tiny room. Long time each day... all add up to a much different kind of pacing... which I am slowly figuring out.

As it stands now, here is my "typical" (4 hour) day:

* Chit-Chat & Warm up.
Since students always wander in late (and its very disruptive if I start a highly structured activity), I usually chat with students for the first 20 minutes or so.

* Review/Practice Vocab with TPRS
For the next couple of hours, we use TPRS to practice vocab and grammar. My goal is for students to acquire 10+ new words per day. Usually these come from articles read the previous day. I write the new vocab on the board.... and we use it for TPR Storytelling the next day.

Still playing with the technique to maximize it. But all in all seems to work well and helps students cement the vocab in their brains!

* Textbook
No, I dont like textbooks... but its a job requirement (and frankly, an easy hour to plan for me). So we work through the book for about one hour each day. The book, as textbooks go, is not bad. Its a grammar book... but stays very simple, with only one major "grammar point" per chapter.

* Authentic Article
I think of authentic articles as "vocabulary growth protein".... as they are typically rich in new words and contexts. First the students read the (short) article silently. Then I read it out loud so they can hear my pronunciation. Then we discuss the new vocab. And then we discuss the article itself.

Thats it. This routine is going fairly well... but needs some tweaking. For one, Id like to add more interactive/social/speaking activities... give the students more chances to chat and share with each other.

But I must find a way around the drawbacks of pair and group work: students often sit and do nothing, or speak their native language, or do the bare minimum, or chit-chat with small talk only. Thats fine, but not of much help for language acquisition. One idea is to institute the book/film clubs I used at TU successfully... these seemed to stimulate discussion in a meaningful and interesting way.

Any other suggestions? How do you get students to interact in meaningful and energetic ways that are helpful to their language growth?

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Movie Guides for TESOL

by AJ

My friend Kristin recently sent a link for "TESOL Movie Guides". These are fantastic tools. In fact, Ive been meaning to create something like these for myself. But honestly, Im too lazy (or not detail-oriented enough) to meticulously work through an entire movie, write all the slang and vocabulary, and explain it.

Turns out I dont need to... someone else is already doing it... and they've made their movie guides available for free. These are nice supplements for the movie technique.

I recommend NOT using the guides while actually doing the movie technique. If students have the guide in front of them, they will tend to focus on it, rather than on watching the movie and listening. However, the guides are great for end of class review... and for use outside of class by the students.

In fact, they are ideal for self-study students who wish to learn English from movies.

Download the movie guides at:
English Learner Movie Guides

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Vocabulary: Don't Pre-Teach

by AJ

Ive experimented with two approaches to introducing vocabulary. One is the traditional pre-teaching method. New words are introduced to the students, they are defined & explained, and then the students practice them a bit. Finally, students read an article or passage that contains the words. The idea is that they will understand the article better because they pre-learned the vocab.

The other method Ive tried is to read an article first..... let the students encounter the new vocabulary as they read... and then discuss/explain it as we work through the story. As we do this, I write the words on the board. Once we finish the article, we return to the words on the board and practice them using TPRS.

Ive found the second method to be far superior to the traditional one. Why?

When the vocabulary is pre-taught... it may eventually help students comprehend the article. But unfortunately, pre-teaching also bores them. The words are introduced in isolation... out of context and with no compelling reason to learn them. Even when we switch to practicing them with TPR Storytelling... the words seem to come out of limbo. Students therefore seem far less interested and the words dont "stick" as well.

When they encounter the words first in an authentic article.... the students have more motivation to learn them. If the article is at all interesting.. they want to understand it. They now have a compelling reason to understand the new words... and the words are encountered in a meaningful context. When we move on to practice using TPR Storytelling, the students remember the words from the article and thus undedrstand why we are continuing to work with them. TPRS builds on their understanding... by playing with the words in slightly varied contexts the students gain a more nuanced understanding of each one.

My best advice in regards to vocabulary is to avoid pre-teaching. Forget the textbook generated vocab lists. Rather, start with authentic materials (real articles, stories, TV clips, whatever). Let students encounter new words in a meaningful context. Let THEM choose which words they want to know. Write these words as they come up..... then work with them after the article is over.

In this way, students learn vocabulary by connecting with useful and interesting content... they'll be less bored. And they will remember the vocabulary more easily.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Video Self Assessment

by AJ

Well, there is what we aspire to (see previous post on "greatness") and then there is the present reality.

I videotaped a class this week and it was fairly painful watching... this is my self-assessment:

*Shoulders hunched over much of the time... especially while seated.

* Jerky movements, feet constantly bouncing/tapping, nervous tics.

* Over-exaggerated facial expressions.. good for stories but annoying and weird at other times.

* Too much one on one questioning of students, not enough interactive activities.

* Goofy nervous laugh all the time... almost like a nervous tic.

* Nasal voice.. high and shrill (need to learn to project).

* Interrupted students too quickly and frequently.

* Way too much talking and explaining.... not nearly enough questions.

* TPRS: Need to lead the stories more by establishing the initial scenario... and also work interactively with students to create the mini-story (rather than only them or only me doing it). Not nearly enough repetition of key words/grammar.

* Overall: Much too high strung and wired.

This was a very productive exercise. While this particular class went poorly, in some ways thats more instructive than if it had gone well. I had a chance to observe myself on a bad day and really got a clear picture of my weaknesses as a teacher.

As I suspected, presentation skills need drastic work. My body language was jerky, nervous, high-strung, and at times bordered on annoying. Sometimes this sort of thing works well, when telling a funny story, for example.

But most of the time my nervous tics and jittery demeanor detracted from the lesson... weakened my message.. bored and/or distracted the students.

Voice quality is a big part of this. Mine is fairly high and shrill... especially when Im energized/excited.

Based on what I saw, Ive got several goals:

* Pay more attention to physical presentation.... ie. body language and movement.

* Work on my voice... more variation of tone and volume... and better projection.

* Lead more when using TPR Storytelling. This is also the best time for energy and exaggeration. MORE QUESTIONS!

* Slow down and calm down at other times. Speak more slowly. Move more slowly.

Ill be taping myself again in a week or two. While one videotaped observation is helpful, I think a series of tapes is better to get a complete picture.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

"Good" Sucks

by AJ

Being a "good" teacher/tutor is a lot like being described as "nice'. In many ways, the word "good" is code for mediocre. And so when a student occasionally compliments me... calls me a "good" teacher... I wince.

The last thing in the world I want to be is a goddam "good" teacher. I admit Im an ambitious bastard-- I want to be "great". I want to create passionate students. I want them to look forward to my class every day. I want them to evangelize... to bring in friends and family... to "swallow the kool aid".

Whats the point of wanting anything less? My worst nightmare is to be one of those uninspired boring drones that dominated my educational experience.

And there's the problem. I dont have many role models for greatness. Few of us do. Most, like me, have had a very long string of pathetic teachers... with the occasional "good" one now and then. Writing this, I try to remember if I had any "great" teachers.... and no one comes to mind (though my HS US government teacher came close).

There's the frustration for me.... Ive got to figure this out on my own. I have firmly hit the "good" barrier... floundering in mediocrity, and am not quite sure how to break through.

My instincts tell me to look beyond the educational field. "Education" is, lets face it, a field populated with a larger than normal share of boring conformists.

I think we can find better role models among performers, athletes, and certain types of entrepreneurs. Professional speakers and trainers are a particularly rich field..... because these folks don't eat if they dont achieve a bare minimum level of competence. When I think of the kind of teacher I hope to become.... I think of people like Tom Peters. Whatever you think of his ideas... there's no denying he's a badass speaker who inspires passion.. who connects both intellectually AND emotionally.

Some politicians have this mojo too. Certain actors have it.

We, as teachers, can develop it too. Dont we owe it to our students to at least try? To at least strive for a modicum of excellence? To go beyond tired lectures..... and textbooks by the numbers?

In education we are fond of berating our students to "try harder", "take responsibility".... blah, blah, blah... but how many teachers follow this advice to its natural conclusions.

If I have a broad, overarching goal for 2006... this is it-- Greatness!