Effortless English Archives

Automatic English For The People

Friday, March 31, 2006


by AJ

In my failed attempts at various languages, Ive learned at least one thing-- the importance of repetition and review. Its an easy lesson to miss, as a native language teacher. When teaching English, naturally the language seems easy to me. Of course we all know its more difficult for the students and try to adjust. But usually, we underestimate the difficulty.

We dont review enough. We dont repeat enough. Im trying hard to correct this mistake. In my experience, you cant do this too much. Reread the same passages a few times. Listen to the same movie scene 4,5,6,10 times (not necessarily during the same day). In the morning, review yesterdays vocab/grammar before moving on. Do this everyday... make it a ritual. Students need to hear, understand, read, and use new words/grammar 30-50 times in order to acquire them. Thirty to fifty.

Are your students getting that level of repetition?

San Francisco, CA


by AJ

Have finally decided to get out of the school. Next week my graduate class will meet in a restaurant, where we will make informal presentations. If it goes well (and I see no reason why it wont).. I may make restaurants and cafes the default location for the class for the rest of the semester. Why didnt I do this earlier?

Its a great idea to beautify ones school. But lacking the money and authority to do this is no excuse. If the school is ugly, its a simple thing to use other spaces in the community. Coffee shops are ideal, especially at non-peak times. Theres no law of nature that commands us to be stuck in ugly sealed rooms.

Change locales and do so often.... its a very simple way to keep students fresh, awake, and stimulated.

San Francisco, CA


by AJ

In my current class Ive got:
A film director, several musicians (singer, piano players), and several artists.

As I crunched through my normal lesson yesterday, it struck me that all this talent is going to waste in my class. Ive got a room full of creatives but we arent doing anything creative. How to remedy this situation?

One of our newest students.. the film director... sparked an idea. I think I may start a film club. This seems natural, as I love movies and often use them for teaching. The club might watch films... but we'd focus on the director's techniques rather than the nuts and bolts of English. But the true purpose of the club would be to CREATE short films... using a video camera and computer editing software. Ideally, students would create a concept, write the script, pick settings, film the video, act in the video, choose or create music for it, edit it, and finally burn it to DVD and distribute it (perhaps to other students, as well as friends and family back home).

Im gonna run this by the students next week.... especially the ones who I think might be interested.

San Francisco, CA

Wednesday, March 29, 2006


by AJ

From Kathy Sierra

Management matters! As much as Id like to ignore all administrators, reality dictates that I cannot. The simple truth is, bad management can easily destroy good teaching. In fact, Id say this is the norm. Most bad schools (and most are indeed bad) are bad not because of their teachers, but because of their management. Its the management that destroys enthusiasm. Its management that crushes innovation. Its management that drives out great teachers. Its management that fosters burnout.

Most (not all) teachers want to do a good job. Many begin their jobs full of energy. Most care about their students, at least to some degree. Given support, encouragement,.... and good management, they will thrive.

But, unfortunately, most school managers are firmly stuck in the Manager 1.0 mode outlined by Sierra. Most managers dictate decisions, rather than arrive at them WITH teachers. Most managers keep information from teachers... rare is the school that shares revenue info, marketing strategy, and other organizational "secrets". Most school managers approach can be summed up with the phrase "responsibility without authority". Thats the position most teachers find themselves in. I consider it the job equivalent of "taxation without representation"... and an equally good cause for revolution.

Teachers are responisble for doing a great job. They are responsible for helping students learn... and for improving their performance. But they dont have the authority to do what needs to be done. They cant make curriculum decisions. They cant change policies. They must constantly ask permission to make changes.

Thats a very stressful position to be in. No wonder burnout is high. No wonder turnover is high. No wonder the public schools are so strongly unionized.

All of this is of more than academic interest to me, as I plan to open my own school some day. When I do, I plan to point my school's teachers to this blog, and these words.... so that, if I become a controlling dickhead, they can throw them back in my face!

My idea of good management agrees with Sierra's:

*Catch them doing something RIGHT!
*Dont try to control people... UNLEASH THEM!
*Profit sharing. When things are good, share the wealth with those who are doing the work.
*Emphasis on community; but individuals given autonomy, responsibility, AND authority.
*Peer review, community brainstorming and decision making.
*Hire passionate, curious, constant learners... not degrees or "qualifications".
*Recruit top talent, like a GM for a professional sports team.
*Cut loose burnouts, clock punchers, and devils advocates... whatever their "qualifications".
*Draw students into management and management decisions.

San Francisco, CA

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Cheesy vs. Cool

by AJ

We've been watching the movie "Hitch" in my class. Ive found it to be a goldmine for conversation topics. Each day we usually watch one or two scenes (multiple times, with/without subtitles, with explanations, etc.). Once we've thoroughly digested and understood the scenes, we have a discussion about a topic related to what we watched.

This is a great movie for that purpose. It addresses themes that all of my students find interesting: dating and gender relationships. Its funny. Its got plenty of useful everyday conversational English.

Today's scene involved flirting in a bar. There was a beautiful woman sitting alone. First a cheesy guy tried to hit on her. He tried various lame lines, and refused to take her polite refusals. Next, the hero of the story (Will Smith) hit on her. He did so in a very smooth way. This scene gave great examples of how to use indirect language in order to be polite or smooth (vs. the goofy effect of being too direct or insincere).

Once we learned and acquired the language, we had a discussion about "cheesy guys". Everyone discussed their experiences with cheesy guys: encounters, observations, cheesy guys compared to cool/good guys, etc.

The discussion was lively and fun... and went overtime... so we must continue it tomorrow.

For those teachers who use the movie technique in class.. I highly recommend "Hitch".

San Francisco, CA

Monday, March 27, 2006

Having Fun with Spanish

by AJ

Ive increased my daily Spanish intake to about an hour a day. Im having a very good time learning this time, here's my usual daily activity:

Wake up in the morning and turn on a Spanish audiobook. Im using three, interchangeably: Patricia Va a California (TPRS), Casi Se Muere (TPRS), and Las Puertas Retorcidas.

Ive read through these books and have made flashcards of problematic phrases.. ones I have trouble hearing or remembering. Taking Steve Kaufman's advice, Im focusing on learning phrases rather than trying to memorize individual words. Phrases, after all, are chunks of functional language. They contain a great deal of grammar information, and are the speedier approach to learning vocab.

After work, I carry my ipod wherever I go. When I walk around town, I listen to the audiobooks. Sometimes I mutter the sentences to myself, but mostly I focus on listening and understanding.

I do this whenever I have free time during the afternoon and evening-- walking, grocery shopping, and at the gym.

At night, I put on one of the audiobooks-- and listen until I go to sleep.

Pretty simple really, and enjoyable. With repetition, the audiobooks are becoming more comprehensible. More importantly, key phrases are starting to sink in. I find them popping up in my head without effort. This is the phenomenon that J. Marvin Brown talked about-- with his Listen First (also known as ALG) program.

I studied Thai in a Listen First (ALG) program, at the AUA school in Bangkok, but only rarely experienced this effortless language phenomenon. Of course Thai is not closely related to English-- so that may be one reason. But there are others. For one, there was not enough repetition at AUA. Im listening to the same three (Spanish) audiobooks over and over and over and over. Ive probably listened to "Patricia Va a California" more than 25 times. Each time I understand more and I understand faster.

Another problem at AUA-- they did not teach reading (only at advanced levels). This, I believe, is a mistake. Im seeing that reading and listening combined have a synergistic effect... they complement each other and boost language acquisition. Reading makes listening more effective, because when reading you can go very slowly, and can identify words, phrases, and overall meaning at your own pace. Reading is also a powerful way to build vocabulary. Krashen, TPRS and The Linguist all advocate a combined listening and reading approach. I agree wholeheartedly.

San Francisco, CA


by AJ

Looks like Ill be attending the California TESOL conference in San Francisco this year. The conference runs from April 6-9th.

Some of the sessions I hope to attend include:

Sy Salerian, USF

Angel Chan, Biola University

Ann Campsey, Studies in American Language SJSU
Cassie Piotrowski, Studies in American Language SJSU

Carolyne Crolotte, University of California, Davis

Elizabeth Kuizenga Romijn,

Catherine Nameth, Soka University of America

Camille Hoffman, Elisa Shore - City College of San Francisco

Marian Thacher

Lori Cheeves, New Haven Adult School

Anne Siebert, Cleveland Adult Education

Larry Statan , Elizabeth Hanson-Smith, Elizabeth Kuizenga Romijn,

Don Curtis, Oakland Adult Education
Gaylynne Hudson, Oakland Adult Education
Tom Kennedy, San Francisco Unified School District

Ronna Magy, J. Quinn Harmon-Kelley - LAUSD

Shoshana Bianchi, ECIW - Mills College and College of San Mateo

Barbara Jonckheere, American Language Institute, California
State University, Long Beach

Patricia Kilroe, EF International School

Kathleen Slattery, Alan McEwen - Salinas Adult School

Raymond Clark, Pro Lingua Associates

Sarah Walsh, Studies in American Language/SJSU

Ronna Timpa, Workplace ESL Solutions

Kira Burns, Wanvisa Wattanadumrong - San Francisco State

Sarah Gitter, Santa Clara Adult Education
Susan Bremond, Metropolitan Adult Education Program
Patrice Tardif, Director of Programs, Hands On Bay Area;

VIGEST APPROACH (Visuals & Gestures)
Chau Nguyen, City College of San Franciso

San Francisco, CA

Saturday, March 25, 2006


by AJ

Call it an intuition...

I have a vague feeling that I ought to get involved with podcasting. Cant think of many clear rational reasons for why.. just have the feeling that there's great potential there and I should start playing around with it.

One reason Im thinking of this is because of one of my students. She recently told me that she records my classes with her MP3, then re-listens to them everyday (the whole thing!). That sparked a thought-- I could use podcasts as easy review archives for my students. (Motivated) students who missed class could use the podcasts too.

So Ill give it another try. This time Ill use an effortless approach. In other words, I want to be lazy and take as little time as necessary to do this.

I think Ill record the movie technique portion of my class each day... using my computer. I wont record the whole discussion, just the explanations of the scene(s). If that proves too edit-intensive, I might switch to recording our reading sessions.

The audio files will be hosted at:

The Ourmedia Effortless English Page

If anyone has ideas on how to make podcasting easier/lazier... please leave your suggestions in the comments!

San Francisco, CA

School Design Blog

by AJ

Just found a blog dedicated to my pet peeve subject: school design. Yes, there are professional designers out there whose sole focus is the creation of fabulous learning spaces.

Check out Think Lab for more....

San Francisco, CA

Friday, March 24, 2006

More First

"I am a longtime fan of travel services superstar Hal Rosenbluth's idea-philosophy, captured in a book he coauthored: The Customer Comes Second. That is, if you really want to "put the customer first," put the people who serve the customer "more first."

--Tom Peters

Lately, Ive come to realize that teaching is a demanding job! I should say GOOD teaching is a demanding job. Great teaching demands energy, enthusiasm, persistence, emotion, dedication, constant reflection, constant experimentation, constant improvement.

Teachers continually encounter challenges. Every class has "difficult" students. Every class and every student is different. A great teacher must know these students intimately, and must address both their linguistic and emotional needs.

Perhaps more than any other organization, schools rely on their teachers. For the most part, students evaluate a school based on the quality of the teaching. Teachers are on the front line... it is they who ultimately determine the success of a program.

Given the primary importance of teachers to a school, and the very demanding (intellectually, emotionally, even physically) nature of teaching.... youd think most schools would go out of their way to support teachers in every way possible.

Youd think theyd take Tom Peters advice, and make teachers "More First"! But, alas, most schools dont. Rather, they pile on the annoyances, bullshit, tedium, rules, and complaints. Rather than encourage, they nit-pick. The average manager is perpetually looking to accent whats wrong while ignoring whats good.

This system reaches its worst depths in public schools. How do people teach in public schools? Id rather be tortured in Abu Ghraib than endure the American public school system. {Perhaps this is why My public school teachers were so mediocre.. the passionate ones are quickly driven out}.

Right down in the dregs with American public schools are the various "language schools" in Asia (especially Korea and Japan). The average one hires inexperienced, enthusiastic but clueless graduates from North America (sometimes the UK). These poor bastards are then subjected to brutal teaching hours, micromanagement, and bizarre teaching approaches-- at best! At worst they are cheated, intimidated, and otherwise made miserable. Im sure there are exceptions.. but Ive never encountered them.

I suppose all this is fine if your aim is to a) deliberately create a mediocre system (ie. American public schools) or b) make quick cash through smoke and mirrors marketing (the Asian language school approach).

But there may be another way. For example, the "its just business" argument doesnt hold. Some businesses, as Tom Peters points out, thrive by offering superior services. Some aim for long term success and maximum profits by positioning themselves as the highest quality, most innovative choice in their market.

And some recognize that, in the end, it always comes down to the front line employees. If they are happy, passionate, engaged, gung ho..... they will make the business thrive. They are the ones who will "create passionate users". They are the ones who will form connections and relationships. They are the ones who inspire word of mouth.

Im fond of saying "students must come first". But maybe Tom Peters is right. Maybe, to serve students well... to be great... we must make teachers come "more first".

San Francisco, CA


by AJ

"A Westerner visiting or living in Japan who will only eat "meat and potatoes" and does not enjoy sushi will usually not be successful in learning Japanese. Similarly, Japanese people who will only travel abroad in groups and will only eat familiar foods are unlikely to be successful in learning other foreign languages, no matter how much time they spend trying. Learning a language is like traveling. Both activities are an adventure.

--Steve Kaufman

I bought Steve Kaufman's book and have been reading it this week. I bought it for my own language learning, as Im still determined to learn Spanish. As I read through the book, I continually recognize mistakes I have made in the past... mistakes that limited my learning.

The BIGGEST mistake was, in fact, a focus on language mechanics. Despite my views on teaching English, when studying a language I always seemed to obsess over the linguistic factors. Like many of my frustrated students, I also obsessed over accuracy. I felt self-conscious about my pronunciation and grammar-- which tended to inhibit my willingness to communicate.

But Im an enthusiastic traveler. I love to sample new foods, meet new people, try new things. Problem is, I never brought this attitude to language learning. Trained by years of school, I viewed language as a "serious subject" requiring "hard work".

Im trying to change that now. Ive been asking myself the same questions Ive been asking my students-- what about Central/South American culture interests me? Where would I like to travel?

Ive come up with quite a few things. Im interested in salsa music and salsa dancing. Id love to read "The Motorcycle Diaries", and other books by Che, in Spanish. Id love to read Pablo Neruda in Spanish. Im interested in the food of each country in the region. I find professional "futbol" to be very interesting.

In fact, what Id really love to do is recreate a bit of Che's trip-- buy a motorcycle and cruise around South America.

Learning the past tense in Spanish doesnt excite me... but engaging the cultures of C/S. America does.

And so Im trying, as quickly as possible, to master the beginner readers Im currently working on. Ive upped my listening to 60-90 minutes a day. Im excited to master these materials now, because they are the key to more interesting content.

Which brings me back to teaching. Perhaps the best service I could provide for my students is to help them connect with American culture-- help them nurture interests and relationships.

San Francisco, CA


by AJ

Yesterday I had a conversation with the best student in my class. By "best", I mean the one who is progressing most quickly. She is, in fact, zooming ahead of everyone else.... learning very very quickly.

At one point in the conversation, we talked about her life here in the US. Her eyes lit up, and with a huge grin she said, "I love America!".

And there it is. THE key factor. More than method or approach or any other factor. She's learning English quickly because she loves America.

Students who are motivated by love find a way. They are not content with classroom instruction. They are not content with passing tests. They are DRIVEN by a powerful desire to communicate. And they are driven by a desire to know the CULTURE, not just the language.

While the grammar-drill-translation method is slower and more painful, I have no doubt that such a student could succeed even with this approach.

By contrast, the "worst" students in my class...... the ones who are barely improving... show no interest in American culture. I ask them why they came to San Francisco and they say "to improve English". I ask them, "What aspects of American culture do you like?",... and they have no answer.

Now, I can relate to that answer :) but I also cant help but wonder why they are bothering at all. Because they have no connection with the culture, English learning is one long chore for them. Because they have no interest in the culture, all of their focus is on language mechanics. These are the people who monitor everything they say, determined to speak with "perfect grammatical accuracy". Problem is, when you do that, you dont end up saying very much.

LOVE, for the target culture, is THE best guarantee of success. I think it should be a prerequisite for entering any language course above the beginning level. Those without it are wasting their time. Most likely, they will go home and never use English again. So whats the point of all that money spent, time wasted, and energy squandered? Imagine what theyd accomplish if they focused, instead, on something they were truly interested in.

San Francisco, CA

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Wangsta, Beyonce, Youth

by AJ

When stuck... hopelessly out of ideas... frazzled.. the best course of action is to find new blood.

This week, I did just that. Im fortunate to have an observer in class this week.. someone who is interested in becoming a language teacher. Yesterday, he led a tongue-twister activity. Today, he helped me explain a Beyonce song (that one of the students brought in).

Students get sick of me, and the same old routine. And Im not too fond of routine either. So it helps to break things up sometimes... let a student or outsider lead the class.

Today we had great fun deciphering a hip-hop song... which was chock full of slang. Its not something Id do everyday... but it was a great change of pace today. We discussed hip-hop culture, dance club etiquette, American dating customs, and other issues related to the song. All in all, lots of fun... and they learned a good amount of (standard English) vocab/phrases too.

I wish I could do this more often.

As a social worker, I did this all the time because our agency always had interns. They always had fun/strange ideas, and tons of energy. And so, whenever I got stuck, Id invite them to my group and let them lead it... encouraged them to try anything they wanted to. They got experience & feedback (from me and the group members), the group got a fresh perspective, and I got new ideas. Everyone won.

In fact, I started at that agency as a gung-ho intern. Oblivious to "my proper role", I took on every project I could get my hands on. The agency got a berserk worker for free. I got valuable experience, and a job upon graduation.

We should do this more often with teaching. Experience is generally useful. Overall, an experienced teacher probably does a better job than a first timer. But experience can lead to routine and boredom. Innovation often comes from those who dont know "how things are done"... people clueless enough to try anything. They are the dynamos of creativity. We need them as much as we need experience.

I liken the situation to a Championship (American) Football team. Most great teams have a mix of tough veterans and energetic youngsters. The veterans provide leadership, vision, and demanding standards. They are graceful under pressure. Decision makers & problem solvers. The youth provide raw talent, boundless enthusiasm, audacity, energy, and ferocity. Properly balanced, experience and inexperience are unstoppable.

Too much emphasis is placed on teaching experience. A great many "experienced" teachers are, in fact, boring burnouts. Likewise, "qualifications" rarely translate into excellence. Many schools would benefit by adding more youth and artistry into their teaching mix. Why not hire an art school graduate for the next open position? Team her up with a veteran mentor, to help her learn the TESOL ropes... but turn her loose to try any/every off the wall idea that comes into her head.

Contrary to the cliche about "age & wisdom", I find that enthusiasm and persistence beat experience every time.

San Francisco, CA

The Tao of Steve (Kaufman)

by AJ

"To my mind, food and language are the most enjoyable and accessible features of a culture, and in my mind they are closely connected."

--Steve Kaufman

There's something to the above statement, more than meets the eye. Ive noticed, for example, that my students speak more, remember more, and are more engaged OUTSIDE of class.. in a social setting. The typical setting Im talking about is a coffee shop, a restaurant, or a bar.

For example, last week I took two students thrift store shopping. During the afternoon, we hit a couple cheap stores. Afterwards, we decided to go to a bar. We found a cozy pub, ordered some cocktails, and relaxed. Two of my (American) friends joined us, and one student called and invited one of her friends.

We had a great time, sitting and chatting. For HOURS. Eventually we left the bar, but no one wanted to go home. So we headed to a restaurant in the Mission and continued our conversations.

I couldnt help but notice how relaxed and effortless the students communication was. There was no forced speech. No attempt to "stay on topic". Of course the alcohol helped later in the evening (a topic for another post)... but the key distinction was setting.

Food, drink, and conversation naturally go together. Id be surprised to find any modern culture in which this is not the case. Its almost a universal... people love to chat over food & drinks.

Why dont we take advantage of this? Why not hold most classes in cafes, coffee shops, and bars. I know of a few cool gradutate professors who do exactly that-- if they can do it, so can we.

Another alternative is to turn the school into a cafe/pub. Serve drinks and snacks. Rework the decor-- real wood tables, chairs, and wall trim. Low lights (with, perhaps, a light focused on a board). Instrumental background music. Close, intimate seating. And plenty of time for unstructured conversation... with the teacher, perhaps, starting with a topic question.. but then letting things go where they may.... stopping occasionally to explain phrases & other language points AS NEEDED. Beginning classes, of course, would demand more structured time.. but the relaxed, chatty vibe could still hold.

For focus, certain days/times could be set aside for "book clubs", "film clubs", "music clubs", "current events clubs", etc... These clubs would be open to native speaker volunteers as well as students... and could employ a variety of authentic materials as conversation starters.

Lacking the ability to create such a place, I instead plan to utilize existing places. Id like to start by holding class in a coffee shop one day per week. Maybe every Monday. That day will be devoted to "Book Club" plus discussion. The idea is that we'd gather to read a class book together & discuss it, perhaps for the first hour or so. Ideally Id also like to add a book circle in which each student presented a different book theyd read. This worked great at Thammasat,.. but many of my current students are considerably less diligent than those I had at TU. Still,.. might give it a try.

San Francisco, CA

Tuesday, March 21, 2006


by AJ

Whatever the state of my various students, I find that I still have plenty of energy and passion.... and have decided its time to channel them to the pursuits that always inspire me: learning & travel.

Recently, I started learning Spanish again. I havent done much.. maybe 20 minutes a day. I got to thinking about that... about why I found it hard to do more. I realized that language, per se, provided little inspiration. What fires my passion is learning about different cultures, tasting different food, meeting different people. While many have noted I could "use Spanish" in San Francisco (and theyre right)... that just isnt the same as going to a new country to use it.

And so I got on expedia.com today and started pricing tickets to Mexico City!! Only 422 dollars for a rountrip flight from San Francisco!

Ive travelled many times to Asia, but never to Mexico.. never to Latin America. Yet its so easy to do. Hell, I could hitch-hike there, or take a bus, should I decide to quit my job.

We have a limited amount of time. Why spend our lives in dour boredom? Why walk around depressed all the time? Why shuffle along, doing whats expected... never confronting the wild joys, the terror, the awe, the wonder... never embarking on the great journeys?

Some people, and you know the type, walk into a room and immediately the energy level drops. They are like psychic vampires... agents of doom. I have no time for such people.

Give me the passionate ones, the odd ones. I love the ones with fire in their eyes and belly...... The mad ones (as Kerouac once wrote).

And so I dream of the road and sky.

And linger over maps of the world.

Remembering that I am human first..... that teaching is a job.

Life is calling..........

San Francisco, CA

Monday, March 20, 2006


by AJ

"One of the best ways to be truly creative--breakthrough creative--is to be forced to go fast. Really, really, really fast. From the brain's perspective, it makes sense that extreme speed can unlock creativity. When forced to come up with something under extreme time constraints, we're forced to rely on the more intuitive, subconscious parts of our brain. The time pressure can help suppress the logical/rational/critical parts of your brain. It helps you EQ up subconscious creativity (so-called "right brain") and EQ down conscious thought ("left brain").

--Kathy Sierra (who else:)

The above quote explains why my "speed dating" activity seems to work so well. I put students on a timer, and tell them to talk as quickly as possible about a given topic... for 30 seconds, a minute, whatever. Once that clock starts, I jump around the room yelling "faster, faster, faster... DO NOT STOP TALKING!!!!!!"

And, usually, they dont. In fact, they talk like crazy. The shy ones. The outgoing ones. The ones who NEVER speak. They all start babbling away. The speed and chaos of the exercise shuts down their logical worrying analytical brain. No time to monitor. No time to worry about grammar rules.

This exercise taught me that almost every student (above the beginner level) is capable of communication. Its not lack of knowledge that keeps them from doing so. Its not a lack of grammar or vocabulary. Its what Krashen calls "the monitor".. that analytical part of the brain that pre-thinks everything. Bypass that, and each students fluency makes an ungodly jump-- truly surprising in many cases.

The same principle applies to teaching. Perhaps the worst effect of overplanning is that it destroys creativity. There are advantages to improvisation. Forced to think quickly, you sometimes come up with surprisingly interesting solutions... which you'd never have thought of if youd planned every detail.

Maybe we should make more use of speed... for our students and ourselves. Maybe we should put more time pressures on students... especially when they're writing or speaking. Dont give them time to panic or worry. "Write a one page essay about your family, you have three minutes to finish,... GO!" [Like any good writer, you can edit this first draft later].

And maybe we could try the same when creating lessons. Set your alarm for five minutes... thats all the time you get to create a new lesson. Hit the button and GO! Better yet, give yourself 10 minutes to create as many interesting lessons as you can in that short time. Have contests during staff meetings... see who can generate the most ideas in that short time.. and who can generate the most interesting ones. Then everyone picks their two best and teaches them that same day (or the next day). Everyone comes back the next day to discuss the results. This could be a regular event.

San Francisco, CA

TESOL Reality TV

by AJ

Ive got an idea for a reality TV show: Take 10 EFL students. Put each one in a home with a middle-American family. Enroll them in an American school. Put them in a town with absolutely NO foreign language speakers.

Give their American family, teachers, and classmates the following "rules"-- do nothing unless the contestant directly asks for it. In other words, no food unless they ask for food. You get the idea.

Meanwhile, 10 other EFL students are enrolled in a traditional language class. They study with a textbook. They do communication drills. They take lots of standardized tests.

At the end of the show, we throw all 20 students into various real-life communication challenges and see who performs best (ie. job interviews, meeting people in a bar, academic discussions, etc..).

The first situation, roughly, is the situation small children find themselves in. Small kids,... even babies.. have no choice. They MUST communicate. They may do so by crying. Or with hand signals. Or with broken English. But communicate they do.

Its an ideal language lab. Kids dont need to memorize vocabulary or study grammar. Their total focus is on communicating in order to get what they want. They dont think about language... they think about desires and USE language to satisfy them.

We train EFL students in exactly the opposite way. We condition them to focus solely on language... while communicating and satisfying needs remains a far-off mirage.. something to be done once the language is completely mastered. Not surprisingly, most students never reach that point. Most foreign language students never use the language for authentic communication..... they leave school... and gradually forget anything they learned. Its a lot like advanced algebra, unless you use it for your job, you forget it.

Clearly, we've got it ass-backwards. Intricate grammar distinctions are for highly advanced speakers only (some NATIVE speakers have no need for such language). COMMUNICATION is key. And not just any kind of communication. The most powerful, the kind that most powerfully catalyzes acquisition, is problem solving communication. In other words, communicating to get what you need/want/desire.

In Thailand, I quickly learned "taxi Thai". Why? Because I needed it. I needed to get around the city. I needed to get home quickly and easily. I picked up the necessary language rapidly.

I didnt learn conversational Thai... despite some study and classes. Why? Because I didnt need it to get what I wanted. I had plenty of English speaking friends. Bangkok was also full of English speakers. Conversational Thai was an academic goal of mine, but I found it easy to get what I wanted without it. And so, those classes never really stuck.

Passivity and inauthentic language are perhaps the two worst problems with language education...

Increasingly Im convinced-- we must find a way to restructure language education. Part of that restructuring will involve moving beyond the classroom... to put students into situations in which they must use the target language to satisfy their desires. Within the class, we also need to develop more skillful simulations.... simulations that use puzzles, problems, challenges, etc, that can only be solved by understanding target language messages.. and responding appropriately to them.

To do this, we must abandon our idiotic academic metaphors. Academia is a piss-poor model for language education. Sports offer a far better model. For sports, like language, are most concerned with the USE of acquired ability.. in high-stakes situations.

Good coaches have one overriding goal: prepare their players for games. When they design practices, they aim, as much as possible, to recreate game conditions. Coaches dont give players a standardized test to evaluate them. They watch them. They scrimmage them. They test them in game-like conditions. Once players have advanced beyond a certain level, the coach may increase the "reality" of practice sessions... adding crowd noise, ticking clocks, and other stress inducers... all designed to help the players handle pressure calmly.

For a coach, the ultimate "test" is game performance-- how the player performs in a real game.

This should be our ultimate measure. How about this for a "final exam": Each student must go to a bar, strike up a conversation with a native speaker, and keep that conversation going for an hour. An evaluater tags along, perhaps with a microphone, to observe.

Obviously, thats a high-stakes, high-stress "test". Its therefore up to the teacher to prepare the student-- not only at a linguistic level... but also emotionally... to build their confidence and their performance under pressure. Its also up to the teacher to build a supportive "team"-- so that students help each other prepare, grow more confident, and perform at a higher level.

And just imagine if teachers were held to the brutally tough standards that coaches are. Coaches are routinely fired if their players fail to perform well in games. Shouldnt teachers be subjected to the same standard? Are "high standards" something we impose on students only.. and measure solely with standardized tests?

Id like to see teachers treated more like coaches. A few "losing seasons" and you're out. If your students routinely fail to thrive in authentic situations-- you get the axe.

And the same goes for administrators... and other staff. All evaluated according to the real-life performance of their students.

San Francisco, CA

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Our Ultimate Goal

by AJ

"Many people give up on learning after they leave school because thirteen or twenty years of extrinsically motivated education is still a source of unpleasant memories. Their attention has been manipulated long enough from the outside by textbooks and teachers, and they have counted graduation as the first day of freedom."

--Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

And who can blame them. I felt that same sense of freedom when I graduated High School. "Thank God!!", I yelled, "Im finally free". For me, school was a prison. A regimented horror. And to think, I was a "good student". I can only imagine how the "bad" students felt.

Traditional school traumatizes students. "Trauma", by the way, is the exact word used by a Japanese girl I once knew. She learned English from movies and listening.. and spoke very well. The mention of "class", however, produced a visceral reaction. She became quite emotional and relayed stories of humiliation and boredom. In "class", she was a failure. In "class", she was "terrible at English". Only outside of class was she eventually able to acquire English.. to undo the trauma of traditional education.

Its a common story. I see it ALL the time. Indeed, I sometimes feel Ive returned to my old job as a social worker. My greatest challenges nowadays seem to be emotional-- the trauma, the low confidence, the fear of risk, the paralysis of analysis... these are the primary obstacles my students face. These are the factors which inhibit their progress. They know plenty of grammar and a good deal of vocabulary. But traditional school has ruined them.

My job is to undo 15+ years of regimented education. NOT an easy task. It takes persistence. It takes great energy. This task also requires a light touch and a sense of humor.

Humor and fun and authentic materials are my best weapons. Im a bit of a clown in class... on purpose. I try hard to break the "teacher as authority" mentality. I try hard to relax my students.

And I constantly attack the beliefs instilled in them by their traditional teachers. I constantly criticize grammar-translation, minimize the importance of grammar, and joke about the "boring textbook". Of course I know that grammar is a part of language learning... but it is not the goddam "holy grail" that most of my students think it to be. Grammar has its place, but its certainly not the most important element of language learning.

We do a lot of "process discussion" in my classes... as another way to undermine traditional education. We discuss their learning experiences past and present. We discuss various study and learning methods... their advantages and problems. We discuss whats happening in class, whats working, whats not, why I do certain things, why I dont do certain things.

I tease my more confident students, playfully... and encourage them to do likewise. At our school, we are developing social activities.. everything from ping-pong tournaments to thrift store shopping trips.

And... ever so slowly... its working. The trauma eases. They learn to smile in class... to relax... and possibly, even to have fun. They learn to forget those old failures. They learn to forget the error-corrections, the bad test scores, the regimentation and rules, the ridiculous demands. They learn, bit by bit, to enjoy themselves.

And if I do my job well, they may even learn to enjoy learning again... to see learning as a lifelong journey of discovery... rather than a numeric goal or extrinsic hurdle to jump.

That, at least, is my ultimate goal as a teacher.

San Francisco, CA

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Release Cycles

by AJ

"Skyler's comment about how myspace keeps changing and growing organically, almost every day, is a passionate user's view of what the developer's call quick release cycles. Where software developers are typically on release cycles of 6 months to a year, the Threadless guys said that even two weeks was a little long. In fact, virtually all of the web 2.0-ish folks at the conference mentioned these quick release cycles as crucial.

There are a ton of issues, obviously, like what happens when a new release breaks something that previously worked. The Threadless guys said that happens, but only rarely, and they just do a rollback. Skyler said she's seen things break on myspace, but nobody seems to care much since they know it'll probably be fixed tomorrow."

--Kathy Sierra

I like the metaphor of "release cycles". I have the same view towards curriculum cycles. Most schools seem to change their curriculum infrequently. Occasionally, they may do a curriculum review-- typically a bureaucratic committee that plods ever-so-slowly towards a set of recommendations. These suggestions are then debated, modified, argued... till finally a new curriculum (or policy manual) results.

I tend to think of my curriculum as fluid... something I change constantly. I rarely go three weeks without tossing something out, adding something, or experimenting with something. Its in constant flux.

This approach, it turns out, beats the "change by committee" approach by a wide margin. Quick release cycles produce faster innovation. They allow for more field-testing. And field-testing is the way to go. In fact, I have no patience whatsoever for debates. Its a damn waste of time to debate the merits of a particular idea. Just try it, for goddsake, and youll know immediately whether it works or doesnt. Dont let the paralysis of analysis slow you down.

Theres another benefit to quick release cycles-- change is interesting. Students like it. They get bored with doing the same old thing every day. Some ideas might bomb, but its easy to discard them. And, as Sierra notes, sometimes you may break something that was working great. No problem, just rollback (ie. start using it again).

The biggest issue I have with traditional education has nothing to do with curriculum. My biggest beef is with the PROCESSES they use. Typically, they are slow, cumbersome, risk-averse, authority-driven processes.

Not surprisingly, cumbersome & unimaginative processes usually lead to boring and ineffectice practices. I have no doubt that teachers in such organizations are as smart as those in more effective schools. I have no doubt they could be just as creative, if given the right environment.

But traditional schools squash their creativity. They drain their energy with a thousand-and-one regulations. They sap their motivation with "catch them doing something wrong" management. They saddle them with big classes and dreary classrooms. They bind them with rigid syllabi... with standardized tests... with grades.

Very few teachers can be remarkable in such an evironment-- the school's processes are aligned against them.

The good news: none of this is necessary. As countless companies prove-- it is possible to be fairly large AND innovative. It takes committment. It takes a maverick leader (or organzied staff)... but its possible.

The best advice I have to offer to teachers is this: Shorten your release cycles. Try more and try it more quickly.

San Francisco, CA

Role Playing Games

by AJ

As I brainstorm ideas for creating (in Aaron's words) "addictive language play"... I cast around for metaphors, examples, connections.

As I do so, I remember my adolescence... in which I spent a great deal of time playing role playing games (such as Dungeons and Dragons). It struck me-- these games are excellent language labs. The games involve the same sorts of stories, puzzles, and engagement found in video games. However, they have bigger advantages: they are also highly interactive... and they require constant verbal interaction. Role playing games are essentially language games. While dice or figurines may be used, most of the action is conveyed through language... and happens in the imagination.

My question: could such games be adapted for foreign language learning? Could they be simplified? Might we, for example, model initial games on "choose your own adventure" books? Might we create scenarios that more closely mimic the everyday situations students will encounter in the "real world"?

I think this is certainly possible... but another challenge comes to mind-- Would students respond? Role playing games demand a certain amount of imagination and a lack of inhibition. Would my adult students respond? Can I design a scenario that would pull them in and lessen their inhibitions?

My guess is yes. But I also guess that students would need to be eased into such a different approach. Initial tries would need to be highly structured, I imagine... In fact, "choose your own adventure" books might be an excellent first step. Students, individually or in groups, could each work through the book once.... then discuss the choices they made and the results.

The point is to move towards a classroom experience dominated by experimentation and "addictive language play". Students might reference grammar texts & dictionaries during such play... in order to advance through problems,.. but their focus would be on storytelling and interactive problem solving (ie. authentic communication). Properly designed, such games would teach vocabulary/grammar in a covert, highly contextualized, meaningful way.

The only problem (from a teacher's perspective): Sounds like a lot of work!

San Francisco, CA

Art Budget

by AJ

Re: the last post-- I recently emailed a Jim Trelease article to our school director-- the one about using rain gutters to create in-class browsing libraries. He loved the idea and so we may, in the future, give this a try. I also suggested that he give each teacher an "art budget" to use for classroom beautification. He's considering that idea as well.

Im blessed to work at a school that is open to such ideas [kudos to our director, who has built a successful school very quickly]. And Im blessed to work in a school that is gradually becoming more beautiful. Our director is continuously making improvements. This week, for example, he bought a huge curved couch for our TV/Theater room. Its hard to explain, but that couch transformed the rooms feeling. It is now a place thats conducive to large gatherings. 8-10 folks can squeeze in cozily... all with great views of the (large screen) TV. Its made a big difference with our movie-technique sessions.

We've also got a ping-pong table and now have weekly tournaments, every Wednesday. This was my director's idea, and its worked great. Rather than bolt out the door, lots of students now stick around to socialize, play in the tournament, and chat. My hope is that by covering the walls with books, we'll also encourage them to browse and read. Hopefully we can add DVDs to the wall as well, to encourage students to watch/listen to movies.

Step by step the school is being transformed: from a drab school building to a learning/community center. The increase in energy is tangible.

Next step, in my opinion-- start to pull in native-speaking community members. Our students CRAVE interaction (and friendship) with Americans. We are creating an excellent social space,... my hope is we can leverage that... into powerful connections between students and community members.

San Francisco, CA


by AJ

"A study at Georgetown University found that even if the students, teachers, and educational approach remained the same, improving a school's physical environment could increase test scores by as much as 11 percent."

--Dan Pink

How's that for a "hard numbers" reason to take school design seriously. We're all debating, endlessly, the proper teaching approach. Yet here's a very simple way to boost our effectiveness... one that requires no change to how we teach.

Yes, this is an obsession of mine. And most people just dont get it.

Classroom design has a direct, and powerful, affect on learning. A classroom that is beautiful produces better test scores... and more learning. A dreary/boring classroom has the opposite affect. In other words, those tiny desks, fluorescent lights, white walls, and beige carpets are HARMING your students. They are lowering their scores and decreasing the effectiveness of your lessons. Maybe its not the curriculum..

Perhaps we we dont need another textbook. Or a different approach. Or better teachers. Or better admins.

Maybe we need, more than anything else, good interior decorators. Perhaps an art degree is more useful than a CELTA certificate.

San Francisco, CA


by AJ

Well, the Spanish blog is a bust so far. Honestly, my level is too low. I find it very hard to write daily... and I find that Im thinking in English then translating word for word into Spanish (usually with horrible results). No doubt this is a result of my grammar-translation High School courses.

Ive decided that at this point in my learning, focusing on production (especially writing) is not the best thing. Rather, Im putting most of my efforts on listening, and secondarily, reading.

A confession: I am a TERRIBLE language student. I get easily frustrated. Im impatient. I find the steep curve from starting to proficiency to be demotivating.

I am, in fact, a perfect example of how "non-linguistic factors" can inhibit language learning. Im a smart guy. I can, theoretically, learn Spanish as well as anyone else. Its not my language learning ability that is the problem, however. My problems are psychological and emotional.....

Im trying to address these problems by relaxing. Rather than obsess about learning quickly... Im trying to focus on slow but steady progress. Rather than focus on speed, Im trying to focus on consistency. Thus far, Im averaging about 20 minutes of Spanish a day. Of course thats "not enough".... but 20 minutes a day beats zero.

I try to convey this same mentality to my students. Many have the same issues as I do... they are hyper motivated, which is good. But many are also highly frustrated. They want to be perfect, native-like speakers NOW!. They fret over every mistake. They bemoan their "lack of progress" (though most are, in fact, making excellent progress). They sometimes build up so much impatience that it begins to demotivate them and impede their progress.

In such cases, the teacher's role is to help them relax. Sometimes a teacher must be a counselor and address the emotional issues that are affecting their students. Sometimes its more important to get them to laugh than to help them master phrasal verbs. Language learning is a marathon, not a sprint. Lets help our students enjoy the run.

San Francisco, CA

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Covert Operations

by AJ

"In good video games, overt telling is kept to a well-thought-out minimum, allowing ample opportunity for the learner to experiment and make discoveries".

--James Paul Gee

Much of what passes for "student centered" education is anything but. Ive noticed that many teachers implicitly define "student centered" as a lack of "teacher talk". They put their students into groups or pairs, give them a "focused practice" drill to do together, then roam around listening to students.

Id hardly call that student centered. In fact, it seems totally teacher centered... despite the teacher's silence. The teacher, after all, chooses the "grammar point". The teacher chooses the highly structured (artificial, contrived, context-less) activity. Whether or not the activity has any meaning to students makes no difference.

Student-centered, in my mind, refers to a process in which the students are encouraged to experiment, probe, choose, and make discoveries... in which the language has context and deep meaning for them. Overtly explaining a "grammar point", then drilling it, has nothing to do with discovery or meaning or even usefulness.

Far better, I think, to let students wrestle with authentic materials... be they books, articles, movies, TV shows, actual conversations, songs, whatever. Rather than explain the grammar in a fragmented way... let them discover it through exploration... by exploring a piece of authentic language that THEY find interesting. As they probe, they may encounter unfamiliar words and grammar structures. Often, they can figure out their meaning on their own.. by using dictionaries or context... or, by directly asking an "expert" (ie. native speaker).

Language discovered in this way tends to "stick" much better than the meaningless language memorized from textbooks. I think video games provide an excellent model in this regard. Few game players bother reading the manual that comes with the game.... and even if they do, most are very short.. giving only the most basic information.

Most gamers jump right in and learn as they go. They tend to use the manual (or game guides) as a reference.. something to consult when they are completely stuck, have tried many failed approaches, and just cant solve the problem. Then they may consult a guide to help them move on.

That is a good model for the use of a grammar book.... something to be referenced only AFTER a learner has become stuck.. has tried many ways to decode the meaning of a piece of language.. and cant seem to solve the problem. Only then might they consult the grammar book... to use it to understand a meaningful authentic piece of language. Then, they put away the book and return focus to communication and meaning. Even in this case, they are using the text in a very different way than the traditional approach. Rather than viewing the grammar text as primary... a bible to be memorized... they see it only as a reference tool... something to consult should they hit a puzzle they cant solve by themselves.

Apart from being a more affective way to learn a language... this is also a much more interesting method. This kind of student spends her time immersed in authentic meaningful language: watching interesting movies, reading fun books, listening to real interactions. The traditional student, on the other hand, spends most of his time in drudgery: memorizing grammar "rules", memorizing lists of translated vocabulary, doing "focused practice" drills.... in other words, doing boring and routine activities, divorced of context and meaning, in a rote fashion.

The next step for my teaching, I realize, is to find ways to maximize the discovery process... and minimize the overt telling I do. Ive got a lot of thinking to do on this subject. Its time for me to do a lot of probing & experimenting as a teacher...

San Francisco, CA

Monday, March 13, 2006

Lesson From Video Games

by AJ

Intrigued by the learning theory research related to game design, I bought a Playstation2 this weekend (for research purposes only, of course :) I found Dr. Gee's book... which discussed the powerful learning/teaching strategies used by video game designers very very interesting.

And so, this weekend, I gave them a try first hand. Wow! Things have progressed a long way from the Atari Space Invaders game I used to play as a child!

After my first few experiences, I understood Gee's points. The games are incredibly well designed learning modules. They manage to make learning, experimenting, and even failing.. extremely engaging. For example, I bought a game called "Rainbow Six: Lockdown". Its a commando-shooter type game. And I found it incredibly difficult. As a neophyte, I was overwhelmed by the difficulty.

One problem-- despite my "non-traditional teaching ideas"... I am, in fact, programmed by the educational system in which I grew up. That system, as Gee points out, stresses linear "one right answer" thinking.

Turns out that doesnt work very well in most video games (or life, for that matter). The games stress a totally different approach... one which stresses experimentation, probing, reflection... and a wealth of different "right answers". Like Gee, when I first started the Rainbow Six game, my mindset was linear and goal oriented. I tried to charge straight to the objective as fast as possible. That not only got me killed, it also caused me to miss the many "intel items" (ie. clues & bonuses) scattered throughout the first level.

Because the game is designed to punish linear thinking, it didnt take long before I got frustrated and realized I needed a different approach. But what? The game manual is very sparse.. gives only the details of using the controller. With no manual or rules, there was only one thing to do.. probe. Experiment.

So Ive started trying different things... taking different routes, moving my man differently, using different weapons. Typically, I still get killed a lot. But sometimes something works. Aha!

Later (or while Im playing), I reflect on what Ive tried and the various results. Based on this information, I form hypotheses about how best to proceed. Next time I play, I test these hypotheses... and try to extend them more generally. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesnt. Either way, I probe more, then reflect again.. then form more hypotheses.. then probe/test.. then reflect... over and over again.

That, in simplified form, is the scientific method. As Gee points out, its also the natural method employed by child learners... until they are subjected to formal schooling. And, he points out, its the method employed by almost every adult who achieves expertise in a certain field.

All this got me to wondering... is it possible to create an ESL classroom that encourages the same sort of process? One that encourages students to probe, reflect, hypothesize, test & probe again... on and on and on.. neverending. Is it possible to create an ESL classroom in which failure INCREASES engagement and motivation (as it does in many video games) rather than demoralizes the student? Is it possible to create a classroom in which students are completely absorbed in acquiring the language... even addicted (in a positive sense)? Its easy to get lost in a game... learning and playing for hours. You lose track of time. You are fully concentrated. Time flies. How many English classes create the same phenomenon?

Mine dont. At the moment, I dont know the answers to the above questions. But, I suppose, the way to find them is to use the same method used by video gamers, scientists, and others who rely on direct observation and learning. Ill just keep probing, testing, reflecting, forming hypotheses, testing them, probing,..... in my classes... in a neverending quest to increase my teaching expertise (and thus, the power of the students experience in my classes).

San Francisco, CA

Friday, March 10, 2006

Dramatic Design

by AJ

"The campus library has become an intellectual gathering place. Think of Europe's philosophical cafes where writers and thinkers met to exchange ideas rather than the wan and lonely graduate student holed up in a study carrel. As Mr. Natriello likes to say, the library is ''moving from being a warehouse to a workshop.''

That shift in purpose has precipitated sweeping design changes that are showing up in academic libraries across the country, say architects, librarians and educators involved in their construction and renovation. Individual carrels are giving way to group study rooms, often constructed of glass to decrease a sense of isolation; ''No Food Permitted'' signs have been superceded by cybercafes and vending machines; media labs and instruction rooms have been added; cushy chairs and couches are arranged around coffee tables; stacks are open; various services are laid out like sweets on a dessert tray."

--Jim Trelease

Trelease nails down an important phenomenon Ive noticed: generally, people like bookstores & cafes better than libraries. Im an avid reader. I love getting new books. I should go to San Francisco's large central library. But I never seem to. Instead, I gravitate to Borders Books and City Lights Bookstore.

When I walk into the library, I feel a sinking feeling. It feels drab. And, as Trelease mentions, its unfriendly to browsing. Almost all the books are shelved spine-out, rather than cover out.

Its the opposite with the bookstores. I feel an uplift as soon as I walk in. The decor is warm and inviting.. seems to say, "stay awhile and look around". Chairs are placed all over.. making it easy to thumb through a book. many books are shelved cover-out. There are "employee recommendation" sections... interesting books shelved cover-out, with insightful reviews by the staff. Borders has a coffee shop inside... they ENCOURAGE customers to have a seat, chill out, and skim books.


Why not incorporate the bookstore's successful strategies. Look at the above picture.. its from Jim Trelease's site. It shows how a teacher transformed his class into a mini-library & workshop. This is cheap and easy to do. Notice how stimulating this environment looks. The layout practically begs students to wander around and browse.

Now add plenty of comfortable chairs. Some artwork. A mini-cafe corner. Natural lighting. Suddenly you have a space that INVITES students... a place their brains are attracted to... a place they want to spend time in. This is a space that invites "self-study"... free reading, free listening. Add a TV & DVD player. Put some DVD titles on the shelves, cover-out. Sprinkle computers throughout... perhaps create colorful mini-posters that recommend excellent English learning sites. Add a microwave, coffee maker, fridge. Nice instrumental music playing softly.

Our schools typically resemble public libraries... while stocked with plenty of resources, they are.. in a word.. ugly. Brain-antagonistic. At an emotional level, they repel students (no wonder they race out of class so quickly). But with a little attention to design, these resources can be presented in a more inviting & beautiful way... a way that is brain-friendly.. that attracts students at an emotional level.

And teachers too!

San Francisco, CA

Pink's Questions

by AJ

"To survive in the coming age, individuals and organizations must examine what they're doing to earn a living and ask themselves three questions:

1. Can someone overseas do it cheaper?
2. Can a computer do it faster?
3. Is what I'm offering in demand in an age of abundance?

Mere survival will depend on being able to do something that overseas [Indian...] knowledge workers can't do cheaper, that powerful computers can't do faster, and that satisfies one of the nonmaterial, transcendent desires of an abundant age."

-- Dan Pink

Give yourself this test. Can a well-educated, fluent overseas teacher do what you do... but cheaper? Can a computer program (or DVD or website) (Rosetta Stone, Pimsleur,...) do it faster (and cheaper)? Be honest. Are you replaceable?

Or do you offer something more? Do you satisfy nonmaterial desires? emotional desires? social desires? the desire for purpose? the desire for meaning? the desire for connection?

San Francisco, CA

Tip of The Iceberg

by AJ

"Any job that is English-based in markets such as the US, the UK, and Australia can be done in India. The only limit is your imagination. "

Think that over, TESOL teachers. Indians are moving into customer service, law, computer programming, financial services, call centers, engineering. How long before they move into TESOL? The country is full of fluent English speakers.... many who have studied in the UK or North America.. with corresponding accents. Many Filipinos, likewise, speak excellent English.

In much of the world, for the moment, there's a rascist/cultural bias for white TESOL teachers... this seems particularly true in Asian countries (Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan). Its kind of a folklore belief, in fact, that students in these countries demand white faces. But, as Ive mentioned many times, Wisdom21 has destroyed this illusion. They purposely employ "people of color" from a wide variety of countries outside the UK/American/Australian zones. If they can do it... so can others.

Internet based TESOL instruction will also increase in the future. For now, its in its infancy. But Tutopia, The Linguist, and the like are the cutting edge future. Eventually, why wouldnt these services use excellent English speakers from India... teachers with supurb mastery of English grammar and pronunciation? Or equally proficient teachers from Malaysia, The Phillipines, etc...?

Software is another cutting-edge arena. As Rosetta Stone proves... basic grammar/vocab can be taught VERY effectively using a computer. No need for an expensive teacher at all.

Ive just re-started Spanish study... and have found no need for a school or teacher. Im learning from audiobooks, mini-novels, videos. At the moment, at my (low) level... I have absolutely no need for a teacher. Why pay someone to run through the same drills and explanations that a computer can?

Like it or not... the textbook-centric teacher has a rather dim future. Yes, there will still be openings for such people... but they will increasingly pay less... and be harder to get.

No, this wont happen overnight. But it is happening. What will things be like in 10 years? 15? Does anyone imagine an easier, higher paying, less competitive environment for "same-old" teachers & schools? Is it likely that textbook-teachers will be making more in Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan? That good jobs will be EASIER to find for Brits, Canadians, Americans, and Aussies?

Who will get the great teaching jobs? The top pay? The best working conditions? Teachers who blend in... or those that stand out... who have a "dramatic difference"?

San Francisco, CA

Beautiful, Unique, Meaningful

by AJ

"For business, it's no longer enough to create a product that's reasonably priced and adequetely functional. It must also be beautiful, unique, and meaningful, abiding by what author Virginia Postrel calls 'the aesthetic imperative.'"

--Dan Pink

Might education find itself in the same situation? I think so. Functional is no big deal. Students will figure out they can get adequate grammar-translation & skills building from a software program.... at a far cheaper price. They can join sites like The LInguist, at only $39 a month, for a wealth of authentic content, on-demand translation, and even Skype conferences. How long before Indians & Filipinos start offering online English courses for a fraction of what cram schools charge?

Of course, PUBLIC education is insulated from the big wave of change... but not completely. Theyll feel the pressure later than private schools... but they will eventually feel it. And then what?

Then its lower wages for most traditional TESOL teachers. In fact, this trend is already occurring. The gold-rush days are over. Wages are not generally rising... and are falling in some countries. "Professional" TESOL teachers often complain about the trend. They complain that "non-professional" teachers drive down wages... that most schools are content to hire any native speaker with a degree.

But why not? If all you do is work through a textbook, play a tape, give standardized tests, and do pre-set "communication activities"... whats the need for advanced education and training? We like to imagine that such tasks demand serious training, but they dont. Truth is, any stable native-speaking individual with a degree CAN do those things quite easily. School owners arent stupid... why more for a boring traditional teacher who is loaded with "credentials" when they can pay much less for a boring native-speaker with any old degree?

In other words... what DRAMATIC DISTINCTION do the "professionals" offer? Most, sad to say, dont offer any.

Which brings us back to Dan Pink's quote. For a moment, forget everything you know about teaching. Forget conventional wisdom. As yourself, "Is my teaching beautiful, unique, and meaningful?" Thats the standard you should be aiming for.

The same goes for schools. Most are content with rather low standards-- to be functional and "professional". Held to Pink's higher standard, how many would get an "A"? None that I know of...

Where are the beautiful English schools? Where are the unique schools? Where are the schools that have meaning, purpose, passion?

Is empathy part of your curriculum? Is aesthetic beauty a requirement at your school? It should be.

San Francisco, CA

Read-Alouds: Not Just For Children

by AJ

My most powerful elementary school experience (ala Jim Trelease):

Fourth grade. Ms. Milam asked us to put away our books, sit quietly, and listen as she read. She took out a novel and showed it to us. Title: The Hobbit.

I knew nothing about the book... but by page two, I was hooked. The book seemed amazing to me... what an incredibly interesting, magical world. Over the course of the year, Ms. Milam read The Hobbit, The Fellowship of the Ring, and The Two Towers to us. We didnt have time for The Return of The King... a maddening situation for me. I tried to read it myself immediately, but couldnt get through it. I eventually reread the entire series a few years later.

Ms. Milam’s read-alouds hooked me on reading. While I enjoyed reading, it wasnt until her class that I became a gung-ho independent reader. I began to pester my mom for books.. a habit she happily indulged. I plowed through the entire Hardy Boys series... then switched to various fantasy and science fiction books.

Many years later, I was not surprised to discover the research on free reading and read alouds. Looking back, I realize that most of my vocabulary and grammar ability came from the reading I did on my own. In fact, I rarely read required books or textbooks.. usually resorted to Cliff Notes. Nor did I pay attention to (or understand) HS grammar teachers.

I teach adults. But I am now using Ms. Milam’s approach. Everyday, I read aloud to my class. I read them a chapter from "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory". Like Ms. Milam, I try to read dramatically. I attempt to convey the emotions of the characters and situations.

After doing the read-aloud, I return to the text to answer questions. We discuss difficult sections/words. Lately, Ive been rereading the chapter with the entire class.. with all of us "reading dramatically". Then we listen to the audiobook.. with the author reading the same section (again, with emotion).

Its gone surprisingly well... better than I expected. Students' comprehension is steadily improving. They also seem to be enjoying the story. And why not? Its a fun book.

Too often, we make the mistake of underestimating adult students. We assume we must always be "serious" with them. We hit them with "serious" articles and "serious" literature. We seriously analyze intricate grammar rules. We assume they wont like read alouds, stories, drama, games, or other "kids stuff".

But we are usually wrong. Adult brains are not so different than children's. They too respond to great stories, colorful images, movement, novelty, play, and fun (god forbid).

And so... consider read-alouds with your adult students.

But please,.... choose something fun!

San Francisco, CA

Transcendent Teaching

The last few decades have belonged to a certain kind of person with a certain kind of mind-- computer programmers who could crank code, lawyers who could craft contracts, MBAs who could crunch numbers. But the keys to the kingdom are changing hands. The future belongs to a very different kind of person with a very different kind of mind-- creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers, and meaning makers. These people-- artists, inventors, designers, storytellers, caregivers, consolers, big picture thinkers-- will now reap society’s richest rewards and share its greatest joys.

--Dan Pink

Something clicked when I read this passage.. the opening to Dan Pink's new book "A Whole New Mind". I finally got it. Traditional teachers and I do not just disagree on matters of curriculum or "approach". Its not really a matter of technique.

The division goes much much deeper than that. Our differences are fundamental... we think and perceive in entirely different ways. They dont, and cant, "get" what Im trying to say. And I absolutely dont get them.

Traditional educators remind me of the lawyers, programmers, and MBAs that Pink mentions. They are numbers people. They are all about "hard facts". They love numeric measures. They love grades. They love structure.... and standardization. They are, as a rule, left brain analytical people. No wonder they have such entrenched loyalty to "skills building" and grammar analysis. This mindset goes to their core. Such people will never become passionate big picture people with an intuitive touch.

Frankly, thats fine with me. I dont write for traditional educators. Im sure there will always be a niche for them... possibly a very large niche.

But its clear their monopoly is over. In all fields.. from science, to technology, to business, to education... left-brain number crunchers are losing their dominance. Its happening quickly in some fields, slowly in others. But increasingly, cracks are appearing.

These cracks are widening,... opening fantastic opportunities for right-brain, touchy-feely, intuitive creatives. And thats great news for teachers like me.

Truth be told, we hold a competitive advantage. Students have more options.. and they are expanding every year. They are no longer content with the boring same-old same-old. They are bored with grammar-analysis. They may not know exactly what they want.. but they know they want something MORE. They want more meaning. They want more autonomy and power. They want deeper emotional connections. They want "kick ass" experiences.

The basics being equal... they will flock to teachers who provide MORE... who go beyond the status quo... who deliver, in Tom Peters words, "Wow experiences".

From a purely Machiavellian, career-potential point of view... teachers who are designers, consolers, artists, and innovators have the advantage. They hold a huge competitive advantage over those who crunch through the same-old textbook, give the same-old tests,... use the same-old approach.

Increasingly, it pays to be a radical.

San Francisco, CA

A Better Use of Time

by AJ

Having cautioned against too much preparation, Id like to balance the equation. I dont believe in detailed lesson planning, as a general rule. But I do believe in MASSIVE amounts of reflection and self-training.

Spend your extra time thinking & learning.. rather than "planning". Far better, I think, to read a book about learning theory than waste hours making a detailed handout. Far better to tape yourself teaching... then review the video for self-feedback. Far better to attend conferences, to read interesting blogs, to keep a teaching diary (on paper or online).

This kind of activity pays off in a way that "lesson planning" never will. Truth be told, if you are teaching your native language... and have a bit of experience... there's no need to waste hours doing lesson plans.

What is absolutely crucial, however, is to grow as a teacher. That means learning new skills. It means improving your presentation. It means more knowledge about language acquisition,.. and teaching approaches. It means taking LOTS of time to know your students as individual human beings... what makes them tick?

It also means exposure to weird, fun, crazy, interesting ideas that seem to have no relation to language education. To be a great teacher.. you must be a great human being. Theres no faking that. If you are boring as hell in "real life"... youll be hard pressed to become interesting once you step into the classroom.

Furthermore, innovation is born from the marriage of strange links. Keep reading the same things, in the same narrow field of education.. and you are unlikely to think of (or try) anything new. Itll be the same old textbook-centric crap... slightly recycled.

Read WAY outside this field. Read books on anarchy. Read about art. Better yet, take art classes. Try new sports. Meet people outside your normal social circle. Seek out radicals and oddballs in every field imaginable. There need not be a recognizable connection to teaching.

Take time, regularly... every day if possible.. to reflect on all this training, reading, links, & input. Look for interesting connections, fascinating patterns, possible hybrids. Reflect too on your students, and on your teaching. Whats working.. what has mojo? What doesnt? What totally strange path might you explore with them? How can you better meet their wants, goals, and dreams? How can you drastically boost their confidence.. and their emotional connection to the language?

Loosen up. Take down the barriers for a while. Forget "conventional wisdom".


San Francisco, CA

Thursday, March 09, 2006

The Tao of Clint

by AJ

If you want to be a great teacher,
you must learn to follow the Tao.
Stop trying to control.
Let go of fixed plans and concepts,
and the class will govern itself.

The more prohibitions you have,
the less virtuous students will be.
The more punishments you have,
the less secure students will be.
The more rewards you have,
the less self-reliant the students will be.

--The Tao Te Ching

Many teachers over-emphasize planning. I know some teachers, for example, who claim they need one hour of planning for every hour of class they teach.

By planning, they mean developing a lesson, outlining the activities step by step, creating materials, copying handouts, defining objectives, etc., etc.

When I speak of Effortless Language Acquisition... I mean effortless for the students AND the teacher. Lesson plans, the sort you are taught to use by most teacher training programs, strike me as ridiculous. What a colossal waste of time. All that typing and outlining and copying. It seems like a lot of work for a very small payoff.

Likewise, many teachers invest great energy in maintaining a TOUGH persona. They imagine that the more rules they have, the more strictly they enforce them, and the more criticism they give.. the BETTER they are as a teacher. This too is a waste of time. The more you try to control students, the more they resist. In the West, this may take an active form. But often resistance is passive. Students refuse to volunteer. They show no enthusiasm for lessons.. however carefully planned. When speaking, they give only the shortest possible answer. They may wander in late, or skip class. Or they may put their heads down and sleep.

The control-freak teacher responds with still tougher rules-- furthering the cycle of resistance.

I try to obey a basic rule.. learned while I was a social worker: never try harder than my students. Ive found that the above statement from the Tao Te Ching is true. The fewer rules I have, the more orderly the class becomes. The more power I hand over to them, the more powerful lessons become.

Ive also found that my lessons benefit from LESS planning, not more. My PLAN usually consists of an authentic material and some general ideas of how to present, explain, and discuss it. Im not a slave to an outline-- which enables me to shoot off in any direction that shows promise. If students struggle, I slow down, repeat more... or, sometimes, quickly switch to something else.

My planning time per lesson hour is probably about 5 minutes.

This benefits my students. Im able to conserve and focus my energies on teaching... not churning out paperwork. Typically, I have a VERY high energy level when I teach. Its not because Im naturally hyper... its because Im not exhausted from planning and paperwork. Its because I spend my non-classroom hours doing enjoyable activities-- exercising, reading, writing, socializing... not chained to a desk.

Want to become a better teacher? PLAN LESS. Improvise more. Worry less about minute by minute outlines... and MUCH MORE about giving an energetic & flexible presentation. Focus much more on reading students & reacting to them... much less on pushing them to follow your predetermined plan.

In the words of Clint Eastwood: Improvise, Adapt, Overcome!

San Francisco, CA

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Repetition & Authenticity

by AJ

My class continues to work through "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory". Here's our basic routine: First I read the text aloud to the class... usually one chapter per day. As I do, the students circle any words they dont understand... but feel they need. After my reading, I go back and let them ask questions, paragraph by paragraph.. to ensure they "get it".

Next, I play the audiobook. Usually I start a few chapters before the one we just read... and continue a bit past it. After listening, I ask each student, "About what percentage of the narration did you understand?".

Next, we read the chapter again.... this time I read a sentence.. then they read it aloud after me. I ask them to imitate my intonation. I try to read "dramatically".. to convey the emotion of the story.. and ask the students to mimic my pauses, rises, falls, and general rhythm.

Once finished with the chapter, we listen to the audiobook again. Mr. Dahl speaks quite quickly on the tape.. so this is good practice for them.

In the beginning... when we started this book... most students reported comprehension levels of 0-30%. Now, into our second week, most report 35-99% comprehension. Of course, they understand the earlier passages more, because theyve had more repetition of those sections.

Now... all this is good news from a language acquisition perspective. They are improving their listening comprehension, they are acquiring new vocabulary... and their intonation is even improving.

But here's the best news: Many are crossing into the "I kick ass" zone. How to explain it? When we started the book, they were ALL intimidated. The first listening session with the audiobook scared them... and all were convinced they just couldnt do it. Now, several report 90-100% comprehension of the beginning chapters. They are kicking ass.. doing what they thought (just one week ago) was impossible.

Not all students are there yet.. but as they see some "kick ass".. they become more confident that they can do it to. Also, every student (with only one exception) is reporting steady improvements in comprehension.

This is no surprise, of course. Our reading and discussion sessions make the book comprehensible. Repetition likewise boosts the comprehensibility of the story. Pretty obvious and logical.

But imagine what it means-- by the end of the month.. these students will have MASTERED an authentic text... a fairly difficult one, in fact. Theyll have mastered it both as a written text.. and as an audio performance. Thats a lot of vocabulary, a lot of grammar, a lot of play with intonation.

But the "I kick ass" feeling may be the best benefit of all.... mastering "the impossible" instills a sense of confidence like nothing else. In terms of longterm language learning... that confidence might be the most important benefit of all.

San Francisco, CA

The Power of We

by AJ

Typical classroom: Teacher is the boss (me) and students are the subjects/employees (them). Teacher decides curriculum/lessons... students follow. Teacher grades students, students kiss ass to get a good grade.

However friendly such a class may seem, there is always an I/them division. This, to my mind, is one of the greatest evils of traditional education.... and one of its greatest weaknesses.

Nice progressive teachers readily recognize the toll to students who are in such a system. But what we rarely talk about is the toll this system takes on teachers. The command & control arrangement is incredibly inefficient. A teacher in such a system has to work a lot harder for much smaller results. Such teachers often bemoan their students lack of enthusiasm. They feel they must push, cajole, coerce, bribe, or trick students into making the least bit of effort. They must also generate every lesson themselves.... toiling in isolation.

No wonder such teachers rely on textbooks. Textbooks are time savers. The first hour of my class is a no-brainer for me... "turn to page 102, exercise 3"... and so on.

When you break down the me/them barrier, something amazing happens.... your job actually becomes easier. The more you collaborate, the more you cooperate, the more you work together as a team... the less you must do alone. Suddenly, students are helping to create the curriculum... and feedback processes... and learning goals. Students start bringing materials.

It starts slowly, but eventually momentum builds. Working with them, winning them over one at a time... you create incredible synergy. Teaching becomes MORE effective AND effortless.

The power of "winning students over" struck me today. During our lunch break, I wandered into class to grab something. A few students were having a discussion. But not an ordinary one. Rather, one of the students was earnestly trying to sell another on the benefits of "our" effortless approach. He outlined the benefits of the approach... he discussed the ways it was helping him improve. He was enthusiastically encouraging the student to participate... to give the approach a try.. to commit to it.

I realized at that moment... this was no longer "my" class, and the methods we were using were no longer "my" methods. Through numerous and lengthy process discussions, we had fashioned an approach together. We'd developed and agreed to a daily regiment.

Because of that, it was no longer my sole responsibility to see it through. The more enthusiastic students are taking ownership. They feel just as committed to success-- not only their own.. but everyone's.

In the past, I expended great effort to encourage a struggling student. Today, I walked out of the room.. and let her peers help her.

San Francisco, CA

English Podcasts

by AJ

Dr. Lucy Tse and Dr. Jeff McQuillan have put together an excellent resource for English learners. Drs. Tse & McQuillan are famous for their research/work related to the narrative approach.

Their site, ESL Pod has a large and ever-increasing collection of English podcasts. They have stories for advanced learners, simpler podcasts for lower level learners, and a series of podcasts for those preparing for the TOEFL exam.

I recommend ESL Pod to my students, as optional homework. Visit their site regularly. Recommend it to your students.

San Francisco, CA

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Lifelong Learning

by AJ

"And if the neuroscientists are right, you can create new brain cells--by learning (and not being stuck in a dull cubicle)--at virtually any age. Think about it... if you're 30 today, if you take up the guitar tomorrow, you'll have been playing for TWENTY years by the time you're 50. You'll be kicking some serious guitar butt. And if you're 50 today, there's no reason you can't be kicking guitar butt at 70. What are you waiting for?"

--Kathy Sierra

Now thats an encouraging quote. One excuse I often used for giving up on Spanish was that it was "too late". Even though I dont believe in the "critical period hyphothesis"... I told myself it just wasnt worth it. After all, "it will take me 5-8 years to reach Spanish fluency.. Ill be in my 40s...so whats the point."

The point is, Ill still be fluent in Spanish. Do we give up on life once we hit 30? Our society seems to want us to. We are bombarded with subtle and not-so-subtle messages that say, in effect, "only young people can learn". But as Ms. Sierra notes, thats bullshit. This belief is really just a lazy excuse.

However old we are, we can learn just as effectively as children. In fact, as Krashen notes, adults actually learn languages FASTER than children. Their greater life experiences, plus knowledge of their native language, help them progress much more quickly. The problem with adults is not their capacity to learn.. but rather emotional/lifestyle factors that block access to this capacity. The child does not obsess about errors-- young language learners are famous for their fearlessness. Adults, though they have greater learning potential... are hampered by doubts, fears, impatience, and expectations.

We really must start talking about this issue. I read a fair number of language teaching blogs... and books. Yet few give even lip-service to the emotional hindrances of adult (this includes adolescent) learners. If they do mention these issues, they almost never offer serious solutions to the problem.

I cannot overstate this: When teaching students 13 and over... the biggest battle is an EMOTIONAL, not a linguistic, one. Teachers of adults should spend the bulk of their time addressing issues of confidence, risk taking, anxiety, expectations, social meaning, etc... not fretting about how to teach the present perfect.

You've got to address the emotional blocks that inhibit your adult students. Youve got to talk to them about them. Youve got to work tirelessly to promote a fun, safe, risk-taking environment. Youve got to destroy the fear of mistakes.

Youve got to obsess over these issues... constantly asking, "how can I get them to buy into my classroom", "how can I help them get that 'I kick ass' feeling?".

I dont care if you are the worlds foremost grammatical-linguistic genius... the second coming of Noam Chomsky... if you dont impact adult students on an emotional level.. you are DOOMED.

And so my best advice-- put away the English textbooks. Read obsessively in the areas of psychology, counselling, social work, leadership, group facilitating, and the like.

Your goal-- transform your students EMOTIONAL experience with English. Create passionate, risk-taking, enthusiastic students. Then, AND ONLY THEN, should you worry about "linguistic factors".

San Francisco, CA

Timely Coincidence

by AJ

Just after completing the "fossilization" post, I clicked over to Creating Passionate Users and found the same issue stated in a different way. In her post, "How to be an Expert", Ms. Sierra outlines research relating to "experts"... top performers in their field.

The research finds that "natural talent", in fact, has a very very small effect. Turns out those who eventually reach the top are those who keep pushing themselves. These top performers arent content with proficiency. They arent content to cruise along doing things the same way.

"For the superior performer the goal isn't just repeating the same thing again and again but achieving higher levels of control over every aspect of their performance. That's why they don't find practice boring. Each practice session they are working on doing something better than they did the last time." (Ericsson)

YES! Thats it exactly. Thats what it takes to become a great teacher. You dont keep doing the same thing again and again.. EVEN IF THOSE THINGS SEEM TO BE WORKING FAIRLY WELL. Sometimes, you've got to go backward to go forward. In other words, sometimes youve got to delve into new skills... go back to the "I suck" beginners stage. Learn all over again.

Some folks dread that process, but I find it fascinating. Im engaged by it. When I reach a certain comfort level... I start getting bored. I know its time to tear everything apart and rebuild again. This can, in fact, be an incredibly enjoyable process. As the Ericsson quote suggests, practice is not boring when there are continually new challenges to tackle.

Ms. Sierra's post also holds a clue to the fossilization phenomenon. As she notes, some learners become quickly frustrated while they are in the "I suck" zone. In other words, in the beginning of any new learning process, the learner is typically incompetent. They cant seem to function, they are clumsy. They often feel foolish. If they stay too long in this zone, they give up. This perfectly describes my past efforts at Spanish.

Other learners manage to escape the "I suck" zone. They reach a comfort level.. where they can perform at a level useful to them. They no longer feel incompetent.... nor do they feel the euphoria of "kicking ass". Some folks fossilize in this zone... they are content with their level of performance and stop pushing themselves. This describes my Thai learning efforts. I learned to get around Bangkok using a very basic level of Thai. But once I could manage taxis and markets, I lost motivation. I stopped pushing. The effort to reach ass-kicking level (ie. fluency) just didnt seem worth it. And so I fossilized (in my case, at a very low level).

But the would-be expert keeps pushing.... determined to reach those ass kicking moments of mastery. But thats not all. Sometimes they deliberately go back to the "suck zone"... realizing they must add new skills in order to return to mastery at a higher level. For whatever reason, this is the case with teaching.

Perhaps its because, unlike with Spanish or Thai.... I actually have had "I kick ass" moments as a teacher. Ive had classes and courses in which everything flowed, in which there was tremendous energy & passion.. in which students made dramatic improvements. It doesnt happen all the time, but it doesnt need to. A few of those moments are all thats necessary-- they spark a transformation. Suddenly, you want to have more of them... and you want to make them more intense. It becomes easier to purposely return to sucking, for a little while, because you know it will help you eventually go higher.

Put directly-- innovation is uncomfortable. Sometimes, when you try something new, you suck. Sometimes you suck a lot... people shake their heads, students groan, and you feel like a goddam idiot. Its normal and necessary. Part of the process of mastery. Rather than recoil from experiences... increase their frequency.

As Tom Peters says... Fail faster, succeed sooner.

San Francisco, CA