Lazy or typical?

Revamping my Professional Communication course was near the top of my to-do list for the entire summer of 2013. I never quite managed to get to it, figuring I could work things out on the fly as needed and deciding whatever I was doing at the time was much more important and time sensitive. In all honesty, I have no idea what I did instead but I do know I never got around to the revamping. I wasn’t all that bothered by my indolence but I think at this exact time last year I would have been a little less nervous starting up the course in early September 2013. More on this later.

Last Friday I wrote a blog post. It stemmed from a private conversation I’d had with a friend about teachers asking for help on Facebook groups. I wasn’t thrilled with my post, and I was even less thrilled when chatting about it with my friend and realizing there was a lot to the topic and he was making some reasonable and interesting points I’d not mentioned. By this time I had written nearly 1500 words and I wasn’t keen on scrapping them and re-writing the whole piece. I felt attached to what I wrote, even if I didn’t love it and finally posted it. Although I was not so happy with the post, I was very happy with the responses in terms of comments here on the blog and on the Facebook group in question. I was very impressed with the thoughtful replies and the bigger picture and wider issues that emerged in the conversation. I even had a great face-to-face conversation with a friend about it yesterday. In the end, I was very happy I took the time to write the post and I was also happy I hit publish on something I wasn’t super proud of.

Back to last summer’s laziness and last fall’s course, then. Due to a lack of students the Professional Communications course was cancelled. I felt a sense of relief because I was not 100% prepared for the course (though again I think it would have worked out fine and I could have managed well enough). In addition to that sense of relief was a feeling of being pleased to not have “wasted” the labor preparing for the class. I was glad I hadn’t spent hours in the boiling summer toiling over a course that never actually happened. I felt lucky and a bit smug, even thinking I was wise to delay my work until the very last minute.

sloth

A smug sloth.

A few years back, when working on a training course, I had an experience where I delayed making a final decision or putting a lot of effort into some component of the course I was not completely sure would happen. I think my co-trainers were uneasy about this but I tried my darndest to convince them to adopt a wait and see attitude. They did, and in the end the thing that was supposed to happen didn’t happen on anything like the scale we’d been told it would. I felt justified in my Predictive Laziness and felt maybe my experience working in Korea was helpful here as things in the Land of the Morning Calm are never sure until they are happening. I even remember thinking being a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of guy is not part of my original nature and is just a result of working in Korea.

The more I thought about being so freakin’ happy about not performing a moment of work where the results were not used the more disconcerting I found it. Surely there would be some lessons to be gained from revamping a curriculum even if I didn’t’ use it in the three months immediately following this revamping. Of course I could have devoted more time to a decision that would have put my co-trainers at ease even if I wasn’t perfectly convinced things would happen as we were told. Again, there would be some lessons to gain from thinking those decisions through and talking them out. What is so wrong about writing 1500 words and then scrapping them? Nobody would be hurt and, again, maybe some valuable lessons would spring out from it. But, I couldn’t bear to waste the labor.

My pride at skillful avoidance of work that would not be needed immediately turned into something like embarrassment or worry. Instead of being a product of working in Korea was this some sort of personality defect? Did it make me unsuitable for the type of work I like to do and what I’d like to do? With some more thought, I decided these questions were more than a little dramatic.

I wonder if this strong desire to not do work that wouldn’t be used was a common feeling for other teachers (or any workers) or it was stronger in me than others. Maybe this is human nature and not some strange foible of my own. Do these feelings sound familiar to you? I keep thinking it is related to not wanting to admit a sunk cost or something related to loss aversion, except in this case it is about lost time and effort. Maybe I am more fearful of these than I need to be. I know I can waste an hour happily doing other things without any worries. I wrote this post instead of doing some things I need to do, potentially putting them off till the last possible minute. Who knows, perhaps my tasks will be miraculously erased or done by someone else.

As always, potential employers, I am just joking around and if you hire me I will devote myself to any and all tasks I am given and will do them in the first available opportunity.

They dare ask for help

“This is why we can’t have nice things” wrote a friend as he linked to yet another of those Facebook posts. Maybe you know the ones. The type where the author offers a friendly greeting to the English education focused group and states  how she is teaching a new class this term. She mentions having no experience teaching this sort of class and asks the group for help. This type of post is commonplace here in Korea especially in late February and late August just before the start of a new term.

I didn’t take the time to ask my friend what bothers him so about these requests for help but I have a few ideas and guesses. First is the idea of foreign English teaching folks at Korean universities not being qualified to teach the classes they are teaching. (Side note: I am always leery when using this word “qualified” because I never seem to know what it means to different people or even myself. ) It could be about these instructors not being experienced enough in the areas they are teaching. From there I wonder if he is concerned about the negative impact on the students or the the oft-maligned reputation of foreign (particularly English) instructors in Korea. Or maybe both. Or perhaps he thinks uni instructors should be clever, resourceful, talented and with it enough to find their own materials and ideas without relying on such help from such groups. Another thought is about the timing of such requests. Maybe my friend believes instructors should be more prepared and on the ball and tackle these issues as soon as possible instead of waiting till immediately before classes start.

I suppose should just ask my friend what he meant by this.

UPDATE: 
I sent my friend the above. Let’s see what he says whilst I write the rest of the post and then I can address his points.

 

welcome aboar

 

I don’t want to speak for my friend or put words in his mouth but I get the sense he is focusing his disdain thoughts on the teachers but not so much on the admin and those in charge of making such scheduling decisions. I’d also question how it comes to be that these teachers are placed in such situations. I think the administrations need to fall under this scrutiny. On a larger scale I think there is something to consider as related to idea teachers *should know how to teach. I am a bit torn here because I have recently been in situations where I was teaching outside of my comfort zone and area of expertise  stuff I know a bit about. I think this is inevitable if you teach long enough and I even think it is desirable and useful in terms of development.  You got to start somewhere, homes. Also, if admin asks you to teach a course I feel it is usually a good idea to agree to do it, right?

As related to the update above, my friend got back to me immediately and we had an interesting chat on Facebook about this as well as some related issues like the global perception of English teachers in Korea. “Hi, nice to meet you all. I have never kissed anyone before. Any tips on threesomes?” was his quip in reference to his perceptions of the teachers making the kinds of posts we are talking about. My takeaway from this, aside from my loud laughter in a public space, was the idea teachers need to walk before they can run. Yet, I am still thinking teachers need to continually gain new experiences if they want to keep improving.

Adding to my list of issues he has with these type of Facebook posts my friend added, “It’s also about the screening process for job candidates.” I think this is a good point and I think there is a lot to it as well.  Before reading this I was thinking more in terms of what to do with instructors who have already been hired but I think this is a key. If you know potential hirees will be teaching academic writing it might behoove you to hire teachers who can do this.

Sorry, but I can’t help but keep coming back to issues related to race and native speakers. If people are hired mostly based on factors other than teaching skills it probably shouldn’t come as much of a surprise if their teaching is not up to snuff. 

My friend added to the list of his problems with these types of posts by saying “And what about the lack of training and professional development for new hires? The should pay me to come in and talk to them for a few hours.” [Those interested in hiring my friend for a workshop, presentation, or seminar series can send me an email and I will get you in touch! I will even waive my customary 10% finder's fee if you mention this blog post.] He went on to talk about the perceptions of teachers and professionals in this field and country and what goes into hiring them.

I like this idea about training and development and I believe there is more to consider here. I wonder what sort of training and development would be most beneficial to help these teachers in need. My intention in writing this post was to somewhat defend or at least try to understand these instructors but one part of me can’t help but wonder if they are asking the wrong questions and just looking for quick fixes. Asking for materials this time will give materials this time but I am not sure it how helpful it will be next time when another new class is suddenly and inevitably thrown in their direction. I think what I am suggesting is more skills and training in curriculum development could be beneficial across the board in such situations. Or there could be something about knowing exactly what you don’t know and relating this to what you need to know in order to teach as well as possible. 

Thinking more deeply about this I get the sense my friend sees such posts on Facebook groups as symbolizing a lack of professionalism. Maybe as a foreign university instructor in Korea he doesn’t want to lumped in together with people teaching classes they are seemingly not capable of teaching? For whatever reason this connection doesn’t really bug me at all. I don’t feel my professional reputation is at stake when people in the country I happen to live in are asking for help and advice teaching classes they have not taught before. Longtime readers of this blog will know I think about accountants and plumbers a lot. Would an accountant care if a firm across town hired someone not quite ready for the job? Would a plumber be overly concerned with rivals doing jobs they’d not yet performed?  Maybe so, and maybe these comparisons are far from apt as I am really just wondering aloud here.

Regarding this Facebook posting phenomena, there might be more than meets the eye. Perhaps rather than a lack of professionalism these posts show a lack of suitable and helpful networks and communities of practice rather than a lack of professionalism. I mean, I think more experienced teachers might have their go-to people for certain issues and wouldn’t feel the need to publicly seek out help from virtual strangers. Pun intended. Perhaps these posts are examples of teachers just looking for a pat on the back and an empathetic note saying, “I have been there too, you will be fine, I am sure.” Maybe they are looking to make connections with educators in similar (and new to them) contexts. Maybe they feel relatively confident but write the posts in a humble manner so as to garner as many responses as possible. I realize these maybes are not super likely but I also think they, along with other maybes, could be worth considering.

I know as well as anyone that certain things are going to bother each of us and this is something which doesn’t annoy me or even appear on my annoyance radar. For what it is worth, I have enjoyed writing this post and thinking about this topic. Special thanks to my friend for getting this conversation started and for keeping it going throughout the process of writing this post. I will give the last word to my potentially grumpy friend, “I am all for teachers posting and trying to get better, it’s when they post in the hope of becoming adequate that I become grumpy.” Thoughts, rebuttals, agreements, disagreements and requests for help very welcome.

My attendance policy as explained to students

This is the speech I deliver to students in the first week regarding my attendance policies.

Look, I know things happen. Sometimes you have to miss class. Sometimes these reasons are worthwhile and sometimes they are not. I am not the decider of which is which. That’s up to you. Just know if you miss more than three classes you can get a reduction in grades and more than five can mean you’d fail the course.

I don’t really get into the differences of excused absences and unexcused ones. Please don’t email me asking for permission to miss class. I don’t and can’t give it. If you are an adult missing class you are making a choice and I respect that. I hope you will respect my choice not to be the arbiter of acceptable and unacceptable excuses. That’s not my job. I’m your teacher. I am not your father. I am not your mother. I am not your priest. I am here to help you learn, I am not here to help you craft more acceptable excuses for missing class.  You don’t even need to worry about excuses!

As a starting point I think you are here to learn and my belief is if you have to miss class then you must have a good reason. It is as simple as that. I don’t even need to know the reason. Please note if you tell me the reason you are doing this for you and not for me. You really don’t need to. I don’t care.

If makes no difference if your uncle’s neighbor is opening a bakery is Yeosu;  if your hair dresser is in a musical;  if you are feeling tired and need to take a break, if your ice cream machine  is broken and Tuesday is the only day you can you can get it fixed; if your dog is getting married.

Please don’t take all this to mean I don’t care about you or your life (or your dog or piano!), I just mean I don’t need to know your reasons missing class. If you have some bad things going on in life I’d like to think I’d empathize but this is a separate issue from giving permission to miss class.

I don’t give permission to miss class. Even if you ask me for permission I won’t give it. My most common response is something like, “Thanks so much for letting me know. I hope blank goes well for you.” So, please, by all means, tell me you will be missing class and even tell me why if you want to. Just don’t ask me for permission. I think it is good manners to let me know if you are going to miss class. It helps me plan better and also helps stop me from worrying if you are not there. It also helps me look very smart when I know in advance you will not be there. It might even help me save paper.

I hope this makes some sense. I know it might sound a bit strange and unusual or even harsh but I also know it helps me focus on teaching.

 

 

attendance sheet

Notes and Truths: 

  • I’m probably 20% less sarcastic when I say it to students. I also hope I’m less long-winded!
  • This was written with extremely high level students in mind so the high level language here is not an issue.
  • Even with lower level students I generally try to have a no permission policy in my classes. It saves me so many headaches.
  • Some of my classes are pass/fail so the letter grade threat is moot, to be honest.
  • Most of my classes are highly motivated so students tend to come to class as often as they can anyway.
  • I have had what felt like success with this policy with less motivated students. I don’t enjoy the position of needing to decide what excuses are acceptable. I find it very tiring and an inefficient use of my time.
  • Severe health problems (for the students or family members)  is an obvious exception.

Comments of any sort very welcome.

Linguistic Landscapish pictures from Taiwan

The end of summer holidays seems to me like an ideal time to share pictures from the winter. While I was in Taiwan this winter I snapped a few pictures that caught my interest as a beginner in caring about and noticing linguistic landscapes. I figured I’d share some of them here for the fun of it and also because I thought some of the pictures were interesting. All pictures were taken on my Samsung Note 1. No filter. Those interested in something more scholarly can check out this ELT Journal article from earlier in the year. Enjoy!

 

 

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Just landscape.

 

 

One of these days I will have to share some pictures from Seoul. Speaking of Seoul, I am aiming to set some students on a mini project to grab some interesting photos of linguistic landscapes around Seoul. I will likely share the results here. If you have had any success with similar projects or have any suggested readings please do get in touch.

 

 

 

 

Interview with Marcos Benevides

I am very happy to share my interview with Marcos Benevides. I have been a fan and a follower of his for a while now and it is an honor and a pleasure to interview him. He is and has been involved with a lot of interesting and cool projects and it was great to get his perspective on things. Please be sure to check out the links below related to what he is up to.

IMG_6514

Marcos with an Atama-ii title.

Thanks so much for joining me, Marcos. Can I get you a drink? What are you having?
I’ll have a beer, please: Suntory’s irritatingly named The Premium Malt’s. It’s not only the best major-label beer here in Japan, it’s also a constant reminder that there’s always remedial ELT work to be done!

Haha, ok. Here you are. I have been following you closely ever since I saw Widgets for the first time. I really enjoyed this book and I thought it was a great idea and very well done. I wonder if you could share some thoughts on how this book came to be.
Sure. I had just returned to Japan from Canada after completing my masters, and was teaching part-time at a junior college in Okinawa. The textbook we were assigned to teach from was hopelessly out of date and not appropriate to the mixed-level oral communication course at all. I had students ranging from false beginners to advanced, and no one was happy with the book. So I started filling in with my own tasks, and getting better results.

During my masters, I had been fortunate enough to join a research project using the Canadian Language Benchmarks (similar to the CEFR), which had a very good task-based assessment tool. This gave me an excellent understanding of TBLT principles, particularly how the approach can help in mixed-level situations and with meaningful oral assessment.

So one day I came up with a project task in which the students had to brainstorm and present a new product idea to solve a problem in their lives. This went very well, so I added a follow-up task where the students now had to make a commercial skit to pitch their product. This went even better. I could really see how the students—at all levels—were not only engaged, but were also happily using and recycling the language emergent from the task. They were doing things in English, rather than just repeating the boring textbook dialogues.

So I shared the idea with a colleague at the same school, Chris Valvona, who also became excited by his results. We kept brainstorming with each other over a couple of semesters, and building on this theme that students are working for a fictitious corporation we called Widgets Inc, and eventually we had enough material for a full course. We then approached Pearson, which at the time had a corporate structure which was quite open to innovation and trying new things at the regional level, and they took us on. That was my ‘big break’, I guess you could say.

Pearson did a great job producing Widgets, but unfortunately they didn’t follow through very well on the marketing side. The course still sells well enough in Japan for a niche title, but although it’s technically available internationally, good luck trying to find it outside SE Asia. That’s been a disappointment, and it’s what led me and a different co-author, Adam Gray, to go with a smaller publisher, Abax, for our next book, Whodunit. Ironically, we get better international distribution with them than with the multinational corporation!

Wow, that is interesting. Thanks for the background too. You are also interested Extensive Reading, right? What is the draw to extensive reading in your view?
Yes, I think ER is a very important approach, and should be at least a supplement to any serious reading program. In some successful schools here in Japan, ER is the whole reading program. It really works, but teachers have to bear in mind that it’s a long-term approach; you’re not going to see immediate language improvement with ER. It’s not what you should focus on if your aim is to get higher IELTS scores next month. But over the course of a year or more, yes, it’s definitely the thing to do.

The aims of ER are simple: learners read a massive amount of very easy and self-selected texts, typically graded readers. They don’t ‘study’ them, or even take quizzes in the traditional sense. The priority is to simulate the act of reading for pleasure as much as possible, in order to help them develop good reading habits. When the reader encounters high-frequency words and forms in context multiple times, they naturally internalize them, and this is where the language and fluency gains come from. It’s all about multiple, meaningful exposure in context, just as with first language learning.

It’s important to highlight that, as with task-based learning, language gains in ER tend to be incidental. Both approaches try, you could say, to get students to forget they are supposed to be learning. The main goal is always the task completion; in the case of ER it’s having read the book, not something external like passing a test or giving an oral report. Actually, I tend to think of ER as a natural offshoot of TBLT.

Can you say more about this connection?
Well, okay, maybe “offshoot” isn’t the best word; it’s not like the two approaches were ever explicitly connected, to my knowledge. I mean that both try to simulate a real-world-like use of language, rather than a direct study of its forms.

They do have complementary features and goals. For instance, both are concerned with meaningful tasks; in the case of ER the task is to read a book in a way which simulates how people really read books–for pleasure and for meaning. Both emphasize meaning over form, fluency over accuracy.

Forms are still there, but emergent from the task–so just like a task on filling out an online order form can highlight the proper way to write one’s address (among other things), a book about time travel, say, might incidentally target verb tenses. So if we were to merge the approaches a bit, we might do a post-task focus on verb tenses by asking the reader to write a book report relating the events of the story, that sort of thing.

For a teacher or program that employs TBLT already, I think adding an extensive reading component is a natural fit.

One thing I always wonder about is ER seeming more popular in Asia, and specifically in Japan than in other places. What do you attribute this to?
Interesting question. I suspect that it was mostly a happy coincidence of factors that allowed ER to start blooming here first, rather than elsewhere. First, many of the original proponents of ER have taught or still teach in Japan. Second, they started introducing it at a time—let’s say since about twenty, twenty-five years ago—when the Japanese were becoming a bit more open to try new approaches in ELT. However, unlike other newish approaches of the time, such as communicative language teaching, ER involves tangible materials (books) and concrete data (word counts, reading speed, etc) so it has always been easier to make a case for it institutionally than for, say, unstructured oral communication. Plus, Japanese schools are well-off enough to be able to afford graded reader libraries, which can be a considerable barrier in other countries. I think it was a bit of a perfect storm.

But yes, ER is now a mature, successful and research-validated approach in Japan, there’s no doubt about that anymore. It is sometimes frustrating that it hasn’t caught on in other places yet, but I’m confident that it will. Unfortunately there’s still quite a bit of misunderstanding about ER outside Asia. At recent IATEFL and TESOL conferences, for example, I specifically tried to attend the handful of sessions I could find on ER, and was disappointed that most of them were ER in name only. Mostly they used the term “extensive reading” but were in fact talking about having students read one or two difficult books which were selected by the teachers, and then doing things such as writing essays about the theme. That’s not ER!

Another interesting project of yours is Atama-ii Books. What is this?
Atama-ii Books is a series of multiple-path stories set at a high-beginner level. Like my previous series for McGraw-Hill Asia, which is an adaptation of some of the classic Choose Your Own Adventure titles, these books are also simple adventure stories in the second person. That is, “you” are the hero, and make choices that move the plot along to one of several different endings.

Unlike CYOA graded readers, which are adaptations from native speaker books, these books are specifically designed from the ground up with ELT in mind. This means we were able to include some features that teachers will appreciate. For example, each page is restricted to 100-110 words and the story maps are perfectly symmetrical, so you can do activities such as timed readings, have students finish different paths at about the same pace, and have them pause to discuss the choices more easily. We’ve also avoided essentially random choices such as “do you turn left or do you turn right?” because these are not as rich for predictive tasks.

An interesting side note is that this project was started via a Kickstarter campaign, which I believe was a first for a big ELT project. We successfully raised over ten thousand dollars to get the first titles off the ground. That was in October 2013; now, by November 2014, we’ll have the first six titles out as Kindle ebooks, free YouTube videos, and premium quality print editions. The response has been nothing short of amazing.

If you’re attending JALT in November, you’ll find a free copy of one of the first six titles in your conference bag. Collect all six, and all that, ha ha!

That is fantastic! What advice would you offer to people interested in using crowdfunding for ELT projects?
Hm, that’s a tough question. It really depends on many factors, starting with how much you’re trying to raise. The larger the amount, the more preparation you’ll need to do. Also, how complete is your project already? Can you show drafts or sketches? Sample pages?

If you read through our Kickstarter page, which hasn’t been changed since the campaign ended, you’ll get a sense of how much preparation we did:
https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/atama-ii/atama-ii-books-multiple-path-stories-in-easy-engli

I estimate that I spent about two months full-time just to get the campaign ready. The month of the campaign is even busier, as you’re replying to dozens of emails per day, updating and clarifying things, and, frankly, biting your nails about whether you’ll reach your funding goal.

Then the weeks afterwards involve the actual work of putting the books together and fulfilling pledge rewards–I’m still doing this nearly a year later!

Other important considerations include: Do you have a track record? In my case I had already published several books, so my supporters could be reasonably confident that I would follow through with this new project. Also, are you working alone or with a team? It really helped that I had a team of authors already signed up, who could help to promote the campaign on social media. And speaking of social media, do you have a solid online presence? If you’re not on Facebook or Twitter, you’ll really have your work cut out for you.

To be honest, the big upside to crowdfunding, at least in our case, was not really the money, it was the publicity we got out of it. Of course, this can be a double-edged sword too: if we had failed, we’d have been doing so on a very public stage!

In short, it’s not easy. Plan, plan, plan!

Ok. Good advice. I have the impression that you are pretty busy, so thanks again for taking the time to do this interview. What are you working on these days? What is coming up?
It’s certainly a busy summer. Right now I’m simultaneously editing and laying out the Atama-ii print versions, preparing for my September iTDi Advanced Course on developing reading materials, and also drafting my plenary talk for the Literature in Language Learning conference at Aichi University on September 7th.

When these things are done, I’ll be preparing for JALT in November, which is going to be the big Atama-ii launch event. We’ve got some good stuff in mind for that—I already mentioned every attendee gets a free Atama-ii title. We’re also sponsoring Lesley Ito, one of our authors, as Featured Speaker, and will be doing some fun stuff at the booth as well. Conference attendees will not be disappointed.

After November I’ll probably take a little break, as I haven’t had a real vacation in years now. Then it will be back to the editing table, to get another half dozen Atama-ii titles out in 2015.

I will look forward to seeing you at JALT.  I’d like to hear more about the iTDi course. Who is it designed for? What will be covered? Is there anything you’d like to add that isn’t in the link?
The iTDi course is for teachers who are interested in designing or adapting reading materials for their own students or even perhaps for publishing. It will cover the spectrum of reading approaches from ER to “intensive” reading, how to use various tools and tricks to adapt language, particularly vocabulary, and even offer participants a chance to put together a mini-graded reader if they want to. It should be both fun and useful–like reading itself! ;-)

And now we enter the “Lightning Round.” The idea is quick questions and answers. Which do you prefer between soccer and hockey?
I have practically zero interest in sports, but of all the ones I’ve been made to endure, soccer and hockey are both reasonably interesting to watch. At least they feature some continuous action. I’d rather watch paint dry than sit through a baseball or American football game. And basketball is just comical; watching these grotesquely tall guys bouncing—bouncing!—a ball around a tiny court just makes me think of circus clowns. Don’t get me started on golf.

What are your favorite things about living in Tokyo?
It’s surprisingly cheap to eat out here, at least compared to Canada or the US. I often take the whole family out for under 50 bucks—plus there’s no tipping!

What are your least favorite things?
I miss the laid-back lifestyle I had in Okinawa. It’s too easy to succumb to my workaholic tendencies in Tokyo.

Can you cook? What dish is your best?
As a former Brazilian Gaucho, I’m instinctively drawn to barbecues. I have five or six grills and smokers in my backyard. However, I’m probably complimented on most for my soups. They’re nothing fancy at all, but I seem to have a knack for putting together the right flavours and proportions of things.

Good to know! Finally, and related to the previous talk of what is ER, can you define ER in 140 characters or less?
Hm, I don’t have much of a twitterary bent, but here goes:
ER is a fluency-focused approach in which learners read 1) a lot; 2) of self-selected; 3) easy books; 4) that they can enjoy.

Nice work! Thanks so much for taking the time and best of luck with everything and your busy autumn. 

Burgers, language, culture, confusion, and headaches

I had a burger in mind. It was one of those things. My friend had mentioned a burger joint on the weekend but the universe and more local and personal factors conspired against it. So the burger didn’t happen during my weekend outside of the big smoke. The funny thing is I don’t even eat burgers all that much and can easily live without them. This was a case where the idea was going to stay in mind till the desired was satiated. When I arrived at the Express Bus Terminal in Seoul I wandered around a bit and and saw a burger joint called Johnny Rockets. I had some vague memory of this place as being American and the decor was set up like something of a 50’s burger joint. Well, as much as it could in the food court of a shopping area attached to a bus terminal. I decided Johnny Rockets was the place to go, at least to get that burger out of my mind.

Before I tell you about the burger and the place I will tell you about a restaurant in my neighborhood I frequent. It is called Abiko Curry. They serve Japanese style curry rice and related dishes there. Those familiar with (Indian) curry might be surprised by the taste. I enjoy it, even though I like to think of it as vastly different from Indian curry. I don’t really have the language to describe what it tastes like so I think you will have to try it yourself if you are not familiar. Sorry. Abiko Curry sells Japanese-style curry and there is plenty of Japanese around in the restaurant as well. Something I found interesting there was how the staff says (I think) “Irashaimasen!” when customers arrive. Say is probably not the most appropriate verb here. Perhaps sing or enthusiastically shout would be more correct. I guess it adds some Japanese style or feel to this Japanese curry joint in another country. The staff also thanks and says goodbye to customers in Japanese, also in what seems to me to be a singsongy manner. I get a slight kick out of this whole thing and for me it adds to the experience.*

The most striking thing for me about Johnny Rockets at the Express Bus Station in Seoul was not the high prices or even the decor. It was the singsongy greetings and goodbyes the staff gives to customers. In English. I found it not only surprising but also jarring. “Harro!** Welcome!” they shouted in unison to each and every arriving customer. This bugged me.

 

I am still not completely sure why it bothered me so. Maybe it was just too loud for my fragile condition at that time. It was loud but I think there was more to it. I am afraid my annoyance with this doesn’t paint me in a very positive light but I have been thinking about it for a long time and I have already typed about 600 words so there is no reason to turn back now. Congrats to you for reading over 600 words basically about two dining establishments and one guy’s craving for a burger. Good job, good effort.

Back to Johnny and his Rocket, I think part of what bothered me (on some level) is that their greeting was not how we greet folks in the US of A. ‘Murica. This is not what it sounds like. At this point it might be possible for some readers to be “thinking poor little big white native speaking guy had his burger ruined by Asians not greeting customers in the way he is accustomed to and so he is now whining about it on his blog.” I don’t have much of a defense to that except to say I think I am trying to find and explore the causes for my annoyance rather than simply whinging. I think the fact it was close but still far away from the culture I grew up in that caused it to be annoying to me. When it was Japanese language and culture used in a curry shop I had nary a problem with it, but when it was closer to home and still off it was jarring and headache inducing.

One idea that kept coming to me is the idea of the Uncanny Valley.*** This place was in some ways close to my idea of an all American place servin’ up fries and burgers that came from a past I didn’t even experience but it was still way off. That gap got under my skin and was evidenced in the itchiness I felt when I heard the greetings.

If the greetings had been done in Korean it would not have registered with me, I am sure. There was something about it being done in English.  I briefly highlighted the English pronunciation above. I wonder what my reaction would have been if  the staff sounded like they were from Seattle instead of Seoul. I think of myself as and ELF kind of guy but something here got me. I guess I wondering why they had to do this greeting in English but I also realize it is part of their shtick**** and not really and of my damned business.

Maybe this  use of English (“my language” even though I realize it’s not) just for show and nothing more bothered me? It doesn’t usually. Some Johnny Foreigners get all bent out of shape when they see English errors on signs and things in businesses. It doesn’t tend to bug me at all because I know that this English is more for decoration and more for their typical customers, who are Korean. It is not about me. I am fine with that. Yet, hearing the English-ish greetings in melodious unison in this place  irked me.  Was it about sound or this specific sound. Was it something else?

I honestly don’t think the idea or the ideal of an American burger joint is sacrosanct and seeing this altered is what made me uncomfortable. Yet, I didn’t like being there and I don’t think there much of a chance I will be going back. I’d love to know if there are any other theories on why this might have impacted me in this way. I’d also love to know if anyone has had any similar experiences in their lives, whether home or abroad. Thanks for reading.

By the way, the burger was just ok. I am not sure how accurate my review is because I was in a rush to get the hell out there.

 

 

Notes: 

*I like the “Chicken Set.” I usually go for the 2 (out of 4?) on the spiciness index they use at Abiko Curry.

**Oh how I fretted about this spelling and point. The fact is it sounded more like an R than an L to me. As the many tired jokes can attest this is often an issue for Northeast Asian users of English. I don’t wish to make fun of the staff there or try to impose any sort of linguistic norms upon them.

***I realize this is not an apt comparison because everyone involved was fully human. This is simply what kept coming to my mind and not a proper explanation of my thoughts and feelings on the matter.

****שטיק –Yiddish achievement unlocked!

****I am relatively proud of myself for not using the word appropriation anywhere here. I also resisted the temptation to include a picture of Katy Perry in some weird version of geisha dress as I thought it would be confusing and detract from my points. You know, assuming I had them.

 

I wrote this post in advance and used the “schedule post” function. I will surely get back to any comments, but maybe not immediately. Comments are very much appreciated but a response from me might not come immediately. 

Teaching is measurable [Guest post]

This is a guest post. To read about the author please be sure to read the bottom of the post. 

The other day somebody said to me that “teaching is measurable.” It’s not really important who said it and why; X simply needed some argument to support his viewpoint and thus paraphrased what somebody else believed. Anyway, this post is not an attempt at an academic piece of writing – I’m just one of those inquisitive teachers – so I hope the reader will excuse the impudent lack of references. In short, the main aim of this post is to share some of the reasoning that went on in my head after X cited Y’s assertion that we can measure whether a teacher’s instruction is good or bad.

 

abacus

The very first thing which occurred to me was that one way of measuring the quality of our teaching is doing it vicariously, i.e. through the lens of our students’ learning. In other words, if there are satisfactory learning outcomes, we can assume that our teaching is/was good. Here pops up a problem that worries me though; how do we reliably measure someone’s learning outcomes? Obviously, what immediately springs to mind is testing, quizzing, exams and the like. We can, for example, count the number of words Student A remembers on a Monday morning. We can say with certainty that Student B can produce such and such number of language structures correctly. We can contentedly conclude that Student C can write a decent formal letter. So far so good. However, even if I accept the idea that we can measure somebody’s learning via tangible results, I can’t come to terms with the idea that learning is just about that. There are kids who always mess up tests, write clumsily and speak terribly, yet I’m convinced that some learning happens to them. And the other way around, there are learners who excel in taking tests, yet this may only prove they are good test takers.

Allow me to elaborate. Did a student with an excellent score learn more than just a few correct answers to more or less challenging problems? Is it demonstrable that this particular student learned more than the one with a low score? Only time will tell. The point is that there are some very important ‘side effects’ related to learning, or rather, to what one expects to be the only, ultimate learning outcome, e. g. the correct answer in a multiple-choice test or a well-written essay on global warming. What about all sorts of useful learning strategies acquired throughout the learning process, what about internal motivation stemming from participation in engaging lessons, critical thinking skills a student learns while working with thought-provoking material, what about the valuable learning experience itself? These are equally important outcomes which, I suspect, we are prone to overlook when judging the quality of our students’ overall performance. The irony is that they could provide clear evidence of the effectiveness of our teaching.

At the beginning I said that I believed that one way of measuring the quality of our teaching is by observing what our students can do. Now I should add that I think it’s quite possible that we can be wonderful teachers even if our students are hopeless. Poor performance and lows scores of weak students are not hard pieces of evidence proving that our teaching is bad. And conversely, if we are lucky enough and teach exceptionally talented and motivated students, whose results are equally exceptional, does that say that we are exceptional teachers? How can we measure the quality of our teaching if we end up in an environment where the real nature of our teaching can’t manifest itself to the full; where nobody really cares about our great teaching abilities or, by contrast, where we can easily get away with very poor teaching skills?

What’s left then? What are some other measurable criteria which define the quality of our teaching? I’ve been observed several times by the administrators and their conclusions were generally very positive: “you are a born teacher, you can make a great lesson out of nothing, your classroom management skills are amazing”, etc. Does that make my teaching good? Does what somebody else thinks about my lessons turn me into a good teacher? What if that person is not exactly demanding? What if she knows nothing about the recent SLA research? What if her goals are different from mine?

Finally, what is it that makes us attempt to measure the immeasurable? Is it fear or a lack of confidence? Is it the need to label things and thus make them acceptable/unacceptable? My guess is that it’s the natural human desire to feel safe. The trouble is that teaching is fluid; at one point we’re doing great and in a matter of seconds the lesson goes south. As teaching is a multi-layered venture and there’s so much we can’t grasp and control, we tend to stick to anything that looks like concrete evidence, and we reject the intangible and seemingly insecure, perhaps in order to keep our balance as teachers and human beings.

 

The author of this post is Hana Ticháa teacher in the Czech Republic. Hana is a very proflic blogger and her posts come highly rated and highly recommended from me. To get a feel for her blog you can check out this post where she mentions a few of her posts on her blog anniversary.
I spent some time trying to think about some of my favorite posts of here but this was a challenge because all of her posts offered a lot. Thanks very much to Hana for taking the time to write this and to share it here.