My first real contact with TESOL or an ELT person probably came in fall 1999. I had just come back from studying abroad in Spain and was thinking about different potential careers and paths. I somehow ended up in a TESOL methods class and my instructor, Chris Mares, was fantastic. He had a profound impact on me. It was not just about what I learned about SLA or methods but also about how to deal with people and how to be yourself. It is my great pleasure and honor to share my interview with Chris here.
Hello Chris! Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview.
A pleasure, Mike. We go back a long way and I have great respect for what you’ve done and what you’re doing.
Thank you! That really means a lot to me. Welcome to ELT RRR. Please have a seat. Can I get you a drink? What are you having?
Thanks, Mike. As for a drink. How about a vodka and tonic? Good to be with you, by the way.
Vodka tonic coming right up. Nice choice. I will have one myself.
You live in Orono, Maine, right? How do you like the town and the state?
I love where I live. Having spent years in Japan and having been a commuter, I promised myself I would never do that again. Not that I didn’t love Japan! I live near a river and near the woods. In the summer I carry my paddle board to the river and often canoe before work. With the eagles. Orono is small town with a young and vibrant community of runners, cyclists, and paddlers. There are two taprooms. What more could a man want? And of course there’s UMaine where I run the Intensive English Institute. I love to teach and train teachers, so all is well in the great north woods.
An Englishman in Orono, eh? Have you had any or many cultural experiences where you thought, “Wow, this is really different”?
Mainahs are great, the true ones. They remind me of rural English people. Wonderfully dry sense of humor. I’ve had all sorts of encounters with people. Crossing from Vinalhaven to Rockland on the ferry in a major storm, last week, there were two lobstermen on board. The crossing was very rough and we had to stop at one point and turn into the oncoming storm. When we arrived in Rockland one of the lobstermen commented on the ferry captain, like this, “He done pretty good, really. ‘Part from that bump in the middle.” The bump where I thought that was it.
Hahah. Perfect. What do you mostly do in your “day job?”
Teach. By choice. I’d rather teach than be an administrator. I teach in the Honors College, as you know. That’s where we met. I like going from teaching English though Film to beginners, to teaching Mrs. Dalloway. I love it.
That is great to read on at least two levels. I think it is cool you can get that sort of variety. I also think it is great that you choose to keep teaching. I guess there are lots of folks who are in a hurry to get out of teaching. Can you walk me through a typical day, assuming there is such a thing?
Sure. I wake up at 4:30, get up, make tea and write for an hour or so. I’m working on a book of vignettes called, ‘Richard – Human’. I sent you one. I then tell these stories to my students in my Special Topics class.
After that, walk the dog with my Spanish neighbor.
I get to work around 7:00 am, teach, have meetings, write, have lunch with my colleagues (left overs).
I leave work around 3:00 pm, come home, walk the dog, then go to the Rec Center and work out or play squash. In the summer I ride and paddle, in the winter I ski or snowshoe.
You are a busy guy! 4:30! Gosh. And you have a new book out too?
Yes, that’s right.
Cool. Congratulations. Who was your target audience with this book?
Teachers in general. I think it’s a book to dip into and reflect on. It’s practical and hands on. I think beginner teachers would feel comforted and more experienced teachers would hopefully be reassured and encouraged. It really is a culmination of tips I have passed on to my trainees. Ones they have valued and appreciated.
I just bought it now! Maybe there are some tips in there I got from you all the way back in 1999 when I took your course called “Methods of Teaching English as a Second Language.” Is this your first time with this sort of professional development book?
I’ve written a lot of articles on professional development. This is my first book and I hope to write more.
Great! I will look forward to those as well. Which professional developments books have been most helpful or beneficial to you?
That’s a good question! There are so many books so many resources online that I can’t answer that question. However, I can do something even better. I can tell you the most influential and inspiring paper I have ever read. It is by Adrian Underhill, and entitled ‘Awareness: the instrument and aim of experiential research’. It’s about what Edge calls ‘high yield’ and ‘low yield’ questions. It’s in ‘Teachers Develop Teachers Research’ Heinemann, 1993. I was lucky enough to have been taught by Adrian Underhill, many many moons ago.
I know you have also co-written a bunch of textbooks. What can you tell me about the process of working so closely with another author? Any advice for people who might be considering it?
Work with someone you respect. I was lucky to work with Steve Gershon, a best friend who I respect and like very much. It’s an interesting process. You get very close to each other but when it works it’s like being on a sports team. You help each other out.
I liked writing with Steve very much.
Thank you! That sounds like great advice and I think the sports analogy is interesting. I have had the pleasure of meeting Steve a few times at conferences around Asia and he is a great guy.
I found your chapter, “Writing a Coursebook” in “Developing Materials for Language Teaching” impressive and informative and even enlightening. I will always remember the part about how publishers want textbooks that are different but not too different. Is there any advice or anything else you’d now add to that chapter?
That’s still the case, I think. I believe that. However, there’s always a place for creativity and novelty. Hopefully my reader, ‘Richard – Human’ will exemplify that.
Oh this sounds interesting. Can you say more about this? Where are you going with it? I will be sure to check out the piece you sent me but I think it would be interesting to hear more here.
Like many teachers I have found that there is a shortage of good, authentic, engaging, and teachable reading material for young adult learners. I write, so I thought I’d write my own. I write two page vignettes, all involving Richard, from babyhood to now. I choose incidents that students can relate to. I tell the story first after some schema raising and the we read it and talk. I do it four days a week and I nearly have a book’s worth.I cover a lot of topics that anyone can relate to. First day of school, moments of glory and failure. Transitions and realizations. That’s what I write at 4:30 am every day. I’m cranking them out and hope to publish them somewhere, somehow. Perhaps a blog. Should I?
I think a blog sounds like a great way to share this. I am sure there are plenty of teachers around who would be thrilled to have such a resource. Let me know if I can help at all.
And back to advice for prospective materials writers, what would you say to those interested in breaking into coursebook writing and materials development?
Check out the competition. Follow any proposals guidelines very carefully. Have a clear understanding about what your text does that others don’t do or how it adds to the conversation.
What is the best thing about writing coursebooks for English language learners? Sniffing a new and unused copy.
I did not expect that answer! And now we move to the rapid fire portion of the interview….
Is there somewhere you’d like to live but haven’t had the chance yet?
I’d like to go teach for short stints all over the world. Spain, Brazil, Mexico, …
Hot places all! Moving on… Football or Football? That is, American football or soccer?
Football. The round ball.
What is your absolute favorite outdoor activity?
Whitewater canoeing, skate skiing, snowshoeing, and mountain biking … don’t get me started.
I thought this might be tough to answer. What are you reading these days for fun?
Good question. I’m reading ‘On Beauty ‘ by Zadie Smith and another one which is an excellent collection of vignettes. It has the word ‘memory’ in the title and ironically I have forgotten what it’s called.
Haha. That can happen. If you found yourself at karaoke what songs would you be most likely to sing?
Got to be honest, Mike. There’s no if here, I wouldn’t be found in a karaoke bar. Ever.
I do like to sing some Bob Dylan songs, though. ‘Simple Twist of Fate’ for example.
We like honesty here. Thank you. Ok, final question. What is your favorite course to teach?
Young adult beginners but I’m lucky as I love teaching in general, any level, any skill. These days I like small classes, though. After years of huge Japanese university classes, there’s nothing better than 8 students.
I agree with that. I don’t want to take up more of your time so I will let you go. Thanks again for popping by. Best of luck with everything going on! And please give my regards to Orono.
Great to talk with you, Mike. Hopefully you can make it up to Orono when you’re on the East Coast. I can take you to a fine Tap Room and we can sit down and catch up. There’s a lot to talk about.
Thanks for an inspiring conversation. Let’s keep it going.