I wrote the following in spurts over something like ten days.
This is not a blog post.
I am really swamped with a project at the moment. This project requires me to be at the computer for long hours and it is not anything like a creative endeavor. Why the secrecy? No need, actually. I am editing 100s of pages of translated documents. Literally in original sense of the word. My former students are the translators and the documents from the government and are super dry. Sometimes I feel like writing something here or elsewhere but this cloud of editing hangs over me. I can’t bear to spend time on the computer without catching up on the endless pages that need to be edited. Also, when I am not editing I feel like I need to be as far away from the computer or at least working on the online course I am teaching. Poor me. Anyway, such is life, I suppose. In order to quell my creative impulses I have decided to share some scattered thoughts that occurred to me whilst editing. These thoughts came over a period of a few days and were written quickly in my “breaks” from editing. I hope they are least slightly of interest. Enjoy the ride and thanks for reading. I hope readers will understand if this post is not as tightly edited as it could be.
Sometimes I miss my previous job (well actually I guess it was 2 jobs ago) when I worked in a language school and I met and worked with a wide cross-section of society. I had retirees, cops, students, stay-at-home-moms, government officials, business-people, nuclear engineers, cooks and lots more. It was a nice chance to meet a variety of people and to also connect to Korea and Korean culture in a different way. I love my current job. I also feel nostalgic about working with and knowing people from various industries and walks of life.
One of the cops I taught in the job mentioned above was part of one of the funniest things I have experienced in class. I brought my brother and his then girlfriend (now wife) to my class. The police officer was a kind, caring and sensitive man. He was quite good at English. He was inexperienced talking to non-Koreans and was largely self-taught. Coming to my class was one of the view times in his life he communicated with foreigners (or even did much communication in English at all) so he was excited to talk to my brother and his future wife. The comedy (and to be fair, uncomfortable feeling for me) came when he asked her, “How do you please your boyfriend?” She couldn’t respond without laughing as she couldn’t figure it was anything but a sexual question. His follow-up question of “How do you make your boyfriend happy?” didn’t sound much different or slow down the laughter. Some further clarification showed he meant something more like “How do you ensure a healthy relationship with your boyfriend?” There were lots of lessons for me as a teacher to learn from that experience and interaction. I can’t remember exactly what they are now, though.
I think I learned a lot in that job. Teaching nearly 30 hours a week with different groups and frequently teaching new courses and new groups was a good opportunity for professional development. The competitive nature of the place where evaluations were so important was silly, of course, but it also provide a baptism (or maybe trial?) by fire that was in some ways good motivation to work hard, even if it didn’t necessarily provide fantastic grounds for innovation and experimentation. Working with a wide variety of people in terms of experience (both life and teaching), knowledge, commitment and perspectives was also a great chance for professional development.
I am reminded of a line in “The Developing Teacher” that sometimes development is something that happens to us and a change in circumstances, context or responsibilities can provide many opportunities for development. Sorry for not digging out the exact quote, I can’t bear to do it with this editing in front of me. Well, if anyone asks politely for the quote in the comments I will gladly find and share it because I will have more time by then.
Even if the management was not always good or less than terrible in that job I was describing there were some great colleagues there and I learned a lot from them. My current thought, which might be controversial, is something like, “There is not much of a correlation between good management and opportunities for professional development.” My two most recent previous jobs (nice phrase!) could only be charitably described as not-very-well-run but I think I gained a lot from these experiences. In fact, I might go so far as to say the shittiness and shoddiness added to the professional development opportunities because I was granted plenty of chances to try stuff out that I might not otherwise have had in other, better run places. I wonder if this jives with the experience of others? I think most of the time as people seeking to develop professionally we seek out the well-run places but I am thinking there might be a lot of chances in poorly run places.Of course all this brings up questions about what I mean by well run. I am not really sure so I won’t even dive into it here.
In what is a completely new train of thought a few days after the previous I am wondering, what if we never taught students the present perfect
tense? To my (American?) ears and eyes it seems to be quite overused. Would students, especially at beginner levels, be missing out too much If they just over used the simple past? Or even present simple. “I go to Canada three times in my life” is pretty comprehensible, isn’t it? As is “I went to Canada three times in my life.” Ohh well, these are the sorts of thoughts I have while editing. It is not hard to blame the English Grammar Industrial complex for such things.
I had an interesting chat on social media one day about why we yanks “use present perfect wrong.” While this idea of wrong is the sort of prescriptivist bullshit up with which I will not put I thought it was quite interesting to think about how the history of immigration in the US might have influenced such things as the (non) use of the present perfect while our former colonial overlords would still tend to use it more.
In terms of present perfect usage, two classic examples for me are “The train has arrived at the station!” and “Goshdarn it I’ve lost my keys.” Now, I can fully see why one might use the present perfect here I think I would be more likely to talk about simple past. “I lost my keys and I will leave it up to you to consider how much this event impacts the current moment, thanks.”
Time for a joke then? OK. The past, the present, and the future walked into a bar. It was tense.
This talk of language somehow reminds me of a long, long, time ago in a country not so far away when I was doing editing on some English education materials. I didn’t always have a high opinion of the materials (read: sometimes I thought they were ridiculous). There were many laughable and saddening things in the material and I was always ready to pick holes in it (though, on balance it probably wasn’t quite as bad as I thought at the time. I remember laughing to myself (and hopefully not aloud) about some bullshit called the “Zero Conditional.” Only later did I realize it was actually a thing. If Mike sees mountains and mountains of nonsense he starts to think everything is nonsense too.
This language talk and the admission of my lack of knowledge of terminology reminds me of something else. What a windy road we are on here in this post. I don’t remember where I heard or read him say it (might have been his talk at IATEFL this year) but I think Hugh Dellar said something about how you never see presentations about language at conferences. That matches my experience very well. I wonder why this is the case. Would ELT folks feel weird learning about language or developing their English skills at a conference? Would presenters be intimidated? I am not sure if I am talking about just those people known as native speakers or not. I don’t wish to suggest that grammar knowledge is the whole of language knowledge but a while back Alex Walsh wrote a very interesting (not to mention brave) post, “The Confessions of a Grammarphobic ELT” that I think is related.
Another idea from Hugh Dellar about conferences and this field that often finds its way to my mind is how you always find people at conferences at the front of the room telling the audience how telling and lecturing are bad without any apparent sense of irony or internal conflict. There seems to be a very strong belief that telling is bad. I think in many cases it might not be ideal but I think as always we need to make our decisions and not be swayed by thought leaders or group think. I think we should see more interpretive dance, art projects, and music related to the idea that teacher-fronted instruction is bad, for those are the only ways which could thoroughly convince me.
Yet another random thought that occurred to me as I race through this arduous editing task is about feedback. Outside of the editing game, I felt moments of myself wanting to give unsolicited feedback to friends, family and strangers this week. Perhaps I’m being habituated to such actions in a short time, assuming that everyone could benefit from my wisdom as much as those paying for my editing acumen. I need to re-read my post on suggestions. I mostly managed to resist the urges but this desire to give feedback in cases I don’t believe I usually would pushed me to think about what it means, if anything. Assuming it was related to the constant fixing and editing I was doing (which is a moderately sized assumption I think) made me wonder how much of our lives outside the classroom are shaped by our lives in it. I am thinking of a particular guy I know in Korea who strikes me as a nice guy but very much a blowhard. As I tried to be not overly dismissive of this fellow I theorized that he is just used to talking to people and is used to being the expert, or at least English expert in the room. What I found extremely grating might just be an extension of his classroom personality or persona. I dunno. This theory makes it slightly less bothersome but only slightly.
I just edited something that had the word omission and commission in it. The sentence was something about the commission double checking if something was omitted in the reports. Nonetheless it reminded me of this poem (read aloud here by the author).
This round of unwritten things is on me.
Till next time then.
ve just sent in the last of the editing.
Update: I was just asked if I’d be interested in doing some more. Maybe I can find some guidance in this post from Fiona Mauchline.
On a random Wednesday at some point the last ten weeks I wasn’t quite sure what I’d do with a class of future interpreters, who are in the first year of a two year graduate program. As I was considering this question I saw an invitation to talk tech from eltjam. They listed some questions regarding tech use and I thought the questions might be a nice intro into discussions on autonomous learning and summer plans for improving English and technology in general. The good people at eltjam listed 11 questions and before that there were some general discussion questions loosely focused on Sugata Mitra’s talk at IATEFL this year (and maybe the ensuing debate). Before starting with either set of discussion questions I cued up some Mitra with a few comprehension questions. It was starting to feel like a real planned lesson.
We talked about the following questions as a whole group (four students and me) after students had discussed them in pairs. It was a mix of me interviewing people and nominating speakers and a more free flowing discussion.
- Do you like working without a teacher?
- Would you enjoy working in a small group with a computer (ie a SOLE)?
- Would you like English help from my Mum (ie a grandma)?
- When do you think your English improves most: in class or outside?
Students liked the word mum vs. mom, by the way. They thought it might be nice to talk to random grandmas they didn’t know but also wanted language and teaching experts. For their field as potential conference interpreters they pointed to history and culture as very important things and felt random grannies in the cloud could be helpful for this. They also liked the idea of potentially cheering up or giving company to someone. There was some concern that the elderly might talk in old-fashioned ways or might not pronounce things accurately or quickly enough. There was also the worry grandparents might not understand the students well. The consensus seemed to be that discussion partners in the cloud might be good as a supplement but not as the primary way of learning.
As a group they were largely pro-teacher (and not, I believe, because I was the person asking). They thought it was good to have someone devoted to the task of helping them learn. They placed a high value on trust and reliability and thought maybe a stranger wouldn’t have these things. They liked the idea of having experienced and trained teachers.
The students thought the ideas of SOLEs was okay and said they already do a lot of work on their own in groups and are quite capable of choosing tasks they need to do. My impression of their take on the SOLE idea was that it was nothing new or revolutionary and the impression I got was they felt “Of course students can get together to do tasks with the help of technology.”
They came back to the idea of a teacher being helpful and important, in order to keep students on task and to provide expert feedback. They said it is too easy to be distracted when working in small groups without tangible goals or tasks. They also suggested it is very nice to have a teacher around when they get stuck or misunderstand something. It is nice to know if you are on the right track, they said.
I mentioned distraction above and this was very much a key issue for the students. They were worried too many apps or too many sources or too much going on might distract them from their goals. I got the sense that doing and using lots of tools seemed a bit scattershot to them and they’d prefer to work with just a few quality things.
My students said they preferred and believed in a mix of in and out of class learning. Some of the tools they mentioned as most useful were online dictionaries and apps, TED talks, NPR podcasts, lectures from EBS, and newspapers online (with and without accompanied audio). They preferred things that had a connection to Korea but said this is not necessary. They said they don’t like to pay for apps or materials because there is so much out there for free and they can find the free or pirated versions quite easily.
I was curious about smartphones being used for studying here in the most wired country on earth and they said they didn’t do so very often and neither did their friends or siblings. Smartphones are mostly for fun. The main educational uses were podcasts and dictionaries. They said they didn’t know much about apps for learning English that were made outside of Korea. This matched with my perceptions about not so many Korean students using apps for improving their English.
They were also not so hot on the idea of social media for improving English. Many of them had Facebook before they were asked to make an account for another course. They didn’t seem to see the point of social media for improving their English. I took a few minutes and shared who I think Twitter could be super useful for students in their situation. I saw some nodding but I think this would take a bit of nudging (or devoting class time to it.)
I enjoyed the conversation and got a lot out of it. I hope and believe the students did too. It looked like they enjoyed hearing the strategies and tools their peers employ. The class flew by and at the end I asked the students to answer some of the other questions from eltjam. Their (occasionally edited just for clarity and flow) responses are below.
- Apart from textbooks, what do you use outside of class time to help you learn English?
Ted Talks, Good Morning pops (app).
Sometimes novels or short stories or movie scripts/scenarios.
Watch TED Talks and speeches and EBS World News. Recently Freakonomics.
Radio, apps (Ipad), newspapers.
- What technology do you use to learn English when you’re not in school?
Smartphone apps and computer websites.
Websites-google to find English texts.
Apps-Podcast, TED, Umano, dictionaries.
Websites-Huffington Post, Wall Street Journal.
Googling, dictionary apps, EBS program, NPR, podcasts.
- Why do you use them?
Because they are more interesting than textbooks and more practical.
Because speakers normally use good English. Basically I believe their English is good enough for me to learn grammar, words, and also for me to memorize because they are publicly giving a speech.
The two websites (Huffpo and WSJ) provide both Korean and English scripts.
Podcasts are good for listening to fun programs for free.
TED is good for learning the structure of speeches and various information from various fields.
They are reliable and I can access them any time.
- How do you know if they are helping you learn?
I don’t know exactly but friends’ or teachers’ positive comments are helpful.
I sometimes find myself using the expressions I picked up.
I can learn various expressions and use them in interpretation.
Because Native Speakers teach or speak and the teachers are qualified and professional. I learn new expressions.
- Do you use them in class? What technology do you use in class?
Oxford Dictionary (English-English), Nave Dictionary (English-Korean), Google Search (to find out appropriate collocations).
Yes, we use Ted Talks sometimes and googling for translation.
Yes, WSJ, dictionary and TED apps.
English dictionary app or googling.
- What language is your phone and things like Facebook set to?
- What do you think about using technology in class?
If properly used it would be very helpful but if too much is used it will distract you.
I think it’s necessary sometimes. Since we are learning interpretation skills, we need more practice rather than apps in class.
Sometimes good but usually some PowerPoint or screens make my eyes tired. I have to protect my eyes. And they are boring.
- What English skills do you think technology can help you with?
Listening. I often listen to TedTalks but I think face-to-face conversation is better to improve one’s speaking skills.
Fluency and vocabulary (through dictionaries).
Listening (especially through TED and NPR).
- Would you like to do homework, or communicate with your class, on the train home?
Yes. While commuting I listen to podcasts (Good morning pops app) or read some English materials.
Yes, but not online. Face-to-face.
I drive so I can’t do homework in my car.
Class is enough. After class I have to review on my own.
- Do you study English outside of class with other students? If so, do you use any technology to do this?
Yes, searching for materials and listening to dialogues or speeches.
Skype and KakaoTalk.
Yes, I use an Ipad to practice interpretation.
Yes. Listening to TED or speeches together.
- Is there anything you want to do with technology and learning English, but can’t?
With technology including Skype or Facetime I can talk or converse with someone who speaks English. So, technically, I can. But, in fact, I can’t because I don’t have enough time.
I don’t know what I need. If there is a cool app I would use it.
No, I have a lot of stuff I have to study.
It seems that their answers clearly show their specific interests, goals and challenges but I hope their answers are helpful on a more general level too. Thanks very much for reading. Please be sure to see the follow up post on eltjam about what students want from edtech. If you have any questions you’d like me to ask my students in the fall I will more than likely be happy to do so.
The picture is still vivid in my mind, as is the emotion I felt when I saw it. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Here was an experienced teacher (and one I was officially and tacitly expected to model myself after) doing this kind of shit. I was at my desk and he was in the middle of the room, at the Director’s Desk, with the folder of grades for the term in front of him. As he entered the scores you could see him thinking about what to enter. He had that sort of looking-up-and-to-the-right-and-making-things-up-as-he-went-along look. It was like I could see him matching the students to the score that he was creating right then and there on the spot.
Most of all, though, I was feeling superior.
(I’d also note that sometimes it is easier and better to just do the thing and move on)
In the past, when I was in a new jobs, I was very critical of lesson plans and materials and things that were passed down to me from previous teachers. I think part of it was the feeling I’d be expected to use something made by someone else that might not work for me. There was probably the ego and “I can do better” attitude at play here as well. With more experience I can see maybe the materials they passed down were not the best stuff or were not exactly what they’d used. I think it is hard to judge such things by just how they look in my hand or on my screen months after the fact. A very intricate backstory is a possibiltiy with materials and maybe teachers were in a neguices-type situation and just passed along any old thing and figured the next teacher/sucker can sort it out on their own. After all, many things are shyte for a reason.
I did this a few weeks ago. Yikes. When I saw this move from a few people 5 years ago I thought it was rude, egocentric and telling. I thought it conveyed a message of, “I have learned all I need to know” and don’t need to learn from you people, but come to my session please.” Having been guilty of this sin very recently I can see there are a variety of possible reasons for this and it doesn’t necessarily imply a massive ego or disdain for others in the field.