Impressions we/ you/ they make

I’ll do my best now to write a non-whiney blog post. Essentially, I’m NOT annoyed much by instances of the behaviour I’ll lay out in this post. I most often try to keep an objective distanced view, make notes, and subsequent *logical* conclusions. And these conclusions is exactly what matters and drove me to be writing this.

This post is also nothing spectacular or new. It’s about impressions we/ you/ they make when communicating with others online. I’ll mostly be referring to emails here.

 

I’m wondering just how much it is a “Russian thing” to seem (be?), sound, and come across as rude while emailing in English. I’m less and less sure that simply teaching the formal/ informal letter templates, useful phrases and email layouts ultimately helps actually writing better letters. By “better letters” I mean those which (a) carry a message across; (b) don’t hurt/ humuliate/ shock the person on the receiving side. 

So, a few instances that brought me to think that I should be teaching more than just typical expressions, structure and style of common letter types.

1)  The other day I heard amusing and slightly disturbing comments related to writing complaint letters. Namely, threats were considered a norm, in addition to quite typical clipped and sharp half-sentences. Yes, the problem is real and does not come from an exciting case-study scenario. Thus, I now realize, emotions are truly involved and making a difference to the process of writing the letter in question. Is this a common practice? How emotional do you get when/if you find yourself in a similar situation? Do you then follow the rules we teach? Just wondering.

 

2) A few months ago there was a vastly comical but also to a large extent pretty sad correspondence thread in my mailbox. Both sides of it are/were connected with English language teaching or at least with the English language (which is L2 for both sides, by the way). The correspondence was around a professional issue, which is exactly what made it look particularly tragic for me. I couldn’t help raising my eyebrows in bewilderment when I saw Dear Anna!!!!!! The last sentence in the letter invited me to be even more excited about the whole thing, as the amount of exclamation marks tripled, I think. Well, in fairness, the main chunk of that letter conveyed the message and was mainly to the point. I smiled and was reasonably excited.

 

3) The same professional issue had to face more online communication but with a different person. The striking, and frankly speaking, somewhat offending thing about this particular thread was the tone (demanding? aggressive? offhand?) and failure to meet the communication target in the first place. I didn’t lose much as a result of this and had to offer my own very polite but unambiguously (as for the reason for it) clipped response. It was very much about the impression my conversation partner made.

 

4) Finally, this point is also about impressions and conclusions. It is less ethical than previous three, though, as it features some copied and pasted lines of real communication which took place.

The story setting: I was looking for an apartment to rent. The country is NOT Russia (which makes me want to dwell more on the culture impact and how far it extends, and also to be more condescending towards us rude and direct Russians). Here are the extracts of three responses I received. My initial messages included general info about myself, my upcoming visit and some specific questions about the apartments.

Response #1

I uploaded other pictures that you can refer. <…> To make your reservation, you should click “Book it!” button. You can also visit here before you make a reservation completed. To do so, just email me.

(Note: I did ask about extra photos. I did mention, too, that I’m not in that country now or in the following several weeks.)

Response #2

My apt is open for you.

(Note: ok.)

Response #3

Hello Anna

Thanks for your message. 
Big welcome to …. (omitted for secrecy and suspence building purpose, to be revealed soon))

Of course, this studio is available for you.

Yes, I have met some nice guests here. Usually they were working in that table.

If you need more information or help, tell me :)

Best,

- … (name)

 

Task: out of these three, choose the person I responded to. 

 

So, to me it all boils down to the impression, even if that sounds harsh. I mean to say, those other apartments could be really great, and I understand that the contact people do not necessarily feel extremely comfortable talking in Engilsh. Also, I’m a language teacher and I’m really understanding. I seriously don’t mind any of those replies, I could deal with that outrageous (to me) correspondence with the Russian ELT people without venting too much.

What matters in the end is that I will rent that other flat.

 

*****

Tell me please if I’m being the worst of an English teacher with these observations jumping out at me as biting my eyes. Where do these issues come from? Should I feel bad about being picky?

Convince me, if you will, that a person, of whatever culture and background, will by all means continue writing grammatically, lexically, stylistically correct letters after you’ve taught them a lesson on it… Throw stones at me but I think it’s about how people think and what they accept as a norm in communicating in their mother tongue.

 

I hope I didn’t sound too arrogant or unprofessional. I’d like to talk more about this.

Thank you. 

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I don’t like this.

Impulsive, prompted by a picture of a fancy salad, post about non-ELT things.

When I was watching the recording of the iTDi Summer School MOOC session by Rose Bard a few days ago, I wrote on Facebook that it’s rich with ideas I relate to. After the session I found a note I’d only half-consciously made while following Rose. The note says:

Help them go beyond “I don’t like this”.

I turned the page of my planner over to this new week and let the note fade away from my memory, without giving it much further thought. Since I’m in this lazy-jelly-brain summer state.

写真 (1)

A few minutes ago (upd: a couple of hours – it takes time to write, even if impulsively) I was flipping casually through the pages of a mag. I saw this picture. I wasn’t hungry, and in fairness I’m no good or satisfactory cook, but I thought it looked fresh and easy. When my eyes glanced through ingredients and saw “300g of pears” there, only a millisecond passed before my mind registered a fleeting but confident “I don’t like pears” line.
I’m sorry for the lack of logic and presence of irrationality here, but this was when I frowned at myself and rushed to this screen to type an incoherent post about the dangers (?) of not liking stuff.

Where am I going with this?

“I don’t like this.”
It sounds like a strong statement of personal will, manifestation of solid knowledge of self, its needs and desires.
It also sounds to me now like a limit, a constraint one willingly prescribes for oneself, to live within and know little better.

And since it’s only human to like and dislike, I imagine I could, in a carefree summer fashion, connect this to teaching and learning.
I don’t like to teach kids. I don’t like to teach, or better say deal with, grammar. I don’t like role-plays. These are major and all have stories of reasons behind. However… What is it about me and liking here? Does liking have a place at all for a teacher, imagining herself to be a more or less professional? Feel free to let me know in a comment.

I don’t like it that I regularly struggle with writing.
I don’t like libraries.
I don’t like Quizlet. (it’s funny just how often this app name makes an appearance in my posts)))

It’s fascinating to me to analyse what lies behind those dislikes binding down our experiences. It’s no less fascinating to imagine now what can happen once I let go of my dislikes. It’s bound to be uncomfortable there out of the homelike confines. I might, in the end, harden in my view and confidently proceed with disliking.
Incidentally, I might just as well reconsider.

*****

I don’t like pears much. If I see them sold at the market I don’t have an impulse to buy a kilo, not even one pear (as opposed to cherries). If I happen to have pears on my dining table, I’ll most likely choose another fruit or nothing. If one feeds me pears I’ll eat and like them, though. I love lemonade made of pears. Pear cakes. The smell of pears. I’m not totally sure what’s behind my dislike. I don’t have a serious point worthy of hours of thinking over with this post. I don’t like cockroaches either, but I’m not inclined to try liking them, or making pets of them, not at this point of my life. Obviously, you can’t rejoice in all things in the world, and indeed why would you?

But seriously, next time I catch myself thinking “I don’t like this”, I’m going to take a step in just the opposite direction. Facing the antipathy, probing for stamina, going beyond my self-imposed prejudice.

The Help them go beyond “I don’t like this” sank deep into my mind and heart, and I want to explore it, for myself and maybe students, too.

*** Late Warning***
It should be obvious I’m musing while being well aware of how far from generalizations this whole line of reasoning is. Thank you.

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Apps. Illusions and facts.

I have just read this post and thought maybe I have more to say on the topic than a reasonably sized blog post comment would fit. It’s about apps, students, and teachers in between (or by the side).

Within 2 years I’ve come quite a way from being frantically and irritably enthusiastic about apps for learning English to being bearably enthusiastic and critical about their content, value and purpose. The history of my iTunes purchases would show you positively more than 50 various apps, either specifically designed and presented as tools for learning a foreign language or fit for that goal from my view (at the moment of purchase). It would be a strong and valid argument that my devices are a curious teacher’s devices, bound to be different from any curious student’s ones.

There are several statements, open for criticism of course, that I believe to be largely true.

1) Students need guidance in choosing apps. Producing a list of apps, whether long or short, is not guidance.
2) To think and hope that students will continually and persistently use apps you recommend, or apps they find on their own, would be an illusion.
3) Some apps will stick, most won’t. It’s highly individual. Most just won’t!
4) Recognize the difference between apps for use in class WITH a teacher and apps for use outside of class.

Random comments now.

On durability:
If you have ever played a game on your phone, you might have noticed that it gets boring pretty soon. Some games last longer in your phone than others but all of them without exception come to a dead end in terms of your interest in them. The same, in my experience, relates to apps for learning a language. Any apps which are not in your day-to-day use will likely have a short life span.

On the key factor:
The key factor being what it is that personally suits your style of… not really learning a language, but rather having a relationship with your phone. My example is this: I’m subscribed to quite a few podcasts. Some of them I rarely but do use in class. Others were added with a fair prospect of listening to in my spare time, or long commute hours. That was an illusion. Fact: there’s something in listening to podcasts as a type of activity that does not tick for me. However, I know people who are regular listeners and do that with pleasure, which I’m jealous of. I’m ready and willing to learn that skill… Some day. :)

On apps used with or without teacher:
There are apps intended to be used in an instruction-led mode, that is for classroom use, for homework, for a course of English. For me the best (or worst) example is Quizlet, which I still can’t imagine to be used by a student of mine, on their own, for the fun of adding own flashcards and playing vocabulary games there is questionable. It looks a nerdy pastime, really, and, as “Jenny” rightfully noted, phones are perceived as a nice way to relax after studying and working hard.

Not to appear overly grumpy, here’s a list of apps designed for autonomous language study but proved working/ popular among my friends and students:
Memrise (mentioned previously here – and, by the way, I gave up on it for now)
Duolingo (recommended by a few teacher and non-teacher friends)
Lingualeo (all-time favorite for Russian learners for several years! Lots of positive comments and nice feedback. Some of my colleagues at the university where I teach use it in class and for homework.)
Busuu (my personal favorite which does work for me, or rather would work if I were a disciplined learner)

Now this is where I see the dissonance that could be mended. The ubiquitous association is “books and notebooks = studying (and doing it hard); phone and apps = friends and fun”. Look at your phone, browse through what’s in it. My guess is your home screen would probably reflect your interests and lifestyle. This is exactly what I see as a chance for those apps to make way into your (= a language learner’s) mobile device. Apps which are not originally made for learning any language could become pleasant and discreet partners in your daily life. Those apps which do not thrust much of focused linguistic exposure on you, but provide you with the content you’re up for, in systematic view and following recognizable patterns. Fotopedia for photos and stories, Instagram for photos and communication with friends, TripAdvisor for travelling, Horoscopes for the lovers of horoscopes, Infographics for the lovers of figures and facts, Fitness for sports and training programmes, Games (first thing on my mind) for anyone – whatever comes along with the specific scope of interests of the cell phone owner looks potentially English-worthy to me. If you’d like to push students’ use of apps, be nagging and ask for feedback on it once in a while. I often chat with my students about it or just show interest in what’s in their phones.

*****
Being a teacher, I might not be a typical learner of a foreign language, but since most of my Japanese studies happen in the realm of mobile devices, here’s what I can share.
– My 日本語 folder is full with 12 apps, only three of which I regularly use.
– Phone itself is set in Japanese, so the majority of all other apps operate in Japanese, too. Which, frankly speaking, is oftentimes frustrating but also fun.
– Blog posts and articles I find online (on culture, language, grammar, whatever else Japanese) are saved in Pocket app. It’s helpful for me to get back to the same things again and again.
– There are a couple of great Japanese-speaking chat partners that agree to chat with me in Line. Stressful, enjoyable, Japanese-only chat time. I love it and hope it is useful, even if unsystematic (or thanks to it maybe?).
– One day I’ll write a separate post on this issue… For now I’ll just admit to reading a guide to Japanese grammar (!!! reading a grammar guide, seriously, me) AND finding it very useful. Yes, it is an app.
*****

My final lines, possibly summarizing all those bits and pieces of facts and thoughts about apps:
Mike asks why Korean students don’t use apps for learning English. I’m not saying it by way of giving an answer, but my belief is that the problem lies in the wording and expectation from this wording – “an app for learning English”. I might very well be wrong in my assumption that Korean/ Russian/ Italian/ Indonesian/ Finnish/ etc learners of English would have the same reasoning as Jenny. They could, though, start using apps for learning English as soon as these apps stop being handed over to them as apps for learning English. Or they could already be using their phones in the ways that they do and enriching their English, without giving it much of a serious thought. And this, to me, is also fine.

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The Life of Me, Teacher

This unembellished narration, telling briefly about almost 9 years of my life as a teacher, among other roles, was written for a reason. The reason is not to say yet more and more about myself – I’m certainly coping with the task to be running a self-centered blog very well. The reason behind writing this is the upcoming IATEFL webinar. On July 19th Barb Sakamoto will be talking about the Lives of English Language Teachers. This story is just one particular professional journey of several years up to now. It does not aim to impress, ask for a moral, or inspire. I’ll say more after the 3 paragraphs of the journey.

A beginning teacher (9 years ago?).
I didn’t enter a teacher training university to become a teacher. I wanted to study English and I wanted to work in a profession that would mean being around people, that was my reasoning. Like most of my university mates, I started tutoring kids when in my second year of studies. That was more of a game at first, having fun making own crosswords and cutting lots of flashcards (apparently, there’s an age when it is a fun game)). Then, as part of our study course, we had to teach for a month in a comprehensive school in the 4th year of studies. That experience involved intensive teaching, planning, observing, feedback receiving and handling extra-curricular activities. Somehow it happened that I, surprisingly for myself, fell for the excitement of working with the kids. A month after this mandatory teaching practice finished, I found myself a job as a part-time English teacher at a small private school. I felt the thrill, pride and importance of being a teacher. Well, to cut a long story short, 2 years after I quit, both happily and with a heavy heart of feeling frustrated about education system in my country that I’d experienced (more about why it so happened in my blog post here).

About halfway, and getting to the tipping point.
For a little over a year after I quit there was downtime and feeling down, too, for me. I toyed with an idea of trying myself in some other job, went to a couple of interviews, and that was enough to realize teaching felt as a best fit for me at that time. I started teaching in-company (both General and Business English), I got employed by a leading university in Russia. All in all, I found myself in a good place, where I finally felt interested and comfortable teaching. I’d describe the time as smooth and routinely exciting. The familiar routine was rocked incidentally by joining Twitter, learning there’s a whole global world of ELT (also learning about the acronym), and meeting Chuck Sandy online, all of that in the spring of 2011. Since that time my life as a teacher has changed in many ways, some of which can be traced online – on iTDi website, on Twitter and Facebook, on my blog.

Now, summer 2014.
I’m still working at the same university and I’m enjoying it. I’m still teaching English to adults, while also helping them to remember (or often to relearn) how to learn. I’ve found out there’s comfort zone and it feels challenging, necessary and rewarding for me to be stretching it by presenting at conferences, talking to other teachers, listening to them, thinking about my classes and writing about these.

I never wanted to be a teacher and I don’t presume I “was born to be one”. It’s my belief that a person can be anything he/ she wants as long as there’s realization about this, confidence, pain and effort, and acceptance of the way to be thorny, though sometimes rosy, too. That totally depends on your perspective. My way now is interesting and inviting, allowing me to have time and chance to think and improvise. Now I’d like to change my teaching context in a way more radical than instructing learners of another education stage (besides, I feel like “a veteran” who’s seen enough of it here – I get the idea of ELT in Russia). I wish to see how I would cope with teaching, students, and teaching students in Japan, Brazil, New Zealand, etc. At the same time, I wish for myself to be writing more and better, about things I know or spend so much of my time contemplating about. I imagine I could very well be anything other than a teacher, still, and maybe I will. A columnist, a psychologist, a gallerist, some other -ist. I wouldn’t mind being a teacher all the while, too. :)

Thanks for reading and I hope to see you there —> Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto – ‘The Lives of English Language Teachers’, July 19th.

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Fear *not*

Among the 14 drafts existing on this blog and scaring me off with the menacing look of their titles, blank pages and ideas loosely hanging in the air, there’s one about fears. So I’ll get done with it first.

This post you’re going to read now will inconsistently tell a story of one my big professional complex or maybe a chronic fear.

The fear of silence in the classroom.

 

***** Noise *****

My impression is that teachers pay attention to noise their students make: useful EFL-type noise (speaking English in class in various situations), and a range of potentially annoying types of noise, which may cause discipline issues, seriously get on a teacher’s nerves, or have neutral effect.

I thought I am creating noise, too. And only some part of this noise is of the useful ELT type.

I haven’t measured my TTT percentage and I’m unlikely to do so unless (1) pressed to do it (2) suddenly curious about this percentage. TTT, like pretty much any other relevant ELT acronym, is not my point here. I seriously think I’m faced with a psychological “wrong”, and a kind of paradox, too. In outside of classroom life I’m happy to be engrossed in silence. Hearing no people speak, as well as no TV or music on, is not a problem for me, on the contrary, it’s a soothing time.  Then what’s happening with my brain when I enter a classroom?

I attempted to search for possible reasons for my panicky fear of hearing no human voices for 60-90 min with students. There’s one reason I liked best, and it is about silence standing for this teacher’s uncertainty.  My association, wherever it comes from, is that silence means a teacher losing grip of the lesson. As a consequence, the room gets filled with a heavy air of expectations, which a teacher then needs to come up to. This whole explanation that I formulated for myself looks so wrong when typed. I realize now, at this moment when I’m not teaching anyone, that I don’t need to have full control of my class all the time, I realize that. But as soon as a lesson begins, I’m not so wise anymore. And so I make some noise.

 

***** How I sort of taught, in silence, and what it sort of taught me *****

This part of the draft dates back to as long back as November 2013.

I had to “teach” 4 classes of/for another teacher who was absent that day. I say “teach” or sort of teach as I agreed (with myself) to mostly use the lesson plans that teacher had left for me. That meant assigning the students a set of tasks to be completed on their own. I didn’t really manage to totally “disappear” from those lessons, but a positive 80% of the classtime I did, and that was how I discovered silence for the first time in my teaching career maybe.

I had the space to observe, take a distanced look and reflect. Teaching (?) a lesson I didn’t prepare. Teaching (?) a lesson my teacher self was not much involved in (how do you like that statement?). Teaching (?) a lesson that didn’t have me in its plan. Teaching (?) a lesson I wouldn’t have agreed to plan myself.

So observing students do the work was happening. As I’ve said before, they had a set of tasks to do on their own in class. The room was silent: flipping pages, reading, thinking, writing. That was happening. I saw one student doodling in the squares of her notebook, and I was mystified. Several students were in a sort of a daze. They could have been thinking, or taking the time to shake off any thoughts, or formulating ideas, or maybe they were plain bored. Whatever their particilar silences stood for, it was beautiful to observe. “Next week I’m going to try the same with my students” – I thought, and that had to wait till April (see the link at the bottom of this post).

 

Another interesting insight that came from watching those students at work was my realization of how I’m perceived by students who are not my students, who are not familiar with my teaching style and habits, good and bad. I mean they really didn’t seem to care. They didn’t have expectations for this class from this teacher, they were unaffected by this teacher’s ways. I didn’t matter for them, and that made a difference to me.

It made me think that the importance of a teacher is only a valid point under certain conditions. I imagine you come to teach my class for an extended period of time – will the students show different results? will they learn better? how will your teaching ways affect their learning? I’m oversimplifying, but to me so much comes down to the impact of a personality of a teacher on how students do in their learning. I do believe this impact is so large, and well maybe not necessarily always positive.

 

Other, random points I noted during that silent teaching/monitoring learning:

1) Questions: Do they need me all the time? Do they need the sense of “activity” all the time? How much group work do they need?

2) Come to think of it, when I’m writing blog posts or articles I like to be alone. I need this type of space to read, think, process my thoughts, and write them down. It’s a prerequisite for the writing being done – silence at my workspace.

3) Come to think of it, when I’m self-studying Japanese – silence is essential.

 

***** Less fear *****

Several months after paying conscious attention to my fear for the first time and looking at it closer during other classes, I think I can say I fear a little less. I’ve also been unintentionally practising sort of silence in my classes. I noticed the following habits:

At some point at a lesson I just stop and sweep my eyes over students, with or without a smile. In the middle of a  lesson I sometimes feel caught in the whirlwind of their buzzing and the activity that I keep pouring onto them, and I stop and take a breather. At any point during a lesson I may just stop and stare at them or into space.

Students’ reactions to any of these can be smiling if I smile at them (which I seem to most often inexplicably do), but the majority look puzzled, lost or expectant. There’s no pedagogical/ methodological/ psychological implication that I put into these odd moments. They never really ruined my class even when they came across as awkward, weird, or occured at a wrong time. They are also not really promoting the useful ELT-type of silent classroom time. But I don’t fear these moments anymore.

 

Thank you for reading. Here’s one of my recent posts describing useful silent time in my class once in April. I also encourage you to try sort of teach, for insights and whatever may come along.

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#OneStudent and his guest post.

This is a guest post from D., my former student. Read on, and then on to my commentary at the bottom to make sense of my reasons to request the writing in the first place and publish it here, unedited and with permission.

 

*****

As far as I got from the letter, for some reason your opinion about my level of EFL is quite good, so I am to tell why.
It made me think for a while so for now there’s a couple of words I can say.

It was maybe the 2nd grade (12 years ago) to offer an English lessons for the first time. It wasn’t obligatory so we had a small group of children whose parents wanted their kids to study foreign language. The teacher was my mother’s friend in youth so I became special for her (for my teacher, not for my mom; for mom I’ve been special before for good marks and other stuff). Her name was Ekaterina Vladimirovna, and she was awesome. I remember her way of remembering structures and words, it was based on a rhythmical repeating. It was so effective so i still remember the rules of being polite (“be the first to say “hello””, “say “thank you” a lot” etc.) and the line from the text about breakfast that I will never forget: “…porridge, an egg, a sandwich and a cup of coffee for breakfast…”. We painted arrows up and down over the words to remember where to go with the voice up and down. Once she made me repeat “Africa” nine times till I pronounced it right. Nine times for poor Africa.
After her course I was able to list my breakfast with an excellent pronunciation. But the even better thing to change was that after her lessons I would never consider English as a discipline. For me it always will be a game, a song that I have to sing, a rhythm that I need to play with. Since then being at the ordinary lesson would be a torture for me.

In later classes my teachers were changing every year. They were my school’s director that skipped half of the lessons, three of four students or university graduates (I had problems with literally ALL of them) and one extremely old woman with so German voice so I considered her to be a fascist. Students were so boring and dumb that I had to argue with them to feel awake. Once one of them said that the right noun to be derivative from “lonely” is “lonelity”. I called it bullshit because I knew that in Coldplay’s “Yes” Chris sings “…cause I’m just so tired of this loneliness…”. She was unarmed.

Thanks to them my knowledge in English grammar is about zero. I don’t know any rule, I don’t know how to make two parts of the sentence seem relative. My strategy of allocating the prepositions is terrible. Why am I writing now? Because there’s another awesome woman in my school history of English learning.

She was a teacher in another school, and her lessons were extremely cheap. So many times I asked her to take more money for the lesson but she never accepted. She was not very old, she had a cat named “Boy”, and she was in love with English. Evgenia Ivanovna taught me that English is a LEGO construction toy that I MUST create words and structures in a case of not knowing how to say something right. She tried to explain me some rules but soon she gave up on it. I had a insight, so all we were doing was solving tests in “automatic” mode and reading tons of texts. She never allowed me to spell aloud the wrong answer twice. With her help I won two municipals and one regional English contests. She was proud of me, and that was her best reward.

In my university life I’ve been only polishing what I have on classes (hate to boring lessons, love to the great CREATIVE ones with A.V.) and mostly by myself. I started to read in English (Flowers for Algernon, To kill a mockingbird). Sometimes it is still hard for me (I hate this stupid feeling of forgetting the word I’ve just found in a dictionary) but I do read sometimes. What concerns speaking I benefited a lot from the lessons of Ann because she demanded us to make a speech every lesson. This was helpful to demonstrate my taste to forget all the words that I know during the speech.

This is it, I suppose. Playing English is still one of my hobbies, the bad side of it is that I do not make any progress. My luggage of words does not fascinate, I still use dictionaries (for typing this story I used http://www.thefreedictionary.com/ a dozen of times) and sometimes play dumb (today in a short conversation with a Chinese tourist I found myself unable to recall the word “passage”). But it’s just me being lazy to study.

I think this story above is what you wanted me to do. If not, well, I spent a couple of hours in my past; this is a great gift of you. Thank you. (Thank you! A.V.)

*****

 

I wondered if D. could write up a story of how come his English is so natural and style so fresh after I read this post by Mike Griffin.

My point, if there has to be one, is not about Russia being an EFL situation and students getting bright and shining with their Englishes (which D., believe me, is a very vivid example of) against all odds, including their schools, books and teachers. A continuing, irritating to many, flux of English teachers, entering classrooms to stay for several months and then rush away. Apparently, D., just like Yeajin somewhere on the other side of the globe, is not a typical student… but in some *good* ways he is. He’s interested, he’s curious, he’s lazy, he’s evaluating teachers by what they taught him, how they did that, what kind of people they came across as, and other subjective factors. He is not typical at all in that he can reflect on his learning like he did, he can create a rich and colourful narrative without being assigned a creative writing task. Or maybe exactly thanks to this.

I don’t know much about D.’s experience travelling abroad and yes, I believe the mere fact of travelling does not guarantee transformative insights in regards to language learning. When I was in the UK after graduation and went to Starbucks, I had a most embarrassing time making a simple order. On second thought, that was a kind of an insight.

D. explicitly shared what has worked for him personally in his 12-year English language journey, and you can also read between the lines to find out more. There’s no conclusion I’m planning to make here or a moral to take away. It is just another #onestudent story, which also features many teachers along the way.

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I think about #OneThing.

This is another upside down blog post. I’d like to rewind this day (and more) back, take you on this backward journey through the convulsive, abrupt and illogical path of my logic, and finally reach the moment when the #OneThing happened. Here we go.

*****

Any day is a set of scenes, each of them full of small things that happen and often go unnoticed, like they weren’t there at all. But they were. And one class in a thread of classes on a long teaching day is a subscene, full of small things that happen and often go unnoticed, or worse, misinterpreted. This one class does not ask you to keep your eyes open for the #onething, nor does it need you to speculate on your professional (in)efficiency. This one class has likely been planned and will surely go its own way, whether this way and your lesson plan go the same way or their paths diverge. This one class will have its unique air, which will be the product of: the moods of the people in class; the feelings of the people in class about the class and about the people in class; the attitude factor; the choices and reactions to these choices; the mindset for this class and these people in it. And probably many other factors, not excluding your choice of a warmer activity and a smooth progression of lesson stages.

What can ruin your class? Do you really think a class can be “ruined”? I don’t think classes get ruined because of inconsistent lesson plans, poor discipline, unprepared students, absence of students, etc. I think a class is 90 minutes which will go and be over no matter what happens in this time. Last week, and the week before, I was battling with every 90-minute slot gritting my teeth to come out emotionally intact myself and with the least amount of damage to my students. The unique air of my classes was predetermined by my anticipation of problems; by my uncertainty regarding my plans; by my unwillingness to face the people in my class; by my own heavy emotional background for those days. No class was ruined in a sense that would imply self-criticism of high order. I am sure my students left the classroom without any strong aftertaste, the most tangible and noticeable maybe being the idea that the teacher looked tired/ bored/ strict/ unwelcoming/ unfriendly. I do believe this was the most harmful impact those classes had, for them. And I felt disoriented and stuck, wishing to flee the university building asap. No harm in that either. I slept, time passed, and today we had great classes which had a very different unique air, because the teacher felt different, and all the components in the subscene of this day fitted together more or less nicely.

****

For one of the groups I teach the homework was to watch a section from Britain is Great series (individually assigned for every student) and be ready to talk about it. 9 out of 12 students were present. 6 out of 9 students were prepared. 2 out of 6 students had accidentally clicked the same link in our Google Doc and watched the same videos. So we had 5 topics instead of many. The planned activity would have meant working in 2 groups, listening to the different aspects of the greatness of Britain, and completing the KWL charts about the topics discussed in that group with the notes.

I was not shocked or angry or even displeased about the fact those 3 students were not ready for class. Neither were their groupmates. So, while I was having an indecisive moment of thinking how to rearrange the group for the task now with this information, Student K suggested they worked in 3 groups with 1 unprepared groupmate in each. Then they’d move to other groups and listen to other students talking about the greatness, and in this way would all try to cover all 5 topics, in a more engaging and dynamic way (this is now my personal comment, she didn’t really say these words).

I am not sure I had to do much that class. It was interesting to listen to them speak and make comments, and be openly uninspired by some of those topics. It was great to see them organize their lesson flow, set the pace, search for the shortcuts to get finished with the task with less effort in less time. My amazement and satisfaction were piqued when I saw two of the three unprepared guys sit a little aside and start filling each other in on what they’d each heard or missed. That was the #OneThing moment.

Somehow I felt a relief, and I was smiling and felt very good about having these people, all 9 of them, in that room. Because I can trust them to self-regulate our time together, because they seem to trust me to find a compromise. Because today we helped each other to bridge the gaps and create the unique air which probably left all the people in that class feeling involved, respected, and hopefully learning.

Well, at least this lesson left me feeling good about us and willing to write this post.

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Am I learning Japanese?

I am in the process. More accurately, a couple of days ago I pulled myself out of the 2-month stagnation process, thanks to this post of Sandy Millin about how she actually is learning Russian. Thanks again, Sandy, for this unintended nudge, which I’m just hopeful will mean effort on my part for more than a few days after this post is out.

Over to the more detailed answer to the question in the title. I am learning, of course. Am I enjoying Japanese? Very much. Am I progressing? Well, I believe I am. Am I happy with my progress (and myself learning)? Not at all. The funniest thing for me here was to look back and track out my post of Dec 3, 2013, the moment when, having studied Japanese for a whole one long week, I came up with morals and lessons, both for myself, for students, and for the community. Little did I know then what months ahead had in store.

 

I’m writing this post to:

(1) display the viewable fruit of my effort and tell about my studies. Explain, comment.

(2) ask myself questions resulting from (1). Wonder, speculate…

(3) .. and not despair.

*****

Even though pictures in the posts here in this emerging space of a blog is not much my style (the serene black&white somehow appeals to me), I’ll insert some images here. I was blown away by Sandy’s, to be honest. It is also past my understanding why I, a teacher who keeps telling students to surround their living space with as much English as possible, have failed to do so. Anyway, what’s on display here in (1)? Here’s what one could find in my room and suppose I’m studying Japanese:

photo 11

Most basic Kanji characters taped to the wall in front of my desk. That really means I look at these every day. I can recognize, draw and pronounce the highlighted ones. My confession, one I never imagined myself making, is that I love kanji. I’m also quite keen on hiragana symbols and think they look attractive (maybe that’s why I managed to learn them easily), but katakana syllabary just won’t settle in and really causes frustration at times.

photo1 2

The three owls are staring at me daily with the easiest of conversational Japanese. One of these days I will be giving them neighbours, there are a lot lined up waiting. I’ve found these owls have truly done their job well – I can assure you I know these phrases.

photo1 4

Next up – the box. Old-style cards with random Japanese words and phrases I pick up from here and there (written in kana and where possible in kanji lately) and the English for them on the other side. No context for them as yet. I hope you now have at least one question on the tip of your tongue finger about this box contents. Save it for (2), please.

photo 3

I have no course book. This picture book is the only book for Japanese studies I have, and this is now maybe a shame, already. While being openly a let’s-stay-away-from-coursebook teacher, as a learner I have ironically started wishing for a nice glossy-paged thin volume of something with exercises I could mechanically complete. I would then see the pages covered as an achievement and would likely brag about that now. However, in my one episode of a Japanese coursebook hunt, the books I found were offering me to learn Japanese through Russian AND through the methodology of the 60s. I politely refused.

Apart from the book I have a whole file for kanji writing practice. From this website I downloaded all kinds of seemingly relevant files, one of which was the first 103 kanji with stroke order and space to practise. I’m taking my time, going through them at my own *snail slow* pace.

photo 15One of my two notebooks for studies is the one for random, or all, kind of notes. There’s no structure there at all. The pages at the back of the notebook would reveal my attempt at keeping vocabulary lists but it didn’t work out for me, I see no reason/use in having words listed like that. That is, at this particular moment, for myself.

The other notebook was just started a few days ago and is for recording and practising grammar and vocabulary from this app. The app is great for me since its materials are accessible offline and that’s what I need, since I spend hours in Moscow metro where wifi is still a promise. The initial Tae Kim’s Guide to Learning Japanese looks to be a comprehensive resource in itself and I just wish I had time or whatever it is I need to check back there once in a while. Plus I’ve just now joined the corresponding FB group, whatever that means for my future studies.

While speaking of apps, here’s the last picture for this post.

photo

Phone and iPad screenshots for this folder would be about the same. I have only used Sketches app on the phone to practise drawing hiragana, but I now think maybe I could get back to it for kanji as well. My point is having/writing the same things (characters, words, phrases) in different places around me: in pen&paper notes, in phone or tablet notes, in apps, on sticky notes. There are two more apps in this folder I haven’t found a way to make real use of, so they’re waiting for their turn. One app I’m totally not getting is… Quizlet. I created sets, I played with them, I tested myself. It’s not interesting for me and I’m not impressed or convinced, or unhappy about it either, for that matter.

I am happy though that I found this blog by Matthew Ellman. Matthew recommended me to try out Memrise for myself, which I did. You can see there were 47 notifications from the app at the moment of taking the screenshot, and that should prove I’m studying but somehow lagging behind the app) Actually, Memrise is surely in top 3 useful resources for my Japanese vocabulary, so thanks very much, Matthew.

Busuu is pretty great and I used it quite consistently and successfully for two months last summer to pick up some basic Italian before my holidays there. What I like(d) about it best was that there’s this community part of every unit you go through, where you’re asked to produce some language based on questions they ask or commenting on pictures, etc. It did work for my super basic Italian, and is yet to be seen for my ultra basic Japanese.

 

What are other “materials” I turn to in my relaxed/ lax approach to self-studying Japanese?

* Video and audio podcast from JapanesePod101.com. They’ve got plenty of collections aimed at different levels and for various purposes. Only from one introductory audio I learnt (and remembered) when and why to say いただきます (itadakimasu), おいしい (oishii), まあまあ (maa maa) and ごちそうさま (gochisousama).

* Being an Instagram addict user (frequent but sensible), I follow several accounts which post pictures for learners of Japanese, or accounts of learners of Japanese. I find it useful and interesting to study hashtags in particular, even if かわいい (kawaii) seems to be the all-around favourite.

* Every day there’s at least one status update in Japanese in my Facebook feed. When it doesn’t look too daunting, I copy it out (especially so if it’s just one line) and break it down with the help of the dictionary.

* There are occasional blog findings that refer to the language or culture that I go through (like, for example, recently this post about the blood types of Japan, or RocketNews24).

* In the Facebook group for students I have written about there are enough active members from Japan, and I sometimes learn from them as well (またね- matane, for instance).

* I try to read every product label in Japanese that I happen to see. That’s difficult, as they’re mostly written in katakana (which as I said I’m still struggling with). Besides, it becomes impossible as soon as I see a row of kanji characters.

* I watched “My Neighbour Totoro” for the 4th time with my niece this weekend, and while we understandably were watching it in Russian, I was happy to note that I could catch and understand some bits of original Japanese there. Or catch, type in a dictionary and learn a new word (まって- matte).

*****

(2) Thoughts and questions now:

- My decision to go for self-studying is a conscious choice. Is it the right track? Am I losing much? A week ago I wrote a post on how/IF teachers can motivate students to learn a language outside of class. My case is *formally* no class. Who motivates me? Am I motivated? What’s responsible for that? Would classes help motivation and/or progress?

- I’ve mentioned “here and there” above. Well, this is exactly the essence of “my method”, which I still almost believe should work one day. Sporadic, spontaneous nature of learning… is it the nature of learning a language, especially when you’re thousands of miles away from the target culture? My biggest concern about the success of my studies comes out of my most grounded belief that I don’t need a rigid system to reach a certain language level. I’m ready to reconsider.

- It’s true that the only person I speak to in Japanese outloud (introducing myself, asking for chopsticks, greeting, encouraging for studies, etc)) is me. This is one big problem with opting for self-studying Japanese in Moscow.

I invite you to ask me more questions.

I am making an effort to surround myself with Japanese. Am I learning it? Some learning is happening, but because it’s unsystematic, or because it’s been a while since I last diligently spent 15 minutes per day for 7 days in a row doing something, the current feeling is that of self-doubt. I have a very vague idea of how sentences are structured. Though, of course, I have a big picture and know a lot more than I did 5 months ago, and I’d now come up with several very simple “can do” statements for myself. If need be, that is.

*****

(3) This morning I’m excited again. One result of a tweet exchange around the topic of teachers learning languages was the discovery of Kimchi Bites blog where Martin Sketchley shares his experience self-studying Korean (this particular post with the comment thread was key for inspiring me make an action). My immediate plan is to put this present excitement into practical solutions. Realistically, I won’t be able to run yet another blog, so I’m going to blog about how my Japanese is going here. The regularity cannot be promised, but is hypothetically a post once a week/fortnight.

Another result is this realistic challenge from Matthew. Looks like the next post in the Japanese series is round the corner! Community support, nudge and competition is fun and exciting.

 

This post, however, is over now. You have read 1800+ words. Arigatou.

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From within.

If you’re on this page, odds are you’re an English teacher. You might be busy and quite likely to be about to skim through this post. Please do me a favour and watch this video first. Thank you.

Now you can skim.

*** Commentary ***

- This video (animation without voice-over) was shown last Thursday in class by one of my students as a presentation he’d prepared (he was reading the text at that point). The presentation of any topic of their choice is an obligatory part of the course this term. The student had spent about 12 hours filming it, and then I suppose more recording his voice because I asked him to do that. Because I selfishly wanted to share it here in my blog. The student created this animation out of his own idea, out of his own will. His teacher (me) did not motivate/ inspire/ encourage such performance in any specific way. The student did use multiple sources to research for his work, including reading non-fiction books on the psychology of fear and such. His teacher (me) has little, or more accurately – nothing, to do with this attitude. I’d say it all came from within.

- One thing we do with my students after watching presentations is writing personal feedback messages. Students are asked to write 5 sentences, or as much as they’d like, in their notebooks with their impressions, notes, suggestions, advice. After that they hand over their paragraphs to the presenter and then to me. This has been my practice for two months only and I do think, supported by feedback from the students and their enthusiasm that I’ve seen, that this idea is a winner on several levels. Well, after this particular presentation on FEARS I asked the group mates of the presenter to share their biggest fear in the message they were going to write. Before I did that, both the presenter and I had revealed our fears, so I thought that’d be fair and maybe interesting to give a chance for others to open up (if they wished – that was a condition). As a result, half the students felt comfortable and added this personal sentence. Several wrote they’d never thought about it. Others were either vague or not willing to share. Well, whether we pronounce our fear or not, it stays within I guess.

- In my next post, which I boldly almost announce in this way because it’s already half-written, I’ll tell about one of my biggest professional fears. The fear I revealed to my students in class is of existential nature. Scared by my own thoughts – that is about me. From within?

- I’d not known about sleep paralysis before I watched this presentation.

 

And yes, the student said he can’t draw.

We (the student and me) thank you for watching and reading.

 

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An ELT play of sorts.

With very few lines from characters and an Act of Silence.

/note: all Acts should have been more logically called Scenes. But an Act of Silence sounds too good to reject it../

The People in the Play:
Teacher of English
9 university students

*****

Act 1 At the door

TEACHER: There’s a password today to enter the classroom. Think about our lessons, concentrate on your thought. Now in order to come in you need to complete the idea:”I think it could be a good idea to … in class.”

(whispers, muffled sounds)

note: each sentence from a student is followed by a reaction from a teacher, such as “oh, wow, great, thank you, I like that” + making a note of the idea. All students eventually end up in a lesson.

STUDENT D: I think it could be a good idea to watch short videos in class.

STUDENT Aboy: I think it could be a good idea to read books in class.

STUDENT Sgirl: I think it could be a good idea to listen to songs in class.

STUDENT V: У нас идеальные занятия, меня все устраивает и у меня нет никаких предложений. (We have ideal classes, I’m satisfied with everything and I have no suggestions.)

TEACHER: Sorry, thank you, but please think of some idea for the sentence. Thank you!

STUDENT Sboy: I think it could be a good idea to have a break in the middle of the lesson.

STUDENT Agirl: I think it could be a good idea to have fun.

STUDENT V: I think it could be a good idea to sometimes sleep a little in class.

STUDENT K: I think it could be a good idea to write letters to each other in class.

STUDENT B: I think it could be a good idea to discuss our problems with physics.

*****

Act 2 Perceptiveness

(all students are taking their seats and getting ready for class)

STUDENT V (to Teacher): Why are you sad?
(Puzzled look and a silly near-smile on Teacher’s face)

TEACHER: That’s a very good question. How do you know?
STUDENT V: I have this feeling.
TEACHER: I don’t know. I slept very badly and I hate this weather.

(In Teacher’s mind: very unusual and sweet that it’s this particular student who noticed change.)

*****

Act 3 Skipped, or On Fast Forward

(feedback conversation on students’ suggestions for class, organizational moments, questions, Student D brags about a white scarf very fashionably tied around neck, brief review of what reported speech is all about)

*****

Act 4 From Tales of the Unexpected

Synopsis:

Teacher hands out copies of Genesis and Catastrophe and invites to read the paragraph about the author preceding the story. Students learn that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is actually a book first. Teacher goes a bit exclamatory about Roald Dahl’s legacy and its fun and use for learning English. A couple of Students are noticed to take a note of the author’s name.

Part 2 of task: reading Page 1 only. The page ends with this line: “None of my other ones lived, Doctor.” Several Students make articulate and very recognizable “aaww”, “oohh”, sigh and wonder out loud (“Will he live?!”).

TEACHER: You’ll get the copies to read the story till the end at home, if you wish.

Part 3 of task: dividing the dialogue in half and working in pairs to transform it into reported speech. All Students are noted to be working, even those who normally openly sleep.

*****

Act 5 Act of Silence

(One student finishes very early, flips the page and goes on reading. There’s still 40 minutes of class left and a whole big, partly irrelevant point on the lesson plan to be done with.)

TEACHER: Please read the story when you finish with your work.

 

The 25-min silence that followed was broken several times by the following:

STUDENT D: Why is the text so sad??

STUDENT Agirl (the one to have begun reading first): He’ll survive.

STUDENT D: He shouldn’t have.

(in a while)

STUDENT Sboy (jumping off his chair and exclaiming almost in panic): This is about Hitler!!!!

(this outburst resulted in a lot of moaning, disgruntled remarks, hushing, blaming of “spoiler-ing” the story for those Students who were reading behind)

 

25 minutes of near absolute silence being engrossed in the story. Pleasant silence. Unhappy when broken. Unusual to all in the classroom. Filled with mute emotions on Students’ faces which were read from their, very different, changing expressions: shocked looks, raising eye-brows, laughing (??!), frowning, sighing, eyes wide open. Watching Students read for Teacher was most exciting and eye-opening. The reactions of certain Students, who might have previously been labeled for repeated lines in their behaviour, shook the world of Teacher’s mind.

 

As everybody were leaving the classroom, after a brief sharing of  opinions regarding the title of the story and the shocking impact, the following lines were heard and noted:

STUDENT V (to Teacher): Goodbye. Don’t be sad.

STUDENT Agirl (to Teacher): Sleep enough.

Everybody leaves. Closing curtain.

*****

This class happened last Thursday and the notes used to write the post were made during the lesson itself. The decision to give the time to read in silence in class was impulsive. We didn’t do planned things. Reading literature is not part of our syllabus (and these are Physics students). I’m not ready to analyze how effective this move was and how much they learnt in comparison to what they could’ve learnt had we followed the plan. I can’t know or measure the impact of the decision I take until I take it and see what happens. As Josette LeBlanc used this word in her post once – fluid – it’s become one of my favourite words. Looks as if it refers all around my understanding of teaching at the moment. If the day/group/mood/ whatever other conditions had been different, this wouldn’t have happened, wouldn’t have been my choice.

And there’s no further analysis to this Play, just a funny post factum observation that we did read in class as one of the students had wished to do at the beginning of that lesson. =)

 

Thank you for reading.

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