13 things that happened in class, excuses provided

With a headache piercing savagely and incessantly through my brain, I’m commuting home. It’s stuffy and stinky in this metro car. I wish I could just close my eyes and enjoy the blank space of an empty mind, but images, scenes and conversations that took place today keep flashing by. The 5 ninety-minute classes I’ve given today provide enough food for thought, as any teaching day would.  This particular long teaching day has come to its end with the following thoughts:

1) I held a whole class in Russian. I gave instructions in Russian, gave comments in Russian, allowed conversations in Russian.

Excuse: the level of the group is very low, much lower than the material that has to be taught expects them to be. The majority of students struggle (and I mean it, struggle) with recognizing spoken English, even the easiest English of instructions. The conversations that I mentioned above were 95% around the language issues we were dealing with.

2) I did not explicitly check homework I’d assigned.

Excuse: I saw half the class were unprepared and today I didn’t feel like having an uncomfortable “strict teacher – lazy student” type of talk. We partially covered the homework material in the lesson itself.

3) I let the shy students sit through the class without uttering a word in whole 90 minutes.

Excuse: The energetic students “seized” the lesson space (see point 11).

4) I let grammar mistakes slip off my students’ tongues and go uncommented or corrected.

Excuse: Point 11. Some mistakes were made and quite a few times corrected on the spot by most active and confident students. Other times I took notes of points to pay their attention to later, but the lack of board, white or black, for that class (as we were studying in a corridor) imposed certain restrictions on my teaching. As the conversation drifted off and away from my grasp, my chance to voice out the comments from my notebook was missed (and, frankly speaking, plain forgotten).

5) I played an audio file which was way too hard for students.

Excuse (and a comment): Without a specific task, I played the file “for the gist”, with an idea in mind to acquaint them with the podcast I’d long wanted to recommend. Previously they’d expressed interest in the idea of using podcasts for autonomous learning in their free time (their level being positively upper intermediate). My belief was (is?) that by demonstrating a tool/ activity/ learning opportunity in class you increase chances that students will actually pick it up and try by themselves. However, today we learnt that these very students are, in fact, not excited about any podcast-type, pure listening kind of language input. Three minutes was enough to put people to sleep. Video is the way to go, they say. One more important factor: the class was held in late evening, after a full working day, so unsurprisingly concentration levels could be at their lowest (both students’ and teacher’s).

6) My mind fell blank when students inquired for certain words and ways to express their idea. Multiple times.

Excuse: Not a native speaker or a walking dictionary. Some days memory lets me down badly, much worse than it normally would. And of course the right word/ phrase lights up my brain on the way home, several hours after the moment of need.

7) I was late for class.

Excuse: Traffic jam.

8) I spoke too much and offered too much of my own personal commentary.

Excuse: I want to be part of conversation in my class, especially so when I have something to add and/or believe students will learn from what I say (either new info or new language). Students looked interested, reacted positively, asked for more info, added own relevant comments.

9) I did not use a warm-up activity.

Excuse: It did not suit every class I’d planned.

10) I did not monitor group activity effectively.

Excuse: See point 11. Also, by midday my headache had got stronger and I had to limit my own movement (aka sit on a chair)) so as to survive through the remaining classes. So I trusted my students to manage themselves and each other.

11) I let students take control over the lesson and followed their lead.

Excuse: They were active, they were willing to share and participate, while I felt uncomfortable to interrupt their genuine desire to speak English with their groupmates (and teacher) during an English class because I had it differently in my plan.

12) Students did not move from their seats.

Excuse: Come to think of it, in two out of 5 classes they did.

13) I was sarcastic.

Excuse (?): Notably less sarcastic than I was 2 years ago, as I now pay more attention to my commentary.

Time to finish the list now. A teaching day, once brought down to pieces like this, could drive an exhausted and sensitive teacher to a depressed state. Tonight I wanted to write about a long, hard day of a non-exemplary teacher giving not exemplary classes. Reading the points I jotted down a couple of hours ago in the metro, I come to a helpful (?) realization that some of these could actually be recurrent issues for me.

I know my eye is twitching by the end of the day. I’m emotionally squeezed out and exhausted so much that I can’t bear the simplest verbal communication. I worship silence and bask in it now, yet it’s true that 5 times today, for 90 minutes at a time, I was 100% present with the people in that class, gave them all emotion (and material) I could.

I know one can always do more and better, especially better. Still I’m wondering if on an average day doing just enough could be enough, for learning and teaching to happen. And be reason enough for a teacher to not beat herself up. Whatever rules, patterns or guidelines it is that I failed to follow today, I refuse to believe it was a bad teaching day.

Thanks for reading.

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I’ve just now read this post by Sophia Khan about an observed class, which was described as a synonym of waste by the observer, and all the eye-opening outcomes of that experience for the teacher in question. If my classes today had been observed, the verdict would have certainly been some stronger “northern” slang word. Yes, every class is an amazing opportunity to develop something. I’m grateful to Sophia for her post as it’s just what I need today, or these days: a clear picture of what happens in other classes and how. I don’t remember feeling that low in professional confidence in a long while. Sabbaticals have their faults.

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Paragraph 2. A year on, still writing.

This paragraph blogging style is liberating and infectuous. It’s just my hunch that it might help me turn my many drafts into actual paragraphs some day. For now, here’s this sequel to the post from a year ago. I recommend you read it first, it’s short, light and will entertain you with three images.

 

 

 

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In this year that has passed by only too fast, we’ve talked about any number of topics a teenager could be interested in and could have something to say about. If you’re interested in particulars, we’ve talked about our families and relationships within these families; about our personal dreams and why they were these particular dreams; about my work and her school life; about friends; about how I became a teacher. We’ve talked about movies, literature, traveling, reading, writing, music, talents, and goals. I have been trying my best to keep the flames of the conversation burning, always noting something she could pick upon and develop. I asked questions not because I was a teacher who wanted to see her use of Complex Object or target language. I opened up myself and welcomed her to do the same, as much as she’d feel comfortable to. Emotions filled the pages, displaying sincerety, pointed out by exclamation marks. ……… “I shall never cease to marvel…” As my eyes stared at this turn of a sentence she used in one of her recent letters for a good couple of minutes , something clicked. Last week I asked the girl in my regular letter in the journal to sift through all of her *12* letters to me and notice any kind of progress. That’s what I got to read in response (note: this is an unedited, genuine piece of teenage writing): “I think my writing has improved a little bit. … Because earlier I always sat with an interpreter and tried to translate your letter and then sat and looked for many words to write a response to you. Now it became much easier. I translate from your letters up to 5-7 words and when I wrote too I looked in the dictionary very little.”

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She sometimes excuses herself for writing too little, a mere page. Just keep writing, I say. Some people blog no more than a mere paragraph and are not in the least ashamed of it.

 

Thanks for reading.

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Paragraph blogging.

Welcome to a new type of blogging Kate aka @springcait (see picture below) and I propose to those in ELT community – paragraph blogging. If you…

– are sick of mulling over your Seriously Great Idea in an attempt to shape it coherently and beautifully into a decent (read: perfect) 1K+ words blog post;

– think your Seriously Great Idea will not significantly lose in its greatness if you manage to tell it in one paragraph;

– are lazy;

– promote clarity in expressing thoughts.. or lack of clarity within a one-paragraph writing;

– don’t think you have a Seriously Great Idea, but you do think you have something to say;

– want to experiment with your writing style;

– desperately want to blog but have just your cell phone with you…

…then paragraph blogging is for you.
Let’s see if one paragraph could be a good amount, readable, doable, enjoyable, ideally informative.

Here’s my Paragraph 1.

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Today I was in class with university students (acting as their actual teacher) for the first time since June 2014. I met 13 young adults, some of whom looked tired, sleepy, well-rested, cross, skeptical, blank, interested, curious, shy, markedly laid-back, and some didn’t even look up from their desks to meet my eye. Interestingly (for me), many of those young adults didn’t know much about each other, even though they spent a whole term studying side by side. (That makes me think now whether “studying side by side” necessarily equals “knowing your partners” or “caring to know your partners” in a language class.) Naturally, they were given time to mingle and find things out, which they, naturally, did. The two main take-aways from this non-groundbreaking getting-to-know activity for me personally were the following phrases I overheard: “It turns out my groupmates are interesting guys” and “I write short stories”. While the first line invites no further commentary from me, the latter one might. So it turns out Student I. is an interesting person and writes short stories about the things/ events/ life she observes around her. And since her teacher easily gets excited about what she believes to be students’ talents or creative expressions, and especially all things writing, we all agreed to exploit this. It’s a tentative plan now, of course, but one class Student I. is going to attend my class without actually participating in it, solely for the sake of making the best use of her time observing our lesson. She will then write a short story about it, which she will bring to class for us to translate into English. At least translate, that is! I can’t even start to imagine what it could hold for us all and me as a teacher in particular. It will also be interesting to see how honest the writer will get in her observations))

Thank you for reading.

P.S. This post belongs to a #livebloggingparty series, back in Russia, hiding from the wet grey Moscow February in a cafe with Kate. Fun as ever :)

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A very interesting post about blogs, bloggers and their blogging.

Now I’m feeling something. Something of a nerve to write a messy piece about many things at once.

 

Thing number one, about blogging habits.

In her recent post Zhenya Polosatova asked her readers the questions that brought about a storm of responses, both in the comments and as separate blog posts. It’s amazing just how easily *some* bloggers are drawn into analysing their blogging ways, how excited they get. Well to say “they” would be wrong since I’m normally the very first in that eager line. Here’s my short (see Thing number two) take on the topic.

Last year my blogging habits underwent quite an upheaval. I blogged in a cafe, on a beach, on the floor, in a train station, on a couch, on a bench in the park, on a tatami mat (at home at my desk being the habit). I blogged with people and alone (which is the habit). I blogged both in daytime and nighttime (the latter being the habit). I posted without liking my writing (… liking or disliking can’t be called “a habit” I reckon))). I blogged about teaching and about things far from it.

I really don’t know what else I can do. All in all, I’m more than pleased with how my blogging is developing and I feel desire and energy to proceed the way that will feel right. One new ritual I’m looking forward to establishing this year is going through my WP Reader once a week to balance my blog reading. Hope to see you there.

 

Thing number two, which tries to devalue part of Thing number one.

I can’t believe I’ve just written the above first thing! Because in fact it makes me sick to realize just how much I write about myself and my relationship with my writing. Seriously, look:

In this post I say I blog for my own pleasure but hope for shifts in the classroom. Then in no time I come up with a follow-up which is 800 more words about blogging and writing. Here I keep mentioning myself and my plans for writing in what some say are most powerful parts of a blog post – opening and closing paragraphs. If you need more proof of how obsessed I am with writing about (my) writing, don’t hesitate to look here, check this out and click this link.

First I wanted to make a difference. Then I turned into an ego-busting persona. Hedonism? I’m *possibly* done with it. At least with the part which whispers to me that it can be interesting to anyone to go on reading after my “I think that…” At the moment I think that I could think of writing something more exciting.

 

Thing number three, about us Russians.

I am, just like Vedrana Vojkovich here, continuously stunned as I check my blog stats and see that the overwhelming majority of my readers are from Russian Federation. Who are you?! I know a few and I am grateful to them for being ever supportive, plus last year several times my former students left a line or two and it felt great. Otherwise, I am unaware of names and faces of my ghost Russian readership. In any case, everybody is most welcome.

There is yet another, far more critical point to be covered in this part. Russian and Russian-speaking ELT bloggers. A little pre-story: a while ago, in my more energetic Twitter years, I created a public list EFLRussia which I updated with handles of Russian teachers of English who I happened to come across on Twitter (70 now). I haven’t done that for over a year and I’m sure there must be many new faces to be added (my confidence comes from seeing quite a lot of people tweeting at annual E-merging Forums). The situation with the blogs was different. I’m talking about blogs that Russian(-speaking) teachers of English would run in English, so they could be accessed by teachers from the world over. Fortunately, there are now interesting, thoughtful, different blogs that I irregularly follow and will now share the links to here:

iamlearningteaching by Ekaterina Makaryeva aka @springcait

The aforementioned Zhenya Polosatova aka @ZhenyaDnipro and her Wednesday Seminars

Elserga ELT by Elizabeth Bogdanova

ELT Diary by Alexandra Chistyakova aka @AlyaAlexandra

TeachingEnglishNotes by Svetlana Urisman

 

That’s about it. If you happen to know of any other blogs that fit the Russian category, please do share, even if that’ll shamelessly be your own)

One last bit, which is my sincere wish. I wish the following three people started to blog:

Fatima Baste, who has a blog in Russian and also writes about a million things in captions to her pictures on Instagram: languages, teaching, culture, trends, psychology, ideas. Thoroughly enjoyable, entertaining, and educational, so I’m quite certain Fatima should start a blog in English =)))

Masha Andrievich, whose Instagram gives a peek into fragments of her teaching at own school (right?) and her learning (DELTA?). I’d love to have a #livebloggingparty one day, when she starts her blog. =)

Ludmila Malakhova, who is a fantastic lady from Yekaterinburg that I had a real pleasure to meet twice at the Forum I mentioned earlier and who suppported me in a very indecisive time with just the right words.

 

Thing number four, untitled for lack of creativity.

In connection with the previous part, there’s a story back from March 2014. Ludmila reached me and asked to participate online in the teacher training she was doing on-site in Yekaterinburg. That was my first (and only) suchlike experience, and in Russian! For 15-20 minutes I talked to a group of teachers sitting several thousand km away from me, and I talked about Facebook and blogs for English teachers’ PD. It was, as you might understand, a brief and general introduction and of course I am not at all sure what impact it eventually had on the participants, practically, if any. However, it was remarkable to me that the teachers sounded mildly interested and asked me post-session questions, such as:

Which blogs do you follow?

How do you find these blogs in the first place?

There are so many, how do you keep up?

Which platform would you recommend to start own blog?

Should we blog in English or Russian?

All these questions. One might think it’s not a topic that could be conference session worthy: too simple, no activities-interactivities, limited feel of innovation. Yet I’m thinking of doing it. There are so many aspects of online ELT community that I’ve grown to take for granted that it’s easy to forget some of these things still may be new or interesting. Even if a plain session on ELT blogging the way I experience it will not lead to a massive influx of Russians into this particular blogosphere, I’ll personally have a fun time spreading the word about you and your blog… =) What do you think of this idea? It’s a shame the Forum AGAIN does not give a chance to talk/ learn about the things I’m interested in by adding Professional Development strand. (Can it possibly be Russian EFL teachers are NOT interested in PD and the Forum organisers go by some survey results?..)

 

Thing number five, Final Thing, or the Thing of Importance.

It’s been on my mind lately. Namely, from December 2nd.

What else can we, English teachers who are united by ELT blogging addiction, blog about?

I took immense pleasure in taking culture notes in my travels and then publishing this post, as well as other, exclusively personal posts that I had out during my time in Asia. I was thrilled to NOT have it in my mind to make any connections to teaching/ learning, because frankly, I don’t believe a teacher should always, at all times in all situations think about his/ her classes. And while I’m sure we/ you all have our interests that might or might not be reflected in the classes we/ you teach, I don’t really know much about them. I do imagine, though, that there are words to be put into long beautiful/ eloquent/ funny/ witty/ touching  etc sentences.

 

What would you blog about if not ELT? 

 

Thank you for reading and, of course, – happy blogging =)

 

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Korea impressions

Last year was unique for me for several reasons, one of which being that it was the first time in my life I stayed, well lived more like,  in a foreign country for more than an ordinary vacation-taker’s 14 days. 5 weeks spent in Korea are certainly worth a lot more than a handful of posts about the classes I visited (those were precious and invaluable in every single way!).

 

I lived a life and that life did not remind me of a life of a tourist. There was no rushing in the mornings to make it to a breakfast in a hotel. There was no hotel, in fact. I had my pet. There were no excursion buses to hop on/off for cookie-cutter excursions “to get the best of the city”. There was me and the whole of Seoul to explore, at my own pace, at my own time, with my spontaneous choices oftentimes made right there at an exit of a station I’d picked to go to, on the spur of the moment.

 

There were things I wanted to do – walk up and down the hills, wander around neighbourhoods, take turns left and right without knowing where I’d end up. I stared at people who almost never looked up to meet the eyes of a stranger. I stopped in front of tiny workshops with doors ever open and businesses being done right there on the pavement. I bought several bags of tangerines from an elderly man in the street, because it was a discount but I didn’t quite realize what he was saying to me and actually only needed one of those bags (also never learnt the numbers and counting in Korean). I learnt to pick, taste and like street food. I enjoyed fresh pastry and I hunted for tea only to find that “tea” in a coffeeshop can be anything BUT tea, for what I know tea to be. I struggled with metal chopsticks when eating noodles. I loved, loved my Korean meals.

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I learnt so many things about the places and the people that it’d take tens of thousands words to write about them. All the notes you’ll now see below were made in Korea and have now just been elaborated with extra commentary. Somehow it’s all still painfully fresh in the mind. “Painfully” because I took to Korea in a very special way which I’ll only be able to analyze and comprehend fully after a longer while. For the moment, it feels like this experience was grand, different, spicy, probably life-changing, certainly unforgettable. I’m running out of adjectives that would do their job well, so here are the notes and some pictures. Enjoy.

Warning: if you’re based in Korea, you’re likely not going to be taken aback by any of these notes. They were taken by a tourist, even if an observant one with plenty of time on her hands, after all.

 

***** Notes and opinions about Korea, in no particular order, on all areas at once *****

1. Seoul subway cars have a colour marking on the floor, a wide stripe of the same colour as is the metro line itself. Clearly, such a simple thing to do and so nice for passengers. The cars themselves are also much wider, let alone cleaner, than in Moscow.

2. In the metro, as the train approaches, people do not rush closer to the glass doors preparing to get in. But as soon as the doors open, people at the station and those getting out of the car *imo very rudely* ignore one another and simply push their respective ways in and out. Moreover, if you are inside the car and need to get off at the next station, it’s your problem how you’re going to manage that. People won’t make way for you. It’s not common practice to ask people in front of you if they’re going to get off (like it is in Moscow). Fight your way through to the doors all by yourself, you and your elbows, I’m afraid, you’ll have to. The doors, by the way,  can be quite entertaining. There’s also music announcing the approaching train, and melodies in different cities are different.

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3. In many cases public restrooms are not to be found inside cafes or restaurants but for the whole of a building, which could, naturally, house several various places on its floors. You’ll have to ask staff – and hope they will explain it in English.

4. There was something that completely blew my mind, and please don’t make the trite comment that Russians shouldn’t be afraid of cold weather. Girls in Korea in the chilly, sometimes windy weather of the second half of October were not noticed to be wearing tights while strolling around in super mini skirts and shorts. Similar thing was noted in November (!) in Japan. My granny would tell them all off right there in the street when she spotted one.

5. Square shaped leather bags of a rucksack style are popular for both girls and boys. I won’t mention couple clothing, as it was already mentioned here.

6. In your local neighbourhoods, just off the noisy, busy main street, there would be a man in a van. He would be slowly driving around the area in his van full of vegetables. He would have a megaphone. He would offer cabbages, potatoes and what not in a monotonous mullah-like voice, stopping here and there. I’d never seen anything like it, or felt like wishing to buy a sack of carrots in a street.

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7. Koreans don’t care (or don’t show they care or notice) you are different. Let’s face it, I am plenty different by my looks. Maybe it is Seoul but in fact I never felt “alien”, or weird, or stared at, let alone treated badly (with a few minor exceptions, which might actually prove the general trend and were more funny than unpleasant)).

8. I spent a lot of time commuting around the city on the subway, so that’s where I made a great deal of my notes, watching people. Koreans on the subway sometimes seemed pretty much like Russians by behavior to me – pushing, not saying sorry for stepping on your feet, or for anything, for that matter. And yet they somehow didn’t leave a strong impression of being rude. They might not have looked or made a recognizable impression of being friendly either… but they did get nice. =) Like once two old ladies invited me to take a seat near them (those reserved for the elderly). It was a sudden and pleasant gesture, even if I refused.

9. As I’ve already mentioned it above, it struck me to see the life of small businesses out there in the street. Tailor shops, car repairs, toy makers, sellers of all possible useful and useless things, old ladies’ eating places – in tiny, not necessarily clean rooms, with doors wide open, these were always tempting me to sneak a look inside. The city life is out. That’s such a different Seoul than that of Gangnam, and the feel it has is warm and welcoming.

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10. What feels so unmistakenly mine in Korea is the combination of green mountains, pine trees of their sprawling shape, and Asian architecture forms and colours. The simplicity of wood and stone and gravel wrapped up in the green of those pines blew my mind, no less. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that a few times I actually caught myself holding my breath. The nature aesthetics of Korea brought peace to my mind even when I was not feeling exactly peaceful.

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11. Korean girls use lipstick (a lot) and apply it in a special style which is called “gradient lips”.

12. Despite expectations, I didn’t notice Koreans to be emotionally reserved. On the contrary, I saw people (younger ones, to be fair and precise) expressing their feelings affectionately in public.

13. People do not interact with strangers either verbally or with eye contact. It was so unusual for me especially, since I was constantly staring at everything around me, including people. I wonder if that behaviour came across as impolite or embarrassing.

14. Koreans love hats. And cats.

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15. It’s fine or a cultural habit (norm?) to brush teeth in public places (restrooms, naturally). I’d never seen anything like it.

16. Sooo many Koreans wear trainers! I realize it’s the trendy thing to do now but I found it almost obsessive. In this way, I can’t help drawing another comparison with young people here in Moscow – so many of them look the same, from season to season, in similar outfits “inspired” by all similar glossy mag pictures. It was far more exciting to watch people in Tokyo =)

 

 

That’s about all for now. I wish I could sum it all up in a beautiful paragraph. Is it really possible to piece together these fragments of culture and impressions they made on me? I won’t even start doing that. The bits and pieces of scattered observations are part of my Korea, the first country I got to look at from within and took to pieces so scrupulously.

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My time in Korea would’ve been completely different had it not been for the amazing people there who took care of me in so many ways. I owe my discoveries to the time I spent and conversations I had with Josette LeBlanc and her husband, Anne Hendler, Michael Griffin, Michael Chesnut, Nina Iscovitz, Ran Kim, David Harbinson, dozens of students and teachers I had the pleasure and luck to meet. You all made a big, big difference, bigger than you realize for sure. More on that maybe in future posts. Thank you!

And thanks for reading.

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More about 30 questions

So I blog sporadically here and there (and there) but this particular emerging space is my comfort hub. There’s no, or little if ever, sense of a critical eye frowning over what I post on these pages, which fact makes me feel free to blabber my way from month to month, all through the year into the next. Namely, into Orthodox Christmas day 2015, right into this post about how I asked myself and my students 30 questions.

 

***** Taking personal (and a personal journal) into class *****

 

As much as I’d like to fantasize about myself being special, I really am no different. Every end of the year I look both back and ahead to come up with reflections and resolutions that are then shaped into something on paper. These have been lists, mindmaps, structured passages, incoherent passages, questions and answers. Well, frankly speaking, this is the first time the year analysis came round as answers to 30 questions. You can find the questions themselves in this post I just wrote for TeachingEnglish Blog, and to make your life even simpler here’s an extract from that post to shed some light:

 

In the end of December I decided to do a certain exercise that I’d found on the Psychologies mag webpage (here’s the link, but I feel the need to warn you that the page is in Russian). The idea of this exercise is to help you shape your reflections of the year by asking yourself 30 questions. These questions were picked by the author of the article from the book “My 5 years. 365 questions, 1825 answers.”

 

Unimportant note with a possibly more useful link: after 2 minutes of googling and finding this page for the English (original?) version of the diary book, I realized I’d seen it before. Josette LeBlanc would know where =)

 

As I was thinking, smoothly and effortlessly retrieving the highlights of my year, and methodically writing my way through the questions, I saw this as a perfect task for my class. The following day the following class happened:

* Students (2 girls in their twenties) and I worked together on translating the 30 questions from Russian into English. The task was good for their level, but more importantly, it was a useful time to collect their thoughts for the future answers.

* The task assigned was to pick any 3 questions to talk about; any other 2 questions to write about; 1 more question to ask their partner and ensure some dialogue happens. As I’d brought my journal into class, they could see I’d already answered a few questions myself and kept writing as they were writing. Initially, I had not planned to actually share my answers or participate in the 3-2-1 task but I had no problem doing so when they invited me to.

 

Then we ate gingerbread cookies that I’d cooked and brought, drank cherry tea and were off for holidays, more deserved for the students than for this idle travelling teacher this term. The class was as pleasant and smooth as I’d seen it to be, but the most exciting thing was to find the impact of it in my Instagram feed right on New Year’s Eve. One of these students tagged me in a long post she’d written there (in Russian)), which summed up her reflections of this, important for her, year. It was the first long Instagram caption (post, I insist!) for her, and of this sort, and she mentioned that our class had inspired this. It was undoubtedly the best present and, in plain honest words, – just made me feel happy and even somewhat special for a fleeting second.

 

That’s all that happened. It took me 2 more days to finish my 30 questions which, in fact, did not cover most significant points and shifts in my own year 2014. It was a truly special year and parts of it I have been sharing in this space throughout the year. I will continue to do so with no promise of my posts to be solely about teaching. In the meantime and to finish the first post 2015, here are three of my *23* resolutions for this new promising year, accompanied by 1 image:

1. I will try to write one blog post or an article once a week (“What a lame resolution it is”, I thought to myself as I found this new blog project by David Harbinson!).

2. I will try to look for a chance to write freelance for some online magazine. NON-ELT. Challenge of all types – to create more opportunities for writing with deadlines; to see what I can write about if not about English language teaching. It’s a resolution with roots all the way back to my teenage years, you gotta start some time.

3. I will be this (see the picture). In my class and out of it.

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My current personal journal, thanks to Cecilia Lemos, still true 3 years after.

Thanks for reading.

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They just want to make a mouse.

Billy has spent the last six weeks constructing a small mouse out of bits of felt, then he gets ‘sheets’, which ask mysterious conceptual questions. I looked at the latest sheet: “What do you want to achieve by making the mouse?”
Billy and I looked at each other desperately. How global do they expect you to go with a question like that, I mean in a philosophical sense? I handed Billy a pencil. He sat down at the kitchen table and wrote, then handed me the sheet.
To make a mouse.

 

This is a passage from the latest Bridget Jones book. Yes, I’ve gone Bridget for quotes and literature references for my posts and at the moment they make more sense to me than Dostoevsky. This short nighttime post is a reminder against overthinking.

 

I’ve previously mentioned it in my post here that hearing students introduce themselves with English names in Korea was puzzling to me. One university student gave me a neat comprehensible explanation (and correct me if I’m wrong as I’m recalling that from a conversation that happened more than 2 months ago). Korean kids are made to pick an English-sounding name by their teachers either at their regular English classes at school, or at a language school they are most likely all attending in their after-school time. The latter variant was the case with the student who gave me this explanation. She said she had actually searched the Internet for the name. So, when Korean kids (and apparently university students as well) talk to non-Koreans, they use their English names ‘because they are easier to pronounce and remember’. That whole fact was bothering me for quite a while in Korea. Yes, it’s true that Korean names are not so easy to pronounce but neither would be Russian names to non-Russians. I’m not developing this into a list of nationalities but you see where that is going.

 

And you know, I think we actually have a similar thing going on with names in Russia, too. So many of my students, during our first lesson together, introduced themselves under a pretence English name, which would, however, phonetically resemble their own name. I’ve got a pretence name myself! ‘Ann’ is a variation of Anna that I adopted for signing my English lesson papers at some point at school because it sounded “more English” than Anna (or Anya) to me. No one told me at that point that my name is actually international and that change made no difference. It might still be fair to mention that I was not made or forced to adopt a new name. (I will also use this chance to publicly assure you I have no issue with being called either, and I’m sorry if that has been confusing.)

 

Well, anyway, getting back to Bridget Jones and Dostoevsky. In one of conversations with some bloggers you might know it was legitimately speculated that we teachers make a whole lot of fuss about things – or nothings. Basically, we overthink. Kids love trying on another hat and playing the game, and then for some that John, Andrew, or Sophia could stick, so what’s the harm? While some of their *thoughtful?* non-Korean communication partners will ponder how this double name scenario ‘ruins the integrity of their personality and identity’ (or something), the boys and girls may just still want to make a mouse.

 

*****
In addition to all said above, I was very glad to see ‘sheets’ in those inverted commas. I’ve seen ‘sheets’, I’ve downloaded ‘sheets’, I’ve made my own ‘sheets’. Sometimes my sheets included questions that students chose to skip, for no mind reeling on their part yielded to any answer that would match the depth, intensity and demand of an open-end question ‘that would help the teacher’.

 

 

The middle of the night is a great time to do proper overthinking or write a blog post. I’ve done both and I will do so again. Thanks for reading.

Bananas are yellow in Osaka, or an unusual interview with Naoko Amano

This post feels very warm to the author of this blog, because (1) it does not revolve around the author of this blog; (2) it puts an exceptionally kind, friendly, open-hearted, sincere and devoted teacher and friend centerstage.

Wait no more and read what Naoko Amano had to say in the conversation we had in the living room of her apartment in Kishiwada, Osaka, Japan, late in the evening on Saturday, December 6th.

 

*****

Hello, Naoko! The first time I saw you was at JALT 2013 and you were one of the few Japanese English teachers that I met there (or maybe the only one?). Why did you decide to come to JALT? It was great and refreshing to see you among so many English native speakers.

Hi Anna! It started from a small mistake. I was looking through my friend’s Facebook posts. One of them was about a teaching workshop. I was interested in it but I already had plans for that day and also it was far from my house. So I looked at another post. Soon I got a message from Marco Brazil: “Thank you for joining my workshop”. OMG I did click “GO” by mistake! Then he suggested I should come to JALT 2013 to see his presentation.

I thought only a professional can join so I didn’t think about going there. I thought not yet … But another day, Barbara (Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto) also suggested for me to go to JALT. Then I thought that I should go. I was really scared but it was great to meet lots of wonderful teachers, and I could learn a lot.

 

I see. As you said to me in our conversation a couple of days ago, small things lead to big things. I believe it to be true! But why did you think that you couldn’t go to JALT at first?

I didn’t have any great experience like studying abroad or graduating from a famous college. I can’t speak English like a native speaker. I didn’t have much teaching experience. So I thought “not yet”.

 

Well you were teaching English in 2013, right? What kind of teaching experience did you have by that time?

I’d been teaching children for 5 years then. But the first year I had only three students. In these three years I had more than 30 students. So I felt like I’d been teaching for only two or three years.

 

I see. You mentioned in your answer before the word “professional”. Do you connect this word with teaching qualifications? I know you had some back in 2013.

No, I don’t connect those. I think qualifications are like a ticket to the teaching world. I want to connect experience with professionalism.

 

I agree with you on this. And even then, in my view, you had this ticket to the teaching world: you’d taken a course for teaching English to young learners. You had every right to be at JALT (if one needs to have that). Anyway, I think your story of how you started teaching is fascinating and inspiring. Can you tell it, please?

I met lots of people because I studied English and could speak it. I wanted to keep using English after that. So I changed my job to use English, I went to an English school, I watched movies, I wrote letters and called my friend in the USA. I tried to use the language. One day, my friend in Miami gave me presents for my daughters. They were workbooks for English used in the US (my friend is an elementary school teacher). The workbooks were colourful, cute, not like Japanese ones. I felt excited and I really wanted to show them to children in Japan and to use those books to teach. So I told my friends that I wanted to teach English and some of their kids started to study English with me.

 

Oh really? I didn’t know about that. That must have been fun and also pleasant to feel your friends’ support in this way. I also know that when you got your teaching certificate, you didn’t go to work at a public school or a language school, like the majority of people would do. Instead, you went your own way.

I thought about a franchise but they have their own educational system and I would have had to follow it: textbooks, schedules, everything. I don’t like that. I didn’t feel excited about that. I can’t imagine that I’m teaching English with their curriculum. I think that I can teach in a more fun way.

I made a list of things that I wanted to do with kids in English and looked for music, books, teaching ideas… Then I talked about it with my friends and some of their kids started to study English with me. There were 3 at first. Then I did an English summer program. I made 4 posters to advertise and 15 kids joined the summer program, 6 of them later stayed in my school. “It was fun!” – their feedback made me really happy.

 

That’s really interesting and unusual. So, small things have led to big things – and now you have your own school?!

Yes!! But there was a time when I thought I’d close down the school because I didn’t have many teacher friends. I didn’t know what other schools were doing. It was then that I decided to go to a workshop. It was an Oxford workshop and there was the name “Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto”, who is the author of the book I was going to use. I was surprised to see many teachers there and the workshop was interesting and meaningful for me. On my way home my friend and I came up to Barbara to thank her for the workshop, and she said: “Why don’t you have a cup of coffee with me?” Who would say no?! I was shy and could not speak a lot (my friend did though). Barbara suggested to start using Facebook for professional purposes and she introduced some teachers to connect with me.

And one more thing that I decided to change to keep teaching was my school name. Initially, my school name was “Nao’s English Studio”. We were talking about how important it is to know that English is not just a subject but also a communication tool, and communication is important. It is ok if it’s not correct. “Hello! How are you?”  – “Yellow Banana.” This conversation is ok if it makes you smile. That’s communication. I was inspired from this conversation and then decided to change my school name into “Yellow Banana Kids English”. I felt excited about it and didn’t want to quit teaching anymore. Students love this name and people know it!

 

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Yellow Banana certainly feels positive and makes you want to smile =) I’ve been lucky to see your lessons. I saw how dedicated you are, your passion and concern about making your lessons enjoyable for kids. It seemed to me your students feel very comfortable and “at home” in your class. Their parents smile as they bring their kids to your class, which I think is a good sign. They know you care for their children.

Thank you very much Anna! I’m really happy to teach English. “Teaching” for me is not just teaching… It is teaching a person, having a relationship with students and their parents, relationship with other teachers. How wonderful it is!

 

I thank you! This is, by the way, the most extraordinary post I’ve done in the #livebloggingparty series (note: we were, as I’ve said above, sitting in the same room and having this dialogue in real time on a real piece of paper, in actual writing). One last question in this interview is strange but I want to ask it anyway. How did it feel to you to be having this conversation in writing? It was the first time for me personally. This is the kind of an interview that I’m really interested in for my blog.

It was very interesting and also it was a very good writing exercise for me. I could read your question many times and I had time to think what to write. It was fun!! Thank you very much, Anna!

 

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*****

It is certainly me who has to be thankful. Naoko enthusiastically picked up my *nerdy* idea to spend an evening conversing with each other in pen and on paper, and I doubt it is something many teachers would agree to doing as their Saturday night pastime. For me, this experience was eye-opening in how much I really value the presence of a person I’m talking to. These 90 minutes and 9 pages had (and indeed have) a genuine feel of care, interest, and bonding. Thank you for this, Naoko.  I wish your school to prosper and your energy to be ever-present!

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This teacher behind practice.

You might know I have an unhealthy tendency to write about myself a lot or too much. In connection with this, I am very pleased with the choice of topic for this particular blog post. Basing it on the materials from Thomas Farrell’s workshop “Teacher Behind Practice” that I attended at JALT is a decent excuse to continue conversations with and about myself.

In the workshop we were asked to complete a set of sentences (“narrative frames”) without giving them too much thought. That was an almost traumatizing and certainly challenging experience as I normally would do my best to look for the words which express my thoughts as close to the thoughts themselves as possible, and that takes a lot of time, mental effort, and oftentimes a dictionary search. That fast-paced workshop experience left me feeling unsatisfied. So I want to go through the same set of frames again and have a second, more thoughtful run over them. My original, rushed workshop notes will follow in italics and let’s see how they will compare.

 

***** Who is THIS teacher behind her practice? *****

 

1. To me, the word teacher means … different things in my native language and in English. In Russian, I have recently started to read “учитель” as a kind of a mentor, almost guru. That could be related to my Asian travels. The word “teacher” in English for me at the moment is not really much more than a piece of lexis in the language to define a person teaching, as a driver would be a person driving.

To me the word teacher means a person with students in the room.

 

2. I became a teacher because… I happened to like my first experience working at school when I was 20. Quite possibly I didn’t “become” a teacher, I “happened to become” one. For now.

I became a teacher because that’s what happened, I never wanted or planned to.

 

3. I DON’T believe teaching is a calling because… No, I don’t believe this, because it’s not true for me or maybe because “a calling” sounds too presumptious and high-flown. I believe a very obvious and inescapable artistic talent is a sign of a calling. I believe teaching requires a certain set of qualities, but then again different students will connect to teachers with different combinations of those qualities.

I don’t believe teaching is a calling, at least from my own experience.

 
4. When I first started to teach I… was very naive and sensitive. I would take every little uncomfortable moment in the classroom very seriously and think about it for days on end. I’ve learnt to let it go since then.

When I first started to teach I was 19 and created my own crosswords.

 
5. The place I teach now is… providing me with enough freedom to think bigger and come up with projects. I’m grateful to my boss and colleagues for giving me the space to feel at ease in my classroom and our shared staff room.

The place where I teach now is interesting.

 
6. My students are… intelligent and open. I’m not sure if it’s about the university they enter and its entrance requirements, or about my attitude towards people I teach. Both?

My students are mostly boys and most often intelligent ones.

 
7. I enjoy going into school each morning because… This is a frame full of limitations (which I believe fits well into the concept of a frame). I enjoy not having to go into school each morning as I’m very happy to be the master and manager of my own working week and schedule. I enjoy going into school in the morning because I’m excited to see what the day may bring.

I enjoy going into school each morning because it makes me wake up early and have a maybe exciting day and be social.

 
8. I find teaching exciting and challenging because… I like to think my students feel free enough to express themselves during a lesson and this eventually leads to interesting discoveries for me, us and our mutual learning.

I find teaching exciting and challenging because …(no answer).

 
9. I do not think teaching is a job because… + OR vs I think teaching is a profession because

These statements are really hard for me to tackle. I don’t see any trouble with thinking of teaching as both a job and a profession. I hope in the comments you can guide me towards figuring out the difference, if you see it here. For me, in any case, teaching English is a kind of a life style that gives me enough freedom, social contacts, and plenty of opportunities for personal development (which I value a lot). There’s no speaking of work life balance in my situation, my “work” is my life, and that’s why I don’t feel bad or get whiney about writing articles at 3 am on the night of the deadline. These are my choices.

I think teaching is a job but also could be just the way you see your life. Communicating what you know to other people.

I think teaching is a profession because there’s room and means to grow.

 
10. The best aspect of my life as a teacher is… being connected to a great number of teachers around the world. I can’t help feeling lucky and special in being able to form these connections, strengthen them, use them to change my own lessons and even probably the course of life and career.

The best aspect of my life as a teacher now is being connected to other teachers and having found good friends.

 
11. The worst aspect of my life as a teacher is… having too many ideas, plans, and projects and too little time to bring them all into life.

The worst aspect of my life as a teacher is …(no answer).

 
12. What I really enjoy doing in my classroom is… challenging and surprising my students.

What I really enjoy doing in my classroom is talking to students about their learning.

 
13. My students believe in…. the importance of having a good relationship and nice connection with their teacher. That is my take on their belief.

I think my students believe that I’m more energetic and positive than I really am.

 

***** Shallow reflections *****

– If you frowned at some of those and categorised them as “assumptions”, you’re with a few people from that workshop and maybe with me, too.

– As I was typing the notes from the workshop after I’d finished with the post, I surely laughed. It was amazing to see how challenging it is for me to think within strict time limits AND with a presenter walking around the room pressing on me AND with a crowd of other people around. It makes me think that some students might be going through a similar kind of process in my class. I would like to decrease the discomfort level in my lessons though.

– So who is this teacher behind practice? I had no trouble or needed no extra time to come up with a positive (though likely not comprehensive) answer to this question. I believe I am relatively well aware of who I am aside from being a teacher. I might very well be wrong but my belief right now is that as a teacher I am who I am as a person.

– “Who I am is how I teach.” I yet have to dig deeper into the “how I teach” part. Coming up, maybe.

 

*****

This post dramatically and suddenly ends my Asian series of #livebloggingparty. This time blogging happened sitting on tatami around hibachi (which looks to be the Japanese version of Russian samovar but is a totally different experience as you basically burn charcoal inside a table)), in a traditional Japanese room in a most hospitable and nicest house of Nara, the ancient capital of Japan. As some of you might have already guessed, Kevin Stein is the host and blogger (and friend) and here’s his writing from tatami. Thank you, Kevin! Thank you.

hibachi

I’m going home.

In Mike Griffin’s class.

One of my personal professional goals to achieve during my Korea time was, as you might have read in some posts before, visiting classrooms and processing the experience. I think I started with a lot of zest. As a result, this post came out a very detailed one, took about 5 hours of my time, a lot of concentration, meticulous note-taking of anything I was seeing (and the thoughts those scenes and moments spawned), and then brain effort to structure and write it up in the way it could be readable and telling the points.

Next class I visited was of a very different type and I eventually decided to blog about it in an idle way which would require little analysis on my part but would leave a special feeling of other people being part of this emerging space of a blog. There were voices to be heard, I sensed, and I think that was a good choice on my part to eliminate the thorough scrutiny.

I’m going to go similar way now writing about another class I visited in Korea about a month ago, that meaning I will cut the dissection part. Because it’s too hard and I’m not sure it’s worth it. Besides, I feel like the main interest in that class for you the reader of my blog could be the contents of the class, at least that’s what it was for me.

 

Welcome to Michael Griffin’s English class at Chung Ang University, Seoul. Fasten your seatbelts, or any other belts, I hope it can be an interesting cultural ride.

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 *****

I’ll set the scene for you. Imagine a rainy but warm day in Seoul. That was the kind of day. Mike invited me to one of his classes and I was even going to be more than just a guest taking notes. That is exciting, if you ask me, and exactly the type of experience I’d long been thinking of having.

It’s a rough estimate, but it felt like 2 minutes of class passed after I felt a pang of jealousy. I saw Mike being relaxed but obviously confident and in control of the flow of his lesson, joking around while being on track and giving clear instructions. That was, in fact, pretty much the same Mike Griffin you’d see if you attend a presentation of his (and next chance to do so is in Japan in just 5 days). What was the pang about anyway? Well it struck me like it hadn’t in the months before that I miss teaching. I wanted to teach a/my university class and it was while being in that particular room that the feeling got so intense. I was almost aching to interrupt, interfere, comment, play a teacher, or get involved in any other way.

Which I only had to wait for. The plan for the class was the students (4 Korean ladies) doing the task assigned by Mike for one hour, and then the next hour would be divided into 15-minute “interview” sections, the interviewers being both Mike and me. This was in itself a new and unusual class format for me, and now that I’ve tested it and seen it in action, I’ll certainly try it out with some students in Russia, as soon as I get a chance.

 

So the four students split into two groups of two. There was “a Korean” and “a non-Korean” in each pair. The non-Korean Koreans were to read the questions, the questions that non-Koreans might wish to ask Koreans about their culture. The Korean Koreans, in their turn, were to give their Korean replies and explanations and provide any necessary comments on any further interrogation by pesky non-Korean Koreans.

Some of the questions from Mike were the following:

? Why do so many Koreans wear masks?
? Why are there so many Kims and Parks and Lees in Korea?
? Why do Koreans like Samsung and want to work for it?
? Why do Koreans hate Japan?
? Why do Koreans use metal chopsticks?

 

There were all in all 24 questions, all of them equally interesting or some even more. As you might imagine, I stopped taking notes of the things I could observe about the lesson very soon, for the simple reason of getting too curious about what the students had to say explaining their culture! By that time I’d been in Korea for three weeks and collected a fair amount of questions like that myself, so I couldn’t wait till the interview part of the class.

 

And while I learnt a lot in that interview part of the class and satisfied some part of my curiosity, I’m led to believe the students had a chance to learn from me, too. One of the best examples of the kind of cultural learning that happened that day and happened both ways was talking about the image of Russia. In that hour I heard 3 things which the students  shared with me as their instant associations with my country: (1) Moscow is a dangerous place to go to as there are skinheads who roam about the streets attacking, hitting and killing foreigners; (2) Russian food is greasy; (3) What do you think about Putin? … I don’t believe I need to go into much detail here about how passionate I was dealing with (1) since it’s just not true *anymore?*, and it was shocking news to me that such information travels around. Russian food is certainly different from Korean and it’s common knowledge that tastes differ. I’d heard taxi drivers here in Seoul blurt out “Putin?” first thing after they found out I was actually a Russian, not an American.

 

Among all other things we talked about it might be interesting for English language teachers in Russia to read that I heard this line: “My Russian groupmates struggle with their English”. I realize that it’s just one student sharing her personal opinion and it doesn’t lead us into making this unpleasant conclusion about the state of English language education in Russia, its standards and the levels students get finishing school.. There’s one thing that is certain as it’s a fact: Russian students don’t have to take an obligatory English exam as they finish school education, unlike Korean kids. For the latter English is mandatory for entering any university whatever major they choose, and English scores are in a way crucial (yes, they are a big deal). As I explained what the situation for Russian school children is like, my Korean interviewee said “I think your system is better” (stress related + not all students really need English in the future). Whichever system is better, her Russian groupmates struggle with their English.

 

I’ll share with you my questions about Korea and things Korean I’d been noticing in my time here. I got responses to some of these but still wonder about others. In any case, it’s useful to have them here as a memory of what I had in my mind in October 2014, and it’d be more than great to have some of your replies in the comments to this post.

  • Is it bad manners to tip?
  • Is it bad manners to not finish your meal/ leave food on your plate, if you don’t like it (some parts of pork, for example)?
  • What about dairy products and Koreans?
  • Has anyone here ever tried a dish called “kuksi”?
  • Why do Koreans invent English names for themselves and introduce themselves to me as Suzie, Robert or Jenny?? (note: I got an excellent answer to this question from one student but I’d like to read what your perspectives are as well, teachers who are based in SK)
  • Why are people in the metro or in the street never saying sorry after pushing you, stepping on your feet?
  • Why are people not looking at other people in the street? Or is it just for me?
  • How are people from Seoul different from Koreans from other places?
  • Where does Japan stand in the list of tourism preferences for Koreans? How’s the general *hostile* attitude reflected in daily life – do Koreans use Japanese products? Do Koreans have Japanese friends?
  • Why are you asked to scribble whatever on a special thing if you’re paying with your card? It’s not even supposed to be a signature. Apparently, there are no security reasons involved as there would be with PIN-codes, what then?
  • Names for dishes! That’s just amazing to me. In order to feed myself in a restaurant I need to know the name of a dish (and what that dish is, of course). It’s not as easy as it is to order a steak or pasta marinara, you know.
  • What’s one thing a Korean would never eat?
  • How about going to places, such a coffee shops, alone? It seemed to me it’s not quite typical/ natural for Koreans to hang out on their own.
  • Is there no Korean version of Google?

 

It was a very informative class for me, and even insightful in certain ways. Cultural gaps were filled, for me and maybe for those students as well. In the end I did feel I was a good part of the lesson, and I thank Mike for organizing the time in the way that allowed for that! Thanks a lot, Mike! =)

 

*****

Random analysis points that I couldn’t resist:

 

1)  I enjoyed Mike’s teaching style: very smooth and natural, with interesting and timely commenting and language work. The whole first part of the lesson revolved around one and only task, and that felt right and “light”. There was no hurry to proceed to some next stages and that opened up space for fruiful work on the task there was to be done.

2) I personally learnt a new word (peoplewatch (v)).

3) Several times Mike referred to Korean in his comments on the use of some phrases in English. I’m sure making connection with L1 is useful for students at any level of language proficiency. That is my humble assurance.

4) Here is a post to read to learn something more or less up-to-date about Russia (Moscow?).

5) I asked one student to share 3 important things my students in Russia should know about Korea. Here are her replies:

– Korean parents have high expectations of their children. They want them to study hard and get best scores.

– Wifi connection is excellent in Korea.

– Delivery service is just as excellent in Korea. Your order will arrive at your door within 10-15 mins from your call.

6) I paid special attention to Mike’s phrazing of “non-Koreans” instead of “foreigners”. I’m determined to stick to “non-Russians” from now on, whenever that comes in handy.

 

*****

This post is the forth (! already) in the #livebloggingparty series. This time Mike himself and I got together and blogged. We also ate this kimchi pizza. I hope you enjoy his post that you’ll find here. And with this post the blogging party moves on to another country! Expect to be continued soon-ish.

Big thanks to Josette, Anne and Mike for agreeing to go through this with me. I’m going to leave Korea with exceptional memories.

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Thanks for reading!

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