Category Archives: Vietnam

Ahead of the curve

Last time I was in a class full of students was on January 15th of this year*. After 3 months of online teaching (and yes, I can and will call that teaching!), I will soon be back in school for my first mask-to-mask class. It feels quite surreal, to be honest.

In these three months I’ve gone from “this is impossible!” to “wow, we just had such a great class!” – and that is, a four-hour class focused on intensely gaining EAP vocabulary, grammar, and *mostly writing* skills. Or a group debate session for 33 students. Or 3 hours of group presentations. What at first glance at the syllabus sounded like torture or a nonsensical way to spend our time glued to screens, in the end turned out just fine, and better. In fact, so much better that I think I am going to miss my Zoom days.

Setting the dark circumstances that brought us to THIS aside, I was determined to take this experience for what it could become – an exceptional learning opportunity, for me and my students. A chance to master and excel at some skills that will be indespensable much sooner than we thought. Yes, we were unprepared, untrained, put in undesirable conditions, and importantly, we did not choose to study or teach online. While so much was out of control, there was a lot to take charge of. What we could do was to learn together, and learn we did.

Below are my notes on what I think I’ve learnt on the steep learning curve, through my own experience in my online class *attending zero webinars or taking zero courses on how to use web tools/turn my Zoom sessions into fireworks of best teaching practice – simply because I never had time for those.* (That, I’ve learnt as well, was not what would matter for me.)

*** My personal, subjective, earned through eye-strain and body aches, key take-aways after the 3 months of online teaching, in no particular order ***

  • Take it easy! Relax and lower expectations – of yourself, of the students, of lesson outcomes.
  • Make everything clear. And by that I mean, as clear as you possibly can, crystal clear. Instructions on the slides, in the chat box, confirmed with students. Model as possible. And after all that be ready to patiently help someone whose connection was breaking and who couldn’t hear you well =)
  • Talk to them. Spare some time in the beginning/end of class to talk to students individually. Comment on their clothes choice of the day, virtual background, their learning room/space (in case of many of my students – bed), lunch and snack details, sounds you all hear when they turn on the mic. Be nice about it (obviously).
  • Ask about their conditions for studying: Is there anyone else in the room? Is it their own room or a common space like living room? Is it noisy or quiet enough? Is connection usually strong or unstable? The more information I have about their learning environment, the less likely I am to make assumptions when something goes “wrong.” Oh, and it might be a good time to reconsider your beliefs of what “wrong” is.
  • Vary activity types! I had to teach 3 and 4 hour classes, and ensuring that students spend that time (a) focused and (b) productively was not always easy. Much like in the real classroom, varying the pace and modes of interaction was key.
  • Organize some parts of your course to be completed asyncronously, as possible – it was not quite my situation, but given an opportunity, I would. For some activities, it did not make much sense to be in the Zoom room together at that particular moment.
  • Don’t be afraid! It is possible to do a lot online, even if it feels awkward or scary at first. Being flexible seems to be the key, and it is a really good chance to reflect what truly matters in an activity/assignment/course. Shed the insignificant layers, keep the core. Work with it.
  • Open up various ways for students to participate in class, to be visible, and to show their work to you and others: type in the chat box, talk and nominate a classmate to be the next to talk, explore all variations of breakout rooms (especially great for big classes!), Google forms, Google docs, what have you. Have them WORK and produce something in class, and share.
  • Give instant feedback! I absolutely loved this aspect of teaching online. As my students work individually/in pairs/groups, I can open their files and give my comments immediately, type them and help in the moment.
  • Ask students for feedback on your class/activity/course. That’s not ground-breaking, but I feel it is essential to hear our students now and know how they are experiencing our lessons.
  • Be patient! Be very patient. Breathe in, Anna, and don’t assume that silence lingering in the air after your question means anything at all. Move on and reflect on it later. =)
  • Open up space for questions. I learnt that too late, but I’m keeping it in mind for all of my future classes. Students might feel it impolite to interrupt you in an online session when something is unclear, and then there are gaps that might be hard to fill. I found it extremely helpful to share an empty document with the students at the beginning of the lesson encouraging them to type any questions that arise throughout the session, to be addressed at the end. The document did not remain empty for long!
  • Stay after class for 10 minutes, if you can. Some of the learners will feel more at ease to talk to you, ask a question, or confirm a task in that way.
  • Take a break during class!!! Things I did as students disappeared in their breakout rooms: turn off my camera, do squats and other quick exercise, walk around the room and stretch, make tea, eat some fruit. That said, it was essential to keep wearing wireless earphones at all times to hear if any of the students had been kicked out of our meeting and had to be invited back into their rooms (this happened SO many times).
  • One of the top 3 most significant learnings surfaced early and painfully: Time will slip through your fingers, so adjust the plan accordingly. It is plain impossible to complete everything  you usually do in a face-to-face class within the same amount of time online as there are too many unknowns. A student’s house has power outage. Another student’s Zoom suddenly doesn’t let her join the breakout room. Some other student is in class but doesn’t appear on the list of participants so can’t be invited to the breakout room. Typing in the chat is taking waaaay longer than you’d imagine it could. Students cannot access the documents on their computers. Students’ microphones worked yesterday but don’t work today and it’s their turn to give a presentation. And now another pair of students pushed “Ask for help” button in their breakout room and need you there… you get the idea. Breathe – and deal with the issues as they arise, patiently, watching the time you’ve scheduled for this task go by.
  • Train your students! It’s all new, for all of us. Develop your online class routines and give them time to understand how things work, what materials will be accessed and which pages need to be opened during class.
  • Some might disagree with this view, but for me it is fundamental to be honest with the students. Yes, I have only limited experience doing this but I am trying to make it work. Yes, it is taking time to load that audio – please be patient with me. Yes, it is really hard for me to teach a class when most of you don’t turn your camera on. Yes, I have that big pimple on my cheek today and it shows big on your screens and we are all staring at it. I am just as self-concious as you are about having my face on everyone’s screens… until I accept it, and we accept each other’s imperfect home backgrounds, morning hairstyles, cute noisy little brothers, and frowning grandmothers walking behind you preparing lunch. I will not create a “fake classroom” for you or pretend that online runs the same way as offline.
  • Another one in that top 3 most significant learnings: Keep it simple! Who cares if you don’t use fancy mindmapping tools or play Kahoot games. That said, stay true to yourself =)
  • Finally, recognize what the classroom is really all about for you. For me, it is about the people in it. Thus, my priority in the 3 months of Zoom meetings was to try and replicate the human element of the face-to-face lesson. I might have been successful less than 50% of the time, but I know I tried to find ways for us to reach out to each other, while keeping our distance.


Just for fun, here’s a list of things I never did in the 3 months of teaching Academic English to my university students (context is the king, I am aware!):

  • never used a poll function in Zoom
  • never asked students to use reactions button in Zoom
  • never used Zoom whiteboard (or any other whiteboard)
  • never used anything other than Zoom, Google Drive, YouTube, and Padlet during or for class


*UPD: Last time I was in a class full of students was, in fact, yesterday – afternoon of May 4th. I will confess to taking a nap of exhaustion after I hit the couch coming back home… But that – “coming back home” to the energy of the real class – is a whole another blog post…

Do you think you might just miss teaching online when it’s all over?… I know I will. Let’s talk about it some day, too.


Thank you for reading, as ever.

Thoughts from and on Vietnam

Hello and welcome back to my blog, where I welcome you and myself as well. This has been the longest stretch of non-writing in the 7-year-old history of my blog, and for the first time I am not feeling bad about it. There were things to do and worry about, there were people to talk to about teaching in the actual offline world, there were friendships to be nourished. At 32, I now allow myself to take it easy(ish) and practice focusing on what’s right in front of me and what’s most important. This paragraph could run for many more lines, but nobody really cares about non-writing, so I’ll get to the writing then.

With similar experiences of creative blocks silence in the past, I’ve learnt that the easiest blog post to write upon return is a random listicle of loosely connected thoughts, ideas, facts, news, impressions. So here goes…


***** What’s on my mind on August 21st, 2018, in Nha Trang, Vietnam *****

(1) Vietnam is a beautiful country and I have pictures to prove it.

(2) The Vietnamese people I’ve met who speak English make next to none grammar mistakes. Teachers, students, nuns (more on the nuns below). Vietnamese learners I’ve got to know appreciate feedback – in fact, directly ask for it! And they seem to be really willing to work hard on their English. They want to be your Facebook friend – and your friend. They are easy-going, friendly, nice, and very open.

(3) For slightly over a month I’ve been involved in something special, something different, something that’s giving me back all my energy to think of teaching creatively, with a purpose, with enthusiasm, with emotional rewards … teaching the way I’d sort of got out of touch with. I was invited to be a teacher of English (with a focus on developing speaking and listening skills) in a Facebook group to over 1300 practising Vietnamese Buddhists, both laymen and monks/nuns living in temples and pagodas. It’s a closed Facebook community and the safest, kindest online learning environment I’ve ever encountered. It is TRULY full of gratitide, love, and respect (well I feel that way). I am not a Buddhist but I am a teacher, and I wonder if such ELT strand as EBP (English for Buddhist Purposes) already exists – or if I’m the pioneer 🙂 Anyway, doing this has been bringing me TRUE joy in the teacher fulfillment sense (as well as many online blessings and general good vibes and thoughts). It has also made me go outside my comfort zone and create… a YouTube channel for the learners to have easy access to the videos and tasks. I have not yet learnt to make the videos look “cool” and properly “vloggy,” but I have learnt to edit automatically created transcripts. Baby steps. A crucially important aspect of this non-job has been getting to know SO MANY friendly, interested, dedicated to learning people of all ages!!! In my 12 days of vacation in Vietnam I have received many invitations to meet – and in fact, met one of the students (a nun) from this Buddhist learning community. I feel Vietnam has its arms ready for a big embrace for me (I am naive and impressionable!). By the sheer length of this point in my listicle you might figure out how excited I get talking about this… Will there be other blog reports about it? We don’t know (but likely)). This teaching makes me happy. Moving on to next point.

(4) I helped to organize excitELT conference in Tokyo in May. I loved all about it and felt especially good about two good deeds: we collected a box of used and new graded readers and sent them to a high school in a small provincial town in Vietnam (a country where for many teachers getting graded readers to use in class with their students is utterly impossible – so isn’t it but just a little bit unfair to go and tell them how amazing extensive reading with those readers is or can be?… just thinking outloud..); at excitELT this year we also offered mentoring to presenters who felt like they wanted help with their presentation prep (it was a great experience for me and I think I’d like to do more of it! That is, help.).

(5) I feel like a list of 5 items would be good, but what’s my number 5?… Oh yes, I’m looking into finding a job in Vietnam and moving there here. If you want to hire me or know someone who might be interested in hiring me, or just know someone or something – do leave a comment. =) Thank you kindly!


Thank you for reading.

Come again, I might write more soon. 😉



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Guest teaching, everyone learning (in Hue, Vietnam)

My first trip with Teachers Helping Teachers SIG to Vietnam is over now. It was a whirlwind – and a blur. There is a lot and too much to reflect on as a result, there are projects to work on, decisions to make, new friends to keep in touch with, professional and life goals to set and work towards. You’d never think so much can happen to a person in a week’s time! But this is all material for some other posts that I will or will not write here. This one, however, is about a class I taught as part of our program and that many of YOU, readers, Twitter and Facebook friends, made possible. Here’s how it happened.

***** Planning *****

As I mentioned earlier, the program involves some of us, volunteers with the THT SIG, guest teaching a class in the university where the seminars for teachers are later held (Hue University of Foreign Languages which has apparently been the partner and platform provider for the seminars for about 12 years). Anyway, I had never before been faced with a task to teach a class of students in a country I hadn’t even been to before and frankly, know very little about in terms of education or English education. So the first thing I did was write an email to my partner teacher.. and ask a million questions. I thought I could come across as a little over-anxious, but I needed to know certain things before thinking of a lesson plan. Things I needed to know were the following:  What time exactly does the lesson start and finish? Is there any break between two periods? Who are the students? What is their major? What is their level of English? How many students can we expect in the classroom? The class is scheduled to be a listening class – does that mean that same group of students has a variety of classes throughout the week that focus on different skills? Should our lesson be a listening lesson as planned – or any other focus is possible? Would you like to team teach or would you prefer me to teach the whole time? What do you think will be best for students? Is it necessary to use the topic shown in the syllabus, including the textbook and materials that you and students have – or are you allowed to diverge from the syllabus in this guest teaching class? If it’s necessary to follow the syllabus, could you please fill me in on the important details (textbook pages, what students will have done by then, etc). And if you are allowed to have some freedom in our guest teaching time, would you have any preferences as for the topic? 

Luckily, the teacher, Ms. Phuong aka Kathy was very positive in her response and seemed happy to communicate on these and other points I had for her later. She gave very useful feedback to my lesson idea, too!

And my idea was to have students explain things related to what they know best – their culture. Using Twitter and Facebook, I asked a simple “What would you like to know about Vietnamese culture?” – and got a list of 15 or so questions. Thank you! 🙂 Again, I so easily got the proof of how social media (AND personal) connections can empower our teaching, something I’d almost forgot about teaching in my current job.

Fast forward to March 21st. I’m in the classrom and students slowly trickle in – and I know we won’t be starting on time (which is fine! I remember how to be flexible.) I was feeling nervous, but then I saw maybe students were kind of uneasy, too, and that’s only natural. We chatted about it a little, we smiled. I tried to use the marker on the whiteboard and it didn’t work. Ms. Phuong took a marker out of her own bag and gave it to me. Somehow, I wasn’t even surprised that would be the case – both in Russia and in Japan I carry my own markers to the classroom.

Anyway, back to class. In the first 45-minute period we did an activity where students speculated about what my life as a Russian living and teaching English in Japan might be, on certain topics that I gave them, such as my house, my daily routine, my free time, etc (I modified one of the activities from Culture in Our Classrooms book).  Time-related and other reasons prevented us from working on ALL of the questions you asked in the second period, I hope you understand. I had to make a choice and picked, together with Ms. Phuong, ten questions that would be most suitable for the level of the students and their ability. I dictated the questions, then students had to choose at least 3 questions that were interesting for them to respond to and work on those individually. I was surprised and happy to find that most students answered almost all of the questions! After talking about their answers in pairs, they were to put their name and a smiley face on their paper IF they agreed to let me use their ideas for this blog post. 🙂 Now, this is what it’s all about. Here’s what you wanted to know about the Vietnamese culture – and we bring it to you.


1. How often and what do college students drink in Vietnam?

College students often drink milk tea and beer when they hang out with their friends.

College students in VN hardly drink alcohol like beer but they drink milk tea and canned drink like Coke. We sometimes drink beer on special occasions like birthday or reunion party.

They often drink milk tea and coffee 5 times a week.

In VN, they often drink milk tea, coffee, fruit drink, cane juice with friends after school, in free time or on weekend.

Quite often. Especially among young college students and young people who are so corrupted (playboys/girls). They drink on most occasions, like random parties, birthday parties, relative parties, etc.

Coconut, sugarcane juice…

Students in Vietnam often drink some fruit water, milk tea, coffee, etc…

Vietnamese college students often drink beer, local beer, and some kind of soft drink.

Twice a month, beer or sweet canner.

Sometimes, when we meet highschool classmates or have some parties. We usually drink beer. Some girls drink coke or something not alcohol.

College students often drink milk tea and smoothies. They drink when they go out with friends or sometimes order from home.

They often drink milk tea, soft drinks, beer.

2. How do Vietnamese people celebrate Lunar New Year?

Vietnamese people celebrate Lunar New Year by cooking “Chung” cake, decorating their houses by blossom trees, and giving lucky money.

VNese people shop for new things for celebrating in their house, buy new clothes to prepare for Lunar New Year called “Tet.” During Tet they visit each other and hang out with their friends or relatives.

Vietnamese people usually cook delicious kinds of food and put them on altar for commemorating ancestors. In addition, they decorate their house and go shopping before Tet. On the first day of the year, they often visit their relatives and children receive lucky money from adults.

The Vietnamese often decorate and clean their houses in Lunar New Year. They decorate their house with lamps, flowers, papers, etc. They also paint again the walls in their house. They prepare a lot of materials to make “banh chung, banh tet,” such as pork, banana leaf, green bean. Members of the family come back and celebrate Lunar New Year together.

The Vietnamese often offer the five-fruits tray that symbolizes the good luck to expect good things in life. It is considered the tradition of Vietnamese culture. Besides, they often buy some flowers, apricot blossom, kumquat tree, etc…

Vietnamese people try to be tactful and careful when they celebrate Lunar New Year.

We clean the house before the new year. Three first days of the year we visit relatives, children receive lucky money, they go to pagoda for wishes.

Before Lunar New Year, everybody in family stay together to cook rice cake and vegetable pickles. The older give the children lucky money.

3. What do Vietnamese students like to do with their families and friends? Is it true that Vietnamese students care more about their families (than friends)?

Yes, it’s true that Vietnamese people care more about their family. Students like to hang out, travel with their friends, and stay at home and cook with their families.

VNese people like travelling with their family and spend their free time after school wth their friends. It’s true that we care more about our family. Family is always the most important and priority.

That’s true. In their thinking, family is all.

They want to go out, travel with their own families. Especially when there are family reunions, they gather family members and have parties to celebrate. It’s also true that most of the young VNese people care about their families, especially after marriage, young people now have their own family to care about, but they still help and send money to their elderly parents.

Vietnamese students like to have meals or travel with family and like to go shopping or watching movies with friends. It’s true that VN people care more about family. They spend more time with family and share happiness and sadness together.

With family, I like all members sit together chatting after meal. With friends,  I like walking and eating out in a place for students. It’s true that we care about family, because often the majority of the Vietnamese live three generations together and people care for each other, especially the elderly.

I don’t know about other students but I like to have a meal with my family, I want to be with them as much as possible. I have been far from them for 6 years. And I want to travel with my friends, we will have a great time together.

4. What countries are attractive for travelling and for studying abroad?

Vietnamese students really want to travel to Australia, Korea, Finland and America.

For the VNese, Thailand or some Asian countries are the most frequent places for travelling. For studying, they choose America, Singapore, Australia or Canada mostly.

Korea, Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, becacuse they have delicious street foods and nice view places.

I think Australia, Canada, America… Because their education system is very developed and modern. There are many famous and beautiful places… There are a lot of lecturers who are so friendly, helpful, well-educated… We can exchange culture and languages with other students because they are from many countries in the world.

I think China is attractive because I also learn Chinese language.

The most attractive country for travelling and study abroad is America.

England, USA, Singapore, Japan.

5. Do Vietnamese students make up English-sounding nicknames for classroom use and for daily life?

Not very many Vietnamese students create their own English-sounding nicknames in class or daily life.

We rarely create English-sounding nicknames. We usually make nicknames by animals’ names or someone’s specific character.

Yes, they do. There are some reasons why students want to give their friends or themselves a nickname. Some people think it’s cool to have a foreign nickname or it simply sounds funny compared to what VNese think about names and such. For example, people call me “Tomorrow” because my last name is “Mai” and it means “the next day” or “tomorrow” in VNese.

VN students don’t create English-sounding nicknames for English class but for daily life most students use the nickname that their family usually call them.

I have a nickname for my English class but I don’t use it for daily life. I think everyone is the same with me.

6. Which is more cool, Japan or Korea?

Korea is cooler!

Korea is more cool for Vietnamese students. They love K-pop.

I think it depends on what culture and language people are interested in. Like, part of the young people love Japanese culture, anime culture, J-pop, etc… They will choose Japan. And the opposite part for Korea if they like Korean fashion and K-pop.

I think Korea Japan is more cooler than Japan Korea.

I think Korea.

Korea 🙂

I think Japan.

7. What are key necessary ingredients for a Vietnamese meal?

The necessary ingredient for a Vietnamese meal is sauce, for example fish sauce, soy sauce.

The important ingredient is fish sauce.

I think this is fish sauce. Because my mom says that most of the dishes taste best with fish sauce.

Fish, rice, and pho.

Rice. Of course.

Rice, vegetables.

8. In Vietnam, what is a polite way to greet someone?

The polite way to greet someone is to shake hands.

Say “Hi” and wave hand.

The polite way is shaking hand and hugging each other.

You wave one of the hands and say “Chao,” “Xin chao,” or “Hey”… Something like that, at the same time.

Shake hands and say hello, or wave hello, call name…

Greeting and a friendly smile 🙂

Say “Hello” and make friends with somebody and smile at someone.

Look at her eyes and smile.

Say “xin chao”

9. What clothing is appropriate in Vietnam?

Vietnamese people can wear any clothes, but not to show a lot of cleavage.

Jeans and shirts or T-shirt, shorts are acceptable.

To the oriental thoughts: men can wear any clothes they want but women should wear full-covered clothing or people will consider you are a naughty or a play girl. But in modern days people are more open-minded and wear Western-style clothing more.

Ao dai, T-shirt and trousers, dress…

Ao dai is the clothing suitable in Vietnam.

Skirt or jeans or T-shirt.

You can wear everything you want but not too short or small.

Jeans, skirt, shorts.

10. Do Vietnamese people travel around Vietnam? What are some popular destinations?

Yes, they travel around Vietnam. The popular places are Hue, Da Nang, Da Lat, Nha Trang, Sapa.

We do travel around VN. Some famous destinations are: Ha Noi, Ho Chi Minh, Hue, Da Nang, Hoi An, Nha Trang, etc.

Some people do, some don’t. If they have good financial condition, they will. But still, some people just want to work more and more, and save money for the living purpose, not to enjoy life…

Sapa, Hoi An old town, Nha Trang beach…

Yes, they do. Here are several destinations in Vietnam: Hoi An ancient city, Hue city, Phong Nha-ke Bang cave.

VN people travel around VN very much. There are many beautiful caves in VN that attract tourists to go there.

Vietnamese people travel around Vietnam. The places where Vietnamese always travel are Da Lat, Da Nang, and Son Doong (Quang Binh, DMZ).

Da Lat is the most interesting place for travelling because it has many beautiful views, fresh air and flowers.

Yes, I do. Some popular places are Thien Mu, Dai Noi, Nguyen Dinh Chieu street and so on…

I think that is Danang and Hoi An. There are a mix of modern and traditional. I have never been there.

Yes, they do. They often travel in the summer or spring. Some popular places are Da Lat, Da Nang, Sapa…

***** Final thoughts and comments *****

I would very much like to thank this group of students, who didn’t know what kind of class they were walking into on March 21st, but were all so engaged and responsive and active. I had been nervous imagining what it was going to be like, teaching a class of students I don’t know (and who don’t know me!), in a country I’d never been to before. In the end, it was so much fun – and I hope the information they shared can be useful for anyone who wants to know more about Vietnam. Ms. Phuong, Doan Van Vu, Pham Thi Thuy Linh, Nhat Minh, Lien Thi, Thanh Nhat, Thuy Dung, Hoang Anh Mai Thi, Tien, Linh Thy, Nguyen Phuong Thanh, Vo Thi Van Tham, Hong Diem, Minh Trang, Phuong, Nhu Quynh… Thank you so much – and I’m sorry if I made any mistakes in spelling out your names!!..I did my best 🙂 And I truly hope I’ll see you again.



P.S. Random notes:

  • their handwriting is a beautiful cursive!! Very impressive penmanship.
  • after class a few girls came up to me and wanted to become Facebook friends. Each of them later sent me a private greeting and thank-you message! I was touched and again impressed by their social media manners 😉
  • it was already in Vietnam that I learnt that every word in Vietnamese is one syllable (right?…). So they spell their country as Viet Nam. Hence the abbreviations you might have noticed in their writing – VN and VNese people.
  • maybe I remember how to plan a class that is not a discussion class that follows a similar structure each time. Maybe I remember how to be a little creative and flexible in-action. I was relieved to feel how I felt teaching what I myself chose to, and being comfortable and confident doing so. I think maybe I’ll be OK in my next job.  🙂


Thank you for reading, as ever. I hope this post can be useful in some ways, to some.


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