A River Runs through Summer TOEFL

To repeat a theme touched on in a few previous posts, my hypothesis is that schools are basically made up of the self-selected cohorts of students that run through them, more than their curricula, methods, or teachers.  (A fun metaphor for this is a river, whose constituent water molecules just happen to be guided by runoff and geography to go all the same way, which gives rise the the emergent property of being a “river”, much like students and staff in a school at any moment give it an illusion of durable existence)  All of these factors can influence the kinds of students who enroll and what the students do when they’re taking classes, of course.  In the ESL world, you have free Adult Education, unit-bearing Academic ESL, private ESL, and various less formal arrangements.  Some classes at the higher levels of private ESLs, as I experienced over the summer, are made up of students who have very advanced abilities and little-to-no motivation to study, making it a river with an action-packed but unpredictable course.

(I started this post this partly to distract myself from my first class of the semester, to begin in 30 minutes.  I slept fine last night but started getting the heebie jeebies as the countdown clock reached T minus 1 hour.  I’m revisiting it midway through that semester now, intending to publish it before I forget the summer)

An advanced degree itself being insufficient legal tender to pay the rent, I took evening classes at a private ESL over the summer.  My class was the TOEFL test prep class, which seemed relatively up my alley since I had done TOEFL for college students hoping to study abroad back at my school in Japan.  (I also used some TOEFL questions as a diagnostic exam for ESP classes of engineers, but I don’t think they knew this.  Perhaps they wondered at some point why so many listening questions involved students and teachers talking about planned renovations of campus buildings.)  Anyway, the summer TOEFL classes ran from 5:45 to 10:15 every weeknight except Friday, which accommodated the community college lab hours I had managed to arrange.  Obviously, the pay at private ESLs isn’t as good, but I figured it was a better use of my time than ruminating even more about the upcoming fall, which promised to be extremely busy.  It also offered a kind of class I’d never taught before: extremely high-level but low-motivation.

The omens started coming pretty early on: the coordinator warned me that many students in TOEFL are only there for lack of other options (having matriculated through all the regular courses but still needing visas), teachers joked about students not bringing their books for the entire term, some students smelled pungent in the particular manner of an AC/DC concert, none of the staff I talked to had been there longer than a year, and my first class had 20% attendance.  I quickly jettisoned my and my coordinator’s planned curriculum in favor of some loosely planned activities, the kind which allowed for participants to come and go midstream.  One of the first days I made the mistake of doing a bunch of questions in the first hour to be deconstructed, analyzed and played with in the second.  My plans came to naught when the class doubled in size for the second hour.

I learned quickly that demanding what might loosely be described as “student-like behavior” was a waste of time and effort.  I mean that in two senses: students didn’t want to play the apple polisher, and if I wanted them to do something, “demanding” was the wrong way to go about it.  My very first interaction with the students was telling them to sit closer to the front and having them openly reject the suggestion.  Not just refusing to move, but a lot of other officially and informally discouraged behaviors, like coming in late, leaving early,  missing random hours in the middle, and absolutely refusing to do homework seemed not to be stigmatized at this private ESL.  By this I mean you not only see these behaviors, but people, students and staff openly discuss them as expected.  This is something it seems a new teacher has to learn to live with or be constantly frustrated.  I managed to put the “meat” of the TOEFL lessons into periods 2, 3, and 4, leaving the first and last for review activities and improvised Dogme-style classes (which, true to form, provided the most memorable moments of the summer, outlined below).  Still, some more of value might have been found if this norm of nobody taking the classes seriously hadn’t had such deep roots.

The students and I found ourselves midstream in a river that started long before us and would probably continue for years afterward: a set of legal realities (hourly requirements for visas), economic incentives (the school didn’t want to lose customers just because they don’t do classwork, or as I was to find out, because they loudly berate a teacher in front of her class), and local norms that narrow the scope of outcomes that can be expected for any class. All the students in my class were veterans who knew how things worked – on more than one occasion I looked the fool for not knowing little bits of insider information like the fact that the 80% attendance requirement meant they could skip one full day a week, and that all the other teachers knew and accepted this.  For some reason at the beginning I thought I could change the course of this river by paddling really hard.


In community of practice terms, almost every member of the group has peripheral participation, demanding little of and giving little to the group, and this ironically is what marks them as insiders.  Sustained investment in the group is norm-breaking behavior, for both implicit and official reasons: people maintain a pretense of being at the school for purely instrumental reasons (even when they do make friends), and trying to involve other students in longer-term projects would interfere with their 80%-attendance-threshold-meeting plan of regular absences.  The kind of long-term or team-oriented activities (reading circles, for example) that are normal in college ESL courses are not only unexpected but clash with the explicit goals of the group as a CoP.

What success I had with the group was in seizing random topics of interest for whatever selection of the class was there that hour and inventing a justifiably TOEFL-related activity just for that hour or two.  The book almost always fell flat, if only because like most TOEFL books it viewed the best way to teach English as subdividing the skills necessary to read, write, speak, and listen on a subatomic scale, with sections like “Inferring a Conversation Topic from Pronoun Repetition”.  I ended up with a stable of activities that I used at least once per day.  Short articles printed from Vox or NBER with reading circles that were meant to be resolved within 2 hours worked sometimes.  (One student was positively offended that female MBA students understated their desired incomes when they knew their male classmates were watching.)  Vocabulary activities like Apples 2 Apples with TOEFL nouns, verbs (students had to nominalize them) and adjectives were surprisingly fun.  A version of Telephone (Chinese Whispers in the UK – yes, they have offensive names too) where each student had to give a TOEFL-style 45-second speech, their partner outlined it, that partner delivered the same speech to another partner who also outlined it, and finally that partner gave the speech to its originator and we saw how durable the topic sentences and supporting points were was reliably engaging, useful, and interactive.  But my favorite activity for the entire summer emerged Dogme-like from a conversation on why meat in California is so bland compared to that of South America and Eastern Europe (the homes of the two students present that hour).  We drew up a list of the competing concerns that chicken growers and buyers have, based mostly on their experience with a little input from me, and then they roleplayed a negotiation between them.  The South American student, playing the buyer, was a stickler for uniformity and quantity, and the Eastern European student, playing the grower, insisted on letting the chickens grow at their natural rates to their natural sizes.  The difference was resolved when the grower agreed to only raise one kind of chicken, under implied threat to lose the sale altogether.  I’m sure these two students will remember this activity long after they’ve forgotten what kinds of stars emit intermittent bursts of electromagnetic radiation (the topic of one of the practice reading sections).

Not every class was successful, as I have pointed out more than I probably should have, but I can’t really hold my frustrations against the institution or the students – again, private ESL needs students to stay in business, and the students themselves were the most fluent I’ve ever taught, which sort of implies that they are doing more right than wrong ESL-wise.  Next time, I will be better prepared if called upon to jump in this particular river again.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s