Learning software in need of a theory of learning

I have a new project that I enjoy and I think my students will enjoy, but I have trouble fitting into any known theory of language learning.

I call it the Random English Grammar Generator, and it started off as a way to challenge myself to relearn Java before slowly metamorphosing over time into a semi-professional Javascript/JQuery/XML hobby.  I say semi-professional because I tell my students about it and encourage them to use it but never give points or even extra credit for it owing to the fact that I don’t know of any theory of language learning that could justify spending time on it.  See, it’s fun for me to tinker with as a former CS major, but as a teacher I have trouble explaining its utility, as it’s certainly not meaning-focused, interactive, or communicative.  It’s not even very useful as input because the software-generated examples are decontextualized and sometimes have very odd collocations (which will be improved in the next update, but will never be completely natural).  In short, it is to English students what one of those Rube Goldberg-looking cat gymnasiums (gymnasia?) is to a typical housecat.

A few things make me feel like this is something other than a pure hobby.  I know some kinds of students, mostly my former students in Japan who loved manipulation of abstract systems and perfunctory tokens, who will enjoy playing with it, and this provides me some comfort.  Many ESL departments at universities and community colleges in California also seem to spend money on software packages which are similarly grammar-McNugget-oriented and only slightly less contrived in their examples, and they may show an interest in something like this if I can make it a bit more tailored to the grammar books I know they use (for instance, by putting all the passives in one place and the hypotheticals right after the basic if clauses).  For the moment though, it is a showy jalopy that I spend a lot of time working on but can barely get me to the supermarket.

Skyhooking pt. 2: Interlanguage punting

Here’s a question pre-MA Mark would have never thought to ask: Under what circumstances is explicit grammar teaching justifiable?

I have taken on weekly “grammar workshops” for intermediate-to-advanced ESL students at the community college where I work.  The students are self-selected from the final 3 semesters of the academic writing sequence which eventually lands them in Writing 1 with the NS students, and are usually a fairly broad mix of skill levels and stages of interlanguage development.  Running these workshops is a lot of fun, as I can choose any grammar point and present it any way I like.  The process of choosing has made me consider in a new light some of the things I’ve said in the past about grammar teaching.

Before that, I should point out that interlanguage development is often not a part of what makes an ESL student “advanced”.  Self-editing, mostly as a function of explicit grammatical knowledge, is.  The highest levels of ESL are not necessarily the most fluent or accurate in real time, especially in speech, but they are able to catch their errors at some point between rough and final drafts, understand a good amount of written vocabulary and recognize formal register.  They have also encountered almost all the canonical “grammar points” that are part of ESL/EFL curricula at all levels formally at least once, including the hypotheticals, hedging techniques, and participial adjectives that have been the topics of some of my workshops thus far.

The fact that I’m working with advanced ESL students means that I, in theory at least, am not “presenting” material so much as focusing on form for grammar that they should already be using in almost-college-level reading and writing.  In actuality, however, I am mostly re-presenting material that was first skyhooked in before they were ready, when they are slightly more ready.  I am still front-loading grammar before I can be sure that their internal representations of English can make a home for it, but with the expectation that the metalinguistic presentation of this grammar should have at least a ring of familiarity.  For most students, I am not exploring the reasons and relationships behind a way of putting words together that they’ve heard dozens of times before, which would be more current pedagogy. Instead, I am shoring up a bank (is that a mixed metaphor or a deliberate pun?) of explicitly formulated grammar knowledge that is meant to allow them to transfer to universities, where they will use that knowledge to deal with the huge quantities of high-level input.  That is, I’m skyhooking in the anticipation of soon-to-come contextualizing input.

That means that my concerns are less “draw attention to patterns they’ve already seen but haven’t formally defined” and more “create entertaining and memorable lessons that have an incidental point”.  I have to take a rain check on things like noticing (Schmidt, 1994 – I think I shall remember that one forever) and teaching in the Zone of Proximal Development and hope that months or years from now something will click and they’ll say to themselves, “oh, that’s what Mark was talking about”.  That is why the lessons are rather heavy on memorable fluff and light on formal exploration of grammar – if I can’t find a place for my lesson to stick in their interlanguage, I need to find another way to make it stick through sheer entertainment until interlanguage catches up.  I call this interlanguage punting.  This is different from garden-variety skyhooking of grammar, which is more of a shot in the dark as far as usefulness for interlanguage development goes.  In interlanguage punting, I have good reason to expect their interlanguage to catch up to the formally presented grammar fairly soon.

So I’ve come up with these guidelines for interlanguage punting:

  1. Lessons should be memorable.  The rule for most of my classes is that if I don’t have their attention (on me, on their classmates, or on a task), I don’t have anything.  In this case, if they don’t remember the lesson for years, they might as well forget it tomorrow.  For example, I used the trolley problem in a class on causatives.  The students might forget the word “causative”, but they will definitely remember choosing people to save and to kill in grammar class.  (Or to the point of the lesson, people to cause to die or allow to die.  My favorite quote from that class: “I’m not killing him; I’m preventing him from living more.”)
  2. A few good quotes that exemplify the grammar point, rather than an abstract pattern, should be students’ main grammatical takeaway.  I think this is generally a good principle for teaching grammar, but is especially important as the time students are meant to remember the lesson grows.  This principle is well-grounded in current SLA thinking: first, students care more about what their peers say in actual conversation than perfunctory characters say to illustrate correct grammar; and second, a memorable quote facilitates situated and chunked grammar (what a jargon-heavy phrase that is).  A live, wild-caught specimen of grammar is better than an illustration in an encyclopedia.  Again, I’m sure most students have forgotten my PowerPoint slides already or will forget them soon, but they’re unlikely to forget the student who said he/she would move back home if Trump won again (the topic of that class was hypotheticals).
  3. Because these should be points that will become salient to the students soon, it’s better to avoid issues of style that are purely matters of explicit knowledge even in native speakers.  Issues like the subjunctive mood (which one of my textbooks for some reason lumps in with all other noun clauses), split infinitives, dangling participles and others that native-speaking pedants use as shibboleths should be left for another day.  You want to avoid creating Frankenstudents whose explicit knowledge is better than most of their native-speaking peers while their interlanguage development languishes at pre-third-person-s levels.

 

Student-centeredness and fake news

“Student-centeredness” is a word whose weight is much greater than its clarity.  It carries very high value for signalling one’s dedication to teaching without saying almost anything about how one teaches.  It is a high-value token in the currency of a country no one can name.

As such, it invites co-opting.  Any teacher can describe his or her style as “student-centered” and reap the benefits using that word by appearing serious and dedicated, while simply describing the way he or she has always taught and would teach even if they had never heard that word.  This seemingly selfish guiding of the definition of the word doesn’t have to be conscious; the term is defined flexibly enough that any teacher could hear it and think, “That’s what I do! I had no idea I was so forward-thinking”.  As long as there is at least one student in the room (or the CMS), almost any teaching style could feasibly be called “student-centered”.

It shares that imbalance between rhetorical power and precise definition with “fake news”.  Some people define “fake news” as news that reports objective lies, others as news that frames stories in ways that guide the audience toward an ideological objective, others as news that works against what they see as American interests.  Depending on one’s definitions of the words “fake” and “news” (also “American interests”), any of these are plausible interpretations of the two of them put together.

Putting aside the flagrant attempt to tie this idea to today’s news, I have attempted to categorize four interpretations of “student-centeredness” that I’ve seen in my first month as an adjunct ESL instructor at a community college as well as in my career in Japan.

(Incidentally, ESL teachers are especially equipped to see through the top-shelf word choice of “adjunct” as opposed to “part-time” when referring to inessential staff: “adjunct” in grammar refers to a word or phrase after a verb that is not part of its argument structure, like “on the table” in “put the bowl down on the table”.  I.e., it is a part that is usually expendable.)

Ideologies-of-education student-centeredness

Some instructors are very dedicated to giving the students what they want.  In my classes, my students want me to pick the chapters from our reading textbook (the book itself being a concession in my mind) and read through them line by line, explaining the content in detail.  I tell them every new unit that I’m not going to do that, but many instructors are happy to, and if asked would probably justify it with reference to “student-centeredness” in that they are giving the students what they very clearly ask for.

If you read this blog on and off, or just if you got your MA within the last 20 years, you’ll know that I don’t think that this serves the students’ real interests.  It does, however, give the students the dignity of choosing their own way of studying and treats them as rational actors whose wishes and educational cultural norms need to be respected.  That sounds student-centered to me.

Outsourced student-centeredness

On the other hand, some teachers show their respect for students by assuming that they have the resourcefulness and dedication to work through difficulties on their own.  This often takes the form of the teacher enjoining the students to work hard and never give up, often in the place of offering the kind of explanation or class work that would obviate the need to work quite so much.  Like the above definition of “student-centeredness”, it strives to treat the students as independent rational actors.  Unlike the above, it places the burden of improvement much more on the student’s rather than the teacher’s contributions than in “traditional” education in most countries, and is likely to result in wildly different contributions from each student than passive reception of information.  In that sense respects their independence as well.

I call this “outsourced student-centeredness” simply because it makes learning the student’s responsibility rather than the teacher’s.  If that implies that the teacher is shirking his/her duties, I believe teachers who teach this way would say that giving students a sense of responsibility is their biggest duty of all.

Anecdotally, there is a strain of teaching traditional arts in Japan that places all of the onus for improvement on the student, while the teacher is mostly there to provide proof that success is possible, as well as discipline and structure.  This fine article by Neil Cowie explains how this affects some language teachers’ class styles as well.  It is conspicuously absent for the most part from the language classroom, for better or worse.

System-dependent student-centeredness

I once put the topic of student-centered teaching forward to a JHS English teacher who was coming to me for conversation classes.  She described her classes as student-centered in that she always did her best to help her students succeed and stuck around to answer questions or just be there for them after class.  From what I understand, this view of student-centeredness as doing everything to help students to succeed in a system with preset rules and goals, as well as helping them with life in general, is widely held in Japan.  The view that language education should be highly personalized at the level of content was not.

This is a feasible motivating strategy as well; students (and their parents) greatly appreciate a teacher whose goals are aligned with their own and who they feel will help them contribute to an ongoing life project.  In Japan, the goals (university) and means (attentive and diligent study) implied by this project are shared by almost all of the stateholders and gatekeepers in mainstream education, and teachers are expected to be selfless in their dedication to helping students succeed.  Students see teachers’ dedication and reciprocate.  At least, that is the ideal.

For many teachers this dedication extends to helping them cope with the strenuous demands that the testing regime places on them by being a confidant or playing counselor.  These are still, after all, mostly scared teenagers.  The teacher that I talked to saw friendly rapport before and after lessons as part and parcel of a humane, student-centered education in the context of a high-pressure academic environment.

Content student-centeredness

If you pay attention to trends in education, this one will be familiar to you.  The theory goes: attention is the currency of the classroom, and nothing elicits attention like talking about yourself.  Talking about your peers is a close second, and talking about the teacher a distant third.  Nobody cares about the made-up characters in a textbook.  Student-centeredness to teachers under 35 or so (or who got their certificates/degrees later in life, like me) re-orders content so that abstract principles and mass-produced materials go from near synonymity with course goals to hindrances or signs that your course outline isn’t sufficiently modern.

I assume most of you already agree with changing content and class style to give students more chances to co-construct knowledge (I normally balk at using words like that, but here they honestly seem like the best description of what I want to say).  I will just say though that none of that is obvious to teachers who only encounter these terms in passing and tries to find a home for them in the ELT world as he/she understands it.  As with fake news and its ability to describe almost any news the speaker wishes to paint as bad, the phrase “student-centered” can be applied to things already within any teacher’s repertoire.

Teacher Identity, pt. 3 – fellow travelers and possible selves

This post will draw somewhat heavily on Markus and Nurius’ (American Psychologist 41, 1986) possible selves, which I mostly learned about via Dörnyei.  Briefly, the ideal self is the best possible future version of yourself according to your own goals, the ought self is judged well by one’s peers and works to avoid shame and other negative outcomes, and the feared self is a failed, to-be-avoided future self, the opposite of the ideal self.

What coworkers from your career do you see as role models?

A lot of the teachers I worked with seemed to have something like professional Shark Syndrome (which may or may not have a real name in psychology), in which a need to always be in forward motion propels them to devote every weekend to professional development, and every Facebook post is from a train or plane en route to some international TESOL convention or another.  I actually don’t see this as realistic for people who (hope to) have families, or even friends, but their level of commitment to PD and to each other is inspiring.  Unlike me with my occasional metal posts, every thought that occupies their minds seems to be a reflection on practice or a new lesson idea.

The presence of coworkers and fellow ELT writers around me tends to cattle-prod me into following a similar path at least some of the time, leading me to do things like publish, make presentations, familiarize myself with common jargon, change the toner in the copy machine, etc. more than I normally would.  This effect seems to me much bigger than providing a role model in the same way as my high school teachers, possibly because my relationship to them was quite different and I’m seeing high school through 20 years of rose-colored fog (per recent EPA research findings, this is not a mixed metaphor).

As such, my coworkers usually inform my ought self rather than my ideal self, in that I associate my interactions with them more with the minor feeling of panic that comes from not keeping up than with feelings of wanting to be just like them when I grow up. The fear of not understanding some term (often an acronym, MBOH) that my coworkers are apparently all familiar with, or not having read some book or attended some conference strikes me as more characteristic of my interactions with other teachers.

This is in addition to the actual job requirements of knowing how to use that district’s chosen LMS, how they fill out time cards, what medical checks are necessary to begin working, how assessment is required to be conducted, and what acronyms the district mandates we use for things like “wrong preposition before indirect object” (WPBIO).  These threaten not just my ought self but my employed self.

Of course, doing all the PD and training that my ought self tells me to do is responsible for most or all of the career growth I’ve experienced, so I do owe my coworkers a lot for letting my ought self facilitate my ideal self.  It’s hard to be an inspirational and universally lauded senior tenured faculty member if you don’t know the procedure for adding and dropping students.

As for a feared self, the prospect of resigning myself to a lifetime of teaching uninterested students while my superiors only grudgingly tolerate my presence because they need Native Speakers, while making payments on a 30-year mortgage on a house that is never comfortable to be in except when I’m in front of my computer complaining about my life functions for me as a skeleton in a cage hanging at a crossroads.  Yes, I’ve seen shades of this in coworkers before and I shall be sure never to set foot on that path (again).  That is the feared self I hope I left behind when I quit my Japanese university gig.

For Californian ESL, my feared self is only just now starting to take shape, but he looks to be a functionary of the credit system, a servant of the district-wide synthetic syllabus funneling reams of immigrants through an established program readying them for transfer, relegating high-minded notions of interlanguage development to the trash heap of the un-rigorous and un-academic.  Check in periodically to see if I’ve managed to stave this boogeyman off.

daikini_crossroads
If you see the greatest swordsman who ever lived in a cage on the path you’re meant to take, don’t take that path (even if it leads to tenure).

What about students?

Well, students don’t usually represent any of my possible selves as a teacher of course, but certain types of students are associated with the types of people I imagine interacting with as my possible selves.

(Actually, a few students of mine have been teachers themselves, and they were admirable in their willingness to continue learning their subject matter.  What stops me from considering them inspirations for me are the motivations they had for coming to me.  In one student’s case, she saw her classes with me as hobby-like, completely irrelevant to the mandatory English classes she taught at a local (Japanese) JHS.  The fact that she made this distinction speaks to the problem-to-rule-all-problems in Japanese ELT, the dichotomy of “communication/eikaiwa vs. grammar/eigo“, which rules that education from NESTs is a priori inapplicable to the serious business of public schooling.  In her mind, I taught the former to hobbyists and she taught the latter to real students.  Actually, this describes my problems with the second JHS teacher I taught as well, although in her case “communication English” wasn’t even a hobby, just a cosmetic concern for her application essays for the EAP programs that she needed to graduate college with a teacher’s license.)

Anyway, some other students have greatly informed the choices I make in teaching milieux these days, as I imagine what types of students I may interact with in those schools and how closely they will conform to my “greatest student hits” of the past.

I’ve had students who from day one embraced communicative methods and were able to draw discrete points from indiscrete (hmmm…) presentation, building a rich statistical and formal interlanguage system.  Until 2012, I didn’t know what “focus on form” was anyway, and my students who succeeded with me up till then mostly had to make do with either grammar classes or communication.  Demographically, these were generally socially deviant but intelligent people who were actively trying to succeed at a common goal through alternative methods, i.e. eigo innovators (see the strain theory post above).  Nowadays, I would incorporate more formal grammar into classes like those that we had, but these early encounters showed me what my MA would later feature as a major theme, that language learning must be a process of building implicit knowledge through some means, and purely implicit methods can be one of them.

On the other hand, I’ve had students who really needed the trappings of teacher-centeredness in order to feel comfortable in the classroom, and were quite eager to absorb formal grammar, practice it, and try to incorporate it into a living interlanguage system.  That sounds like I’m describing “all Japanese students”, but in actuality most students in Japan skip the 2nd and 3rd steps.  Sometimes, this yielded fruit in the form of insights that were worth having and probably couldn’t have come about but through metalinguistic means.  The most memorable example of this for me is when a hobbyist English learner in her 60s articulated the difference between 「ほとんど」hotondo and “almost” in terms I hadn’t heard before, that hotondo was fundamentally a positive word while “almost” was a fundamentally negative one.  I think this kind of summary can only come from a lot of conscious reflection on language, not merely acquisition.

Addendum: Since I started writing this post I’ve realized that a lot of my ESL students are completely starting their two-decade educations over.  That is, they sometimes have advanced degrees from countries that US universities don’t recognize, and are essentially doing university and graduate school all over again in a new language.  Until now I’ve been almost entirely teaching people who had less education than I do.  Teaching this new (to me) demographic of student is inspiring and humbling.  It still doesn’t inform my ideal self but certainly tells my ought self to do a good job.

What other people have directly influenced your classroom style?

I’ve been very influenced by the evolutionary arguments against “traditional” classroom styles, the type that point out that it’s totally unintuitive for us to sit quietly with non-kin, face the same direction, and listen to someone 5-20 meters away impart information verbally for hours at a time.  Some people have the knack for doing this, but most of us don’t, and it’s absurd for us to make it a prerequisite for all academic success from age 7 onward.  Like the printed word, it seems justifiable mostly for the neat bell curve it produces in achievement, which makes sorting students into careers relatively simple, not for being the most effective means to put ideas into the heads of millions of people at the same time.  So being a good critical thinker, I have to consider other contexts in which people put themselves in these unintuitive circumstances, and wonder why they would seem to do so happily, even paying for the privilege, in certain cases.

One of these is stand-up comedy.  Almost every argument one could make about “traditional” education could also be made about comedy, and sort of has been made by Louis CK.  People sit for hours with strangers listening to another stranger.  Yet they not only pay attention but pay money in order for the privilege to pay attention.

louis-ck-quotes-phone
Not the quote I was thinking of, but a good one.

The point is, transmission-style education isn’t a sin if you really can hold people’s attention and bring them on a journey with you.  Even if it’s not immediately relevant to their lives, there is power in rhetoric and public speech that can negate all the artifice of the “traditional” classroom.

That said, if you adopt that teaching style and DON’T keep the students’ attention, you’ve failed just as much as a comedian who can’t get a laugh.

The luxury of the long game in EFL

The conflict between short-term and long-term goals is a big one for ELT.

In most subjects, teachers work with a batch of students in something called a “course” in 3- to 5- month intervals.  We tailor our expectations of the course to that time frame, generally not asking students to do something impossible like master the complete works of Puccini or lose 20% body fat in the 18 weeks between handing out the syllabus and proctoring final exams.  Instead, we find a way to subdivide the task that we know we want them to have mastered within the next 4 years into semester-long segments, and call that our course. Not all the works of Puccini, but 2 of them.  Not 20% body fat, just 5%.  Not all of a foreign language, just 500 words and the first 10 grammar points.

There is a problem that many language teachers see in taking that approach to planning a foreign language curriculum, which is that learning another language is less like learning musical scores and more like learning to walk (or in anti-evolutionists’ favorite gambit, evolving an eye) – there are no sensible partway points at which to divide the long and error-ridden process into 4-month units.  Like walking and eye-volution, all successes are prefaced by many more instances of clear failure, and progress may look exactly like failure until it suddenly doesn’t. Half an eye doesn’t do its owner 50% of the good of a complete eye, and there is no reason to think that 2 years of college Spanish is 50% as good as 4 (or 1 year 25% as good, or a semester 12.5%).  Assuming (yes, assuming) a full college Spanish curriculum does its job of producing competent Spanish speakers, chopping it into semesters may work against this goal rather than helping students towards it by inducing short-term-goal myopia in course planners and students alike.

human-eye-anatomy

(I recognize that evolutionarily intermediate eyes actually did have utility – but half of a modern human eye certainly doesn’t.)

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JALT vs. CATESOL

I’m still digesting my first CATESOL conference, along with the fairly huge lunch that came with it, put on by my local Orange County Chapter, and I thought I’d post some reflections on the differences between JALT (Japan Association for Language Teaching) events and CATESOL, based on the years I spent in officer positions at the former and the whole one event I’ve been to from the latter.

Accents and internationalization

I.e., varieties of non-native accents.  JALT, despite its name, is mostly the NEST organization in Japan; Japanese English teachers and teachers of other languages participate more in other organizations like JACET or no organization at all.  As a result, you hear mostly BANA (Britain, Australia, North America) accents and occasionally Japanese accents.  I widened my circle of native English-speaking acquaintances quite a bit in JALT – and for some reason a hugely disproportionate number of those were from the smallish town of Nanaimo, British Columbia – and I made some Japanese acquaintances too, but not nearly as many at nearby dog parks.

The CATESOL event featured quite a variety of accents and national backgrounds.  I’m pretty sure I heard Korean being spoken in the background at at least a few points, I was approached by a Japanese student doing a semester abroad, the host is apparently from Russia, one of my partners for breakout discussions was from Spain, and several other people revealed having been born in another country during the normal course of conversation but had no (non-Californian) accent that I could discern.  This was quite a refreshing change from the internationalism that somehow results in homogeneity that I witnessed often among English teachers in Japan.

Internationalism is a bit a of a banal subject here, it seems.  No one talks about it; no one encourages it or dismisses it.  No English teacher here thinks it is his/her mission to internationalize Southern California.  Best of all, there is no Holliday-sian Catch-22 where the white BANA teachers are the only ones talking about NNEST equality and opposing linguistic imperialism while their local managers and deans openly use them and their semiotically valuable “Western” features as advertising to recruit students who still think white faces = authentic English.  Also none of the clearly hypocritical regressive liberalism when NESTs’ instincts to valide Japanese teachers’ identities result in agreeing to their claims of non-overlapping magisteria, Japanese teachers’ purview being supposedly impossible-for NEST skills like speaking Japanese and understanding juken.  I attended a presentation at the CATESOL event that addressed these issues, but the context was different – it wasn’t so clearly divorced from the consciousness of the community, including most language teachers, outside the room.

To be fair, this isn’t a negative point of JALT so much as it is of the surrounding population of teachers and learners.  It is an issue though that I am happy to put behind me.

Youth, cheerfulness of

I was easily one of the older attendees at the CATESOL conference.  There were poster presentations, most of which seemed to be put on by recent college graduates (although one turned out to be an old Japan hand like me who just looks young).  Many tables at lunchtime put me in mind of the archetypal high school cafeteria (as portrayed in film – my high school didn’t have a cafeteria), by the sheer conversational energy and assuredness of youth.  The Plenary speaker was older, but such things are expected.  All the presenters seemed to be my age at the very maximum.  This gave me a short frisson as well as I realized these people were also several years into a local career that I was now starting afresh.

JALT’s composition, mostly college teachers with MAs or better, pushes the age scale quite a bit upwards.  I’m pretty sure at least some of the other Chapter Presidents or SIG Coordinators were in their 60s, and mid-30s (as I was) seemed to mark one as thoroughly green.  If CATESOL is the NAMM show, JALT is the local symphony’s booster club.  One or two JALT folks were younger than me, perhaps young enough to have to show ID when buying beer (that’s a joke – no one shows ID when buying beer in Japan), but even they were well past the time in their lives when they could be sure what they were saying and their dreams were gleefully unrealized.

Motivation, to participate and to discuss

I mean this in two ways; motivation for being there and motivation as a point of discussion. Both provide some interesting contrasts between the two organizations.

I was surprised to find two people at my table in attendance simply to fulfill a workplace “flex time” requirement, which I suppose is the closest equivalent to having 研究費 kenkyuuhi “research funds”to spend and looking for the least boring way to do so.  Many of the local community colleges also apparently sponsor their teachers’ CATESOL memberships and participation in events like these; I know of at least one forward-thinking eikaiwa that does the same for JALT.

I mentioned before that the energy level among the attendees was high.  I attribute this (perhaps prematurely) to security in the meaning of their jobs; they know that professional development is rewarded by their institutions and appreciated by their students.  One lady in particular left a huge impression on me as someone whose work definitely mattered: she taught ESL in prisons.  That fact and concept alone, revealed to me before the plenary started, basically floored me for most of the speech, as I kept thinking about how small my world of TOEFL test prep and Ideal L2 Selves had been instead of listening to what I’m sure was an interesting and practical treatise on critical thinking. I asked her questions about it throughout our lunch, barely letting her finish her sandwich.  I still feel a bit like my perspective on SLA has been broadened suddenly by a factor of 100, possibly leaving stretch marks.  The point is, people in CATESOL know that their teaching matters.

I’m not totally sure that this is a drawback for JALT, though.  To be honest, the type of teacher who works for decades in Japan and doesn’t burn out is usually very good at deciding what to spend mental resources on, who to try to connect with, and how to best motivate different groups of learners.  English teachers in Japan may also describe their jobs as TENOR (this was whispered to me by the teacher and later presenter sitting next to me during the plenary, which actually made me laugh out loud – it stands for Teaching English for No Obvious Reason), but that means that because you’re not constantly being fed job satisfaction, you have to work to look for it or make it yourself.  JALT presentations sometimes have a faint whiff of desperate appeals for someone in society to take their job seriously, but this does make JALT members work very hard on professional-level presentations and serious research.  It’s overcompensating for the way most of society still sees English teachers, and NESTs in particular, but overcompensating has probably motivated a lot of great work in every field in which people have felt chronically inadequate.  It certainly didn’t hurt Napoleon or David Letterman.

Motivation as a topic was much less present in CATESOL than JALT, or so it seemed to me.  Again, motivation in JALT is a bit like water in Mad Max, it inspires cult-like worship when someone like Andy Boon seems to be able to turn it on and off like a faucet in his classes.  The rest of us realize how precious it is when chronically, post-apocalyptically deprived of it in ours, and the predominant issues in lesson planning become not how to facilitate development of students’ abilities but how to get them to care enough to answer a single yes or no question (besides Shunya; he’s always game).  At CATESOL motivation was more like water in Japan; the issue was not how to make more of it but how to channel it and dam it efficiently so as not to let it overflow its banks (unpacking the metaphor, discussions were not on motivation itself but what to do in classes that were presumed to have plenty of it).  There was one poster presentation on extrinsic motivation, and the study that formed its content was from the Philippines.  If you want to pack an auditorium at a JALT conference, just name your presentation some motivational variant on “Getting your students to speak”.  They may have to bump you up to the 大ホール.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing either for JALT, though.  The plebeians worshipping Immortan Joe in Mad Max aren’t wrong that water is extremely important, and you can bet that if they ever move to Japan they will appreciate the hell out of that Mt. Fuji runoff.

Lunch

Lunch was huge.  Did I mention that?

Job hurdles in ESL and EFL #2

I’ve spent the last few weeks driving around Orange County and LA interviewing and giving teaching demos for ESLs large and small, and therefore haven’t had much time or motivation to blog.  Most of this entry came from a brief lull between a demo lesson and feedback (which was positive, hooray), sitting in a hallway outside a row of classroom doors and occasionally nodding at passing students.  It won’t be one of my 3,000-word monster posts, but it’s the best you’ll get given the circumstances.

Enclaves of 10,000 or enclaves of 130,000,000

In Southern California, finding a good match for your skill set or teaching style is sometimes a matter of finding an ESL in the right city or neighborhood.  Orange County has the largest Vietnamese population outside Saigon (or so the legend goes), mostly concentrated around Westminster, a bit west of Disneyland.  Working in south Orange County, however, places you in the middle of large Korean and Iranian enclaves.  Classes in the middle of Orange County, in Santa Ana, would give you classes of almost entirely Spanish speakers from Central America.  Parts of Los Angeles feature different likely breakdowns of student national demographics.  Teaching part time in two ESLs even in the same town would expose you to two possibly very different populations of students.

Teaching reactively means trying to bake wholesome loaves from the grist that your students bring in, and in that sense students’ backgrounds and expectations can greatly affect the flow of the class.  Not that teachers need to completely modify their teaching styles to work with students of different L1 or educational backgrounds, but some adjustments do need to be made, especially when the proportion of students of one national background reach a critical mass of (say) 60%.  I demo-taught a class of almost entirely Chinese students, and the scene where I asked them to do a worksheet in pairs and they proceeded to do it silently themselves and then show their “partner” the completed worksheet was achingly familiar.  I had seen it almost every class back when I was teaching in Japanese university.

This tailoring of classes to students’ backgrounds was never an issue in Japan, where the proportion of students born, raised, and educated in Japan hovered around 100%.  Or rather, it was never not an issue; almost all students were from one background which was different from the teacher’s (if the teacher was in a NS job), requiring a retooling for or to address the deficiencies of the specific class style that virtually all students were coming out of.  A major sub-industry of ELT exists specifically catering to the Japanese market, its unique traits, and the parts of it that insist on being treated as unique even if they aren’t.  English learning guides or textbooks, particularly from Japanese publishers, play up the “especially for Japanese” angle with the knowledge that their students either have specific needs or want to be treated as if they do.  If there is a Taiwanese/Iranian/Thai version of that phenomenon, it undoubtedly has a market somewhere in Southern California, in a bookstore whose name is written in that language on a street whose name might also be in that language.  The city’s name on the other hand is probably Spanish.

Job hurdles in ESL and EFL #1

I haven’t felt much like blogging lately, having completed my journey from East to West (or from my perspective, really far West to less West) and enjoying my new life of Cheez-its, private health insurance, and superwide supermarket aisles.  One immediate reflection: 3 of the 4 car salesmen we saw before we settled on our blue Prius were second language speakers.  This is something I really enjoy about California.

Anyway, I thought I would share as a bit of a public service what my experience has been job-hunting here so far, compared to back where I used to live.

More uncanny valleys

Fairly recent MAs like me tend to fall into an experience trap, one which divides mostly private-market language teachers from university teachers in Japan (speaking here of the native-speaking positions) and private ESL teachers from university and junior/community college ESL teachers in the US.  Private ESLs here, much like eikaiwas in Japan, consider my decade-plus of teaching and my MA kind of like the highest trim option on a car: mostly unnecessary, likely expensive, and anxiety-producing (because you’re afraid of scratching it or it driving off in search of richer owners.  I’d say that analogy has reached its limits).  On the other hand, universities in Japan almost universally require “3 years’ experience” teaching at the undergraduate level in other Japanese universities, and college/JC ESLs in the US require something similar.  Any of the 4 teaching milieux I’m describing see experience in all the others as mostly irrelevant or even a burden.  Teachers in my position, moving from one milieu to another, seem to need connections to get that precious first foot in the door, as our experience and CVs place us at an oddly neither-here-nor-there place.

I’ll keep adding more on this topic as I actually start working.  In the meantime, more Cheez-its.

Teacher identity (my turn)

In answer to this post from Matthew Noble (in answer to this other post from Tyson Seburn), here I go.

Who are you?

Mark Makino.  Native speaker of English, according to most definitions.  I tend to define myself by my experience rather than my upbringing… of course many would say those are the same thing, but “upbringing” is many of those words like “heritage” which somehow get conflated with ethnicity, which in turn gets conflated with biology, all in an attempt to get to know what you are without knowing anything about you individually.  I have a particularly confusing background no matter which of these terms you prefer, which probably explains some of my sensitivity to those terms and my opprobrium for people who use “biracial” and “bicultural” as if they were always the same thing.

My great-grandfather Iwataro stowed away on a ship from Numazu to Seattle.  In the bay, just before the ship docked, he jumped off with some of his fellow stowaways and swam to shore.  Some of the others died in the water, but Iwataro made landfall, and in the ensuing years had a few children in the USA, including my grandmother (I’m not sure how my great-grandmother made her way across the Pacific).  Before the war they all moved back to Japan, first to Tokyo and then back to Numazu as Tokyo became a more likely target for Allied bombs.  My grandmother had the misfortune of spending the war years in Japan as a repatriated dual national from the enemy nation, a so-called 帰米二世 kibeinisei.  After the war she met my grandfather, had 3 kids, and moved the whole family back to Los Angeles.  My dad was 4.  I see a clear gradient of acculturization in my dad’s generation; he has two older siblings who remember and identify with Japan and Japanese more, in direct correlation with their ages at emigration. My dad, on the other hand, only understands Japanese when it’s spoken by his own mother and seems to prefer Mexican food to all others.

Like in many immigrant families, my younger, thoroughly American generation grew up seeing the “other” culture around the holidays at family gatherings where the kids were no longer the focus of everyone’s attention.  I remember the smells of 竜田 tatsuta fried chicken mixed with cigarette smoke over the whine of enka karaoke by my grandfather and others of his generation.  My aunt, chef at these events, owned a teppan restaurant that I also ate fairly regularly at and later worked at.  Japanese culture was mostly synonymous with the nostalgia trips of older family members and food, certainly nothing close to the identity of anyone my age. To this day, I feel close to the nation and its culture only as a non-member of Club Japan, and feel positively offended that anyone could think it has something to do with my genes.  It has a lot more to do with my jeans, which are from Uniqlo.

I don’t even usually like explaining this all, because any explanation of your non-white family in the USA pigeonholes you as inherently and congenitally destined for mastery of the culture and language of “your heritage” (In Japan it provokes a severely awkward conversation on who the “pure” Japanese and Americans are in my family).  In truth, my early years are dominated by memories of role-playing games (Final Fantasy, Palladium, and Warhammer), Ren & Stimpy, and the usual variety of activities with school and friends.  The part where I weaved through smoking adults for a few hours while hearing unfamiliar speech on New Year’s was quite small, and by the time I became aware that it was unusual I was at least a teenager and fairly invested in my music-and-philosophy identity, the one you are probably most familiar with.  I didn’t hear the Iwataro story for the first time until my 20s, and still relate to that side of the family almost entirely in English.  In truth, the bilinguals I spent the most time around were my mom and brother, both classical musicians who learn(ed) languages partly for work and partly out of intellectual interest.  I myself didn’t really start learning Japanese until college, and then it had nothing to do with enka or smoke-filled living rooms; it was a fairly standard-issue college kid’s interest in building social capital with some worldly experience.  My Japanese abilities now I credit mostly to my continued daily interactions with my wife and occasional emails or facebooking with friends from the dog park.

So my takeaway from the family and personal history I just described isn’t “I am close to the culture and language of my heritage”, but “perception of heritage is one of many ways people can be motivated to learn a culture and language”.  The fact that so many assume that I grew up speaking Japanese, that it’s somehow permanently a part of me, and that rather than hours of study and negotiation with live interlocutors is responsible for my present abilities has made me very sensitive, even touchy, about the distinctions between actual lived experience and the presumptions that the words “upbringing” and “heritage” often contain. If there is a conversational landmine you can step on with me similar to “gender is just biology” with feminists, it is lazy conflation of appearance with affiliation and affiliation with ability.  I think this is an asset as a language teacher in that I am openly hostile to the idea that the identities foisted on visible minorities should prevent them from functioning and identifying as fluent or native speakers of the majority language.  Nobody got as indignant as I did when the judges on American Idol would encourage a Latino/Latina contestant to “embrace your heritage” and sing a bit in Spanish.

What is your teaching philosophy?

Gosh, it’s pretty much an extension of the above, not letting institutional definitions of you and your abilities determine what you can actually do.  When students start acting as if they think they can do the thing I want them to be able to do, I try to act as if I believe them even if there isn’t that much evidence yet.

What does it mean to you personally to have a professional identity?

Like being a recognized speaker of a language, considering myself a professional language teacher means I can “pass” among other people who also consider themselves professional language teachers.  This sounds meaninglessly tautological, but people who consider themselves professional language teachers usually have some hard-won insight from experience or training (those who don’t generally consider language teaching a hobby or a gap-year pastime and don’t think being a “professional language teacher” is even possible).  Having a professional identity, sending and responding to signals in a way other language teachers expect and knowing their jargon, means that I get to listen to and interact with these people.  This adds to my own insight, and making me a better language teacher as well.

How far is it useful to be conscious of your identity as a teacher?

Having that identity motivates me to participate in its upkeep by reading journals occasionally, responding to blog posts, and buying books to keep on my kindle so that I can explain that I’m going to get started on the next Dörnyei book just as soon as I finish the book I’m reading now (Red: My Uncensored Life in Rock by Sammy Hagar).  Ironically, these are all things that happen outside the classroom.  Inside the classroom, it is my sense of professionalism that reminds me not to suck up all the air in the room and give students much more space to interact.  This may strike some as contradicting a teacherly identity, but I believe this ceding of control is one area that language teachers’ sense of proper conduct differs from that of, say, history teachers.

220px-sammyhagar
For the record, Sammy’s range opened up a lot of Eddie’s songwriting potential, but Eddie plays more the way the world wants him to with Dave.

How far is a teacher’s identity linked to their sense of value, and how can teachers’ associations foster this sense of identity and value?

I’m not sure I understand the question (besides the notable use of “their” as a singular pronoun – that I understand), but in general teachers’ associations succeed when they give lay members validation by letting them speak and share.  Perhaps it’s an outgrowth of the way we generally conduct ourselves in class, but we expect to be able to add our 2 cents, feel validated for voicing our opinions even more than being technically correct, and above all feeling like we’re contributing to something bigger than ourselves.  We are also usually more than happy to cede our spot to give someone else the chance to succeed, and in this sense it’s important that teachers have novices and less experienced members to watch grow.  I was one of those in my earlier months as Chapter President.

What experiences have most deeply affected your own sense of professional identity?

The MA was a big one, mostly because it for the first time in my teaching career put me in regular contact with other ELT professionals from around the world, gave me an identity in that community, and as I mentioned earlier giving me motivation to keep up with developments in the field.  It also led directly to my becoming involved with JALT, as I kept reading articles from something called “JALT Journal” and looked it up, only to discover there was a chapter near me.

As far as my identity in the classroom, I think having been a language learner and a learner in general myself informs quite a bit of how I see my role and the range of behaviors I’m comfortable exhibiting.  Part of the reason I was very interested in Dogme was that virtually everything I still remember of my own junior high and high school years was off-script, things that the teacher said or did outside the carefully planned lesson which many man-hours at all levels of government were expended in crafting.  I don’t think it’s safe to say that the curriculum should be totally scrapped because of this, first because I don’t have conscious access to all my brain and can’t be sure if the “main” parts of past classes actually affected me in some other important way, and also because I think part of the reason I remember these moments is that my teachers generally stayed on message, making these moments stand out as a result.  I don’t think it’s possible or advisable to compose a class entirely of off-kilter but memorable moments, but I think the ratio can be tilted a bit more in their favor.  As a result, I prefer randomness to plannedness and memorable chaos to forgettable tranquility.  All this because Mr. Madrid used to have us rub a certain spot on his desk every day for a year to illustrate what happens to the remains of ancient civilizations and classical art when they’re not cared for.

Things language teachers know #2 – the limited ability of even test writers to read minds

Testing some skills would seem more straightforward than testing others.  If you want to see whether people can ride a bike, put them on bikes and see if they can get from point A to point B with a reasonably low rate of broken bones and concussions.  If you want to see whether people know who the Axis and the Allies were in World War 2, ask them to name them.  If you want to know if someone can speak a language, have them speak it in the presence of testers or record them speaking it for later evaluation.

Well, most of my readers will know that the last one was thrown in as a tripwire, because no language teacher believes testing speaking is that easy.  First, the equivalent of an obstacle course to ride one’s bike over as a test is quite difficult to recreate for spoken language – most people are rather choosy about who they engage in minutes-long conversations with, for one, and the preconditions for the interaction generally aren’t “provide evidence for strangers that you can put words in the right order”.  Also, there is a number of smaller skills involved in bike riding which can be directly or indirectly observed by putting someone on a bike, but what if one of those skills were intuiting the intentions of other bike riders based on combinations of thousands of hand signals and bells of subtly varying frequencies?  And of course, the test needs to be completable in a few minutes and for the sake of fairness the same for every participant.

For the sake of argument, imagine what a perfect testing machine would look like.  Ideally, it’d be able to cut through all the situational variables that can affect test performance and simply tell whether a given concept or skill is instantiated in a reasonably target-like way in any mind it tests (I’m eliding the huge question of what “target-like” knowledge would look like).  What I picture is something like a read-only Matrix brain socket, capable of checking the end result of learning (something of a neuroscience miracle, given that instantiation is probably vastly different in different brains, and more complicated the more complete the learning).  Now add back in every barrier between this mindreading test machine and conventional tests that exist now.  Besides the obvious one of requiring the test-taker to actively retrieve information, there are all the non-subject-related but highly influential factors like sleep, anxiety, allergies, handwriting, and the other people around you taking the test, making noise or maybe just intimidating you by looking smart. Add in the fact that many tests are done by reading and writing and you push all that knowledge through a bottleneck of technology that is common but unintuitive for our species.  Many language tests, even popular ones that purport to be about “international communication”, are administered in crowded lecture halls by means of a cheap Casio CD player to rows of students looking downward at a sheet of paper.  A perfectly accurate test is to the Matrix what TOEIC is to a Dungeons & Dragons manual.

Language in particular is a skill that for test-writers to have any access to they must dig downward through many layers of shifting and misdirecting layers of cognitive sediment.  Through the points of entry provided by our eyes and ears and those of our testtakers, we need to see whether a representation of a complex system of words and rules in one brain is similar enough to a representation of the same system in other brains to meet the standards of progress expected for a semester’s work.  This would be difficult enough if our speech always gave an accurate assessment of what our thoughts were, but our mouths are but the very exit of the funnel into which a whole lot of neuronal activity is poured, and often spilled.

When you think about it, these issues never completely go away for any indirect measure of skills, knowledge, or attitudes.  A multiple-choice history test isn’t as vulnerable to the frequent bugaboo of language tests that the suite of skills you’ve developed in communicating in another language just happens not to include one of the words on the card you’ve been handed and ordered to talk about.  I believe though that many history teachers skip consideration of these issues in favor of enjoining students to be prepared.  Language teachers have no such luxury; to be even barely competent at another language is to have applied knowledge (and/or implicit knowledge) in a variety of domains and the ability to improvise with it.  It’s as if every history test were a debate where the topic is expected to migrate randomly from 2016 to post-WW1 Catalonia.

Since I went way overboard with my last of these entries, why not another?  I also happen to think that a lot of the test-based sorting that goes on between the ages of 12 and 18 ostensibly on something called “academic ability”, which is generally understood to be a biologically-based capacity for computation and memory, is really sorting for being able to be interested in what adults want you to be interested in for those years.  Like Ralph Nader used to say, Americans know plenty of things, even fairly dense statistics, they’re just generally slugging percentages rather than p-values.  It’s not that smart people know probate law and stupid people know when it’s fixin’ to rain, it’s that “smart” people almost instinctively align the things they know with things that earn social capital among other “smart” people.  Being able to do this during one’s teenage years is a talent, but we shouldn’t mistake it for simply having more brain power.  People’s talents are not always apparent when education systems say they should be, and in any case test measure a hundred other things (when I was young, being Scantron-friendly was a big one) before how intelligent someone is comes up.