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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Teacher Identity, pt. 2 – idolatry

Why not keep the ball rolling here?  (part 1, if you haven’t read that)

What teachers from your own education do you see as role models?

Two stand out, for very different reasons:

  1. Mr. Madrid, my HS history teacher, for translating interest in the subject matter into interesting presentation.
  2. Mr. Knox, my HS math teacher, for making presentation an art form in itself.

Not to diminish either’s way of doing things, but I’m not sure Mr. Madrid was very keen on identifying and analyzing different teaching approaches and I never got the sense that Mr. Knox really loved calculus.  They managed to make their classes interesting with a large degree of what the other lacked, or at least didn’t need.

Mr. Madrid came to class with a menagerie of characters and stories in his head that he couldn’t wait to share with us, and we reciprocated his obvious enthusiasm.  History, as we were to discover, is full of odd folks and high drama (also check out the Hardcore History podcast for plenty more of these).  Not to take anything away from his accumulated professional experience, but especially in the early years when he was teaching my generation, I’m not sure if he brought much more into the classroom besides lots of content knowledge that he personally found interesting.  But this led to his naturally wanting to tell it to us and bring us into the fold of people who knew these interesting things, and that was almost always enough.  His infectious level of enthusiasm managed to bridge the gap between his brain and ours.

Although what I teach is not content-heavy in the same way as history, and I can’t tell students very interesting stories which also happen to be on an AP test, I do find my approach to ELT influenced by Mr. Madrid quite a bit.  My rule of thumb is, students will find what I say more interesting if I also find it interesting.  It’s better to talk with passion about something they might not know yet than feign interest in something generally considered more important.  That said, I happen to be the kind of person who finds grammar and words very interesting, and I happen to believe that students’ attending to meaning is important for their language learning success.  (I have to say that I think this inclination to find your subject matter interesting and naturally wanting to share it is much more influential on teaching success than sheer volume of content knowledge).  So whether I am talking about technical aspects of language or just sharing anecdotes with students, I know that my interest in the topic carries over into my presentation and encourages students to listen to what I have to say.  Mr. Madrid is the teacher who reminds me that doing this will result in memorable classes, many of which (“GULAG!”) I and my peers still remember.

Mr. Knox dressed up abstract mathematical concepts in comedy routines and self-consciously silly puns (example: looking out the window at a tree outside, Mr. Knox says: “Symmetry? Isometry.”)  In doing so he turned what could be the very driest subject in public education into a laugh-fest.  We usually weren’t hanging on his every word because we wanted to understand logarithm functions, but we wanted to get the next joke, and the next joke was in a sentence about logarithm functions.  So he got eyes and ears through jokes, and while he had them, he also fed them math.  He turned a drive through the open desert into the scenic route.

Interestingly in retrospect, I think Mr. Knox worked this way because he didn’t consider his subject inherently interesting.  This makes his approach, in my mind, the polar opposite of Mr. Madrid’s.  It also seems much more difficult because it doesn’t hitch its success on the teacher’s interest in the subject matter (which, because teachers previously studied the subject themselves, can be assumed to be present in at least some amount), but rather his/her dedication to the pure craft of teaching as a species of performing art.  Mr. Knox might be best described then as a natural performer who happened to have a Mathematics degree.  I can imagine Mr. Knox teaching almost any subject with a lot of success, once he has a few years to build up a stable (insert horse joke) supply of puns on that subject.

Mr. Knox is (was?) a serious Christian as well, a fact which everyone knew but was never mentioned in class.  This is, of course, in accord with the rules.  It also reminds me that while my other model teacher, Mr. Madrid, was always bringing more of himself into the classroom, Mr. Knox carefully left himself out of it.  I find this much more difficult.

(I’ve had a lot of great teachers I’m not mentioning here, just in case one of them reads this.)

If people wrote about the USA the same way they write about Japan

Every year as the traditional calendar tells the American people that their year is coming to a close, they begin reenacting a set of rituals that both binds them to their ancient roots and reaffirms their relationship to each other.  Christmas (named for the most powerful deity in their religion) appears at first glance to be a thoroughly contemporary event, but in truth its essential nature was set in the mists of antiquity, and continues to show the national character of America and its people.  Each child opening a gift from Santa Claus (a benevolent watcher-elf) takes his or her place among the countless others who have come before.  Christmas is but one of the deceptively modern-looking traditions with timeless roots in this nation where the past and the present meet.  In truth, the threads of history that bind America to its origins is always hiding in plain sight.

Gift-giving often attracts comment by observers of American culture.  Foreigners are quick to attribute wintertime gifts to America’s advanced commercial culture, when the Americans themselves have never been in doubt as to the roots of their civic and religious traditions.  The form of this explosion of gift-giving that occurs every winter is unique to this nation, despite outward signs of convergence with other post-industrial societies, and has its roots in the multitude of traditions that were practiced by Americans across their homeland (the western and eastern hemispheres).  As closely as can be put to foreigners, gift-giving in America involves a pretense that nothing in return is expected.  Sometimes this pretense is taken to the point where the identity of the gift-giver is unknown to the receiver.  However, as usual, the undercurrent of understanding particular to Americans gives unique context to an otherwise normal cultural practice.  To be thought well of by one’s peers in America, one must always endeavor to return the favor, whether in the form of another gift or not.  What appears to the foreign observer simply to be an unanswered gift has meaning that Americans implicitly see, and have understood for as long as history has recorded the practice.  As a result of its long roots, winter gift-giving now seems to come as naturally to Americans as reciprocal social giving comes to Easterners.  Some of the names and details have changed in the modern incarnation of Christmas, and certainly Americans’ mastery of technology has enabled them to ship gifts to family, friends, and acquaintances (a level of friendship between stranger and friend, unique in social character across modern societies) across thousands of miles, but the essential nature of winter gifts retains its immutable Americanness.

Across the Internet, yet another technological wonder by which American culture has gained admirers across the world, Americans reenact social rituals which have bound them to each other since time immemorial.  The pretense of informal relationships that both masks and facilitates the forming of deep bonds has been noticed before, and nowhere is this ancient practice more closely melded to modern technology than so-called social media.  Outsiders fret over whether the closest equivalent to “friend” in their language allows for the types of relationships maintained over native American social websites, but the ages-old fluidity of casual social contact in America makes technologically-enabled relationships a perfect fit for American friendships.  As with other things, the Oriental mind may face tremendous barriers in accepting American modes of thought.  Stodgy Eastern concepts of social closeness are challenged by the American manner of conducting relationships, a traditional practice yet again brought to the world’s attention by misleadingly modern delivery.

In annual holiday celebrations and in forming social bonds, Americans display the timelessly unique qualities of their culture despite cutting-edge technological packaging and apparent commonalities with foreign cultures.  In this modern age, globalization seems to threaten young Americans’ cultural inheritance by promoting sameness with other, less unique cultures.  However, America has survived to the present with its core culture changing remarkably little; there is less reason to worry (or celebrate, for some) than prognosticators on university campuses might suggest.  For the foreseeable future, American culture is its gift to the world that looks to keep on giving.

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Source.

 

Stuff I will miss – 1 month’s worth of hindsight

Last month, twice, I put a list here of things I thought I might miss after leaving Japan for the warmer shores of California.  Today I revisit that list mostly to verify that no, I do not miss most things in Japan.  I do miss our dog’s friends and their owners (our friends), and JALT people. Kids playing tag in the supermarket, not so much.

Varieties of tofu – sure, if I remind myself of these I miss them.  There are ridiculous amounts of vegetarian choices in the US – I made a great chili last week with something like $4 of ingredients – but a good rule of thumb for finding tasty vegetarian food in the US is to avoid the word “tofu”, which many restaurants seem to take as a synonym for “bland”.  Better choices are usually pasta or salads (which, mysteriously, are usually not vegetarian in their default form).

Service, when I’m in a hurry.  I haven’t had a bad service experience here yet, except when we’re waiting behind someone the cashier knows and they really want to catch up.  It hasn’t been the case though that Americans in the service industry are uniformily rude and sarcastic; they just don’t disappear into their roles as completely as folks in Japan.  When you’re the person that the cashier wants to talk to, you sometimes find out interesting things.  Sometimes you also find out quite a bit about your cashier’s religious beliefs!

People generally maintaining a minimum standard of hygiene in public. Not generally a problem, except for some reason in the city of Barstow, where we visited a Starbuck’s that was apparently brewing something highly experimental in the toilets, and wrappers of instant ramen packages blew down the streets like so much tumbleweed.

Natto. Not so far. I instinctively looked for natto-maki along the back wall when I visited a 7-11, but found a craft beer section instead.  Fermentation seems to be the rule for the back wall at 7-11s internationally.

Kurumipan, or “walnut bread”.  No, but I do miss pastries being smaller than my head.  We stopped by Erick Schat’s Bakkerÿ (interesting use of umlauts) on a road trip up north and spoiled ourselves with all manner of baked goods.  These were of high quality to match their enormous size, but many others (thinking mostly of donut shops and supermarket bakeries) replace quality and uniqueness with just more of every ingredient.

I repeat that Japanese folks overplay the “foreign cake is too sweet” stereotype, but it is true that if you pay $1 for a donut here you get roughly twice the amount of sugar as in Japan, if only because the donut is twice as big.

Cheap paper. For some reason. Ditto white board markersToilet paper and paper towels are both expensive here (partly because Americans seem to prefer higher-ply TP and they sell it by the truckload: a little math confirms that per ply, this TP from Japan is actually more expensive).  I’m not sure why I said I would miss cheap office supplies, as I don’t plan to be self-employed here and presumably my workplace (unlike public non-tertiary schools) won’t make me buy them myself.

The feeling that when you buy food you’re paying more for quality than for quantity.  I’m continually surprised at how much extra stuff any food purchase comes with here.  I’m pretty sure at least half of my calories since moving here have been from things I hadn’t planned to eat and was surprised to find on my plate in abundance – collateral calories, if you will.  This doesn’t mean the main dish is made with any less care, but it does speak to a certain expectation on the part of the restaurant and the customer that you will leave the establishment only slightly ambulatory, whether it is from things you actually ordered or low-cost fried starches surrounding them.

Citrus. There is a lot of citrus from Asia which is yet unknown or less common in the US.  I do miss these.  I also miss the jumbo Fuji apples lovingly swaddled in styrofoam, so you can get some of the environmental damage of fast food without leaving the produce aisle.  Fruit here is abundant but you can’t simply fill a bag with random selections from the pile; half of them are bruised and a few look like someone has already taken a bite.  The rule of thumb when buying fruit in the US is that some fraction of what’s on the market shelves won’t be edible, but the fruit costs that fraction less.

The steady stream of subject-verb agreement and literal translation mistakes that I can instantly identify and that have little room for interpretation.  I’ll get back to this after I start working.  The demo lessons I gave had few of the problems derived from bad (but common in Japan) translation, but plenty of issues that plague EFL/ESL learners worldwide- common stops on the interlanguage highway.  Unexpectedly, my recent online essay job proved useful as I was able to advise a student during a demo on just how long a quote can be before you should make it a block quote in MLA.  Look it up.

Predominance of shiba inus, a generally smart and independent kind of dog (I have one!).  Not only are there not many shibas here, but most people seem never to have seen one before.  Contrary to the Missionary Japanist concept of the shiba as one of many  objects of Orientalist fascination ’round the world, most people on seeing our dog simply say, “He looks like a fox!” or “Is that a Basenji?” The people who know what our dog is are often shiba owners themselves, although they have some rather heterodox ideas of what is allowed in shiba-dom.  We’re not sticklers for purebreds at all, but the multicolored, skinny, wiry-haired dogs many people call shibas here wouldn’t be recognizable as such in Japan.

The relative lack of the politics of personal affiliation and aggressive anti-elitism.  Perhaps this says something unflattering about me, but I’ve been cut off quite a few times already on freeways by large pickups and SUVs that I can only assume are driven by Trump supporters.  Off-topic, but I had to say it.

Mini Stop.  On our road trip through central and northeastern California, we passed through towns of all sizes, from 300 people to however many live in Los Angeles.  We noticed something interesting about the types of business that are typically the first to spring up when a town crosses a certain population threshold.  In California, Subway is usually the first sign of nascent growth in a small town, the equivalent to your first Temple in a game of Civilization.  Soon to follow are Motel 6, McDonald’s, Taco Bell, CVS (seller of drugs/sweatpants), possibly Carl’s Jr., and Starbucks.  When every burger chain is present, you can start building your first Settler and look towards expanding.  In Japan, first to arrive is invariably the convenience store chain that is prominent in your corner of Japan (7-11, ポプラー popuraa “Poplar”, ローソン rooson “Lawson”, など nado “etc.”), followed by a “family restaurant” like Denny’s, followed by pachinko.  If you have all of these plus a Mini Stop, congratulations, you presumably have lots of pachinko to occupy the hand that is not holding ice cream.

Shocking students with root beer candy. I would consider replacing this with Hi-Chew or Mitsuya Cider candy for students here, but both are already sold at stores, or at least at Daiso (which had proliferated in my absence).  Anything really shocking probably would cost a prohibitive amount to import.  If I see any kinako-flavored Kit Kats I’ll probably get those for a few lucky students at the end of the semester.

Indian food.  We actually live near a “Little India”, but we haven’t gone yet.  I guess Indian has been pushed out by Mexican, at least for the time being.

The feeling of being able to surprise people with something I know about Japan or the US that they didn’t.  The level of curiosity between the US and Japan is not exactly symmetrical.  Japanese people often harbored intense curiosity about what Americans thought (of Japan), while Americans, if they wonder at all, mostly wonder about rather obscure but bizarre points of popular culture like Babymetal.  Not many people care about the kinds of thoughts on modern Japan that vitiate this blog.  No one acts either surprised or interested when I can name the current Prime Minister.

On a related note, the feeling that one doesn’t need to have an opinion on everything or to stick with it as a matter of principle.  I have been in the captive audience for a bit of pro-gun lobbying from a car dealer, but aside from that most people have actually kept their political opinions to themselves (except Bernie fans, on their rear bumpers).  I’m sure when I start having deeper conversations with people I’ll find that the instances of “oh, really?” I used to hear have been replaced by “no, actually…”.

Since we’re moving to California, the cold.  Well, this was short-sighted.  Orange County is as warm as ever, but many places north of the grapevine are below freezing at night, and during the day as well in Owens Valley.  Our dog did a bit of playing in the snow on our recent trip there, and I had the very nostalgic experience of snapping frozen grass by stepping on it on our morning walk.

Hwameis, garrulous birds that make fall walks in our neighborhood extra fun.  Yes, I miss the birds and even the deer.  There are both here, or so the road signs would tell us, but not exactly the same types.  Actually in some cases the birds are almost exactly the same as the ones where we used to live, but still our house is bigger here and so we see less of them.  Also, no hwameis at all, but for some reason we do have flocks of parrots.

A few beers.  Nope, not really.  Beer has really come along in the US since the days of Bud Ice.

The kind of job security that comes with belonging to an ethnic group designated Japan’s English Teachers.  No, I don’t think I’ll miss that at all.  Of the people I’ve interviewed for so far, at least 3 of them have warned me that I will soon be hired full-time somewhere else and have pressed me for verbal guarantees that I will at least see out the semester.  I don’t think I’m showing off since I haven’t started at any of those places yet (and no full-time jobs have been offered, let alone to start RIGHT NOW), but it looks like I won’t be looking back wistfully at being considered qualified merely for my semi-caucasian looks.

In the classroom, the overwhelming focus on motivation as opposed to more nuts and bolts aspects of language teaching.  Why did I think I would miss this?  It’s unambiguously better to have students who want to learn.  Part of being a professional teacher is motivating people, like part of being a professional wrestler is coping with injury.  It’s still better not to be injured.

Having the time to blog like this.  When I get random views nowadays, they tend to be of the posts that took hours or days to write, ones that took legitimate (if non-academic) research.  It’s quite possible that most of my posts from here on will be “light” ones like this.  Also, because I no longer live in my complaint-muse (Japan), I feel I have less to rant about.  I can’t say I miss having all that extra time and indignation, but evidently it provided some entertainment and insight for some people.  I’ll be on the lookout for further opportunities to be underemployed for extended periods and sitting on simmering pools of discontent.

I also don’t miss the constant mixed feelings of “I have to tell them what their shirt means” and “but they will never talk to me again if I tell them”.

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.

Friends, i.e. people you have nothing in common with

Having no routine allows you to see the things around you as if for the first time. Since we closed our school, we’ve both had a lot of time to discover things that have actually been around us for years and we never registered or took the time to interact with.  I’ve had analogous experiences on our two-week vacations in the US, in which I go to places that were always nearby for the first 24 years of my life but just never saw as interesting enough to stop playing Diablo 2 for.

In that spirit, between the time we quit our jobs and started the final rush of cleaning and packing that has culminated in us waiting at Haneda International Airport as I write this, we’ve finally made friends in Japan.  Not students, not students’ parents, but people who we like and who like us without wanting much in return.  This is as rare as a full armor set drop in Normal Difficulty.  Sorry, my Diablo schema got activated.

If that assessment of the rarity of friendship sounds pathetic, note that it seems to be universal around here.  Many of the people we voluntarily spent time with mentioned that they also didn’t usually see people outside of work, or commented on how it was nice that people like us could hang out although “we have nothing in common”.  In Japan, “in common” generally means the small palette of formal identifiers that people make their public selves.  Not equally being part of some purposeful, formal human gathering like a workplace means that you have no reason to talk, let alone care about each other. If you think you really are friends with your JTE or other Japanese colleagues, see how many of them keep contact with you, or even wave back if you see them in a restaurant, after you quit or move.

I tend to think the totally non-operational friendships are more valuable.  I value the relationships I had with my students, but I don’t think most of them knew me as the sometimes cranky, self-absorbed, attempted intellectual that I am (though a few do).  The people we’ve met since we stopped being teachers seem not terribly interested in what we can do for them, and blessedly, not interested in English.

We’ve landed now, and it’s unlikely that I’ll see many of these people again soon.  What guarantees that if we do, we will still be able to have a good time is that we got together in the first place for no particular reason.