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.

Average vs. cumulative outrage

There’s a ceiling on how much outrage I can feel at any given moment, much like there’s a limit on how much I will consider paying for a set of dishes, even if that set contains 10,000 bone china plates.

Over the past week I’ve seen, as you have, a string of successive and increasingly shocking affronts to human decency from the President and his advisors, which should have added up to at least a few instances of my head literally hitting the ceiling.

The thing is, outrage doesn’t seem to add up in this way, and rather than each new bit of news causing me to hit the ceiling, it has simply been added to the lively simmering crock pot of intense disappointment I’ve had in my head for the last few weeks.  I get the feeling most of my liberal friends feel somewhat like this, and are just motivated enough to tweet, complain on facebook or maybe send the ACLU some money via Paypal.  I’m not criticizing this, just remarking that the emotional state of many liberals is less:

panteravulgardisplayofpower

and more:

cover_38531512112009

This isn’t a political post at all, actually.  It’s just something that I noticed about the way I feel about Trump and the news that might point to something interesting about how people think in general.

People, it shouldn’t need to be pointed out, are poor intuitive statisticians.  This much is obvious, and provable by trying to explain any statistic to anyone, ever.  As a species we seem to have a counting module that can think about quantifiable things only as “one” “some” or “a lot”.  What is interesting is that this tendency applies to things that don’t even seem quantifiable, like feelings of outrage or indignation.  I can be outraged at one thing, outraged at some things, or outraged in general, but my subjective experience during the last of these isn’t all that much more intense than the first.  I have an upper boundary on how much of any particular emotion I can feel, and more input that would push me in that direction simply escapes and is lost as outrage radiation.

On the other hand, any countervailing information that I get cancels out far more outrage than it should.  If I hear that Trump’s son might have a disability, or I see people making fun of Melania for speaking learner’s English, I can pretty quickly forget about the last 5 terrible things that Trump himself did.  The bad things he does and the good (or at least not bad) things about him are both quantified in my brain as “some stuff” and weighted surprisingly equally.  Whenever I am made to recall at least one redeeming thing about him, my outrage drops down from its ceiling to “some outrage”, until some fresh news item (or just remembering the last one) pushes it back up.

It’s as if my outrage is averaged out rather than summed.  Rather than adding up travesty after travesty to get to 10,000 travesty points before subtracting 100 because he seems to love his children, all the travesties are normalized to within a narrow range and then have positive things I know about him subtracted.

The principle in action here seems to be a variation on the principle outlined (as many great principles are) in Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, that the value of any given set is usually thought of as the average of its components rather than their sum.  That is, a set of 10 like-new dishes is priced higher than a set of 12 like-new dishes and 3 broken ones.  The broken ones seem to taint the set as a whole, bringing down the value of the entire package, although the package still contains at least as many like-new dishes as the alternative.  Ergo, as long as any number of things are conceived as a set rather than taken individually, their value is likely to be considered as a mean rather than a sum.  I’m surprised and a bit disappointed (in addition to fearful of what this could mean for how we think of Trump during his administration) in light of the fact that this principle seems to apply just as well to our feelings about a person’s set of actions as to our valuation of sets of dishes.

(I had a class in which I demoed this principle improvisationally on pieces of paper, handing each student a different description of a set of dishes and asking them to price it.  The principle was proven in real time, to the surprise of several managerial types in attendance.)

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.)

Read More »

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.

lags
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.