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Eight Quick Tips

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Something new: guests! Two friends are joining us tonight: T., who’s currently teaching in Korea, and Chris, who teaches in Japan (and also is the force behind The Labyrinth Library, where you can either read reviews of writers from Jim Butcher to George Carlin, or you can download podcast/audio versions to listen to on your commute–nice!). Thanks to both of you for dropping by!


Here’s an assembly of eight relatively simple tips for teaching; concrete and practical suggestions that have worked well for us. If you have counterpoints (two of the tips are slightly juxtaposed, actually!) or your own quick tips to add, please join in the “panel discussion” in the comments!

Get Vertical
: At a training for Berkeley GSIs (graduate student instructors) that I was sitting in on, an experienced PhD student instructor had a tip that I never would have thought of, because I can’t watch myself teach. When you erase a board, particularly during class, use an up-and-down motion instead of side-to-side movements. This reduces the hip-and-backside waggle that’s otherwise induced by your haste to clean the board and write the next thing on there. You don’t really need the class watching your hypnotically swaying derriere, right? The demonstration of the difference was pretty convincing. (Also, kneel to pick up things you’ve dropped! It’s better for your back, and you can avoid waving your rear end in the air.)

Countdown: Language learners (and math learners, says my husband) need time to process a question, get past any possible fear of speaking, muster an answer, etc. When you’re waiting for an answer, time seems to speed up and you probably feel as though you’re losing the class’s interest, they’re getting bored, the student has given up and is waiting on you, etc., but all of this is an illusion. Count 5 seconds off in your head before you prompt the student, modify the question, ask another student, or anything else. I can think of situations where this wouldn’t be appropriate, but it is amazing what great answers you can get if you just slow down and wait patiently.

The Secret Sign: I have an awful tendency to talk too fast (even for highly fluent speakers). Most students won’t hold up their hands to get a fast speaker to slow down, and it’s not always easy to read their faces. What I finally hit on having them do is casually a single finger in front of their chests if I’m going too fast. I demonstrate this; they can do it very discreetly and not catch the attention of the whole class. If they’re more secure, or it’s a listening class or something, you could give them red, yellow, and green cards, but the “one finger” method is simple and always available. I remind students of it several times and sometimes have to really urge them to start using it, but it makes a difference once they do–both for me (because I quickly get out of my bad habit) and for them. (I was going to post “the secret signal to shut up,” but apparently while Channel 4 is cool enough to not make people take down their IT Crowd clips from YouTube, the price is that they can’t be embedded.)

Use a Whiteboard: Chris says “I write in lessons. A lot. More than I should, actually, but that’s a whole other issue. I used to go through piles of paper every week because not only would I write out words, sentence structures and the occasional semi-competent drawing of a shark, but the students would always ask if they could have the notes at the end of class. While this was a great way to teach polite requests (and why ‘Please give me the notes’ is NOT a polite request), it started to get on my nerves. So I bought an A4-sized whiteboard and some markers. The advantages are twofold. First, it’s a money-saver and (if you care about such things) slightly greener.” I’ve started doing this in tutoring/one-on-one instruction, too. I have both a small 8×10 hard whiteboard and a flexible plastic whiteboard that rolls up. It’s great for spontaneously drawing things that can’t be expressed verbally, and has a million other uses.

Chris adds, “Secondly, and more importantly, it forces the students to take their own notes. Even if they don’t plan to review at home, just the process of writing things down can help cement an idea in the mind. Indeed, an entire lesson can be devoted to the process of note-taking, in which the teacher can introduce several notation tactics, and students can outline and describe their own.”

Contrariwise, though, I have another tip….

Don’t Use a Whiteboard: A suggestion I received from an experienced college ESL instructor was to think hard about when to use a marker/chalk board and when to bite the bullet and prepare transparencies or presentations. If you’re spending a lot of time writing static information on the board rather than dynamic information, you’re probably wasting class time with your back to the learners scribbling away. Static information is the stuff that you knew was going to come up and doesn’t really change whenever you give that kind of lesson. You wind up writing it over and over if you teach that class more than once. Dynamic information is the fun, fascinating, interesting stuff that just pops up. Analyze your patterns and see if you would be better off with a projector some of the time (if that fits your situation). And yes, you can refuse to give them copies!

Example ad absurdum: Chris suggests, “When practicing grammar patterns, don’t hold yourself to the ordinary! Adding unexpected information to the exercise can help create a more relaxed atmosphere, as well as demonstrate the open-endedness of language:

T: Have you ever… been to New York?
S: Have you ever been to New York?
T: …driven a motorcycle?
S: Have you ever driven a motorcycle?
T: …gone SCUBA diving?
S: Have you ever gone SCUBA diving?
T: …robbed a bank?
S: EH?

When setting an introduction task (especially with higher levels), my patter usually runs: ‘You can talk about anything – your job, hobbies, favorite food, criminal record, last vacation…’ Very few people get it, but those who do can be complimented on their listening.” I do this too, and it takes some judgment to know what your students will think is funny (and what’s appropriate), but it’s very rewarding for both you and them! It bombs if you push it and you’re not on the right wavelength, though (and oh, I’ve seen teachers do that!), so watch their reactions and stop or change tactics if they’re uncomfortable, annoying, or doing that embarrassed laugh.

L1 Counter-Examples: Chris also says, “I just had a beginner student who couldn’t understand how there, they’re, and their could sound the same while having very different spellings and meanings. When I pointed out that Japanese has hashi (bridge), hashi (edge), and hashi (chopsticks), which all sound the same but have different kanji and meanings, she immediately understood. Finding examples in the students’ native language that are similar to or analogous to a difficult idea in English can be a good shortcut to understanding. It does require more work on your part, though – unless you can build a lesson around it.” It seems to be kind of unfashionable in the US to note the advantages of including students’ L1s, but this kind of thing has worked wonders for me in the past. It’s simple and effective on topics that are causing an emotional barrier to rise as a student gets frustrated with something in English. It’s pretty hard to do if you aren’t familiar with their home language. If you’re working in a 14-language classroom, of course, this probably seems impossible, but if your students share a language background, you can benefit from using their language in class even without ever translating or speaking to them in it if you don’t want to.

Dandy Bell: My friend T., who’s been teaching high school girls in Korea, points out that “if you’re teaching a language class or any kind of class where you have student discussions, pair work, etc., it’s helpful to have a bell or some other sort of noisemaker to get their attention.” She feels it’s less than ideal to try to get students’ attention by yelling, and something that can be heard clearly over a classroom full of students talking can be really helpful. One of her French teachers in high school, she says, had a singing bowl that she used to get students to quiet down and reconvene; the bowl gave out a “clear, loud, pleasant sound when tapped.” A whistle, we agree, is not that great–I have another friend who’s in graduate-level education classes now, but the teachers blow shrill whistles and flash the lights to reconvene the students. Ugh! Pretty obnoxious–I didn’t like that much as as a kid, and I’d hate it as an adult. I once had a teacher who’d play a snippet of a record, so these days you could play a bit of an English-language song if your classroom has a computer hooked up to a sound system.

Thanks again for your contributions, Chris & T.!

Comments? Controversy? Your own tips?

Oh, The Places You’ll Go

cm vs. in (what's our problem with A4 anyway?)

cm vs. in (what's our problem with A4 anyway?)

You never know where a one-on-one lesson will wind up. Last week, an attempt to help my youngest student (who’s in high school) get started on a paper wound up with an excursion into the world of open source and alternative software. N-chan’s laptop runs a Japanese operating system and a Japanese word processor, and it’s a bit of a disaster trying to set up papers the way her teacher requires them to be set up. As is to be expected, the teacher is quite rigid about things like spacing (1.5 lines), margins (1 inch), font sizes, etc.

However, N-chan’s word processor is set up for A4 paper and Japanese spacing conventions. We’ve tried to fix things before, and it kind of worked, but not very well. To my surprise, even line spacing is a kind of cultural idiom. In Japan, apparently, it’s done by entering the total number of lines one can fit on a page at that spacing. This makes sense, but our attempts to convert from A4 to 8.5 by 11 and then to 1.5-spacing didn’t work out. Maybe if I could read Japanese better, I could have found a way to switch it to American-style line spacing, but no luck. As a last resort, I suggested downloading the English version of OpenOffice.Org so that she could simply work in English. (I prefer NeoOffice, but she doesn’t have a Mac.) She got permission from her dad to download it and install it, and it seems to be working out OK so far. When she clicked to download it, it detected her Japanese OS, so I first had to force it to download the English version (which it proceeded to automatically download from the “nearest” server at KAIST in Korea! Oops!). Then we had to change its settings to use inches instead of centimeters, again because the installed program detected a Japanese OS. I felt compelled to tell her “Inches are not better than centimeters–actually, centimeters are probably better than inches, but your teacher is going to give you instructions in inches. So we need to use inches.” (When I’m telling a student that she needs to stop using something that she’s used to and start using something else, I feel that it’s critical to point out when it’s NOT because the previous way was wrong.)

After that I showed her where to set up the margins (OOO defaults to .79 inches for some weird reason) and line spacing. Next week I’ll make sure it’s still running smoothly for her, because now that I know there are interesting differences like how line spacing is calculated, I’ve realized it’s not just a matter of looking in the right place to find the setting you need to change. I knew there were vocabulary differences–for example, another N-chan’s father told me that Japanese word processors use a verb that means “paint” rather than “highlight”–but now I’m curious about all the deeper differences.

Anyway, helping students download and set up a free word processor such as OOO or NeoOffice may be a good idea if their native-language version is causing problems with their assignments. Have you ever tried this?

The One-on-One Teaching Life

My job is a little unusual. I’m not a Freeway Flyer, tenured community college instructor, or IEP teacher–I’m essentially a tutor, although I usually don’t use that word to describe my job.

I think “tutor” makes people think of a college student earning a few dollars by teaching the neighbor kids how to do algebra, but I see myself more as a language and culture consultant. I’m still somewhat new to this, but so far I really, really like it, and I want to keep doing it.

My students, or clients, are adults (except for one 14-year-old) from East Asia. We do everything–from working through “Blue Azar” to editing accounting reports, from reading comics to discussing why American businesspeople don’t generally go out drinking together. I often play “cultural informant,” as my anthropology professors would have put it: trying to predict how a client’s boss might react to a gift, or helping interpret a grocery store ad. For me, these exchanges are exciting and rewarding.

Most of my current clients are through a large corporation that handles international relocation–the clients’ companies pay the corporation for a package that includes English lessons for them and their families, and the corporation pays me. The corporation lets me manage everything myself beyond an initial needs assessment, so I have almost total freedom to teach the clients as I see fit. Other students are direct clients.

Because I’m considered a consultant/contractor by the corporation, and because my direct clients have hit a certain critical mass, I’m in the process of becoming a business. I’m an educator and an entrepreneur. (I should be filing my business license tomorrow!) I’ll do occasional posts about this process, because I think there’s relatively little information out there.

While I’ll write about some of the drawbacks of this arrangement later, let me give you some of the advantages:

  • I have total academic freedom (materials, topics, methods, everything)
  • No power struggles or politics
  • I can set my own schedule
  • I can work more or less according to my time and budget
  • I can cancel or reschedule lessons any time
  • I really get to know my students (and I never worry about multilevel classes)
  • Socializing with clients is okay (I don’t give grades or feedback to their bosses)
  • Students get really focused, personal attention
  • I don’t have to commute–some clients come to me, but all are within a 5-mile radius
  • I never get bored–every client is different, and I get to learn about new fields
  • Clients are seriously motivated and appreciative
  • No pressure to teach to a test
  • No classroom discipline issues
  • I can “fire” my students if I want to, though I’ve never had to
  • And finally (don’t hate me!) no stacks of papers to grade!

If you’ve done this kind of work, what are some other advantages? I know I’m missing several.

The disadvantages are not insubstantial, though. I’ll definitely be discussing the many drawbacks and how I’m trying to address them.

If you have questions about doing this kind of work, leave me a comment and I’ll do my best to try to answer in a future post.