Saturday, March 23, 2013

If You Must Choose, Choose Wisely

I teach three ESL classes in the mornings, Monday through Thursday at a private language school. Every day, when I’m teaching my second class of the day, this is what I think of:

Only I wasn’t the one who chose poorly, and neither were my students. The poor choice was made by the previous teacher, who also happens to be the person in charge of choosing textbooks at this joint.

Choosing a text for an ESL class is different from choosing one for your middle school or high school language arts class. You need to take into account the level of language of your students, their reasons for studying English, and whether or not the text will be useful to them in any way. It also doesn’t hurt to choose something that they might find interesting. You should also keep in mind that foreign language skill level does not in any way equate to US school system grade level. Just because you read a specific book in the eighth grade does not mean that intermediate level ESL students – whose level-appropriate grammar text has them learning how to form sentences using “used to” while learning vocabulary such as bicycle, summer camp, subway, and quiet – could gain anything from attempting to read this book. I’m all for challenging my students. I love the concept of i+1 – giving students content that is just a little above their current level – but there’s a difference between challenging your students and, well, torturing them.

The words that I listed above (bicycle, summer camp, subway, and quiet) all come from the grammar-text that my intermediate level students in my second class are using in their grammar class. It’s pretty spot on level-wise. It might not be i+1 (it’s a little more like “just i”), and it certainly isn’t interesting, but it contains incredibly useful vocabulary and useful grammar that will be, well, useful to new immigrants to the United States. I wish I taught from that text book.

Instead, I’m teaching Call of the Wild, by Jack London. Not an ESL version of Call of the Wild, but the original. Like I said, this was not my choice. And the chooser chose poorly. Putting aside the fact that this book is depressing as hell (seriously, it’s all about dogs suffering and dying slow, painful, graphic deaths in forty-below temperatures in the Alaskan wilderness), there are some major problems with this choice of text. 

Remember my short list of vocabulary words from my students’ level appropriate text? Well, compare those to primitive, fang, primordial, mastership, and toil. And I just picked those out of Call of the Wild’s table of contents. Every chapter is bursting at the seams with very advanced level English vocabulary, the kind that students studying for the GRE would study. These words are way out of the league of students who are learning how to say “I used to go to summer camp by bicycle.”

Additionally, not only are many of the words used in this book very advanced, but they’re also pretty archaic. I don’t know how many times I’ve said, “Now, this word is very, very old fashioned. We don’t normally say this nowadays. Nowadays, we would say ____________ instead.” I’ve had students ask, if no one uses these words, why are we studying them? And that, my friends, is my point. This book was written in 1903, and I’m sure the language was spot-on for its time… but this isn’t practical language to be teaching ESL students in 2013.

Call of the Wild would be useful for ESL students who are at an advanced level and who are interested in studying American literature. For recent immigrants – especially those at an intermediate level of English – this book is a waste of time. And I’m stuck with it until April 18th.

ESL Monkey's Paw (Passages 2)

This is an activity I whipped up for class a few weeks ago - and which I spent this morning modifying just a tad. It's designed to accompany chapters 3 and 4 of the ESL textbook, Passages 2. The grammar points that these chapters focus on include ~ing clauses (Ex: Hoping to find proof of life on Mars, NASA launched the Curiosity probe.), active-voice reporting clauses (Ex: Scientists claim (that) they have found proof of life on Mars.), and passive-voice reporting clauses (Ex: It is believed (that) life once existed on Mars.). The main topics of Chapter 4 are superstitions, beliefs, and legends. 

I adapted the short story, The Monkey's Paw by W.W. Jacobs to contain language that my students would be able to comprehend. I also changed the sum of cash featured in the story from £200 to $20,000, to make it both American (as my students are studying here in the US) as well as modern. Lastly, I made sure to include examples of the three grammar points mentioned above, as well as to use some of the vocabulary from the chapter. If you'd like to take a look at (or use) my version of the story, you can download it from here. (I have highlighted the grammar points in hot pink, and the relevant vocabulary words in yellow. Also, dropbox seems to have done something wonky to my formatting; I promise everything was properly formatted in my original!)

After reading through the story, I also showed my students a clip from The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror II, in which the Simpson family acquires their own magical monkey's paw. Unfortunately, it's not readily available for free online, but you can download the episode from Amazon for $1.99.

This lesson works really well! The students seem to enjoy it, and they get to review the grammar and vocabulary without realizing that they're doing a grammar/vocab review. Also, a big hat tip to my friend YH who first came up with the idea of using The Simpsons' version of The Monkey's Paw as an accompaniment to Passages. 

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Summer Kyrgyzstan Update!

As I mentioned before, I will be spending the upcoming summer in Kyrgyzstan. I will spend two weeks traveling around the country, one week in Bishkek, and two months teaching English in rural villages. I knew that I would be spending the month of June in a small village called Kultor... and today I learned that I would be spending July in an even smaller village called Bar-Bulak (which has the advantage of being located less than two miles from the southern shore of Lake Issyk Kul). Anyway, here are some graphics to illustrate pretty much everything I know about Bar-Bulak, which admittedly is not very much.

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 photo BBKT_sat_zpsbc22eaa4.jpg
A marks Bar-bulak, B marks Kultor. The black area at the top is Lake Issyk Kul.
According to Google Maps, it should take 23 minutes to drive from one to the other; however, given the state of the roads and the fact that there's a mountain range in between them, it's actually more like an hour and a half.

 photo bbsat_zps84f42064.jpg
This is as resolved as Google Earth gets over Bar-bulak.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Reading ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’ in Orlando

The first time I read Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran was in 2008, near the end of my stint in Kyrgyzstan. This being the pre-Kindle period, my friends and I read whatever English language books came our way, from dry histories of Central Asia, to entertaining mysteries, to bizarre works of soft-core porn allegedly categorized as ‘romance.’ We read whatever we could get our hands on, simply because our supply was so limited. Some of what we read was pretty awful (the sci-fi story about the aliens and the grandmothers, the aforementioned ‘romance’ that utilized the term ‘pearly essence’ in a way that has scarred me forever, that horrid ex-pat bio I nicknamed Boobs in Bishkek, etc.), but others stood out as really well-written, entertaining and/or educational (numerous Nevada Barr mysteries, Colin Thubron’s Central Asia travel memoirs, tales of reindeer herders in Siberia, etc.). Reading Lolita in Tehran fell into the latter category. I absolutely adored it. Not only was it incredibly well-written, but it provided incredibly in-depth insight into the lives of women in Iran – insights that went far beyond the stereotypical limitations of OMG THEY WEAR VEILS! that permeates our media today. As I was, at the time, living in a predominantly Muslim country, I had so often been asked by friends, family, and acquaintances back home: ‘Do all the women wear veils?’ ‘Do they all hate Americans?’ ‘Is it safe for non-Muslims to go there?’ etc, etc, etc. I can only imagine that these types of questions increase exponentially if one were to go, not to an obscure country like Kyrgyzstan, but instead to a well-known and well-vilified country such as Iran. Additionally, Nafisi’s teaching style (encouraging her Iranian students to connect the events discussed in Western novels to the events in their lives) was something that I wanted to try. While it wasn’t something that I could use in the classes that I was teaching at the time, I had visions of creating a reading list based on the one included at the end of Nafisi’s book and incorporating it into a class of advanced EFLers who were interested in English language literature. Needless to say, that didn’t happen. Instead, 2009 happened.

Fast-forward to 2013. One of the courses I’m taking is on dealing with different cultures in the ESOL classroom. The course really seems to be designed for people who have never been out of the country before and who have never had to deal with people from different cultures before. To be honest, I personally am getting very little from the course. We were given a ‘suggested reading list’ from which we were supposed to select a book about which we were supposed to write a report. (Don’t even get me started on how lame of an assignment this is. A book report? Is this grad school or elementary school? Yeah.) Anyway, one of the books on the list was Reading Lolita in Tehran. Remembering how much I’d enjoyed it the first time around, I decided to go with that. (Hey, I’m working two jobs and taking four classes – cut me some slack for working with a book I’d read before!) I enjoyed the book as much as I did the first time around, and I got to actually formulate my thoughts into a paper on how I would use what I learned from the book inside an actual classroom.

Then, four days before the paper was due, I saw a poster advertising a speaking event in Winter Park – Azar Nafisi would be speaking that very night! Free to the public! I had a splitting headache that wouldn’t go away no matter how much Excedrin I fed it. I was so shaky from taking too many Excedrin that I actually felt dizzy. Normally I would have celebrated the arrival of such a headache by curling up under the covers with a pillow atop my head. Instead I forced myself to drive over to Winter Park. I am very glad I did. Nafisi was incredible – and surprisingly hilarious. Reading Lolita in Tehran is such a serious work that I really didn’t expect her to have such a sense of humor. I video-recorded part of her presentation, and audio-recorded the rest. I missed the very beginning, as I was having trouble getting my audio-recorder to work (which was why I ended up videoing the first segment), but I did get most of it. Sadly, despite the fact that I could have met Nafisi at the end of the program, I had to leave – my headache had reached the point where it was going to try to do me in if I didn’t take it home immediately. But at least I was able to record her for your listening pleasure: