Oberlin Blogs

Teaching English as a Second Language

March 10, 2009

Daniel Tam-Claiborne ’09

Another slightly outdated post, but I'm catching up, I promise...

Students have it pretty tough. Between classes, homework, food, exercise, sleep, and the usual panache of extracurricular activities to fill our insatiably curious palates, honestly, it's no wonder where the time goes. And although I have been mulling over that sentiment for close to four years now (not counting the other twelve-odd years of structured education), it took until I finally stepped out of the role of student to begin to get some perspective on exactly where it is that teachers fit into the whole equation.

The life of a teacher is not all Professional Days and polished apples, as I'm sure you can glean from some of your own fearless educators, not to mention the handful of professor bloggers on the site. And though I would still contest that students bear a considerable brunt of the educational burden, there is unquestionably a ton of work involved in being a teacher--perhaps worst of which lies in grading dozens of the same essays heaped with equal portions of procrastination and BS. Thankfully, in my so far limited experience as a teacher, that wasn't much of an issue, but we were told to watch out for considerable plagiarism, a practice that in many countries outside of the U.S. is not nearly as frowned upon.

All this to say that the role I invariably stepped into this Winter Term was that of a teacher. Over three weeks in January, I taught English as a Second Language (ESL) classes to students, community members, and even my own Chinese 101 visiting instructor as part of a Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) training course offered at Oberlin. Taught by Kim Faber, the course was aimed at preparing students who either had plans of teaching English abroad after graduation or who simply wanted some practical skills to put in their proverbial toolkit. In past years, the class was predominantly made up of Shansi Fellows (as it is a requirement of the program), but this winter it was brimming with 17 other students in addition to the Shansi-affiliated eleven. Kim handled the situation well, dividing the class up such that Shansi Fellows taught English to the handful of Oberlin international students who enrolled in the class, while others drove out in vans every morning to the Lorain elementary, middle, and high schools to tutor ESL students there.

The class was composed primarily of two parts. The eleven Shansi Fellows were broken up into three groups, and every morning each group team-taught for an hour from 9-noon. After an hour-and-a-half break for lunch, all 28 of us reconvened in the afternoons for two hours of training. That training involved everything from daily discussions on the ways and challenges of teaching particular language facets (writing, listening, speaking, etc.), to reflections about the morning's lessons, and the position of the throat, mouth, and larynx in relation to how English sounds are pronounced. The learning was extremely hands-on, as Kim emphasized the active roles we should all play in our teaching since many of us would be doing just that in a few short months. Shansi Fellows had the added luxury of a third component to the program--weekly lunch workshops and evening sessions that highlighted critical information about the program and the sites we would be working with for two years, all culminating in a scintillating weekend retreat. At these meetings, we went over such pertinent information as what it means to be teaching in Asia, cultural norms, site specific issues, coping strategies and expectations, the importance of maintaining relationships, and, of course, procedures for emergency evacuation.

The challenge over the month came in donning both roles--as both a teacher and a student--all while being reassured along the way that we were likely to catch dengue fever, get taken hostage at a Jakarta airport, and be heaved out of a moving train on our way to Moscow. It didn't help that by the end of the TESOL course and the start of our weekend retreat, Shansi flew in doctor and former Shansi Fellow, Tim Henrich, to lecture us about the gangly diseases and dangerous predicaments that we were prone to get ourselves involved in during our jaunt around Southeast Asia. Perhaps the biggest take-away message of the evening was not to wade knee-deep in rice paddies, despite however tempting they may look. Thankfully, the rest of the two-day retreat was significantly more uplifting, including lunch and a tour of the Great Lakes Brewery in Cleveland, two delicious full-course dinners cooked by some of the Shansi staff, and a viewing of the completely hilarious Indonesian flick Quickie Express, which I would unabashedly recommend.

It's amazing now to think about how far we've come. On the first day of the TESOL course, we received an empty 2" binder that by the end of three weeks was bursting with handouts, worksheets, reading packets, and scores of other informational tidbits related to the field of teaching the English language. Why the need for so much material? Because the English language is astonishingly hard to learn, a fact that I think that most native speakers (and certainly myself) tend to take for granted. We utilize one of the deepest vocabularies in the world, the pitches and tones of words are difficult to pronounce, and our grammatical structure is downright incomprehensible. Nowhere did this become more painfully obvious than when a roomful of native English speakers (and daresay, teachers) could not come to a consensus on the correct multiple-choice answers to a TOEFL exercise. I felt like part of the training course should have been titled "Teaching English Grammar to Native Speakers." On separate instances, I looked on stupefied at one teacher's explanation of the differences between the past and past participles of "lie" and "lay" and could not for the life of me explain the utility of the past perfect tense over the simple past.

The whole lot of us, teachers and students, together in perfect harmony.

As odd as it sounds, there is no pre-ordained curriculum for a class because someone (namely, the teacher) has to create it. This in and of itself was something I had never really considered. I always seemed to be under the impression that at some point in the distant past, the "gods of learning" had sent down a set of stone tomes blistering in molten rock from which all knowledge was derived and adapted accordingly. And as much as I was not up to the challenge of sweeping off the millennia-old ash and uncovering the engraved text beneath, that person quickly became me. Over the course of the month, almost every night was spent in mutual desperation with my other three group mates (affectionately known as "Team Awesome") languishing in one of our houses' living rooms, batting around ideas and furiously trying to scrap together a coherent, interesting, engaging, appropriate, and possibly even fun lesson plan for the following morning. Between that, daily homework and reading assignments, and class time itself, we quickly became each other's only social lives.

It helped that we had a tiny bit of guidance. The teaching part of the three-week Winter Term was divided neatly into three overarching categories: oral skills (which included culture and idioms), reading and grammar, and writing. My group started with reading and grammar, and thought it best to have a theme running throughout the three sections to hold our unit together. Appropriately timed, we settled on Barack Obama's inauguration. It was especially great for the students we were working with, all quite proficient English speakers who just needed some additional skill work in terms of the nuances and idiosyncrasies of the language. And just like the way intensive language programs abroad have an emphasis on the particularities of the host culture, we thought we could provide a unique vision of America through some of the history of its politics.

Translated into lesson planning, that "vision" operated in startling ways, with some ideas generating more success than others. For our reading section, we dug up current articles on the inauguration and tried to tie them to history, making links between Obama, JFK, and MLK, Jr. The writing section served to strengthen those ties--we had students write a position piece on the ways in which Kennedy's 1961 inaugural address relates to present-day America, watched a portion of the PBS-documentary Eyes on the Prize as a lead-up to Martin Luther King Day, and had everyone write a letter to their family as if they had witnessed the 1963 March on Washington.

The final section on oral comprehension took an amusing, if not slight departure from that theme. We did have students write and recite their own inaugural addresses to an imagined new country, but also interspersed over the course of that last week, we had an "American breakfast" inauguration party at Shansi House, a game of Jeopardy, a resume writing clinic, and a speed-dating activity centered around the appropriate use of idioms in the context of pick-up lines. Our last day of class was reserved for evaluations and a "final exam," in which all eleven of us struggled to find a common way to test the skills we had theoretically been teaching our students over the course of the month. After much debate, we decided to focus on John Updike's timeless short story (and a personal favorite), "A&P." The reading group went over the story in class, taking time to focus on difficult or antiquated words and phrases, the writing group had students compose a couple of short essays based on prompts from the story, and the oral comprehension group gave students the opportunity to create a skit based on their interpretation of the story and perform it in front of the class. I think I can speak for all eleven of us when I say that we were wholly impressed.

Compare all of that to the first day where we devoted a painful entire class to child prodigies with an emphasis on the late, great chess champion Bobby Fischer. There is no question that the TESOL course helped me to shake out some of the nervous jitters I had about agreeing to teach English in China for two years. I feel better about being able to create and implement a curriculum with daily lesson plans, even though the situation abroad will be entirely different. In Taigu, China, for example, desks are bolted to the ground and students are accustomed to barely participating in class. And needless to say, there won't be a roomful of other native English speakers with me, sympathetic to my lesson and eager to add fodder to the discussion fire. Nevertheless, in three weeks of teaching ESL classes, I became acutely--and almost consciously--aware of some of the best practices for breaking down and teaching the English language. I can go so far as to say that not only have I started to develop my own confidence as a teacher, but renew my comfort, therein, as a native speaker.

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