Saturday, November 15, 2014

Reflections on my first quarter teaching in Turkey

Günaydın (Turkish for "good morning"). It's Saturday morning here in Talas, Turkey.

What I really wanted to write about this morning was a reflection on my first quarter of teaching English in Turkey and how the reality does and doesn't match up with my training.

First of all, classroom management was my most unexpected challenge. I remember wondering why one professor spent so much time on in in our practicum class. Now I know. Wrangling a bunch of 18-year-olds who share a common first language, and who are experiencing the freedom of university for the first time---is a lot harder than it sounds.

My groups of students last quarter were energetic and chatty, which is normally a good thing in the language classroom. However, when the chattiness continues while I'm giving directions or after I have turned off the lights to signal that it's time to finish the activity, I get a little frustrated. Pile this on day after day, even after seating arrangements, warnings, and every technique I could think of, and the result is a major breakdown in the middle of a meeting with my colleagues. I'm not sure I've ever cried at work before, especially not out of frustration, and I hope that it never happens again. My colleagues tried to warn me about the students, but I thought they were just being pessimistic. Nope. Turns out that students can be downright disrespectful and seemingly impossible to teach.

I was a very good student in my master's degree, so I know I paid attention during the classroom management discussions, but in a program focused on current research on language acquisition, some of these daily teacher things didn't surface as among the most critical information. A former yoga teacher once advised me that teachers are never fully prepared, you just have to get in front of the class and deal with it. I think this advice holds for me. In every new context, you can never be prepared for the students or the curriculum. It's a matter of getting in the classroom and dealing with what happens.

On the flip side, let me tell you about the last day of teaching one class that I had particular trouble with. For the last hour, I had planned a review game. however, when I came to the classroom, more than half of the students were gone, and the only people left were the sweetest female students who had shown me respect all semester. They bought coffee and cake for everyone and we sat in the classroom together, as human beings, discussing Turkey and my experiences so far. It was an incredible moment for me as a worn-down teacher---who at times during the first quarter questioned my ability and desire to be an educator---to once again feel the human connection that I love about teaching. My students used English (and I used a little Turkish) to talk and laugh about our differences and our similarities. Make-up and the head scarf were fun conversation, and we took a handful of selfies together. At some point, I realized that they were using vocabulary that we had learned in class, and I was beaming with pride. The language teacher's dream is to have students apply what they learn in a boring textbook to a context that they really care about.
C11 selfie--about half the class isn't pictured here.

Coffee and cake with the ladies of C10

Ladies of C10

Many of my Turkish colleagues, and I'm sure many of my colleagues in general, avoid getting to know students. Not because they don't like students, but because personal connection undermines authority. Instead, they maintain emotional distance and focus on the material. Their classrooms are what I imagine the military to be. Completely dominated by the teacher, orderly, and fear-driven. I'm painting a grim picture, but I know that traditional teaching follows this pattern. The teacher is the ultimate authority, and students never question it. This is also a leadership style that was common in the past, and remains in many parts of the world today.

My teaching style, though, doesn't run on fear. It runs on respect and genuine interest in student success. For better or worse, I make every effort to treat my students with respect as autonomous adults (I can hear some colleagues saying, "that's your first mistake") who deserve the best lesson I can give because they will go on to use English in their majors or in their careers.

For most of my, albeit short, teaching career, I have generally had success with this approach. I think students appreciate my approachability and my interest in their success outside of my classroom. However, the first quarter of teaching here basically took most of my teaching philosophy, ripped it in half and buried it in my bottom desk drawer under waded up tissues of my snot and tears. "Prepare them for the test, check their homework, threaten them with visits to the administration, and get the heck out of there" became my survival mantra.

On Monday, I will have three new classes. One general pre-intermediate class, and two sections of intermediate listening and speaking. I am really excited for the listening and speaking classes because they are students came into the program with higher proficiency (usually accompanied by better work ethic, in this context, anyway). The pre-intermediates will take more patience from me, as they are the graduates of the classes I taught last quarter. They are finding their way through a year of manditory English en route to their private university classes in Engineering or law (only some students will take university classes in English. Others will study in Turkish). Inshallah (God willing, or "hopefully") my students will respond more to my efforts to create an atmosphere of mutual respect. I'd like to pull my tattered teaching philosophy back out, dust it off and continue the success I've enjoyed in other contexts.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Ideas for teaching and reviewing vocabulary

I recently shared these ideas with my colleagues at Meliksah University. I hope you enjoy them!

“Don’t S.W.E.A.T. it” Vocabulary Homework

Rationale: Learners will build layers of knowledge about new vocabulary words by learning the word along with a synonym, antonym, example, and translation to their native language.

Procedure: The teacher can create simple worksheets with the following table repeated several times. Alternatively, the teacher can show learners how to recreate this table on their own paper. Assign learners a list of vocabulary words that are relevant to the current chapter or study topic AND to the learners’ general academic pursuits (if possible). Explain your expectations for filling in the table. Don’t forget to explain the English idiom “Don’t sweat it!” (i.e., Don’t worry, it won’t be difficult).



Example sentence:


Three low-to-no-prep ways to review vocabulary in class

Rationale: learners have preferences for ways in which they learn most easily. Teacher variation is the ways vocabulary is presented can engage a wider range of students. In classes where the demands of the pacing limit time for vocabulary review, a simple definition quiz can help learners self-assess their knowledge. The following exercises can provide varied and time-saving ways to reinforce the importance of vocabulary in your classroom.


·      Make it visual. Assign pairs of students to draw a picture representing a vocabulary word. Have students share their representations with the class, and hang pictures on the wall, if desired.
o   For the word comfortable, students might draw a sofa or large armchair.
·      Make it active. Assign pairs of students to create a gesture or action representing a vocabulary word. Encourage students to get creative! Have students share their representations with the class.
o   For the word “packet,” students might imitate ripping open a bag of chips. They might also add the ripping sound to help auditory learners connect the sound and the meaning.
·      Make it quick. Have students take out paper and pencil. Read definitions of 5 words and have students write the correct word on their paper. Read the answers and have students self-correct.

o   The teacher might say, “This word means the person who works with a cash register in a store.” Students would write “Cashier” or “Shop Assistant”

Some activities inspired by Cheryl Zimmerman's Word Knowledge (2009). Check out her book for much more info on the whys and hows of vocabulary instruction, as well as many activities for bringing vocabulary to your classroom.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Thoughts from the other side of the desk.

As my Turkish proficiency has become relevant to my life and work here in Kayseri, Turkey, I'm realizing some of the struggles that students in learning English. Here are a few of the components of a language class I'm thinking about.

  1. Risk-taking. Even though I am always encouraging students to take risks in the classroom in order to grow as a language user, this is easier said than done. I find myself sometimes reluctant to try a new word or tongue-twister-ish Turkish verb construction. ...edebilir misiniz? I'm building empathy, but also seeing how I might motivate students to get past this roadblock. Despite my hesitation, I'm learning to just get the words out, on the basis of my second point.
  2. Context-dependent use. If I don't have the occasion to retrieve and use a new word or phrase in context during interaction with others, I have a very difficult time retaining it. This experience will inform my teaching of vocabulary and rote phrases. Give students a chance to recall and use new items in an authentic context.
  3. Bottom-up processing. Although I rarely used techniques like backward (or forward) buildup with advanced students, I am using it frequently in Turkish. Due to the heavily suffixed-ness of Turkish, practicing piece-by-piece is essential. ed. edebil. edebilir. edebilir misin. edibilir misiniz. I see this type of controlled practice as essential for building pronunciation and grammar knowledge. I will be using this technique at the word and sentence level.
  4. Praise. While I've never doubted the importance of teacher praise, being on the other side of the desk has thrown light on the affective effects of teacher feedback. Teachers who are unenthusiastic or too quick to correct do nothing to motivate students who struggle. On the other hand, I've experienced feedback from my colleagues that made me feel proud of myself and therefore motivated me to continue speaking in Turkish--this is important feedback for learners.  I will be very mindful of the ways I encourage my beginner students, especially in speaking activities.
There is so much to learn and so much to consider as I start a new teaching position in a new country with a new language. I can understand the struggle that many students who study abroad my face. I hope that my newfound empathy enriches my teaching experience here in Turkey.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Nation and Newton (2009) Teaching ESL/EFL Listening and Speaking

Dear fellow TESOLers,

Today I'd like to write about a resource for ESL/EFL listening and speaking teachers.

Nation, I.S.P. & Newton, J. (2009). Teaching ESL/EFL Listening and Speaking. New York, NY: Routledge.

During my MA studies, I read a few textbooks focused on either listening, speaking or pronunciation. While useful, these three books focus on the skills mostly separately. I picked up Nation and Newton (2009) as an ebook on Google because I wanted a concise way to refresh my memory, and maybe find a few new ideas for my new teaching position in Turkey.

I like that this text surveys theory and research on the teaching of listening and speaking without overloading the teacher-reader with too much SLA or delving too deeply into controversies in the field. On the contrary, in a few concise chapters, I was able to refresh my memory of current trends, long-standing beliefs in the field, and even come across invigorating descriptions of language learning that hadn't encountered in my MA! My favorite among them was a justification for the prominence of listening instruction: "learning a language is building a map of meaning in the mind..To do this, [proponents of listening] feel, the best method is to practice meaningful listening" (Nord, 1980, p.17 in Nation & Newton, 2009, p.53). This metaphor of a "map of meaning in the mind" expresses what I have believed about language but not been able to articulate so cleverly. For me, a well-written textbook contains these types of springboard ideas from which teachers can build a philosophy of language learning and teaching.

More than the theory, however, I felt that the practical information in this book was outstanding. The authors have outlined basic principles to keep in mind while teaching (e.g., planning lessons with equal attention to "the four strands," or the "MINUS" strategy for teaching beginners). In addition, the authors have provided a plethora (around 100) of useful, low-prep (and low-tech) activities for teachers to employ in the teaching of listening, speaking, and pronunciation. To name a few that I'd like to bring to my classroom (also to my own Turkish learning): substitution tables, pre-dictation exercises, and distinguishing sounds.

I chose to write this (very) informal review today to help myself retain some of the useful information I have been reading in this text. I hope that other teachers or MA-TESL programs might consider adding this book to their resources.

***As a side-note, MA TESOL program coordinators might consider going totally electronic for textbooks and other materials, as graduates of your programs will likely move overseas and shipping prices are high and reliability of delivery is low. If I could do my MA over again, I would buy an iPad and organize everything electronically in one compact device, rather than hauling textbooks overseas and having to recycle literally thousands of printed articles (along with all my annotations).

Friday, July 18, 2014

Three Tips for Teaching Adult Beginners

I've recently moved to Turkey as an EFL teacher, and part of my pre-contract holiday includes a daily 4-hour intensive Turkish course. The class is very small--just me and my husband. I hope to shed a little light on the process of teaching adult beginners through reflection on my own experience.

Here are a few tips for teachers:

  1. Encourage, encourage, encourage. Do your best to honestly support your students. Praise their correct answers and progress as true achievements. For adults, language learning can be more difficult because of higher affective filters. Your praise and encouragement as a teacher will help students feel more comfortable to take risks.
  2. Listen, listen, listen. Your students will probably want to try to communicate with you, but it will be slow and difficult. Give them time to finish trying to use their language before you jump in. That is, give them A LOT of time (even if it is super awkward) to formulate and reformulate their spontaneous utterances to you. Cutting them off may discourage them, and you may misinterpret the meaning without even knowing it.
  3. Be interested in your students' lives and experiences. You may be paid to get students passed on to the next level, but do not underestimate the power of a little human connection in motivating your students to practice and come out of their shells to produce language. In fact, YOU may have more fun teaching, too!
I would love to read your comments based on your experiences teaching adults or being an adult learner, too!

Friday, January 17, 2014

Using ESL training to help Native Speakers learn new concepts

I want to give an update about analyzing the whale-oriented websites.

Yesterday in class, we watched two short YouTube clips to practice analyzing rhetoric in a multimedia way. I divided the class into three groups so that I could assign each group a specific focus point during the video clips. For example, during the first viewing, one group of students was assigned to look for clues about the author, and the other two groups were focusing on audience and purpose, respectively. During the second viewing, students were watching for appeals to ethos, pathos, or logos, respectively. After each viewing, we discussed the clips and elements of rhetoric as a class. Then, we repeated the process with the other clip.

Whale Wars Intro
Round one: watch for content, what’s going on?
  1. Author:
  2. Audience:
  3. Purpose:
Round two: watch for appeals
  1. Ethos:
  2. Pathos:
  3. Logos:
Blackfish Trailer: (A little disturbing--step out if needed)
Round one: watch for content, what’s going on?
  1. Author:
  2. Audience:
  3. Purpose:
Round two: watch for appeals
  1. Ethos:
  2. Pathos:
  3. Logos:
Students were very engaged in the clips, and our discussion yielded me a lot of insight into how students were grappling with these new terms involved in rhetorical analysis. For example, students had a difficult time identifying who the author of the Whale Wars clip was. I would not have anticipated this difficulty because it seemed straightforward to me that a director/producer from Animal Planet would be behind the clip. However, as student after student struggled to find the author, I was able to explain piece by piece what I was actually looking for when they identify an author--and why the author matters in a rhetorical analysis. Controlled chaos is sometimes a great environment for students to test out hypotheses. My ESL training informed how I included multiple viewings with specific points to listen and watch for. I find that ESL-informed teaching usually benefits all students, regardless of native language, because of its emphasis on clear instructions, purposeful listening/reading, and negotiation of meaning.

In addition to the learning outcomes related to rhetorical analysis, I saw students' thinking critically about their own beliefs, especially when we watched the Blackfish trailer. Many of them had never considered the ramifications of keeping whales in captivity, and some of my students told me that they planned to go home and watch the rest of the film. After the lesson, I felt very proud of the day's instruction. My students definitely thought critically about two issues related to whales, but they also worked together in a discussion to figure out what rhetorical analysis means. 

I look forward to seeing how they analyze the websites for their project. I hope that yesterday's practice proves fruitful for them.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Writing as global citizens--a hopeful reflection on my goals for this semester

As a teacher, I'm always looking for ways to increase student engagement in the material. In a required freshman-level writing course, it is essential that I create assignments that are relevant to their lives and more important, interesting.

This semester, I am trying to bring out global citizens in my students. I hope for them to gain an appreciation for other countries, cultures, and languages as they practice valuable reading and writing skills.

One way that my students are getting exposure to another culture is through pen pals at Far East University. I was contacted by a teacher looking to set up an exchange between her Korean (and other nationalities) students and students studying here at Northern Arizona University.

From the outset, I faced a challenge: the classes at Far East were smaller than expected, and my classes often overflow during the first week until everything settles out. Due to the short English camp at Far East, I wanted to get our project going right away--on the second day of class. Having 50 students to pair with the 30 or so from Far East, I assigned students to work in pairs to write their pals. Although I was concerned that my students would have trouble navigating a letter with more than one author, the pair work was a huge success. Students were collaborating in the truest sense by asking each other content and language-based questions. What do you think about this word? Would our pal understand it? Should we ask this question? How do you think I say say that? What I saw as they composed together was amazing in terms of communication and revision, and it was only the second day of class! I was so proud of my students, and I hope that their pals enjoy the letters. I can't wait to see what these students learn from each other and how their worldviews might change.

In addition to the pen pals, students in my class begin the semester doing rhetorical analysis. They write an essay in which they deconstruct a text and analyze the effectiveness of the author for a particular audience and purpose. In the past, I've given students a few choices of essays from our textbook to analyze. This assignment has worked in the past, but the main complaint from students is that it's boring. What a buzz-kill in a required class. The main reason that I chose essays from the book was that I wanted students to get their money's worth from the book--something I'd call: "on principle" rather than because I'm passionate about it. While I still think students should get their money's worth out of the book (they will!), I don't think it should be at the expense of fuller engagement with an important assignment that has so many interesting applications.

In order to capitalize on the flexibility of the assignment, my students will be analyzing the rhetoric of text- and media-rich websites. Digital literacy, including the ability to evaluate and analyze the wealth of information on the internet is one of the skills that university students must have. Not only for college, but also for life! Therefore, I want to help them see how the concept of rhetoric is applicable not only to essays, speeches, and more traditional modes of rhetoric, but how it plays out on the web and all around us. I also happen to be very interested in the rhetoric surrounding whales right now. The documentary Blackfish exposes the dark side of whales held in captivity, but the SeaWorld website makes an attempt to counter the claims made by Blackfish. On a related note, the Sea Shepherd organization, who are often called "eco-terrorists", have campaigns waged both on the ocean and on the web against the killing and mistreatment of sea animals. Students can choose between the Sea Shepherd website or the SeaWorld website to analyze for their essays, and we will watch and analyze the Blackfish trailer in class to get students interested. Because I read so many of these essays, it is certainly to my benefit to select topics for students that interest me. However, a side benefit of assigning a choice between these two topics is that it encourages students to think critically about a real world issue.  Examining the rhetoric around these issues becomes a natural extension of reading and thinking about the interesting (and often conflicting!) information on the websites. Thus, student engagement is up, and I hope to see that engagement reflected in thoughtful rhetorical analysis essays.

The dual focus on content about whales and writing instruction is reminiscent of a popular ESL teaching approach known as Content-Based Instruction (CBI). As my teaching career has included both ESL instruction (mostly English for Academic Purposes, EAP) and freshman composition, I have begun to realize the symbiotic relationship between these two seemingly very different types of teaching. My training in both areas often build on each other as a hybrid teaching style with a sensitivity to language use, international perspectives, and expectations in "the academy". In the coming months, I hope to reflect more about how ESL and freshman composition compliment each other, and how (and why!) I approach my non-native-speaker-only section of freshman composition differently from my sections made up mostly of native speakers.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Student Testimonials

I compiled this list of student testimonials and evaluations because these comments reflect my teaching philosophy. I absolutely love when students respond to the activities, atmosphere, and philosophy in my classes. Helping students improve a skill, develop a strategy, or just enjoy learning are some of the most important reasons why I teach.

Fall 2013 Students, ENG 105 Critical Reading and Writing for the University Community

“This course was very well done. The assignments were not overwhelming. They helped me become a better writer. The instructor ran a structured and organized class that
put all of the emphasis on learning the material rather than trying to figure out what the instructor wanted.”

“I think you created a great friendly atmosphere in the classroom and adapted well to the students' different skill levels and methods for writing.”

“I liked that we worked in groups a lot and that we all had a chance to speak our mind and ask questions. Every assignment was explained well and the working
environment was always positive.”

“I feel there was nothing major that could impede me from learning in this particular class. She does an exceptional job working with students. I hope my future teachers are
like her.”

Spring 2013 Students, Program in Intensive English Level 5 Listening and Speaking

“Her activities are really good, and we learn new things. Thank you, Jena. “

“She is a best teacher in level 5 for me because she has a good activities in class

Spring 2012 Student, ENG 105 Program in Intensive English Section

“In my experience, the teacher did very well to deliver the information in many ways to us.”

Fall 2011 Students, ENG 105

“I really appreciated the fact that the instructor took all measures to ensure that all the students understood each assignment. She always sought out ways to better teach the material and always provided challenging and positive feedback for all of our writing assignments.”

“I think that she showed genuine interest in her students. She gave modern day media and actual examples that connected us back to the topic we were discussing. Allowing us to choose our topics (for the most part) motivated me to write the assignments.”

“She used many different strategies and it helped us learn. She made it fun too.”

“The teacher was aware of the practical applications for writing rather than just what a textbook says writing is for.”