Monthly Archives: May 2012

Learnings from KOTESOL’s National Conference

This year’s KOTESOL National Conference was held in Busan on May 26th. The theme of the conference was “Drive: Putting Students at the Wheel”. Most of the presentations focused in one way or another on how we can give students more control of their own English education.


This is a very relevant topic in any EFL situation. How do we convince students to use their blossoming English skills outside of class? After all, that is what we are preparing them for. How, in a place like Korea where learning grammar and vocabulary without any context is seen as the “right” way to study English, can we prepare our students to communicate in real situations?


In the morning I attended a pecha kucha presentation. A pecha kucha is like a mini-presentation. Each presenter has 20 slides and 20 seconds to talk about each of them. 6 minutes and 40 seconds to make a point.


Outstanding ideas came from Gordon West and Dr. Tim Murphey. Gordon, whose talk was titled “Don’t be a Dictator”, recommended giving students a voice in the classroom through democratisation – letting students in on the syllabus, choices of topics and tasks, even textbooks through class surveys and votes. Dr. Murphey, whose talk was on “Stretching Mirror Modeling and Diversity Peering”, pointed out that our students may learn better from one another than from the teachers – a great case for putting them at the wheel.

Following from that idea, I attended Alex Grevett’s presentation in the afternoon. “Make your students the experts” followed the learner-centred theme of the day quite well. Alex showed that choosing topics that students know more than the teacher about increases student engagement and collaboration. The students want to explain to the teacher (motivation!) and as a result, use language more effectively and peer-correct more often. This has been my experience as well – students are way more animated when teaching me about Korean history or K-pop songs or soccer players than when answering my comprehension checking questions about a reading. Students perform better when they are ‘experts’.

Which brings me to the next session I attended. “Vocabulary Games in the Korean Classroom” was a highlight of the day. Leonie Overbeek had a very different definition of ‘expert’: “has been drip under pressure”. She also had a lot of wisdom on how to scaffold a week’s worth of vocabulary activities into a successful lesson. Through ideas such as word boxes, puzzles, mazes, and question cubes, students learn to use their long vocabulary lists in context. This method of ‘putting students at the wheel’ gives learners both purpose for learning long lists of disjointed words and control of the words they must learn. This is important because, as she said in her presentation, “Words are the building blocks of the language.”


“English is not just a test.” Andrew Pollard gave sound advice on “Audio assignments: A tool for spoken fluency and student motivation”. Often students are afraid to speak because they want to be perfect – that’s how you pass a test, after all. They focus on accuracy at the expense of fluency. As teachers, we tend to prefer the opposite. (Personally, I prefer both.) With ingenious use of Kakao Talk’s voice messaging feature, Andee managed to arrange recording sessions both in-class and as homework to build student fluency. Constant exposure to speaking English builds confidence and success in noticing mistakes increases motivation. A side effect turned out to be rapport between the teacher and students, which further motivated the students to use English. I love the idea of being able to have speaking homework and getting away from the script and the pen and paper method. “I believe in my students,” says Andee Pollard. When he gets his students to believe in themselves, then they are truly ‘driving’.

Laughing It Up

I want to make a special thanks to @ShellTerrell for the idea of a laughing diary and to all the people who were part of these laughs with me.

I promised to make a laughing diary of all the things that made me laugh out loud during these seven days, and that’s how this started out. However, there are laughs that just can’t be shared. They only make sense in context…. Or they seemed funny at the time…. Or it’s funny because of who I am, not because of what it is. Anyway, here it is and I hope you enjoy it! 



Thursday: These are the things that made me laugh today:


1. A picture on Instagram of  all the things the person who posted would be reading if it were not for Instagram.


2. A picture of a plastic jockey riding a plastic horse.


3. A story: my brother’s professor required papers to be sent by snail-mail to her home address with a self-addressed stamped envelope included.She wrote feedback by hand. (That totally one-upped my 4cm margin story!)



4. Embarrassing old pictures like this: (Hint: one of those is me!)


and this: (One of those is me, too!)


5. A conversation with my mom led to the laughter of pure joy.


6. Stumbling down a mountain in the dark. “There’s another something here! Oops. A two-something.” We created meaning as we went.



It’s lovely to start the morning off laughing.

This picture that appeared on Facebook made me laugh today: I once saw a squirrel sitting on a Buddha’s lap eating up the rice cake offerings people had left. This reminded me of that squirrel.


Dianetics keeps resurfacing. Enter at your own risk.


A final laugh for Friday: dancing in front of the mirror while trying on clothes that I’d never wear in public.




Garfield Street Art in Seoul:


The man across from me on the bus is shaving.


I really wish I’d got a picture of this: there was an old man driving a bright red go-kart down a country road.




Reflective Practice workshop with Dr Thomas Farrell. I don’t even know where to begin. You had to be there.


Post- RP unprofessional development with chicken, beer, and reflection in action. You had to be there, too.



Post-Post-RP unprofessional development with @JosetteLB – and a strange and amazing nightclub where the band performed in their undies. You probably didn’t have to be there, but we were!




On my way to the bus stop, I saw a little old lady (maybe in her 70s) walk up behind a man in a business suit, pinch his butt, and run away. I’m still laughing over that one!


This website made me laugh twice: 20 Most Ridiculous Zoo Signs shared by @JohnPfordresher


This website is proof (says @SophiaKahn4) that we all live in Middle Earth shared by @EditorJamieC . I’m from “Stink Onion”.

A conversation with a very tongue-in-cheek young Sarah today – best quote: “Writing reading thinking – Yay!” #sarcasm

Finally, as midnight approaches, I’d like to share this YouTube video called: I’ll teach you how to levitate.




Starting the morning off laughing, thanks to @SophiaKahn4 “ah u must be a hobbit, probably Sam. I myself am from Maiden’s Stone, clearly 1 of the fair folk 🙂 ” #stinkonion


The birth of the #TESOLgeek hashtag. Go check it out.


My best friend’s (@HebrewH) status update on Facebook:


“Beatboxing in class

Kid:teacher do you know <Random Korean name>
Me: Nope. Do you know My Grandma Marie?
Me: Do you know Eminem? Dr Dre? Jay-Z?
Kid: Jaeshi?
Me: yeah dude. MC Retest.
Kid: teacher, really?

Thank You Korea….”


This song and video (warning: it’s very catchy) –




Most of the day gone and not a thing to laugh about until @Twinrovaa saved the day with this tumblr page. Ah, the ELT life.


And that would have been it (a very quiet day as paper deadlines loom) if Sarah hadn’t added some more joy:

“If I am a sandwich, I’m made with bacon, ham, pickle and cabbage, lettuce, bell pepper, ketchup, mustard because I always eat sandwich like this. On my birthday, many people go to a sandwich festival and the lunch and dinner menu is sandwich and there is a sandwich design project.”

“Sarah, they’re going to eat you.”

“Yeah! 🙂 It’ll feel great because everybody likes me.”

Laughing Diary

I had never heard of a laughing diary until a few weeks ago. I read about it somewhere and I really wish I could remember where, so that you can read about it, too. I’ll post a link if I can find it again. Ah, it was not a link, but a tweeted idea from @ShellTerrell.

The idea of a laughing diary is that you keep a record of everything that makes you laugh for one week. Then you post it and share it with your friends. I have never seen one, but I find the concept intriguing. My favorite kinds of laughs are the ones I share with others.


This coming week is full of deadlines and obligations that must be met, and I cannot imagine having anything to laugh at. However, life is full of surprises. I look forward to laughing with you at all the joys of life, great and small.


Check back in a week for the results!


What holds my students back from giving English class their best? What prevents me from being the best I can be in my work and in my life?

Today I typed the word “fear” into a Google search prompt. Once I sifted through the scary memes and haunting images, I found some interesting things.


Here are some of the articles and images that came up, along with the links that hosted them:

This links to 53 quotes about fear, which are worth a read. The “Reality of Fear” introduction really spoke to me. It reads:

  • You’re not scared of the dark. You’re scared of what’s in it.
  • You’re not afraid of heights. You’re afraid of falling.
  • You’re not afraid of the people around you. You’re just afraid of rejection.
  • You’re not afraid to love. You’re just afraid of not being loved back.

What is fear? Perhaps more importantly, what am I really afraid of? And if I can’t figure out what I’m afraid of, how can I move forward?

This wise woman had the same idea as me: here she collects posters and sayings on fear. My favorite: “Replace fear of the unknown with curiosity.”

This quote on fear comes from Frank Herbert’s book Duneand always seems to come to mind when fear threatens to overwhelm. I am greater than my fears. Here’s the whole quote:

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

This is an incredible blog about overcoming fears. It goes through identifying fear, the consequences of fear, types of fear, evolution of fear, and onwards to conquering fears and “developing a mindset of courage.” The comprehensive post is a must-read for everyone.

There’s a verse about fear and love in the Bible as well. And “scooby dooby doo!” – my fear role model. Scooby runs away, sure, but he always gets back in the Mystery Machine for the next adventure. It’s okay to be afraid, but fear should not drive your life.


I pulled this one up for the poster, but actually the whole blog is good. “Fear has stopped me from moving. From growing. It gave me the feeling that being stuck to where I was the safest thing to do.”

Language students come to us with so many fears. 

What if I am wrong

What if I look stupid

What if my pronunciation is bad

What if no one understands me

What if all the other students are better than me

What if everyone laughs at me

What if I forget the vocabulary word

What if I make a mistake

What if I fail

What if I use the wrong word and say something terrible

What if I can’t pass the test

What if I succeed and then forget my mother tongue

What if…

Anyone who has tried to learn a language has had similar fears. Even as adults, we have trouble putting our fears aside to do the things we need to do. Yet somehow we must ask our students to do the same. 

How do we reduce the level of fear students feel around learning English? I think this is part of a teacher’s job – making the unknown known.

Provide opportunities for practice

Provide a safe classroom environment

Provide that gentle push (Or strong shove. Off a cliff. Into the ocean.) that encourages (forces) students to try new things and explore the language

Teach learning skills as well as content

Raise awareness of cultural differences and expectations

Encourage curiosity

Show that the rewards are worth the effort

Exposure Exposure Exposure

I learned a lot about fear today. I have lived in Korea for nearly ten years. I don’t speak Korean. I read it, write it, and am quite good at listening to it, but I don’t speak it. I have had many teachers who have given me that gentle push and given up when I’ve pushed back. I’m a difficult student. But my own learning challenges have helped to make me aware of the fears and anxieties my students face and come up with strategies that might help them overcome. The way to success is through the fear, which cannot be blocked out forever.

And personally? Like many people, I fear the unknown. I fear change and as a result, I embrace my fears as dear friends, fearing who I will be without them.

Short story

It is a dark and stormy night. The two lane road is occupied only by a black motorcycle. The rider is dressed all in white. He slows when he sees her, curious eyes behind a white helmet. She touches the cord around her neck and murmurs words for his safety. Red lights in the distance. The lightning flashes.

On the right, an abandoned courtyard. The old stone walls are crumbling around it. Grass grows green inside. Again she touches the cord around her neck and whispers something. The walls spring up, new and strong. The grass is full of children running, yelling, playing. It is a schoolyard. The empty classrooms are dark. Abandoned tablets rest on empty desks. Unwritten. She does not understand. Releasing the cord, the scene disappears. She trudges on. The lightning flashes.

On the left, an old house with a tiled roof. The wooden door is dark green under an archway. Touching her cord, she pushes the door open and suddenly feels like she has stepped into the past. There is a kitchen beside the entrance. Next to the kitchen is a front room. On the other side is the bedroom. In the front room, there are three boys and two girls. They are sitting on the floor, silent. There are books in their hands, unopened. Inquiring eyes turn to look at her. She does not understand. She drops her hands. She turns away. The lightning flashes.

Just before dawn a silver sedan moves slowly down the road. Inside there is a family of four. The father is driving. A voice floats out the window. The mother is speaking to the children, five- and seven-year-old girls. The mother is telling stories. Listen, she says. The most important thing you can do in life is learn. Let the whole world be your teacher. Look at everything. Ask questions. Don’t let anyone stop you. See the lightning. Do you know where it comes from? See the rain. Don’t you wonder where it goes? See the sky over there. Why is it changing color? Always look around you. Always listen. The lightning can be your teacher. The rain can be your teacher. The sky can be your teacher.

The car stops. The father has seen her. Where are you going, miss? Do you want a ride? She steps up to the car and sees the children. The youngest girl asks, Are you a teacher? She frowns and shakes her head. The car moves on. Red lights in the distance. She trudges on. The lightning flashes.

There. In front of her, there is a cabin. There is a hint of light inside. The air around her is full of the scent of early morning flowers. She breathes in and tastes the freshness of the mist. The rain has stopped. She climbs the steps and peers in the window. Here is another room. She touches the cord around her neck and the room fills with people. The walls fill with color and the whole cabin fills with sound. Books are opened, words read and written. People speak together, listening, learning, sharing. She thinks about the visions she saw on her way. She understands. She opens the door to step inside. And disappears.


How did we learn what we know?

Why don’t we teach it the way we learned it?


This post grew out of a chance comment made by a friend on how we learn geography. We learn where places are, he said, by going there. That’s why we know the streets, shops, landmarks, even cities around where we live. We don’t learn about our country or our world from reading about it in a geography book. We don’t learn it from memorizing countries and flags, states and capitals. We learn by doing, going, experiencing.


I’m from the USA and it is a big place. It would take a year of road trips to go everywhere. When I was in school, we learned the names of all the States – alphabetically. I can still sing parts of the song we learned to memorize it. We memorized the capitals of each state (I only remember a few). However, the locations were deemed unimportant. Americans have a reputation abroad for poor geography skills.


A common project in schools is a leaf collection. I collected a leaf from a tree at the back of the school parking lot and spent a week arguing with my teacher that I had labeled it correctly. He was convinced that kind of tree didn’t grow in North America, but he wouldn’t go with me out to the parking lot to see it. I remember the argument clearly, but I don’t remember the name or features of that leaf or any other. However, I know the elm and oak and ash trees that grew around my neighborhood even though I haven’t lived there for nearly 15 years.


My favorite science teacher in high school took us out of the school in her van once a week to play in the creek and collect samples of everything. I don’t remember a single in-class lesson we did, but I remember everything from those mini-field trips (including the exact location of the creek). There were things there that were “too dirty” for the classroom, but testing the water and looking for tadpoles is permanently etched on my memory.


I took French in middle and high school. We sat in orderly rows and memorized verb conjugations for an hour. I still remember some of them, but they didn’t help me on my first trip to France (I know exactly where it is on a map, though). Alone for three weeks in Paris, I picked up French by using it. I listened and asked questions and stumbled through conversations, but learned more than four years in the classroom could ever teach.


So now, how am I teaching my students? In a classroom. In desks. In neat little rows. In groups. Am I teaching the way I was taught (with a few projects and role plays thrown in for good measure)? This is not how I learned anything that I still know.


Why do I spend time in my classroom teaching students in ways by which I know I could not learn? In an EFL environment, my options for authentic, experiential learning are limited, but that’s not a good enough excuse. Having to use curricula that dictates what I teach and how long I spend on each item limits possibilities, but I don’t think that’s the real reason. The real reason: I’ve forgotten how I learned what I know.


The compulsion to fall back on books and curricula is strong, but I must resist. It is time to design effective, memorable lessons that will allow students to truly interact with language and each other. In reminding myself, I must also remind my students to pay attention to how they learn and seek out further learning opportunities.

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