Archive for the ‘work’ Category

A day in the Life

September 24, 2016

…of a guy trying to make a living as a freelance English teacher.

I don’t think this is a rant but a warning to others who might look for this kind of work in South Korea. To some extent I am, not thinking ‘aloud’ but thinking ‘atext’; working things out on paper. Welcome to the way my mind works. Caveat lector!

Yesterday I left the apartment at 8:30 with the expectation of returning home around 7:00 and working four hours during those ten-and-a-half.  Things didn’t work out that way and I am not sure what the result was.

First, I went to a factory that had been taken over by a multi-national which wanted all or most of the employees to speak English. I was there to administer an oral level test of ten employees.  I was never made aware of all the end results of my judgement. I know  in at least some cases, the students were tested to see what sort of English class would be a good fit. All the people I interviewed spoke about job stress and drinking too much alcohol. It is possible that if an employee’s level did not improve, they might be let go. I’m not saying that will happen but, some of the employees seemed tense. The range of ability was from very low to nearly native speaker level.

After the interviews were done, I spoke with the organizer. She works at a corporate English recruiting firm – does that company description sound right? She had placed an ad on Craig’s List for corporate private teaching and similar work and I had applied. Anyway, the original position was to teach an executive at this company. I was accepted. Then the executive decided he would rather have a Korean English teacher. Then they offered me this level testing gig. Then the executive decided he wanted a foreigner and I might have that job. The level testing gig was moved to a new day. …

The people at the recruiting firm were not exactly jerking my chain. As middle-men, they had to adjust to a variety of schedules and whims.

Another similar company has also hired me to teach a few classes in October that will conflict with teaching the executive. I may have to cancel or reschedule two days. It didn’t seem a big deal to me because of all the rescheduling I had been through at the hands of the recruiters.

We discussed this and the recruiter is delivering messages to and fro to see what to do when I miss those days.

So we separate and I have three hours until my next gig, which is maybe forty minutes away. I buy a drink at a Paris Baguette and type for a while.

At the next job I am replacing a teacher who had to return home for a funeral. I actually don’t know how much I will be paid. I had the time free and feel this is the compassionate thing to do. I do expect to be paid.

And when I get there, I learn they have nothing for me to do and I should go home.  I had already worked there Monday and Wednesday and had a schedule for Friday. No, they tell me, I am not needed because the students had come in the day before. I did not raise my voice but noted that I had organized my day around this work and had traveled a hour to get there and would travel an hour more to get home.

I am not good with money.

In this case, as noted, I wasn’t expecting to receive a lot of money for the work, but I do need to convince myself to fight for the hours to be paid for. It hardly mattered what the rate was, I deserved it for the 2.5 hours I had expected to work there.

I think I will be paid for a satisfactory amount of hours there.

At home two hours early, I checked my email and saw an email from the second recruiting company. This is the company with work in October. They have offered me a two day Presentation Skills in English class and a three day Presentation Skills in English class. They interviewed me for the two day class and offered the the three day one as well.  Both take place a significant distance south, in the same town but for different groups in different locations. The two day event will pay X won and the email I received asked me if I would do the three day class for X won. The pay for two days is good if not worth dancing over. The pay for three days – the same pay or 1/3 less per hour – is still good. Better than sitting at home, not being paid.

I am not good with money. Imagine a Victorian trying to explain inter-racial sex to another person’s children and you have an idea of how uncomfortable I am in walking the line between appearing to be greedy and having a desire for fair pay.

After I finish this post, I will craft an email explaining my point. My main concern here is that the same company is hiring me to teach similar material -but of differing durations – at the same cost. If a sixteen hour course is worth X, then a twenty-four hour course should be worth 3/2X.  A complicating point is that the money offered per hour would not be enough for one hour or even two. It would be worthwhile for four or more because I only travel once and the activity causes only one conflict rather than a continuing stream of them.

Freelancing is challenging!

September 8, 2016


Image from.

In early July, I moved to Incheon, where my wife had been transferred, from Busan, where I had worked and my son went to school.  We were a happy family again…

A week later, I went to Gangwon Province to work at an ESL camp, returning to Incheon in mid August. Two weeks later, the whole family – all the in-laws – went to Jeju Island to celebrate my mother-in-law’s birthday.

In between all that and continuing to this moment, I have been looking for work.  Summer isn’t the peak hiring season for universities although I applied to all within, first 50 km, then 80 km and then as classes began, up to 120 km away.  Nothing.

I had been looking at piece work but didn’t want to commit in case I found a long term employer.  And so, now I diving into piece-work.

So far, I can’t complain about being too busy. I spend an hour or two a day on four websites: Koreabridge, Dave’s ESL Cafe, Craig’s List and Facebook specialty pages with job listings (you need to be invited to these so no link here). Of the group, Craig’s List has the best short term listings. Or, it has the most, which might not be the same thing.

Now is a good time to note that I have an F-6 visa, different from most native speaker English teachers, and working at a variety of places is permitted. As a university instructor, my contracts included a clause that I would not work off campus without the permission of the university. In other words, working off campus sometimes meant breaking the contract rather than breaking the law.

And so currently on my plate are:

subbing for a few days for a person going home for a funeral,

an interview for teaching one evening a week at a high school,

and working in a nearby suburb with a young professional and being paid by his corporation.

The thing is, the funeral was put off a week (I don’t know how that works), the professional wants to meet me today, next Tuesday but can’t, and not can because I don’t have subbing to do and the meeting I was going to have with the high school at 5:00 but couldn’t because of the subbing was moved to 6:30 and now back to 6:00.

I look at ten positions and mailed three to five applications a day and when I get responses, they don’t always include information on the position.  Today, I had to ask an employer (No, let’s say client. It sounds better) to refresh my memory on the details.

I now keep Google Calendar open all the time in a browser and will now record the details of every position I apply to in a dated file, “applications Sept 8” to help me keep track.

My brother-in-law is a dentist and an incredible guy.  The thing about dentists is, they are masters of production line throughput in a way that I don’t see with other medical doctors.  While the freezing is taking effect in a patient’s mouth, or an X-ray is developing (that might be an outdated phrase now, do digital x-rays develop?), he is doing the actual fingers-in-mouth work or interviewing a patient or parent…. At his home, he has horses and the farrier (I mean the guy who trims the hooves and works with horseshoes. I think that’s the right term) was in to work while I visited. The two discussed the similarities in their work, with my brother-in-law saying, “First, you find work, then you get a reputation, then you find work sites closer together and choose clients deliberately rather than desperately”.

That describes my plans, such as they are.  The three work sites are not close to home but will get me noticed.  The corporate work is likely to grow and in my interview, I described this first contract as a probationary one for both of us. We would both see how the other worked and hopefully grow from there.  They are interested and eager to find me work in my home neighbourhood if they can.

I gotta keep organized and on top of the schedules and check the postings every day.  It’s a good life if you don’t weaken.

Looking for news about English clubs or cafes at universities in Korea

December 16, 2014

I am the programs manager at the English Cafe on campus.  The programs have struggled and thrived and stumbled and are about to go through some big changes.  I’d like to know what people at other universities do to create extra-curricular content, fun content, voluntary content, at their universities.  I will post this link on the Facebook pages of KOTESOL and Gyeongsang branch – KOTESOL and a few other places.  I am desperate for some ideas and suggestions.

First, I should share what we did during the semester just finishing now.

The Cafe was independently run, so far as food, drink, and management were concerned.  Part of the Cafe manager’s contract was that we could run programs in there and she was wonderfully willing to help out.

1) There were daily games hours.  Each day, at an appointed time, students could play a board game with the teacher (or shut the teacher out and play among themselves).  We have English games like Scrabble and Boggle but also chess, Clue, Othello and others, ranging down in difficulty to Uno.  The winner of each day’s game a won 5,000won gift certificate for food and drinks at the Cafe.

2) In previous semesters, we had a daily Simpsons screening.  Students could watch, then answer questions with one student a week winning another 5,000won gift certificate for the Cafe.  Upper management found The Simpsons too low-brow and we were told to switch to documentaries this year and they didn’t go so well.  There were also some technical difficulties – the idea seemed a little boring but each doc should have generated some interest.

3) Once a semester, we ran a Scavenger Hunt.  There were four prizes: 20,000, 15,000, 10,000 and 5,000 won in Cultural gift certificates – these certificates are recognized at bookstores and, I think, movie theaters around the country.

4) Posters: Every two weeks, there was a new series of five posters, all on a theme and each with a question.  At the end of two weeks, the answers were judged and a student would win a 10,000 won Cultural gift certificate.

In previous semesters, teachers could count student attendance at Cafe events as part of their participation grade.  This year, that was no longer allowed and student participation dried up.  Really.  A few students did very well for themselves as there were few others to compete for the prizes.

Next year, the Cafe will run perhaps two events a semester and we may assist an English Club if one forms.  I want to know if your university has an English club, what the students do and what foreign staff are asked to do.  I will post further details at this blog and provide links to the Facebook pages mentioned above and summarize the responses I get.

Hope to hear your details!


tough day at the farm

March 23, 2014

Today’s work was on the orchard hill.  Or maybe it is a very low, stoneless mesa.  In the midst of hectares of flat rice, cabbage, potato and such fields, my father-in-law’s orchard is on a flat hill maybe three metres above the fields.

The main crop on the hill is persimmon fruit.I asked my brother-in-law about the strange bottoms of the tree and he suggested it was because of the way the tree grew from cuttings.    That was only his guess but it seems possible.  More on growing trees from cuttings.manure work (5) I have always loved the tree frogs at the farm.  After a year away, it was good to see a few again.  This guy could sit on the final joint of my thumb.  Please excuse the blurriness.  I really like my new phone but I seem to have trouble holding it still enough.manure work (4) Korea’s wonderful little tractor, the kyeongungi.  I can drive one when it is attached to a cart, but would leave a terrible plow line.manure work (3) manure work (2) I have a really annoying cold right now.  Despite the great weather, I was pretty miserable at the farm.  I think this pic captures my whininess during the day.  Oh, behind me are little piles of manure under each tree that I carted by wheelbarrow.  I guess I should be grateful my sense of smell was sub-par today.manure work (1)As is so often the case, I usually more proud of my farm work and adventures after a few days.  Perhaps in a week or so, when the smell is gone from my SUV, I will look back on the work as character building rather than horrible.


Best Teachers and tests

March 16, 2014

I read a post by one Wangjangnim at KoreaBridge and raced off a quick comment. Briefly, Wangjangnim appears to be a hagwon owner and his post attacked teachers for two things – claiming to be skilled, to be the Best Teacher and for making and using tests that aren’t appropriate.

How do teachers measure their effectiveness, and here you will slowly realize why I am against how they do it.  Scores.  Teachers effectiveness are measured by the students scores, but there is a problem.  These tests are created by the teacher.  The lesson are prepped by same teacher.  The lessons are given by same teacher.  The test is given by same teacher.  The test is corrected by same teacher.  Anyone with half a brain immediately understands the problem.  Anyone with a smidgen of understanding of HR practices and ethics revolving around test taking knows that this is simply ineffective.

Tests cannot be objective under those circumstances.  OOOO you say, but that is why we have SAT tests and the like.  Generalized tests that are the same for all students and not dependent on the teacher.  Really?  Those tests are made by teachers.  At least, as far as I understand the Education Industry, tests are manufactured by those mostly occupied with the profession of teaching.  Nothing wrong with that.  Everything wrong with that.

My response there (very slightly edited to remove the silly typos):

There is a real problem with judging how effective a teacher is and I don’t think there is any good method to judge all teachers.  Well, there is no easy method.  If you want to judge a teacher, first test his/her students when they arrive, inform the teacher precisely what you want from him(skipping the ‘/her’ for the rest of my comment) and then test the student again after some time has passed.  Also, do this to more than one teacher so you can see if one is doing better than the other.  Then, make sure you understand, and use, statistics to properly decide if improvement has been made

You will soon find that making and administering a good test takes a whole lot of work.  As you appear to want communication skills instead of grammar and vocab, I suggest asking students oral questions or long answer written questions.  Then you will need to read every essay or listen to every single answer.

I don’t know any teacher that wants to teach TOEIC.  My students are required to take a TOEIC test and that affects their grade but we have never seen the test nor know when our students take it.  Administrators seem to like because it is the opposite of what I described above: it is easy to administer and easy to grade.  If you make a better test of English communication that is relatively easy to administer and grade, you will make a lot of teachers very happy.

I haven’t read your posts before, Wangjangnim, and I don’t know you or your place of business.  Your writing shows you have better English than most of the Hagwon owners I have known.  I am not attacking you personally, but your claim that:

“General Tests are scams.  Huge scams with children, an parents, as victims”

is probably true but, only in the same way, “Hagwon owners are scammers.  Huge scammers with children and parents as victims.” is.  Teachers teach to the test because parents and hagwon owners (and some university Deans) require them to.

I just feel you are attacking a group – teachers – that is not a free agent on the issue.  If you can make a better test, I really want to see it.

Now, there are parts to his post that I like and suggest I may have been too hasty in attacking it.  for example, how to do well in a job interview:

If you truly love your profession, a better strategy would be to show me your passion for teaching and to give indication to things you helped master in- and outside of the classroom.

And he includes some kernel of an idea of how to fix the problem:

We will only know who is truly a great teacher, once teachers stop evaluating themselves, and start being evaluated by the results they achieved with their students through proper assessment tools.  Until then, the ESL mess we are in will remain unchanged.

Teachers are indeed somewhat at fault with poorly learning outcomes in their students.  At the same time, many teachers are often given close instruction in how and what they are to teach.  I am mostly grateful for that as I could really get sidetracked into teaching zombie epidemic survival skills and anti-religious rants, neither of which have much value outside of Youtube comment threads.

On the other hand, I have been told to teach TOEIC skills from a TOIEC book and many teachers here are expected to do the same.  I have taught at a hagwon where the owner required me to be the parrot for movie lines.  We spent months watching Avatar, repeating each line “three to five times”.

I don’t know this Wangjangnim but I would sincerely love to hear if he has a test that can accurately test student’s abilities even when teachers do not ‘teach to the test’. One valid test I can think of would be to parachute students who have finished classes into central Canada and see how quickly they get out.   Ah, maybe a more urban area would be appropriate – we are testing English not wilderness survival skills.  I guess we could test for student’s motivations and their strengths to see how much immersion they can handle but then we run into the Hagwon problem – the owner has two clients: the child and the parent and the latter seems to want TOIEC.


I want to be fair to Wangjangnim and I really want to hear what a fairly articulate hagwon owner really thinks.  I hope that my attacks on his post are not fueled by the standard hagwon teacher/ hagwon owner tension and will be following his blog for a bit.

Wangjangnim’s original post.

Spawning season for snappers at Wye Marsh

June 14, 2013



Let me start with a painted turtle.  I found this one on the playing field at Wye Marsh Conservation Area and moved it so the school students playing a game modelling relations between historic trading blocs wouldn’t step on it.  Those claws are pretty sharp!lotsa turtles (1)

On June second, I found a snapper laying eggs and also saw holes dug by others.  It seemed like a lot of activity but the numbers kept picking up until yesterday, June 13, when I saw five turtles laying, including this location where three were laying at once. Should anyone care, this photo was taken on the berm at the far end of the big boardwalk.lotsa turtles (9 b)

One snapper had a hitchhiker.lotsa turtles (7 c) Not the same leech, but one a student had caught a few days earlier.DSC08756

This photo is from the twelfth and shows a snapper’s claws and dragged tail.  We were lucky to have a brief shower the previous night.snapper -loza (7) bAnd here is a raccoon print, from the same morning.snapper -loza (4) b

It is tough to explain to the visiting students that the turtles lay so many eggs but raccoons eat most of them.  (The ROM tells me that skunks also prey on turtle eggs although I have not yet seen any at the Marsh.  I have seen an otter and wonder if they could dig up the eggs.) I have resorted to acting the part of a hungry baby raccoon (“Chirrrrrrrp.  Feed me, mommy.”) to emphasize that the raccoons are not actually bad guys. Sometimes I believe it myself.


But not so much when I see a cutie like this.
snapper -loza (10) b

Both snapping turtles and Midland painted turtles are abundant at the Wye Marsh so I guess enough are getting through the gauntlet, even though snappers are rated as under ‘special concern’.  Painted turtles have no threat categorization at this time.

More on snappers at Ontario Nature and on turtles at The Toronto Zoo.

Serious issues spoiled by incoherent ranting style

July 17, 2012

Child Abuse camp as advertised on the Democratic United Party blog and protected by corrupt police soon to be exposed

By [name redacted] and translated by Surprisesaplenty

My ‘translated by’ claim above is snarky, but I am starting from the man’s Facebook claims and following other links.  His writing is … challenging.

A sample from various locations (1,2) on Facebook (these are from large groups on Facebook so I don’t think they are private utterances.  The latter link is to “Every Expat inKorea” which sounds like it should be considered a public space):

“Korean Conman with no degree is touted as professor on the Korean Democratic United party blog, that also names his business that prior to that time had been in the papers (Korean Herald) for human smuggling US citizens with fake visas to work for free in his illegal unlicensed English camps the Jeju City Office of Education yet again has filed more changes against this week.

The full truth is not in the 1000s of newspaper report about this illegal business 제주국제영어마을 – that it includes pedophile activity and stupid foreigners who profit from job ads saying they get bonus money for working their kids, which should have been a know brainier that that is against the law.”

A “know brainier” indeed.  These 100+ words  in two sentences were separated in the ellipses by a citation.  Oh, alright, here it is: As seen On KBS News and 제주가 보인다 2012.2.1.

Still, [redacted] is passionate about his claims; so much so that I had to dig in and try to understand them.

Okay, I’ve looked into the claims and they are too hot – criminally hot – for me!

At 3 Wise Monkeys is a good description of the problem.  Giving real names and identifying businesses , even if the claims made are true, is considered libel.

The Korea Herald has reported as much as it dares here.  Dare I say it, the reporting is as well done as it could be without risking exposure to libel.

A second problem with discussing [redacted]‘s problems are their variety.  3WM and the Herald discuss (1)immigration and contractual issues, but [redacted] also claims (2) sexual abuse of the students, corruption among the (3) police (The Herald article looks at this) and (4) a political party and (5) death threats he has received*.  They might all be true but if too many claims are stacked like this, why not add one more: “(6)And he cancelled Christmas!”

I feel there is something wrong here and that [redacted] has been mistreated, possibly criminally, but I am honestly afraid to write further.  Korea’s libel laws are clear.

This is a serious issue and I feel for [redacted] but at the same time I must retreat into snark again and say that if his writing is a good example of his English communication skills, I would not much want to hire him either.

* Search for information from 3WM… You can find this claim if you wish.

Teacher’s pay

February 7, 2012

One of my aunts has long been a critic of teacher’s pay.  Well, we haven’t discussed the subject in years, so let’s say she was a critic.  She felt that Canadian school teachers only work a few hours a day and have all summer off plus large breaks during the year.

There are rebuttals, chiefly that school teachers often have homework to mark through their evenings and professional development during their summers.  There are many extra tasks that come with teaching that add to the total workload, so their salaries amy not be so high per hour as my aunt suggests.

This does not apply to me so much.  I work a university professor’s schedule but am not threatened by ‘publish-or-perish’ or research expectations that teachers with many initials after their names are.

I think I can admit my pay per hour is relatively high but that I don’t work enough hours and the university contract makes it difficult for me to work more hours off-campus.  One problem at Korean universities for ESL instructors (in English, they call me “professor” but the Korean word is closer to ‘instructor’) is that the university wants F- visa holders (married to a Korean citizen) because we are more likely to be here for the long-term.  On the other hand, a large number of F- visas holders have families and are looking for a higher salary to support a family.

I have been investigating giving private lessons and have acquaintances who have quoted fantastic pay per hour.  It’s work I would like to do but honestly don’t feel I am worth the money they are getting per hour.  I don’t know these people, or their teaching habits and abilities, very well, so let me careful to say I am not sure that any teacher is worth 50,000 won per hour, a sum they they regularly exceed.  They might be that skilled and capable, but I am not sure how.  I am uncertain of their abilities but figure that mine are comparable.  I would love to be paid that much but is it reasonable?

Alabama State Senator Shadrack McGill (via Friendly Atheist) would say no. He starts the quote below by discussing why legislators deserve more pay but why teachers don’t:

McGill said that by paying legislators more, they’re less susceptible to taking bribes.

“He needs to make enough that he can say no, in regards to temptation. … Teachers need to make the money that they need to make. There needs to be a balance there. If you double what you’re paying education, you know what’s going to happen? I’ve heard the comment many times, ‘Well, the quality of education’s going to go up.’ That’s never proven to happen, guys.

“It’s a Biblical principle. If you double a teacher’s pay scale, you’ll attract people who aren’t called to teach.

“To go in and raise someone’s child for eight hours a day, or many people’s children for eight hours a day, requires a calling. It better be a calling in your life. I know I wouldn’t want to do it, OK?

“And these teachers that are called to teach, regardless of the pay scale, they would teach. It’s just in them to do. It’s the ability that God give ’em. And there are also some teachers, it wouldn’t matter how much you would pay them, they would still perform to the same capacity.

Giving a teacher more money would attract lazy teachers, ones who are only in it for the money.  Giving a senator more money reduces the danger of corruption and acceptance of bribes.

Now, there have been reports of school teachers accepting bribes in Korea so maybe that is an argument for their receiving better pay.

One argument for fighting for higher pay is the uncertain nature of work in Korea for Native Speaker English Teachers.

The Seoul Ministry Of Education is thinking about getting rid of all it’s NSETs.  It wasn’t that long ago that they were hiring native-speakers-with-heartbeats.

A Geek in Korea made public a remark from John in Daejeon about Teaching ESL in that city.  Here is an excerpt:

I hope you have some backup plans just in case something happens that affects your position.

I bring this up because, over the holiday, my old boss informed me that 20% of the hagwons in the his association here in Daejeon are close to shutting their doors due to low enrollment, and that this was the first year in his 10 years of being a member that no new directors joined the group. So there happens to be quite a bit of nervousness even among those members whose academies are still doing well as to the “up in the air” future of education in South Korea. Some directors have even started using part-time native speakers who are married to Koreans to save money on E-2 visa processing, airfare, housing, and whatever other benefits that they can get away with not paying them to help save money.

At least at the university level, foreign (Chinese) students can be enrolled in greater numbers to justify keeping teachers. However, if there are fewer and fewer students enrolling in elementary schools due to the low birth rate here, what justification is there in keeping the current levels of public school teachers and hagwon teachers? […]

Seeing as I am morally troubled by asking for a high salary, perhaps I need to change my teaching strategy.

Yoo Soo-youn earns a billion won a year (about a million Canadian dollars) teaching TOEIC

…TOEIC English  proficiency test, which is still widely taken in Korea. “I leave home around six-thirty in the morning and give TOEIC lectures from 7 a.m to 2 p.m. I teach about 1,000 people, 200 in each of the five classes,” she says. “After the lectures, I head over to the Yoo soo-youn English Center, which I established, around 2.30 p.m. When I’m done there, I head back to my classes and lecture from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. I usually handle three classes of 200 people. My day officially ends when I get home around 11 p.m. I usually go to sleep at 1.30 a.m. in the morning after I check online posts and comments related to my lectures. I haven’t slept for more than five hours a day since I became an adult.”

She lectures to 1600 people a day.  That’s a lot but it could be more.

Sebastian Thrun taught an Artificial Intelligence course online for Stanford and had an enrollment between 60,000 and 160,000.  He is now trying to run a course for 500,000 students at a time.  I’m straying off topic here because I have no information on Thrun’s salary.

“Having done this, I can’t teach at Stanford again…It’s impossible…there’s a red pill and a blue pill and you can take the blue pill and go back your classroom and lecture your 20 students. But I’ve taken the red pill and seen Wonderland.”

Now teaching isn’t the same as learning.  I happily accept that these two teachers, with their huge numbers of students, work hard to offer as much help to their students as possible.    Still, working with a thousand or more students a day seems too impersonal to me.

So I will finish this post as I started: wondering if I should be working at a high per-student rate for a small number of students or a small per-student rate for many.

Great KOTESOL weekend (part one, probably)

October 17, 2011

I’ve been to a few kotesol conferences and felt that this would be my last one.  This one was great in so many ways that I definitely want to return next year.  I learned a lot during the conference, had a lot of ideas that were not directly connected to the seminars I was currently in and connected with a lot of old friends.  I almost always felt good about teaching; now I am recharged and excited about planning the next semester and trying new things.

First, Tom and Barbara real fantastic hosts.  I was wonderfully taken care of and would not be able to offer the same level of care at my own home to visitors.  Thanks so much T&B and if you visit Busan, I will help you find a nice hotel.

Alright, it’s Monday morning and I need to start a discussion of the seminars I attended before I forget.  The summary and critique below is partly to help my reader(s) and partly to organize my own thinking on the subjects.  I need to this summary of the weekend now because last year I kept pushing it to the next day and the next day… I never published.

On Saturday morning, the conference started out strong with a great talk by Heidi Nam.

Heidi Vande Voort Nam, who I think has been very involved with KOTESOL for years, discussed “six techniques for monitoring students’ comprehension in class.”  I already understood the problem but really enjoyed her suggestions on how to solve it.

After teaching some material, it is a waste of time to ask, “Is this okay?” or “Do you understand?” Even asking, “Do you have any questions?” can be a waste of time.  (I do like asking “Do you have any questions?” and feel that encouraging questions (and proper formation in English of questions) is important.  I continue to ask this question and thanking my interrogators in the hope of hearing more).

Nam offered a hierarchy of ways to check comprehension, starting with translations and building up to “cold calls”.

The six techniques were:

  1. Through translation.  Even if you don’t know the translation, if most people in class are saying the same word, it is probably right.
  2. Through TPR.  “On the faucet, the left side is hot and the right is cold.  Turn on the hot water.”
  3. Asking a Yes’No question or a discrimination question.  “Is this KOTESOL?”, “Is this JALT?”, “Is this KOTESOL or JALT?”
  4. a written check
  5. pair check
  6. cold calls.  After using some of the previous checks and the students are warmed up, one can “cold call”.  “Jae-won, where are we?”
I enjoyed a nonsense sentence Nam gave us both for the reasons she mentioned and as a grammar test.
“Hwilim Frolaff, the givnotcher, ikdarfluffed kloggishly through the sladran until wimdroff.”
You can show that you understand grammar without understanding anything about this sentence.  Nam considers this a problem, and I agree, but I also think it can help students know where to look for information and think about sentence construction.  Here are some ‘comprehension’ questions: 1) who is the sentence about?, 2) what is her occupation?, 3) how did she ikdarfluff?
    Better comprehension questions might ask “Wimdroff is: a) a locaiton, b) a season, c) a time of day, or d) an event.”  We know that somehow wimdroff is an endpoint, but this question tests our actual comprehension of the word.
A large fraction of her talk was on tpr and she offered a website:


Next, I went to Ken Morrison’s talk on “From politeness to participation” which was more a discussion of culture and sensitivity than on techniques for use in class.  It was not bad, and Ken was an interesting speaker, but I haven’t given it enough thought to describe quickly.  I have to say I probably won’t, either.  Again, there were points that I liked but it wasn’t what I expected and my note-taking suffered accordingly.  The link I gave above offers his presentation slides.

Next up, Krashen.  That’s for another post.

Oh, Koreabridge was active throughout the weekend, recording interviews with many speakers.

Seminar-style lectures

June 11, 2011

My title refers to what I think the difference between lectures and seminars were twenty years ago when I was a university student.  In lectures, the flow of information is one-way.  In seminars, there is more interaction.  In my day, the reason the two forms of teaching existed was a matter of economics.  One highly educated professor could speak to a hundred or more students in a lecture, then teaching assistants could interact with smaller groups to ensure the information was received.

To no one’s surprise, research has shown the interactive style of seminars is a far better way to teach students.  The big surprise is that university management has not yet caught on to how seminar-style teaching can be brought to larger classes.

Research Digest, a journal of The British Psychological Society, has an article that asks,”Is it time to rethink the way university lectures are delivered?

…the intervention students were led by Deslauriers and Schelew (both of whom have fairly limited teaching experience) and took part in a series of discussions in small groups, group tasks, quizzes on pre-class reading, clicker questions (each student answers questions using an electronic device that feeds their answers back to the teacher), and instructor feedback. There was no formal lecturing. The aim, according to the authors, was:

“…to have the students spend all their time in class engaged in deliberate practice at ‘thinking scientifically’ in the form of making and testing predictions and arguments about the relevant topics, solving problems, and critiquing their own reasoning and that of others.”The control group students had their usual lectures, covering the same material as the intervention students and they were given the same pre-class reading.

 two days before the test, students in both classes were emailed all the materials used by the intervention group: the clicker questions, group tasks and their solutions.

The ‘intervention’ group’s test scores averaged twice the control group’s.

Although I agree with the stated conclusions of the research and find them reasonable, I am not sure I agree that the test justifies the conclusions.

The researchers dismissed the idea that their findings could be explained by the Hawthorne Effect (i.e. a mere effect of novelty or of being observed). “While this experiment is introducing change in the student experience in one particular course (3 total hours per week) it provides little incremental novelty to their overall daily educational experience,” they said. 

I am only reading a digest or summary of the research, so I could be missing details, but it sounds to me like the novelty went way up in the week of the experiment. My physics classes -admittedly from 1986-’87, were well done with an excellent lecturer, but were far different from small-group discussions and ‘clicker-questions’.

I suspect the students were physics students and this a major (vs minor, required or elective) course.  My students take English as a required, non-major course, so I may be comparing apples and oranges here.  My students seem to enjoy my seminar-style lectures (no clicker-questions, but lots of other forms of interaction) for several classes or weeks.  Later in the semester, the novelty fades and some students need to be reminded that mine is a seminar class, where interaction is required and not a lecture class, where sleeping is possible.

When I look into lectures going on in other rooms in other majors, I often see a full class -100 or so students – with many chatting, sleeping and using their phones and tablets.  In this respect, I would say I have a smaller percentage who visibly lose interest.

I guess my conclusion is that lectures should be more interactive, and that I would love to outfit my students with ‘clickers’, but that the dramatic improvement would likely decrease somewhat with time.