Blogs and Teaching ESL

1. I usually enjoy changes, but I still miss Google Reader. I use Feedly now but get disgruntled with it for several practical reasons.

It doesn’t give the date of a blog post, only the number of days since it’s been posted. Who on earth keeps track of how many days have passed since any number of events?

It doesn’t say how many comments any post has, so I can’t quickly tell how much interaction it inspired.

It doesn’t say how many Feedly subscribers a blog has.

Any practical advice about this acute First-World problem?

2. This week someone emailed me for advice for a beginner ESL teacher. It was fun to think about what my philosophy of teaching is, as I’m not ‘trained’ or ‘schooled.’ I sometimes teach with more passion than knowledge but sometimes when the day is long and the energy is short, the knowledge outweighs the passion. This is not a good thing in the classroom.

So this is most of what I wrote:
To someone just beginning in ESL, I advise them to be comfortable with naming and referring to parts of speech. Know what the difference is between adverbs and adjectives, what past perfect continuous tense, comparatives and superlatives, and a direct object is. This is esp useful if your students have studied at another language school and use those terms.
Most of all, and this is impossible to over-emphasize: never love the lesson more than the student. If you lose the student, the lesson is lost. Walk beside them (figuratively and literally). Look them in the eyes. Read their body language. When you don’t share a common language, you need to tune into the unspoken words they say. If they’re uncomfortable with something but can’t tell you, they won’t learn. Make sure you take them with you at every point in the lesson.
They need to feel safe with you, and need to hear that you believe in them. Correct gently and praise generously. Language usage is very emotional; it’s not only grammar and syntax. Give them reasons to be GLAD to study with you, so they don’t dread it or fear English.  Be excited and enthusiastic. Vary the tones of your voice. Move around the classroom. Touch their shoulders sometimes.  Use objects and photos as much as possible.
These approaches work well for me. Every student learns differently. Every teacher teaches differently. It’s the teacher’s job to meet the student where they are and provide for their learning style they best they can. This is what makes every lesson an adventure!

Small Packages

This is an effort to return to the short-lived Thing One and Thing Two posts.

1. Last night my students and their mom invited me to meet them for pizza. I taught the brother and sister when they were 5 and 7, and now they’re 9 and 11 and don’t come for English classes, but they all, the mom and dad and grandma and children, still treat me like family whenever we meet.  I stomped through blowing snow to the pizzeria to eat yummy pizza and drink Coke and listen to rambling, delightful, brave English.

“I remember when we read Amelia Bedelia! And the photo of me with ice cream all over my mouth. I remember…”

“Did you hear the joke about the Russian and Ukrainian?”

“The pessimist said it was dark, and the optimist said it was light and the realist said it was a tunnel…”

“I dream of living in America even more than England, and making a new life there.”

Hours later, outside in the cold again, after all the laughs and the hugs and well-wishing, they brushed the snow off their car windows but the youngest one wrote in the inch of snow over the hood: “I ♥ ANITA.”  awwwww

2. Oranges are in season somewhere and even though they consume how-ever many food miles to get here, what I ate the other morning made think that an orange is proof that God exists.  It comes in biodegradable wrapping and perfect portion control size (except I ate two) , and bite-sized segments. I revel in its refreshment and all the sunshine that’s packed in it.The flavor is comparable to nothing else and when an orange is fresh and cold, it’s better than chocolate.


Words, People, and Chocolate

1. I was showing two women photos of Ireland and my family. Our little crowd of six offspring, several spouses, and 11 children usually blows students out of the water. “When there are so many of you, do you sometimes get angry and not talk to each other?”

“Never,” I said. “Sometimes there are problems and misunderstandings. But I’ve never experienced anyone saying they’ll never talk to me again.”

“My brother said he’ll never talk to me again. What I said to him wasn’t so bad, but it was 17 yrs ago, and we haven’t talked since then.”

“By our nature, we are selfish and unpleasant, but Jesus changes our hearts so we can love each other. Does that make sense?”

“It sounds nice.”

This. This is why I love teaching English.

2. I was playing Taboo with my teens and describing “dentist.” I couldn’t say teeth or mouth so I said, “This is the person you go to when you have a problem with your face.”


3. This is a stressful time, with major surgery on my near horizon. Lolita knew what would make me cheer, and gave me a Lindt bar that says “Hello. My name is Crunchy Nougat Chocolate Bar. Nice to sweet you!” I’m nibbling the chocolate slowly, but I’m not throwing that wrapper away.

Tigers’ Shining Eyes

1. I have this group of pre-teens and in the teachers’ room we call them our tiger class. Last Thurs. they completely wore me out with their mischief and naughtiness, and I was quite numb for several hours after the lesson and felt like a colossal failure.

But yesterday they had completely transformed. They focused on their work and came up with amazing things. Their eyes sparkled with energy and intelligence. They acted out and guessed vocabulary with hilarity and creativity. Crazy whirling arms to show a helicopter’s blades, and fierce fangs to show Dracula.   I sat at the side of the room and laughed and laughed with them. Had they transformed, or had I? Maybe both. I only know I fell in love again, with all six of them.  Their shining eyes completely charm me. And they are still tigers because they’re so beautiful and alive.

2. Speaking of shining eyes, I recommend musician and motivational speaker Benjamin Zander’s speech at TED here. I’m not musical enough to follow some of the technical chord progressions he explains. But in general he’s talking about music and passion and I interpret what he says from a teacher’s standpoint. His bounding energy and way of thinking outside the box makes me feel that no problem is insurmountable.

“I have a definition of success. For me, it’s very simple. It’s not about wealth and fame and power. It’s about how many shining eyes I have around me.” –Benjamin Zander


Homework and a Psalm

1. Teachers need weekends to refocus and decompress. Until I started teaching, I never realized how important a weekend is. Especially Saturday. And this Saturday was especially lovely. In the morning, I had two private English lessons that went well. Then Ola called to say she couldn’t come to my place right away, but could she bring food now anyhow?

What sane person is going to refuse food brought to her?

So I ate her pumpkin soup and rested alone until Ola and her son came back. Then while he did his homework at the kitchen table, I helped her with her advanced grammar homework for university. Inversion and the passive voice. Fun, fun. It was a perfectly relaxing afternoon: drink tea, sit beside a friend, do grammar, and eat food she brought, plus brownies. Plus there was an extra hour with the time change. Yay!

2. During the week, reading Psalm 136, it occurred to me that it would fun to write a modern-day psalm like that. So this morning in my youth Sunday school class, we wrote one. First, we read Psalm 136 and talked about how it can sound boring and like a meaningless chant, OR it can be a tool used in poetry to emphasis something wonderful that we don’t want to forget. Probably no other line in the Bible is repeated quite like this, so it must mean that it’s worth remembering.

Then we collaborated and made our own and it was fun and true and beautiful. Here it is:

1. We saw a beautiful sunrise, for His mercy endures forever.

2. We played football and won, for His mercy endures forever.

3. We walked in the forest and saw beautiful colors, for His mercy endures forever.

4. We have hands to work and be creative with, for His mercy endures forever.

5. We studied hard and learned alot, for His mercy endures forever.

6. We had good times with friends and family, for His mercy endures forever.

7. We enjoyed wonderful warm sunshine, for His mercy endures forever.

8. We read good books and watched good films, for His mercy endures forever.

9. We ate delicious food, pizza, oatmeal, cakes, for His mercy endures forever.

10. We ran in the field, for His mercy endures forever.

11.We could sleep one hour longer, for His mercy endures forever.


Good artists, I’m told, know what  perspective is. I don’t know much about horizons and lines doing the right things on a page, even though I had my first acrylics painting lesson recently and found it completely exhilarating. But back to perspective: I know that everyone needs it, more than only graphic artists.

Last week one day, spring finally, finally arriving, I happily wore my new shoes that Michelle had talked me into buying. It was liberation to put away the winter boots and wear something light. As I walked down the sidewalk, I noticed a woman scowling at my shoes. My cute, brown shoes didn’t deserve a look like that. In a flash, I decided that she was narrowing her eyes at them because she was jealous, not because she thought they were ugly or unseasonable. Perspective.

The next day a mother interrupted my English lesson by knocking and handing a huge orange to us, her two children and me. A single orange, in the middle of doing a worksheet.   I found a knife to peel it, and the children and I ate the segments, dripping and squirting, between questions about spring. I remembered the stories of women who got one orange for Christmas when they were girls in communist Poland. They savored just the fragrance for several days before peeling it.

Perspective. Contrast. Color.

An artist needs an accurate way of seeing things. Not only for a project on a canvas, but for the whole of life.

I’m learning, slowly. That crooked lines and dark colors aren’t the whole picture. That the person next to me sees something differently from me because of where she’s standing, not because her eyes don’t work.  That failure and coloring outside the lines is not fatal but a sign of life.

Back in the Swing

Jet lag is a bear.

Coming east is much harder for me than going west. My mornings this week looked like this:

Get out of bed. Comb my hair. Go back to bed.

Get out of bed. Wash my face. Go back to bed.

Get out of bed and make coffee.

Wrap myself in my furry red blanket to drink coffee and slowly let the morning seep into my limbs.

There’s this deep, unsettled ball in my stomach that hates getting up at my inner clock’s 3:00 am. And when I walk to school, I wish for good old Irish wellies that keep the water from the toes because the snow is melting into small lakes and my boots aren’t water-proof.

But that’s all I can complain about these days, so that’s precious little hardship.

My two-month sojourn in the US  showed me how rich and good and beautiful life is at the same time that it’s yucky and hurtful and imperfect for everyone. I met lots of people.  Good people. Relatives and deep friends. They laughed and cried with me, poured love and grace on me, and sent me away feeling rich and refreshed beyond words.

Now I walk Polish streets and hear Polish conversations and teach English to Polish students. It’s another world in many ways except that people are people, and I find love and beauty and whimsy in them.

And maybe tomorrow morning won’t be quite as grim.


No Beauty?

“Why do Christians celebrate Christmas?” This was the conversation question.

“It started when Saint Nicholas started giving gifts to children. I’m an atheist, so that’s how I think Christmas began.”

“I’m a romantic, and want to have a lovely wedding in a church someday, so I can’t be an atheist, but I think those stories in the Bible are myths like Zeus.”

I listened because this was about practicing English, but then I said that I choose to believe that the stories are true, and when you read the stories about Jesus, you can see that He was such a beautiful person, the way He talked with people and loved them.

Then the conversation went to the funny ways I use words. I say a dog is ‘handsome’ and I say Jesus is ‘beautiful.’ “You can’t do this in our language!”

We laughed, and they left after I hugged them at the door, wishing them lovely Christmases. But it’s true: Jesus is a beautiful person, even if Isaiah said there was nothing beautiful or majestic about His appearance, nothing to attract us to Him. I wish I could have heard how Jesus read Isaiah’s words about the blind seeing and the captives given liberty. I wish I could have seen Him talking with children and the broken woman accused of adultery.

I’m thinking these days of how earthy Jesus was, how dust and bad smells and conflict was part of His world, and He didn’t run away from it, or think Himself above it.

Our grime and fracturedness is nothing new to Him. It was for the broken and shattered ones that He came, and I think that’s beautiful beyond words.

A related post: My Commander in Chief


A Happy List

What made me smile this week:

1. buying hostess gifts for my trip to the US later this month

2. a child’s sled piled with snowballs

3. the mingled smells of coffee and tangerines

4.discovering delightful blogs to subscribe to: a foodie one, and a bookish one

5. red berries on a tree, powdered with snow

6. magnanimous love sent in a huge box all the way from America

7. picking greenery and putting it around the kitchen (greenery is magic because it arranges itself!)

8. a peppermint chocolate latte with all the trimmings made by Carolyn just for me

9. a successful decorating project (travel, paper, and fonts)

10. beautiful students beaming because they could make this construction: These boots are black.

11. knowing intimacy with the Almighty never changes because of circumstances

12. a long video Skype call with a friend who says it how it is with finesse and incredible largeness of soul

13. having time to teach two girls about pentangles, and seeing their fun with it

More than English

“What do you do that all these people want you to be their private English teacher?” she asked me.

I don’t know. I just love them. I wish I could teach better, but mostly I love them.

She nodded. “And they feel your love and want to come back. I had a teacher like that once too.”

Walking down the street later,  it occurred to me that that I’d heard those words before.

It was when I asked Urie Sharp how he got good sound of choirs when the members hadn’t sung much before.

“Well, it works like it did when I taught school. I discovered that students will do anything for you when they know you love them.” And it was true, because I was in his choir, and we knew he loved us.

So today I taught useful words like butterfly and flamingo and factory and our. But what I value more was that we laughed together and met each other’s eyes and when each class left, little crumbs of my heart trailed out the door with them.