What Makes a Good Teacher?

Have you ever been a student in a class and thought, “What is this teacher doing up there? Doesn’t he/she notice that no one knows what the heck is going on in his class?

Have you ever been assigned to teach a class you’re not so familiar or confident with?

Sometimes, it feels like the more I teach, the more I am unsure about how to teach. I say this with two specific conditions in mind:

  1. with new teachers who are provided relatively little support in terms of curriculum
  2. with subjects that teachers are unfamiliar or don’t feel confident teaching

And though this is really just from my own reflections from my teaching experience, I suspect it’s something teachers go through, a phase perhaps, during their teaching career.

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What Do You Want Kids To Do With Technology?

from Bill Ferriter
from Bill Ferriter

This is such a great chart (from Bill Ferriter) because it’s so easy to get distracted with technology, particularly when I’m trying to incorporate it into my lessons for my students. The possibilities are endless.

“Oh oh oh, I want my students to write blogs… and then they can post it on the class’ Facebook group… and then they can make Youtube videos… and they can comment on each others’ videos… and then they can…”

As with any lesson or activity, it’s important that as instructors, we know what we want students to learn and how it fits in with our greater beliefs and approaches on teaching. Basically, we shouldn’t be incorporating technology for the sake of incorporating technology. It should be applied in the classroom in a meaningful way that fits well with the rest of the lesson and the overall approach to the class.

In planning for the coming semester, I’ve be poking at new ideas for teaching listening and speaking. My main goals for what I want students to get out of this class is get as much self-managed speaking/listening practice as possible, to practice speaking as communication, and to be able to create their own environment where they can continue to listen/speak in English after my class ends (since there is no immediate English-speaking environment in Taiwan).

When “Taiwan Isn’t a Country” Comes Up in my English Class

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I wrote this post as sort of a reflection on how I’ve approached the issue of how I reference the Taiwanese students in my English language class at SFSU as well as how I confront students who disagree with my policy.  This was also written as a comment/extension of a blog post I had read called “The Problem of Taiwan: What is Taiwan?”

Since I’m moving to Taiwan to teach English, this most likely won’t be an issue for me anymore in Taiwan. But it certainly was an issue teaching in an ESL class in San Francisco, where students came from all sorts of different countries, but the majority from Mainland China or Saudi Arabia.

I have taught English in San Francisco to international university students for almost two years now. Many of them come from China. Few come from Taiwan. I would say the general ratio of Mainland Chinese and Taiwanese is usually 8 to 1. Our school policy is that we refer to Taiwan independently from China. This comes up on the class roster, which shows which country students are from. This also comes up in class, when we as questions like “What is something in your country that is different from America?” Both Mainland Chinese and Taiwanese students catch on quick to this language – I haven’t had one semester (and there hasn’t been another co-worker who hasn’t experienced a classroom situation) where a Mainland Chinese student hasn’t raised the issue that Taiwan isn’t a country.

As a teacher, I want to promote a safe, comfortable learning environment for students. But it is difficult when some students are told that they can’t be who they want to be. Therefore, my personal policy and the way that I’ve explained to my students why I refer to Taiwan independently from China is that everyone in class can choose to be whatever they want to be. They can be Chinese or Taiwanese. They can be referred to as Qianyu or Claire. And I think it’s important that the Taiwanese students have a choice in whether or not they want to be referred to as Taiwanese or Chinese. It definitely isn’t up to the other Mainland Chinese students to mandate how the Taiwanese students want to be referred to.

To help them understand better, I use myself as an example. I ask them, “What am I?” Some will say Chinese. Some will say Asian. Some will say American. And I usually shrug and say, “Well I decide. I can be called American. I can be called Taiwanese American. I can be called Asian American. I can decide for myself.”

While I suspect that most of the Mainland Chinese students don’t buy it and just follow my rules because of my authority as the teacher, I still think it’s important for me to set that standard in class, to support the students that are often silenced because they’re the single Taiwanese student in class.

Implications for Teaching ESL from my Parents’s Acquisition of Computer Literacy Skills

Before 2010, when I was still an undergraduate in college, my parents were Internet illiterate – meaning they did not know how to “read” or navigate the Internet and all it’s complex systems. Even before I went to college, I remember working with my parents on the idea of “double-clicking” and “right-clicking”, “cut” and “paste”, and how to listen to music on their computer. At first, my parents really didn’t see the need to know how the Internet works. Yet little by little, as more of their everyday lives began requiring the use of Internet, my parents came to us with questions about how to use it and we taught them. While my sister often found these teaching moments too frustrating, I found it to be completely relevant to my teaching – because my parents are English language learners and because this has to do with the acquisition of literacy in general. First, I want to give a general timeline of my parent’s acquisition in computer-related literacy. This information about my parents is purely from personal experience and memory starting from when I was a child.

  1. From my elementary school years
    • My parents learning to teach me how to type up homework assignments and school projects on Word.
    • Installing computer games like “Reader Rabbit” and “Mavis Beacon” (haha, anyone remember that??) for my sister and I.
    • Learning to type in English.
  2. From my middle school years –
    • Rise of internet.
    • Parents learning how to deal with computer viruses.
  3. From my high school years –
    • More virus problems.
    • Switch to DSL connection.
    • Parents learning how to upgrade to new systems of Windows, new kinds of monitors, etc. Learning some basic Internet skills like Google, Google maps.
    • Established my parents first email account.
    • Parents learning to type in Chinese.
    • Parents learning to use a printer with scanner, copier, fax.
    • Parents learning to use a digital camera in conjunction with our computer/printer.
  4. From my college years –
    • Bought our first laptop for college.
    • Parents learning how to use Internet to keep in contact with me in college.
    • Parents learning how to learn more about my college education by using websites/programs that the college uses.
    • Parents learning how to use “attachments” in their email.
    • Parents learning what spam is and how to recognize it.
  5. From graduate school years –
    • Parents using Internet more for communication purposes (instant messaging, skype), for entertainment purposes (blogs, newspapers, youtube, movies, dramas, music), for finance (shopping, credit cards, etc), and information (google maps, google search, health info)
    • Switched to mainly using laptops at home.
    • Left Internet Explorer behind. Hello Google Chrome.
    • New way of family bonding – sharing Youtube videos, dramas, or just staring at our own individual computer screens.
    •  First experience with smart phone with 4G internet

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“Guilt Free” English Language Teaching

In another recent publication, Swain, Kirkpatrick, and Cummins (2011) provide guidelines on how to use local languages ‘guilt free’ in an English language class. Among other things, they state that using the local languages help in making the content comprehensible because it allows teachers/students to: a) Build from the known, b) Provide translations for difficult grammar and vocabulary, and c) Use cross-linguistic comparisons. Once again, they provide a number of examples of how this can be done successfully in actual classes.

– from Ahmar Mahboob, contributor for NNEST Interest Section blog

When I tell my students that I can speak both English and Chinese fluently, though I consider English my first language and main language of competency, they always say that I’m lucky. I’m very grateful for having had the background, both in school and at home, to be able to maintain and foster bilingual development in both Chinese and English.

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Visiting Old Teachers

hs graduation 06

Today, I was lucky enough to visit two of my high school English teachers – teachers who not only made English an interesting subject to learn but also inspired me to go into teaching myself. These are teachers who do so much more than the required minimum – they stay hours afterschool to help students, they are involved in coordinating extracurriculars that facilitate student growth, they genuinely care about student learning, and they are constantly learning/reflecting upon their teaching to adapt and become better teachers for the students.

These teachers are my role models. Just a few weeks ago, I thought about one of the teachers in reflecting on my own teaching, specifically dealing with disciplinary issues. I remember having a rebellious period in my high school years (I know, hard to believe huh?) and I still remember exactly how this teacher confronted me about it – genuine, direct, and human. It’s in these moments that have stuck with me and shaped who I am and what I believe in as a teacher. Thanks Mr. & Mrs. Moreau!