More on testing

June 9, 2011

Well, the trauma and drama continue in during the speaking test. I feel like a monster. So many of the students are shaking so hard they can barely speak.  I had tried to make it easier by having students give presentations in class, and usually the kids don’t act frightened when they see me in the hall, or even in the E-mart. They often see me first at the store and come up to me to try to talk.  But this week I turned into a major ogre.

I am on some internet discussion boards and of course whenever teachers get together they talk about teaching, and one of the topics is the emphasis on testing. Not just here in Korea, but in America as well.  I will concede that presentation skills are good to have. To be able to communicate in front of people is useful. But taking multiple choice tests? Not so much.  We are teaching our students how to succeed in taking tests, not how to succeed in life.  As a foreign teacher, I have a lot more freedom in my class, but twice a semester, I have to teach my students something I don’t agree with.  I still am not sure the best way to assess so many people in a way that is fair and showcases the students abilities, but I’m working on it.

Meanwhile, even most Koreans agree that the Su-neung, or University Entrance Exam is not the most optimal system.

And they have some very good suggestions from making entrance exams and school less competitive to making university  easier to enter but harder to graduate.  I also agree with the guy who said high school should focus more on helping students find what they really want to do.

Education and learning should be fun, not something that makes you cry.


But teacher… I did prepare…. honest.

June 8, 2011

This week is the speaking test for my students. Last year the students memorized a script, but this year I talked them into just asking questions. So I gave the students 10 questions to prepare for , and one question that I ask that they did not get ahead of time.  The students pick a number that corresponds to the questions, and I ask them 4, and the last question is the ‘surprise’.

So far I’ve  had two nervous breakdowns, and 4 complaints.  I also had one student I hadn’t noticed much before because she was quiet and didn’t speak out a lot,do excellent, and a student in my lowest level class surprised me.

Personally I don’t like tests. I agree that they don’t always show the potential or abilities of students. They can be helpful for putting students in a leveled class and for assessment of progress, but they shouldn’t be the only thing students are judged on. The Korean educational system is very test dependent and the stakes are very high. Traditionally the English tests were on reading and listening, but they Korean government is revising The Test— and it is The Test here, to include speaking and writing.  Students get one shot to do well, and it doesn’t matter how well they did in class or how hardworking or smart they are. This test is the only thing that matters.

Which is why even though my little test is fairly low stakes, students are very sensitive and stressed out about it. From middle school till high school graduation, their lives revolve around testing.

My co-teacher and I were talking about it at lunch. We both agree that the emphasis on testing is not beneficial, but we were unable to come up with a solution in the 45 minutes we have to eat.  It is impossible to untangle the Gordian knot that is the Korean testing culture without also untangling quite a bit of culture and history.

When King Sejong commissioned the creation of Hangul, he did a very radical thing. He made literacy something attainable for everyone, not just the nobles.  At the time, there was a test for government service, and it opened up the bureaucracy to anyone who had talent and brains. It was a good system and allowed a little bit of upward mobility.  Even now, a lot of Koreans believe the test is a way to keep university entrance open and honest. Yes rich kids get the tutors and academies, and the academies are generating their own controversies, but in the end, having The Test is, in theory, a good way for students from poorer families to get into the best universities and gain upward mobility.  In theory.

So I am still trying to figure out how to change a system that isn’t my own, that I see causing a lot of pain for my students, and that I can see the justification for.  And lets face it, right now the US system isn’t actually working very well either.

I think though that education here and in America really does need to be reformed, and we need a better way of assessing students to truly reflect their abilities and their strengths.

If you want to know more about King Sejong, a personal hero of mine:

I mean the man even has a UNESCO award in education named after him

The future is now

May 31, 2011

Or why I don’t think the internet will replace me anytime soon.

Steven Pearlstein from the Washington Post has an article about new websites and YouTube videos that are “transforming” education. His premise is that with the new technology, teachers will no longer be needed in the numbers they are now, and students will be able to learn from new and exciting content on the internet and shared through multi media platforms.

And I agree that there is a lot of new and exciting content on the internet (and there has been for quite a few years) and yes a lot of the big publishers of educational materials are a bit behind the times. Or should I say the state and national educational standards tests are a bit behind the times.

I do believe in standards, although I think high stakes testing is a bad idea all around. However I will say that this article reads like another bash on teachers.  Another we don’t need no education! Leave those kids alone!  But I think one of the biggest problems with education right now is that there are not enough teachers. Classes have 40 students, and that is just too much to really teach each one individually.

That is why some of the online  content can help.  But school and education isn’t about in-putting information and having students out- putting the information.  Those were always the worst classes.  Real teaching is more about the relationship teachers, students and the school have with the information or skills that are being taught.

One of the problems with just putting kids in front of the computer (or TV) is that most learning isn’t that passive.  And there are a lot of subjects that students need to learn, even if they don’t have the internal motivation for it. (and how many teenagers do you know that have a lot of internal motivation?)  Teachers spend a lot of time and effort in finding appropriate materials and appropriate methods of teaching. And appropriate is the key word here.  A TV show or YouTube channel cannot tailor materials to a class, or to help a student.

One of the things a teacher learns very quickly is that each class has its own personality. What approach works for one class will seldom work for another. What helps one student will fall flat for another.  Yes websites and channels and multi media can make the material seem more interesting and relevant.  They can bring some color and music into the classroom. But they can’t interact with the student. (and Skype tutoring or video chat can, but again you need a teacher for that – at least until our robot overlords make their move)   And that is where real learning often takes place, within the interactions that students have with their teacher and with other students.

And with other students is another reason a youtube channel will not replace a school. Schools teach more than just the subjects the students take.  In school we learn how to get along with people who think differently than we do.  Schools teach how to get along with others, how to follow directions, how to socialize. Even if you were a nerd in high school, you probably still had friends, and learned the invaluable skill of how to deal with jerks – a skill that I could argue is more important than learning how to use the past perfect progressive tense.  And yes I am an English teacher and yes I do teach the past perfect progressive tense.  However dealing with jerks is something I do much more often than use past perfect progressive.

Although most of the students in school aren’t jerks, many of them have different ideas, beliefs, skills, and talents. That is one of the reasons I use a lot of collaborative learning and group work in my classes. It is a way for my students to not only to learn from me but from each other. An opportunity lost if students only learn from a video or website.

I do think that education in America, and in Korea needs some serious reform. Students are often treated like products produced in a factory instead of individuals that have individual needs. In America students with ADD and ADHD are often misdiagnosed and students without these diseases are often medicated just to keep them quiet. We don’t have enough physical activity in the day. Many teachers are stuck teaching to a test that has no relevance to real life.  Teachers are overwhelmed with the new fads that come from consultants that are touting the newest bestest thing, administrations that have their own pressures that put them in an adversarial position with teachers, schools that are old and decaying, out of date technology, and parents who are disinterested or second guessing everything the teacher does in the classroom.  Adding technology can help, but in the end, investing in teachers and students is something we all need to do. More teachers, better books, and classrooms that allow students to express their creativity. Most students want to learn, and most teachers want to teach.   But we do need education, and we do need schools.

On Certification

April 25, 2011

A guy named David Deubelbeis has a very good blog: and I agree with a lot of what he has to say about teaching, and he has some very good ideas for the classroom. I really liked his blog, but I’m going to have to disagree with something he said.  I feel  a little bad, because he does have more credentials than I do. He is a Master’s of Education with a TEFL emphasis. So he has a lot more certification than I do.  ( I”m still in the application, waiting and hoping stage of my Master’s degree)

However – I started reading on his poetry class idea post, and then because I liked it, I thought I’d read more from the blog, and got to this post: Hype that’s not my Type  and he talks about the new paradigm in teaching and how these are just hype and not part of the real teaching world.

The first myth he busts is that the world is changing so fast – and I agree with him “Education still is about people, communication, knowing, doing.”  I’m thinking – right on

Then he talks about testing, and I’m thinking – preach it brother  – testing itself isn’t evil, but it is important how they are used, and should be used as a disposable assessment of the learning process. Yeah.

Then he talks about information vs. content and says something really true: “No matter how quick you can google something or how perfect the retrieval of information. Students still need stuff in their head to mix and churn and access in the quiet of their mind.” and I’m reading this saying YES! I agree totally. Awesome

THEN he says: “The onus should always be on what a person can do, not what they did in a course . Credentials by default create barriers to real learning and to real discourse. They divide and create cliques”

And here I part ways.

Because I do think credentials are important, they do divide those that want to be professional from those that don’t care enough to do 100 hours online or take a month-long CELTA course, or even get a degree. Yes there are financial barriers, but I would say instead of getting rid of credentials, why don’t we make getting them more accessible to talented people through scholarships or grants?

ESL as a  profession, especially in Asia, have a serious problem with professionalism. Right now the demand for native English speakers is huge. In Korea, the hagwon or private academy business is booming, despite the governments efforts to put native English teachers in the public schools. Many of the teachers hagwons employ are not really teachers. They don’t have any qualifications other than they were born in a country that has English as a first language.  They are not professional (although many of the hagwon teachers I’ve met have been, and they really try to teach their students, and work very hard to learn more and learn how to teach)   My problem is that just because you can speak a language, and even more importantly speak correctly, doesn’t mean you can explain the language, the rules, or explain how your students can get their message out.

I am a teacher. It is my profession, and I’m very proud of it.  And it may be elitist of me, but I don’t think just anyone off the streets of America (or Canada, England, New Zealand, Australia) can walk into a classroom and teach English. And I don’t blame any school for asking for some proof that a teacher has the basics – and that proof is credentials.  I don’t think getting credentials, or a degree or going to a seminar or a training session is the end. No, these are just the beginning.

I ask a lot from my students. I expect them to do the best they can in the classroom. I think it is only fair that I do the best I can in the classroom, and that includes continuing my education, reading educational blogs, going to seminars, going to training weekends, and yes getting more and better credentials.

Other than this one paragraph that stuck in my craw, Mr. Deubelbeis’s blog is very good.

Keeping it cool -2 (another post on classroom management)

April 13, 2011

I like to think of myself as a good teacher. I try to stay cool all the time, and be the “cool” teacher. As I’ve said before, I’m not really the “fun” teacher, in that I don’t give candy and I don’t play games very often. I’m also pretty strict on a few things. I only have 3 rules, but I don’t let my students break them. I did when I first introduced the rules had them agree to them. I went around and said “Do you agree?” and made the students say “yes” — this was mostly to have it in their minds that they did indeed agree, and therefore own the rules. (they are 1. Everyone works together 2. Everyone does a presentation 3. Respect each other) –

When I first started I had a lot more rules, but this is a distillation of the things I find important in the classroom.  I understand that Korea is “testing” culture, and a lot of emphasis is placed on doing well on the tests, but this is not really that good for language acquisition. To be able to speak a language you need a lot of practice, and studying by yourself, or reading from a book, or preparing for the test, are not going to give you the practice you need. That’s why I put my students in groups, and I want everyone in the group to do the work. I’ve learned that if I don’t keep my eyes and ears open, the students usually want to give the worksheet or project to the “best” student and have her do it all. This isn’t good for anyone. So everyone works together and I go around all the groups and help them, talk to them a bit and nag them a little to work – everyone needs to work.  If you start at the beginning of the semester with this, it usually become routine by the 2nd month, and you don’t have to nag so much.

One of my personal pet peeves in the classroom is other groups talking when one of the students is giving a presentation.  It makes it more difficult for me to hear the student and I think it is disrespectful. Therefore my “Respect each other” rule.  To enforce this rule I usually have three techniques. The first is just moving to where the group doing the talking is, physical proximity works amazingly well. The other technique is to ask the offending students “What did she just say?”  since they weren’t listening, they usually can’t answer, so I make them ask the presenter to repeat what she said. This is quite embarrassing and I usually don’t have to repeat this technique often. – I actually ask this question randomly throughout presentations just to a) keep them on their toes and b) help them practice listening to people who are not professional voice actors speaking.   The other technique is to ask the student if she is being respectful. I then ask her to read “rule 3” — I don’t usually need to use this very often.

I also don’t like it when the students are talking when I’m talking.  I usually have a call/response routine to get their attention (this year is Queen’s “Another one bites the dust”  – I say Hey, hey, hey… and they say “another one bites the dust” and that is the signal for them to be quiet so I can give more information or change the activity.  If they keep talking, sometimes I will snap “I’m talking here!” but mostly I’ve learned to marry “teacher look” with silence.  I will start the sentence, quit in the middle and just look at everyone, with a not really angry face, but I’m not smiling either. This works. This works really well.  And this is where my age is a definite advantage, because you do need a bit  of gravitas to pull it off.

I admit I have gotten angry with a class, and I’ve even yelled a few times, but it doesn’t work. Ever. And it usually makes things worse in the long run, because no one likes an angry teacher.  To prevent this, I’ve learned – through much trial and error and falling down and picking my self back up — that prevention is worth a metric ton of cure.  One of the ways to prevent students from getting under your skin is to know what you really need from the class, and what you really don’t care about that much.  If you are clear in your mind what is important to you, then you can be clear to the students.

I believe that most, if not all students, want positive attention. They will take negative attention, but it is second best and not really that desirable.  If you are very clear about what you want.. for me it working together, making a clear presentation, and being quiet when other’s are speaking, then your students know where you stand. Let the other stuff go.  I won’t get too strict if they speak a bit in Korean, and I allow my class to get a bit noisy, and I allow them to have a lot of leeway in their answers, and even reward creativity over correctness.  I never correct the students in class and usually just have a “mistakes were made” class occasionally if there is a huge mistake that a lot of students make. Communication is in the class title and as long as the mistake doesn’t interfere with meaning or communication, I let it pass.

I also believe in the power of praise.  I make them earn it, but I also make sure I let them know when they do something right or they do well in class.  At the end of class, I let them know how well they did following the rules, and if they did presentations really well or listening really well, I give them a round of applause. If they need work on following one of the rules I let them know, but I don’t put them down, I just tell them “You can do better” – and I expect them to.  I also am very clear on what they need to do to “win”. I think this is especially important in the lower level classes. They already don’t have a lot of confidence with the language, and by giving them opportunities to succeed they usually do better than expected.  By the 2nd or 3rd  month, I don’t really have many problems, mostly because I’ve been very consistent with letting them know when I want better and when they are doing well.

I think consistency is a big key. That and routines. Of course, if your class is too routine, students will fall asleep, but it is good to go in, and the students know what to expect, what is expected of them, and the basic schedule of the class. ( I come in, say good morning or good afternoon, have them repeat the rules and write them on the board, go over the worksheet or project, and then either put them in pairs or groups, have them work on the worksheet or project until time is up, give them praise for work, have them volunteer for presentation-  and yes they do volunteer because I get really excited and happy when they do, and I still make them do it when they don’t – we then do presentations, and then we go over what I really liked about their class and all the things they did well. We then applaud ourselves and as the bell rings I tell them good-bye.

Actually I don’t say good bye anymore. When I was a kid, my dad and I had a routine he’d say  “see you later, alligator” and I’d say “in a while, crocodile”  – now I say to my students “see you later alligator” and they say “in a while, crocodile”   I didn’t realize it, but it is from an old song from Bill Haley &  The Comets

It is a fun little song, isn’t it?


keeping it cool: Classroom management in the ESL classroom

March 26, 2011

Right now is having a blog carnival on classroom management.  It comes at a good time because the semester is just starting, and the first few weeks are really, really, really, important for classroom management.

I teach 1st years (high Schools in Korea have only 3 years and they are 1st, 2nd, and 3rd year – they like to keep it simple here)  My students are just out of middle school, and they are still getting their balance for high school.  Some of them have had a foreign teacher, and some of them haven’t.  They have had to deal with different styles and different emphasis from their foreign teachers or this is the first time they have had one.

Many foreign teachers play games, or have the Korean c0-teacher translate everything. I do not do these things. I also do not give out candy to keep my students in line.  And yes these first few weeks I will be a lot more strict and “mean” than I will be later in the year. Mostly because it is a hell of a lot easier to lighten up towards the end of the year, than to try to get them in line at the end of the year.

I don’t think I’m a very strict teacher, but I do have rules, they are necessary if you want to get anything accomplished.  Ted at Ted’s TEFL teacher training blog ( ) has some good ideas, and he really talks about keeping your cool, and having clear rules.  Mine are the big three:  1. Everyone works together  2. Everyone does presentation 3. Respect each other.   When I come in the classroom the first thing I do, after I say good morning or good afternoon, is have the students repeat the rules to me, and then I put them up on the  board.  If students aren’t working, I go up to them and ask: “What is Rule 1?” or if they are talking when other people are doing their presentation I will go up to them and ask: “What is Rule 2?”  — I really don’t like it when students talk during presentations, so I often ask them to repeat what the student giving the presentation says.  (it is also good to help them with their listening skills).

But having all the discipline in the world won’t help you if you don’t have a good lesson plan, come to class unprepared or un-engaged, or (here in Korea a distressingly common problem) hung over.  If you don’t care, why should your students?  Also your lessons have to be relevant and actually have something they can use.  You also can’t expect  40 teenagers to just sit there and pay attention while you drone on. Seriously you have to mix it up.

Jenna Makowski has a post up on managing teens: and she talks a lot about varying the activities.  I agree with her in principle.  She talks in the blog post about playing games. Normally I do use games much in the classroom, although my probably copyright infringed version of “Clue” works really well.  My biggest reason for not using board games is that in a class with 16-30 students a board game is just not practical at all. The dice get thrown around and lost, the students either have to wait to long or if you put them in different groups keeping your eye on everyone is too difficult. So I modified “Clue” so students are in teams and each team has to ask the other teams for the cards they want, then I allow all the teams to “guess” who murdered “Mr. Body” and the team that has the most  correct guesses wins.  It sounds complicated, but it does work.    Ms. Makowski has some great ideas for grammar and vocabulary games.  I would add a modified “Taboo” for vocabulary – have the students have to give a definition of each word, and their team has to guess the word, and the team that gets the most words correct WINS!

Overall Korean students are very good. They usually don’t misbehave in the classroom much.  The biggest problem is sleeping in the classroom. (at least it doesn’t disturb the other students as long as they don’t snore) –  1/2 of my students don’t want to be in the English classroom at all. Still I’ve found that if I can give the students activities they are able to do, and the tools to do them, they will usually do what you need them to do in the classroom. Sleep deprivation is a serious problem here, but I haven’t gotten to upset about it. Most of the time if I find a student sleeping, I’ll ask if she is ill. Many times they will say “no”, but if they are, I let them sit in back and put their head down.  I also try to remember that I really have no idea what is going on in her life.  I don’t know if she was up all night because of a sister that was ill, or if she had to work to help the family out, or if she was left alone in the apartment and was scared of something or someone (my students are all over 16 so it isn’t neglect although that does happen here too).  I just don’t know. So I try to be compassionate.

To be continued.

Fresh faces

March 19, 2011

So the new year has begun in earnest.  Here we start in March, not August like in the states. So all my students from last year are in 2nd year now, and I only have 80 of them in my special English class. I have all new students for 1st year.  Fresh faces staring back at me, some eager, some bored, some uncomprehending, some happy, some sad, some shy, some out going.  I always get a little excited and nervous at the new semester.  I hope they like me, I hope they learn something, I hope they have fun in my class, I hope they don’t have so much fun they forget to do their homework.

I’m especially excited about my 2nd year class. We are going to work on our writing.  I wrote a workbook for them, and this is the first year it will be used “for real” – so far I’ve gotten two of the worksheets back (and almost everyone has done their homework a very happy burden) and I’m pretty impressed and happy with the work they are doing.  Korean has a very different grammatical structure from English, and many of my students have a hard time with word order and word placement in sentences. Some of my students are really working hard and they have quite a bit of creativity. Yes slogging through sentences that have “interesting” grammar can be difficult, but, reading sentences that have a song in them… that is awesome.   Right now we are working on nouns. This week  I had them put two nouns into a sentence of 6 to 10 words.  I still have to remind them that the adjective goes before the noun, and the adverb goes after the verb, but so far I’m very happy with the results.

My little first years are going to be awesome. I can feel it.  Most of the classes are pretty active, so my biggest problem is keeping them on task and speaking English.   They want  candy because the middle school teachers often use candy to help control their class. I have a whole rant on why I hate hate hate hate hate the practice, but for now, I will just have to work on re-training them to do the right thing without a cavity inducing reward.  One of my tricks is to use a call response when I want to change activities or just get their attention.  Last year I used the song “We will rock you” by Queen.  Since I already have the CD, I decided to keep a Queenly theme by using “Another one bites the dust” – 1/2 my students have the beat and can sing it pretty well.   The other half will need a bit more practice. I think Queen is a very appropriate group for my students.  I teach all girls and so “princess syndrome” can become a bit of a problem. I tell my students that’s OK, they can indeed be a princess.  Just as long as they remember I am the Queen, and this is not a constitutional monarchy.   I don’t think most of them know what constitutional monarchy means, but they get the idea that I hold absolute power within my classroom and that is the important thing.

In case you were wondering how my students see me– this is me, telling them they are awesome.

And here is one of the best “I am proud to be a teacher rants I’ve heard in a long time.  It makes me proud to be a teacher.  I wish he would speak more

Oh and before I forget, let me introduce a friend’s blog. She’s doing a lot with jewelry and homemade soaps.  I have some of the most creative people for friends.  I feel blessed.