A Cultural Ambassador Story

Today, students in two separate classes stole entire bags of potato chips from me. In another class, some Trolli gummy hamburgers that I’d bought specially (and for a pretty penny) in Itaewon also disappeared before I’d even opened the snack bag. I was so angry and disappointed, I almost cried.

After class, a quiet/shy first grade girl came to my desk. She comes by often, but until now had always been dragged by her more talkative and outgoing friend. This time she came alone. “Teacher,” she said, “I heard you have American snacks. Can I try?”

I gave her a Combo from a pack that I’d bought in Itaewon. The saltiness was such a shock that her face transfigured, and for a moment I thought she was going to spit it out. When we’d finished laughing, she asked for another one — to give to a friend and get a reaction from her, as well. I gave her the saltiest one in the bag.

It was a short exchange and easily could have been buried under a landslide of other experiences I’ve had in Korea. But it was so, so important, because it’s the perfect example of why I came to this country: to make kids actually want to speak English and try new things.

This story is quite possibly the best reminder of something I’ve been telling myself through all the trials and tribulations my students put me through:

It’s worth it. It’s worth it even on the bad days.


Communicative Language Teaching

It has been a long, long time since I posted about teaching — though with good reason. I’ve been on vacation for the past two and a half months! But now the long winter is coming to an end, and I’m planning my classes for next Monday. Determined to promote communicative English better than I was able to last semester, I pulled out my old textbook and am currently reminding myself of the correct methodology.

All tips following in this post are extracted from Rod Ellis’s book, “Task-based Language Learning and Teaching,” which I highly recommend to all aspiring language teachers.


The Basics

CLT (Communicative Language Teaching) and TBLT (Task-based Language Teaching) have both been around for a while and seem to have a semi-decent foothold in the west, but unfortunately don’t exist in most Asian classrooms. Here, the focus is on Grammar-translation and rote memorization — methods useful for learning isolated vocabulary and grammatical theory, but not much else.

Well, except for scoring high on those standardized tests that are apparently more important than life itself.

The main idea behind CLT is that students learn through interaction with other people, rather than lists and flash cards. This means real language, with context.

TBLT takes this a step further with the theory that new grammar and vocabulary should be integrated within tasks that mimic real life. This way, the student can navigate real-world situations in the target language. TBLT also makes it easier for students to notice the gaps in their knowledge, recognize the usefulness of the target grammar, and be motivated to acquire what they need to fill in those gaps.


TBLT’s Three Phases

Pre-Task Phase: The preparation phase. This can consist of many different activities, including explanation or demonstration of the task, planning time, class dictionary searches, topic discussion, brainstorming, vocabulary worksheets, etc. Grammar does not necessarily need to be addressed here, as it can be explained in the Post-Task or left out altogether.

During-Task Phase: The meat of the lesson. This is an assignment, whether oral or written, that requires students to perform a task they are likely to encounter in the real world. The assignment should result in an achievement (Outcome) of some kind, including physical Outcomes (completed worksheets/writings/maps/food/art projects), new non-linguistic skills (learning something via English instructions), or solving a puzzle (murder mysteries, Taboo). Successful navigation of a scenario (a doctor’s visit or job interview) can also be considered a valid task Outcome.

It is important that students believe the goal of the activity to be the Outcome, even though it’s actually to produce relevant language at the appropriate level. As long as students believe this, they will complete the task successfully. But if they believe the goal is to use language, “there is a danger that the learners will subvert the aim of the task by displaying rather than using language” (Ellis, 8).

Yes, I just threw bookquote at you. Because you want your students solving the problem, not showing off their awesome language skills. (“Let’s see, how can I work the word ‘logarithm’ into a scenario about asking directions to the cafe?”) TBLT is focus on meaning — the point is not flawless grammar and nuanced vocabulary, at least not at this stage…

Post-Task Phase: This is the present/review/reflect/clarify phase. Students should be made to repeat the task (present their answers or reenact their discourse) before the rest of the class. Language production is usually more accurate the second time, as they no longer need to strive for meaning and can now focus on form. Teacher feedback is very important here, as it is the optimal point for either oral or written encouragement and suggestion. You can choose to address common errors or points of confusion from the During-Task Phase, or explain the rules of the lesson’s target grammar — which students should have already noticed patterns for while completing the task. But, as stated above, explicit grammar instruction is not a necessary component of the lesson. Students should also have the chance to reflect on their own performance of the task.



This is all just the very basic components of TBLT, and I’m sure a lot of it sounds confusing if you’ve never studied this methodology before. But once you’ve written a few lesson plans following this three-part structure, it really does become second nature and you start to notice the difference in your classroom.

One great thing about TBLT is the flexibility of it. Some teachers prefer to cut away everything but the task itself, never explicitly explaining form. Others merely supplement other methodologies with short task tie-ins, which is called Task-supported Language Teaching. It’s really up to you how you use it, but I highly recommend adding it to your classroom routine in some way.

For more information and sample lesson plans, check out this page.

For a personal essay on how a self-implemented communicative approach can help you become fluent in a foreign language, check out my friend’s awesome blog post here.

If you want me to just stop advertising links and answer all your questions, leave a comment below.


Ellis, 252

Teaching, Week 1

I have now taught two classes at Geumseong High School, and while they have not been epic failures, they definitely both came with twists.

My first lesson plan revolved around two things: the students asking me questions, and me teaching them about naming conventions as a segue into choosing English names. I had a little handout and a painstakingly compiled list of names for this activity, in which they were to explain the meaning of their Korean name and then choose an English name based on the meaning that best suited them.



As I had to introduce myself, I had the first class ask questions first. No one wanted to volunteer. Fortunately I’d foreseen this and brought some paper squares, which I passed out. “Ask me anything,” I said.

Now, this is a high school containing 80% boys with gender-segregated classes. I knew what was coming, and had left myself open to it on purpose because I had to show them that it wouldn’t get a rise out of me.

The only reason this may have failed was because one boy asked something so utterly ridiculous that I had to laugh — probably leaving every dirty-minded boy in the class to think I was laughing at their “What is your ____ size?” instead the more innocent question that it was.

I liked my second class during this activity, though; I didn’t receive a single inappropriate question. The trade-off? They weren’t really paying attention to my answers. Oh well.

Other very popular questions: “How tall are you?” “Which Korean singers do you like?” and “Do you have a boyfriend?”



Again, this activity went a bit more smoothly in my second class, but by then I’d already had to change the premise a lot. Most of the boys had no idea that their names mean something (Korean names are chosen for meaning and are often meant to be auspicious), effectively ruining that “getting to know you” part of my lesson…

Class one: “Teacher, my name, no mean anything.”

Me: “I think it does. Do you know the Chinese characters?”

Class one: “No, teacher! No Chinese. No mean.”

Me: “Alright, well, just choose an English name.”

Some fifteen minutes passed while they worked in “groups” but actually don’t move from their seats. I walked around, helping out where I could, waking up students who looked like they haven’t slept in three days. When I noticed we were out of time, I told them to pass their papers up.



Other answers filled in, no English name.

So much for giving them name tags next week.

Take 2: Instead of even trying to compare English and Korean names, I went straight to the point: You’re choosing a name with a meaning that suits you. Fill out the paper, turn it in when you’re done.

This time I made my non-workers squirm. “You can’t find a name you like?”




“You don’t like English names?”

“Yeah…” (Meaning no, he doesn’t.)

“Should I pick a name for you?”

“No! Is okay!”

This worked on all but one, who somehow slipped away in the commotion of the period ending.



Oh my god. Each class really does have different dynamics. Where my Monday class was sleep-deprived (likely because it’s an afternoon class) and somewhat perverse, my first Wednesday class had a ton of energy and was never quiet — literally, not for ten full seconds. Thanks to yesterday’s typhoon, I haven’t taught my four Tuesday classes yet, but one of them is supposed to be a fair amount of trouble, while another is full of jokesters on jet fuel.

So, I did feel sorry for my Tuesday classes, since we’ll be meeting about 3/4 as much as any other classes this semester due to holidays… but I got over that soon. XD While I know I’m going to love my students, I am, unfortunately, still mildly introverted. So I think that in order to show these kids my best side, it might actually be beneficial not to meet too often, especially with four classes in one day sapping my energy. I’d rather make the most of the little time that we will have together than begrudge it every week.

That being said, discipline is my weakest point as a teacher, as evidenced both today and on Monday. Writing class rules is one thing, but there’s always going to be a situation I can’t prepare for, or that I just don’t know the proper way to handle. Sometimes I just want to laugh with my students instead of punish someone for trying to be funny. It’s a tough balance find, and the line between “fun teacher” and “mean teacher” tends to slide around in the minds of students.

Well, maybe with my next class I’ll get a better feel for it; they’re supposed to be very high-energy.


Update: I feel the need to reiterate this — BOY does each class have its own dynamic! My last class today was great. Lots of energy, but all I had to do was count down from five and I had their full attention for whatever I wanted to say. They are supposed to be a low-level class in comparison to the rest of the school, but they were absolutely wonderful at following directions. Only two or three look like they might require some more strict discipline. But their main thing will be having to overcome their shyness of speaking.


For the last week I’ve been trying to compile a post, adding a little here and there… only to look at it the next day and find it totally outdated already. In deference to this, I’m just going to skip most of everything that happened (for now) and talk about Naju!



I found out where my placement would be a few weeks ago, but I only learned about my home-stay on Monday night. That gave me only one full day, Tuesday, before my ceremonial departure on Wednesday afternoon. I didn’t know what I would do if I got a huge family — I’d gone broke shopping for gifts in Seoul, and only had enough items for three people. I also hadn’t been able to turn up any gifts for boys. If I got a host brother, I’d be screwed.

Fortunately, there are three people in my family: my host father, Jino, my host mother, Jinheui (sounds kind of like Jenny), and a six-year-old host sister whose English name is Olivia (real name, I believe, is Kio). Olivia is still a bit young for the gift I bought, but I think she can find some use for it. : ) All of them are very kind and interesting people, and really good at English. Jino works in city hall by day, plays on a sports team by night, and built the family home by himself. Jenny is an archeologist who studies the local ruins in addition to doing all the household chores and much of the child-rearing. She’s also a really good cook. Olivia is an amazing little girl who loves, and is very good at, origami. She seems really happy to have me around after two years with only host brothers, and I feel like we already have a strong connection.


Geumseong High School:

Visiting my school for the first time yesterday, I found myself in the care of two male co-teachers, the first of whom picked me up with my principal on Wednesday but is in a different office, and the second of whom has the desk next to mine. I also made friends with one of the substitute teachers, Keumna, who is fluent in English and is studying Linguistics in order to pass an exam and become a certified English teacher.

I think the most outstanding memory I’ll ever have of my first day at this school is the students’ reaction to me. The student body consists of mostly boys, with only two out of eighteen classes being girls’ classes. Walking into the building yesterday morning, a fair number of the boys that were around stopped to stare; some of them even tried a few variations of hello.

But then I went to the cafeteria for lunch with Keumna. The boys were already waiting in a line that stretched outside. As each boy in the rear of the line noticed me, their conversations just shut down and a falling domino effect of “woah!” swept across them. Until I hit the cafeteria entrance, anyway. At that point the dominos were devoured by a deafening storm of the same exclamation. There wasn’t a single pair of eyes looking away from me.

“Ah,” I thought, “no wonder the school requested a female ETA this year.”



I was able to sit in and observe my second co-teacher in one of his classes, but all it did was confirm the lack of communicative learning in the typical Korean classroom. The fifty-minute lesson was essentially:

Lecture, IN KOREAN, on what three parts of speech can modify English nouns.

Turn to this page, answer these questions in Korean.

Check with your partner.

You two, come up and present in Korean.

Now write me a summary, in Korean, of this English text.

Check with your partner.

You two, come up and present in Korean.

And that was it: pure Grammar Translation, like studying Latin back in the 1930’s. I heard literally about a dozen English words the entire class, and the students themselves barely said a word, even to each other. A total of four boys got called on to speak before the class, and both times one of the pair just hung back while their partner did all the work. This, unfortunately, is the typical Korean English class, yet even my Korean co-teacher doesn’t like the methodology.

Seeing this, I’m more determined than ever to utilize TBLT to its greatest effect. I want to use the Noticing Hypothesis, Krashen’s N+1, even Robinson’s terrifying framework for task complexity.

But mostly, I want my students to know what’s it’s like to have fun with English.


Naju City:

My friend Jason and I went exploring today and discovered that Naju may be rural, but it’s also pretty awesome. They have the standard Lotteria and Paris Baguette, and the downtown area has two personalities: quaint and posh. The first part kind of reminds me of Goesan, with a true small-town feel, lots of wood structures, lost of restaurants and uneven pavement and a distinct lack of walkways. But it also has a charm about it. This is where the mom-and-pop restaurants are, as well as the bookstore, the Korean equivalent of a dollar store, and the bus terminal. The posh side is perfectly geometrical, paved with granite cobblestones and filled with high-end clothing shops with large front windows and a distinct lack of city grime.

Just between these two areas is a convenience store that sells real espresso for only a thousand won. The money I spend there will probably single-handedly fund the next upgrade on their espresso machine.


Future Plans:

Tomorrow I’ll be heading to Gwangju, the neighboring city, with the rest of the Naju Nine (of which there are five) to meet some of our fellow ETA’s there. We have no idea what we’re going to do, but today Jason coined the term YOLiKO — You Only Live in Korea Once — and now I feel that we must live by that!

Jino offered to take me hiking on Geumseong Mountain this Sunday. It’s become my favorite landmark when I’m out and about, so I’m really looking forward to seeing what the view is like from the top. Hopefully there’s a good place to get photos of the city.

My school kind of asked me to write a textbook for my class. I’m not entirely sure how legit it has to be or how long I have to do it, but I would assume “fairly legit” and “uncomfortably soon,” considering I teach my first class on Monday. At least I’ll be able to say that I’m a published author…

In the long term, I’m still hoping to keep up with my Korean through either self-study or a class, and to find an archery school in Gwangju that will take me as a student. I already know I’ll be doing a ton of traveling this year — no worries about that. And I set myself a completion deadline for the second draft of Ciphers. December 1 is the day I must have it query-ready. Just in time for the holiday rush!

Lesson Ideas

These aren’t fully developed and so aren’t yet up to par with my standards of task-based language teaching, but I thought some of my fellow ETA’s and teachers could benefit from these ideas. These were devised in the context of a conversation class, but since they are very rough they can be adapted to pretty much anything. 🙂

  • Names: a good “getting to know you” lesson in which the students discuss the meaning of their names, why they were named such, and if they feel that their name matches them. Could be a good way to introduce eastern versus western naming conventions.
  • The Empty Room: when given a photo of an empty room, what would they put in it and why? How would they decorate it? Good for vocabulary related to furniture, decorations, and colors.
  • Strange Pets: You get to have one of the following (farm or zoo) pets for one week. How would you take care of it?
  • Classroom Mystery: I used to do a murder mystery with my grammar kids to teach them modals. For Korea and other conservative countries or younger children, a non-felonious crime might be better. 😉
  • Jobs: This one could easily turn into a week-long lesson theme. One that I like to do is have each student write down a different job, then swap up the cards so everyone gets something unexpected. Then in pairs they interview each other, assuming that their partner is famous for their job. Good for tense practice. (What did you do, what are you working on now, what are your plans for the future?)
  • Travel: Another good one for a theme. Each day of the week could be a new activity — making preparations, exchanging money, deciding what to pack, and deciding what places to visit in the chosen country. You could also have them create their own country just for tourists, and invent the geography, climate, natural resources, and currency. Then have them prepare to visit each others’ countries. 🙂

Calling Out the Universe

I often get the impression that the universe is some kind of altruistic jerk.

Don’t laugh. Just think about it a moment.

But this has never been so apparent to me as in the past two weeks of my life. Last week sucked, big time. Work, school, relationships, money — I was getting it from all sides and it took everything I had not to throw in the towel, especially since the clock was ticking down to my Fulbright notification. I wondered how long it would take before I caved to the lurking insanity.

Then I took a break and enjoyed a Hunger Games-filled day with my friends. They didn’t completely ruin my favorite novel — yay! Also, we ate diner food and went to the book store and came back for homemade milkshakes and a writers’ night, and all was good.

My favorite professor gave me an A+ on a writing assignment.

I paid for one can of soda at the vending machine, and two came out.

Yesterday, I was in the Linguistics Lab when I got an e-mail from Fulbright. The subject? “Your Fulbright Application Status.”

I stared at it.

My friend poked me and told me to open it, to which I responded, “If I cry, it’s your fault!”

And then I clicked.

The Universe, you see, is like an older brother. It gives you hell, tests your patience, sometimes outright bullies you; but after all that, it cracks a grin and says, Chill. I got your back.

Ladies and gentlemen, this July I am going to Korea to teach English.

Little old me.

Thanks, bro.

The Writer Becomes… “Teacher”

Though I was lucky enough to get financial aid all throughout college, this resulted in my not getting a job until this past January, when I started working six or seven hours a week tutoring Japanese. I starting private tutoring ESOL in April, only five months ago.

So imagine my surprise when a random resume drop-off (with a not-so-good self introduction, btw) resulted in my university’s English Language Institute calling me up with a job offer. Two days later, I had my own intermediate grammar class and a surprisingly hefty hourly salary. A second class, Reading and Vocabulary, was added the following week.

I have to say, teaching a class is a lot different than private tutoring. The students I worked with before were more self-motivated, and because we worked one on one, we were able to make more progress in a session. Though I have some dedicated students in my ELI classes, almost half of them don’t show up on a regular basis. This makes it very hard to coordinate tests. On top of that, some students feel entitled to special treatment based on some logic that I just can’t fathom. “Teacher, teacher,” says the student who’s missed the last three classes, “I didn’t know about a test today. I can take tomorrow?”

There are times, however, when I am pleasantly surprised. Like when most of the Muslim students who had three days off for the Ramadan celebration chose to take the test despite having missed the entire chapter and being completely caught off guard. I thought that was rather brave.

The most amazing thing is that I was able to get this opportunity at all. In fact, I almost turned down the offer because I was terrified of failure. I’d only been tutoring for eight months! How could I possibly hope to teach an entire class without any actual training? The person I was not long ago would have turned it down. What actually convinced me to accept, I’m still not sure; surely it was an amazing opportunity, and everyone said I should take it. But the final decision was mine, and it surprised even me.

Every day I learn something new about my students and about teaching groups. It’s a lot of work both inside and outside the classroom, and not everything I try is successful. In a way, I’m learning more than many of those I teach. But if that weren’t the case, I think I would be hopeless as a teacher. I’m on such a level now that I need to learn and keep improving as much as I can.

And so I will.

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