And then there are dreams

Kevin Stein
Kevin Stein
By Kevin Stein

Part of my job as an English teacher at a private high school in Japan is to conduct interview tests for the school entry exam during January and February. The students are in their third year in junior high school. They walk into the room, bow, give a formal greeting in Japanese, and then are directed to a seat. I and the other test proctor sit on the other side of the room. All of the students are dressed in their junior high school uniforms. Many of them have grown over the three years they have used these uniforms. Their pants are too short and white socks stand out against the black pant cuffs. Their jacket sleeves are frayed. Sometimes the collar of their shirt is too tight for them to button the top button. Some of them tap their foot nervously and the sound echoes across the sea of flooring separating us from the student. And the students, hesitantly, in words stitched together with great effort, tell me about their dreams, their reasons for wanting to study English intensively in high school, their past successes and sometimes failures as students.

It is a chance for me to not only to meet and learn about my new students, but also to check my own ideas about just what it means to study English. In my three years conducting these interviews, I have never had a student say that they look forward to the long hard work of learning the 2800 words or so of basic vocabulary that they will need to communicate in English. I have never had a student express an interest in learning how to draft and redraft a piece of writing to develop the skills they will need to eventually produce an academic paper. I have never had a student say that they would like to spend a third of their class time working with language they already know so that they can improve their fluency. What I have come to see as the most important aspects of learning a language are rarely if ever the things that have drawn students to English in the first place.

Last week, a young girl told me the following story. She had visited Korea on a class trip when she was 12 years old and had spent two days attending a junior high school in Seoul. While she was there, she made friends with a Korean student and they talked to each other in the only language they shared, English. She learned about the different types of Korean pickled foods, about the latest K-pop bands, about the different ways to greet older and younger people depending on their social position. She looked at me and said, “I can learn about many countries’ cultures with English. It is exciting. So I want to learn English.” I imagined how many times she must have practiced saying these sentences aloud in her room to be able to say them relatively smoothly in that big empty room during an entry exam.

A few years ago, Penny Ur ran a webinar for iTDi, in which she emphasized that the main job of an English teacher is to teach English. And I too, with one hundred percent conviction, believe the same. At the end of my lesson, I need to be able to look back on the 50 minutes or 90 minutes or 120 minutes of my class and be able to say that I taught English. That my students walked out of class with more developed vocabulary, a better concept of a grammatical structure, an ability to produce certain target language more smoothly and accurately. But lately I’m starting to feel that as I grow and develop the skills to teach what I think needs to be taught, I’ve lost some of my openness to the wonder and almost limitless potential that draws students to study English in the first place. I worry that my interactions with students are more about running down a mental checklist of what I know students need to be doing (are you making word cards? are you reading two graded reading texts a week? are you developing skills to identify chunks of language?) and less an exploration of what students are actually learning for themselves.

Last weekend, a fifteen-year-old girl told me about how English had helped her learn about a country and culture that many people in Japan view with a certain level of rivalry and perhaps even distrust. After the interview, she turned at the door, bowed, and gave a formal parting greeting in Japanese. Just before she walked out of the room, she looked me in the eyes, smiled, and gave me a little wave. I can’t help but feel that my small wave back to her was a kind of promise, a promise that I would help her use English to learn about other countries, to build a bridge she could walk across into a wider world. And perhaps it was a promise to myself as well, a promise that in the upcoming year I would not simply teach what students need to learn, but develop the skills to nurture the larger dreams of all my students. In a world that has grown progressively darker, perhaps it is only the light of these dreams, so bright amongst too short pants and fraying sleeves, which allows my students—all of our students—to walk, step by step, into their own futures.

Feedback: Making the almost obvious, obvious

Kevin SteinBy Kevin Stein

Last year I was lucky enough to facilitate a workshop with a group of iTDi members at the annual JALT conference in Japan. As a group, we wanted to talk about how listening to our students helps to make us better teachers. I shared a bit about my experience of using videos to help garner student feedback about my teaching and class in general.

I started using videos in my classroom about four years ago. My friend and mentor John Fanselow challenged me and the rest of the teachers in my school to video tape a lesson and, at random, transcribe one minute of that lesson. Then we all got together, read the transcripts, watched the videos, and said what we had seen and read. There were no judgments, no ‘that was a great activity’ or ‘you had a lot of positive energy.’ We simply said what we had seen, which led to statements like, ‘When the student is speaking, he is reading directly from his notebook,’ or ‘When you tell the students to stop writing, many of them keep writing for twenty or thirty seconds while you are explaining the next activity.’ These simple statements of fact often led to suggestions which resulted in more productive classes. Suggestions such as having students turn over their notebooks while talking, or writing directions on the board for students to read so that they can move on to the next activity at their own pace.

As useful as it was to hear what teachers noticed when they looked at my class through short videos and the window of a 1-minute transcription, I felt like something was missing, that there was more I could be getting out of these snapshots of my classroom. Then one day, my co-worker Scott brought in a video. In it he clearly asked the students in the class to work together to complete a storyboard ordering activity, one of those cut-up-pictures of a story which have to be put on the correct sequence after reading a text (there’s an example of a storyboard based lesson). In the video, a pair of students happily get down to work and interact with each other a total of zero times. Scott wanders into the frame at one point, reminds them to work together, and wanders out of the frame. For one moment, the students look at each other warily before going back to writing on their own papers. We all watched the video and tried to come up with small tweaks to have the students collaborate more on the activity (give them only one copy of the worksheet; give each student a specific job such as vocabulary master or scribe; turn the activity into a jigsaw puzzle so half the pictures go to one student and half go to the other and they have to describe the pictures in order to put them in order). But after we had piled up this jumbled hill of suggestions, John said, “Why don’t you show the students the video and ask them why they aren’t working together.”

So that is exactly what Scott did. He took the video back to the students — during their lunch break, no less — showed it to them, and asked them why they had decided not to work together. They both said that they just felt that there had been no real reason, aside from the teacher’s instructions, to work together. As they watched the video, the two students described how they decided to put the pictures of the story in order. They both said that they were enjoying the activity and learning something. One of the students mentioned that if they had worked together, they might not have been able to finish the activity in time. What Scott, as well as the rest of us, had thought was a problem with the activity, was in fact no problem at all. Instead of finding ways to force the students to work together, it became apparent that letting the students work individually, or at the very least giving them enough time to work collaboratively (which, as the student pointed out, does often take more time than working alone) was the only tweak needed.

Over the past three years I have shown small clips of classroom activities to students, asked them to tell me what they are doing in the video and why, and walked away with both some first class lesson modifications as well as a deeper respect for students’ ability to understand and modulate their own learning. Having student groups set their own time limits before engaging in a task; instituting a 2-minute ‘note-taking-break’ in the middle of activities; creating two ‘solo-corners’ in the room for students who want to work individually; all of these ideas came from students who watched a video of themselves in class and told me what they were doing and why. All of these ideas have helped to make my classroom a better and more comfortable place for learning to happen.

Sometimes I think that becoming a more effective teacher is simply a process of becoming aware of the nearly obvious. At one time in my teaching career, I didn’t realize that oral and written instructions only have meaning if students can understand them or try to do so. I didn’t know that students often want time to correct and rewrite errors in their written work. I had no idea that simply asking a student what another student had just said in class (the old “What does Keisuke think about that” trick) leads to better output and higher rates of attention in class. All of these things seem so obvious to me now, but at one time they were hidden in the blind spot between what I knew about teaching and what I could see happening in my classroom. Taking short videos of my classroom and sitting down with my students helps me shrink that blind spot. It makes the almost obvious, obvious. But just as important, by sharing these videos with my students over the past few years and hearing what they have to say about them, I’ve come to realize that my students care deeply about the quality of their lessons and my development as a teacher. I’ve come to understand that listening to my students helps to make me a better teacher because listening to them and respecting their ideas and experiences is at the very heart of learning itself.

Over the Wall of Experience

Kevin SteinBy Kevin Stein

I’ve been a high school English teacher for 10 out of the past 15 years. Before that I spent five years as a coordinator of an outreach program for runaway youth in Chicago.  I wish that those years of experience added up to a deep understanding of teenagers that I could share with you, a key to unlocking the secret fears and longings that sometimes hide behind a sullen look or a blank face of boredom.  But honestly, I probably understand my teenage students less than when I first started working with ‘the youth’.  Probably because the older I get, the less I remember about what made the daily grind of my junior high school and high school days difficult.  So instead of insights into what teenagers are or are not like, I thought I would share 4 things I try to keep in mind that my 45-year-old perspective doesn’t get in the way of communicating with my students.

1. Students have to go to school every day, but there are days they would rather be somewhere else. Sometimes my students work late at a part-time job to help their family make ends meet. Probably the last thing they want to be doing is sitting at a desk in school the next day and trying to keep their eyes open. So instead of just acting like my students are the problem because they aren’t in the perfect place to study on any given day, I ask them the following 3 questions: 1) What time did you get to bed last night? 2) Did you eat breakfast today? 3) If you weren’t in school right now, what would you be doing? And I find that if I ask these questions, instead of nudging my students awake, or worse, scolding them for not participating, they usually will answer the questions and give a little bit more effort in class. Because, “I’m interested in what’s going on with you” is a much more motivating sentiment than, “I’m upset with you.”

2. Just because a student isn’t noticeably joining in an activity, doesn’t mean they aren’t participating. Sometimes I see one of my students just kind of hanging back in a group activity and I get the itch to jump in and try and get them more involved in what’s going on. But if I step back and watch, I often notice that while those students might not be speaking or writing, they are often listening, nodding, and making space for others to lead. Instead of feeling that group work requires a certain set of ideal behaviors, I try and remind myself that there’s no way for me to know what role a student is playing in a group of teenagers unless I spend time carefully observing what’s going on.

3. Tests totally suck. And I mean that in a very technical way. For the most part, tests suck the joy out of learning, the curiosity out of a topic, and the energy out of my students. I often try to use alternative testing to assess my students. In any case, regardless of what kind of testing I do, my students have at least 12 years of school experience to trigger feelings that at the end of each semester they will be standing on the lip of a black hole of giant-test-suckiness which is going to pull all the color right out of their lives. That means that in my classrooms I have to keep the focus on learning. I have to highlight the small gains made in each and every class. I have to find a way to make class about learning and NOT about the test. Even then, my students are going to have to suffer through mid-term and final exams, and the least I can do is empathize with how difficult that can be.

4. Time is relative. When I am sitting down and doing career guidance or holding a student-parent-teacher conference, and feel a wave of anxiety about how hard a student will have to work to prepare for a university entry test three years down the road, I need to take a deep breath and give myself a time out. Three years to a sixteen-year-old is the distant future, it is the glowing umbrellas in Blade Runner, it is unknowable. Three years for me sometimes feels like it might arrive the day after tomorrow. But how I feel isn’t really the point of counseling a student about their future. Before I can talk about a student’s future, I need to make sure that I am listening to and understanding the story of their here and now.

I have a friend, Devon, who manages the PR and recruitment division of a large language school here in Osaka. Up until five years ago, he had been a classroom teacher.  Sometimes when we have coffee together, he reminisces about his time in the classroom.  When I asked him why he had stopped teaching, he said, “One day, I was teaching a unit on hobbies and likes and dislikes, and I suddenly felt like there was this huge gap between me and my students.” He said that he just couldn’t find a way to personally connect with his students the way he had in the past. He didn’t think it was anything he had done which had led to the gap. It was just the result of growing and changing and ending up in a place very different from the one he had been in when he started teaching.

The older I get, the more I understand what Devon meant, how he felt on that day. For me, though, there is no job I would rather do and nowhere I would rather spend my workdays than in a classroom. If that means I need to spend a few extra minutes trying to peer over the wall of my 15 years-experience to see my students a bit more clearly, then that is what I will happily do. Because there are no special keys to help us understand our teenage students, just as there are no magic keys to unlock the feelings and dreams of any of the people we talk with throughout our day. The best we can do is to keep in mind that the people in front of us are living their own stories, in their own way. Making real connections with the people around begins not with our own expectations of how things should be, but with watching, listening, and noticing the small moments of how things are now.

Poetry Collaboration

Kevin Steinby Kevin Stein

Blue Hat Image

 I’ve been teaching for 15 years now and one of the pieces of advice I’ve heard over and over again from teachers I respect is the need to find something you are passionate about outside of teaching. The longer I teach, the more I’ve come to realize just how important this advice is. When I walk out of school at the end of the day, I carry my fears and hopes for my students with me. I think about them, worry about them, sometimes cry because I know that for all my hopes and theirs, they are going home to a dark, empty house. They are going home to parents who scream and belittle them, or even worse, pay them no attention at all.

12 Color Poem

For me, I’ve found my release in poetry. On the crowded train ride home, I will often open a book of Tanka, traditional Japanese short poetry, and so lose myself in the small gem of a moment captured in five lines. I will worry over these poems the same way a small child might rub a shiny, smooth stone. And every once in a while I will try to write poetry as well.

Poetry, it’s how I ended up in an unexpected conversation (as online conversations so often are) with a poet and English teacher in India, Tesal K. Sangma. At first we did not talk about teaching, but about our love for traditional poetry forms. Tesal sent me a poem, Soul Bird by Temsula Ao. It was the kind of poem that left me feeling I had traveled for hundreds of miles over the course of less than a page. Slowly our conversation moved from poetry to our classroom experiences. Tesal was required to teach poetry in his classes, but he was having difficulty finding poetry that his students could understand and identify with. At the same time, I was doing a tanka translation project with my students, but they had no audience with whom to share their poems.

Soul Bird Fragment

This is all we had to start with, just the idea of one group of students translating traditional poetry from their first language into English to be used by another group of students studying literature. As I explained the idea to my students, one boy, P-Kun, looked at the poem about pastel crayons he and his group had been struggling over, and added the following line at the bottom of the page, “From children to adults, many people use pastel crayons to draw pictures in Japan. He explained that he was worried that the students in India would read the word crayon and imagine that the narrator was a child. Soon after, all of the other groups had added culture footnotes to their poems. We sent the poems and cultural footnotes off to Tesal to share with his students. And Tesal took pictures of his students, huddled over their desks, pencils in hands, reading over the poems that my students had translated. When I shared these pictures with my students, there was a moment of silence, a kind of muffled cloud of disbelief. When one of my students, H-Chan, asked the question that anyone would ask in such a situation, “What did they think about the poems?” It was in this moment of true curiosity of how my students’ language had affected someone 5000 kilometres away, that the poetry they were writing became part of a larger conversation firmly embedded in their own lives.

Lino Notes

My students spent a solid hour writing out questions for the students in India.

These were questions that showed flashes of critical insight into the structure and nature of poetry. Did the students in India think that the narrator of a certain poem was a boy or a girl? Was the poem’s tone hopeful or sad? Their questions also moved beyond the small frame of the poem itself. My students used the poems to ask questions about the lives of the students in India. Questions like, “What is the most beautiful scenery you’ve ever seen from a bicycle?” and “Do high school students in India have boyfriends and girlfriends?” I worked with my students to build a Lino Board and it was through this interactive medium that the students in India and Japan continued their conversation. In the end, my students decided to collect all the stages of this project into a book, Exchange Through Tanka Project.

Narrator Gender

“Find something you are passionate about outside of teaching. It’s some great advice. I would add a caveat to it. “Find something you are passionate about outside of teaching, but don’t be afraid to bring that passion into your classroom.” Don’t be afraid to let your passion connect you to other teachers and to your students. Because it is within the soil of that shared passion that collaboration begins. Successful collaboration is not simply about engaging with others. In the end, collaboration is about creating the very ground beneath our feet as we walk together on a completely new path.

students working 2[This post is dedicated to the students in the Bachelor of Social Work programme at Martin Luther Christian University in Meghalaya, India who inspired my students to think deeper, ask questions, and search for the personal meaning in the poetry around them.]


to listen

by Kevin Stein

Kevin SteinAt my high school, we have a licensed psychologist on staff once a week to meet with the students. Her name is Mrs. Kumazawa, although everyone, staff and teachers alike, simply call her Kumi. Recently I’ve noticed that she leaves a heartbeat or two of space before saying hello each morning. In that moment, she looks at you in the eyes. She sends a clear message, “I’m not saying hello to just anyone. I am saying hello to you.” Her job is to help my students stay in school. Like all teenagers, my students are struggling with what it means to become an adult. They are learning to take care of themselves while also trying to figure out when and how to take care of each other. And if that isn’t enough, many of them were bullied in junior high school, or come from families that have weathered storms of domestic violence or the loss of a parent. My students often need the extra support that Kumi can provide.

Human_Ear kevin postSometimes a student will ask for me, their homeroom teacher, to be in the room when they talk with Kumi. I’ve seen how Kumi listens to each student. The way she does not hold back her tears when a student is telling a story of deep pain or loss. The way she is open to everything a student says. And especially the way she honours students’ feelings by acknowledging those feelings as real and valid. She says, in a soft voice, things like, “You were trying so hard, and no one noticed you trying. It must have been so lonely.” When a student has finished talking, saying everything they want to say, Kumi asks them, “What do you want to do next?” She never puts forward a suggestion. She waits as long as it takes until a student comes up with a way to move forward, however small and stumbling the step might be.

It is Kumi’s job to talk to the students. It is also Kumi’s job to let me know how those students are feeling and to help me find a way to help them stay in school as well. But I would be lying if I said I never bristle at what my students sometimes say to Kumi. I would be lying if I said that I never wanted to tell my side of the story, to defend my classes, to defend myself. Kumi has told me a story of a student feeling lost and overwhelmed in class and I have said, “If he did the homework once in a while, maybe he wouldn’t feel so lost.” Or about a student who cannot connect up with the other kids in class, I have said, “If she doesn’t talk to anyone, of course she will feel disconnected.” But the longer I work with Kumi, the less I feel the need to defend myself. What am I defending myself against? Do I need to defend myself against the fears, needs, and hopes of my students?

Over the past few months, there have been a number of issues that have been discussed in the ELT community: discrimination faced by non-native English teachers, the role that gender plays in a teacher’s ability to be recognised by the community, issues of class and access to professional development. When I started curating the iTDi blog in March of this year, I wondered what role the bloggers I work with and the platform that iTDi provides us could play in these discussions. In the end, I decided that before I could address any of the issues directly, I needed to prove that the space I was curating was safe, that teachers could say and share what they wanted to, and that they would be supported as they found and used their voice. So from March to now, the last issue before the summer vacation, I have encouraged teachers to blog about the issues, inside and outside of their classrooms ,which impact them as teachers and people.

Perhaps some people might say that simply listening is not enough, that simply providing a space for people to share will not create the change we need. To that, I can only say I am sorry if I should have done more. But over the past few years, Kumi and the others mentors who have taken time to help me grow have all taught me one important thing, first we must listen. When we truly listen, we are creating the space for our students, our friends, and our coworkers to take the next step. It is through listening that we can say, without speaking a word, “I believe in you. You know what to do next.” We have started to have some very important conversations in ELT. It is my hope that the iTDi blog, by giving teachers a chance to share their struggles and joys in and out of the classroom, has and will be a part of those conversations. It is also my hope that, as curator, those conversations will be grounded in the idea that every teacher’s voice matters, and that community is not the problem, but the start to any solution.

I would like to thank all the bloggers who have joined on the first few steps of this journey, the ones who have shared stories of their heroes, their coworkers, their students, and their families. I have learned about myself by working with you and having the privilege of publishing your stories of needs and abundance. I hope that in some small way, I have managed to give something back, to the community of teachers who has given me so much.