Archives For Teaching English

Fulbright Skills

July 14, 2013 — 2 Comments

I received a lot of questions about the Fulbright when I decided to take the grant, many friends and family wanted to know what this would do for me, how would it help you I couldn’t answer those questions when I took the grant, but after months of living in Sri Lanka I have a sense of how the Fulbright has benefited my life.

The Fulbright has done a lot for me, in terms of personal development. Through the Fulbright I’ve become:

  • more open and honest in my communications
  • able to think outside of my life experiences
  • better at helping students learn and understand their strengths

I’m not positive how these skills will help me in my future, but I’m confident that the past nine months of living in working in Trincomalee will help me in my future endeavors. In his recent commencement speech, Dick Costolo spoke about his life and how he never could have put together the pieces going forward. When he reflects on his computer science degree and his time spent performing standup comedy, it seems obvious that he went on to become the CEO of Twitter. When Steve Jobs gave his commencement speech he cited a typography class as one of the classes that most influenced him – the class was not apart of his undergraduate curriculum. It’s easy to connect the dots when you’ve reached the finish line. It is not easy to see the dots when you’re still finding you way.

 

“We need students who can learn how to learn, who can discover how to push themselves…”
-Seth Godin
“Thank goodness I never went to school. It would have rubbed off some of the originality”
-Beatrix Potter

These quotes greeted my business English students at the Trinco Jesuit Academy, and they kicked off a discussion about what factors lead to quality education.

Over the course of the following weeks my students watched TED talks, read news articles, and debated the merits of different approaches to education. They then crafted letters to the Ministry of Education, expressing their ideas on how to improve Sri Lanka’s education system.

As a final class project, each student had to choose a part of their letter to record on video, these were then put together into one cohesive video.

I’m grateful for the Jesuit Academy of Trincomalee for letting me come up with creative lesson plans. My students could have worked out of a textbook for the month we worked on this, but instead they were forced to develop their own ideas. This project worked on critical thinking, public speaking, and writing skills. It also forced my students to address problems in their community.

Qualified Teacher

May 15, 2013 — 1 Comment

I’m not TEFL, TOEFL, or CELTA certified. My only qualification as an English teacher are that I have a Bachelor’s degree (in finance) and I speak English.

As a Fulbrighter the State Department gave me two days of English teaching training before sending me off to a foreign land. After some time of teaching they flew me to Nepal for a four day conference on English Teaching, most of my fellow attendees were nearly finished with their teaching grants.

As far as the American Government is concerned, I’m here as a cultural ambassador. The Fulbright program funds people, not project. They look for people who will be good representatives of America abroad, all the better if they can teach.

Having some training in English teaching would have been helpful, but I’m afraid it also might have been stifling. I’m fortunate to teach at the Jesuit Academy of Trincomalee, since  they have encouraged me not to use a textbook and to go on my own. Not having been trained in English teaching has forced me to be more creative, and allowed me to focus on what I think will have the most impact.

I don’t teach to a test and I don’t teach out of a book. I am quite lucky.

When I was in China I was so frustrated that my Mandarin classes were based out of a textbook designed for students in America. I was living in Beijing and my teacher was instructing me on how to introduce my family and talk about clothing when I couldn’t order food at a restaurant. Priorities… After eight weeks in the classroom we got around to learning food words – needless to say I spent my tutoring hours working on more useful vocabulary and disregarded my formal studies.

I strive to to have my students value our time in the classroom together. At the end of every class I like to ask “what did we work on today?” This forces my students to reflect on the class and think about how it could be applicable to real life.

Teachers teaching to their students’ needs and desires, its a novel educational concept.

Learning Colours

May 2, 2013 — 3 Comments

Learning Colours

by Ramya Chamalie Jirasinghe

I hear the maid tell my daughter,
three years old and just able to make out

red from pink and even blue from purple,

as they sit on the verandah
avoiding the glare of our tropical sun,

that she is fair.

If it had been someone else, I would have

stomped up, red in the face, and given my spiel:

“When the one real line is drawn,
even the fairest here is black!”

But this is a woman from a highland village.
She will look at the child’s dark mother and laugh

with her knowledge that coursed two centuries

down hills and dunes into her blood.

She will tell me that nothing gives one

a better advantage in life
than a bit of creamy skin.

 

Poetry can be very powerful way to teach English, but for a students it can be menacing. Last week I shared this poem, written by the Deputy Director of the Fulbright Program in Sri Lanka, with some of my more advanced students. It led to an engaging and thoughtful discussion about skin color and society.

My lesson plan for teaching poetry to ESL students went something like this:

During class we read two poems, and discussed the meaning of the poem. After that the students had to write a response poem. For homework I asked each student to write a poem, based upon Ramya’s. The results were fantastic.

There is no correct way to write a poem; after years of learning in a rigid test based environment that can be frustrating for my students. After working with them for two months though, my students have gotten used to my challenging questions, and they come up with some really great answers to open ended questions. This exercise was so different from traditional Sri Lankan school exercises, because it focused on student creativity

I want to share with you two of the poems that my students wrote:

Skin Colour
Some peoples are white,
Some peoples are black.
Doesn’t think about these skin colours
When you close your eyes
All things are same.

 

Black and White
A man came to my fruit shop
He took and mango and smell it
Perfectly checked my fruits.
I cut a small piece of a mango
Gave it to him.
His face became bright.
Not by his white skin, but
The fine taste of my mango
Grown in a black sand.
He took 5 mangoes.
He put 150 rupees on the bench,
Not in my hand.
Few ones only knew.
Only in dark milk moon is beautiful.

 

I was thrilled reading these expressive poems. For some time I’ve debated teaching this poem. I wasn’t sure how my students would respond, and if it would be culturally insensitive to teach it. After some time of worrying, I decided it was time to bite the bullet and see how it goes. I couldn’t have been happier. My students voiced strong opinions on how skin color affects their lives, and they wrote some really beautiful poetry.

Poetry can make for a great ESL lesson plan and help foster creativity. I think the key is to make it relevant to the students, I was fortunate to find a really touching poem written by a Sri Lankan.

Mid-Phase Review

March 20, 2013 — 2 Comments

On Friday, March 15th the Fulbright Commission held a mid-phase review. All of the English Teaching Assistants, Student Researchers, and Senior Scholars gathered together at the Fulbright Commission’s villa offices in Colombo for a day of presentations.

This year there are a total of 15 American Fulbrighters in Sri Lanka, and the conference provided a great opportunity for all the Fulbrighters to get together and see the progress we have made at this point.

Part of the reason why I enjoy the Fulbright so much is that it has brought together such a diverse group of people.

The five ETAs are spread across the island, and teach at institutions ranging from primary schools to universities. Our instituons are: University Of Sri Jayewardenepura (2 ETAs are placed here), the University of PeradeniyaSujatha Vidyalaya, and I split my time between the Vocational School at Sarvodaya and the Trinco Jesuit Academy.

The Student Researchers, with whom the ETAs have gotten very close, study a wide range of issues: the political economy of the plantations, contingency planning and the ownership of disaster management, gender based violence in Sinhala Cinema, the informal fishing sector in postwar Sri Lanka, the architecture of Geoffrey Bawa, and alternative solid waste management systems.

The Senior Scholars are range from a professional dancer to senior lecturers, their research topics are: the architectural development of Sri Lanka’s forts, transformative dance in Sri Lanka, the climate services of Sri Lanka, and a social science study of village life.

This lecture was the first time that I met two of the Senior Scholars. It was great to get a sense of what they are studying and where their research has taken them thus far. Sri Lanka’s Fulbright program is unique in many ways, one such example is the close relationships between ETAs and Student Researchers. When I attended the ETA conference in Nepal I was surprised to find that many other ETAs did not know the Researchers in their countries.  In Sri Lanka, many ETAs live with Researchers. Since we are a smaller program, we get to have many opportunities for interaction. When all of the Fulbrighters converge there is little distinction between the groups.

Paper

March 11, 2013 — Leave a comment

Paper, a film by 

  • Based off of the name of this film, what do you think it is about?
  • When in your life do you use paper?
  • Could you use less paper in your life than you currently do?
  • What would your life be like without paper?

My students at Trinco’s Jesuit Academy walked into class those questions written on the board, and I gave them ten minutes to answer before we moved on to watching this short documentary about a newspaper based in Jaffna.

In my four months of teaching, this was hands down my best class. After the video I was able to foster a discussion with my students that lasted nearly half an hour. They talked to me about their media consumption, and why they think its important to be informed. I was pleasantly surprised when they told me that they don’t trust the government run newspapers. I did not expect that kind of open criticism.

Sri Lanka’s education system is not geared towards creating independent thinkers. Notebooks are routinely referred to as copies, even by my students who speak little English. My students, who are among the best in Trinco, were initially frustrated by the questions written on the board. One girl complained, because there wasn’t one correct answer. This sort of open ended discussion is not common in Sri Lankan education. It was a tough class to start, but once the discussion got rolling I was thrilled with where it went.

After the class I reflected on what had transpired, and how a nation’s society reflects on its education system. Sri Lanka has an amazing medical system. Many Sri Lankan doctors leave the country to take positions at top hospitals in London, New York, and Toronto. Medical tourism is growing, as foreigners come to Sri Lanka for quality, affordable healthcare. The education facilities of Sri Lanka are doing something right, if they’re producing such top notch doctors, but medicine is just one factor that comprises a country’s society.

There is a divide in the world’s education systems.The two best education systems, Finland and South Korea, have taken radically different approaches. South Korea’s system rewards students who excel on exams, and focuses on rote memorization. Finland on the other hand doesn’t measure their students for the first six years of their formal education, which begins at 7. Finland’s holistic approach differs greatly from South Korea’s rigorous exam based education system.

While there is merit to both systems, I cannot emphasize how much I value creative education. I feel that my greatest educational achievements are a result of project based learning. My students may not have gotten as much out of the film as I wanted, but it was an encouraging start. I look forward to working with them over the next several months.

What do Sri Lankan students, an American English Teaching Assistant (ETA), and a Korean rapper share in common? For one thing, we all possess a love of dance and music. Psy’s top charting song, Gangnam Style, has taken the world by storm. With its gripping lyrics and absurd dance, this song has profound implications on cultural communication.

Gangnam Style’s success is particularly notable because it is the first song outside major American and European music labels to become so popular worldwide. It is an interesting example of shifts in cultural dominance. The most popular YouTube video in the world, Gangnam Style has been viewed over 1.2 billion times. For years America has imported consumer goods from the Korean Peninsula, now the importation of pop music has begun. Ma Young-sam, Korea’s Ambassador for Public Diplomacy of the Foreign Ministry, has expressed how important the music industry is to Korea’s soft power. The Financial Times recently quoted Mr. Ma as saying, “as foreigners pay more attention to the singers, slowly they develop a liking for Korea … and if they like Korea, they will buy more Korean things. This is what we’re trying to promote…” The explosion of a Korean pop song may or may not mark a shift in global power; but at the very least, Gangnam Style is a catchy pop song – and it made for a great lesson in the English language.

As a Fulbright ETA, I teach three sections of language skills at Sarvodaya’s Trincomalee Vocational Training Center. Sarvodaya is Sri Lanka’s largest NGO, it maintains 34 district centers and reaches nearly 15,000 villages. My students’ ages range from 15 – 24, and they are studying either tailoring, nursery school teaching, or aluminum fabricating. The classes are provided to them at no cost through Sarvodaya and the World University Service of Canada. At the end of their training the students sit for their National Vocational Qualification exam, after which they are eligible to seek employment as skilled laborers. Prior to my arrival, the students had not received any formal English instruction. Their technical instructions are in Tamil medium, as that is the primary language spoken in this district.

The community in which I work was cut off from the world for three decades by ethnic conflict. With the advent of the internet my students are now plugged into the world. As the first Fulbrighter to be placed on Sri Lanka’s East Coast, it has been both challenging and rewarding to become a resident of Trincomalee and to expose my students to new ideas and cultures.

For two weeks I geared my English lessons toward teaching my students how to dance to Gangnam Style. The vocabulary surrounding this lesson is surprisingly complex. I began my lessons with the basic components of human anatomy, teaching words like arm, hip, legs, etc. After several classes explaining the nouns of the body, I began to demonstrate the verbs of movement: jump, squat, shake, etc. I spent an entire day with my classes utilizing a technique I learnt at the ETA Enrichment Seminar in Nepal: I distributed images of stick figures in various stages of bodily contortion, and acted as a rag doll as my students directed me to ‘lift your left hand’ and ‘put your elbow on your knee’.

The culmination of these lessons was when a fellow Fulbright Researcher and amateur dance instructor, Sarah Stodder, joined my classes for a day to teach my students and I the moves of Gangnam Style. She began by telling us the basic movements, broken down into two categories: arms and legs. As she verbalized the dance moves and physically demonstrated them, I codified her actions on the board for my students to copy. Once they had written the movements down, we cleared the desks and began dancing. At first, we referred to the directions on the board – mastering each step before moving on. Once all of the students had a command of the dance moves, it was time to play the music video and try dancing along with the great Psy himself.

As an American teaching Sri Lankans a Korean dance based upon the most popular song of 2012, I feel my students and I prove the truth of globalization. This is just one example of how the world grows seemingly smaller each year.

 

Today marks the final day of the Tamil harvest festival, Pongal. The first day of Pongal is spent worshiping the Sun; the Sun is the giver of life, and without it crops would not grow. The second day is spent paying respect to cows. They are critical to life on a farm; not only do they provide milk, but they save countless hours when it is time to till the soil. On the final day, nothing in particular is celebrated. So on this final day of the Tamil festival, Sarvodaya had a Pongal.

I arrived at Sarvodaya’s Trincomalee District Center at 7:30 in the morning, and preparations were already underway for the Pongal. Reeds were being hung, the pots were being put in place, and the food was being prepared. Pongal is both the name of the holiday, and the name of a delicious sweet rice made with coconut milk, dates, nuts, raisins, jaggery, and a healthy dose of sugar. Speakers were brought in, and not an hour later the fires were burning and the speakers were blasting. It was really quite something to see this community come together.

Local religious leaders – Buddhist Monks, Catholic Nuns, Christian Priests, Hindu Pandits,and Muslim Imams – all arrived for the opening ceremonies. Once the water had begun to boil, each religious figure filled their palms with rice and lifted it up to the Sun before pouring it into the Pongal pot. The cooking had begun!

After many years of war Sri Lanka is still a very divided society. Over the past few days I have been greeting everyone I speak to with, ‘happy Pongal‘. On more than one occasion, I was told by the person I had offered this greeting to that they were not Tamil, and they did not celebrate Pongal. Even here in Trinco, a primarily Tamil city, if I greet someone who is Sinhalese with vanikam (Tamil for hello) I will often be told that I should have said kohomada (Sinhala for hello). The environment at Sarvodaya could not have been more different.

When contextualized, the actions of these religious leaders are inspiring. I really respect the work that Shanti Sena, Sarvodaya’s peace building arm, put into this ceremony. Even my Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim students wished me a happy Pongal (in English!) when we first met this morning. The day could not have been summed up better than by a fellow staffer who told me, “we teach all Sri Lankans about Pongal, so we hope that when our students graduate they will tell their friends and family about Pongal next year. I hope they have made Tamil friends and can celebrate together.”

Reconciliation occurs slowly, one person at a time. These cultural activities are incredibly important, as they help to strengthen the sense of community across cultures. Given the affinity Sri Lankans have with sugar, you would be hard pressed to find anyone on this island who doesn’t like eating Pongal.

Coloring Book Academy

January 15, 2013 — 3 Comments

I studied finance at Fordham. When I started University I was in the College of Business Administration; during my senior year we became the Gabelli School of Business, thanks to a major contribution by Mario Gabelli. During my four years there I had a lot of internship experience and I got an offer from a top bank to work as a credit analyst post graduation.

Now I am teaching nursery rhymes and coloring. My classmates studying liberal arts didn’t call the College of Business Administration the Coloring Book Academy for nothing.

Life is good great. I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else in the world right now.

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Why Should I Care?

January 3, 2013 — 4 Comments

There have been several times during the past few weeks when I wonder why I should care about teaching.

  • When I walk into class and a student yelled, “No Sir, please no lesson.”
  • When my class lied for fifteen minutes about not having notebooks that day
  • When I walk into class and my students are playing with henna, because their teacher did not show up
  • When classes are canceled erratically, without notice to me

Teaching is tough, regardless of where you are. Teaching is a lot tougher in one of the poorer cities of Sri Lanka. Why should I care? Because if I don’t than no one will.

Teaching is frustrating most of the time; but those few moments keep you coming back. I liken it to golf; I’m out of practice, so my game is atrocious. But once or twice during an 18 hole round I’ll get a perfect swing in, and its a swing like that which keeps me coming back. Once or twice a day, I find I really made a connection or drove a point home. And that is why I wake up the next morning to teach.

A few days ago I taught a poem by Shel Silverstein, No Difference:

Small as a peanut,
Big as a giant,
We’re all the same size
When we turn off the light.
Rich as a sultan,
Poor as a mite,
We’re all worth the same
When we turn off the light.
Red, black or orange,
Yellow or white,
We all look the same
When we turn off the light.
So maybe the way
To make everything right
Is for God to reach out
And turn off the light!

This poem was a bit of a reach for most of my students, but I’m glad I pushed them. I tried an activity called creative copying, and had my students try to make their own stanza to fit in with the poem. I spent too long trying to explain what I wanted out of them, and this lesson didn’t go great in my first two classes. But by my third, I had a stanza of my own

Allah, Buddha, Jesus, or Ganesh
Whatever God you worship is right
We’re all the same
When you turn off the light.

After showing this to my students, one of the girls in my class came up with a really great verse:

Old as a teacher,
Young as a student,
We’re all the same
When you turn off the light.

Explaining it was too hard with the language barrier, but by showing an example things went much better. It was a great lesson for teaching, and life in general.

And its amazing when you realize that you’ve been getting through to your students all along. I was really touched this week when my toughest class gave me a New Year present. I was touched when I opened it, and had to work hard to stop laughing. I don’t think they realized the gramatical errors in the plack. It is something that I will keep in my office forever. 

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