Sunday, December 31, 2006

Coveniently-Timed Execution

Perhaps the execution of Saddam Hussein will call the attention of most people away from the fact that the number of American soldiers killed in Iraq since the Bush Administration invaded the country is only two away from 3000. (Actually, it's much higher, according to a conversation I had in an airport with a soldier on leave who pointed out that any soldier who is fatally wounded, but dies while being transported out of Iraq, is not counted among the casualties of the "war." Figures of the number of casualties for both Americans can be seen at the, and those for Iraqui civilians at Iraqui Body Count.)

Even more insulting to Muslim people is the fact that Hussein was hung during Id al-Adha, "an important holiday considered a time of forgiveness and compassion." According to the International Herald Tribune, "Id al-Adha, or Feast of the Sacrifice, honors the biblical patriarch Abraham's willingness to kill his son Isaac for God before God decided to spare Isaac's life" and is "the most important date in the Islamic calendar." The Tribune states that "Muslim countries often pardon criminals to mark the occasion, and prisoners are rarely executed at that time."

I'm not suggesting that Hussein should have been pardoned. However, regardless of the atrocities he committed, this was hardly an eye-for-an-eye or a tooth-for-a-tooth execution. It was a blatant political maneuver.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Monday, December 25, 2006

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Alicia's Smile

Alicia is not her real name. It's the name she would most likely have if she were American and not Japanese. She's a college student in a conversation class I teach.

Alicia has not been the best of students. In fact, in class she often seems despondent, making little if any eye contact with me. I've had to ask her not to sleep in class a couple of times. If she were in American class, she might be thought of as a student with an attitude.

A week ago, the class activity was to write a letter about a personal problem, real or imaginary, and ask for advice, using a pen name. Alicia wrote the following:

"I'm sleepy everyday everytime.
Because school is hate.
Morning is hate.
Maybe, every night is very busy so, I'm tired
but I need money.
I must work every night.
I'm very tired.
I hope want holiday.
I want sleep.
I want go to shopping.
I want go to my friend's house.
. . . etc . . . [sic]
I hope get up time. What should I do?
Sleepy Girl"

I have no doubt that what Alicia wrote was very real. As I read the letter, I realized that the young woman is simply not getting enough sleep, mainly because of her part-time job. Knowing how grouchy I myself can be without enough sleep, I began to understand why she has an “attitude” in class. I was particularly dismayed, though, about her stating so blatantly that she hates school. I wished that I taught at the school full-time so I could be accessible for her or any students who wanted to discuss problems they were having with school, work, friends, parents, etc.

Then, yesterday, we were discussing a topic that was fairly easy for everyone, housework and chores. (Many of the topics in the textbook, such as abortion, cloning, and addiction, are much more challenging for this class of Child Care majors whose English grammar and vocabulary are extremely limited.)

The students were in small groups for discussion, as usual. After talking about who does the housework in their family now, and who they expect to do the housework in the future (when they have a roommate, partner, or husband), I had them do a kind of role play in which the people in each group were housemates. They had to come up with a schedule of chores, which could either be permanent or rotating.

I circulated the classroom, making sure the students were on task, helping them with vocabulary and spelling, and discussing the topic with them. When I got to Alicia’s group, I noticed they had written “walk the dog.”

I asked them what kind of dog they had. They weren’t able to answer at first, so I asked, “How big is your dog?” gesturing with my hands to show different sizes. Alicia replied with her hands, showing the approximate size, so I asked, “That big? It’s a pretty big dog.” Again, I asked, “What kind of dog is it? A German shepherd? A collie?” using breeds they might understand. One of the students in the group finally piped up, “A Dalmatian,” and everyone eagerly agreed.

At that point I saw that it was Alicia’s “job” to walk the dog 4 times a week. I asked her if she liked dogs and she nodded. “Alicia and the Dalmatian,” I said, to which she and her “housemates” responded with a giggle. I continued, “It sounds like a nice story for children, ‘Alicia and the Dalmatian.’” Alicia’s face brightened and, for the first time, I saw a genuine smile.

I don’t think Alicia hated school at that moment. She enjoyed getting special attention. What’s more, she understood everything I was saying. As for me, I’ll never forget Alicia’s smile.

Below is a photo of other students enjoying English conversation in Alicia’s class.

Alicia's Smile

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Moments Teachers Live For

In my Advanced Writing class this morning, I experienced one of those rare moments that teachers live for. The class is small, only 6 students. This being Japan, the 3 young men sit on one side of the aisle and the 3 young women on the other. The students are busy with the final stages of the research papers they've been working on all semester.

One of the students was using a quotation, and I noticed that there was a quote within a quote. In my usual serious way of teaching, I said to him in a stage whisper, "I'm going to teach you a secret about using quotation marks, but don't let any of the other students know, OK?"

Naturally all the ears in the room perked up, and everyone listened in as I explained the usage of single quotation marks for a quote within a quote. As soon as I had finished, they all dashed over to his desk to find out the "secret" information. Peering over his shoulder, those who understood the usage were explaining it to others in Japanese.

I wish I had captured the moment on camera - students crowded around a desk, excited about learning and cooperating to help each other understand. If I had simply "taught" the usage by lecturing about it, about half of them would have been listening, and fewer than that would probably have gotten it right. As it is, I think they'll all do it correctly if their paper happens to include a quote within a quote.

The "secret information" technique is not one I use every day, but it certainly was successful this time, and I'll keep it in my bag of teaching tricks. The success of getting the information across was not, however, due only to a teaching trick. It also took a class that was comfortable with me and students who had bonded. That together with an unusually enthusiastic group is what made the moment.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

I Can't Stop!

In 2 of my English conversation classes, I'm using a textbook called Impact Topics. This week, class discussion stemmed from one of the most popular chapters, entitled "I Can't Stop", which focuses on addictions.

In both classes, I made a couple of discoveries. One is that the students don't really understand the concept of addiction. A couple of them who have part-time jobs and work 5-6 days a week thought that they were workaholics. I explained that, unless they continued to work beyond the number of required hours and to do extra work without pay, they weren't really workaholics.

I gave the example of what happened the previous week when a couple of my TOEFL students asked me about the difference between "only" and "just." I ended up spending about 6 hours researching the two words on various Internet sites, coming up with several pages with numerous examples of usage. I'm still not satisfied that I can give a clear explanation and will most likely spend more time on it. Now that's a workaholic! (It's also the reason I haven't been doing my duty as one of the teachers at the ESL Help Center at Dave's Cafe. I simply was spending too much time except on the simplest of answers.)

After my discussions with small groups and talking with the entire class about the nature of addiction, many of the students (if not all) had a much better understanding of the difference between liking something (such as watching movies, which many of them enjoy) and being addicted (watching movies for hours and hours, often until the wee hours of the morning, interfering with their studies and/or work).

I always start out the class by telling them how I'm a chocoholic, and explaining other "holic' terms such as shopaholic. At the end of the class, I ask them what addictions listed in the text they think I've checked besides chocoholic and workaholic. They can usually guess surfing the Net fairly quickly, but it takes a while for them to guess alcoholic. In fact, today there were numbers of different guesses, and one student finally came up with "drinking alcohol." When I said, "Yes," there was a cry of astonishment.

I told them how I used to drink a great deal, a bottle or two of wine, every night, which they found hard to believe. I also explained quickly that I was a recovering alcoholic, through the help of a support group, and that I hadn't had a drink for well over 8 years. I added that I could never drink again, even a single glass of wine.

Students fill out Self-Assessment Forms every week where they can give feedback on what they found interesting in their group discussion, and can ask me questions. I somewhat expected some comments on my self-disclosure about my alcoholism. To my astonishment, not a single student in either class mentioned it. Most of them focused on their own possible addictions or those of others in their group. Some felt they might be addicted to something (a common addiction was use of cell phones) and others came to the conclusion that they weren't. My openness about my own addictions seemed to give them more permission to talk about their own concerns.

Although I always talk briefly of ways of getting help with one's addictions - everything from hot lines to professional counseling to (peer) support groups - very little of their discussion seems to get into those areas. Last year, however, two of the students who smoked decided to start their own quit smoking support group of two. For others, if they need to seek help some day, at least they've been introduced to the concept of support groups.