Wednesday, March 25, 2015

TESOLs Past - the big picture

One reason I'm going to Toronto is that for years, as the TESOL Convention was in various cities, Baltimore, San Antonio, St. Louis, I would just tell everyone that I thought it should go to Toronto. Little did I know that it actually was in Toronto, maybe in 1983, but that was well before my time, as I didn't really start attending them seriously until about 1994. From '94 on, though, I went to a string of about sixteen or seventeen of them, and really only missed a few from then to now.

I know that TESOL as an organization has an institutional memory of its very first international TESOL Convention, which was in the late sixties, in which a terrible airplane accident near Mexico City killed all the leaders of TESOL, most of whom were all on the same plane. There was no question for many of the following years that TESOL as an organization was still hesitant to have a Convention outside of the USA, but I think another big reason for avoiding Canada was simply the weather. The Convention is always in late March (sometimes early April) and draws people from all over the world, but especially from some of the warmer places. How many of these people will truly be prepared for Canada in late March? Of course, how many people are prepared for Canada in general, one could argue, and I tend to jump in here as a person who has always loved Canada, in all its forms, stormy, gray, snowy, windy, a little conservative, with its kilometers and grams and liters, and good youth hostels in the centers of its cities.

My first TESOL Convention, or the earliest one I remember best, was in Chicago in 1988, and I badly needed a job in the USA, having had a baby back in Korea. At one point I climbed in an elevator of a major hotel, perhaps the Palmer or the Sheraton, and Dick Gephardt and a few of his goons were in there. He was running for president of the US at the time, and all the candidates were in the fancy Chicago hotels on that day for some event; others who were probably in the building at that time were Dukakis, who eventually won, and Senator Paul Simon of Illinois, who lost that campaign but was probably the best of the candidates. The elevator closed around us and I could feel the tension as everyone read my name badge, which had a Korean university's name on it. Dick Gephardt almost had to restrain his goons to keep them from having two or three of them just pick me up and push me out of the elevator. I pressed a floor button so that the elevator would drop me well below their floor, and everyone was relieved when I simply got out of the elevator at the right moment. I still laugh about that time, because I still remember so clearly the stress resulting from the idea that every voter is still to be courted; a bad story about being roughed up in an elevator could cost a person hundreds of votes at that point and I'm sure he wanted to avoid that; at the same time, being a kind of south-side (St. Louis) kind of guy, maybe he had some other opinions too. on my trip, i will fly through Chicago in one direction, but through new york on the other. a friend of mine claims that Toronto '83 was his first, and that this gives him nostalgia. ah yes, me too.

I could go on and on about various conventions, or tell a little about what kind of things a Convention encompasses, but I won't. TESOL took applications to be a convention blogger (long-time attendee) and I almost took them up on it, but I didn't. The main reason is that I've become like the guys in my bluegrass band, thoroughly uncompromising, and not caring especially whether I please a professional audience. Why should I reach out to a wide, far-flung, professional, TESOL audience? I haven't published a single ESL book, so I have no special reason to attract such people to even this page, which is about the best of my professional writing these days. I'm going to this one to connect with many old and beloved friends, and to do my schtick in another country, which is always fun, and partly, because I need a break from warm and dry, relentlessly conservative Texas. Down here, Cruz is more liberal than most, but he was able to capture the center (by calling his opponent a moderate), so....he edged his way into office, and actually shut down the government once. I'm not getting in an elevator with him; instead, I'm leaving the country. It's really for everyone's benefit.

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Monday, March 23, 2015

Excited about Toronto

Webheads in Toronto
Electronic Village webcasts (wish I could make one?)
blog festival, other events
TESOL blog

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Sunday, February 15, 2015

SIUC Linguistics Alumni Coordinator

I am asking for help with this job because I am semi-retired, I'm busy, and I don't know how many more TESOL Conventions I will be able to attend. I think it's extremely important, to SIUC, to its graduates, and to the future of Linguistics. I hope somebody will help.

There is a Facebook page which one keeps an eye on. I could be more aggressive about being sure each of its members is an actual graduate, but I consider it good enough to keep it free of spam and keep its messages related to the department. It does not specify that it is for alumni, but the current students have other active pages that they use more regularly, and this one is mostly for alumni.

Every year at the TESOL Convention, we try to have an SIUC gathering. Sometimes it is poorly planned, nonexistent, or poorly attended. SIUC Linguistics has a huge community, important in the TESOL world, and if those who attend the conference know about the gathering, and are able, they will usually drop by and say hello. Most are successful ESL/EFL professionals spread around the world. One year the President of TESOL was a Saluki and he stopped by. Many of our grads were at SIUC at a different time than I was (I was at SIUC 1994-2012) but I have come to meet some who were there before me, and some who have arrived since. Needless to say this would be true for any alumni coordinator. You would get to know them and learn what era they occupied.

To me, these grads are SIUC's greatest resource, yet SIUC barely knows about it. If the Alumni Office ever tried to reach me or find out who or where these folks were, I never knew about it. It could be that many of them have joined the Alumni Association separately and want to maintain relations with their specific department separately, but I tend to believe that, since there is a price to maintaining a relationship with the Alumni Office, they prefer to stick with the department itself.

Our shining moment came a couple of years back when the department was in danger of being extinguished entirely, and the Chair asked if alumni could simply report where they were, what they were doing, and how they were using their MA degree. I used the list of e-mail addresses that has been passed down to me, and simply asked everyone. The response was significant, and I forwarded it all to the Chair. People higher up got a sense of who our graduates were and what they were doing. To make a long story short, the department was saved (there were other reasons, too, I'm sure), and I felt vindicated.

I maintain that e-mail list, but I'd like to hand it over to someone. There's an unspoken rule: I use it only to tell about the convention reunion, in other words sparingly, and since it doesn't overpower anyone's inbox, people stay connected to us. We don't sell their e-mail addresses and they remain loyal Salukis.

Keep in mind one other thing. Folks who worked at Nakajo for many years have no alumni department, that I know of, so we are it for them as well. They come to the TESOL reunion, and find each other, but rarely do many of them know many of us very well, unless they actually worked in both locations. I don't know about you, but the people I've taught with over the years are in many ways my closest friends; I don't want to lose touch with the lifeline that helps me find them, or at least find out what may have happened to them. Sometimes, if someone is looking for a certain colleague from their era, and this isn't my era, I can't help them right away, or use my meager record-keeping system (I have only e-mail addresses, besides their personal accounts) to find someone who can help them. But as long as we keep some form of reunion / gathering / accounting system alive, there is hope. And that, I think, is important, and I don't want to let that go, and let that fall silently into the depths of my un-dealt-with e-mail. Thank you for reading this far; contact me if you're still interested!

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Friday, February 13, 2015

TESOL presentation

I will be presenting at the TESOL International 2015 Electronic Village Classics in Toronto. 

Presentation Title: For Better or Worse: Grammar technology and the language learner
Presentation Description: This presentation shows the technology that students are using to learn and write, so that practitioners can adjust accordingly
Day and Time: Friday, March 27 2:30-3:20 PM
Computer Station: MAC 4
All invited!

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Thursday, February 12, 2015

GT app

So today in class we were talking about technological innovations in our field, and I happened to mention that in language learning, the big one was the new Google Translate app, which you could hold up to anyone who is speaking any language and it would translate it into any other language. Now by "any" I mean the top thirteen, and right away my colleague who was really interested in Mongolian was asking whether it had Mongolian, but of course the GT guys have barely started with Mongolian, let alone Kazakh, Hopi, Tongan, or Jamaican Creole.

After a few minutes a woman admitted that she had it, and she even showed her phone. Sure enough, there was an app on it and I spoke "Hello how are you" into it, and it translated it into Arabic. I took her word for it that it was reasonably good Arabic, not perfect, she said. By now students from the next class were entering and we were under pressure to leave; all this happened when class was essentially over. But when one student said, "of course it'll do 'How are you,' but what about anything else?"....so I tried "Open your book to page 143 and write ten sentences" in a kind of reflex ESL-teacher mode. She again translated it into Arabic. It worked, she said. Not perfect, but it worked. An Iranian student vowed that she would download it immediately and see how it worked for her.

I didn't catch the name of the app. I also saw the list of available languages, which included Moldavian (???)...I have a fellow teacher from Moldova who insisted that wasn't her...but I reserved judgment on that because I'm well aware there could be a Moldavian and it could be among the top thirteen. Some people are obviously left out; in my class, I have Sri Lankans, Bengalis, a Brazilian Portuguese speaker (who was gone)...a few more. More on this later. This is what I want to know.

1. Obviously it's ok if you hold the phone right up to someone's mouth and they speak loudly and clearly right into it. But at what point does this fall apart? The back of a small class where people are whispering? A crowded cafe? Where is it most useful and least useful?

2. Obviously the skill involved in using it is a kind of grammar de-scrambler...it's possible that the computer is quite effective at figuring out the words it has just heard. Also it reportedly can figure out which language it's listening to, though I saw her specify, Eng. to Arabic. So - can you set it on figure out the language? Does it make mistakes with the words? If so which ones? How much descrambling do you have to do?

3. How fun is it to use? Do you enjoy it? Or do you have to hide it from the average teacher?

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Wednesday, February 04, 2015

ESL/EFL Writing teachers, Help!


Dear ESL/EFL Writing teacher: For years I have been studying the influences of technology on ESL writers’ grammar and expression. The influences are not all bad; for example, the computer’s constant reminder that subjects and verbs must be matched has virtually eliminated a wide range of the most common, simple matching errors that we used to see regularly. But computers, specifically electronic dictionaries, programs such as Google Translate, and Word grammar-check and other (sometimes free) grammar software have altered students’ learning curves as well as their production. I am most interested in the ways their learning and writing have been hampered, because it is most useful for teachers to be aware of that, in order to teach more effectively. But anything you can point out, good or bad, about computers’ influences on students’ learning and writing will be helpful to me.

If you have read enough and don’t wish to say anything, thanks anyway for your time! If you do the survey, it will take about half an hour, and I will need it in two weeks, roughly at the end of February; thanks in advance! I will send you a free book upon your completion; be patient if you live abroad. You can see the books at my press website (tlevspress.blogspot.com); there is poetry and short stories (ESL eventually, but you may have to wait). This is obviously self-serving in terms of getting my own books out there, but I can’t think of anyone I’d rather give it away to, than my fellow teachers here and abroad! Feel free to forward this message to other ESL/EFL teachers you know who might be interested. More information about what I’m doing (and the TESOL presentation it is for) is on my blog: tomleveretts.blogspot.com. Thanks again! –Tom Leverett

Note: This was pasted, verbatim, on Facebook. All ESL/EFL Writing teachers are welcome to participate, though. My fear is that as I become a little removed from the ESL/EFL writing trenches, I lose touch with what people are experiencing. I need to know what you are seeing!

My TESOL presentation is For Better or Worse: Grammar technology and the ESL/EFL Writer; it's part of the Internet Fair Classics. Stay posted for details on time and place; hope to see you there!  Its website is here, though I've had trouble updating it, due to changes in uploading technology.

To participate in the survey, write me at thomas.leverett@ttu.edu. I will send  the survey by word file (it is about 2 1/2 pages). Thanks in advance!

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

ITA story

In our business we are the gateway; if people are good and capable teachers, at least as far as their speaking goes, they go on and teach at the university, and if their speaking, or some aspects of their teaching, falls short, they stay with us until everything improves. We are always afraid of disasters further up the chain. If there is a teacher at the university who can't be understood by students, that's indirectly our fault.

Yesterday afternoon at about 3:30, there was an explosion in the Chemistry building. Today, I decided to see what I could find out about it, and I checked my roll until I found the one student who was in the Chemistry department. After class, I asked her if she knew anything about the explosion.

In a nutshell she said this. There were two students under the direction of one TA. The TA was in her lab; she knew the TA (both she and the TA were Chinese). One of the students poured an acid in with a base, in a toxic waste container, and it blew up. People ended up in the hospital and came back with bandages covering glass wounds. Nobody was killed, fortunately. Also, it was the second explosion at the Chemistry building, although I know nothing about the first (I remember it vaguely, and I think it was worse, but I didn't do research on it, and have no idea what caused it, or how much worse).

Then I asked her about the TA. She said, you passed this very TA in the summer workshop, whereas you flunked me, so here I am, in your class. Now this floored me. I did not remember flunking this particular student, although it could be possible; in the summer workshop there are many students, and we often grade them for very short presentations and hardly see them the rest of the month. Same with the name she gave me; it sounded familiar, but I didn't recognize it as someone I knew well.

But the question remains. I'm a father, so I know how you can have native English, and still give someone instruction, and still have them do something stupid, or dangerous, or both, for no better reason than that they weren't thinking. Lots of times, it has nothing to do with language at all. But if you're a good teacher, and presumably Chemistry students want to be chemists, at least on some level, and if your communication is clear, and if your instruction is clear, generally they don't dump acid onto a base, even in a waste container. So, to what degree could this have been caused by language, or communication skills, or some other kind of failure?

Good question.

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