What Teaching ESL Taught Me

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The number one tip for being a great teacher is always cited as passion. I don’t know if I would be considered a great teacher, but I do have passion. Lots of it! There’s passion for my students, which is why it stresses me out when students don’t take the time to utilize the strategies I have personal crafted for them. Then there’s also passion for writing. Specializing in writing and speaking, I have a genuine interest in developing a person’s ability for expression.

My students often laugh at me on the first day of SAT class when I tell them that their essays all need to have a voice, theirs. I proceed to tell them that no, it’s not a conversation with your reader where ‘howdys’ and ‘hope you like my essays’ are exchanged. Rather, it’s the expression and voice you have as an individual. A voice that often gets largely ignored because of their age.

They don’t quite understand what I mean, and more disheartening is the realization for some that they have never really developed anything to say or any true opinions. So we struggle along for a few weeks trying to find their deeper voice while also correcting some stylistic and grammatical issues at large.

Many times I have to repeat the idea that you don’t want to be like every other student taking the SAT test that day. You don’t want your readers, poor fellows who have to read 100 essays in a row, banging their heads onto their desks and desperately seeking some wine because every single essay uses Steve Jobs and iPhones as examples. More often than not, the examples and facts aren’t even accurately portrayed.

Halfway through the semester, we hit the first major breakthrough. I know enough about them at this point to find at least one significant moment from their life and then I harp on it. I make it the epitome of their entire lives. I start to show how that one moment in their life can be spun like a globe to highlight all sorts of values, lessons, and logic. Then we get it. We understand that this moment, and others like it, is what gives us a voice. What gives us, as a writer, our connection with our readers.

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By the end of the semester, almost all my students have working examples they use for almost every essay and they tell me how much easier this is than to brainstorm a new example every single essay. I simply laugh and tell them that I told them to write that down on day one, but no one’s pencils had moved.

Even my younger students have difficulty pinpointing specific examples and descriptions. It can take up to ten minutes for them to write a single sentence describing an experience in which they have to stand in their own shoes to describe what was happening around them. I try to show them that in expressing themselves, the details and the sensations are what make the listener understand and imagine all that they are trying to portray. But this is tough for them because their other teachers have taught them to be memorizers and storytellers. Facts, names, dates, and what happens next. I normally get looks of bewilderment when I assign writing prompts in which they are not allowed to have any action in their compositions, only description for twenty sentences.

I have to practice this skill with my SAT students as well as I often have them write their first sentence of an introduction (we refer to it as a ‘hook’ and it is based on one of their later examples) as a visual, first person description of one exact moment from their example. They could write a single descriptive sentence about standing in front of a longtime best friend who just lied to you or the moment you saw a parent in a moment of weakness, even the moment your basketball went into the hoop right as the buzzer sounded. Any one moment from their example in a visually descriptive sentence.

We have such a hard time zeroing in on a specific moment, the details of an instant.  Asked to describe how they felt, what they saw, the noises floating around them, the students merely ponder for a bit and then write, “When I won the tournament, I was very happy and I will never forget that day.”

At about the same time, my heart drops at the missed opportunity to have genuine expression of self. “Winning a tournament,” I tell them, “That’s amazing! What did you feel in that moment? How did you react? Was there a crowd?”

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For some students, they start to see where I’m going with all my overly-enthused writing teacher antics. Soon, they start to slip into the shoes of their past and add personal perspective and more rich descriptions. Other students struggle with the skill, but they realize that they too want to put more. It just might take some more time on their part.

Teaching English abroad has really taught me a powerful lesson: Expression is increasingly significant if we want to be authentic, but more important is our ability to re-learning how to focus on one moment, one instant and be completely devoted to it.

Growing up in a generation of peers that pushed ourselves to do more, see more, and experience more, I sometimes forget to look at the micro instead of just the macro. To look at the short-term just as much as I look at the long-term. Teaching these students to provide the reader with their interpretations of their life experiences and the world in which they engage, I am constantly reminded to slow down myself and take in the feeling of a moment.  Sometimes those moments occur on the fourth level of a pagoda during sunrise and other times they are in the moments of victory when a student writes their first truly engaging hook sentence. But the lesson is the same: these moments are equally important in the narration of and the expression of my own voice.

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When’s the last time you took some time to write about a singular instance? Try your hand at one of these and then link back to this article!
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2 thoughts on “What Teaching ESL Taught Me”

  1. Really interesting article! Focusing on the present moment is so important for grounding us, appreciating what we have and raising our self awareness but i’ve never thought about recalling a moment in time and choosing to express it with flair and creativity. What a wonderful exercise – i look forward to trying it out!

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