Saturday’s Book: “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” by Alexander McCall Smith

I’ve been encountering mentions of this book for the past few years and had not had the opportunity to read it until now. After finally realizing that this is not a standard “whodunit” murder mystery book I was delighted when a dear friend lent me the book.

I finished the book in five days.

After I read the first five pages I stopped for a minute and studied the very large photo of the author on the inside cover. I was a bit concerned that the book was going to be patronizing – a white man writing about life as a female African in Botswana sees it. But the storytelling is great and the combination of the tales of the heroine’s own life and the cases she solves is fascinating so I forgot about such concerns.  I wanted to read more.

So, when discovering book number two “Tears of the Giraffe” at the library (needed to stock up on books for the holiday!) I broke my own tradition of not reading two books by the same author in a row and began it at once.

It isn’t as good. Besides the fact that I think the author didn’t keep the clever balance between personal stories and stories told through cases, now I’m bothered by the authors patronizing tone. Not regarding Africa, regarding the USA.  He is really trying to “ram down your throat” a message that America is only about a “grab grab” empty consumer culture. I would like to remind him that American television does not represent a huge percent of American people in this HUGE country!

Perhaps I should have stuck to my original rule – never read two books by the same author in a row!

Using Internationally-Known Words – Beware the Cultural Interference Factor

There is a delightful article by Stephen Reilly in the March-April 2012 issue of “Voices” entitled “I remember you”.

Reilly says, regarding adult learners:

“Beginner-lever learners posses a wider and deeper word-base of English than they realize and unearthing this offers them foundations they can build on”.

I heartily agree that “unearthing” these words gives the students a sense of pride that they actually DO know some English and can serve as a “springboard” for learning.


Photo by Omri Epstein

However, when using internationally –known words, the teacher must be constantly alert for cultural interference. When the student’s face lights up and he “crows” “Oh, I know this word”, is that student ascribing the same meaning to that word in English that you are?

In the United Sates, a cottage is a very simple form of dwelling. Something you might have by the lake as a fishing retreat, very modest. In Israel you would hear someone say: “Did you see that awesome cottage he just moved into?! What a place!” Most certainly not a plain, modest, rudimentary abode!

The word  test in Israel refers to the written part of the driving exam. Students are often confused when they encounter the word in texts and try to find a connection to driving. As this meaning seems to be so entrenched I have resorted to placing little signs with the word “test” on the desks during exams. Having the word at the top of the students exam papers had no effect at all.

In fact, the word student itself is a problem. In Israel students are only those who study at university. A sentence describing a first-grade student can be very puzzling!

There are many more examples.

I would like to add a word of caution regarding use of such words as a tool for learning the sounds of the letters. Many words entered the language from English in a somewhat mangled form. How many people properly pronounce the letter “H” in hamburger? Many would swear that is an “ambuger”!

I’m assuming that this phenomenon is true in other countries as well, as it seems logical that it would be.

Can you tell me if my assumption is correct?

Saturday’s Book: Remembering “The Trumpet of the Swan” by E.B. White

I recently read a great post using an example from The Trumpet of the Swan to make an educational point.

I don’t discuss education on Saturdays. The post just reminded me how much I loved this book which I hadn’t thought about in a while.

While I enjoyed all E.B White’s book this one is my favorite. I love the way the story is told.

Perhaps the fact that the swan is a “Special Ed” character who does brillliantly well is part of the book’s appeal for me.

One of those children’s books I refuse to part with. Certainly worth a reread!

KUDOS to an EFL Teacher who Promotes Peace Through Music!

When the news is filled with the horrid events in Toulouse, France, it is so heartwarming to see this video.

Lauren Ornstein, an awesome teacher and musician who works with both Jewish and Arab students as an EfL teacher and counselor, is also a Music in Common volunteer in Israel.

This is their latest workshop video “Peace -Shalom – Salaam”, a song written and performed by both Jewish and Arab students. They also participated in video-taping the project.

If you listen carefully you will hear her in the background.


Getting Teachers to Collaborate – Strike Two!

I know, take a deep breath.

Take the long view.

As Tyson Seburnt and I were discussing recently – build it and they will come, right?

But why is it so hard to convince teachers that sharing resources and ideas is in their best interests and will actually make life easier for them?

Epstein Family Photos

I gave a talk to another group of itinerant teachers today. The talk itself went well. We discussed issues regarding teaching reading to deaf and hard of hearing children, vocabulary acquisition and the tricky issue of the relationship with the classroom teacher. The teachers asked questions and shared tales from their work. There was a nice atmosphere.

At the end of my talk I showed them my Hebrew counseling blog. I title my posts there as answers to questions (instead of me repeating myself all the time!). I showed them how one can search by tag to find relevant posts. They expressed some interest in that (the post on using a word cloud caught some people’s attention, I think).

Then I went into my “motivational talk” mode and explained how this blog could serve them as a place to share resources. If they would tell me about a site they found helpful, a book or a strategy that worked well, I would post it. That way they could all benefit from each other’s ideas being in one place. For a resource collection to be truly useful the content must come from the teachers in the field.

Dead silence.

Not even nods.


Saturday’s Book: “Fragment” by Warren Fahey

The funny thing is that I’m reading this fantasy thriller about a lost island where highly dangerous animals have evolved completely differently, as a direct result of reading Bill Bryson’s book about Australia a few weeks ago.

As you know, I like to tell anyone who is willing to listen about what I read. Which means my husband and sons get full updates. When I was reading about Australia we discussed the part about the damage done by the rabbits brought to Australia. I had heard about it (I knew the term rabbit-proof –fence) but hadn’t really known that it had all started with so few rabbits and that the damage was that extensive.

Anyway, when my eldest heard about the rabbits he pulled the book “Fragment” off his shelf and said: “If you thought that was interesting then you must read this“. My other son chimed in that I should read it too. The book begins with very real factual information about the damage done by species from one environment invading another (interestingly though, the author doesn’t mention the rabbits in Australia). My husband then read the book (quickly, it is a thriller!).

So now I’m reading it too.

It is well written, very fast paced, with lots of amusing and intriguing details. You could have discussions on issues raised in the book! Think a modern, really up to date version of Jurassic Park but with no dinosaurs. However, I don’t like horror tales and skip a bit of the descriptions of how people met with their death. The book seems to be made for the big screen and I’m surprised it hasn’t been made into a movie yet. Though I probably wouldn’t watch it – reading about things is one thing, watching them is another!

Yes, I’m squeamish but I certainly recommend reading the book!

I wonder what Bill Bryson would say…

A No-Tech Talk – A Hard Act to Follow

Photo by Gil Epshtein

Last July, at the ETAI English Teacher’s conference in Jerusalem, I gave my first completely no-tech talk.

I know I’m tooting my own horn here, but it was very well received. Discussing a strategy to get some learning done while relating to what is completely distracting your class (and has caused you to throw your lesson plan out the window) using only the whiteboard and a marker seemed to really resonate with teachers. The plain whiteboard seems to still be the most widely used tool in the classroom.

Pondering on teachers’ interest in utilizing the whiteboard, in addition to an audible sense of relief that not everything today requires tech, I toyed with the idea of being the teacher who is known for giving no-tech talks at the conferences.

I knew I had time to think about it till the next conference.

The proposal form for the upcoming summer conference has just arrived.

I haven’t used any new strategies for the whiteboard (still really like the old one!).

In addition, most of what I’ve been actively learning this year has had to do with utilizing tech tools for online homework.

Even if I abandon the idea of being the teacher who presents simple” take this home and try it” strategies, that require nothing more than a whiteboard (at no-tech talks) I’m hesitant to plan a talk on online homework. I discussed this with a friend who is a “regular” high-school English teacher and he said that there is no way a teacher with 6 classes of 40 pupils could possibly deal with online homework the way I do with my small special-ed classes. Furthermore, presenting a bunch of tech tool without a framework of why they are worth using (in my case, for the online homework tasks I give) is not the kind of talk I would want to attend myself!

So, at the moment I’m finding my own talk a difficult act to follow and have not yet filled in the presenters form. I’ve presented at the conference many times before but have not had this quandary till now.

Do you know what I mean?


Saturday’s Book: A Homage to Jan Berenstain

I just read that Jan Berenstain, co-creator of the delightful Berenstain Bears series of books for children, passed away recently, at the age of 88.

I was not aware that the first books had come out in the 60’s, as I don’t remember them from my own childhood. However, I enjoyed the books with my first niece and nephew in the 80’s, then with my own boys in the 90’s and am now enjoying these books again with my little niece and nephew, born in the 21st  century!

Books that retain their appeal for children over such a span of time have my sincere admiration!

Using (word) Clouds in Class or for Homework – Which Increases Rainfall?

As I’ve been checking students’ first homework task using a word cloud for the past week, I find myself pondering this question.

Inspired by the activity described on the macappella blog, I created a word cloud from a text which my student teacher had just read with the students. The original activity involved creating sentences using words from the cloud in class. I assigned it as a homework task.

Since I give a short homework task once a week (which I always check!) it made a lot of sense to have students review the vocabulary taught by creating sentences using the vocabulary items from the text. If I relate to Christina Markoulaki’s list of benefits that can be derived from suitable homework tasks (post on the iTDi blog) this certainly was a task that looked attractive, was something they could do on their own (all my students use Google Translator for homework) and left room for creativity. The students were free to write about anything they wanted as long as they used at least one word from the cloud on each sentence.

So, you may ask, what is the problem?

If I get back to Christina’s list, she talks about homework being an opportunity to consolidate grammar and vocabulary.

The students certainly reviewed the vocabulary. That goal was achieved. Even if there was a grammatical error in the sentence (and believe me, there were grammatical errors) I accepted sentences in which the words were placed in the correct context, i.e. used correctly. Some of the students wrote sentences that were related to their own lives and were pleased when I was able to make comments related to their interests in class. That was really great!

However, the grammar aspect remains an unresolved issue. I had the opportunity to sit with some of the students individually in class and work on their sentences. Since we were working on their own original writing they were more attentive than usual to explanations about grammar when correcting the sentences. That was incredibly useful – those students had had reading comprehension (the original text), vocabulary practice AND grammar practice!

The rest of the students did not get this grammar practice. It is not possible to go into the same detail when replying to a student’s homework task by email. I do not want to return a task full of error markings (much more efficient to focus on one or two points). In addition, a student will not really read a long reply from me. In any case, long replies are not sustainable as giving homework on a weekly basis demands creating and checking it every week.

In short, giving word clouds for homework made it rain. But it seemed to rain harder when done either in class, or with a follow up in class. Learning curve hasn’t been completed yet…

Saturday’s Book: “Summertime” by Coetzee

When I find a book that has been recommended to me in the library, I make a point of NOT reading the blurb on the back cover. Once the decision to read the book has been made (this one was recommended by friend and fellow book-lover Vicky Loras) I don’t want any spoilers.

However, I couldn’t ignore the adjectives on the front cover: “compelling, funny, moving and full of life”.

I’m not quite sure yet what to make of the book even though I’ve read a third of it already. Certainly compelling – I would love to grab a blanket (it’s cold here!!) and continue reading.

“Funny” – not at all.

I find it a puzzling book – some of it seems like an intellectual puzzle or “swordplay with words”. Other parts seemed designed to shock.

I’ll keep reading and see how it plays out!