All posts by Naomi Epstein

Hi! I teach English as a foreign language to deaf and hard of hearing students in Israel and am a national counselor in this field. http://visualisingideas.edublogs.org

Saturday’s Book: “In Xanadu: A Quest” by William Dalrymple

 

Naomi’s Photos

Don’t read this book if you are easily offended.

However, despite the fact that Dalrymple is quite critical (or condescending!) of every place and culture he encounters on his incredible journey from Jerusalem to China, this book is a great read and I quite enjoyed it.

The book is actually a double form of time-traveling.  The author, and his formidable traveling companion, Laura, set out to recreate most of Marco Polo’s epic journey. They don’t begin in Italy but rather in The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, where Marco Polo supposedly stopped to take some holy oil for the journey.  Dalrymple brings alive historical information about Marco Polo’s journey in a light, engaging,  and clearly knowledgeable manner. He particularly focuses on architecture and points out cross-cultural influences between Islamic and Christian architecture, as he relates anecdotes regarding the people he meets and their adventures along the way.

But the modern journey is itself a form of time-travel to a reader like myself, reading the book in 2018. The two students (the author was 22!!!) embarked on the journey in the early 1980s. Not only have the regions they passed through undergone changes or even upheavals since then, but the journey also took place in pre-Internet days. While Dalrymple is very knowledgeable about the past, he seems to have known very little of the current (1980s, that is) forces or news of the regions he was passing through in advance. I believe foreigners trekking through remote places was a much rarer phenomenon back then, which makes his tales even more interesting.

Naomi’s Photos

The young people certainly do not travel in style and do many a crazy thing to keep progressing towards their goal. Frankly,  I find it pretty amazing they made it to Xanadu at all. Side note: Dalrymple makes the whole journey but in India, Louisa replaces Laura for the last leg. Louisa was Dalrymple’s former girlfriend…

I have to admit that I’m a mother of 20 something-year-olds. Although I read the tales of these two young people’s travels through areas considered highly dangerous (where the two young people could have easily been murdered or thrown into a remote prison many times!), with a fair amount of equanimity, I got quite upset when I reached the part where Louisa became ill.  They were in an area where the health care was particularly appalling and she could have easily died!  Obviously, she did not but I identified strongly with their mothers’, who are briefly mentioned.

In short, despite its shortcomings, it’s an engaging book! I’m ready to read more of his books!

When a Proctor’s Smile Becomes a Tricky thing – Deaf Students taking an EFL Exam

Naomi’s Photos

The scene is familiar, students seated in rows, one to a table, with an exam paper in front of each of them. Their school bags are lined up against the wall and there’s a dictionary on each desk.  All the students are focused on their exam papers.

However, the room is quite small. There are only nine students. There were supposed to be ten students but one of them, today of all days, missed his pick-up time for the transportation to school and is absent (hmm, I think to myself).

I ponder the advantages of being Deaf during an exam. The room assigned to us overlooks a parking lot of a neighboring municipal building. I seem to be the only one bothered by the noise of the vehicles, and the people talking too loudly on their cell phone. A student in the back taps his foot nervously and no one is perturbed by the repetitive tap tapping.  I’m relieved that there are no real hard of hearing students in this particular class – that kind of noise drives them bonkers (the students who hear better have turned off their hearing aids, I tap them on the shoulder if I need to tell them something).  That is until the nervous student starts knocking his pen against the desk. The student sitting in front of him immediately picks up her head, puzzled. She doesn’t know what she is hearing and which direction it is coming from. I explain and ask the other student to stop. He hadn’t noticed he was making a sound. Everyone else is working quietly.

Being judgmental…
Epstein Family Photos

Then it happens.

The same nervous student in the back gets up for a moment to stretch (the chairs never seem to be comfortable for these really tall boys!) and makes a funny face. I smile at him with a sort of silent laugh and motion to him to sit back down. Another student is instantly alert. What did he miss? What went on here? Why was I smiling? Did I say something when I was moving my hands?

You can’t say “It was nothing, keep working”. Deaf students are very sensitive about feeling left out of things. They have to deal with that feeling a lot in the world outside the classroom.  So there I am, explaining in Israeli Sign Language, about me smiling because of the student who made a funny face and that they both should get back to work when other students pick up their heads. They picked up on the sign language and needed to know what was going on.

In short, I ended up with a “commercial break” in which everyone got the update regarding the funny face made, that nothing more than that went on, no one missed anything and would they please go back to work.

And they did.

I’m still glad I smiled.  Even though it caused some trouble.

Smiles are worth it.

*** Note:  I enjoy following Jamie Keddie’s postings as he inspires teachers to take their own stories and use them with students and with other teachers.  This week his bi-weekly post happens to tie in with mine, as it is about communication or rather miscommunication!

“There is a  Scarface in the bath” by Jamie Keddie 

 

 

From Judy Blume to Hessler – Musing on Reading about Teachers

Naomi’s Photos    Point of view

Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret.” by Judy Blume is certainly not a book about a teacher and a teaching career.  It’s a young adult book about growing up and figuring out one’s identity.

However…

It depends on how you are reading it.

There are those times at school when I have really long days and I need some quiet time to recharge around noon. At least once or twice a week I drink my tea in the classroom instead of going to the staff room and read books from our tiny class library. It’s an eclectic collection of graded readers and books at wildly different levels, composed of books that were donated or ones I’ve picked up at “free-book-corners” at the municipal library.

Now that I’m working my way through the Blume book (I must have read it when I was about ten years old but that was a long time ago!) I find myself zooming in on a minor character in the book with a running commentary in my head. The character is, of course, the teacher, Mr.  Miles J. Benedict, Jr.

Really, Mrs. Simon, (aka Margaret ‘s Mom), did you have to groan when Margaret said she had a first-year teacher?  And claim that there is nothing worse? Couldn’t you have kept that thought to yourself? How about giving the new teacher a chance?”

“How did you manage that impressive feat, Mr. Miles J. Benedict, Jr.? The entire class didn’t write their names on their quizzes, as an attempt to pay you back for changing their seating placements in class after they misbehaved. Not only didn’t you say a single word about it, but each student also got the correct quiz back with his /her name on it! What classroom management technique did you employ here? Was it the fact that you had samples of the students’ handwriting from the first day of class when you asked them about themselves? How did you stay so calm?”

I haven’t finished rereading the book yet. My apologies to Margaret but I do hope there will be more about how the new teacher goes through his journey of coming into his own as a teacher in the remaining chapters. There is something fascinating about “seeing” the process as told through the eyes of a student, not as reported by a teacher.

The only problem is that Blume’s book is a work of fiction. Could a teacher really do that handwriting trick and stay so calm? What do you think?

Naomi’s Photos

Peter Hessler’s “River Town – Two years on the Yangtze” is a completely different kind of book. Put aside for a moment the truly fascinating aspects of the book related to history and life in a remote place in China in 1996, this isn’t a “Saturday’s Book Post” review.  In this book, not only does the American Peter Hessler write about his experiences teaching English as a foreign language in a small teacher’s college in China, but he also relates what it was like to study Mandarin, in China, from a teacher who spoke no English.

The interplay of language and culture is what makes Hessler’s experiences particularly worth discussing for teachers. Take the issue of praise vs. criticism as an example. How criticism is delivered, how much, how often and how severe it is employed as a tool, is related to culture. Teachers everywhere encounter students bringing different cultures and behaviors from their respective homes into the classrooms. Even if the differences are not as extreme as Hessler describes.

Interestingly enough, Hessler’s book is also a book about a young person trying to establish his identity as a person worthy of respect, especially outside the classroom’s walls. In China, according to the book, the teacher is always respected inside the classroom…

I read for pleasure and to broaden my horizons and most of the books I read have nothing to do with teaching.  But I must admit that there’s something fascinating about examining the roles of teachers in books and how they are perceived. I can’t exactly put my finger on the reason for it.

Can you?

Does it matter if the reason remains elusive?

Here’s to reading and books!

 

 

Saturday’s Book: “The Land of Decoration” by Grace McCleen

Naomi’s Photos

This book should have come with a personal trigger warning: Don’t read this book until you have recovered from reading “Educated” by Tara Westover. I found “Educated” to be a deeply disturbing book.

The fact that I could not stop reading the book even though I wanted to, is a testimony to how well the book is written. I had to see it through.

“The Land of Decoration”, like “Educated” is about a daughter in a family with extreme fundamentalist beliefs ***. In both books, I found the depths of the misery that such extremism lead to hard to read about. “In this book, the end of the world is at hand and life revolves around this fact. For motherless 10-year-old Judith, who lives with her father, there is no Christmas to celebrate. Birthdays aren’t celebrated either. Everything about her life sets her apart from the children at school, who bully her constantly. The neighborhood is derelict, the teacher at school has a drinking problem and there is a strike at the plant where her father works.

I wanted to airlift that child elsewhere, immediately.

But…

Judith is highly intelligent and blessed with a wonderful imagination. She created, out of odds and ends from what other people would call junk, an entire model of the town in which she lives. Judith called it “The land of decoration” and it is her escape from reality. It is she who narrates the tale,  a child struggling to reconcile the different realities she is faced with. Her “voice” is riveting!

When Judith begins to talk to God and make miracles with her “land”, what begins with snow literally “snowballs” into a lot of trouble.

The author really makes sure the reader sinks into depths of misery, along with that poor child before finally rescuing everyone. I’ve been known to abandon books but, as I said, I had to see it through.

I don’t know whether to recommend the book or not…

*** This book is a work of fiction. “Educated” is a memoir. 

Should “Dated” Worksheets Be Tossed Out?

The school year may be a new one, but the question is a recurring one:

Should “dated” worksheets be tossed out?

Naomi’s Photos

Imagine giving your adolescent students a delightful questionnaire dealing with the question: “How Romantic are You”? My students really like that sort of thing and I have been using such questionnaires for years. **

Now imagine that one of the questions asks the students to consider what they would do if their love interest was late for a date. One of the possible answers is a suggestion to look for a pay-phone and place a call.

Most of my students can’t even recall ever seeing a pay-phone. There are very few left on our streets, as far as I can tell…

Then there are personalized grammar worksheets. My colleagues and I, over the course of many years, have created quite a few grammar practice worksheets designed either to sneak in some general knowledge or to personalize the material by mentioning famous people who the students are interested in. Personalizing the material is supposed to be a good thing, right?

However…

Will Smith no longer seems to be “the most popular actor in Hollywood”,  and none of my Deaf and hard of hearing students seem to have heard of Angelina Jolie or the movie “Avatar”.   A reference to President Clinton (Clinton as in Bill Clinton) could be seen as a mistake made by “an ignorant” teacher who apparently doesn’t know who won the last presidential election in the United States…

Naomi’s Photos

So what am I going to do?

Truly successful worksheets, like “the romance quiz”, stay in my repertoire, dated or not. When we get to the “pay-phone” part I simply ask them to imagine how long they would wait before turning to their phones. Their answer, invariably, is to send a text message the moment they arrive at the meeting point, so I just say that response correlates to the least romantic option.

Let me take a deep breath before talking about the grammar worksheets. I would like to say that I make new versions of all the dated ones so as to keep them relevant, but I don’t. It’s totally unrealistic, the workload as a teacher is heavy enough.  If the worksheet is a good one, in terms of pedagogical grammar, I keep it. So I’ve lost the personalized effect,  I can live with that. It’s just like another page in a grammar book. If the percentage of unfamiliar cultural references becomes an issue and a distraction for the students, I get rid of the worksheet.

What do you do?

** My students’ favorite questionnaire on the topic of  romance came from this site, though many years ago: EFL4u.com

 

Double Book Feature: “The Guests” and “Back from the Valley of Rephaim”

**Note: I am so behind with my book-posts that I’m resorting to a double feature!

** Another Note: I read both books in Hebrew. Books by both authors have already been translated into English so you may find these in the future as well.

Photo by Gil Epshtein

For me, both of these books are connected to language, words, books and how they are written.  Things I happen to be interested in…

In “The Guests” by Ofir Touche Gafla, the author takes a well-worn idiom literally (extremely literally!) and builds a whole unsettling new global reality with it. Everything is very realistic, “not sci-fi like” except that the people in the world, as we know it today, have to deal with the events of one highly unusual week and its aftermath.

Please concentrate a moment on the idiom ” Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes”. Now imagine that every adult in the world wakes up one morning to find a pair of his /her dream shoes, exactly the right size, and color, just begging to be tried on. That act causes people to become someone else for a week. Not just “any” someone else, but the person they hate the most…

Can you really imagine all of the ramifications of such an event? I think not. Don’t worry, Gafla has done the imagining for you. The book is an intriguing read, even though I believe that the book could have been a bit shorter.

Epstein Family Photos

In “Back from the Valley of Rephaim”, the author Haim Be’er captures our interest right away by presenting us with an intriguing situation, raising a host of questions.  A highly successful (fictional) writer, from an Ultra-Orthodox Jewish background, passes away and is buried in a Christian cemetery in the German Quarter of Jerusalem.

A young filmmaker and his friend from the radio peel back the layers of the surprising mysteries surrounding the writer’s life, death, and work, with the help of many colorful figures whose lives intersected with the that of the writer. It’s also a tale of different time periods and places. I really don’t want to give you any examples, that would be a real spoiler here.

The use of language in this book was delightful – such a rich use of expressions, idioms, and surprising metaphors! I admit I had to look up a few unfamiliar ones! Frankly, it seems a challenging book to translate – I sincerely hope someone will do it!

Enjoy!

 

 

Saturday’s Book: “The Weight of Ink” by Rachel Kadish

Ink!
Naomi Epstein’s Photos

What a book!

What a VISUAL book!

I’m sure I have never ever said this before: I feel like I finished reading (actually it was listening, it was an audiobook) a book AND watching a mini-series. The descriptions of the different time periods and settings (mainly 17th century London and early 21st century London and more) along with the depiction of the characters, was so vivid and rich that I felt I was watching the story unfold as I was listening.

You have it all :

You have historians as detectives (which they can be! I know!)  following the tracks left behind by a 17th-century non-conformist Jewish woman, who was among the first Jews who returned to England from Amsterdam since the expulsion of all of England’s Jews in the 13th century. The woman is fictional but many of the characters she interacts with are not (and some are quite famous, but no spoilers!).

You have a wealth of historical information – I really knew very little regarding the great plague and fire of London, for example. If it were television I would call it a “period drama” or “costume drama”  – so vivid.

You have several love stories taking place in different time periods. The stories, as you might expect, tie in with each other in a way.

But mainly, you have characters trying to figure out their place in the world, particularly intelligent women who refuse to let others dictate what they can or can’t do.

My only complaint is that the author could have given the readers a bit more credit – some things didn’t need to be stated, the readers could deduce how the characters felt about something or why they reacted in a certain manner.  I personally am a fan of understatement so maybe it’s just me. In any case, the book could have been just as a good and a little bit shorter – 30 hours of audio!

But that’s quibbling.

I really enjoyed the book!

In Defense of Using Coloring Pages in the EFL Classroom – A Comment

 

The sky IS there…
Naomi’s Photos

“You can’t color the clouds purple”!

“Why aren’t you being more careful about coloring in the lines”!

I too cringe at hearing such sentences directed at a child.

So, when Lauren Ornstein recommended the post: “Coloring Books and Worksheets: “What’s the value of staying in the lines” by Steve Drummond, I read it with great interest.

Yes, and yes.

But…

I don’t care about children coloring in the lines and I do agree that having children create their own drawings is certainly better for them than being limited by the drawing on a printed page.

But please don’t abolish coloring pages in classes of English as a foreign language! They can be a useful teaching aid!

Work with what you have! Naomi’s Photos

For starters, coloring pages are great for exercises in following instructions. They can be quite creative and hilarious, but such activities can only be used if all the students are holding the same coloring page.  Let’s take, as an example, the activity I call “Can you keep a straight face?” One by one the teacher calls on a student to stand up and give the class an instruction to color in one object/person/element on the page. The instruction should be as wacky as possible (the more unusual and ridiculous the better!) and the student must not smile or laugh when giving the instruction. If he /she does, the instruction must be given again (I teach special education, I don’t have children lose a turn!).  Then the following exchange can take place:

Student:  “Color the cat purple and yellow”.

Teacher: “Which cat? There is a cat on the sofa and another cat on the rug. ”

Student: “Color the cat on the rug purple and yellow”.

Another student in class asks about the color of the eyes in whatever form you imagine your students might be capable of asking.

Teacher (addressing the student speaking): “Please tell the class which color to use for the eyes. Remember, don’t laugh!” Note: It gets harder not to laugh when someone tells you not to laugh!

Student: “One orange eye and one brown eye”.

This activity can have a million variations. Students can write instructions for other students and then check to see if the result matched what they wrote. Students can look for pages matching descriptions they received, etc.

Just follow me!
Naomi’s Photos

You might say that some of these activities would work equally well with drawings that students made on their own.

Not really.

The quality and quantity of how a student colored in the page is totally irrelevant, there just has to be enough color that one can tell what’s what. This way you are leveling the playing field. A child’s artistic ability is totally not a factor and there is no room for being judgemental or competitive on that score. And that matters. A great deal.

I can’t end this post without bringing up the calming aspect of coloring pages. I’m a Special Ed teacher – having a box of interesting coloring pages is a life saver for everyone in the vicinity of a child that needs to calm down and collect himself/herself.  Perhaps just giving a blank page and nice crayons would work for some students, but certainly not for all.

If you invest a bit of effort in the coloring pages you bring in, you sneak in some general knowledge as well. It’s a really good feeling when a child raises his eyes and comments: “So this big clock is in London?”

That’s good too.

 

Teachers & Conferences? What if Principals Got Letters Like THESE?!

 

Noticing…
Naomi’s Photos

Version One 

Dear Principal ____________,

We have noted with satisfaction the large number of teachers from your school who have attended at least one conference for English teachers during the past year. Your school is ranked among the top schools in our district in this matter. Clearly, your management policies foster an atmosphere that encourages continued professional development among your staff members for the benefit of the students entrusted to your care.

Since it is well-known that these conferences / mini-conferences take place in the afternoons and during school vacations, such a commitment to professional development among your staff members is particularly commendable.

We are encouraging other principals in our district to follow your example.

Yours,

The regional inspectors / local school board

Possible replacement options for the first paragraph:

Watchful…
Naomi’s Photos

Dear Principal ____________,

We have noted with satisfaction that teachers from your school have presented at one conference for English teachers or more during the past year. Your school is ranked among the top schools in our district in this matter. Clearly, your management policies foster an atmosphere that not only encourages continued professional development among your staff members but encourages them to share their knowledge with others.

 

Dear Principal ____________,

We have noted with satisfaction that teachers from your school have attendedpresented at an international conference for English teachers abroad during the school year. Your school is ranked among the top schools in our district in this matter. While you, obviously, have no say in the matter of the teacher’s pay being docked for the few work days they missed, your assistance in getting the paperwork necessary for such an endeavor approved is greatly appreciated. * Clearly, your management policies foster an atmosphere that not only encourages continued professional development among your staff members but recognizes the value of foreign language teachers keeping abreast of worldwide trends in this field.

Just look around… Naomi’s Photos

 

Principals love it when their school is honorably mentioned.

Teachers who attend conferences and invest in continued professional development do it whether or not the principal or management cares.

But being noticed means a lot to teachers too…

Two notes which haven’t found a place in the letters:

  • Some teachers are only able to come to a part of a conference due to reasons such as family commitments, which means they don’t get any recognition for in-service training points (aka “Gmul).  They deserve to be noticed too!
  • Presenting at an international conference or publishing in a recognized academic journal officially awards a teacher one complete in-service training point (aka an entire “Gmul”) instead of the usual fraction.  De facto it is only worth a quarter point in your salary (30 hours)…

*

 

 

Shifting the Focus of Pre-Reading Tasks

“I don’t nest on a tree! You just chose me because you like puffins!” Epstein Family Photos

You might think I am barking up the wrong tree.

Even if I am, it’s a tree well-chosen.

The short video that you see below “Too Quick to Judge” (3.42 min.)  obviously belongs to the genre of educational messages which we can refer to as “Don’t judge a book by its cover”.

Therefore, you would naturally assume that I would be using this video as a pre-reading task when teaching the story in our literature program “Mr. Know All” by Somerset Maugham. That story is about judging someone far too quickly based on his name and looks and this video certainly is related.

Nope.

Being judgmental…
Epstein Family Photos

I needed a pre-reading task for a group of struggling Deaf and hard of hearing learners (note: I also have very strong Deaf and hard of hearing learners!). They are wonderful young people, who are admirably determined to succeed, but their general knowledge can only be described as dismal and they get totally befuddled by abstract things such as metaphors.

The poem “As I Grew Older” by Langston Hughes uses the powerful metaphor of a “wall” to signify discrimination. I’ve decided to begin by focussing the pre-reading discussion on the significance of the wall, or rather a wall.

At first, I thought I the pre-reading task should be a mini American history lesson on slavery, civil rights, and discrimination. These issues will undoubtedly be discussed when I teach the poem itself (I discuss them when I teach the poem to my strong students) but I will not include them in the pre-reading.

The literacy educator Timothy Shanahan writes:

  1. ” Prior to reading, I will help students to think about ideas that are relevant to what is important or challenging in a text. (For example, if we are reading Moby Dick, the preparation activities will not emphasize whales, but obsession. Prior knowledge matters, but it has to be the knowledge that is relevant to what is important, rather than background information that is only superficially connected to the ideas).”  Quote from My New Year’s Resolutions for Teaching Reading Comprehension.
Dealing with walls…
Epstein Family Photos

My students will not understand the poem if they think that an actual brick wall actually popped up between the poet’s home and someplace he wanted to go.  These student’s default mode is to look at language in a very literal manner. Words should only have one concrete meaning as far as they are concerned. Some even complain that it is very inconsiderate of their feelings when this is not the case. Background knowledge won’t be helpful or meaningful if we don’t get them to relate the wall as a metaphor.

I believe the wall is a good place to start because these students actually have experience with a wall that needs to be broken. They all live with a hearing loss that affects their communication with the world around them and the way they are perceived by others.

For a change, I haven’t prepared any structured activities or worksheets for this video. In this case, an open discussion is needed. I’m going to write the word “wall” on the board and begin by asking them if they can imagine the wall between the boy and girl (who is Deaf!) sitting on the same bench and not communicating. Then I will ask if they can see other virtual barriers between people in this video. I believe that they will bring up points related to gender, race and perhaps economic status. I will sum up by reminding them that the wall is a metaphor yet they all understood it.

Once the students are prepared for a metaphor, we will be able to start learning the poem in its own context.