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

Time for a Book! “Umami” by Laia Jufressa

Unusual neighbors…
Naomi’s Photos

What a unique book!

It’s difficult to define exactly what makes this book so special – it’s like the difficulty in defining what exactly “umami” is, which is something not only discussed in the book but plays a role in the story as well.

It’s a novel which mainly takes place in Mexico City. It follows the intertwined lives of the different people who live in “Belldrop Mews” (I had to look up the term  “mews”!). It’s written from the point of view of several characters, some of whom are children. Their “voices” are so real, that I now miss them a bit – as if they were people I had met.

While all the neighbors are dealing with grief,  this is not a “depressing” book. There are very sad moments along with ones of wonder and amusement.

More importantly, I found the combination of “voices” relating the same events, particularly the children’s voices, to be a powerful storytelling method in this context. The children questioned, wondered at, or even directly challenged the adults’ way of handling grief, and highlighted the many layers and aspects of how life moves forward after a tragedy.

Naomi’s Photos

And yes, there is hope, and new beginnings in this book. Slow changes for the better that start small but mean a lot (no fairy godmothers here…).

I recommend that you don’t read too much about the book in advance – it’s best to understand things as they are presented.

Enjoy!

 

Time for a Book: “Frog Music” by Emma Donoghue

Try to hear the music… Naomi’s Photos

I really enjoy reading books by Donoghue but this is the one I enjoyed the least.

Don’t get me wrong, it IS a good book but I’m not particularly fond of the “whodunnit”  format, particularly in a historical drama. The constant moving between time frames (the murder is right at the beginning of the book, it’s not a spoiler!) bothered me somewhat. When reading Donoghue I’m used to really getting to know the character and the period before such a dramatic event.  Judging by the reviews online most people were not bothered by this at all!

This book, with its many musical references, might have been more enjoyable as an audiobook  – they tend to sing such things when possible,  Reading the afterword helped me realize the significance of the references and their relevance to the period and to the plot. I admit that I needed the explanations.

In fact, the afterword helped me appreciate the book more, as the author explains which historical facts were available to her about the two main characters’ lives (and deaths)  and how she used them to create the story. I was fascinated by that part!

The book takes place in 1876  in San Francisco –  a lot it takes place in Chinatown. The author’s depictions of the shameful way the Chinese immigrants were treated tied in with the information I learned from two other books I’ve recently read, “Interior Chinatown” by Charles Yu and “Disappearing Moon Cafe” by Sky Lee (this is set in Vancouver but covers a lot of the same ground as the other two).

There are still many books by Donaghue I haven’t read – I’m looking forward to reading them!

So, Teaching in a “VUCA World” Calls for a Business Model? Bring It On!

The way forward is unclear… (Naomi’s Photos)

I admit it.

Although THE PANDEMIC has been wreaking havoc on our lives for over a year and a half, I had not known there was an acronym out there that described the situation we are facing as teachers in the school system.

An acronym derived from four different words.

Words matter.

Defining a situation and looking at its components enables us to find footholds and add pegs to hold onto.

And then move forward.

As a teacher feeling concerned about beginning another school year in the shadow of the pandemic, I am certainly interested in a model for dealing with a difficult situation, even if it comes from the business world.

VUCA stands for:

volatility // uncertainty  // complexity // ambiguity

The following “definitions” are quotes from What VUCA Really Means for You” by Bennet and Lemoine.

The suggested responses are my adaptations of their business recommendations.

unstable…
Naomi’s Photos

 VOLATILITY

“The challenge is unexpected or unstable and may be of unknown duration, but it’s not necessarily hard to understand.”

The challenges posed by teaching under “pandemic conditions” are no longer unexpected but they certainly are unstable.  We could be teaching in-person in class one day and remotely the next.  Many students could be absent due to illness and quarantine or perhaps the students will be divided into groups again. And we certainly don’t know how long this unstable situation is going to last!

     The authors’ business response works well for education:                “… devote resources to preparedness…”

LIGHTBULB MOMENT for STRESSED TEACHER SELF 

Even though I may not know what a day of teaching will look like at any given point, the time I have already invested in creating digital versions of my classroom materials means that I AM somewhat prepared for an unstable new year! True, I haven’t digitized all my material yet, but continuing to do that is certainly a clear-cut achievable goal that will have a positive impact.

Can it be righted?
Naomi’s Photos
UNCERTAINTY

“Despite a lack of other information, the event’s basic cause and effect are known. Change is possible, but is not a given”.

Gathering information about the pandemic (aka “event”) itself isn’t really a helpful option for a teacher,  since the school management and others don’t know when there will be a lockdown or new restrictions either.

However, if we focus on the authors’ emphasis on sharing information, the connection to education becomes clear. Invest in building/strengthening your ties with other teachers  – what are they doing? Did it work?  Do they know what you’ve been doing?  Even the things that didn’t work? We are not alone!

Sharing equals strength.

LIGHTBULB MOMENT for STRESSED TEACHER SELF

Yes, I will probably be frustrated and even VERY FRUSTRATED at times during the upcoming school year.  It’s unavoidable. When it happens I must remind myself that I do belong to quite a few online groups for teachers, so if no one at school has time to talk to me about it, someone is out there who does have time to listen and discuss.

But before anything else, my first response should be to BREATHE!

Many things to take into account… Naomi’s Photos

COMPLEXITY

“The situation has many interconnected parts and variables. Some information is available and can be predicted but the volume and nature of it can be overwhelming to process.”

The authors recommend building adequate resources to address the complexity (and bringing in specialists, but that’s not realistic in this case …).

As far as I’m concerned that means dividing the work of creating a large number of resources that cater to students with different needs.   The instability of the situation doesn’t end when the school day is over, it affects our daily lives. Sharing and dividing the work are the only antidotes I can see to feeling overwhelmed.

LIGHTBULB MOMENT for STRESSED TEACHER SELF

This is something I need to work on more.  The pandemic isn’t going away tomorrow – this is a call for action!

Connections…
Naomi’s Photos

AMBIGUITY

“Causal relationships are completely unclear. No precedents exist; you face ‘unknown unknowns.”

No precedents.

I have never taken an in-service training course on teaching in a situation in which the normal progression of a school year is so frequently disrupted for such an extended period of time – that situation is so unprecedented that I couldn’t even imagine it until it happened.

Causal relationship?

  • Will the students retain vocabulary when they learn online and have GOOGLE TRANSLATE at their fingertips?
  • Will having the students write their answers on paper and then send me pictures of it force them to really look at the words in the sentence carefully despite using translation programs?

I don’t know.

The business advice here is spot on but not so easy to adopt.

Which net is better? Naomi’s Photos

The authors recommend EXPERIMENTING – thinking carefully of strategies that could solve issues, trying them out, and learning from the results.

To some extent, we all do it. What else can we do in such a situation?

However, this requires dealing with failure and learning from it. I don’t know how it works in the business world, but as a high school teacher, I find experimenting to be a safe and useful approach in a limited way.

Yes, the students responded well to acting out a poem in class – Do More of That.

No, the students did not seem to really engage with vocabulary when I used a certain word puzzle, nor did they particularly enjoy it – Don’t Do That.

But high school is a setting with high-stakes standardized exams. You don’t have a lot of wiggle room.

In addition, in order to learn from results,  experiments should be planned carefully.  Some outcomes are difficult to differentiate from others – how do I know if it is because of a certain strategy I tried?

LIGHTBULB MOMENT for STRESSED TEACHER SELF

So here’s something in my life that the pandemic hasn’t upset. I’ll continue to try, from time to time different ways to practice vocabulary or work on a text or anything else.  That’s what I’ve always done.

Finding something that hasn’t changed is comforting too.

Don’t you think so?

 

 

 

 

Books from “Far Away” – A Medly

In these times of living with a pandemic, everywhere that isn’t right next door seems far away.

Nonetheless, when I read these books I felt that they were set particularly far away, either geographically, historically, or in a magical realm.

Magic? Step on board… Naomi’s Photos
The Night Circus by Morgenstern

A story set inside a magical, very magical, circus. Lovely descriptions, a love story, suspense, good triumphs evil. I enjoyed it, but I think it would have been even better if it had been a bit shorter.

Selling food at all hours…
Naomi’s Photos
The Convenience Store Woman by Murata

The story is set inside a Japanese Convenience store, which seems to be quite different from convenience stores I have encountered.  I never imagined salespeople being instructed to shout their polite responses to customers!

While I understand that the book is presenting a critique of pressure to conform in Japanese society (at the workplace, the pressure to get married and “fit in”), to me the book is set inside the mind of a woman with “autism spectrum disorder”.

I kept wanting to say to people in the book: “Leave her alone! She has worked at this store for so many years because a predictable environment with clear-cut ways to behave in every situation feels comfortable and safe to her!”

Which way? Naomi’s Photos
Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon

I almost didn’t read this book as I’m not much a fan of “swashbuckling adventure” – you know, the horseriding bandits with the heart of gold who save the day? But it was a short audiobook, an intriguing setting with a great reader and I’m glad I did.

It is set in Khazaria (Southwest Russia today) and takes place around AD 950. It was a period where Judaism was more widely spread, including some of the warring factions in the region. Our two tough, dangerous, brave, and generous “bandits” are Jewish, a fact which was important to the author, as Chabon himself expands on in a very interesting endnote to the audiobook.

Can you hear me? /Naomi’s Photos
Aquarium by Ya’ara Shehori

Place markers of any kind are hardly mentioned in this book – the story could have taken place anywhere, everywhere, and nowhere. It was written in Hebrew and but readers of the English translation could place the story in their town just as easily.

It’s a story of girls brought up in isolation and what happens after they are no longer secluded from the world.

It’s a story of a Deaf family trying to escape the intervention of the “hearing world”, but ends up denying reality. Such denials come with a heavy price.

At first, I was concerned about some aspects of the behaviors of some of the Deaf characters and wondered how well the author had researched the subject of Deafness. But all anomalies were explained and made complete sense later on in the book. I was amused to see that the author studied Sign Language with a former student of mine!

It isn’t an easy read. There are whole passages trying to be poetic or philosophical and too drawn out in my taste. I found some parts tiresome and rather boring.

Mixed feelings.

Well, it is on the pier… Naomi’s Photos
The Pier Falls – by  Haddon

Each story is set somewhere else – the first one is set in Britain while the next one takes you straight into Greek Mythology.

While the writing is excellent and gripping, I did not finish the book. Besides my habitual difficulties in reading short story collections by the same author (the basic style is too similar), the stories all seemed to be about people in hopeless situations facing horrible outcomes. There’s only so much of that I can take, even if it is well written.

Connections…
Naomi’s Photos
Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

A clever, engrossing book that takes familiar fairy tale tropes (particularly Rumplestilskin) and gives them a completely new twist.

A feminist twist.

With lots of other messages.

A book supposedly set in “fantasy land” but it sounds a great deal like places I know of from history lessons (or genealogy research!). To me, it seems to be set in  Lithuania, or the vicinity of, with forests lurking with danger,  poor hamlets with fraught relations between the peasants and the Jews, the noblemen in the city killing each other for power, and more…

Strong women who come together, ignoring class and religion, save the day.

That’s not a spoiler – there’s much to read here (it’s a bit too long, I admit)!

Enjoy!

 

 

Time for a Book! “Deacon King Kong” by McBride

Naomi’s Photos

When was the last time you stopped reading a book after a few pages just so you could savor the beauty of the writing?

Well, this is the book to make you stop and pay attention to “the how” as well as the “what”. They must be teaching the opening chapter of “Deacon King Kong” in creative writing classes. What a way to introduce the characters and the setting!

The setting is a public housing project in Brooklyn N.Y in 1969 with a variety of characters living/operating there.

The pace is fast, there is a well-balanced combination of humor, drama, romance, and serious commentary on society and race in the United States.

I didn’t want to stop reading!

Books that Pack a Punch: “The Rain Heron” by Arnott & “A Tale for the Time Being” by Ozeki

A regular heron! Naomi’s Photos
The Rain Heron by Arnott

What a unique book! You could call it an eco-fable, as I have encountered many reviews that do so.

There IS a mythical rain heron (and some pretty unique squids!) but otherwise, the book is certainly not mythical or a fantasy book. The reality it depicts is completely possible – greed, corruption, and power most certainly affect the environment. Naturally, consequences follow.

Everything is cleverly told, in such a way that holds you tight until you reach the end.

So don’t try to read too much about the book before you begin it!

I found the strong women, who are the pivotal forces of the plot, to be fascinating.

Great book!

Connections…
Naomi’s Photos
A Tale for the Time Being by Ozeki

This book took hold of me and wouldn’t let go of me until I had reached the end.

Even when I wasn’t sure I wanted to continue reading.

The book has many things going on – some parts are fascinating, some uplifting, some heartwrenching, and some parts totally mystical. Oh, and there’s quantum physics too!

The characters are so real and “alive” that I was extremely disturbed by the parts depicting the bullying at the Japanese school that teenage Nao went through. As a teacher, I was even more horrified at the school’s role in the situation.

Note that my gut reaction just shows how powerful the writing is – you feel you know the author and her husband (who live on a remote little island) personally. You become part of their growing involvement in the lives of Nao, her extended family, and her grandmother/Buddhist nun. Zen is certainly an element of the story. The past is just as alive, in the form of an uncle/kamikaze pilot…

There is a lot going on. More than I mentioned.

BUT

First and foremost, it’s a good story and I enjoyed it.

How many “Chunks” can a Comic Strip Chunk? With no Help from a Woodchuck?

How did he respond?

How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

“Review” is the name of the game, right?

Especially when you are planning for the first weeks of a new school year.

Even more so when you taught a set of “chunks” or “collocations” during an unpredictable previous school year, in which the pandemic messed with your teaching.

Particularly so when you are teaching Deaf and hard of hearing students who always need vocabulary items practiced intensively as they lack exposure to the spoken language.

So…

Work within the boundaries Naomi’s Photos

I wanted my review exercise to emphasize the context in which the “chunks”  are used.

And…

I needed the task to be suitable for face-to-face teaching in class or for remote learning.

In addition…

I wanted to shake things up a bit. The students had a whole series of tasks last year (which you can find by clicking here:     400 WAYS TO RUN OUT OF MILK – VOCABULARY & DISTANCE LEARNING) so I changed the approach a bit. This time the students aren’t required to write a sentence including the target “chunk” or complete the target chunk – they need to complete the context in which it is used.

I used this friendly (and free)  comics creator.

Make Beliefs Comics

  • Note: All “chunks” in this task were taken from the Approved List of vocabulary items for high school, known as Band Three.

 

Chunk review with comics from naomima

Three BOOKS – Suns, Sons and Liars

Really?
Naomi’s Photos

The number of books in this post is easy to count – three.

The number of lies told… that’s a different story. What purpose do these lies serve?

Oddly enough,  the one book that promises you close encounters with liars is the only one in which I believe you are supposed to focus on the so-called lies and not look beyond them.

I’m not completely sure as I could not bring myself to finish “THE LIAR’S DICTIONARY” by Eley Williams, even though I read more than half of it.

The book focuses on bogus definitions inserted into dictionaries to combat plagiarism, known as Mountweazels,  There IS a plot, two socially awkward lexicographers in different time periods (one lying about having a speech impediment), one inserting invented words, another trying to discover them years later, and a bomb…

Basically, the book is supposed to be for people who delight in words. It’s supposed to be clever.

The question is how many soliloquies on words, their synonyms, their place in a sentence, and the aptness (or lack of it) for expressing the right meaning, can you stand on a single page?

I DO enjoy language and words, but I felt lost and bored. Too much cleverness for me, I’m afraid.

Perhaps it will work for you.

Minding the baby…
Naomi’s Photos

The opening sentence of  “My Mother’s Son” by David Hirshberg, is:

“When you’re a kid, they don’t always tell you the truth.”

The book is presented as a memoir, so for most of the book, I thought I was encountering exactly the sort of “lies” one would expect from a “coming of age” story. The author takes us back to the world of his childhood, in 1950s Boston and introduces us to his family, their business partners, friends, and neighbors. All immigrants, most came over before the war, sharing a common “otherness” – Jewish, Italian, Polish, and Irish immigrants. As the young Hirshberg grows, he uncovers more and more truths about his family history, spanning three generations and his own identity.

I discovered this book accidentally and jumped to conclusion that it was a memoir, as portrayed. I was reading it as one. I knew that the major events depicted, such as JFK’s election campaigns, raising money for children affected by Polio at baseball games, neighbors going off to fight in the Korean War certainly happened.

But the book is a novel.

In fact, during the last section, the narrator “discusses” with the reader the question of how much of his tale is true, and what is the nature of truth in matters such as family history. Does it matter if events happened in one way or another?

It’s not the author’s fault that I spent time trying to look up the island he writes about…

While some passages are too long and repetitive, overall I enjoyed reading the book and found it interesting.

Not your usual sun!
Naomi’s Photos

The major lie told in “Klara and the Sun” by Kazuo Ishiguro, is told to a daughter by her mother, not to a son.

And here the sun plays a role in the story, it is both life-giving and the one who lets you see reality clearly.

Klara, who is an Artificial Friend, tells the story.

And…

I won’t tell you any more about it. When reading a book by Ishiguro It’s best not to know anything about the book in advance. Let the author drip in the information, uncover the secrets and expose the reality of the life he is depicting in his own unique way.

The writing is riveting, it’s a difficult book to put down.

As always, it’s a thought-provoking read.  Sometimes it takes an AI to make you think about humanity, life, and love.

GREAT BOOK!

 

 

 

DON’T BOX ME IN! TEACHERS WHO “BENT” THE ZOOM SQUARE – Debbie

Debbie Ben Tura, Yehud Comprehensive High School

 

When I asked Debbie about her experiences teaching EFL to high school students during the pandemic, she showed me a wonderful short story she had written. The story presents the reader with the humorous-yet-so-realistic experiences of the “the superheroes”  of the entire English Department at the high school. Debbie shared it at the final staff meeting of the school year.

Debbie kindly gave me her permission to share an excerpt from the story here.

The first thing that I want to say to the entire staff is: WELL DONE!!! WE DID IT!!! We managed to get to June 2021, and  WE SURVIVED!

So, let me tell you a story: the story of The Great Battle:

Once upon a time, on September the 1st, 2020, a group of superheroes set out on yet another step of their quest. These superheroes had many hidden talents and powers like: eyes at the back of their heads, the ability to distinguish perspectives and uncover motives, vast knowledge of obscure grammatical rules, and more. They could catch negative energy, change it and shoot it back thousand times as hard while converting it into positive vibes. These superheroes could even read minds, they could move kids without even touching them (aka telekinesis) and shut up even the most talkative pupil with their piercing icy stare!! They were endowed with endless patience, bladders which never need emptying like camels, voices which could rapidly change in volume and tone and they were as tough as steel. They were fierce!!

SUPERHERO!
Naomi’s Photos

These heroes stepped bravely into the unknown, armed with books, markers, and overflowing bags, into a classroom with real live pupils in it at the Mekif Yehud Gym. (I say gym because we shlepp so many kilos around with us as we go up and down a trillion steps each day – working all our muscle groups as we complete our full daily workout).

Anyway, we locked eyes with our shiny new boys and girls in the arena (aka the classroom) with the knowledge that we would conquer all, had so much to give, and knew exactly what punishments we would dole out if they were late for class, did not do their homework, etc. We were mighty. Us warriors had no idea that we were doomed…we would have to face new challenges ahead:

Debbie in class, when “teaching with masks” was not necessary!

Winter was coming:

And then came the craziness: banished to planet Zoom

with black boxes instead of sweet smiling teenage faces

with pupils whose default mode was on mute

with pupils who have the audacity to know how to operate a computer better than we do

and the worst was Zooming with an unstable Internet connection, dressed from the neck down, not in strong armor: but in our pajamas….

Define: LOCKDOWN!

So, we developed new superpowers: the ability to identify a pupil by his ceiling fan or window. We adapted our investigative powers when pupils logged in under false aliases. We learned how to ignore messy closets and unmade beds. We became wizards at spotting plagiarized essays from the Internet.

We even learned that Zoom is not only a verb, but an adjective and a noun too…. (For example, yesterday I zoomed with my class. Our zoom or zoomification (if you speak American English) was fantastic. I am all zoomed out now!!! How often do you zoom? And in Present perfect:  I have been zooming since the Pandemic, etc.)

Living with the Pandemic
Naomi’s Photos

But back to the story. Finally, after huge struggles and the worst battles were fought and won, much sweat and tears were shed, and the art of awakening knowledge and creativity under such unique circumstances was mastered, we were allowed back into our physical classrooms for a second round – it was like we had never taught our classes before. We had to learn their names all over again and learn how to differentiate between our pupils simply by their eyes above their masks….

We then relaxed a little…

We began to slowly realize that we had come out on the other side unscathed….

We survived!

Don’t Box Me In! Teachers who “Bent” the Zoom Square – Vicky


Vicky Loras – Privately Employed Teacher & Ph.D. Researcher, Switzerland

 

Naomi: Vicky! From “noooooooooooo” to “wooohooos” with emojis sprinkled in – I’m so glad you agreed to talk to me about teaching adults remotely during the pandemic.

But first, may I ask : 

How many years have you been teaching?

I have been teaching for 24 years, ever since I was a student at university. It is a funny story, as I had never imagined being a teacher – I had wanted to become a lawyer for as long as I remembered myself up to that point! However, missing a window of a 0.25 mark in the entrance exams sent me to teaching school and I am so happy about this “accident” (I hope my students are too!).

I had absolutely no experience with Zoom before the pandemic, only Skype – some of my students from Greece wanted to continue learning with me after I had left Greece for Switzerland in 2009, and we used that tool. Zoom wasn’t so hard for me, and I think it is a really practical tool. With some of my private students, we have decided to continue teaching remotely, as it saves them from commuting to come to me.

Daily Commute…
Naomi’s photos

Nonetheless, there were some initial difficulties.  Bad internet connections were pretty rare but when they happened, they could become quite an issue.

In addition, in large groups, some people would be too shy to turn on their microphones to ask something, so I encouraged them to use the private chat function in order for me to answer their questions.

Most importantly, not seeing or hearing the student’s reactions was quite the challenge! It still is sometimes.

Invisible faces…
Naomi’s Photos

Wait a minute – didn’t your students turn on their cameras?

The policy at our two business schools where I teach part-time was for all students to have their cameras on at all times. Even so, some students chose to keep them off for their own reasons. I would check in on them every now and then to see if they were okay.

A useful technique that I adopted, is what I call “surprise questions“. I use it to check if everyone is still participating! The questions I ask are for everyone, the students just don’t know the order in which they will be asked to answer…

Are you talking to me? Epstein Family Photos

Can you give an example of something you did that made “life” easier?

Maybe not easier, but more pleasant! I encourage my online students, especially in groups, to go ‘wooohooo’ or clap loudly when they like an activity we are doing, or even say ‘noooooooooooo’ if they don’t like something. So far, the ‘nooooooooooo’ has been used only for fun and to make us laugh!

It is always funny when the students decide to use gifs or emojis to express what they want to say or give feedback. Of course, I take advantage of this as a language moment, so they have to explain why they used the emojis or gifs – sometimes they are from tv programs that I had no idea existed!

Thank you for sharing your experiences, Vicky! May teaching remotely in the future become a tool you use when appropriate, but not a necessity…