Tag Archives: On Education

Comment on Willy Cardoso’s Post “London Writing”

Once again a post by Willy’s Cardoso has kept me up late feeling I just HAVE TO write and examine why it has struck a chord with me.

At first glance, you may be tempted to make some false assumptions regarding my connection to this post, named “London Writing” . Since you know I’m not in London let me make it clear that I don’t play the guitar (love to listen to music but just played the piano badly for a few years). In addition, I haven’t met any of the people Willy mentioned (though I DID have an interesting conversation about David Crystal in the remote island of Skellig Michael in Ireland and then corresponded with Professor Crystal about it!).

Willy Cardoso writes:

“…encounters I would have with amazing and inspiring ELT professionals, with whom I was able to socialize and learn thanks to this blog and to Twitter. I know I wouldn’t have done so much in this first year here if it wasn’t for the people I met through blogging…”

ABSOLUTELY TRUE! Ties in with my previous post about the long reaching power of my PLN.

Another quote:

“It was a year of writing…The more I blog, the more I learn. The more I blog, the more I position myself in the profession and in the world, and then I change, I find new perspectives, watch my language and bite my tongue. All in all, I’ve found a channel of self-expression so important to any professional life, but extremely important to the education profession.”

It’s only been nine months since I began my blog but it has had a profound impact, as Willy put so well into words for me. I feel the same way. And I never would have guessed it would be so because how many teachers-of-English-as-a-foreign-language to deaf students are there out there? Yet, I feel I am “growing” in the same way that Willy describes!

One more quote:

“…I don’t know who is actually on the other side…Hence, I rarely have a reader in mind,” – yeah, me neither. I know a few and am grateful that they read. Basically I’m writing because I need to write yet there is great power in every comment left on my blog. Writing that is noticed seems to lead to more writing.


So, I’ll end this post by wishing Willy Cardoso the best of luck with his M.A. I finished mine 15 years ago and can say that I’m glad I have it.

P.S Here’s one my favorite photos from London (notice the “School of English” sign in the background) by Gil Epshtein



A Picture Guide to Being a Teacher

* Photos by Gil Epshtein

Being a teacher is making each learner want to exclaim, “I’ve got mail”!


Being a teacher is giving them a safe harbor in which to work on their boats before sailing away.


Being a teacher is “kvetching” about your day and then coming into school the next morning with a smile on your face.


Being a teacher is being incredibly alert for seven or eight hours straight, day after day.


Being a teacher is juggling between the needs of the class and those of individual students.


Being a teacher is explaining the same thing in twelve different ways.

different interpretation

Being a teacher is wondering why on earth you got into this profession in the first place!


Being a teacher is recognizing that part of your work is like footsteps in the sand – you have nothing in your hand at the end of the day to hold up and show: “Here is the imprint I made in the learner’s brain”. Nonetheless, the imprint was made!


Notes from a Short Summer Course

between a rock and a hard place

* Photo by Gil Epshtein

I just finished teaching a short summer course for ninth graders who will be my new 10th graders this September. Only five children (out of 8 that the course was intended for) attended the course. I will have 17 new students but the others come from mainstreaming and were not included in the course.

I’ve been teaching such summer courses for many years. We always devote a lot of time to activities related to the “ABOUT ME” topic as it is a good opportunity for me to get to know the pupils, their learning styles and interests, while learning about their level and abilities. I’m very flexible about stopping to talk about anything that comes up. As Fiona Mauchline writes in her terrific post   “A place of Greater Safety” , I think that such discussions, even though they are in Hebrew, contribute to building a good relationship with these pupils. Many of my pupils have a lot of emotional issues. If they don’t feel “secure” in a class that deals with a very frustrating subject (for children who don’t hear well!) then we get stuck at first base.

However, do these discussions, for some of the children, really have that effect? Brad Peterson’s interesting post “Do you share your values in the classroom?” made me feel proud to know teachers like Brad and sad about the discussions I had this past week in comparison, particularly with one of the girls.

This girl hears comparatively well but comes from a linguistically (and otherwise) impoverished background. That was clear from this story she related the first day. The girl told me she knows how to ride a horse. I was duly impressed and asked her where she rides as I know she live in a city. She explained that she has relatives in a village and she goes there almost every holiday and rides horses. When I asked this 15 year old the name of the village she goes to so regularly, she didn’t know! We were using fun worksheets from abroad that have Monday as the first day of the week and write the date differently from the way we do. I explained about that but her attitude was that she does things her way and the rest of the world better copy her because she’s certainly not interested in the way they do things!

This is not new to me. Like the students who insisted that zebras come from the Safari Wild Animal Park and not Africa or the one who refused to accept that it rains in the summer in other parts of the world. I call these pupils the “don’t confuse me with the facts” pupils. Sigh. Brad is discussing values with his pupils and these pupil argue about where  zebras come from!

Important to note that there are others. Not only are some of them bright and curious, some come from backgrounds where everything seems to be “against” them (profoundly deaf, poverty, immigrants etc.) and they are still amazing.

Does the fact that I’m constantly trying to expose these kids to the wider world that exists out there just intimidate those from the ‘don’t confuse me with the facts” group”? Am I shaking their teenage world by confronting them with facts such as people don’t work on Sundays in many places in the world? Because members of this group (thankfully, NOT A HUGE GROUP ) fight me every step of the way with such information.

Will a “No-Tech” Lecture Lead to THIS?

Photo by Gil Epshtein
Photo by Gil Epshtein

At the upcoming ETAI (English Teachers’ Association of Israel) conference I will be giving a no-tech talk for the first time and I’m somewhat nervous about it.

I’ve always* given talks using an overhead projector, both at conferences and at various other venues (such as teacher in-service days or evenings for parents). I do not read from notes at a talk. My transparencies always contain an abundance of pictures (“visualising ideas” person, after all!) and a sentence or two. That has kept me from getting confused and missing something when I’m nervous.

* About the always – there was one notable exception. It happened about 12 years ago. I had my transparencies ready, of course, but there was a power failure five minutes after the lecture began. I gave the rest of the talk to the 35 people who came by the light of a few emergency-lighting lamps. It was the first time I had (uncharacteristically) gotten my hair done before a lecture. Have never done THAT again!

At this conference BARCO projectors will be available in every room but the presenters must bring their own laptop.  Overhead projectors are “passé” and are no longer available. I don’t own a laptop and don’t intent to buy one in the near future. Ninety percent of the time I really don’t need one.

I’m working on  a talk with a situation similar to that of many teachers in the classroom – just me , the learners and the whiteboard. Trying to put some “dogme” in it too (we’ll see!).

Rationally, it sounds like a good plan.

Still, I’m nervous I’ll get confused without my picture prompts.

The lecture is at three fifteen in the afternoon. Will it be interesting enough without slides to keep the audience from yawning?

Comment on Scott Thornbury’s “Open Spaces” – My Experiences Both as a Pupil and as a Teacher

When I read the post “O is for Open Space” on Scott Thornbury’s blog I realized that I have had (and continue to have) personal experience with learning and teaching in a similar framework. Many of my experiences have been  positive, some have not.

Part One – My Experiences as a Pupil

As a child I attended Pierce School in Brookline, Mass, USA. Although only part of my last year at the school was spent in the new specially designed open space building (with ONLY two classrooms and bathrooms that weren’t “Open Space”, read the description here) the school had been functioning according to this approach within the constraints of a red brick schoolhouse.


Second and third grade were mixed classes. So were fourth and fifth grade. In my second/third grade class we were 26 pupils with a teacher and three student-teachers. The room was very large and had “corners”. There was a reading loft with cushions, an animal corner (rabbits, turtles, mice and a boa-constrictor), a play area with a small wooden play house and two areas (maybe three, it was a long time ago!) where there were tables bunched together. There was a chalk blackboard on a side wall. That’s where our beloved teacher posted the tasks that had to be completed that day. You could choose to do them whenever you wanted during the day, in any order. The teacher and student-teachers ran small groups during the day related to the tasks and you could choose which ones to join and when. It was very cold most of the year in Boston and the school did not have a playground. There was no specific recess – you played between other activities.

There were no tests that I can recall, except for dictations that our exasperated 4th/5th grade teacher gave when she received a class of non-spellers. Instead of report cards there were conference sheets that the child filled out while sitting with the teacher.

                                                   highres wild drawing by Alice Axelbank

Sounds like heaven, doesn’t it? And that was just a brief description! I really liked going to school during those years! However, roses have thorns and there were drawbacks.

Some students were unable to plan their time and get the work done. There were students who spent part of the day in a different , small classroom, where they could concentrate.

I wasn’t interested in them. I had no trouble organizing my time and was busy writing stories and plays. I was a “good girl”. Nobody seemed to notice that I elegantly avoided joining math groups. When I did participate nobody noticed that I was unable to connect activities using mirrors or measuring  leaves to actual numbers and didn’t understand the concepts. I didn’t fail any tests because there weren’t any and no red flags were raised. Fostering creativity was important and I thrived in that respect!

I needed private math tutoring from 6th grade (when I moved to Israel) through high-school. The private tutors helped me stay afloat, except for one year.

That was the year we moved to a high school where the classes were divided according to general academic ability. There was no grouping according to level for math. I was placed in a class with bright, and quick pupils. The kind that always seem to be having fun yet know all the answers and get good grades. I wasn’t quick by any definition and was the kind who needed to study.

I failed math that year.

It was only the following year when they created a special math class for all the failing kids did I find the setting in which I could learn math. All the other kids were like me, we weren’t embarrassed when we made stupid errors – we were all in the same boat! Being in that small class of the lowest graded level was the best thing that the school did for me. I actually did pretty well on my math finals but numbers remain an intimidating thing for me till this day.

Part Two – Coming soon in Next Post

Am I Just Blowing in the Wind?

Photo by Gil Epshtein
Photo by Gil Epshtein

Willy Cardoso, in his post “A teacher and his bedrock” asked about having basic principles or beliefs that ground one’s teaching.

I hadn’t thought about this question.

There’s a quote that occured to me in this context but I’m not sure who said it (can’t find it on Google, must be getting it wrong!):

“Once I had 7 principles and no children. Now I have 7 children and no principles”.

I’ve taught a large number of students over the years and my response adhered to that quote – I probably don’t have any! I’m willing to use anything that works for a certain pupil! In my comments  to Willy’s post I gave an example of one of the most exreme teaching situations I’ve experienced with a pupil.

Willy has been patiently exploring that with me and has ignited a fascinating chain of thought! Perhaps principles aren’t what I thought they were…

I urge you to follow the link above, read his post and see where YOU stand.  Perhaps his comments will lead you to a different kind of reflection process, as they have done for me!

Comment on “Why do we take it so personally” by Cecilia Lemos

Cecilia Lemos’s latest blog post “Why do we take it so personally?” really resonates with me.

Photo by Gil Epshtein
Photo by Gil Epshtein

She writes about how we are aware of the fact that we only play a part in a student’s success yet we feel WE are to blame when the student does not succeed. Cecilia says: “ Why do we take it so personally – and only on a negative side for us??”

I wish I had the answer to that question!

Over the years I have discussed it countless times with a colleague who has been teaching the same pupils I do for just as long (but does not teach English).

Here are a few insights that have come up over the years. Sometimes they make me feel better, sometimes they don’t.

You pay a price either way. Obviously “beating yourself over the head” is bad for your teaching, for your health and for your family. You are human and there is only so much one person can do, no matter how good the intentions are. If you only look at the things that have gone wrong you won’t have the strength for all the things you do so well that help so many students.

On the other hand, if your attitude is: “I know I have worked hard preparing the lessons. If someone still fails, it isn’t related to me”, then you risk being frozen into certain patterns of teaching that you stick to. You miss out on the intense reflection that can come out of true frustration. That’s when you may decide to try something radically different in class or start calling the student’s parents often. Or who knows what else. Sometimes that does the trick.

And sometimes, nothing does the trick. In fact, the real trick is to know how long to agonize about what you haven’t tried before flipping the TURN OFF switch and moving to “I’VE DONE MY BEST” mode. I wish I could say I control this switch well because I have some students whom, despite my sincere efforts, are not going to get a passing grade on the finals they just took. I tried to skim over, to bridge the abyss between what they know to what they need to know for the exam but the abyss is too big.

The best way to activate this “switch” is to hash out your feelings with someone who knows the pupils. They can remind you of the reality of the issues outside of your control which are influencing this pupil and help you regain perspective.

Just like we tell our pupils, when you feel distressed – talk about it!

The Second Question related to “The Coursebook Conundrum”: Recycling Vocabulary

Unlike the situation described in my previous post, I have unequivocally found that teaching “unplugged” in the self-contained classroom has major advantages for the special-needs learner.

In fact, in my classes I have found that the pupils whose hearing loss is just one of a myriad of problems (such as an additional handicap, problematic home life, etc.) respond to it the best.

Let’s take, for example, the “rainy day” lesson I previously posted about. This group of very weak deaf 12th graders, ages ranging from 18-20, have difficulty focusing on the  best of days. I would never have gotten them to work from the coursebook after they got wet on their way to class from an unexpected rainfall. Yet by creating together, on the whiteboard, a 5 sentence story describing one of the girl’s experiences on the way to school that morning (why she had no umbrella and how she got wet…) I had the girls’ attention. They stayed focused when we finished writing the “story”, had 3 rounds of “disappearing text” ( I erased words from the story and they came to the board to fill them back in. Each time I erased more words) and then answered WH questions which I wrote on the board.

They practiced reading comprehension skills and grammar. I was thrilled!

But there’s always a “but”.

These 12th grade girls have a TERRIBLY small vocabulary.

In our vocabulary project I have a set of 50 irregular verbs that I wanted them to master and they spent months on it. One of the four still can’t remember them all.

I supplied the vocabulary needed to complete this “Rainy Day” story (for example, “wet”, “rain”, “umbrella” and “socks”). On one hand I was completely justified in doing so because the benefits were enormous and the girls learned a lot. The story HAD to be about what was on their minds at that moment and I supplied the vocabulary needed to make it happen.

But we haven’t used these words since. And if the lessons are not related to a coursebook at all, how do I make sure these pupils are exposed to the vocabulary items “recycled” in many ways, as they are in a coursebook?

The Coursebook Conundrum and the Special-Needs Learner in the Regular Classroom

To teach “ unplugged” or according to a coursebook, how closely to follow the coursebook and in what manner are topics I find discussed a great deal recently.  For example, I recommend reading Lizzie Pinard’s beautifully written summary of this week’s ELTCHAT: How to avoid death by coursebook

Perhaps I take particular note because these topics are very much on my mind! I’m very enthusiastic about teaching unplugged but am besieged by the countless aspects to this conundrum. I thought it best to examine them one by one. So this post is devoted to the special needs learner in the regular classroom.

Here’s a true story and a couple of facts.

website * Photo by Gil Epshtein

For three consecutive summers I worked with a bright boy we’ll call Joel (note: Joel does not have a hearing loss!). Joel’s intelligence and good language skills helped him compensate well for his learning disability in all subjects at school except English. Joel began learning English in third grade and was in trouble from the word “go”. This is not an uncommon scenario in Israel, in classes of both Hebrew and Arabic speakers, because English requires learning a new alphabet which is written in a different direction. In addition, English is not a Semitic language!

Joel completed his first year of English at school failing to learn the letters and basic phonics. His oral vocabulary was dismally small, despite having a rich vocabulary in his mother tongue. By the end of fourth grade, studying with a private tutor, he had mastered the alphabet and was making progress. But he was way behind his classmates at school and hated English lessons. He did not participate in the lessons.

After fifth grade Joel came to me for three consecutive summers (he continued with his wonderful tutor during the school year) and we prepared for the upcoming school year.

Our summer program’s main goal – build up Joe’s self confidence and enable him to experience success in class. Success breeds success and we had to break out of the vicious circle.


I pre-taught the first unit and half of the coursebook every summer.

I didn’t work with Joel on the book itself. I retyped the texts from the unit on the computer in dark blue letter with a  pale yellow background (slightly enlarged)with no pictures or additional colors. we read them several times in different ways.

I took the grammar topics (present simple, present progressive, past simple, etc.) but rewrote the exercises using either the vocabulary items in the unit or sentences related to Joel.

I closely followed the word lists given in the units in the coursebook and we worked on them intensively.

Joel wasn’t memorizing the answers to exercises in his book – we didn’t do them as they were. He didn’t see most of them. But we made sure he was ready for them.

Although we never got farther than a unit and a half (he needed LOTS of practice!) that made a world of difference. He started off each year surprising his teachers by participating and understanding the material. Since he was more confident he focused more during the lessons and took in more of what his classroom teacher was teaching.

In 8th grade “the penny dropped” and he began doing very well in class! He stopped coming for his summer program…

The fact that we knew the topics that would be covered in the reading passages, main vocabulary items and grammar topics that would be taught (because we had the coursebook) was very beneficial!

Now for the facts:

* In Israel there is a strong push towards mainstreaming special-needs children. Approximately 80% of the children with a hearing loss in this country study in a regular class.

* These children are entitled to a certain amount of hours with an individual tutor. Till about 8th grade these tutors often teach every subject taught in school. It is their job to sit with the classroom teacher, study the coursebooks used in class and support the children.

* Some parents of special-needs children are extremely involved in their children’s schoolwork (in some cases too much so, but that’s a whole different topic!)These parents rely heavily on the coursebook for information and examples of what the child needs to know as often the notebook is so unorganized or incomplete that it is of very little use for reviewing anything.

What happens to these children and their tutors in an “unplugged” classroom?