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I’ve never been a fan of secrets. I hate it when they’re kept from me, and I hate keeping them. In this case, though, I’ve had no choice. continue reading…

I didn’t go on any trips today. I didn’t do anything special. Nothing exciting happened at work. In short, it was an ordinary day that would be easy to forget. But somehow, it was wonderful. I woke up around 11AM to my alarm clock playing a song I like. After grabbing a bite to eat, I headed into work. My students gave me about 70 books last class, but it wasn’t a problem. I’d already graded them all on Friday night, after work. With half an hour before class, all I needed to do was print up their ranking sheets and visualize how my lesson would go. I chatted a bit with Dan, and then I went into class, relaxed and unhurried. continue reading…

Summer is here, and business is booming at First Step. More students have signed up for my first and second grade classes than I can teach, and fifty more are on a waiting list for our normal classes. Nearly every day, more students and parents are visiting or asking about our school. There is an unfortunate downside, however.

For some reason, regardless of how terrible their children’s English is, parents won’t just sign them up for a new class that starts from lesson one. Instead, they pretty much all take an entrance test to try to get into a more advanced class. So far, less than five percent of the students who have taken it have passed and been able to start from a second semester class. Sadly, few of the parents can accept this fact without spending 10-20 minutes pressuring me to put their kids in a higher level after having just seen their kids fail horribly. It absolutely blows my mind. continue reading…

I finally have some video from my classes I can put up here, thanks to Patrick. Here is a clip from an oral spelling drill. This isn’t rote memorization. None of the words I ask the students to spell have been previously taught; they have to use phonics rules to figure out how to spell them. I accept any phonetically equivalent spellings, since there’s no possible way for students to differentiate between them. In other words, “pound” and “pownd” would both be considered to be equivalent responses, as would “gait” and “gate”, “carpet” and “karpet”, “staff” and “staph”, etc… In my opinion, these drills are one of the main reasons my students at First Step have so much better pronunciation and so much better of a handle on phonics in general than my students at Tomcat did. It just isn’t possible for kids to make it through this curriculum and not be able to hear the difference between words like “special” and “spatial”, or “hit” and “heat”.

This class had studied at my school for a total of 4 hours per week for 5 months at the time this video was taken. On the first day of class most students couldn’t understand, “How are you?”, or tell the difference between E and A sounds. On the very first day, we did a spelling drill on words composed of only short A’s, B’s, C’s, D’s and T’s. Less than one third of the students’ answers were correct. In contrast, at the time of this video, the words they could be quizzed on included all of the letters of the alphabet, long and short vowel sounds, including “oo”, “ow/ou” sounds, “th” (voiced and unvoiced), “ch”, and “sh”. At the time of this spelling drill, the students were expected to know our school’s first 22 phonics rules.

One of the most frustrating things about living in Taiwan (or anywhere as a minority) is all of the racism one sees. One of my good friends when I first showed up, was a black guy. He graduated from a school pretty much equivalent to mine, had good grades, and a degree in linguistics. Neither bŭxíbāns, nor high schools would touch him with a ten-foot pole. Seeing that his work opportunities were so terrible here, he left. Friends have told me not to buy clothes at Hang Ten, because “That’s where Thai people shop.” On one occasion, I was kicked out of my apartment for being white. The landlady wanted to “get rid of the foreigners”, but the Asian-American guy and the Asian-Canadian gal could stay. Stuff like that happens. It’s part of life. Most frustrating of all, is that nearly every Taiwanese person I’ve met is convinced that racism doesn’t exist here; it’s just a “western problem”.

One area in which I’ve seen particular prejudice is in hiring practices. When I first moved to Táibĕi and was looking for computer-related jobs, I was turned down for my whiteness on a number of times.

We’ll hire ABCs as programmers, but not lăowài. Would you like to do some editing on English versions of our technical manuals?

It was often the same story. Interestingly, the situation is frequently reversed in bŭxíbāns, where it’s an advantage to be obviously white (preferably blue-eyed). The Sesame Street and Joy branches where I worked only hired Asians and whites, no blacks. Kiki did the same thing, but took it further by only hiring Asians and whites, and keeping an all Asian (including ABC) management. At both Tomcat and Modawei, blacks were hired, but no Asians. I guess it’s because those schools require that the teachers can speak Chinese. Maybe it worries the parents to see Chinese-looking people speaking Chinese in an English class when there’s no fresh off the plane blond haired Canadian there to back them up. Since my school also requires that teachers explain things in Chinese (in lower level classes), I figured we had the same rules. But we don’t! Yesterday, I saw a new interviewee visiting our school. There were two things special about this teacher.

  1. She’s female!
  2. She’s Asian-looking!

I’ve never seen any women working at HFRBs, and all of the ones where I’ve previously worked also had “no Asian” policies (to the best of my knowledge).

I asked Ron about it today, and was really pleased with what he had to say. He won’t hire “Fake ABCs”- the Taiwanese people who study abroad for 4 years and then come back saying they’re from Los Angeles. He will consider any native English speaker from north America, who has the Chinese skills, the teaching skills and the stability to stay long enough to take classes from the basics to graduation, though. “Black teachers too, right?” I asked. “Yep, I refused to bend on that,” was his response. I guess his local partner leaned on him pretty hard to NOT accept any black, Latino, or S.E. Asian looking applicants, but he stood his ground. There’s no way he can guarantee that applicants will be able to overcome the racist stereotypes of the parents to the degree necessary to open classes. But, anybody who’s qualified has a shot at the job, regardless of race. I know it may not sound anything to brag about to some of my friends back home, but believe me—it is here.

Last Saturday, Patrick, a teacher at a middle school in Táizhōng visited my school. He has some influence on his school’s curriculum and wanted to investigate a hardcore bŭxíbān to see if there was anything we do that he could adapt for use at his school. I was both impressed and amazed that a teacher would come all the way from Táizhōng to visit Guīshān on his own time. He’s obviously much more dedicated than any of the other English teachers I’ve known who work at Taiwanese schools. It must have been at least a three hour bus ride each way, and I can only hope that what he saw gave him some teaching ideas worthwhile enough to justify such a trip.

From what he said, it sounds like Patrick really has his work cut out for him. Unlike the other classes at his school, the English classes taught by foreign teachers don’t really “count”. Talk about a way to ruin the kids’ motivation. On top of that, the foreign teachers at his school aren’t really allowed to speak Chinese in class. I’m sure that slows down the progress of the kids at the lower levels quite a bit; I’ve been at that kind of school before. Still, he said that the students at his school have 18 hours per week of English language classes if P.E. and drama are included. That’s a whole heck of a lot of input. If they can just make sure that it’s comprehensible and get all of the kids paying attention and interested in class, they should be able to get some pretty phenomenal results. Considering that my school’s bŭxíbān classes are only 4 hours a week, I really doubted that much of our curriculum would be of any use to him. From what he said though, they do have some pretty confused kids at the lower levels who fail to get what they should out of all of those hours of English classes.

While I can’t say for sure what will be useful and what won’t, I hope he gets something out of it to justify the long trip. It was sure a nice thing for me that he came up to visit. It’s always nice to meet interesting people, and people who care about their work. Another thing that I’m really happy about is that he was able to film some of one of my classes on his super-uber-duper cell phone. The resolution and overall quality are far better than that of the DVDs with the cameras built into our classrooms. Once I get a copy from him, I can convert it to an FLV file and stream it from this site. Then, all of my family and friends back home can finally see what it is I’ve been doing out here in Taiwan these past few years.

Recently, one of Michael Turton’s (see my links on the right) friends from Taizhong emailed me and asked me for input on curriculum design for a private middle school’s English program. I answered his questions as best I could, and tried to tell him a bit about different activities I’ve found useful. It was a little difficult to describe them over the phone and so he asked if I could show him some of our curriculum materials. I was all for it, but I had to ask my boss first. His reaction?

Him: Oh, sure. Yeah, I care about beating the other schools, but I care more about improving the level of education for as many Taiwanese kids as possible. That’s why I’m helping X high school, that swiped our curriculum just across town.

Me: What!!? What do you mean? Somebody copied it?
Him: Yeah, the’ve got the whole thing photocopied. They aren’t teaching it properly, though.
Me: So… uh… you’re going to help them “copy us properly”?
Him: Yeah, man. We’re talking about the education of thousands of kids!

I just don’t know how to take that. It’s such a shock after my last school, which cancelled my contract over an “all your brain is belong to us” IP clause I refused to sign. I love his ideals, but will the market reward him?

Well, I just did the 說明會 for my new class on Friday. It will be my fourth class, but since two of my classes are 90 minutes a day M-F, it will put me at full time. It also means that as of tomorrow, my class-load will be considered “full-time”. That has a small down-side and a couple of upsides. The down side is that I will no longer get paid during my non-teaching hours. As a result, I’m taking a $6600台幣/week pay cut. The good side is that I don’t have to come in during those hours (though I obviously still have to grade books, calculate class rankings, write exams, make curriculum, etc…). Calculations for my bonus will start from now, too. I still won’t get one for another year, though, and the first two will be small.

I should also get all my back-pay for training, test proctoring and so forth. That back-pay has been building up for nine months, now. My school holds back $200 out of the $700/hr of training pay until a teacher opens his or her second class. Theoretically, I should have already gotten it, and I’m starting to get pissed-off about it. When my second class opened and I asked about it, my boss said that “though I was teaching and being paid, the class wasn’t open, yet”. I guess that’s because the school has some system where the parents can take the first 8 classes for free, and then those that want to continue pay. It’s just happened that all but one of my students who have tried my class have paid and continued, so I never really noticed some cut-off day.

I’ve also got my very first class’s 1st semester final exam coming up. I’m really pleased with their progress. My boss opened another class a month before mine opened and my class passed his last week! They started from nothing, and now most of the kids can spell out words they’ve never heard before that include short and long vowels (including “oo”), “-ou-/-ow-“, “-ow” (i.e. crow), “-er/-ir-/-ur-“, “-ar-“, “-or-“, “-are/-air-“, “-eer-/-ear-“, “-ire-“, “-ure”, “-ph-“, “-ce-“, “th”, “ch”, “-y/-ey”, “-ay”, and “-oy”. They also have a good idea of when to use one “l” as opposed to two, when to use one “s” instead of two, when to use “ck” instead of just “k” and when to use “-tch” instead of just “-ch”. Obviously they can’t spell words with exceptions, words that use spelling rules, such as “-cious”, that they haven’t learned yet, and they can’t tell if a long a should be spelled as “a_e”, or as “ai”. But they can give me reasonable phonetic spellings of most of the words I use in their spelling drills. Their pronunciation is improving rapidly. One student, “Little Tina”, who couldn’t pronounce an “r” to save her life a couple of months ago has suddenly made huge improvements over the last month. The class in general is getting a lot better at the short i vs long e problem that plagues 99% of all Chinese people I’ve met. They’ve gone from nothing, to being able to use Can/Did/Will + verb sentences with about 25 verbs, including some transitive verbs, and Is/Am/Are + noun/adjective sentences with about an equal number of nouns and adjectives.

If they continue like this, they’ll likely be able to get into the Bookworms graded readers, like Pocahontas within another 12-14 months. As part of my preparation for my new class to be opened tomorrow, I watched the video of my first class’s first day. Large numbers of them didn’t know what “good” or “sit down” meant. Seeing them like that really reminded me of how quickly they’re coming along. That’s awesome. It really, really sucks living in 龜山, but work is going alright.

One thing that’s distinctive about my school, compared to other HFRBs is that we use “points”. At most elite bŭxíbāns, there is far too little positive feedback. To deal with this problem, my boss borrowed the idea of giving kids points from the Big Chains. We don’t do them like they do, though. Our gifts are good. Five percent of total revenues get rolled into the gifts. In other words, kids get things like PS2s, bikes, and computers when then graduate.

Kids can get points from a variety of sources. Anytime they voluntarily raise their hands and answer a question correctly, they get a point. They can get or occasionally lose points based on the quality of their homework and tests. At higher levels, they can also get points for each extra book1 they read. We rank the kids based on their points each class, and assign them ranks- A, B, C, and D. “A” students don’t have to do any taped homework, “B” students do half the normal amount, and “D” students get extra homework. We drill it into the kids every class, that more class participation and better homework equals less homework assigned, better gifts, and ultimately better English. They’re hooked on the less homework part from day one; the gifts are a long term goal, but within the first year any class will develop a few greedy point fiends2; and finally, the goal of better English takes forever to sink in. After dozens of motivational speeches3 over the years, it does sink in, though.

The results? This is the first school I’ve ever worked where 90% of the kids raise their hands whenever I ask a question. It’s getting to the point where its hard to remember how passive the kids were back when I worked at Sesame Street. Now they all pay attention and actively try to participate nearly all the time. And no matter what your views on language learning are, that’s a good thing. I used to think points were a stupid waste, back when I was at Joy. I was wrong. Points rule.

[1:]This is meant to be an extra push to get the kids into extensive reading. We start them out with the first level of the Oxford Bookworms series of graded readers. At the first level, they only include 400 headwords, plus about 20 vocabulary items specific to each individual book. Complex grammatical structures, such as relative clauses, are also rare in these books. By the second part of their second year, the students can read about 20-30 pages per hour. With the incentive of points we can get them to read over 50 pages a week.

[2:]It’s really easy for this to get out of hand. I have to spend a couple minutes every few classes explaining how meticulously I track how many times I’ve called on each student for extra points. It’s crucial to make sure it’s fair and make sure they know I’m making sure it’s fair. I do give D students more chances for extra points, though. That’s part of the system.

[3:]One of my favorite speeches goes like this:

“Everybody in Taiwan has to study English for years and years anyway, right? Isn’t it better to work hard for four years and have great English for life than to half-heartedly waste 10 years and never get much for your effort?”

Back when I was working at Modawei, they wrote up this little summary about me. That way potential clients could learn something about me before seeing me in action. They framed it nicely on the wall, and then put it up on a snazzy (over-snazzy, one might say), website. I’ll get back to this in a couple paragraphs.

Lot’s of things at Modawei were snazzy. People there commonly wore full suits to teach ESL to 3rd graders. During training, management continually stressed the importance of presentation. Most of the teachers were taller and good-looking. When the students did oral tests in class, they came to the front of the class and lined up in fours. It looked slick. First Step isn’t like that. We don’t dress like slobs, but lets just say I don’t wear a tie to work anymore. When our students do oral tests in class, they stand up where they are and start asking and answering questions. Ron doesn’t want to waste the 30 seconds it would take each group to get to the front of the class. That would waste class time that could have been spent listening to and speaking English. A bit fanatical? Yes. His heart’s in the right place, though. Unlike every single other school at which I’ve worked, none of the questions they ask are memorized. That means the kids look bad sometimes. But it’s also good for their English to learn how to understand new sentences they’ve never heard before instead of leaning on memorization at the low levels.

the board

Remember that website where I said Modawei has snazzy teacher introductions? Well, at my current school, I’ve got a couple of paragraphs printed out on a yellow piece of paper and tacked on the wall. Very minimalist. And yet, somehow, my classes have filled far faster here than they ever did at Modawei. Could it be that substance sometimes wins out over style, even in marketing? Or, could it just be that I’m not competing against all of those taller good-looking co-workers for my students anymore?


Teacher Intro