Category Archives: Thoughts

Lumos Final Presentation

Hi folks,

Not sure anyone still visits this since I’m not updating it anymore (and because I’ve completed my Lumos project), but I just remembered that I’d said that I would upload my presentation. So here it is. It contains the overview of my project, as well as some (hopefully) helpful points to consider when planning your Lumos or study abroad project.

Enjoy!

Mein Deutschland

Reflections

As of Friday, I’m officially finished with my Lumos project, but I wanted to take some time to share a few last thoughts about my trip here. I won’t bother attempting the impossible by trying to summarize nine months of my life in a few paragraphs. Instead, I’d like to go back to my first blog post, “Expectations,” and see how my experiences have compared with my hopes. Back in October I was hoping for a few things: I wanted to see a different side of Germany than I’d already seen in Berlin, I wanted to see what it was like to try to integrate into German society, and I was curious about how these months would really change me.

When I arrived in Enkenbach-Alsenborn, I could tell almost immediately that my experience was going to be vastly different than Berlin. In fact, Enkenbach-Alsenborn was about as different as you can get from an international and busy city like Berlin: E-A had one main road that bisected the train tracks, splitting the two towns roughly into quarters. As the name indicates, E-A used to be two towns, but they eventually grew together into one slightly larger town. I lived in the smaller eastern section, Alsenborn. During those first few months I biked back and forth to the school, took walks in the woods, practiced my German with my host family, and commuted twice a week to Karlsruhe for my language course. It wasn’t a lot, but it was my life and it kept me reasonably busy. However, E-A’s remote location came with a few problems: there were almost no English speakers to befriend, very few places to go to meet people, and not much to do on the weekends. Though I took a few trips during those first few months, I spent the majority of my time in E-A, and by the time the cold, dark months of January and February rolled around I became more and more aware that I needed to change something. Though life in E-A completely immersed me in a community of natives, I still needed the chance to socialize, make friends, relax, and just speak a little English. Thanks to my very helpful and flexible partner organization ELI, and my host family, I was able to work out a new living arrangement in Karlsruhe that put me in closer proximity to the things I was missing, but still allowed me to go on teaching in E-A.

During those first 5 months, I really learned what it meant to immerse oneself in something completely foreign. On one hand, there’s no better way to learn the language and customs, since they’re constantly modeled for you in a habitual and natural fashion by everyone around you. But even when you throw yourself into the deep end of the pool, you need to come up for air every now and then. In E-A, I didn’t have a place where I could go, relax, speak English, and do things that were familiar. I learned in a very immediate way how much language effects what you can do, how much fun you can have, how much work you can do; in short, I learned how completely and inextricably language is bound together with action. The statements of “I couldn’t find a place to relax,” and “I couldn’t find a place to speak English,” became, for me, equivalent.

My time in E-A and Karlsruhe definitely gave me a different perspective on Germany, and especially in E-A I was more or less completely immersed in German culture. And I really tried to integrate as much as possible, first and foremost by learning German, but also by adopting other habits, like eating a large lunch and a small dinner, becoming more direct while dealing with others, and countless other little things. But how did these experiences change me, and to what extent? That was the third question I posed to myself, and I’m honestly not sure how to answer it. In some ways I have definitely changed my behavior, as I’m finding out by interacting with my family and Americans again. But during other periods of my trip, I can recall the experience of recognizing something familiar in how I handled myself; certain challenges I faced seemed to reinforce certain personality traits or habits that I think I’ve had for a long time now. In the end, I haven’t got a good answer to this question yet, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. You can’t force some kinds of knowledge, especially self-knowledge, and maybe this trip has changed me in ways I won’t recognize for years. But I know it has deeply challenged me, broadened me, and made me more resilient and self-reliant. And that is, I think, what Lumos exists to do – to challenge you to grow, learn, and adapt to things you might not have ever experienced.

On that note, I wanted to add a big thank you to all the people who have supported me throughout this project. Of course, I want to thank the Lumos Award committee, Belmont University, and ELI for helping to make all of this possible and tolerating my mistakes and last-minute changes to just about everything :D. Also to my host family in E-A, the Steinmanns, as well as all the teachers and students at the E-A IGS, I give my sincerest thanks and gratitude for helping me figure out how to live and work in Germany. Also, to all the people I’ve met, traveled, partied, danced, sung, and studied with, thanks for making my time in Germany a little more fun. And of course, not least of all, all the people back in the States who have supported me with cards, gifts, e-mails, facebook messages, and everything else. I always loved hearing from someone back home, and you helped me get through this project as much as anyone else.

I hope you all enjoyed reading this blog as much as I enjoyed writing it, and that you felt like it was worth your time.

For the last time,

Derek

 

P.S. – If you have any specific questions about my project, or just want to talk a little bit about traveling abroad, always feel free to leave a comment, and I’ll try to get back to you as soon as possible.

What Makes a Good ESL Lesson? – Part 2

In Part 1, I discussed how you need to consider time constraints and group size when planning an ESL lesson. In this part, I’d like to discuss how to consider the challenge of your lessons, the motivation of your students, and the materials you can use.

Challenge – finding the golden mean of “challenging but achievable” is one of the hardest things to do when planning an ESL lesson, especially for teachers who are native speakers. The most important thing we have to offer students is a natural “feel” for the language: a lifelong familiarity of all the peculiarities of English, from verb/preposition combinations to style and word choice. But this familiarity almost works against us when planning an ESL lesson because it is so difficult for us, as native speakers, to know what is difficult and what is easy. Then factor in that besides linguistic skill, certain students are just better or worse than other in general, and that you may have to work with varying age groups with varying levels of experience, and you begin to see how difficult it can be to find the appropriate level of difficulty.

Though it doesn’t help much in practice, you can take some small comfort that in theory there are only two mistakes you can make regarding how challenging a lesson is: making lessons too easy or too hard. When you actually start teaching, it will be up to you to pay attention to your own tendencies in planning, and to try and get as much feedback from students and teachers as you can. It will be difficult to get specific answers about what was difficult and what was easy from your students, but after some time you’ll start to recognize when a lesson was too easy or too hard simply from how your students behave. I won’t say “if they look bored than it was too easy,” or “if they smile and laugh and pay attention then it was just challenging enough,” because different students will react differently to easy or difficult tasks, and it will be up to you to try and figure out if a bored expression actually means the student is completely confused or genuinely bored. If you are working with another teacher, they can be an invaluable source of information about whole classes or specific students that you can’t read, since they probably spend at least as much, and usually more, time with the students than you will.

Also be aware of your own motivations when planning lessons. I know for certain that during the first few months of teaching my lessons were far too easy, and there were specific reasons why: I was a bit nervous in my new role as I had almost no precedent to follow and no materials pre-provided, I wanted to guarantee the students’ cooperation, and I didn’t want to accidently scare my students into silence with unreasonably hard assignments. As I became more comfortable with my role and work, and more familiar with the students, I gradually made the assignments more difficult and complicated. But if I hadn’t been reflecting about my lessons, and why I was planning them the way I was, I could just as easily have continued planning fun but unchallenging lessons. In the end your goal as a teacher is to create lessons and activities that give the students a chance to improve their language skills, and there is no improvement without a challenge. Again, I don’t want to simply say “Err on the side of making your lessons harder,” because that advice is useless without considering how comfortable you are with your job, how comfortable your students are with you, and a hundred other factors that can’t really all be accounted for. Be happy with small incremental improvements, try to adjust lessons that fall on the extreme ends of the difficulty spectrum, and recognize that during the course of a school year the challenge of your assignments will fluctuate more like a sine wave than diagonal line upward.

Motivation – by motivation, I mean a student’s immediate willingness to participate in class and pay attention, as well as their long-term reasons for learning English. This may not be something that needs to factor heavily into your lesson planning, and really only requires attention when something is wrong, aka the students are not participating or engaging with the lessons. In the short-term or immediate sense, your mere presence is often enough to get them to participate in your lesson, even if they do so begrudgingly. This will sound like bragging, but I really mean it as more of a disclaimer: I don’t know how to give advice about how to increase students’ interest in participation because I never had any problems. My students were at the very least cooperative, and often interested or even excited to see me. If there’s one other asset you have as a foreigner teaching ESL abroad that is a real double-edged sword, it’s that you are a novelty. But besides your novelty, you have on your side the very real fact that English truly is a global language, and that if you want to participate in any professional career around the world, you need at least a “basic level” of English. Almost all students are brought up believing this, meaning that even if they don’t have a specific idea of what they’d like to do with their English, they’ll still consider it important. One place where considering motivation can be helpful during lesson planning is when choosing subject matter for your lessons. You can’t be sure that all of your students will work for an international corporation or have to write an analysis of a Charles Dickens book, but there’s a very good chance that they may have to read a restaurant menu, give or receive directions, or phone up a hotel while on vacation or traveling abroad. By focusing on what students might actually end up using their English for, you can get an idea of which topics might make good subjects for lessons.

Materials – by materials, I mean quite simply and broadly anything you use to facilitate teaching. That means that materials can be anything from a simple question, such as “Describe your favorite vacation,” to a written-out script with cues for speaking practice. Often, a simple handout is sufficient to explain and set up a lesson, but occasionally you may want longer text examples, or even multimedia like sound recordings or videos. The reality is that in most situations, the material you use will be chosen and provided for you, and you’ll simply work your way through a book. But if you have a bit more freedom (or complete and total “freedom,” as was my case – I was given no materials to work with!), it can be worth starting a lesson with a video or cartoon, simply to avoid the monotony that can come with working solely through a lesson book, because even good books get boring after a while.

Well, that about does it. I believe that if you keep these 5 factors in mind while planning your lessons, you’ll be able to face your lessons a little bit more at ease. As I said in my first post, I’m somewhat skeptical that this kind of analysis of lesson planning is helpful as a guide, so take what I say here with a grain of salt and trust your experiences more than my opinions. Pay attention to what works and what doesn’t, be willing to try different things, and don’t be afraid of a lesson falling flat on its face. If you have any different ideas or experiences about planning and teaching ESL, do share them in the comments.

Until next time,

Derek

Small Town Southern Germany

After spending quite a bit of time on trains traveling through the rural forested areas of south-western Germany, I’ve seen a lot of different small towns, and if ever something has tempted me to go off on Platonic metaphysical speculation, it’s these small German mountain villages. They’re so eerily similar that it seems like neither the strictest of German building codes nor the geography could have created such remarkably uniform instantiations. The Idea must be something like this: every town will sit in the valley in between at least two, if not mountains, than high hills. The houses will be huddled together in these valleys like cold people huddling together for warmth and safety, and will bear roughly the same color pallet. Always pale colored, plaster walls, ranging in color from a washed out red that looks like a muted pink, to grey, to similarly washed out versions of light blue and light green. The rooves will always be clay tiles of dark red or orange, and slanted steeply as to bear the load of snow more easily. The background of the village, no matter where you stand, will always be a forest of evergreen trees and other green vegetation, and you will find a few dispersed throughout the town as well.

Houses

The only things that interrupts this almost uniform description are the splashes of vivid color on franchised grocery stores and advertisements. I know there are literally armies of Marketing teams that test these color schemes for companies to get the perfect combination that stands out without being too gaudy, but it seems to me that no matter what the design, these splashes of color will always stand out too much in these little towns. I know the intended effects: have a design that stands out from others, that distinguishes your store from the others, that entices people to enter with promises of quality and consistency. But out here, “auf dem Land,” these bright colored advertisements and logos are bound to seem gaudy and out-of-place. Designed to compete with each other in urban environments, where there are a thousand more distractions, these splashes of color on the landscapes of these small German towns just look like unnecessary highlights.

In a more sober and scientific mood, I can imagine perfectly reasonable explanations that explain this uniformity: everything looks washed-out because it has been washed out, no one wants to spend extra money on ostentatious decoration, the houses have been around for a long time, there is social pressure to conform (just like there is any- and everywhere), and one of the last concerns of a grocery store chain is how a bunch of people in a rural village will feel about the change in color pallet of their town’s landscape. But I still find it fascinating that this is what necessity has produced here in southern Germany, and not something else. Whether divinely inspired or naturally mechanistic, it’s still unique.

The Little Differences

So I’ve finally had some time to digest a lot of the changes that have happened over the last few weeks, which has allowed me to reflect a little more about my trip up to this point. When looking at the calendar last night, I realized that I’m actually closer to the two-thirds mark rather than the halfway mark in my project. It was a sobering and surprising realization. I’ve done all sorts of things to try and remember my attitude and feelings during my first few months, including re-reading some of my old blog and journal entries. Of course, some things are impossible to forget: my struggle with learning and speaking a new language, figuring out my role at the high school, and navigating new social and familial habits with my host family. These are all very typical experiences for someone living, studying, and teaching abroad, and although they were all “German,” anyone would encounter those challenges studying anywhere. But as I was reviewing my old writing I kept coming across all these little notes about small, almost insignificant things. For example, I remember being absolutely delighted when my host mother started regularly making and buying soft pretzels for breakfast. I also recall being surprised the first time I saw multiple people (who didn’t even look homeless) walking around with beer bottles before noon. The examples go on and on, but I think it just goes to show that some of the most memorable things during my project have been, as Vince from Pulp Fiction puts it, the little differences.

After nearly six months, I have gotten used to speaking and hearing German regularly. I’ve become accustomed to German weather and climate. I have a better understanding of the school system and how to run a small-group English lesson. I even feel like I’m beginning to get the hang of those more advanced linguistic skills like joking, flirting, haggling, and arguing. But for the life of me, I cannot get used to the fact that I need to quickly bag my own groceries at the grocery store before the next customers’ groceries get mixed up with mine, or that you have to separate your garbage into 5 different containers. Initially, it was the common, every-day things that made me nervous, excited, confused, and thrilled. But that period only lasts for a while until you realize that Germans are humans just like Americans and they need to eat, sleep, work, go to the hospital, have children, etc. Once you can communicate in those situations, a bit of the charm wears off. But as soon as life is beginning to seem normal again, you start to notice and pay more attention to the smaller things. Your view naturally becomes more subtle as your familiarity with every day life increases. And in the end it’s the tiniest of things that stand out the most.

If my plans work out as I expect them to (and if there’s anything I’ve learned over the last year it’s that this is rarely the case), I’m going to make a concerted effort to take note of and describe more of these little differences that I experience in my day to day life. And who knows, those observations may even lead to a good blog post or two.

Hope you’re all doing well.

Derek

Back in the City

I just recently passed the halfway point of my project, and consequently feel obligated to be reflective and sentimental about the first part of my trip. I feel doubly obligated due to the fact that I have had a major change in my living situation, and am leaving my home of the last 5 months behind. The only problem is that I have been so busy during this week, I’ve hardly had time to sit and reflect. So, if this post doesn’t bear the sentimental and reflective load it should, I ask you readers to forgive me, and consider it a debt I’ll make up to you eventually.

As I said, I have decided to move, and in fact already have. It was a decision I thought long and hard about, but now that it’s done I’m sure it was the right thing to do. When I planned this project, I tried to account for every possible circumstance or problem that might come up. But as is always the case, the carrying out of the plan revealed a few errors of judgment I could never have predicted before coming to Germany. I did an excellent job (if I do say so myself) of making sure that I would have plenty of opportunities to practice my German and be available to teach English. Those aspects were, and of course still are, the most important parts of my project here. I also chose to live in a more rural part of Germany in order to “get a different perspective on life in Germany,” by which I meant different than Berlin, one of the biggest cities in Germany. And while living in Enkenbach-Alsenborn did grant me this different perspective, it also reminded me of something about living in the country which I had somehow forgotten after 5 years of Nashville city-living: there’s not much to do, and there are not many places to go. While Enkenbach-Alsenborn has much to offer in the way of beautiful trails through the woods and peace and quiet, it has somewhat less to offer in terms of nightlife, socializing, and places to work. One thing that I know about myself is that I need to have different places to go to do different things – I like to work in cafes and libraries and I like to have fun at bars and restaurants. Enkenbach-Alsenborn has an unfortunate shortage of all of those things.

So after a few months of trying to make the best of my situation, I realized that the much simpler option would be to just move. After doing the math and talking with my partner organization, I worked out an agreement with my host family that would allow me to continue my teaching project, but also live closer to the friends that I had already made (but seldom saw) through my language class in Karlsruhe. The whole moving process was a test of the language skills that I had developed over the last five months, and I know now that even though I lacked some things in Enkenbach-Alsenborn, my time there gave me language practice that has over the last two weeks proved invaluable.

So now it’s back to the city life for me. I’ve acquired all the necessary things that one needs for an apartment, and I’ve even got the heat to work (mostly). I am excited for the new opportunities and experiences that I’ll have here, and am at the same time grateful for the ones that preceded them.

I hope all you readers are doing well! We’ll talk later.

Derek

Journaling, Writing, and Blogging Part 1

One of the most interesting things about the information revolution brought on by the internet is that millions of people have been given access to a public voice that they never would have had. But it is still questionable whether this has had a positive or negative impact on writing in general. Before the internet, if you wanted people to read something you had written, you either had to give it to them personally, or go through some sort of publisher, be it newspaper, magazine, or book. Those publishers had the tools to reproduce your writing and distribute it to a community of readers that, while varying in size, was always more than you could reach alone. But now anyone can create a blog and a few social media profiles, and within weeks reach thousands, if not tens of thousands, of potential readers.

So while the internet has changed the means of distribution of information, what has not changed is the basic types of writing, of which there are, really, only two: writing for oneself (here, journaling) and writing for others (here, writing-proper). These types of writing usually serve different purposes, and before the internet they also existed in mutually-exclusive spheres, the private and the public. But now these spheres seem to be somewhat mixed up.

This is especially obvious in blog writing, where the line between journaling/writing and private/public is often unclear. This fuzzy distinction has given blogs, rightly or wrongly, a bit of a stigma as the medium of choice for wannabe intellectuals and whiny teenagers[1]. While it would certainly be unfair to see all blogs as belonging to one of these two camps, this stereotype hints at some of the big problems in blog writing today. Blogs, in general, suffer from two major problems: authors presenting journaling as writing-proper, and writers misunderstanding the implicit assumptions in starting a new blog.

But before we deal with blog writing, let me clarify what I mean by journaling and writing-proper. Journaling’s most important attribute is its freeness. When one journals, one is free to work out thoughts or problems without the scrutiny of others or the demands of the rules of language. This freedom from concerns of audience can be invaluable when attempting to work through personal problems, develop new ideas, or be creative. Journaling may lead to writing-proper, but in-itself it is often of interest only to the author. Occasionally journal-style writing will appeal to an audience outside the author, but more often than not it is too narrowly personal, too confusingly self-referential, or too boring or petty to be interesting to others.

Writing-proper, on the other hand, should be of interest to others, because the author writes in order to communicate with someone else. This is the essential distinction of writing-proper, and since the author writes with others in mind, he pays special attention to word choice, style, grammar, and all the other rules of usage in language in order to strike his audience in a particular way. Even when attempting to alter her audience in some way, whether it is linguistically, behaviorally, or intellectually, the author always tries to find the best means for conveying her thoughts. These means could look radically different, depending on whether the author is writing a poem or a lab-report, but there is always a consideration of the audience in writing-proper.

In the next part of Journaling, Writing, and Blogging, I’ll explain how blogs have the accessibility of journaling, but the audience of writing proper, and how this mixture has given blogs an unsavory reputation. I’ll then explain the problem of the proliferation of blogs, and finally how blogs have the potential to be an excellent medium for writing-proper.



[1] And as a wannabe intellectual, I object to being grouped with whiny teenagers.

Means and Ends

When I created this project, I told myself, my friends, and many other people that one of my main goals was to “improve my German.” I believe this is a good justification for traveling because it suggests a charitable attitude towards the country you are visiting, and that you are willing to humble yourself to the role of a novice in a place where practically everyone you meet will be an expert. But the problem with justifying travel with a desire to learn a language is that you are inevitably faced with another question: why do you want to learn another language?

Before I left for Germany, I reasoned that learning German had many benefits: it would be good for grad school in philosophy, for my resume, and for reading a few favorite writers in their original language. But after a few weeks here in Germany, I faced that question in a new, more urgent way. Learning German was no longer a distant or intangible goal – it became an absolute necessity for daily living. During my first week I was practically incapable of doing almost anything alone. Heck, even ordering coffee made me nervous. One time I stood in line at a busy café for so long that I lost my nerve and left without ordering. Only later did I realize that the adrenaline rush of being nervous had woken me up as much as a cup of coffee (try new 5-hour Nervousness – with as much excitement as a cup of coffee, and definitely a crash later).

Fear not, readers. I now only have brief panic attacks while ordering coffee. To be serious, I really have become more comfortable with speaking German on a daily basis, and that’s because over the last few weeks I’ve had to use German every day in a variety of situations. My learning has been spurred on by the need to communicate. So now I have an immediate, real answer to the previously posed question: I need to learn German in order to function in everyday life.

But that got me thinking. If I justified traveling with learning German, and then I justify learning German with having traveled somewhere (namely, Germany), then haven’t I just reasoned myself into a circle? Have I actually no real reason for learning German?

No. But I was confused about one very important truth: one always learns a language in order to do something else. Language itself is a means, or a tool, good for accomplishing other things. But to suggest that learning a language is an end in itself is to misunderstand the essence of language. Not only is this detrimental to an individual, such as me, when considering why one should travel or study a language, but also to others by promoting that misunderstanding. So when someone is considering whether or not they should major in Spanish, or if they should spend a year in France to improve their French, we should always press these people further – why do you want to learn another language? If one has answers ready for that question, then one understands the purpose of using and learning languages, and is ready to study them.

And really, the stakes are higher than just misunderstanding what language is. When you’re trying to choose what to do with your life, it’s important to understand the choices you are making. And choosing to learn a language without considering the “what-for” can lead to crushed dreams and feelings of time well-wasted. But if you’re willing to admit to yourself that you’ve been thinking about your language studies all wrong, you can adjust your thinking. All that is necessary is to consider what you want to do with German, or Spanish, or any language, pat your naïve past-self on the head, and move towards a real goal.