The Language House and TEFL Training

After leaving China, I decided to get certified. You don’t have to have your TEFL cert to teach in China; I’m evidence of that, but I thought it would broaden my opportunities. It is a good idea if you want to teach overseas. You can get your TEFL pretty much anywhere, but there are a few things you want to keep in mind when deciding where to go. One is that you want to make certain that the TEFL school is accredited. This is really important. Your certificate must be internationally recognized. You’ll also want a program that offers over 100 hours of TEFL training and teaching. You want real teaching hours with real students. You want your teachers to be trained and certified, and you want some help with job placement assistance. If you want to read more in-depth information on hunting for the right TEFL Program you can link here and here.

Now, let me tell you why I chose The Language House in Prague. I’ll start with the completely impractical reason first, and then follow the more researched reason.

I chose Prague because I love Prague. I lived here in 2000, and I had always wanted to return. As some of you who have followed this blog know, I wrote my first (and so far only) novel about living in Prague. The city had haunted my memories for the past 14 years. Since, my mom had died in February, and I was heartbroken and completely lost without having any feeling of home, I thought why not continue to move on to the next place? And, why not have that place be Prague a city that had been on my mind?

There are plenty of places in Prague where you can get your TEFL cert, but I chose the Language House. Their certificate is recognized, fully accredited and externally Monitored by IATQuO. They offer 130 hours of teacher training including the actual teaching of real life students. The main reason I chose them was because they have an extensive social network that allowed me to get in contact with previous students. This network offered me real feedback about the program, and I felt I could trust them once I was able to read reviews, and contact a few folks. I could see that people were actually teaching and that they felt the program was a good program, and one that they were willing to recommend.

Now that I have completed the program I can throw in my two cents. I think The Language House is an excellent program. I can’t say it is the best in Prague because I didn’t go to any of the other schools, but I had met students from other schools who felt their program had lacked the teaching time and the teacher support that we received at the Language House. The teachers are excellent, but using the word excellent is empty without adding a few examples. So here they are:

Anthony, gave us an introduction to Phonetics. He was well versed in the subject and was enthusiastic in his teaching of the classes. He was funny, helpful, and I heard from other students that he was a wonderful observer. (I’ll explain observer in a bit.)

Andrea, is pretty much everything a person would want in a teacher. Hilarious, intelligent, informative, had an incredible command of the class, and during our lesson planning she was there to give us helpful advice. She gave us grammar lessons-focused on conditionals, and CV versus resume information. She is also the jobs go-to person and she is always quick to respond to questions.

Chris Foxwell had the reputation of being the hard-ass out of the teachers. You know that teacher that really pushes you, and you think that he/she may be some kind of a sadists, (but remember you’re the masochist for signing up for the class) till you realize you learned so much from that teacher? That’s Chris. He’s a no excuses type of instructor, and you are going to learn from him. He went over grammar and methodology. You could tell he loved what he was teaching and wanted teachers coming out of The Language House to be the best.

Chris Westergaard, is the program director and owner of The Language House. He is a natural in front of the class. He is engaging and insightful. He offers an enormous breadth of information and TEFL teaching knowledge from ten years of experience. And, he has many funny tales of TEFL teaching life.

There are more people to mention at The Language House, but these were my core instructors. There was also Jitka our Czech language teacher, and Kirrily who taught Young Learners, both great teachers. I had mentioned in a paragraph above about observers. We began teaching real students in the second week of this four week program. We were observed every time, and at the end of classes we were given in-depth feedback on our teaching. You’ll have three different observers and teach three different levels during your course. Expect to feel tired.

Here’s more of what you’ll experience: You will learn your grammar. You will take a grammar test that you need to pass with at least an 80% in order to get your certificate. You will go to class everyday and teach everyday (except on Friday- no teaching). You will freak out about not having a lesson plan. You will freak out when you realize you don’t know your own language’s grammar, but your Czech students do. You will think that you were crazy for signing up for this program. You will get tired of your feedback, until one day someone say’s “that’s an almost a perfect grammar lesson,” then you’ll feel amazing. You’ll learn new teaching methodologies, but you will focus on the ESA method of teaching. You’ll meet really wonderful people. You’ll let loose like crazy on the weekends. Then it will be over.

During my first week of class, as Chris W. taught us about the ESA method (Engage, Study, Activate), right away my mind flashed back to my literature classes in China. It was obvious to me how much this type of training would have assisted me in my classes. I thought about how I could have done things differently and how much it would have improved my lessons.

No, you don’t need your TEFL to teach in China, but I think it can not only increase your pay and your opportunities, but it will help make your classroom experience better for you and your students. If you want to teach overseas I highly recommend you take a course, and if you decide to come to Prague for your training- I sincerely and emphatically recommend The Language House in Prague.

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The Dismantling of Creativity from Education and its Collateral Damage

“Creative people are the resource that permits civilization to advance”- Nancy Andreasen 

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The Atlantic’s article by Nancy Andreasen on the “Secrets of the Creative Brain” centers on the link between creative people and mental illness. There is no connection to education in China or in America in this article, but it got me to thinking about when a society does not understand or have compassion for people who have mental illness plus does not support or honor the creative mind what happens to that societies ability to advance? China has advanced rapidly in terms of economy and definitely in terms of building, and many of our politicians and pundits (safely and snugly in their comfortable expensives beds) cry out to the American public – “our education needs to be more like China’s!” They are going to beat the great U.S.A in the crunching numbers game!” Then they suck their thumbs and go back to sleep. These mouth boxes of course do not teach nor do they have any real experience in China. If they come to China to visit its schools they only go to the top top schools with the most affluent children, and the top scores in all of (a billion plus population) China. If they really wanted to know about China’s educate system and they asked real everyday students, teachers, and parents they would find that a majority (maybe all who knows) of Chinese people are not satisfied with China’s education system, in fact, they say it is bad.You know, Pink Floyd’s movie The Wall with the scene of children walking into the giant meat grinder? That’s China.

In much of China (what I know from my limited conversations with students) the creative process is removed from the education system. In kindergarten children are creative and expressive and have projects, and enjoy art, music, and dancing, and of course the mighty innovation builder- playing. But, once primary school hits that’s it- no more messing around it is route-route-route, do what the teacher says, memorize-memorize-memorize, and do not question or come up with your own ideas because you are wrong this is right. One factoring misconception in education in China, and in America, is that a  high IQ, and high test marks equals the necessary intelligence to be successful and therefor your success makes your parents and your country proud. But, what is success? If it’s about business and money (which many of my students believe it is) this type of success may look good on the number crunching game and in the ol’ rat race, but does it advance civilization? According to a study by Lewis M. Terman – the guy who developed America’s first IQ test, high IQ’s do not mean high creativity. Yet, does that matter? Does creativity in a culture matter? Looking at Terman’s findings I would say, yes it does.

But despite the implications of the title Genetic Studies of Genius, the Termites’ high IQs did not predict high levels of creative achievement later in life. Only a few made significant creative contributions to society; none appear to have demonstrated extremely high creativity levels of the sort recognized by major awards, such as the Nobel Prize. (Interestingly, William Shockley, who was a 12-year-old Palo Alto resident in 1922, somehow failed to make the cut for the study, even though he would go on to share a Nobel Prize in physics for the invention of the transistor.) Thirty percent of the men and 33 percent of the women did not even graduate from college. A surprising number of subjects pursued humble occupations, such as semiskilled trades or clerical positions. As the study evolved over the years, the term gifted was substituted for genius. Although many people continue to equate intelligence with genius, a crucial conclusion from Terman’s study is that having a high IQ is not equivalent to being highly creative. Subsequent studies by other researchers have reinforced Terman’s conclusions, leading to what’s known as the threshold theory, which holds that above a certain level, intelligence doesn’t have much effect on creativity: most creative people are pretty smart, but they don’t have to be that smart, at least as measured by conventional intelligence tests. An IQ of 120, indicating that someone is very smart but not exceptionally so, is generally considered sufficient for creative genius.

 What does this mean? It means many creative thinkers and civilization movers and shakers are being lost in the illusion of success and test scores. In China, creativity, imagination, innovation and play are discouraged and with that comes the tragic silencing of future voices and new ideas. Many, many of my students have expressed frustration, dismay, and even sadness towards their education. They are aware of what they are lacking. I asked one student why he thought Chinese education was bad, and he said it was because it didn’t allow the Chinese to have strong minds. “We are not allowed imagination. To think for ourselves, to solve our own problems or to create.”

Andreasen’s studies focus on people who are rewarded for their creative genius- noble prize winners and published writers. A very American mind set is to think, “well those people are the special ones but not just anyone can be that creative.” But I disagree with this thinking. I think many people have these creative abilities, but many are lost in the process of control and the shadows of poverty, and when it comes to mental illness, in the lack of understanding and assistance. This comes down to the issues of nurture versus nature which I think is a problematic issue in itself. Perhaps instead of looking at the question as a versus issue we should look at it as a plus issue. Nurture plus nature equals- what?

As in the first study, I’ve also found that creativity tends to run in families, and to take diverse forms. In this arena, nurture clearly plays a strong role. Half the subjects come from very high-achieving backgrounds, with at least one parent who has a doctoral degree. The majority grew up in an environment where learning and education were highly valued.

If we look at this nurture rate and then look at China’s current education system there is a highly probable chance that China is destroying its creative population. America is also in the habit of limiting its creative population through other forms like poverty which lowers a persons access to a good education not too mention the lack of family support especially when you have family members that are suffering from mental illness which is linked to highly creative people. Still, in America we have amazing creative people who come out of poverty like Maya Angelou for example. What set her apart from other children that suffer form poverty? Perhaps it was the freedom for her to educate herself. This word freedom again can become problematic when talking about freedom and race in America, but something that sets America apart from China when it comes to education is this freedom of creative thought and expression. It may be met with racism, opposition, and attempts of silence but it’s still there this freedom to self-govern and self-educate. Not that Chinese people cannot educate themselves, but the access is meant to be limited and the voices have to be quiet because the status-quo and the culture is controlled. The most creative thinkers are not always at the top most often the bullies and the seekers of power are at the top. Creating is not about power it is about change and change disrupts power and power needs everything to remain the same.

Many creative people are autodidacts. They like to teach themselves, rather than be spoon-fed information or knowledge in standard educational settings. Famously, three Silicon Valley creative geniuses have been college dropouts: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg. Steve Jobs—for many, the archetype of the creative person—popularized the motto “Think different.” Because their thinking is different, my subjects often express the idea that standard ways of learning and teaching are not always helpful and may even be distracting, and that they prefer to learn on their own.

 

 

I won’t go into the mental health problems in China mainly because I dot know much about it, but I do know they are behind the times when it comes to psychiatry and there is a lot of stigma surrounding mental health, and of course mental health is often thought of as a weakness of mind and character. This unfortunate belief of “weakness of character” has caused the world to lose many of its creative geniuses. History gives us a list of people who lose the battle with mental illnesses like depression. 

Among those who ended up losing their battles with mental illness through suicide are Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Vincent van Gogh, John Berryman, Hart Crane, Mark Rothko, Diane Arbus, Anne Sexton, and Arshile Gorky.

Mental illness and depression remains to be misunderstood in American culture.  A good example is David Foster Wallace– a man who was successful in American eyes. He was highly educated, had a good family, didn’t struggle with poverty, was well respected, an awarded writer,  he was lauded with the title of “The new American voice,” he was monetarily successful, famous, and a loved teacher. Even with all of these accolades and images of outward success he took his own life. Many people were left asking, ‘but why he had everything going for him’. What many who have no experience with depression don’t understand is that success can not save you from the darkness within yourself. The darkness that comes in the depression. Those who are depressed in a society that does not understand depression or acknowledge it are bound to look to the only way they see to end the pain and feelings of isolation, and that is suicide (if they don’t choose addiction instead). Wallace and the above names are only examples of Western people. If it is still misunderstood or unacknowledged in America imagine what it is like in a culture where the idea of something like depression or other mental illnesses is not accepted. How many are lost to addictions, and lack of medical care. What about the creative geniuses of Eastern thought? What about the creative geniuses of Africa? Then there is the history of murdering creative and mentally ill people because they are disrupting the status-quo. The dangerous thinkers and the ones who ask too many questions. All cultural revolutions express a resentment toward the creative thinkers as bourgeois and against the good of the people, but how much is lost? Is innovation against the good of the people and grand massacre for the good of the people? There are many cultural revolutions not only the ones with the name “culture” in them- the Nazi’s made certain to destroy independent and creative thinking which is another example of a cultural cleansing. But cultural cleansing is a dramatic attack on creative thinking what about the more insidious approach like removing creative thinking from education? Using mental health as an excuse to lock people away? Allowing poverty to consume pockets of a nation therefore systematically silencing portions of a country? These are other ways of removing the creative thinkers.

If creative people truly are the resource that permits civilization to advance is China’s inability to cultivate its creative people going to stagnate its growth as a civilization? If America continues down its path of listening to “education advice” from disconnected money hoarding politicians, pundits, war mongers for profit, and those who continue to support the two P’s and WM’s with money from back room corporate offices; “advice” that calls for the cutting of arts, and critical thinking, and disregard for teachers and student rights will we move toward a modern dark ages? I should write continue to move toward a modern dark ages especially when looking at American’s current battle with teaching evolutionary science in school or the attack on our sciences in public education in general.

It’s a question worth exploring especially now in a time of growing wars and ignorance and lack of communication. In our reactionary time we need an advancement of civilization. A creative person would look at the destruction of our planet through pollution, war, and greed and find it absolutely illogical, primitive, and barbaric to blow up a place because people don’t agree with you. They would think of new ways of solving these problems. We have creative people now who see these problems, but not enough, and they are being silenced. This question of creativity in education, and the compassion of mental illness may be more profound than we are willing to acknowledge and it is a matter of life or death. With each bomb, each invasion, each subjugation of a peoples how many creative geniuses do we loose? What happens to our advancement of civilization? Just recently we lost many of the world’s leading researchers in HIV/AIDS because of the senseless missile attack of the Ukraine/Russia conflict. Death that not only lost immediate lives but will have a ripple effect of lives lost all over the world. Can such wars be prevented by fostering creative people by finding a greater compassion for those who the majority find “different”? I don’t know. We’ve never tried it. We seem to refuse to try it, but if America, and Europe, and the West continue to be the leaders of the world and China is the newest leader something needs to change in the way we foster education and creativity and innovation and thinking because our world depends on it. We need to advance our civilizations or we will ultimately will destroy what we already have. 

I’m a Literature Teacher (in China)

If you’re reading for advice on how to be a proper teacher in China stop reading right now. GO back up to your browser and search again. There’s no advice for you here.  You have been warned. If you continue to read on— lower your expectations.

I just finished re-reading The Great Gatsby. I had read it once before many years’ ago. I had one identical thought in regard to both readings,  “Wow, what an easy a quick read.” It surprised me that it was such a short novel. Other than that my feelings about the book changed dramatically from the first read to my second.  I liked it much more this time around. I think the first time there was so much pomp and expectation that I thumbed my nose at it a little, but who cares about the first time that was ten or fifteen years ago. It’s this time that matters now. I really got into the story; gasping at parts, putting it down to whisper to absolutely no one, “wow this is a really painful story.” There were other thoughts in my head too as I read and reacted to the characters, and to Nick Carraway’s narration. I’d lower the book, and think, “wow that’s really good”, then I’d sigh, “god”, I hope my students like it”. My students are going to read The Great Gatsby in English. Did I mention they were Chinese? Of course I did.

It’s been a challenge trying to know what to teach to ESL students in an equivalent of an American high school course. I can’t even begin to go into what encapsulates those challenges, hell, I could write a novel about the challenges that range from culture to language to idealisms, but I’m not going to. I’m going to talk about me. Me and my choices. For better or for worse, I’ve made some choices. I don’t think I’m a good teacher by the standards of people who complain about teachers. I mean I’m not bad like all the movie stereotypes of bad teachers. You know the stereotypes. The ones who go out drinking and partying then stumble into school the next morning with a hang over and a lazy attitude. The ones who hate kids but are tenured and they’re mean and they humiliate students. The ones who are so boring and cling to the same teaching styles as teachers back in the 1950’s. I’ve seen teen movies, and so have you we know the stereotypes. I’m not any of those, but I’m no Erin Gruwell. I’m new and inexperienced, and when I applied for this job I didn’t even know I was going to be a Literature teacher. I thought I was going to teach creative writing because that’s where I do I have experience. It was when I got here I found out exactly what I was doing, and I was handed a huge tome of a book from Princeton Hall and told to do whatever I wanted; as if I knew what I was doing. There were no outlines or curriculum. The previous teacher had some stuff, but I could tell it was also her first time teaching literature and her notes were a mess plus they were for 3rd grade level and I had 17 year olds. I understand her reasoning once I figured out the challenge of language, but it’s too late now. I did have an advantage over her that I at least studied literature, but not enough to be a teacher. I wanted to be an actress and a writer, but that’s another post.

I know I told you I wasn’t going to offer any advice, and I’m not, but I will give you one small note of insight, just to prepare you if you’re thinking of teaching in China. You will never really know the level of English of the student. Just because they are in your advanced English class doesn’t mean they are really that advanced in English. Placement is not just based on English scores but in their overall scores. High in math and science does not mean high in English but it will still put them in an advanced English class. At least this is the case at my school. It could be the same at your school, maybe not, but you’ll still never really understand because they will never tell you that they don’t understand you. You have to pry it out of them. Today, I said for the millionth time. “You have to tell me if you don’t understand. Do not say, okay, okay, or nod or say, I got it, if you don’t.” They all nodded and said, “okay okay we’ve got it.”

The Princeton Hall book. Man. Dear Princeton Hall please do not be offended, but this text-book was hell for teaching my kids and I eventually gave up and abandoned it. Borrowing the words my cousins  from the California bay area liked to say, “It was hella boring.” I mean I could get into the stuff, but it was so academic and these kids just trudged, and then that made me trudge, and that made me bored, and then I was a boring teacher forcing the kids to read, ‘The Dog that Bites People’. We did make it through ‘The Monkey’s Paw’. Which was only enjoyed by one kid. The language was too old too old upper staunch British. This is not Princeton Hall’s fault. Who knows who picked the book. It is amazing that it made it though the censors. Right smack in the middle is a section on the Chinese poets who were a part of that student thing we are not supposed to talk about that happened 25 years ago, that we aren’t supposed to mention, with that iconic picture of that man and that thing that starts with a ‘t’ that ‘never happened’. I was shocked and almost scared to see it, but then I realized it passed the censors so who knows…, but still I abandoned the book and have since struggled to teach literature without it.

We read The Outsiders the last semester. We took most of the semester to read it. The advanced class came out with an understanding of narration, themes, symbolism, POV, protagonist, the difference between fiction and non-fiction; the basics. But, only two students actually read the whole book. My intermediate students walked away knowing what a protagonist is and that it was Ponyboy. They didn’t read it at all. Thankfully there was the movie. The kids today still think Dally is cool. After the movie some of the kids were even playing with switch blades, the butterfly kind, flipping them like they did in the movie. I wasn’t sure if this was a bad thing or not, but it ended soon after and there were no actual blades in the butterflies. This semester I tried to go back to the Princeton Hall, but I only taught for one week before getting the news that my mom had died, so I had to abandon school for two weeks. That is a whole ‘nother mess of life, but not for this post. When I came back I tried another week with the book and just had to give it up. So what did I go and do? I picked ‘Beowulf’. I don’t recommend this, and I don’t know why I did it. What possessed me? They have a big test coming up in the next week, and I just hope they do well, because I feel like I made a mistake trying to get them to read this poem. They didn’t really read it. If they didn’t read The Outsiders, they were not going to read ‘Beowulf’. I read ‘Beowulf’. I broke it down and eventually ended up spoon feeding it to some of them. And, they still didn’t eat.

My kids are good people, but not always the best students. It’s not true that all Chinese students are good students. They are normal people like everywhere, and some students are good and others are not so good. When I say good or bad I mean in the manner or degree of studying and application to the classwork. My students are also affluent so I think they get a little leniency. The leniency is not a fact it just seems that way… wink, wink. My class is an illusion. I wont go into what that means except to say that it’s a good thing I studied acting. I’m in the new fazes of the “new foreign teacher,” and I still have the idealistic hopes that I can somehow teach. After a year it seems that this ideal is given up on (not just by foreign teacher, but by Chinese teachers too). This can really only be understood by being here and teaching here, but my guess is that much of this frustration of “teaching” comes with the heavy, heavy, heavy emphasis on testing. Many teachers try to fight the testing trap because you learn very quickly that testing is not actually learning, but its impossible to fight. It’s impossible as a Chinese teacher so forget it if you’re a foreigner. But, like I mentioned I’m new and still have the stubborn ideals. Next year. Next year, I’ll give up and just do it for money. This year I’m trying to teach ‘Beowulf’, The Outsiders, and The Great Gatsby. What a mixture right? How’d I come up with this formula? By not knowing what to do. Was it successful? Well, my class doesn’t determine college acceptance so I’ll never know. But, since you asked I’ll tell you how I picked my literature.

The Outsiders: I wanted a book written by a teenager about teenagers because my students are teenagers. It was a plus that it was written by a girl because girls need to know that they are valuable and can write novels and do anything.

‘Beowulf’: Man, I don’t know. I guess I got this hair up my butt that told me I needed to get some classic literature into them. You know the 7th century stuff the first written work of England, cause well it’s supposed to be a literature class. I like that I said ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ was too old too upper class staunch British and then I make them read a 7th century poem originally written in Old English. Classic hypocrisy. Ironically, I never read ‘Beowulf’ before and I was an English major. Maybe sub-consciously I just wanted to read it. My advanced class seems to be grasping it pretty well, but my intermediate classes…. You know, I can’t even begin to explain what its like to teach my classes, but I will emphasize that I really like my kids, and oddly I think they like me too, but is literature being taught? Is anything being taught or is it all a big show?

The Great Gatsby: I read that The Great Gatsby and Catcher in The Rye are very popular books in modern China. They are translated of course, and for reasons I can infer but won’t, these two books appeal to people living in China. They’ve recently increased in popularity. I’m sure the movie helped The Great Gatsby, but Catcher in the Rye has never been made into a movie and its popularity is greater than Gatsby. So why Gatsby and not Cather in the Rye? Because The Great Gatsby has been made into a film several times. We’ll watch the flashy new one with Leo (even though I’m not a fan of it). I use the movies to bribe the kids into doing their work. We watched the 2007 Beowulf (So. So bad) and I said to my class, the intermediate kids, “Pay attention, because you will be asked on the midterm to write about the differences and similarities between the movie and the poem”. One of my students looked at me and said, “Hmmm. Good strategy.” So I have the student stamped approval as far as strategy goes.

I’ve felt bad at times thinking that I’m doing these kids a disservice by lacking so much preparation and structure, but during TOFEL time I learned a lesson about disservice. When the kids were really gearing up for the tests, and not listening to me because they were studying for TOFEL, I had asked them to put their test books away. I said this is not your TOEFL class this is your literature class. One student smirked at me and said, “yes, but this class is not important, TOEFL is important”. I knew he was speaking the truth. The school informs without telling me that TOEFL is important and that English literature is for the resume. So, I have room to stumble and be unprepared and dissolution myself with the belief that I’m teaching these kids some things about western literature, and helping them with their future transition into western college life— because that is what they desire, and a lot of money is being spent into making this desire a reality. With all of this in mind, I think The Great Gatsby is an excellent choice even if me and the two kids who read The Outsiders are the only ones who read it.

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Some of my kids being forced to perform a scene from ‘The Outsiders’.