She was young and cute and eager to learn English. She was also shy and scared and vulnerable. And this experience taught me above all else what it really means to be an ESL teacher. And I forgot all about it. I try not to forget, but sometimes I do. And it's certainly not to my benefit to forget. And it can never be in the students best interest that I forget this wonderful life learning experience. So from hereon in I vow to remember. I promise to remember Mi-hwa.
In the Spring of 1998, I was teaching adults at a language school in Seoul. I was still quite new to teaching, especially adults. One evening in class, as I was wrapping things up, I noticed a very shy young lady out of the corner of my eye. She looked extremely sad, and I noticed that her eyes began to fill with tears. I dismissed the class and watched the students leave. Moments later, they all left the classroom. Everyone that is, except for that one very shy young lady with the tears in her eyes. Her name was Im Mi-hwa and she was 20 years old. She remained seated with her head buried in her hands. "What's the matter, Mi-hwa?", I asked her hesitantly.
Then the tears began to flow. "I--- can't---- learn---- English." Again, this time very meekly, "I can't learn English."
I was almost in shock. I had been teaching adults for only a few months and this was the first time something like that had ever happened to me. I lightly touched her shoulder in an awkward attempt to console her. "Please don't cry, Mi-hwa. I didn't realize this was difficult for you. Please come back to my class and I'll do whatever I can to help you, okay?" She nodded her head yes.
That night and all the next day I thought about Mi-hwa and what I could do to help. To be honest, I wasn't sure what I could do. But the next evening she did come back and I was grateful. I bought her a book on how to learn English. In class I asked her questions I knew she could answer. And I praised her for it. I even gave her some extra help. When I left the school after my contract was up, Mi-hwa gave me a note which read in part, "Thank you, Steve. You have given me pride in learning English." I had spent the last several months at that school watching Mi-hwa's confidence grow and listening to her greatly improved English. It would be very wise to take this ESL experience with me wherever I go. Touch their hearts, and their minds will follow.
It doesn't always work, but 99% of the time, it does. If you read my column last month, you will know the one time when it didn't work. I've said it before, but it's worth repeating. I work with a great bunch of teachers. One of which is Barry Sarelson, the Jackie Gleason and Art Carney of AUA. He's the one with an endless supply of great jokes.
"What's the difference between teaching at AUA and a large pizza?
---- A large pizza can feed a family of four!"
Barry is worth learning a lot from. Not only about teaching ESL, but about life. He tells his students, "Hey we're all here to learn, but we're also here to have fun. So let's have fun while learning something. And if you're not going to have some fun, then go home. And come back when you're ready to have some fun." Of course he says that with a smile on his face. But he's right. Barry is approaching his mid 50's and I'm in my mid 40's. We both know that life is short and getting shorter all the time. If you're not having some fun in the ESL world, then it's time to get out. Touch their hearts and their minds will follow.
I'm trying to forget that awful writing class of last term, or at least put it behind me, but I'm still learning from that experience. And my friend Barry, with his great attitude about life, is helping me along. In the past I've been accused of taking things too seriously, and for the most part, that assessment is correct.
Not too long ago, I sat in one of the manager's offices talking about this troublesome writing class. I told him that as ESL teachers it is our responsibility to have the students fall in love with English. What I would like to do, I told him, is to have the students fall in love with writing--- the whole process of it. Not just see it as an end result with a grade to follow. But it was as if I was talking to a chicken. Managers and teachers just don't seem to understand each other very well. It's interesting, and tragically unfortunate for both the students and teachers, that many managers and language school directors, in their zeal to see themselves as gurus of their profession, tend to neglect and ignore this extremely essential connection between the teachers and students: Touch their hearts and their minds will follow.
That's just a part of the problem. Here are a few sobering statistics that may or may not convince readers why we ESL teachers should not be in the business of teaching "academic" writing to Thais.
1) Thais don't read. According to a survey conducted by the National Statistics Office (NSO), 18.3 million people out of 59.2 million citizens over the age of six do not read at all! And most of those who do read, prefer tabloid newspapers, comic books, and gossip magazines. A Thai English teacher at AUA was heard commenting, "Why don't Thai parents read to their children? Because their parents never read to them."
2) Results of more than 100,000 exams taken over three years from 1998 to 2001 also show that 95 per cent of grade ten high school students in Thailand scored less than 50 per cent in four subjects --- mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology --- and almost 70 per cent scored less than 30 per cent.
3) For every 10,000 Thais, there are 1.27 scientific researchers, according to the National Research Council of Thailand. This is far behind most developing nations.
4) Two years ago, Thailand's scientific development was ranked 28th out of 30 countries by the Institute of Management Development in Switzerland. It also doesn't help when Science teachers are earning a measly 7,400 Baht a month. That's less than $200.00 U.S. (The Nation, August 1, 2005.)
Great academic writing is primarily based an asking and answering the question, "Why?" Thais cannot answer the question why because for most of their history they have never even been allowed to ask the question! Only in truly free societies can people dare ask "Why?", and expect not to be ostracized, tortured, or killed.
Great academic writing is also "left-brained" in nature. It is rational, sequential, coherent, cohesive. Thais are "right-brained" thinkers. Look at the textbooks used in a Thai academic writing class. Take a glance at the table of contents: Introductions; Conclusions; Descriptive Paragraphs; Process Paragraphs; Comparision/Contrast Paragraphs; Topic Sentences; Thesis Statements; Outlines; Causality; Transition Words and Phrases; Unity and Coherence; First Draft; Second Draft.... It may be okay for us westerners, but it's totally foreign to Thais and their way of life. Expecting a Thai to adapt to a Cambridge or Oxford University Press academic writing textbook is like expecting a right hander to become a left hander overnight. Totally absurd and unrealistic.
Thailand is not blessed with Harvard-type students. I wish it were, but all the wishing in the world is not going to change things.
Most Thai students are not even close to being at the stage or level where they can begin to tackle such writing. This is pure style over grammatical structure. By ramming this stuff down their throats long before they are ready, we are expecting our students to become marathon runners before they have even learned how to walk! Totally unrealistic and ignorant of us!
People who don't read great literature, can't write. And until they do read great literature on a regular basis, they will never learn how to write. Period! Great writers are voracious readers. Voracious readers are endless thinkers. And endless thinkers are also dreamers who dream of better things. These dreamers fall in love with what they do, and want to extend that love to others around them. We should be teaching Thais to fall in love with writing. Teaching creative writing is one way to do this. But even this is a challenge. Great literature is based on three distinct but interrelated struggles in man:
1) Man's struggle with himself, (based primarily on introspection.)
2) Man's struggle with man, (based primarily on conflict and confrontation.)
3) Man's struggle with God, (based on the freedom to ask questions, especially, "Why?")
Thailand is still a non-information society. Knowledge and information here is not easily shared, and its distribution and dissemination is not done on an equal basis. This may be changing slowly, but that's open to question and debate. It would never even occur to a Thai to look inside of himself and ask the crucial question, "Why?" To accomplish this, one needs to see oneself as a self; a truly free and functioning individual separated from Nietzsche's herd. Given that Thailand is also a non-reading society, a non-introspective society, (almost anti-introspective), and a non-emotionally expressive society, at least traditionally, then opening Thais up to these kinds of struggles, both small and epic, is a huge task indeed. But with time, patience, and the proper material, it can be done. Touch their hearts and their minds will follow.
So let's leave the academic stuff to Thais. Leave all of this pedagogical, impersonal, pompous-ass, Ivy-league, academic mumbo-jumbo for their own people. As westerners, let's teach them some real English. Thais, like just about all Asian students, are terrified at the prospect of learning English. Academic writing is a means to an end. An end that Thai students and their society are not near ready for. Part of our job is to get our students to love writing in English as an end in itself. Writing as a process of self knowledge. Writing as a process of discovery. Writing as a process of expression. Writing for the sheer love of it.
Why fill their minds with useless foreign junk that the vast majority of them will never use in their own country, when we can touch their hearts and have them fall in love with the process of creative writing like it was the most natural thing in the world? Our goal and mission is to have the students fall in love with English--- all of it--- not to academically fine-tune it to the point where there is nothing left to fall in love with. Our goal is to throw the door to the English language wide open, not to put the students into the classroom, close the door, and expect academic miracles.
Now I realize that we are not about to create a bunch of Hemingways and Shakespeares, but that's not the point and it's not the intention. Thailand is not about to join the great literary stage anytime soon. But we can make a small difference by getting the students to fall in love with writing by connecting their writing with their own environment. Personalize the writing. This will work. I've done it. For those who don't believe that Thais aren't creative enough to do this, remember, these are people who have taught elephants how to dance and shoot basketballs. Creativity is only a problem for our students if we don't take the time and make proper use of what is already there. Touch their hearts and their minds will follow.
But if you don't want to believe me, then the least you can do is believe Jib. Jib was a former student of mine in a past writing class, and a 30 year old secretary who wrote a beautiful essay titled, "An Important Person In My Life." It follows with some corrections.
An Important Person In My Life:
I was born into a Chinese family. By tradition, the first child will be an important person, especially the son. I am a second child and, being a girl, I always thought that no one loved me, especially my mother. So I never listened to her or believed what she taught me.
My mother is a strong woman who loves work. I never seen her stop working since she divorced my father. Because she has to take care of two daughters and three sons, I was asked to help her with her work and she would punish me if I didn't.
One day I had an accident. I had to stay in the hospital for six months, then recover at home. I couldn't walk for a while. She had to take care of me all the time. I was feeling numb all along the abdomen. Imagine how hard it was for my mother to take care of me and work at the same time. She cried when I got hurt. She told me that she gave me life and a perfect body, and why did I try to destroy myself? She wished I would be healthy, have a good life and be a good girl. That was all she wanted.
I realized that she really did love me. I was touched by her words and acceptance. Now, whenever I do anything, I will think about her. I will try to make her happy and proud of me. I learned the power of love without conditions from my mother.
Now I listen more carefully then when I was a girl. I now know that there are many things I could learn from her. I think this is a blessing from God that I have her.
This story brought a tear to my eye, and my only comment on the page was, "Amazing story, Jib." This is what happens when you touch the student's hearts. They come back and touch yours. This is what happens when you free students from all of the academic, pedantic, pedagogical, and emotionally numbing crap that is "academic writing." This is what happens when you tell them that's it's okay to feel; that it's wonderful to feel; that it's essential to feel! You get really good students. That's what happens.
This is not just an ESL lesson. It's a life lesson. It's a life lesson never to forget people like Mi-hwa and Jib and the thousands of others just like them. It's a life lesson that tells every single one of us--- from teachers and students, to doctors and chefs, to shopkeepers and bus drivers--- that what is in the human heart is far more valuable than any of the garbage we so called educators can cram into people's minds. Touch their hearts and their minds will follow. I'm learning that lesson. But are the managers and language school directors?