Can one learn a Foreign Language at a regular school?

Can a student learn a Foreign Language (usually English and/or Spanish) attending classes at a regular school in Brazil? This question has surfaced lately here in this country and many reasons lead to a capital “NO, STUDENTS ATTENDING REGULAR SCHOOLS IN BRAZIL CAN’T AND WON’T LEARN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE”.

Some of the reasons are:

“Classes are too heterogeneous.”

“There are up to 50 students in a classroom. Impossible to teach a language.”

“Teachers are underqualified and unprepared to teach.”

“A regular school has more important goals than teaching a foreign language.”

“Teachers don’t care.”

“Students lack motivation and/or clear objectives.”

“The textbooks are not ___________. (multiple choice) 

a) adequate

b) in sufficient number

c) up-to-date

d) interesting

e) all of the above

“Students cannot fail English classes. They are automatically approved to the next grade.”

“English or Spanish taught as foreign languages have been devalued as school subjects. Not as important as Maths, History or Portuguese.”

“It’s impossible to teach a foreign language using the students’ mother tongue 90% of the time.”

English teaching in Brazilian public schools
English teaching in Brazilian public schools
ENglish Textbook for secondary public schools in Brazil
English Textbook for secondary public schools in Brazil

Phew! The list is long. Should I continue? But I guess you get the gist.

The situation is so bad that some Brazilian congressmen have raised their voices proposing the end of the teaching of foreign languages at public schools due to their failure in reaching any positive results.

Well, let me tell you of my own experience growing up in Brazil and attending public schools from 1st grade to university.

Back in 1976 I was in 5th grade and according to the Ministry of Education, that would be the year for me to start learning a foreign language. Unfortunately, there were few foreign language teachers, and my school didn’t have an English teacher that year. In 6th grade we finally got an English teacher – we would have classes twice a week (each lasting 45 minutes). The teacher very wisely chose not to use a textbook – everything was based on copying from the blackboard and/or dictation. I must say that it was my best contact with English for the next 3 years. In 1978 we moved house and school, in the 7th and 8th grades the new teacher (new to me) used the same basic textbook that her students in 5th grade were using. Needless to say, I had learned more without a textbook. My wife, at roughly the same time – also studying at a state-run school, had her first contact with French (they had no English teachers available, either) but she says that much of the foundation of French grammar she learned in that first year. Both she and myself learned way more than the verb to be or “être”.

The goal and the expectations back then were different from today. Now the emphasis is on oral communication. Back then, we had to learn the grammar and to be able read and write for academic purposes.

But the key factor was that we were lucky to have as our very first foreign language models, teachers who cared, who were motivated and who had a teaching method imperfect as it might have been.

Could I speak English when I started high school? With the exception of isolated words, no, I couldn’t. But I was able to read and interpret basic texts which qualified me to proceed with my studies at university.

Can one learn a Foreign Language at a regular school?

Yes, if both teacher and students reach a consensus on their goals and motivation. And if the Ministry of Education reestablishes the teaching of foreign languages as a relevant discipline and not just one more public policy that looks good on paper but is void of any relevance in real life.

Cheers,

Mo

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Study English Abroad. A must?

This morning I received an email from an acquaintance that put my thinking cap to work – here’s a rough translation of what he wrote me:

Dear Moacir,
We met there in the (Sabbath School) class, It's been a long time 
since I last showed up in class because I moved  to a new neighborhood.
Please, do you remember once u mentioned that you had a friend 
who had an English school in New York?
Could you please pass me his contact?
Thanks in advance.

Mario

 My reply was the following:

Where should you go to study English?
Where should you go to study English?
“Hello Mario, where have you been?
Listen… it must really be a long time it happened because I cannot even remember I had a friend who owned a school in New York. I’m familiar with Literacy Volunteers of America in Danbury, CT – about an 1 hour by train from Manhattan. I was a teacher and program director there for a year.
Now, are you looking for an English language school for you? Or for your daughter? I wouldn’t recommend New York to someone interested in studying English.  There are too many foreigners there and the cost of living is pretty high. Actually, I’d tell you to look for a more “hidden state” such as Wisconsin, Idaho, Oregon, etc, where you would be more likely to be in touch with Americans who speak some sort of English. Danbury could be a choice but there’s a swarm of Brazilians around and you might learn Portuguese with a different accent faster than learn much English (I’m not exaggerating that much).
The best choice would be to take up a cooking class or photography course, for example, in English. From my experience and what I have observed, to study only English in the US (or any other country for that matter) will offer you the same textbooks and material you could access in Brazil and honestly, with many better qualified and certified teachers. And to add insult to injury you would be paying in dollars while your savings are in Brazilian Reais.
An ideal condition would be to take an either professional or just a hobby course in English. I wouldn’t advise people at beginner or intermediate level to go abroad in order to study.
First consolidate your language in your home country and once you’ve reached an Upper-Intermediate /Advanced Level then you’ll be ready to jump into deeper waters. And believe me, you’ll realize how much more you still need to learn (don’t tell anyone, but you can spend the rest of your life studying a language and still have room to grow). It might be tough initially but you would reap better rewards at the end.
Any further information, just let me know.
Have a blessed day,
Cheers,
Mo

Can’t you see their special needs?

As I was listening to the latest podcast of the Teflologists  I came across the topic of students with special needs. (Podcast by Teflology
https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/the-teflology-podcast/id897413013?mt…)

Interestingly enough, in all my 25 plus years of teaching I’ve just come across a blind student once. It was back in 1993 and we were a group of young teachers trying to make our language consultancy firm take off. Our office was very well located near the financial center of São Paulo and in the building where we rented 2 office rooms, there were several mid-sized companies and consultancies. One day my partner told me that Roberto Carlos’s son had an office in our building and asked if I could be his teacher. In case you don’t know, Roberto Carlos has been the king of Brazil’s pop romantic music for over 50 years. I said “of course, I’d love to”, jumping at the opportunity of meeting someone related to someone famous. Got my book, notes and also a magazine with lots of pictures to start off the class.
After the initial greetings, I asked him to look at a picture and describe it to me, as a warm-up activity. He said: “Sorry, I can’t.  I’m blind.”
Wah-wah-waaaaaahhhh.…. How could I have missed it? The blind one had actually been me.
And this morning it got me thinking about the lack of materials and articles for teachers to work with special needs students. Could I teach a blind or deaf person? I don’t think I’d have any problems with a person unable to walk or someone with no arms. Even though considering my thick skull I’d probably ask them to go to the blackboard and write something. (Chuckles).

“Take the example of Carlos (age 15), a refugee from Central America. He is not learning English as quickly as his teachers think he should be. He has been in Canada for two years and is falling far behind in his studies.
Is it because he:
has a language disorder?
is depressed over his brother’s death?
is developmentally delayed?
does not want to be in Canada?
is finding it difficult to learn English?
has limited literacy skills in his first language?
left school in his native country when he was 10 years old?
has a learning disability?
has not made the adjustment to living in Canada?
Or is it a combination of the above?
Students like Carlos raise questions about how we identify,
assess, and provide program support for ESL students with
special needs. There are no ready-made answers. There is no
single professional who can answer all of these questions.”*
I believe these questions will help any teacher identify his students’ needs and seek help whenever necessary.
Happy Teaching,
Cheers,
Mo
*Excerpted from ESL Learners With Special Needs In British Columbia:
Identification, Assessment, and Programming Prepared for
The British Columbia Ministry of Education, Skills, and Training
February 1998

As Focused as a Goldfish

My wife and I were talking about how hard it is to sometimes focus, to concentrate on a specific task.

I find it hard to dive into a book for more than 2 pages – especially if it’s on a Kindle. My wife can’t watch a TV program for more than 15 minutes without channel surfing.

Yesterday I came across a study sponsored by Microsoft stating that our attention span has shortened to 8 seconds from 12 seconds in a little more than a decade and that the typical goldfish can focus an average of 9 SECONDS. (You can read the whole study by clicking the following link: http://advertising.microsoft.com/en/cl/31966/how-does-digital-affect-canadian-attention-spans

The claim is that today’s digital technology with Twitter, emojis et al, make it very hard for us to concentrate.

Imagine when you are a teacher trying to grab the attention of kids or adults for 60 minutes. Many students of mine come to class with not one but 2 mobile phones – and during class those little evil creatures (the phones not the students) keep on vibrating, ringing, dinging, lightening up or doing whatever to get the attention of their owners (should I say servants?)- the students not the phones.

A hot trend nowadays is gamification – aiming to fight this ever-shrinking attention span – making workers or students to adhere to a series of games where they’ll be competing against each other, against time or against themselves. Ok, but is it feasible to be ever introducing new games?  Sooner or later they’ll get tired of that formula and then?

An article by the Medical Daily website presented 3 easy steps (easier said than done) for people to improve their physical and mental ability to concentrate:

1. Drink fluids – nothing more simple – but it’s unbelievable the number of people who don’t drink enough liquid to prevent mild dehydration. Coffee, tea (other than herbal) sodas and alcoholic beverages , even though liquid, cause more liquid loss.

2. Exercise – nothing like a walk around the block if nothing else, to clear up your mind. Yeah, you have a deadline but you’ll be better equipped with a better oxygenated brain.

3. Avoid electronic devices – adding insult to injury – set a timer for you not to touch or look into your smartphone, tablet of notebook (30 minutes of freedom during the day, for example, or switch them off for good at night).

The article ended with a simple question:

“So how many of you got through this article without checking your electronic devices”?

The funny thing is that I read this article with a student who really avoids even taking her cellphone out of her bag but, needless to say, even she failed in the test. During class her phone rang and she had to answer it.

In class the teacher will have to be creative in the activities provided and reduce the time allotted per activity. The challenge will be to keep every activity connected to the previous one so that learning will be continuing spiraling up and not in fits and starts. 8-seconds-attentionCheers and great concentration

Mo

If I knew then: A letter to me on my first day of teaching

Hi Moacir,

I know you’re shy and sometimes feel out of place and time. But listen to me: your choice of a teaching career was not by chance. Your Secondary School English teacher saw in you a great potential for languages, in his case – English – and dear old Mr. Santiago – the green cab driver at church, saw your potential as a teacher; and God led the way.

Yes, you will be scared sometimes. At times some students will seem to know more than you. And more mature as well (Chuckles). But you will inspire them to keep on learning and you will learn to get them to contribute to your lessons with what they already know.

Yes, teaching 8th graders will not be easy and due to your lack of experience and support you will feel as if you’ve failed and want to quit.  But years later you will come across some of your former students who will thank you for the lessons and for the inspiration.

You will have to wake up really early in the morning (5:30am) in order to get to your in-company classes in time and your last class will finish at 10:30pm. Hard work will not make you sick, though, just keep focused and do your best. Those crazy hours will also pass.

Mo in his first year as a teacher - July 1988
Mo in his first year as a teacher – July 1988

Remember to stay professional at all times with your students. Yes, you may socialize with them – but remember your job is to teach them not to simply be their friends.

Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are “simply” a teacher, or because you are a language teacher who has never been able to travel abroad and who lacks international exposure.

In a few more years you will have had the privilege to visit and even teach in different countries. You will preach in English at a church in Cape Town, South Africa. You will be a teacher of English in the US, Canada and Ireland. You will speak English and Spanish in China. Hard to believe? Yes, but God has amazing things in store for us all. Just wait and see.

In 27 years you will have reached the top of your career as a self-employed teacher but there will not be time to rest in your laurels, you will have to be continuously reinventing yourself and selling your services, training new teachers, presenting conferences on ELT – yes, I know it’s hard to believe me since you don’t even own a landline phone  at home or a car but some day you will be teaching via FaceTime video (better than via satellite) across the globe. Don’t ask me for details, not even I know how it works today.

Keep on learning, growing, doing your best and you will reap the rewards. I know.

Cheers and great teaching,

Mo

How to be honest without self-sabotaging

I’ve always been told “Honesty is the best policy” and I’ve always shared this advice. I agree with it and subscribe to it. Need I say more?confused

But here comes the “BUT”. Many times blunt honesty may cause as much damage as lies. Let me explain.

As a self-employed teacher I depend on my students’ regular payments to keep a steady source of income. “No work-O, no pay-O”, as I like to say.

At times, a student will be having classes for many months and years, but “HAVING CLASSES” would be a mild exaggeration.

Let’s go through a check list:

Is the student punctual? ✘
Does the student do her/his homework? ✘
Does the student want to do any sort of exercise in class? ✘
Does the student learn from speech corrections? ✘
Does the student allow the teacher to follow any class plan? ✘

Well, just based on this brief shortlist what would be the right thing to do?

My first instinct is to calmly say:

“STOP WASTING MY TIME. PAY UP AND SHUT UP!”

uh… I guess that wouldn’t be the best approach.

I could give them a self evaluation test saying: “It’ll be good for you to see your language progress along these years. You started with me at an intermediate level. Why don’t find out your level now?

The student’s response: “Ok”. Does it mean he or she will do the test right away? NO. In a week? Nope. And questioned about that they’ll simply reply – “I’m afraid to find out I haven’t made much progress”.

So the students know they haven’t done their part, their progress has been stunted (at best) and they’re spending money to keep a feeling of “I’m studying, at least”.

There have been cases that I’ve implied to the student (both implicitly and explicitly) that they should stop having classes “until they are able to focus a little more on their course”.

Does it work? ‘Fraid not. Some ignore the advice, others may get mad at me and stop the course and there my stipend goes out of the window. And me back to square one looking for a new student.

It makes me wonder that my “honesty” can be an act of self-sabotage where the only loss is actually mine.

That drives me to the conclusion that “as long as they’re paying, there’s hope”.

Good classes and don’t give up.
Cheers,

Mo

The NEST v NNEST Conundrum

Lately I’ve come across lots of discussions on the NEST (Native English Speaking Teacher) versus NNEST (Non-Native English Speaking Teacher). Even this quarter’s issue of the Braz-Tesol Newsletter dedicates most of its pages to articles written by Brazilian teachers (notorious NNESTS) in defense of language teaching not being limited to the place one was born.

Non-Native English Speaking Teachers
Non-Native English Speaking Teachers

I even found this site defending TEFL equality http://teflequityadvocates.com

Being Brazilian I couldn’t agree more: A good language teacher will have learned the structure of the language and is aware of steps and techniques that will allow learners to overcome hurdles along the way in their language acquisition process.

However, it must be pointed out that many NNESTs also lack enough language skills to teach highly advanced levels, Ilá Coimbra a NNEST wrote  that “In the Brazilian context, the general level of our English language teachers is B2 (or intermediate – high intermediate English)  far from being enough”; which would justify a language learner’s desire to have lessons with a NEST.

In the English teaching world prejudice against NNESTs or those who look like NNESTs is rampant. Many people would object to hiring a Japanese-American teacher simply because he or she looks “Japanese” no matter the language background they have. In China, Korea, and I’m sure other countries, an African-American teacher will find it hard to overcome prejudice no matter how big their NEST egg is (please, forgive me my pun).

Because of my light skin complexion and light brown eyes, I haven’t suffered – as far as I know – much discrimination as a NNEST. But a case that comes to mind was when I was a Program Director at Literacy Volunteers of America in Danbury, CT. To become a tutor I had to take their Certification Course (a 4-week program and was the only NNEST in a group of about 15 people). After my certification, I was hired as a part-time Program Director/Teacher Trainer/Tutor and I had to interview many prospective students – many of whom had come from Brazil. I knew that they wouldn’t discredit me for being Brazilian but they would immediately start talking to me in Portuguese. In order to encourage them to speak English I’d just say that my name was Mo and proceed with the testing. I taught many of them and always with the condition that they should use English in the classroom. It came to a point when out of a class of 6 students, 4 were from Brazil and sometimes they would talk among themselves in Portuguese. I’d ask them – “what are you talking about?” and they’d say “It’s not for you to understand“. At their graduation – I  finally came out – I told them I could understand everything they had said and I actually WAS from Brazil.

They were mortified, but that taught them a lesson about the possibilities in learning a language really well.

Literacy Volunteers of America
Literacy Volunteers of America

So NEST or NNEST? it will depend on the students’ needs and teachers’ skills and qualifications.

Good Lessons,

Cheers,

Mo

http://teflequityadvocates.com