I’ve never worked as hard as a teacher as I’m working these days, not even a million years ago when I was new to this.  I blame college employment practices and hourly limits on part timers. I used to be able to make ends meet on 12 contact hours a week which was as much as one could work at the college where I’ve taught for over 2 decades.  Now I’m up to 19 hours in three programs, all in different locations.  By summer, in order to cover the hit from the cancellation of the class where I earn the most, I’ll be in the classroom 24 hours/week. Do not even think about the prep time this will involve as it will make your head spin.

But I didn’t pop in just to complain about my woeful lot in life.  I have a point and it’s this:  the way colleges employ teachers these days makes it difficult to impossible for us to do our best by our students. I don’t think I am the only part timer who is stressed out, exhausted, frequently ill, forgetful, and unfocused.  I never stop feeling guilty about what I should be doing for my students or the inevitable flipside: what I should be doing for my family. I spend a lot of time struggling with the feeling like I’m always letting someone down.  I know I don’t need to be a perfect teacher, but I also need to do the best I can. I don’t need to be a perfect mother or wife, but letting these responsibilities go isn’t really an option, either.

I just read this short but excellent piece from the TESOL IEP newsletter and I realize that what I’m struggling with, apart from genuine physical and mental exhaustion, is a deep sense of shame and failure at losing a position I’ve held for years.  Then there’s anger about losing the accompanying pay and benefits without so much as a thank you for years of hard work.  But this shame thing? It’s doing exactly no one any good at all.

A teacher who doesn’t try to hide from, push back on, or outrun being exposed for his or her imperfections, mistakes, and failures has the ability to be both playful and professional in the classroom. Shame robs us of these abilities.–Stephen Robert Dunham

So there it is.  As I complete my 25th year of teaching, even though I’m having to run faster than ever before and being “rewarded” for my hard work with the loss of hard won health benefits and decent pay, I’m going to continue being the best teacher I can be. I’m going to try and let go of the guilt, the shame, and (I truly hope) the anger I’ve been feeling toward those whose casual decisions have really messed with my life, and just focus on doing this teaching thing the best way I know how.  And that may just mean a few more picnics with my family and a bit more dancing and a few more cocktails in and around all the prep and grading.  Who wants to join me?

The Secret Rules of Adjectives

I stumbled across a fascinating article from Slate.com on the rules governing adjective usage in English. I’ve often wondered why we say things like “big old leather jacket” but never “leather old big jacket”. We know the second example is “wrong” but why? This article does a good job of explaining what’s behind the way we describe things. An interesting read and possibly appropriate for advanced students.

Teaching Pronunciation: Background for Teachers

It seems that the longer we teach, the more we become aware of what we don’t know. For years, I’ve had an underlying sense that I need to be giving more emphasis to pronunciation but with all the outcomes required in the integrated skills courses I’d been teaching, it was pretty much impossible to squeeze in much beyond the most basic instruction in pronunciation. But here’s the thing: all the grammar, reading, and writing skills won’t get you very far if you can’t carry on a conversation or make yourself understood at work, at school, or in the community.

In recent terms, I’ve had the opportunity to teach classes focused on listening, speaking, and pronunciation in the international programs I’ve worked for. I confess I’ve had to scramble to give myself the background I need to do this right and I have a lot of work ahead of me in terms of both research and practice but I find the subject fascinating and my international students appear to be responding well if our recent video projects are any indication. Next week I’ll be taking what I’ve learned to beginners in my community based ESL classes and I’m excited to see how this all unfolds.

I thought I’d share some of the background resources I’ve found helpful as I continue to educate myself and improve my pronunciation instruction.

Teaching American English Pronunciation (Oxford Handbooks for Language Teachers) by Peter Ehrlich and Susan Avery. This book has good background information but what I refer to most are the chapters on individual first languages and how these might influence English pronunciation.

Teaching Pronunciation: A Course Book and Reference Guide by Diane Celce-Murcia. This is an enormous and comprehensive work. I dip in here and there as needed but someday I would like to find other teachers who would like to work through the book together in a study group. Any takers?

Tips for Teaching Pronunciation: A Practical Approach by Linda Lane. I have found this book incredibly useful when I need activities to address specific pronunciation topics. If you don’t have a lot of time to get up to speed this is the book you want to have on hand.

Marla Yoshida’s website for her Teaching Pronunciation class at UC Irvine is a great place to begin exploring the teaching of English pronunciation. She has generously made her class handouts, links, blog, and other resources available to the public in a clean, well organized website through which you can request a free copy of her ebook Understanding and Teaching the Pronunciation of English which is a straightforward and well written introduction to the topic.

I’m sure there are many other valuable resources out there for teachers of english pronunciation. Feel free to share your favorites in the comments. I’d love to hear from others about how you go about teaching English pronunciation so please do share.

Another Round of Videos

I’m really coming to love student-created videos as final projects.  It gets the students thinking in a whole new way about their learning, students learn new skills, and let’s face it:  making videos is fun.

However there may be one big drawback:  access to technology.  I work with students from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds and I am aware that this is a project much more easily accomplished when students have their own smartphones and access to editing software like iMovie.  In my intensive academic English classes, it’s quite unusual for students to not own a smartphone but in community based programs where students are working and juggling families, the priorities are often different so this project may not work well for everyone.

These latest videos were from students in my intermediate pronunciation class.  I asked students to work in same language groups to identify a common pronunciation issue in English and, ideally, to provide some instruction in improving their pronunciation.  I’m sharing (with permission) two of my favorite videos.

1:  Two Japanese students discuss the tricky English /r/ and /l/ sounds.

2.  Three Brazilian students discuss voiced and voiceless th.

I’d love to hear from other instructors using student created videos in class.  Feel free to comment!

Student Created Videos

This is the final week of a 14 week semester at the small private college where I teach in an academic English program for international students.  We’ve met for 6 hours/week since February and I have really enjoyed getting to spend so much time with these students whose language skills are strong enough to allow them to have a voice in our class activities.

Early in the semester I decided I wanted to do some kind of final project beyond the requisite final exam.  I spent a few weeks thinking about it and trying to come up with something different from the writing and oral presentations my students would be doing for other classes.  My students all have smart phones and I am all for using that technology in the classroom whenever appropriate so I asked them what they thought of making educational grammar videos which I could share with future students.  They mostly thought it was a pretty good idea and I let them have at it.

They formed their groups (with the stipulation that both Japanese and Arabic speaking students were in each group), picked their grammar topics and got busy learning how to use iMovie.  Midway through the semester I asked them to share what they had which both made sure everyone was working and allowed them to bounce ideas off of each other.  They spent the next weeks refining their projects and we watched the results today.

I am really pleased with the results.  This was such a good project for community building and it provided many of these students with their first group project experience which I hope will serve them well as they continue their studies in American universities.

My students gave me permission to share their videos so please take a look here and here.


Getting Organized

I was recently invited to attend a the statewide conference of the American Association of University Professors. This is the union that represents the fixed term faculty at one of my three institutions. As an adjunct, I’m not a member of AAUP but, because one of the main topics of discussion at the conference was the rise of contingent faculty, adjuncts at our institution were encouraged to attend.

I enjoyed getting to know my colleagues on the drive from Portland to Corvallis although it became clear that the differences between the union that represents my fixes term colleagues and the one that represents adjuncts is quite dramatic in terms of activity, communication, and action.

Apart from running into an acquaintance who attended my wedding 20+ years ago, the highlight of the conference for me was the session on contingent faculty which was led by labor educator Joe Berry who spoke about the slow but steady organization of adjunct faculty throughout the country. While I find no joy in hearing about the many workplace woes suffered by my colleagues in terms of compensation, lack of benefits and job security, and marginalization within our institutions it is heartening to know that I’m not alone in the frustration I feel and better still to know that adjuncts around the country are organizing and fighting to improve working conditions.

Good resources for learning mor about these issues include:

New Faculty Majority

COCAL: the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor

Joe Berry’s book Reclaiming the Ivory Tower

As for me, my next step is to talk with my AFT representative to see what’s going on where. It’s hard to find the time for extra work where I’m racing across two counties to tech at three different institutions but I’ve kind of had it and I’m ready to work for change.

Google Voice

Google Voice is a phone number and free voice mail system with an online inbox.

If you are comfortable giving students your phone number and having your phone ring at all hours of the night, you may be less thrilled by Google Voice than I am.  I love the fact that students aren’t calling my personal phone and that the messages are saved online.  Depending on how you set things up you can get email and/or text message alerts when you receive new messages.  You can even have the calls forwarded to your personal phone if that’s what you prefer.

Google Voice will keep your messages and allow you to archive them for later review (say to compare two speaking samples from the beginning and the end of the class).  You can add typed notes to your messages as well as email those messages which I find very handy for providing feedback. Depending on your students’ pronunciation skills, Google Voice will automatically provide a transcript which is either useful or complete nonsense.  My students’ calls get transcribed into gibberish so this feature isn’t all that helpful to me.

I think my favorite thing about using Google Voice is utter simplicity. There’s no need to mess around with recording software or transferring files.  Every one  of my students has a phone and that’s all they need to do their assignments.

Some of the ways I’ve used Google Voice with my students include:

  • students record themselves reading a simple diagnostic paragraph at the beginning of the course
  • students introduce  themselves to  me via voice message at the beginning of the term
  • as an activity for syllable awareness, students wrote and then recorded haiku poems
  • students have talked about past activities to practice correct pronunciation of -ed endings
  • students have recorded themselves reading minimal pairs
  • students have responded to picture prompts


Google Voice isn’t perfect.  The recording quality isn’t stellar and, as mentioned above, the transcription piece is useless with low/intermediate ESL students.  I have tried to connect student phone numbers and emails through Google Contacts so I can see who’s called by name rather than number but this doesn’t always work so it can get a bit confusing when I have an inbox full of messages from more than one class.

Despite a few drawbacks I’m finding Google Voice to be a great solution for collecting speech samples from my students.  It’s easy for them to use because they only need access to a phone and all have at least some experience with leaving messages.  I am able to keep and review their recordings and provide feedback easily.

I’d love to hear how others are using Google Voice  with ESL students.  Feel free to comment.









Color Vowel Chart

A fact of adjunct life: we rarely know what we’ll be teaching from one term to the next. I was given under 72 hours to plan a 10 week intermediate pronunciation course this term. I’ve never taught a class focused solely on pronunciation before and there was precious little available for helping me plan the class. I know, I know, they offered me the class because I’m an experienced teacher and should be able to handle teaching anything any time. And while I can handle it, imagine how much better the class would be if I had more than two days to pull it together.

Anyway, in my frantic search for resources and materials I came across a site that I think is just terrific and which is changing my whole outlook on pronunciation and here’s why: one of the biggest challenges for English Language Learners is the seemingly random correlation between the letters and the sounds of English. When you ask any student how many vowels we have in English, the answer is usually “five”. Yes, we have five letters, but we have many more vowel sounds and many of these vowel sounds can be spelled with varying combinations of letters. This is the point where I will generally apologize to my students and point out (not for the first time) that “English is crazy”.

I’m so thrilled to have found The Color Vowel Chart which assigns a color to each English vowel sound. For example, [ow] is ‘rose, [uw] is ‘blue’, [I] is ‘silver’ and so on through the 15 vowels of English. It’s both simple and brilliant as it gives students a visual representation of the differences between the sounds while providing a mnemonic for pronouncing the sounds correctly.

When you visit the site, you find an interactive version of the chart itself. Click on each color and you will hear the sound and its accompanying phrase. An example: when you click the green block you hear “ee…..green tea…ee”. I have introduced the chart in class and then asked students to practice at home. One note: the interactive color vowel chart requires a computer browser. I’ve only had one student successfully access it through a mobile device.

In addition to the interactive chart you’ll find lots of information (including a 75 minute webinar for teachers on how to use the chart), printable activities, word lists, and more, as well as links to order high quality copies of the chart in poster, notebook, and wallet-sized versions.

So far I’ve use the Vowel Discovery activity and made many copies of the graphic organizer which I’ve used both for listening quizzes (“place the word you hear in the correct box according to its vowel sound”) and as homework in which I asked students to find five words for each vowel sound from their reading texts. I’m learning so much about what my students actually hear with these tools and they are learning how to distinguish between sounds they thought were all the same. I really can’t say enough about this terrific resource and I hope you’ll take a look. I’d love to hear how other ESL teachers are using The Color Vowel Chart so please do leave your thoughts in the comments.


I just want to add that am so impressed with co-authors Shirley Thompson and Karen Taylor and am grateful for the wonderful work they’ve done. While the Color Vowel Chart is still very new in my toolbox I am already finding it very, very useful.

Library Love

I am a complete library geek so when I learned my small urban community college campus was getting our own library I was beyond thrilled. It’s been open for two weeks and I took my ESL students in for a tour today.

The building itself is just lovely. It’s spacious and colorful and flooded with light, even on a typically overcast Portland day. The shelves still need to be filled in and there’s a lot of temporary signage about but it’s fully functional and there are already students tucked in every corner.

My own students were delighted to find shelves of leveled readers but they also chose from the general collection, checking out titles on subjects ranging from baseball to Buddhism to calculus. I know our world is all about the mobile and the digital and the virtual, but to see my students happily reading books of their own choosing is a happy sight.


What is particularly wonderful about our new library is this: I also work with students in university programs where resources are abundant to the point of being taken for granted. It’s nice to see the community college students get something shiny and new of their own.

ESL Teacher 2.0

A lot has happened since I last wrote on this blog.    A lot of hard work, a lot of pointless work, a lot of hoop jumping but also a fresh new start in many ways.  I’ve gone from one steady job with a regular schedule to the rigors and instability of adjunct life which, frankly, bites. I could go on for days about all the downsides:  the often lousy pay, the lack of benefits, the lack of connection with my colleagues, the instability, the endless driving, the endless unpaid work….

But that’s not why I want to return to this blog. Because along with the stress and the exhaustion I am becoming a better teacher. I’ve taught 6 new-to-me courses in the last six months which means a huge amount of research and planning and trying out new resources and activities. I am always amazed by the excellent work done by generous teachers throughout the world who share their materials and I’d like to be one of them as well. My plan for phase two of this blog is to record what we’re doing in my many classes and to connect with other teachers doing similar work. Possibly the biggest drawback of this crazy adjunct life is that I rarely have the time to sit and talk with my colleagues and share ideas about what works and what doesn’t because I’m always racing off to another class on another campus. My hope is that this blog will result in some of the connection I sorely need. Please, please do comment and share!