my first and most amazing college-level ESL class

Friday, August 5, 2011:  Today, I finished teaching my first ever college-level ESL (English as a Second Language) class at Northern Virginia Community College. I ended it with a little party, the movie SuperBad, and individual student conferences.  A crazy ending to a fantastic semester.

I adore these students!

This class was astoundingly fun.  It was an intense high-level Speaking and Listening class.  We met every morning, from 9 a.m. to 11:30, for 10 weeks.  I’ve taught high school English before, and I have taught and tutored Korean elementary students, but teaching at this level was the best of all worlds.  Not only were these students extremely bright, but they were advanced enough that I could do multitudes of amazingly cool activities with them.  They were up to the task!!

I had a blast!  It was the best job I have ever had, one in which I loved getting up in the morning and going to work, one in which I felt depressed on the weekends not to spend time with my students.  Even though early in the semester I spent nearly 3 hours every afternoon preparing for a 2 1/2 hour class, I found this set the groundwork for the entire semester.  Toward the end it got a lot easier.  The class basically ended up teaching itself after we reached the halfway point.

Most of the students in what ended up being my 13-student class were Asians.  Only one was from outside of Asia; she was from Chad in Africa.  We had 9 Koreans, 2 Chinese guys (1 from the mainland and 1 from Hong Kong) and 1 Vietnamese guy.  Many of the Korean boys had already served their mandatory military service, so were a little older, around 23 or so.  My youngest student was 18.

my most amazing class ever ~ Speaking and Listening 1975 with a YouTube video playing on the screen behind ~ Good Vibrations

Since I had been to visit all of their countries (except my African student’s), and had actually lived a full year in Korea, I could totally relate to their lives both in their homelands, as well as in their situation as students living in a foreign country.  We compared stories about culture shock and how hard it is to adjust to life in a foreign country.  I challenged them with interesting topics and activities that pushed them to hugely improve their speaking and listening skills.  I felt so privileged to be able to work with them and in the process of teaching them, I think we became friends. 🙂

me with my class on the lawn outside our classroom

As the focus was speaking and listening, we listened often to news clips from NPR and CNN Student News.  I assigned them a project called “News in a Nutshell,” in which they had to pick their own news clip, present it to the class with new vocabulary words, and then ask probing questions of their classmates.  Besides News in a Nutshell, we also did a project called “This I Believe,” using longer clips from the now discontinued “This I Believe,” a show that used to run on NPR from 2004-2009 about beliefs that people hold dear to them.  They had to pick a clip that expressed their own beliefs and then encourage their classmates to share their own personal beliefs.  Class participation was a large part of their grade.

Having dinner together at a Korean restaurant near campus

Besides news clips, we did a project called Good Vibrations, where they presented their favorite songs, with vocabulary, told about the musician and the meaning of the lyrics, and again asked thought-provoking questions.  I was impressed by the songs they chose, full of deep meaning and controversial topics.

We read three flash fiction stories, “Can-Can” by Arturo Vivante, “Snow” by Julia Alvarez, and “Stockings”by Tim O’Brien, in which they each had to analyze and talk about different aspects of the story in a round-table discussion.  These stories contained issues such as infidelity, superstition, loyalty, love, and the immigrant experience.  We watched the movie Pay It Forward and discussed in great detail issues such as alcoholism, poverty and dysfunctional families as well as the idea of helping people without payback, which was at the core of the movie.

We did a fun Dear Abby type of activity, where they wrote an anonymous problem on a piece of paper and throughout the semester, we discussed solutions to the problem as a class.  We did other note-taking and listening activities and had vocabulary quizzes every week. We learned American idioms and did role plays and group discussions where they had to use the idioms.

In addition, we went on a field trip to the Newseum in Washington and then some of us had a late lunch at Vapiano in Chinatown.  At the Newseum, many of the Korean students were surprised that Korea was rated as only “partly free” for freedom of the press.  The Chinese boys were not surprised that China was rated “not free.”I gave them a scavenger hunt assignment where they had to find specific things on every floor, but as with some of my assignments gone awry, it was too ambitious and overwhelming.  I changed it midway through, telling them only to find one interesting thing on every floor.  On the 4th floor, we saw a piece of the twin tower from 9/11 and found out about problems journalists faced in covering the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  We saw a part of the Berlin Wall and the story behind its fall in 1989.  We saw the bombed car of a journalist who was investigating mafia activity.  We got to act as reporters in the interactive news room, which was a real hoot.

Me with my class at Choong Hwa Woon

Their final project was to do a Power Point presentation about themselves in a format much like those found in online dating profiles, such as OKCupid.  I showed them an example of my own as “Passionate Nomad.”  They had to address questions in their power points such as This is Me…, What I’m doing with my life…, I’m really good at…, The first things people usually notice about me are…, The 6 things I could never do without…, I spend a lot of time thinking about…, My guru told me my future is…, My hairdos over the years…

Shin and me cutting the sweet potato cake

This was most revealing and enjoyable for me because I got to find out so much about my amazing students.  One used to do professional modeling and has a hobby of photography.  She had professional photographs and created a stunningly artistic presentation.  All the students made my Power Point look amateurish by comparison.  One of my boy students did an adorable presentation that took me quite by surprise.  When he put up his slide that said “I spend a lot of time thinking about…”, the other students in the class started laughing.  I looked up and noticed that there was my name at the bottom of the slide with a heart next to it.  He went through the things he thought about and then he said, “And I spend a lot of time thinking about my English teacher…”  The other students laughed and said, “Ahhh, he just wants a good grade!” His face turned bright red and he said, “No, I really think about her and think she is so pretty and nice.”  It was so surprising and so cute… and it really made my day!

Shin, Sze, Jeahoon and Hannah

Between the activities we did, the topics we discussed, and the knowledge and respect I gained for them, we established a wonderful rapport.  Each day held immeasurable pleasure for me. I loved being in their midst and felt more energetic and enthusiastic about life than I have felt in a long time.  I knew after teaching them that teaching college-level foreigners is my destiny, my dream in life.  I thank these wonderful students for this adventure of a lifetime!

The growing certainty within myself that this is my destiny was only enhanced by the thing I did driving to work each morning.  I get an email every morning at 7 a.m. called The Daily Love, founded by a guy named Mastin Kipp.  As I drove to work, stopping at too many stop lights to count, I read snippets of this email on my BlackBerry for inspiration, love and guidance.  Day after day, I grew to realize that I am on the way to achieving my dream of teaching foreign university-aged students in a subject which I love, the English language.   Admiring these students for making a great leap and leaving the comfort of their own countries to venture into a new land brought me a new appreciation for my own personal experience in the previous year, doing just what they’re doing but in reverse, as I lived and worked in Korea.  I know now in my heart of hearts that I’m meant to work abroad, teaching English to university students, following my dual passions of travel and writing.

Song and Changwon

Thursday, September 8: One of my best and favorite students wrote me on Facebook that he’d like us to have dinner together before I leave the country.  He took it upon himself to contact all his classmates and make reservations at a Korean restaurant, Choong Hwa Woon, near the campus.  He managed to get 9 students to come so there were 10 of us altogether.  Apparently my African student moved to Maryland and the other two had class tonight.  On this night, we had torrential downpours and flooding everywhere.  Traffic was a nightmare.  Since they all live close to campus or came directly from class, they all arrived on time.  However, since I came from further afield, had to backtrack at one point due Foxmill Road being totally flooded, and then encountered a horrible backup turning from Pickett Road onto Little River Turnpike, which also had areas of flooding, I was nearly 45 minutes late!!   I told them once I got there that I thought they would mark me tardy, since I marked them tardy to my class if they were even 5 minutes late!  They all laughed at that.

a yummy sweet potato cake that is more like a cross between a pudding and a cake

I was so happy to see them again and spend time in their company.  And I felt honored that they took time out of their busy schedules to meet me again.  They told me they loved my class.  One of my students said it was her first semester in America and her first class, and my class made her feel like she belonged.  She told me she loves my energy.

I’m thankful for the new friends I have in these students and I hope they’ll keep in touch with me as they mature and realize their dreams.  They’re an inspiration to me, as are all immigrants, especially after my own “immigrant” experience abroad!

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