Generation Gap or Just Plain Rude?

Generation Gap or Just Plain Rude?

I could go on and on about how teenagers nowadays don’t know basic courtesy: how they let out expletives within earshot in a crowded lift, how they talk when the teacher is talking as if she didn’t exist; basically how they walk the road like they own it. But I really shouldn’t because one, there’s no end to that list, and two, I will start to moralize about who’s to blame.

So let me talk about what I can do as a teacher, standing in front of a class of youngsters who can’t get enough of their phones, talk when you’re talking, and seem to do something else even when you’ve set them a different task?

Enough with your phone already!

What do I do when they can’t keep still for 10 minutes without reaching for their iPhone? I tried ignoring it as long as I thought they were more or less paying attention to the lesson but the more I let it happen, the more I was convinced that their mind was on some mindless gossip on twitter. So I made it clear at the beginning of the lesson: put away your phones or I will put them away for you. I’ve confiscated a couple before by placing them at the teacher’s desk but returned it to the student after the lesson. I think they weren’t too cheesed off since I didn’t spot any black faces. I had been generally tolerant of their behavior before and maybe they were just used to me already.

Would this work in your class?

However, I wouldn’t necessarily try it in a large class, like a lecture hall of 80 plus students. First, I would have to spend more time confiscating phones than teaching. Second, I they will hate my guts. Third, one and two make a really bad class.

I think the best defense against a tech distracted crowd is to win them over with your superior tech display, e.g. great eye-catching photos during presentation, a couple of well-timed videos, and having interactive activities like getting individuals and groups to come to the front to do something. And don’t forget the M&Ms to encourage participation!

Chatting like there’s no tomorrow

Most of my students tend to talk a lot more when I’m not the one asking them to do the talking. For example, when they’ve just come in to the classroom and they’re settling down, when they’ve finished an activity and the others are still working on theirs, or when I disappear from the classroom to get something.

I have nothing against students talking in class – except when I’m talking and that usually means I’m trying to say something I think it’s important to them.

Usually they do it because they are engrossed in an ongoing discussion, and can’t snap out of it until they get both physical and verbal cues, i.e. the teacher standing in front of them and saying, “Are we ready for class?”

What if they don’t get the cues? What if they get it one moment and forget the next? Well, I keep on reminding them until my cues are reduced to a glance, a stare or a glare. I don’t aim for total silence and I don’t want them to end up fearful of not keeping quiet. But I think through consistent reinforcement of the expected behavior in class, they will get the message.

One of these kids is doing his own thing

Texting on the phone and being a chatterbox are actually less disturbing behaviors than not following specific instructions in the larger scheme of things. I’ve had students who seem to insist on doing something contrary to what I’ve set the class to do. Thankfully this doesn’t occur often but when it does, it could mean the student is suffering from a behavioral disorder like Asperger’s Syndrome. It could also mean that the student cannot bring himself to complete the task because he finds no meaning in it.

While I have not experienced the former, I have come across students who exhibit the second type of behavior. Usually, they find the work un-challenging or they already know the topic. So far from being rude, they just can’t bring themselves to do something which doesn’t help them learn anything new. What I do to help this student is to give him a more challenging task or point out aspects of the activity that he can still benefit from. To date, I’ve not had a resistant student.

Not rude, well, not all the time

So in my encounters with less desirable classroom behavior, I conclude that the students don’t mean to be rude or challenging; they are just behaving in a way that’s most natural to them. I think it’s our job as teachers to remind them what’s appropriate and what’s not in class – and be consistent in setting our boundaries and ground rules. The last thing we want to do is to ignore them and let them continue with behavior that will not help them learn any better, or anything at all!

P/S I teach in an Asian context where students are largely respectful of authority figures.

Navigating a new world of e-learning

Navigating a new world of e-learning

Learning points from eLearning Forum Asia 2011

I just finished a 2-day conference (8 – 9 June 2011), the eLearning Forum Asia 2011, held at the National Technological University (Singapore). While there was a variety of topics, my main interests were on e-learning and using social media for teaching. For e-learning, my takeaway was that we need to focus on the design of the e-learning activities. For social media, my takeaway was that we need to engage the students where they were. Ultimately, it was about the learners – what they were like, what they were doing, and how we could cater to their needs.

The following paragraphs, if they can be called that at all, are lists of ideas, jotting them down before this conference becomes a vague memory. I don’t want to end up with post-conference inertia and I hope this post reminds me of what I need to do.


My actual experience with e-learning has been largely i) me uploading stuff and students downloading stuff and ii) students posting superficially on forum threads.

What I would like my experience to be:

i) Students and I do stuff together on something;

ii) Students care about this stuff we do together;

iii) I actually have fun getting all this done!

What I could do in the immediate future:

i) Use Google Docs for group writing for collaboration;

ii) Set specific instructions for students so they don’t get lost in the activities;

iii) Model the actions and behaviors I expect from them.

Social Media

I have recently started to connect with my students via Facebook but not for specific teaching or learning purposes. I use it to make announcements for some of my subjects, encourage students, send reminders and wish them Happy Birthday!

I’m not entirely sure how I could use it for teaching although the Facebook Group Page comes to mind. I’ve just finished a Social Media workshop by the folks from UWM and it was awesome! Some things I’ve learnt:

i) Social Media is here – don’t fight it, join it, manage it!

ii) Twitter is powerful! I’m now officially on Twitter (@orangecanton)

iii) Facebook Fanpages are a great resource for putting up information for courses.

iv) Some challenges include privacy and convincing people who don’t care much for social media but control the approvals and money for using it in education!

v) Students will appreciate it that you are reaching out to them through the very means they live 24/7!

The Apprentice – a lesson on resourcefulness, respect and responsibility

The Apprentice - A Lesson on Resourcefulness, Respect & Responsibility

In anticipation of a 9 am Monday morning lecture, I started to look for YouTube clips that could rouse the interest of potentially sleepy and clueless students. The subject is Events Management and I wanted a short but impactful clip that could convey the essentials of event planning. Search results from key phrases like “event planning” and “event management” didn’t quite generate upbeat videos that I was looking for. Then I turned my thoughts to reality TV – home of Murphy’s Law – where “anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.”

At first I tried searching for a wedding type of show, hoping to find scenes of disoriented wedding planners trying to make it all work but ended up with more scenes of brides screaming for attention. Then I realized what I needed. I needed drama, entertainment and education all wonderfully crafted together. I needed … The Apprentice. I can’t say I’m a huge fan, only watching episodes sporadically whenever it aired on TV or cable. But whenever I did, I was always impressed at how the show managed to blend real life human emotions with down to earth lessons about what to do and not to do when organizing and executing a business event. So I searched for “apprentice” + “event” and eventually found this video clip:

It’s Episode 12 from Season 4 The Apprentice and has Rebecca Jarvis and Randall Pinkett as the finalists. (Refer to Wikipedia for details.)

From this clip onwards (as one clip leads to one continuing clip after another), I was hooked. All the editing and dramatic angles made this entertainment, but the human drama that played out on screen felt authentic, and so were the nuggets of wisdom that Trump and his associates dished out in the boardroom. I thought to myself, ‘This has got to be the video clip I was searching for!’ The video clips that covered part of Episode 12 and the finale had many great lessons in event planning that were relevant to my lecture. For example, the team leaders and their teams had to overcome unexpected hiccups, deal with different personalities, and stay calm while under pressure.

The main takeaway I had watching how Rebecca and Randal handled their events was that you have to be resourceful. The part of the show that I watched also raised issues such as respect and responsibility. Those are two great intangibles that to me, sound a little too grand for rookies in event management such as my students. But in true American fashion, The Apprentice makes it simple enough to be understood during a prime time TV slot, and entertaining as well!

So what about respect and responsibility? From the segments, I heard a lot about respecting one’s team leader, as well as your boss. If you watch the clips, look out for how the team leaders responded to Trump’s arrival at their events. Responsibility was also talked about, how the team leader is responsible for the outcome of the event. Before I go on with a review of the video clips (which is not what this post is about, and I really don’t want to go into that), let me go back to my main point which is The Apprentice makes good teaching material, or at least, a starter for group discussion.

My challenge is that because there are so many great scenes, I have to be selective about what to screen in class. I did contemplate a video viewing session on its own but I think that needs a little more thought. What I’ve decided to do in the end is to select a clip that has enough discussion points. I don’t need to show all the clips to show how the problems were resolved because: i) the students can watch the rest of the clips on their own; and ii) the point of the lesson is for them to think about what they would have done in those circumstances. I played the Apprentice video clip (less than 8 minutes) towards the end of the Monday morning lecture. I thought the students were fairly attentive and responded to the questions quite well.

Encouraged by this small success, I will consider using  Apprentice video clips for future lectures.

From Zero to Hero – How I Learned Chinese

How I Learned Chinese

I stared at the textbook in front of me, mechanically reading the Chinese characters that appeared on the page, or rather, parroting whatever the tutor said, even instructions on what I was supposed to do. At 7 years old, I started  Chinese tuition, and like many of my peers, stuck to it until I cleared the major exams.

There was no Mandarin speaking environment at home, no social circle which required any knowledge of Chinese, and no inner desire to figure out the language. Tuition was the answer and led to reasonable results for the national exams. While the exams were taken care of, my actual knowledge of Chinese was quite rudimentary. Outside of answering assessment book questions, I was clueless as how to respond to the language. When it was no longer as crucial to pass the Chinese exam, I did away with tuition and my incompetence in the language was further exposed.

The worst period of studying Chinese was in junior college. After getting a B3 for Chinese at O Levels, I did away with tuition; I no longer had a crutch. My foundation in Chinese was so weak I had to attend remedial lessons, all in the hope of salvaging whatever was left in this near empty vessel in the hope of passing the exam. I eventually passed the written exam, but failed the spoken component.

The story of my life learning Chinese culminated in that excruciatingly painful 15 minutes or so where I was assessed on my ability to speak Mandarin. There were two parts to the spoken assessment: one, reading a passage and answering questions, and two, conversing on a topic chosen by the examiner. For part one, I could hardly read the passage set in front of me. The exam strategy of reading whichever part of the character I recognized if I didn’t know how to read the whole character, or skipping the character altogether, blew up in my face as I applied the principle to probably most of the key words that made up the meaning of the passage. I have little recollection of what happened in the Q&A – but probably nothing much since I didn’t understand most of the words.

Part two would seem easier since I only had to speak. Alas, it was not to be. The topic seemed fairly easy to handle – ECAs or extra curricular activities. Except that my ECA was Writer’s Circle – a group of us would contribute poems and short stories to a quarterly in-house publication. What was so difficult about that, you might ask. First, I translated ‘Writer’s Circle’ as literally as I could since I knew no other way.  The examiners looked puzzled and asked what I did in that ECA. In as brief a phrase I could muster, I said, “Write poems.” As luck would have it, my anglicized pronunciation of Mandarin made ‘poems’ (shi) sound like ‘eat’ (chi). Another wave of puzzled looks led to the next question, “Eat? What do you eat?” I repeated ‘shi’ several times, finally blurting out in perfectly crisp English: “Poems, I write poems!”

The next exchange I had with the examiner got personal. “Are you a Canadian?” she asked, “Your pronunciation is strange.” “No! I am Singaporean!” I proudly exclaimed. (When I relate this story to my friends, they remarked that I should have just played along and pretended I was a foreigner with a bad accent. Maybe I would have gained sympathy marks.)


My formal Chinese learning ended in humiliation. My actual Chinese education, however, started when I realized people around me at university were using Mandarin in their day-to-day conversations. I was finally in an environment where the Chinese language was being used in authentic manner! Or perhaps, I was finally in a more realistic representation of society at large?

I decided to improve my Chinese. I listened to Mandarin pop songs. My favourite singer was (and still is) Winnie Hsin (or Hsin Hsiao Chi) from Taiwan. I bought almost all her albums, read the lyrics as I listened to the songs, and soaked in the MTVs. Apart from taking up a hobby, I got out of my comfort zone. I switched from the English service to the Mandarin service in church. But the one thing that decidedly turned me from English speaking, Western cultured to Mandarin speaking and pseudo-Sinophile was living in China.

After getting my CELTA, I got a job teaching English in China and I was there for about two years. In no time at all, I was using Mandarin for most of my daily activities and that got me comfortable and more proficient in using the language. My recognition of Chinese characters improved as well but only as much as it helped me in getting from point A to point B and figuring out how to read food labels. Writing was still a challenge and never really improved since I never had to correspond in that manner. But certainly, listening and speaking the Chinese language notched up several levels and since I came back from China several years ago, I’m still as comfortable with the language.

Not by campaign but by immersion (Speak Mandarin Campaign in Singapore, circa 1990)
Not by campaign but by immersion
(Speak Mandarin Campaign in Singapore, circa 1990)

The moral of the story? Language immersion seems the way to go in learning a language. Learning is not forced since it becomes necessary for you to learn the language for survival! When I apply this to my own teaching, in particular for ESL/EFL, I make it a point not to use the student’s native language as a reference point unless it’s absolutely crucial. When the teaching / learning environment forces students to use the language form beginning to end, however uncomfortable it is, it slowly conditions them to think and speak in the language.

It’s kind of like being thrown into the deep end of the pool – sink or swim! Most of us won’t allow ourselves to sink. At the very least we will try to keep our heads above water.


Image credits (in order of images):
Flickr: Learning Chinese by nik (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Flickr: FAIL STAMP by Nima Badiey (CC BY 2.0)
Flickr: Speak Mandarin Campaign by chinnian (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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