Tag Archives: teaching english

The Music Interlude of English Class

8 Mar

Exile to Mexico is proud to present: music exchange week at the university! A new Throw-Back Thursday publication for this humble blog!*

What music represents your country’s culture? This was one of the questions I asked my Level 2 students this week to get their brains relating in English for our music unit. It’s been such a fun discussion and rock-out session the past couple of days of class that I thought y’all might appreciate some of the excitement. Plus I bet you’ve never heard of half the music my students think is important, just like they’ve never heard of half your music. So I’m bringing the music exchange to you.

We were preparing to read an article on hip hop, and its now-international popularity. The article included a history of the roots of hip hop that mentioned genres like blues, jazz, reggae, and rhythm and blues. Most of my students have never heard of any of the styles or artists named there, except maybe for Bob Marley’s reggae. So we spent more than a whole class reading the timeline, listening to music and discussing it. It turned out to be a blast, even if nobody understood more than two words of any song. They foolishly wanted me to sing to them, believing that my singing would help them understand. Bwahahahahaha!

Before we even got to all that music, though, I asked them what music represents Mexican culture. What do you think, dear reader, when you think of music in Mexico? If you said mariachi, some of my students would certainly agree with you. Mariachi is popular- at certain moments, at least- all over Mexico and is fairly recognized internationally. UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) even declared it an important part of the national culture in 2011.

Other popular answers to this question included banda music and norteñas, which you may or may not have heard of. I certainly hear people playing banda music around here about a thousand times more often than they play mariachi music, but identity is identity and we all know mariachi is historical and famous. Perhaps it is more relevant on a daily basis in other parts of Mexico than here in coastal Oaxaca.

I am the worst in the world at describing music, so I will spare you my pathetic attempts and give you examples instead. This is some of the music that my students feel like is important to and representative of their lives and culture in Mexico.

This is Conan’s favorite ever corrido, one style of music that a lot of my students mentioned as being important. A corrido is a Mexican folk ballad that narrates something like a historical event or another important topic. It was a style that started in the gruesome, ten year long Mexican Revolution. I was much more impressed with the argument for corridos being Mexico’s music rather than mariachi music. Corridos explore a whole gamut of topic including but not limited to infidelity, immigration, poverty and oppression, folk heroes and historic events, and even violence and drugs. Norteña music, at least as far as my gringa understanding goes, is in the same style as corridos, still a narrative ballad style, but more about love and romance and cheating and all that stuff, and less about popular stories and oppression and revolution and the like. The most famous Mexican group that is classified as “norteña” music is Los Tigres del Norte. Here’s a song by them, and another, because I got a lot of recommendations by them.

Banda music is something it seems like everybody listens to around here, so of course that was named a lot as well, although I feel like that’s like saying “pop” is the national music of the United States. Here’s an example of something that I suspect is supposed to be romantic but the video itself is creepy, in my humble opinion. I can’t even listen to the lyrics. That’s how I feel about most pop music- especially “romantic” stuff, though, so it’s nothing against banda music itself. Here’s another example, just in case it’s your thing.

Not one person named mariachi when I asked what music represented culture in Oaxaca, of course. There were some more mentions of corridos and banda music by a couple people, but overall the clear consensus was a regional style of folk called chilenas, which I bet you’ve never heard of. Here’s an example of a chilena, along with the dance, at a yearly festival called the Gueleguetza that takes place in Oaxaca City. And a chilena about Puerto Escondido, my adopted town. And another popular chilena, because, really they are a major part of the culture in this state.

So does everybody here love chilenas and listen to them daily? No. But they’re guaranteed to be played at a wedding or other major party, at the town’s festivals, etc. They are THE regional folk music. Everyone knows how to dance to them, at least on the basic level, at the very least if they’re tipsy at a big party. Chilenas are heard throughout Oaxaca much more than mariachi, hands down. (I like it much more than mariachi music, too.)


People dancing a chilena in Oaxaca. (Google image, definitely not my photo)

Also, in case you’re curious, there is indeed a link between the country of Chile and the music called “chilenas” here in Oaxaca. It is a bit similar and surely comes from the folk dance in Chile called the cueca. You can see a cueca for comparison here. The little bit that I’ve been able to research about it says that chilenas probably came here through Chilean sailors and immigrants heading to California during the gold rush, stopping off and maybe sometimes staying on the coast of Oaxaca. It’s a small world! (Especially since I also used to live in Chile.)

These music discussions were extra delightful for my students because, in addition to goofing off and watching their teacher lip sink to strange music, it turns out they had a very easy time with the vocabulary and translation part. There’s no English translation for Mexican music styles. Mariachi is mariachi. Chilenas are chilenas. You just have to experience it…. and pronounce it like a gringo. “Teacher, how do you say, ‘música banda’?” “Banda music!” I tell them happily. It’s just like my Level 1 students’ joy when we talk about food. “How do you say ‘enchiladas’?” “Enchiladas,” I tell them, and they sit there and blink at me. “It’s the same?” they ask. “Not exactly,” I say, and they giggle hysterically when I pronounce it like we do in the states.  Another win for the students!

Hope you enjoy the music half as much as we did in class! Salud!

*This is a blog I wrote a couple of years ago, and failed to publish. Whoops! But look how social-media savvy I am! Finally using the term “Throw Back Thursday” just before it goes out of style! Yay for taking advantage of procrastination!

Also, thank you, YouTube, for helping out the international sharing!

The Discipline Dilemma

23 Apr

I’ve always said that I don’t teach small children because I am a horrendous disciplinarian. Put me with one kid, or two, or even three, and I do wonderfully; I actually really like children, after all. But as soon as I walk into a room with a large group of children, and I’m supposed to be the one in charge, they immediately sense my weakness. Before I know it they are circling me like hungry sharks at the scent of blood. If you leave me alone and in charge for long enough, your children will all have become total savages, a la Lord of the Flies, and you won’t even recognize them sufficiently to take them home to dinner. I am not a credible authority figure.



Thank you, clip art from Google, for showing me as a small-child teacher

I am, however, a good fit for adult education. Sure, adults can get distracted or talk over other people or mention inappropriate material or take us totally off topic. But they don’t usually throw themselves on the floor while wailing and thrashing around. They don’t randomly start cutting their classmate’s hair with the scissors someone else didn’t put away. They’re not typically found trying to staple anyone’s hand to the desk. They don’t normally start dancing on tables and throwing blocks at people’s heads while you’re busy putting a band-aid on someone’s invisible ouchie (that they insist is extremely painful). They don’t tend to conspire to and carry out a successful prison-level-nothing-to-lose riot while you’re dealing with someone else’s poop. In fact, there is NO poop involved in adult education, which is absolutely one of the reasons I signed up for it.

Unfortunately, however, many of my current students are borderline children, as in 18 year olds who are still living the child role. Many of them come straight from high school to college, and sadly, this college isn’t really different from high school. They are still treated like children. Attendance is mandatory and all-day-long. Their classes are assigned to them and they don’t have any options about when or what, or even who their professor will be. There’s nowhere for them to congregate or get together, and they get shooed away when they hang out together on the library steps or anywhere else outside of a classroom. So perhaps it should be surprising that I don’t have serious toddler-level uprisings in more of my classes.

Luckily, though, it’s just one class I have problems in on a daily basis. But still. It stinks almost as badly as if I were dealing with poop. I turn my back to write on the board and people are flicking each other and smacking each other on the head. A few of the students are constantly hiding this one kid’s backpack when he’s not looking. That’s just a sample. And the talking about anything but English is unabating. “Let’s listen!” I say. “Shhh!” I glare at them. “Let’s respect other people and not talk while they’re talking.” I attempt to reason with them. “Remember? You guys invented our class rules yourselves.” “Guys, we’re in English class,” I try to remind them. “Concentrate. We’re reading right now.” And of course, amidst the ubiquitous play fighting I’m constantly saying, “No violence!” I tell all my students that when they’re messing around with another student. But in this class, between my “no violence” retort and the shushing and concentrating business I’m like the background music on an elevator: ongoing and more common than any other conversation or noise.

“I am not a good authoritarian, guys. Please don’t make me be one.” I tried to level with my class in a last-ditch effort to solve the problem. I gave a speech imploring them to give me other ideas to resolve the problem. “I don’t want to be a strict teacher. I don’t want a silent, obedient class. I want us to have discussions and have fun in class.” The problem, I explained, is that some of the students in this class goof off so much and distract me and everyone else so much that this class is consistently behind my other level 1 class. Which means we do fewer activities. They are less exposed to English, have less practice than my other class. Which isn’t fair to the students who want to learn. It’s not fair to the ones who finish really fast and need extra challenges, and it’s not fair to the ones who are struggling and need extra help from me but who are willing to work hard. I want to keep having lots of group work. I don’t mind their boisterousness at all, as long as they can complete the tasks. But that’s not where they are as a class right now.

It all came to a head two days before my big speech. We were reading aloud, taking turns as a whole class to read and comprehend an article. Suddenly, several students were making comments and rude whistling noises and I don’t even know what other rudeness at the student who was reading, and bam! I started seeing red. “EXCUSE ME?” I asked, belligerently, my eyes bulging out of my head. “Excuse me? Are you making fun of him? Are you serious?” I might have even started pointing my finger all around the room. I was in the teacher version of being that little girl in The Exorcist. “Does anybody in this room speak perfect English? Raise your hand. Anybody?” Some smarty pants said, “You, teacher,” and I was like, “Wrong! I’ve been speaking English my entire life and I can still make mistakes. All of us make mistakes. It’s not only normal, it’s an important part of the process. You all know how I feel about mistakes. They are a vital part of learning. AND you guys all agreed that not making fun of each other is part of what we need to have a good learning environment. Furthermore,” I continued, eyebrows in permnent-raised-mode, “if you’re purpose is to see me mad, this is the way to do it. Disrespect each other some more. If you want me to get mad and get mean and start throwing people out of class, keep up this act. Do you want to make fun of someone else? Make fun of somebody some more? Go ahead and get out of my class right now.” I gestured toward the door.

Nobody moved. It was the first time in my class that everyone was silent for an entire 20 seconds or so. I was still red in the face and sweating. It was not my finest moment in teaching. But people were much nicer through the rest of class.

So I asked them the next day, and explained in a much calmer manner, that some things have to change and that I need their help to do so. That I don’t want to just start imposing new rules and being strict and grumpy all the time. That I want them to tell me how to fix things for everybody. “I get that some of you don’t love English class. I didn’t make this rule about attending, much less about passing English. If you really can’t stand this class, don’t come- but I take no responsibility if you fail.” I talked a little more clearly about the situation as I see it, and what my goals are: to spend less time on discipline and more time on learning. I asked what comments and ideas, and goals of their own they had to share. Nobody spoke. “Okay,” I said, refusing defeat. “Do you need a day to think about it?” Several people nodded. “But do think about it! I’m honestly open to your ideas,” I tried to emphasize.

Sadly, upon follow-up, I got only a couple of ideas, none of which I am stoked about employing. Things like assigned seats. And kicking people out of class for acting up. Those were among the only suggestions. Sigh.

We’ll see what Monday brings. Perhaps some of them, or maybe I, will have had a stroke of genius about how to fix things. Hopefully them. Maybe one of you reading this will shed your brilliant wisdom upon the matter. How do you deal with “discipline?” What do you do when modeling respect is not sufficient, when you lose your cool? All suggestions are welcome and appreciated! Keep teaching, keep learning!


Joy to the World, the Semester Has Begun!

9 Oct

I was teaching about the difference between being boring and being bored the other day, and I posed a bunch of questions for the students to talk about with a partner, using other –ed vs. –ing adjectives. “Who is an exciting person that you know?” I asked them, along with, “Who do you know who is easily excited?” (Careful, Spanish speakers, excited isn’t excitado in most casesget your mind out of the gutter!)

Apparently these young folks don’t have enough excitement in their lives, though, because many of them seemed stumped about exciting and excited folks. I started telling them about my kids, and how everything excites them- airplanes, dump trucks, the moon, you name it. (Khalil gets up every morning, and points and shouts at everything he’s excited about until I name it. It’s the only reason I forgive him for cutting into my quiet/exercise time at 6AM.)

Finally one of my students said, “You, teacher! You are easily excited.” It wasn’t quite what I was looking for, but at least someone finally answered. And it’s true, I realized. I am so excited every day! I have way more fun at work than most people, I’m sure. Between my grown-up personality (which is somehow less jaded and more light-hearted than when I was younger- go figure), my kids’ contagious excitement, and loving my job, I am pretty damned excited about the universe.

I love my students. I love teaching. I love being able to use my Spanish language skills to instill my mad passion for language and communication and critical thinking into my students via their obligatory old English class. I love that I get to set an example of joy for lifelong learning with a whole bunch of helpless “victims” of my cause- 5 days a week, 4 times a day. I love my job!!! (Yes, I am using excessive exclamation marks, thank you very much, you punctuation snobs. I am expressing precisely how I feel, so there.)


This is totally what I probably look like in class, except with a bunch of grown-ups in a boring, all-gray classroom. photo from: 


I’m starting my 3rd year with the curriculum that I helped invent, so I’m feeling extra confident- perhaps even just a tad cocky- about my ability to invent more and more fun and interesting ways to teach what I need to teach (on a good day, at least). On top of that, I’m a textbook extrovert who gets more energized and motivated after each class. And I have fabulous students this semester. “You say that every semester,” says one of my co-workers, jokingly scolding me.

We just finished up the two month-long introductory period for this year’s new students, and for that I lucked into really great groups again. “You say that about every group,” my co-worker said, rolling her eyes at me just a bit. Really, though, just about all the kids in their intro course are sweet and enthusiastic, so it’s easy to adore them. Even my three students who tested out of the course still wanted to participate- that’s the kind of innocence and awe these first-year students have at the very beginning.

My 12PM class of Biology students was really sharp, as the Bio students tend to be. But they were also really adorable. When they asked me if I was going to be their teacher for the fall semester I explained to them that I definitely would not be, because we rotate classes so that nobody has the same teacher two times in a row. I tried to explain why this policy is good for them: you get exposed to different accents, to different teaching styles, and if you dislike a teacher you don’t get stuck with them for a whole year. I refrained from telling them that the reverse applies for us; we don’t get stuck with a class we dislike for two semesters in a row. “But can’t we request you?” a couple of them asked hopefully. I wanted to tell them that it’s college, not Burger King, but nobody’s ever even heard of Burger King, so I shook my head sadly instead. Now every time they walk by my class, each one of them waves happily at me. “Teacher, we miss you!” they tell me (in Spanish) when I see them around campus. I’m enjoying it while it lasts.

My favorite thing in my 12pm introductory course, though, was my student with the disgruntled faces. While some students are always less-than-thrilled to be called on in class, this student was loathe to answer. She’d scrunch up her nose and make other disgusted faces every time I called on her for an answer or to read aloud. But I called on her anyway, sometimes saying all of the sentence aloud with her, one word at a time, pulling it out of her, pushing her along. But I forced her nicely, and I was constantly, jokingly reassuring her that soon she will love English. I noticed- and made sure to applaud her for it- that she was really good at reading comprehension, and better than everyone else at guessing the word’s meaning based on the context. I found out that she speaks Zapotec (one of the many indigenous languages around here), and publicly congratulated her on already being bilingual. By the end of the course she had changed her disgruntled faces to resolute faces, a sort of willingly-going-into-battle stance. And she joined the “Teacher, we miss you,” club. I absolutely called it a win.

My 6pm class was a tiny class of Forestry students. All 7 of them were kind and studious and interesting, as our Forestry students tend to be, in my humble opinion. My favorite class last year was also half-filled with Forestry students. Last year’s students- a level two group, no longer aiming to please the teacher- even came to a Friday evening class when the other half of their class was out on a field trip, just because I promised to make them popcorn to go with the educational video. I love my Forestry students- those guys and these new guys. (“You love all your classes,” I can hear my coworker saying with a jovial eye-roll.) Look at these Forestry students, though! In my introductory course, at the end of the final exam, each one of them came up and shook my hand as they turned in their exam. One of them, my little Guns n Roses-loving rocker, even hugged me. How adorable is that? Their little wanna-be-professional handshakes. Bless their little hearts. You know you’d love ‘em, too.

This semester- the start of the new school year- I have two first level classes. One of them is a group of Animal Science (Zootecnia) kids, known for their high energy and rebelliousness. If any of our students are coming to exams drunk or high (most of them definitely aren’t), it’s bound to be a Zootech student. My least favorite class at this university was a Zootech class with over half of them dutifully resolved not to learn anything, at whatever cost necessary. Their strongest tactic to evade new knowledge was to spend at least 20 minutes out of every 50 minute class outside. “Teacher, can I go to the bathroom?” was the only thing they mastered all semester. Some of them were still kind of fun when they were in class, though. The Zootech kids are their own little zoo.

My Zootech class this semester is ragingly high-energy, and blessedly enthusiastic about English. I’ve already had to remind them that all words are good to learn but not all words are good for English class. “Motherfucker,” for example, is great for Pulp Fiction auditions, or for your rock band, but not okay for our class. This 6pm class is full of jokers and inside jokes, after having completed two months of stressful introduction to the university together. I don’t get all their jokes- like the student they call Saul even though neither his first nor his middle name slightly resemble Saul. But I can certainly appreciate their enthusiasm. I love how I don’t have to tell them twice to get into groups or to practice talking about whatever we’re learning. Even my foursome who failed this level last year couldn’t resist asking “Have you ever…” questions the other day. So obviously, I love this class, too! (“See? You do say it about every class,” I can hear my coworker point out.)

Admittedly, I love my 10 o’clock nursing class, too, this semester. On the first day of class, when I had all of my classes make their own list of rules and suggestions for building a mutually respectful classroom, one of the kids in my ten o’clock class was already announcing dramatically, “Teacher, we love you!” How could you not love a class with students like that? More than half of my level one nurses are shy, according to my icebreaker/survey, but they’re comfortable enough with each other that they don’t need too much prompting to participate. One of them felt so comfortable that he wrote on his paper to me about himself, “Hello Teacher, I’m gay!” I was honored that he marked me a safe person for him to tell that to. (See? You love my classes, too.)

My level one students, who don’t know me yet, were surprised and impressed by my culinary knowledge, when I reported, for example, that my favorite Mexican food was “Chepil tamales with a salsa made of chile costeño.” (“Sí se la sabe,” said one student to another: “She knows her stuff.”)

In my level 2 classes, most of the students have been my students before and thus my reputation precedes me. I guess my credentials for Mexican slang knowledge and Spanish pronunciation still needed to be proven with a couple of my Level 2 nurses who hadn’t been my students before. “Teacher, how do you say refrigerator in Spanish?” one of my favorite students asked me in his impressive English, and I accidentally answered on autopilot before I realized his purpose- proving my pronunciation capabilities to another student. The new student was much more impressed by the slang I knew. “Teacher, do you know what pistear means?” I grin and nod, lifting up my fingers in the international sign of chugging an alcoholic beverage. I turn back to continue erasing the board, but I hear the same student saying, “See? She’s more Mexican than Gringa.” As if they expect us English teachers to somehow be living here in a vacuum, in which we don’t learn any slang or other relevant cultural things. Bless their little hearts.

Once I had a student tell me he was really disappointed that I could correctly pronounce the word for turkey (they don’t say pavo here- the word is guajalote, which sounds like wah-ha-loe-teh). While students partially appreciate my Spanish abilities in, say, their grammar explanations, I think they prefer to have some language points to feel superior about. I try to keep it in mind, although truthfully my spelling and vocabulary in Spanish is better than that of many of my students. (Because I studied my ass off in college, dear students, and because I love to read about like I love to teach.) But I digress.

So it’s true, I suppose. I do love all my students. I do think all my groups are fabulous in some way or another. I know, the two-month introductory period for new students, followed by the first week of the regular semester, is definitely the easiest part of the year. We’re all happy to be there and students aren’t yet overwhelmed.

But I’m pretty good at keeping up the mood when the going gets tough with my students. (How do you come to class so animada– excited, animated- every day?” my little newbie Biology students asked recently. Bless.) One of my challenges to myself that I started last year is to have more and more compassion for my students, and more and more respect for them, and for where they are in the learning process. Granted, I’m still the first teacher to ask folks to leave the room if they can’t stop disrupting other people. But I don’t hold it against them the next day, and I find things that I like about them anyway. In general I try to assume that students are doing the best that they can do, even if that’s not quite what I’d like them to be doing. I don’t know if that helps them much in the long run, but it definitely helps me to not be angry when, say, kids aren’t paying attention or haven’t done their work. It definitely helps me to be a happy teacher. I work with and know some pretty awesome teachers, and I definitely don’t think I’m a better teacher than other folks, by any means. (Besides, comparisons are odious.) But I get to do pretty much exactly what I want to do, the only standardized tests I have to give being the ones our team made, no excessive paperwork to fill out. I do think I’m enjoying my job more than most other folks. And I think that joy, like excitement, is often contagious. I don’t think that my students are going to switch from nursing to an English career, but if they can get through the semester and actually enjoy learning a thing or two, I’m calling it a win. And I’m publicly announcing that I love all my students! I love my job!!!!! (With plenty of exclamation marks, so there.)

Some Irreverent Cheer, in T form

2 Sep

I needed to focus on some silliness after 7 days of melodrama and frustrations, and what’s cheerier than irreverent and inappropriate t-shirt messages? Some superb ones can be found all over town here and I’ve been jotting them down for ages. Finally it’s time to share.

With Mexico being a neighbor to the US, you see lots and lots of people with shirts in English. Some things are new clothing that has something written in English because it makes it cooler- or something. I’m not really sure what the motivation is for making baby onesies, for example, that say “Handsome” instead of “Guapo.” We’re in Mexico, guys! Speak Spanish! Stop making stupid crap in English! Is there so much obligatory diffusion of ‘Murican culture happening that you can’t even get new clothes in Mexico in the national language? Geez.

Occasionally it becomes fun, though, when they start putting totally random English on shirts. I used to have a shirt that somebody bought me from the Canary Islands that was covered in words as if you were supposed to read it, but it was something like: Freedom butterfly go spider fly love pacore fun forever (totally unrelated crap with a totally made-up word for good measure). But it’s in English! Super cool.

Here are some other good examples of these kinds of shirts (from the interwebs, not from my camera, because I suspect it’s rude and an invasion of privacy to snap photos of people in their t-shirts all the time):



I secretly hope that some aspiring English language learners sit around and make up these t-shirts. Like they just open up a dictionary and pick out words that sound nice to them. Or they open different youtube pages and the first word of each video is what goes on the shirt. However they come up with it, they obviously don’t care whether your English t-shirt is credible or not. It is the reason why I will never, ever get a tattoo in a language I don’t speak. Imagine getting something really deep written on you, only for it to be something like, “permited to going” or “vintage gonna” or so many much worse things. Okay, maybe it would be funny enough later to make it worthwhile. I won’t say never. Just probably not. 1527898-980x

Then there are the t-shirts in English that are second-hand, presumably from the US, usually with more legitimate English. Some of the ones I appreciate are messages that are a bit incongruous with the person wearing them, like the wasted-drunk guy outside the market wearing his “Franklin Elementary PTA” t-shirt. Or the grumpy old lady in the shop wearing her shirt that says “My heart is all his!” (Although, okay, maybe she felt passion in her cold little heart once upon a time.) There’s the construction worker with his Harvard Alumni t-shirt or the harried mom with her Mini Marathon for Parkinson’s Disease shirt. Sure, maybe they did those things, but it looks a little out of place in the moment.

I like the meant-to-be sarcastic ones, like Conan’s t-shirt that says, “I’m just one freaking ray of sunshine, aren’t I?” (But we bought it in the US, so maybe it doesn’t count.) “Everybody loves me” also falls into the “surely this is sarcasm” category, because who makes these slogans up? Could you be serious about that?

Usually when I ask my students about their clothes’ messages in English, they don’t know or they’re not totally sure what it says. Even when theoretically they know all the words on their shirt, they haven’t really bothered to decipher the message. I like to talk about them in class sometimes. “I’m not from Ireland but you can still kiss me for luck” was one that we all translated together, and then I tried to explain the significance. Other common messages include things like “I’m not short, I’m fun-sized” (totally apt on that particular wearer), or “chocoholic” (we agreed that yes, that was appropriate for her character).

There are accidentally ironic t-shirts, like my student who tripped on the sidewalk one day because she was focusing so hard on her phone. I helped her up and then I laughed at her, because her shirt that day said, “Textaholic” with a big cartoony cell phone on it. “Do you know what your shirt means?” I asked her. “No, what?” she said. Oops.

Hands down, though, the t-shirts that most cause my hysterics are the wildly improper and inappropriate ones, especially when the user seems completely oblivious. Like the seemingly nice and attentive father walking down the street one day holding his kids hand and talking to him in a gentle voice. He was wearing a shirt that said in big bold, all-capital letters, “Shut up and take it in the butt”- I am not even exaggerating; that’s what it said! I thought, “Surely he’s clueless. He has to be in the dark. Should I fill him in? What if he already knows?”  How many other English-speakers are walking around in shock about his t-shirt? Let us all be in shock; it’s kinda fun.

I also love that students in the strict, conservative university where I work wear outrageous messages on their clothing.  I’m always wondering, “Do you not get it, or are you using people’s assumed lack of English to wear really semi-scandalous or risqué things?” They get away with it, I imagine, because it’s in English. Like one of my little 18 year old newbies this semester that showed up the other day wearing a shirt with some cartoon character on it, but in all caps above the image it said, “FUCK!!!!!!!!!!” (Seriously, with like 10 exclamation marks) And below the image it said “I’m high” with another 18 exclamation marks. Based on what I know of her so far, I bet this student has never even seen illegal drugs in her life, but I love the accidental audacity of her wearing this in front of all these uptight administrators, these folks checking their clipboards, making sure nobody’s sitting on the lawn. Bless. It’s a bit like this shirt below, so inappropriate that it’s kind of awesome:


A more mildly inappropriate one from a student has a picture of a toaster and a slice of bread in conversation. The toaster says, “I want you inside me.” The bread is saying “That’s hot.” Nice and cheeky. Unfortunately, since my students often don’t know what their shirt means, it lowers the cool factor a bit in my eyes. When it’s a naughty or outlandish message, I now prefer not to ask if they get it. I let myself assume that they know so I can appreciate their small rebellion.

Because the internet never ceases with its capacity to add to my cheer (thank you, Google images, thank you!), I found some more fun stuff to make my day. Below are some shirts I’m totally getting for my next trip to the US.

How about you guys? What ridiculous shirts make your day? Shirts in English? Spanish? Share the giggles!


This reminds me of how my Nonna used to pronounce the video game system Neen-TEEN-do. I’m gonna sport it so all the Spanish speakers in the US can wonder if I have a clue what it says (it means, I don’t even understand). 


Eres un pendejo means “you’re an idiot” hehehehe

My Kentucky Heart, Sautéed, Not Fried

26 Jun

Kentucky Fried Chicken has ruined my state’s good name. I don’t actively despise KFC when I’m in my hometown; it’s just one of so many fast food joints, a place for mass-produced, cheap, low-quality, low-nutrition eats prepared and served to you by under-paid workers. It is not a place I typically eat (okay, pretty much never), but I understand it’s purpose and I don’t hold it against anyone who eats there. I would not, however, say it is any part of what I want people to know about my great state.

Unfortunately, outside of my state, and especially outside of my country, it’s the only damn thing anybody knows about where I’m from. In Italy, in Chile, and lots of other places in between, people bring up fried chicken like I’m supposed to be pleased and feel recognized. “Ah, como el pollo,” (Oh, like the chicken,) my students say when I tell them I’m from Kentucky. Luckily, the actual restaurant doesn’t even exist down here in Oaxaca, so people just know it as a style of cooking chicken- breaded and fried. That makes it less appalling for me, but it still wounds my Kentucky pride. We have all this amazing culture and incredible nature and wonderful people, but nobody knows about any of that. Instead they’re applauding a stupid fast food chain.

I do my part to educate the public about Kentucky. Down here I take advantage of my job as a teacher to consistently plug facts about Kentucky wherever I can fit them in the curriculum. Like when we read an article about mammoths, I told the students about Mammoth Cave (the world’s largest known cave system, for those of you who don’t know). In the unit about pirates, when we’d discuss movies about pirates, I used to always mention that Johnny Depp is from my state (although he’s officially been cut out of my Kentucky pride spiels, now that I know he’s abusive). I am determined to leave the Oaxacan people with a better impression of my culture than some breaded fried foul.

This semester I taught a particularly sweet group of computer science kids in level one who were always asking questions about me and my life. For the most part students are a bit curious because they don’t get to have conversations with foreigners on a regular basis, so all of us on the English-teaching staff are a bit exotic and exciting. (You guys should see all the girls drooling on my Scottish, red-haired, blue-eyed coworker. Talk about exotic!) This group said they really wanted to hear more about Kentucky, so of course I had to oblige them. I sat down and wrote a list of my favorite things and turned it into a power point, which you can see here. Kentucky Home presentation

Granted, I had to put some things on the list which I don’t really care about or downright dislike, just for the sake of honesty. Despite my personal opinion, my state really is famous for the Kentucky Derby, also known as “the greatest two minutes in sports.” Although I think that horse racing is exploitative to the horses and the underpaid folks who train them, it is a big part of our economy and claim to fame. I also had to mention the 30 minute fireworks show, Thunder Over Louisville, even though I think fireworks are mostly absurd noise and air pollution, not to mention terrifying for some people and animals. I’d much rather have included festivities like KenDucky Derby or that race where servers see how fast they can open a bottle of wine and run with a tray full of wine glasses. But I had to put a limit on the amount of information to inundate the students with, so, you know, some of the more mainstream events won out over my preferences.

For the most part, though, I got to talk about things that I love. That my city, Louisville, is such a close-knit, friendly place. I tried to explain about the miles and miles of beautiful park space- not just a little playground and a bench, but so much green, right inside of a big(gish) city. I got to highlight the good food, the hundreds of restaurants which do not serve fried chicken. I explained about the injera at my favorite Ethiopian restaurant (injera bread is a not so foreign concept here in the land of corn tortillas with everything). I tried not to drool when I mentioned the avocado milkshakes at Vietnam Kitchen. I didn’t even mention the Japanese/Mexican fusion food at Dragon King’s Daughter, or about 15 other of my absolute favorites.

I got to talk about the best part of my city- that it’s full of beautiful immigrants and refugees, constantly adding to our culture. When I looked up the statistics, it said that the foreign-born population accounted for less than 5% of the total, although I am pretty sure that is an underestimate. Even if it’s not, the foreign-born population of Louisville, Kentucky, take up something like 70% of my Kentucky heart, so screw the official stats on this one. In Louisville, teaching English to the grown-up immigrant and refugee community, I learned that being a teacher means constant learning- on my part. I had the grand privilege of teaching professional folks from Mexico and Taiwan; brilliant, wise, multilingual yet illiterate women from Sudan; a father of 10 from the Democratic Republic of Congo; loving and tough mamas from Guatemala; a funny, adorable couple from Cuba, and so many others from so many cultures. And that was just my professional, English-teaching life! Aside from that I worked in restaurants with cooks from Senegal and various Mexican states. In my free time I hung out with generous, smart, nice, world-changing folks from Peru, Guatemala, and so many other places. Even though there is a foreign population in Puerto, being let in to the foreign-born community in Louisville is one of the things that I miss most.

In general, what I miss most is the intimacy of my community there. I sat in my office and cried watching all the outpourings of love in my city when Muhammed Ali died. I miss my family there- the ones I was born with and the ones I’ve chosen since then. I’m coming up on 4 years of living outside of Louisville, and luckily, I find myself feeling nostalgic and homesick less and less often. Especially now that my dad’s gone, the aunt I’m named for is always off on her boating adventures, and some of my other favorite people have moved away. My mind is less and less set on Louisville, because I know that it could never be the same place it was for me before. You can never go back to the past, so even if I went back tomorrow, it would be a readjustment and adaptation process all over again, even though it’s where I was born and raised. But big pieces of my heart still reside there, so creating and sharing my little Kentucky presentation was a good moment of catharsis for my eternally-divided little heart.

And most of all, I did the world some good in showing students that bourbon, annual zombie walks, and a moonbow at Cumberland Falls are all way, way cooler than fried chicken. Take that, impersonal capitalism! My state will rise above Kentucky Friend Chicken! Click on the presentation for lots of pictures!

Ten Reasons Why I Hate Numbered Lists (An English Teacher Can Count)

25 Sep

I admit, the title is not an accurate reflection of content, but it made you click on the article, right? Everybody loves these articles, except me. I am not a big fan of the excessive amount of articles in the world that are titled X number Things You Must Know! and the like. They make life sound so quantifiable. Ordered. Simple, if you will. Easy, even. And it’s not, dammit!

They’re so catchy, all these Cosmo-style relationship ones- 5 ways to tell he’s crazy about you;  the travel expert ones- 8 places you MUST visit in Mexico City ; the pseudo-health/science ones- The 3 worst things that age you faster ; the good little capitalist ones- These 4 essentials to buy cheaper online ; and my least favorite, those self-help “just do this and everything will be perfect” type ones-  6 tips to reduce stress  (And you know with a title like that they’re going to tell you some lame crap like “Eliminate stressors.” Well tell me when you’re coming to collect my children then, buster. Call me up when you’ve got my winning lottery ticket, thanks.) There was even that movie called 10 Things I Hate about You, which I refused to see on principle. The worst part is when I find myself clicking on these kinds of articles sometimes because, shit, they make life sound so simple and ordered!

My life here is anything but ordered. I do love my personal lists, however- so I can prioritize my classroom tasks, so I remember to buy actual food and not just several different chocolate products and imported beer at the grocery store, so I can remember what the hell I’m supposed to be doing when I get up at 5 in the morning (get dressed- pack child’s lunch- pump milk- drink 2nd cup of coffee- and no my lists are not in order, thank you). But I don’t try to force my lists upon others (okay, maybe Conan has to suffer through my lists on occasion). For me, lists are a personal, intimate thing, not a way to prescribe your ideas to the public.

This week, however, I was reflecting upon my year in the university (yes, it’s been over a year!), and I ended up with a jumble of seemingly-random things to share. Thus I decided, hey, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. So here you are, folks- my cheesy numbered lists.

Three Preposterous Things Students Say During Tests

 1.    Student: “Teacher, what does this word (insert target vocabulary word here) mean?”

         Me: “That’s a vocabulary word that you were supposed to study.”

        Student (possible response 1): “So, what does it mean?”

        Student (possible response 2): “Yes but I forgot.” Bats eyelashes innocently and/or smiles.

        Student (possible response 3): Blank look. “Vocabulary?”


       (variation 1)

        Student : “Teacher, I don’t understand this question. What do I write here?”

         Me: “You write the answer, based on this question (signaling where).”

        Student: “So it’s letter B, right?”

         Me: “I can’t tell you.”

         (variation 2)

         Student : “Teacher, I don’t understand this question.”

         Me: “Well, it’s asking you to answer like in this example above.”

         Student: Points to their answer. “Is this correct?”

         Me: “I can’t tell you.”

        (variation 3)

        Student : “Teacher, how am I doing?” Points to their answers.

         Me: Shoulder shrug. “I can’t tell you.”

        Student: “Why not?”

         Me: Facepalm self.

Me, at some point every quiz and exam

3.      Student 1: Waves and says something inaudible to Student 2.

         Student 2: Replies in a whisper which I can’t quite make out.

         Me: Clear throat and raise eyebrows while approaching chatty students. “There’s no talking during exams. See you                      guys tomorrow.” Take exams from Students 1 and 2.

        Student 1: Puts on shocked, sad face, despite the whole class having multiple warnings that this precise thing would                            happen since day 1 of class. “But teacher! I was just asking for an eraser!” (Which is possible, except I’ve                              explicitly told them before every single exam to ask ME if they need something so that I don’t suspect them                          of cheating, which definitely happens.) My all-time favorite response was: “But teacher! I was just saying hi!”

        Me: “Say hi before or after the exam next time. Bye.” (Yep, I’m the meanest teacher on Earth.)

Me, according to some students

The Three Most Inspiring Classes and Quirks from the Past Year

  1. The wooooo class

I often ask the student who’s talking (practicing or reading aloud or whatever) pick the next student to talk. In this especially hormonal class of 18 year old Animal Husbandry majors, any time a boy picked a girl, it elicited a “woooo” from the class. Every time a girl picked a boy, there was a woooo. Sometimes even when a girl picked another girl, or a boy picked another boy, they still got a giggly little woooo. I thought it was adorable and started harassing them to do it some more when they forgot about it for at one point in the semester. Now they are officially “the woooo class” (at least among us English profs).

Beyond their already fabulous woo, this class loved my enthusiasm- one girl always imitated my “I’ve seen the light” arm gesture with my “aaaaaaah” sound I make to signal that they should be excited about whatever I’m about to teach them. (Was she making fun of me? Of course, but very affectionately!) This class inspired me to create extra class interaction activities, thanks to making me laugh all the time. They always tried to distract me from the task at hand by asking personal questions (in Spanish, which I told them I would answer if they could ask in English, and then the whole class was capable of working together to string a real question together- amazing work, level 1!) They also complained constantly about having to come to English class and were always trying to make up reasons to not come, but they complained with a smile, and they had the best attendance of all my classes that semester. These guys secretly love English, and I loved them for it.

2.  The Physics professor who had class the slot before me at 12pm

He absolutely couldn’t manage to end class on time. Every day, I stood outside the classroom door, waiting for him to quit babbling, mentally adjusting my lesson plan based on how many minutes he was taking from my class. Then I’d go in and he’d have left his intricate drawings and accompanying mathematics all over the board for me to erase. “He’s trying to help build up my arm muscles,” I assured my students as I erased every day. “How is this great?” you might be wondering. Because karma is real, and the students despised his class! Which means they were thrilled to see me, and to have English class every day! Thank you, boring, long-winded professor, for inspiring my students to love English (even if I did have to mentally shake them awake)!

3.  Constant classroom entertainment- IN ENGLISH- provided by Miguel Angel, Abel and               Charlie

Think Ninja Turtle’s Michaelangelo- this Migue is a party dude, too, complete with badass motorcycle. Abel (pronounced like ah-bell) had a girlfriend in the class, but they never sat together. Instead, Abel sat with his bromance partner-in-crime Miguel. They were my class clowns, with constant banter about each other and everything else. They also provided commentary about what we were learning (“I think it was Mexican immigrants who built the Egyptian pyramids, too”), fun errors (“Did I approve my exam?”), making up Spanglish words (“I’m very tired; I need a siestation”). They contributed a steady, comical participation, and they did it mostly in English! If you’ve ever learned a language, you know how hard it can be to be funny in your foreign tongue. And these guys always had something to say. I like to think that these two inspired other students to learn more, thanks to using their wit and charm in English.

Okay, Miguel and Abel don’t look exactly like Matt and Mike above. Abel would totally be the guy on the left, though, if you added glasses. You get the idea.

Theirs was my favorite class that semester because the whole (level 3) class, compared to many others, was so responsive and participatory. Their class also included Charlie (not Carlos, thank you, but Charlie), my super adorable, fast-talking, pretty boy, English genius with the worst attendance ever (“I’m sorry, I fell asleep during lunch!… Listen, teacher, I have this opportunity to do modeling, but it’s justamente during class hour.” Convincing excuses when you can say it in English, let me tell you.) Charlie was one of the only students who ever used my actual name instead of “Teacher” sometimes, and he went on to tell me I was adorable (in a puppy-dog, head-patting kind of way) on more than one occasion. If I hadn’t been so amused by it I might have had to smack him. But instead I looked forward to Charlie and his thinly veiled false modesty. The lesson here is that you can get away with just about anything in my class when you do so in English.

See, English Teachers Can Count!

There you have it, folks. I used numbered lists to organize my thoughts and shared it with the public. Was it effective? It wasn’t so bad for me after all. Maybe I’ll convert and start communicating everything in numbered list. Titles to be used include: 5 Reasons Why Dora the Explorer is Taking Up Too Much Space in my Brain, 18 Things The Supermarket Had Last Week that No Longer Exist, and finally, 2 Small Children and the Infinite Ways in Which they Refuse to Sleep. Because some things just can’t be quantified.

Laughter is my Number One Classroom Tool

17 Nov

My level one English students had an open-book quiz the other day, where they were supposed to write 5 things they had learned that week from the article we’d read (and thoroughly dissected) in class. This is more difficult than it might sound for first-level students of a foreign language. I believed my students were capable of it, to greater and lesser degrees, depending on the student, but writing assignments for this level never come out quite like I had imagined, and grading them is always a bigger chore than I’d remembered.

The title of the quiz, written at the top of the page, was “What I Learned”- a fitting title considering they only had to convince me that they’d learned something that week. As I was doing a first glance-through of their answers, I looked at the bottom of the page of one student’s paper. In all caps, this student had written:


which translates to: I can’t learn this week sorry! because I missed class for two days I know I’m going to fail this quiz!

I exploded in laughter and went to go show the other teachers. I appreciated his honesty and forthrightness, and his expression of it got points for cuteness, too. It’s these little things that are so important to my day, to my teaching, to my psychic survival in general. A silly note to break up the monotony in trying to assign fair values to someone’s writing made a difference, made me laugh. These past couple of weeks I’ve been focusing on remembering to lighten up and laugh, even when (especially when) I’ve been thinking about running out of the room screaming in frustration because five students didn’t bring their book, two students don’t even have their notebook, and at least 75% of them are asking me what a word means that was vocabulary I “taught” them the day before.

But there’s still plenty to enjoy, and things to laugh about. If you don’t find those moments of laughter you risk converting yourself into one of those grumpy, bitter teachers that nobody likes  and who are not effective teachers because students avoid their classes and have their guard up the whole time, which is not conducive to learning. NOT who I want to be.

And I’ve never been at risk for this before because when I was teaching in the U.S., most of the immigrants and refugees in our adult education classes were trying their damnedest all the time. You expected problems and setbacks and slow progress. You expected someone to show up 30 minutes late, probably because of some problem with their kid or their job, which you can’t really be upset about. There were lots of limitations and problematic aspects, and accomplishments usually happened very slowly (particularly with my beginning level students), but for the most part people were there because they wanted to be there and truly wanted to learn English. That, in turn, helped motivate me more to want to be there and give it my all every day. Plus, my grown-up immigrant students almost never tried to cheat on tests. Totally different universe from now.

With my university students we’ve just implemented a new curriculum, which is focused on reading comprehension and the necessary vocabulary that goes with that, skills they need to be able to read scientific articles related to their majors in English. There’s less time and space for games and speaking practice and the like, and so my teaching style is adapting and changing.

I’m not sure if it’s just the change in curriculum, or personal problems, or what exactly, but suddenly I found myself fighting with students on a daily basis over something or the other. For talking while others are talking, not being prepared for class- all the normal stuff, even if some of it is stuff I think university students should be above and beyond. The problem is that I don’t want to be fighting with them over these things, because it puts me in a bad mood. I want my class to be fun and interesting and comfortable (for them and for me), and I was failing at creating that atmosphere for a good couple of weeks there.

So I had to start letting go of some things, and bringing other things back into my classroom. I had to bring back games, at least occasionally. I had to find a way to show them that I care beyond just scolding them all the time. I had to just tell myself that the next class would be better when I had a horrible hour full of blank stares and mounting confusion despite all my attempts at detailed explanation and modeling.

So sometimes we play jeopardy-style games with comprehension questions, even though most of them are too excited to listen to the reasoning behind the answer when we do it as a game. At least they’re participating. I started being more exaggerated in my scolding, wagging my finger, or feigning shock so intense I could faint at any moment, which at least made whatever I was reminding them about lighter and funnier. I brought back my sunshine and lollipops I’m-so-happy-to-be-here-and-I-know-you-all-are-too attitude when I come into class. When I told them they’d have to miss English class for a couple of days (because I had to go to Oaxaca), I told them, “Now try not to cry. I know everybody’s upset about missing class, but that’s why I came up with some practice for you, so you don’t spend all that extra time moping about English class.” The ones who understand sarcasm are always highly amused by these kinds of statements. It helps.

I started being “meaner” and stricter about some things, kicking people out of class when they’re totally out of line. Like those three girls that insisted their private conversation was more important than the student explaining her answer, despite a couple warnings. Or the students who still didn’t bring their book after days of warnings (and really, guys, you have English every day; just leave your book in your backpack). Or for talking during a test (yeah, yeah, you were talking about lunch, that’s great, bye.) Some of my students have started imitating me when someone comes without their book, telling them “See you tomorrow!” and waving good-bye like I do, which I think is pretty hysterical. This more focused strictness, in turn, lets me have a better attitude with my remaining students, and the next day the student can return to class and I, at least, don’t hold a grudge.   

And I’m reevaluating how I measure success. For example, if a third of my class is missing all week long (a different set of students every day, to boot) because they all have to go renew their health insurance plan this week and they’re waiting in line all day, well, so be it. They know it’s their job to catch up, and they either will or they won’t. Unless they come to my office with questions about what they missed, it is all on them. When they ask me in class the next day something we saw in class the day before, I smile while I tell them to ask their classmates. I cannot be angry or upset about it. I know English is not their top priority, to say the least. I know many of them won’t learn even half of what I’m trying to teach. Thus, the measure of my personal success can’t be all 120ish students getting every point I teach. Can I continue to care about each and every student and their learning? To a greater or lesser degree, yes. But how I feel about my teaching has to be based on how well I think I’ve done my part, keeping in mind that they’ve got a part to fill, too, and some of them won’t fill it for reasons that are not my fault or my problem.   

Really my top two priorities in my classroom are respect and laughter. Yes, critical thinking is high on my list of important things for them to practice in their reading comprehension. I did a big dance of joy when some of my level one students starting arguing the correct answer and asking “Why? Por qué?” just like I do. Of course I have to give them the right tools to accomplish what they are supposed to accomplish. But I think mutual respect and a sense of humor are completely necessary parts of my other goals, because I think they help create a positive learning environment, and effectively prevent me from killing students.

So I take a moment and argue with my level 3 students who are trying to convince me to have the quiz tomorrow instead of today. “That’s what my two year old says every day when it’s time to wash her hair, too. ‘No, tomorrow’- just like you guys.”

I can laugh when one of my male nursing students ignores my question about the reading to tell me earnestly, “Teacher, let me know when your baby’s kicking so I can feel it,” despite the fact that men here normally don’t go near anything related to pregnancy. “Have you ever felt a baby kick before?” I asked him, instead of being offended. “No,” he explained, “that’s why I need to feel it!” I laughed and told him I’d see.

I corrected a student who was talking (in English) about going to buy a “box” of beer (what we would call a case of beer) and somehow got into a conversation about learning obscenities in English (no, sorry guys, I cannot teach this during class time. Just go to the beach and talk to tourists.)

I’m remembering to have fun and enjoy my job. While I don’t have any proof that it’s getting me better results in terms of student learning, it’s sure not hurting them, and it’s doing wonders for me. You can’t underestimate the importance of a little laughter in the classroom, or a personalized note on why you’re failing the quiz. It’s these things that make all the difference in the world.