Saturday, August 30, 2003

Background Details
I figure I should probably give some explanation of what I'm doing, where I am, and why. It is not inconceivable that some people who read this are not fully aware of my life beyond Japan, Grinnell, or of my obsession all things linguistic.

About a month ago, I left Japan (clicky for the year that was). I truly enjoyed my year there, overall, and should you ever be in my physical vicinity in the future, I will be frighteningly happy to show you my pictures. If you followed the Japan saga, you will be happy to know that Danola now has a blog as well, so I shan't have to spend all my time updating people about the lives of people I left behind in Japan, since she can do it for me. I think I'll miss Japan sometimes, and I'll certainly miss my friends there, but thanks to technology, I can keep up with them as I move on to the things that I should be doing now, namely, grad school.

Before I got all the way back to the US, though, I took 10 days to finally, finally, finally go to Europe. I lived in Chile for 5 months, I've been to Argentina, Peru, Costa Rica, Taiwan, and Canada, but never anywhere in Europe, and I was getting tired of being asked whether I had been. Conveniently, I have/had friends living there. Jan, the ex-German assistant from Grinnell, lives in Berlin, and asked why I didn't come through there "on my way back" to the US. (Yes, it is the wrong way back around the globe, but let's ignore that.) It also turned out that my friend Heather's parents are now living in Lyon, France, and she was staying with them for the summer, sort of running a Grinnellian boarding house of visitors. I split my 10 days between the two of them, and despite the many misadventures on airplanes (a child throwing up behind me, being stuck in Frankfurt for 24 hours when the travel agency lost my ticket), I had perhaps the best vacation ever. Jan and I spent the whole time bonding over the ALT experience, since that's basically what he was in Grinnell for the German department, and while he was showing me all over Berlin and being a marvelous host, we talked a lot of linguistics and language acquisition theory. While I was in France, I reveled in the sun and warm weather as Heather toured me all over Lyon and we lived on bread and cheese and chocolate. (Oh, how I had missed real bread and cheese in Japan. For that alone, I would have fallen in love with Europe.) I have pictures of that, too, just to warn the actual humans out there.

But the idyll had to end, and I eventually made it out of Frankfurt, and then out of Philadelphia, to home in NC, just in time to pack all my stuff and move to Michigan. Which is where the story really starts. I am in East Lansing, MI, to attend Michigan State University in the MA TESOL program. While I don't really want my specialty to be teaching English, this is the department where they stick all the Second Language Acquisition (SLA) classes, which is my true love. My current plan is to get dual MAs in both TESOL and Applied Linguistics. Prof. Polio, the woman who worked so hard to get me to come to MSU and be in the TESOL program, has all sorts of plans already to get me an assistantship with the Linguistics department two years hence. She is some sort of superhuman advisor, I am convinced.

For my current assistantship, which is paying for all of my grad school experience, tuition and all, I am teaching at MSU's English Language Center, henceforth known as the ELC. The ELC runs English programs for international students, in two flavors. The first is the Intensive English Program (IEP), in which the students take 20 hours of English classes a week and no other MSU classes. A lot of undergrad students from universities in Japan and Korea do this as their semester/year abroad. Other students do this because they didn't pass the TOEFL with a high enough score to meet MSU's English proficiency requirement, and need to do so before they can officially enroll in their program. The other program is the English for Academic Purposes program, which students can take after they complete the IEP classes, or I think in conjunction with actual MSU classes, to improve their note-taking, lecture-listening, and composition-writing skills, or something like that.

I teach in Level 1 of the IEP courses. There are four levels, and 1 is the lowest. Usually, most of the students in our programs are Korean, or have been for the past several years, but this year we have a large contingent of Japanese students from Hosei University. 11 of my 19 students are Japanese, which I find rather amusing. I have two guys who I mentally call my "look-alikes," because they have hair dyed the exact same color, wear the same style of clothes, are always together, and one day even came wearing their baseball caps at exactly the same gangsta'-style angle on their heads. The other funny thing about them is that their abilities compliment each other, because Keita is good at speaking, but not so good at comprehending, whereas Jack (his chosen nickname) is good at understanding other people and translating into Japanese. Ha (a Korean girl) and Kozue are my two organizers, who can be counted on to take charge of large group activities or tell me when someone is sick. Jeon and Ken are the two Korean guys who always sit up front and want to answer every question. Jeon is going for a PhD in cello performance and music teaching, while his wife is a composer. Hang is my shy, quiet astronomer, but he seems to understand a lot, and when I call on him, his spoken English is good. Marthe and Kadi I feel like are my prizes. They are both from Mali, majoring in agroeconomics, and I know Marthe at least is aiming for her PhD here. They add an entirely different kind of internationalism to the room, breaking up the Asian hegemony with their African French accents.

My job is to teach these people Listening/Speaking class and Grammar class, from 12:40-2:50pm, every day except Wednesdays. Level 1 is the only level to have a specific Grammar class, and I'm also the only TA, as opposed to regular ELC staff person, teaching an L/S class. L/S will be fine; I did that all last year. The only problem I might have with that is not grading them accurately, since they all actually speak English when I assign them groupwork, as opposed to lapsing into Japanese. I know this is just a product of teaching ESL rather than EFL, but the novelty hasn't worn off for me just yet. (In case you were wondering, ESL means teaching English in an environment where English is the dominant language, whereas EFL is teaching English as a Foreign Language, in the student's home country.) Grammar, on the other hand, is going to be a real challenge. While I do think that being able to coordinate the L/S and Grammar classes will be an excellent thing later, right now I have no idea where to start. I've spent the last two days teaching them metalanguage terms like "verb," "noun," "subject," and "object," just so I'll have somewhere to start talking to them about grammar in English. I'd better get it figured out soon. I can only talk to them about the wonders of adjectives and articles for so long.

As for the rest of my life in grad school, I also take classes. I've had one of each of my three classes now, and I like them all. I don't really know much about them yet, though, and teaching duties have kind of swallowed my life this week. Thus, this weekend, I am taking off for Madison to go visit Ann, my erstwhile Grinnell roommate, and various and sundry other Grinnellians in Wisconsin. We're everywhere!

Wednesday, August 27, 2003

I Want Speaking English Naturally
Today was my long day, perhaps the longest I will have all semester, but it was actually rather good. I just in general had fun. But since I haven't blathered on about what my life in grad school is actually like so far, I guess I should start at the beginning and go from there.

I got up at 7:30. Or rather, that's when the alarm went off. I actually got out of bed at 8, but whatever. At 8:25, I was out the door to bike to school from my 8:45 class. Let me take a moment here to rhapsodize about my bike. I love my bike. It is a beautiful bike. It is all shiny and brand new, with a yellow and silver/gray paint job, really spiffy shifters, front shocks, a properly adjusted seat, and I have named it Limonade, after the excellent French drink Heather tried to addict me to in France a few weeks ago. (She says she knows where to get it here in Michigan. Mmmmm, Limonade.) It takes me 20 minutes to bike from my apartment to Wells Hall, the building in which I will basically live for the next 2-3 years. Biking to school is excellent fun, because the ride is mostly flat, especially compared to the monster hill I climbed every day in Japan, and I had sort of forgotten how fast bikes can go. It's sort of like returning to middle school. Also, it's not very hot that early in the morning.

I got to campus about 2 minutes before my class started, locked my bike right outside of Wells, and got to class right on time. Yay! My morning class on Mondays and Wednesdays is Second Language Acquisition (SLA), and seeing as this is what I want my specialty to be, I have high expectations for enjoying this class. So far, these expectations have bourne true. The teacher is Prof. Susan Gass, who is the director of the ELC (English Language Center, where I work), and she seems excellent. She's also the one who hosted the departmental potluck last Friday, which I'll backtrack and report on later, I think. I took it as a good sign that the first out-of-textbook reading assigned for this class was the first two chapters of Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct, a most excellent book for everyone, not just students, which I recommend to absolutely everyone. I own two copies of the book myself, and I read it last year in Japan for fun.

After that class got out at 10, I had 2.5 hours of free time, which I spent in the TA office in the ELC. For those who may care, the ELC is on the 7th floor of the A wing of Wells Hall. The TAs have a brand-spanking-new workroom, in which we each have brand new desks with our own computers. We have been told we will soon be getting dividers between the desks, plus filing cabinets to fit underneath. This is apparently very swanky compared to what they had last year. I came at the right time, it would seem. I used my time in my office to do some lesson planning for my first day of classes, make an information worksheet for the class, print out the syllabi to be reviewed during practicum in the afternoon, and make copies of them all. The exciting thing was that I made the copier make two sheets of paper into one double-sided page, without asking anyone any questions! Yay for working technology.

Then, after lunch, it was time to teach my first day of real classes. I am a TA, which in this case means full instructor, in the IEP (Intensive English Program) of the ELC. I suppose I should explain the ELC more fully, but I'll do that later. Right now, I'll just say that I teach Level 1 Listening/Speaking and Grammar classes. Basically, this means that I teach the Level 1 students from 12:40 to 2:50 MTThF. (Yes, today is Wednesday, but it was just for the first week.) Today we just did a lot of intro stuff, but my students were awesome! They all, every single one, spoke English in class, the whole time. Perhaps my standards were set a bit low by teaching in Japan last year. 11 of my students are Japanese, 7 are Korean, and 2 are from Mali in W. Africa. I started by getting them to fill out the information sheets, then had them make pairs, talk for a few minutes, and then introduce their partner to the class. They were supposed to say "the most interesting thing" about the other person, in addition to their name and country, while the rest of the class took notes. They were so involved in their conversations with their partners, I let them go over time. After the presentations, they had to find someone else in the class to talk to about the "interesting things." For the most part, they all spoke to people from other cultures as well.

After the break, I presented the Evening College brochures and invitations to go to the baseball game this Friday. Many of them found classes they were interested in in the Evening College brochure, such as the astronomy class, art classes, and the woman from Mali who's a PhD candidate who found the "Writing for Publication" class. I was impressed. They were highly amused when I tried to get them excited about the baseball game by telling them, "If you don't go to a baseball game while you are in the US, and tell people 'no, I didn't go' when you go home, they will say, 'What? Go back to America and come back when you've seen a baseball game!'" I don't think I convinced them, though.

Then I had them make groups and discuss what would be important things to do in the classroom, as students, and as a teacher. When they were done, they wrote their ideas on the board. All the classroom and student ones were the usual don't be late, speak loudly, do your homework, speak English ones. The best one was, "We need to make friendships with each other, so we can have communication." Two groups came up with that one. For suggestions for the teacher, I got use the blackboard, explain answers of individual questions to the whole class, be tough on homework but easy on tests, and eat lunch with them sometimes.

After class was over, I had an hour and a half before the TA practicum class. This is the class that runs 4:30 until 7:30, but it's only once a week, and it is highly practical, as it is only the TAs for the ELC meeting with our supervisor to discuss teaching our classes very specifically. Alissa, our supervisor, will give us advice about, for example, making syllabi, or grading, or classroom techniques. Today was pretty much all syllabi.

And then I cycled home, in a very good mood.

On Squirrels
My previous story about seeing the neat jet black squirrels has provoked all sorts of comment. During the course of today, I found out that:

1) Said squirrels are just a color variant of gray squirrels, which happen to breed color-true.

2) This is a normal phenomenon in this part of Michigan, and it extends about 30 miles south of E. Lansing. I'm not sure how far north.

3) The tales of black squirrels emasculating the native red squirrels out of evilness are pure urban legend, so don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

Now you know.

Tuesday, August 26, 2003

Begin Again
Okay, I admit it. I'm weak. I'm addicted to blogging now. For all that I have been rather annoyed with Blogger for a while, I haven't yet figured out the MSU webspace thing yet. Once I do, I'll probably move over there. In the meantime, you can look forward to at least the possibility of my being able to post pictures. (Please note: That is not a promise.)

But what, you may ask, has pushed me over the brink into getting a new blog tonight, when I should really be sleeping in preparation for my very long day of classes (8:45am-7:30pm) tomorrow? A squirrel.

A squirrel?!

Yes, a squirrel. You see, here in Michigan, the campus squirrels at MSU are not the nice soft gray ones of my native North Carolina, nor the oddly orange-tinged animals of Iowa's Grinnell College, but instead something entirely unexpected. They are black, you see. Completely, utterly, jet black. No other color to be found in their fur.

And it made me realize that I had to share, or at least record the memory. I had feared that my life after Japan would not be so easily bloggable. Instead, I find that I have become used to looking around me in daily life now, no matter where, and finding things of interest, both large and small, to file away and write about later. It has made me think differently. I found myself not taking as many pictures in Japan, and then in Europe, because I have become accustomed to recording my thought-images in words now.

So enjoy the squirrel. I have to sleep now.

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