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Teaching to ESL (um, help?)

Try to imagine that you are on a new planet and the people there are telling you how to do things their way–specifically, obtain employment–and you can only pick up on a few words because they use a different language that you haven’t mastered yet. On top of the obvious cultural and language barriers, you also receiving mental health services, so you may have a learning disability, a mood disorder, be developmentally disabled, or some other mental health condition that can be a functional limitation.

That is my class. I teach vocational skills to limited English proficient people (LEP) with mental health disabilities. When I describe it to people outside my field or agency, I usually say it’s like a combination of ESL, special ed, and vocational skills class all rolled into one. Technically, it’s defined as a vocational skills class and leaves out the most challenging aspects: the ESL and mental health parts.

What dilemmas I currently face when planning lessons and carrying out instructions is how to get the point across to our clients who may not understand concrete or abstract concepts due to their MH status or LEP. Here are my two thoughts and why:

  • People with disabilities may have a learned helplessness that impacts their ability to take personal responsibility to the information presented to them about proper techniques of job searching and employment retention. Many of my clients expect someone to find them a job. When was the last time some of them have sought out something on their own–and accomplished that goal?
  • People with disabilities may not really take into account the reality of the job market and how cutthroat it truly is out there because they haven’t been in a competitive job marketplace in a long time if ever. A lot of our clients also come from employment systems that are by nature non-competitive as they previously lived in refugee camps. 

These are only developing theories, however, and don’t have any substantial evidence. I am planning on doing extensive research on our clients and their demographics to help determine any supporting evidence to my hypotheses that they are disabling themselves from learning new information based off their learned helplessness and previous exposures to the job market.

Apart from those two dilemmas is the problem of communicating abstract or even concrete subjects to LEP and people with MH issues. Imagine you are on that planet again. What are they trying to tell you? What are they saying and writing down? You can only:

  • Make an educated guess that they’re talking about the main subject of the class: how to find and keep a job.
  • You might even assume that the way to go about finding and keeping a job on this planet is different than the way you would do it in your home planet (although you may not have an idea as to HOW different the system works).
  • You try to figure out as much as you can from observations of nonverbals and context.
  • You assume that when the instructor writes something on the board, it’s important, so you write it down, too. Hopefully later you actually use a dictionary to look it up…if you remember, or if you can.

In the end, how do you feel? You just spent an exhausting 2 hours trying to figure this out and yet you still don’t have a job. To protect my clients from feeling discouraged, I try to make it clear to them that learning anything–even 10% of what we covered–is important and definitely better than nothing. Is it worth the 2 hours? Yes. What would your otherwise plans be anyway? It’s definitely worth it.

I don’t have a TESOL certificate or any special education credentials, not even proper mental health training, unfortunately. What I do is rely on my exposure to ESL teaching and education for lesson planning and implementation. I’m a fan of bullet points today, so here’s another bulleted list of what techniques I use in class:

  • I use a lot of visuals. I try to rely on visuals to represent ideas as much as possible. If you can’t learn from the words or language, then hopefully you can pick up the idea from the images.
  • I use task-analysis to break down big or abstract concepts. For example: How to Improve Your Weaknesses. Step 1: write down any 5 things you don’t well. Step 2: organize them from greatest to least. Step 3: provide an example of those weaknesses, how they impair your job search, and what measurable things you can do to improve them (goals). Step 4: write the goals down on your calendar.
  • I teach with discovery/inquiry approach. Instead of providing a vomit of information to my class, I’ll ask them a question, such as “What are interviews?” and have the class answer. They have to be awake for this. They have to be paying attention. They have to take responsibility here. They also get a time to shine if they know the answer or try to answer. I always praise them to keep them encouraged.
  • I do role plays. This helps apply abstract thoughts into something tangible. This also allows the class to interact.
  • I do hands-on group projects, such as having the class sort through pictures of different articles of clothing to determine and show what appropriate interview attire is and is not.
  • I let them practice with each other in pairs or small groups. I’ll give them some review questions and as a group they have to discuss the answer. I try to pair groups according to language level.
  • I give them choices. To encourage participation, I give the class a few options on how to complete a task or project. 

I really see a lot of different learning styles come to play here but I also see a need for pedagogical improvement. I’m exploring the option of taking TESOL classes, but not sure if that will benefit the work that I do as I don’t actually teach ESL but instead teach to ELL’s. I’m open to resources, courses, or any ideas, so if you have any of these to share, please let me know!

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State vs. Church?

Today Governor Gregoire signed a bill that would allow Washington to be the seventh state to recognize same-sex marriage. I commend our governor in making a controversial decision in the direction of human rights. My support for legalizing gay marriage is not uncommon in my liberal city, Seattle, but I am of the minority in the Christian community to have such an opinion. 

My religious opinion about homosexuality is another story because it’s  irrelevant to the political topic of gay marriage. I also think that religious beliefs have nothing to do with politics, yet somehow the political system allows for this shenanigan to go on. I do not feel that the gay community has any threat to the Christian faith and I don’t feel that the Christian faith—or any faith—should have the right to dictate how anyone lives.

What difference does it make to me if my gay neighbors get married? To me, it’s a title change that has no effect on my life whatsoever but to them it’s a breakthrough, it’s liberation, and it’s a right. I also believe it’s a right. What power should religion have in governing the public life? It’s time that we really believe in what we always talk about: the separation of religion and government. (Why is it that the religious only complain that there isn’t enough separation from church and state when it is the state that crosses the line, but never if the church crosses the line?) If I don’t believe in the government intervening in my life in telling me what to believe, how to live my life, and how to act, then I shouldn’t have the double standard in making the government control how others live their lives based on my Christian beliefs. If we want a free, democratic country, then this is what we get: liberty and justice for all. Approving gay marriage is not restricting my liberty or justice in any way. Those who oppose gay marriage, abortion, and women in combat and other such issues are going against our country’s desire for freedom and for government to stay out of our business. Opposing gay marriage is essentially a support for “big government” and for politicians to tell us how to live our lives.

Maybe I don’t get why Christians want to work so hard at fighting gay marriage, but it seems like these Christians haven’t really thought through that move. If we were to go along with that principle—that religion should intervene in our politics—then what do you say we ban all meat in our country so we don’t offend the Hindus? Wait, wait, no. We don’t want that to happen! We only want government to intervene when it favors Christian teaching, am I right? 

Response to Greg Mortenson’s Allegations

Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea, is under a lot of scrutiny now facing several allegations of mismanagement with his self-founded Central Asia Institute foundation, including that he uses the organization’s funds for his personal use. This is quickly becoming a hot topic namely because it is such a disappointment for the Americans who promoted his book and contributed to the fundraiser Pennies for Peace. His story has been an inspiration to many people in the U.S. and encouraged people to give trustfully to international NGO’s. Now that Greg Mortenson is under the critical eye of journalists and international aid workers, his mission to build schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan for girls is under attack. I have read the book and two contrasting articles on this issue, and feel very bothered by the accusations. Ultimately, I believe that Greg Mortenson is not well equipped for managing this multi-million dollar NGO and does not have enough cultural comprehension to operate in the Middle East. Does this mean that I do not support his mission or that I think he should stop what he is doing? I think the better answer is to give grace where it’s needed, management training and accountability, and possibly reworking the means to his goal.

The two articles I read were “What Mortenson Got Wrong” by Peter Hesser (a negative criticism) and “‘Three Cups of Tea’ Spilled” by Nicholas D. Kristof (a supportive outlook). Here are some of my thoughts I jotted down as I read these articles (I tried to reorganize them as best I could):

My impression after reading the book was that the author took particular interest in highlighting Mortenson rather than his work. He is made to be the hero, as all Westerners are made to be when they serve in “developing” countries, of course. [I still prefer to use the outdated term “underdeveloped” per Walter Rodney’s definition.] Although the book is largely one-dimensional in this aspect, I recognize Mortenson’s effort to converse with the locals over cups and cups of tea–an aspect of community development that I believe is essential, especially in international work. Kristof also condones Mortenson’s method in doing this rather than just “issuing instructions”.

I don’t agree with Hesser that Mortenson shows no special knowledge of Pakistan or Afghanistan. I think for the time that Mortenson put into the region, he has learned a good deal and possibly spends more time in actual field work than do other international NGO leaders. Mortenson’s mission to build schools in Central Asia is crticized by Hesser, yet I don’t believe in one perfect method and would agree with Kristof again when he says “even if all the allegations turn out to be true, Greg has still built more schools and transformed more children’s lives than you or I ever will.” Yet on the other hand, misson workers need as much accountability as do everyone else. This gives me reason to believe that Mortenson needs professional guidance, accountability, and his work to be cultivated by those with greater knowledge and experience of this particular region. One man alone should not carry this burden, not for just himself, but for the sake of others.

The first article has a solid point about Western involvement in community development. The writer says that foreign assistance can have negative impacts–people might become dependent upon outsiders. It’s as simple as the old give a man a fish/teach a man to fish. Hesser includes excellent examples of this in his second paragraph. The negative aspect of Mortenson’s work–as well as any international NGO program–is that it creates a long-term foreign involvement, the antithesis of local empowerment that should be the goal.

I like Hesser’s practical perspective on international development, seeing that it’s not as glorious as we tend to make it. He sees that there is complex cultural, geographical, and deeply rooted historical hurdles of NGO work. Anyone who thinks otherwise is naive and has an inflated view of their involvment. This seems to be the case with Mortenson, who self-promotes himself and his organization. I believe that we all need praise from time to time, but I think it should come from others–not ourselves. It would be difficult, though, to not be a self-promoter if you’ve made great accomplishments, but if your passion is for the people you are serving, then it leaves self-promoting out of the equation.

Yet, going back to the second article, I wouldn’t want these unproven allegations to get out of hand for fear that it would discourage an already cynical America to support efforts like these. Like Kristof, I want to give some benefit of doubt to a man who has risked his life for the people of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Movie Recommendation


I recently watched the 1967 Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? with Katherine Hepburn, which was unexpectedly fantastic. It’s an underestimated film, a little ahead of its time. I say this because although the story itself is a little far-fetched (the couple has less than 24 hours to get the blessings from their parents before they marry), the acting was advanced and brought me into the story. Usually, characters in classic films like this don’t captivate me or make me feel connected to them, but I thought the characters, particularly John Prentice, Matt Drayton, and Christina Drayton were very natural and thus likable characters. Sidney Poitier who played John Prentice was hopefully recognized for his authentic acting. I liked the story and the comical twists that kept arising, and the strong message undertone. It’s just a movie I highly recommend to those who enjoy classic films, social issues, and light comedy rolled in one perfect little film. (Well, OK, not perfect. The issue with the maid never resolved–kind of irritating when they do that!)

The Underground Chinese Church and its Religious Propaganda

Article Transcript:

Today, the Japanese ambassador visited Tencent Inc. He asked Tencent to prevent internet users in China from cursing Japan. What’s more, they scolded the Chinese people as begin cowards, not joining forced. Tencent flatly refused. Tencent and small Japan made a bet that if this is forwarded to 400,000 people in 2 month’s time, Japan will owe China an apology. Wish that family and friends will persevere for our country!
bayoneting of 3 year old baby. [Picture]
Carving out the leg muscles of a Chinese soldier. [Picture]
[Picture] Falling off of a beheaded head. Numerous such shots had to
be taken to obtain this picture.
[Picture] Chinese mother still clutching on her baby after her head was
chopped off by Japanese soldier.
[Picture] The notoriouspoisonous gas experiment
What crime had the children committed?! [Picture]
[Picture] What else could I say? They were all innocent children!
Only Japanese soldiers could wash down the heart of a martyr with sake. [Picture]
Scalding with acid. Torture? Experiment? [Picture]
This was only a baby of three! [Picture]
[Picture] Chinese woman mutilated after raped. (intestine pulled out)
[Picture] Young girl tied up & raped.
Another female martyr. [Picture]
[Picture] Even pregnant women were round off for army prostitutes
I am also a human being!! [Picture]
So proud of his work! [Picture]
I cannot understand why young Chinese girls still crazy for Japanese
actors nowadays! [Picture]
The proud accomplishment of the Japanese soldier! [Picture] They never realized they were to be used as life targets!
[Picture] Practicing on life Chinese civilians as targets!
[Picture] This was Japanese Bushido!
For movie scenes—use real Chinese corpses. [Picture]
[Picture] Real Chinese tragedy of the 20th century.
[Picture] Her last wish was not to be a Chinese in her next life.
[Picture] What are you thinking, soldier?
[Picture] Only the head of a Chinese officer could exchange for money.
Don’t cry. This is only bayonet practice! [Picture]
Head show 1. [Picture] Head show 2—how I hate to be Chinese! [Picture]
Bodies of Chinese civilians piled along the Yangtze River River. [Picture]
[Picture] Japanese soldiers enjoyed watching kill, burn, pillage & rape.
[Picture] Executing these war criminals 10,000 times would not atone
for their sins. In fact many Japanese nowadays still honour
them as their national heroes. Until they acknowledge the war
crimes of these criminals as the Germans did, the gulf
between Japan & China can never be bridged!
[Picture] Head show 3.

PDF Version: WWII Japanese in China

My Response:

These people are victims of a violent and torturous crime, not of their choice for any religious affiliation. They were innocent victims chosen for where they (and probably many past generations) lived, an uncontrollable circumstance. Yet, this “apostle” seeks to cheapen the reality of the slaughter as religious propaganda. It does a disservice to these victims and their families, the Chinese people and diminishes the severity of what happened.

I hesitate to accept the words of anyone who would attempt to misuse the abuses of history for their cause. I consider it equally distasteful to draw a correlation to Japanese pop idols of today. Christianity is a religion of peace and forgiveness that does not have any room for hate messages motivating this document. It feels akin to the acceptance of white supremacy in churches during the American Civil War.

This document is only a political message of hate masking itself as religious propaganda. This is an example of perverting Christ’s statement: “Give to God what is God’s and give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.” Of course, I also believe in the combination of the Chinese Church rather than the continued (and American-assisted) segregation between the underground churches vs. the Three-Self Church. I, of course, say this as one who attended the Three-Self in the province with the highest population of Christians in China.

Black and White and Gray All Over!

I’ve been having a conversation with one of my brothers about paradoxes in Scripture. I really liked what he had to say although he didn’t have anything conclusive. He more so just pointed out examples and discussed the counters to the Seven Deadly Sins. This got me thinking for the umpteenth time this week about how I tend to think theologically in the gray. At the same time I admire others for having such strong “black and white” convictions about theology, I also appreciate the universality of Scripture to all people, time, and situations that gives me the more “gray” perspective. There are different shades of gray though, of course, and in general I tend to hold more to the darker hued end, similar to a political centrist with a right lean.

In a documentary I watched called Amish: People of Preservation I respected their discipline and consideration of everything. I mean, some Amish communities don’t even allow pockets to be sewn on the front of men’s vests because it would permit them to put their possessions in there which could be an act of showing off their nice things and lead to pride and cause jealousy. That sort of thought and discipline is impressive. Yet I couldn’t help but think that now matter how much you strive to put these restrictions on your community and preserve a certain lifestyle, there’s bound to be change. It’s completely inevitable. There is always going to be the desire and quest for more information, for more pleasures, and more liberties. Although the Amish may think those things are wrong, we in the “outside” world know that it can also be good. We also know that sin will still exist, even if you lived the most strict Amish life there ever could be, you would still sin. From the testimonies of the former Amish folks on the web, I found that contrary to popular belief, the Amish are really not “peace-loving gentle” people that we think they are and have actually major issues in their communities.

While I respect black-and-white thinking, I don’t think it’s always good. As a “gray” thinker, you can never get me to say that black-and-white thinking is all bad, either. Like I said, I have respect for those who can uphold their typically more rigid opinions. I think that shows strength in character.

So, back to paradoxes. My brother made the point with all his examples of paradoxes in Scripture that God’s law is much more flexible than we think they are. I think it’s wise to see that and to understand that there are exceptions, a little bending of the rules, and a bit more freedom in our religious practices. For some reason, whenever I think about “grayness” in the Bible, I think about that wedding scene from “Fiddler on the Roof” when Perchik asks who will dance with him. Everyone starts to argue: it’s a sin to dance! Not a sin! Then they ask the rabbi who says “well….it’s not exactly forbidden..” and then Perchik quickly exclaims “Well there you see! Not forbidden! And it’s no sin! Now, who will dance with me?”

I guess I often feel like both the rabbi and Perchik when it comes to justifying things in my life according to Biblical standards. I ask myself, “is this Biblically wrong?” and respond “well…not exactly..” then I jump to my feet and go “aha! You see–not wrong, so it’s OK!”

And what is my point with this posting, anyway? I guess to say that both black-and-white and gray opinions have their good and bad aspects. The problem with gray opinions is that it’s not always easy to discern when it’s good, bad, or just whatever. It can also make it really easy to justify something that is actually wrong. And the problem with black-and-white thinking is that you may be restricting yourself more than is good.

(Can I also make one tiny cultural note that black-and-white thinking [aka objective, linear] is typically a Western trait? My cross cultural studies in college will never leave me, for better or worse!)

The problem and relativity of pain

I recently had a conversation with an old friend that I have not spoken to since we grew apart. It was the first time in a long time that I had opened up to her about my life. What I found to be so interesting is how I tended to spar with her and best her in our life experiences of pain and suffering.

She cannot understand my pain and how my struggles have led me to who I am today. I feel like her pain is quite so insignificant compared to my own. Yet, I also cannot understand what she has gone through.

As she draws on her own experiences of pain in the attempt to relate to mine, I cast it aside because I believe that she could never understand the depths to which I have been broken. Nor do I believe she can understand the slow, trudging up-hill battle that it has been toward healing.

But, WHY? Why do I feel the desire to be so competitive? Why do I not allow myself to accept her attempts at empathy?

It is all because she has never experienced anything similar.

It is so hard for us as human beings to accept the sympathy of others because we know they have no basis for understanding our predicaments. This is why we gravitate towards and befriends those most like ourselves, those who can truly empathize. These relationships bring with them a feeling of connection, of belonging.

We often forget that simply because others have not had similar experiences, they too experience pain and suffering. Everyone’s experiences are unique. To live in this world is to have experiences of both suffering and joy, hope and anguish. We should never diminish the experiences of others simply because they are dissimilar from ours.

However, the truth still remains that we cannot expect to understand the experiences of every person. And we should not expect them to understand our own lives. It simply is impossible to achieve.

Life is difficult and we’re all flawed and broken in some way or another. We must accept each other as we are. It is a good reminder when you believe are you open and understanding only to realize how judgmental you’ve become.

These are the ravings of an apologetic mad woman.