Me No English

“Me no English,” states the girl with enough grammar to ape Tarzan. She does this in spite of speaking full sentences and writing them in her book. I’ve heard her say fluent and complete ones before. She and the others use this as a joke.

“I’m not asking you to speak English,” I growl. “I’m asking you to repeat. I say, you say.”

That’s one of my teaching mantras. I use it in every single class. At least five times a class. Approximately once every seven minutes. All day long. Every weekday since the 17th of September 2017.

“Me no…”

“Nope. I say, you say. May….”


“No. Say. Say. May…” Pointing to my mouth. Counting on my fingers.

This girl is eleven. She’s been in English classes for 2.5 years. Today’s lesson is about future tense. Or was. It is 16:07 and class ends at 16:10. I took her notebook off her at 15:35. It’s taken 32 minutes to get through the bullshit this class has been putting me through. Incessantly talking. Frustrating meanness. A total lack of respect. It’s not that they can’t do what I’m asking them to. I’ve seen it happen.

“Let’s help her out, guys.”

Half the class had to come up and ask me nicely to return their stuff. I took it because at the start of class, I wrote the list of supplies needed for English class. I’ve been writing it on the board for the whole month of December, after a kid tried to get out of taking the English semester test by claiming he didn’t know he needed a pencil. The list reads:

– A pencil
-Your English Book (closed)

I added the ‘your,’ the ‘English,’ and the ‘(closed)’ due to students claiming that the instructions were too ambiguous. Given that my students still repeatedly interrupt classes to say, “What’s your name?” after having me in their school every single day for the whole semester, I believe that they might just forget that I exist when I step out of the room and go to my next lesson. After all, they say that six month old babies think you die when you leave the room. Maybe my fifth graders have arrested development.

“What is it that we have to say, in order to get our things back?”

This student is the fifteenth in line. I’ve repeated the line with every last one of them. I’ve sent people to the back of the line to contemplate their sins for being a jerk and/or picking their nose while they politely asked for their book.

I took the books because I waited for five minutes for my students to comply with the instructions that do not change and have always been the instructions. That’s the limit. I watch the clocks and count the seconds. I punctuate the moments with points for those who are doing as I ask (In this class, there was but one. One, out of 35, who was ready for class after five minutes of waiting.). Once it reaches five minutes, I start to take books.

I put them on the teacher’s desk, and there they stay until I call the students up to ask me politely for their things back. In this class, I’ve created a pile of rulers, notebooks, vietnamese language homework, several open English books, pens, leaking fountain pens, and a book about no-bake desserts.

I pointed out that even the first graders don’t normally have this much of a failure-to-comply-with-basic-instructions mountain. The line to receive the stuff stretched all the way to the back of the room, the final ten minutes of a 35-minute class in which we did exactly zero of the work they are supposed to complete filled with repetitive, immediately-forgotten, false politeness. The last notebook sat in my hands for two minutes, with me repeatedly threatening to eat it (no titters, usually gold material for primary students).

Only when I opened my backpack and put the notebook inside did the eleven-year-old girl race forward, shouting in Vietnamese, “HEY! THAT’S MINE!!!!!!!”

In this class two weeks ago, I rapped my own knuckle on the board so hard trying to emphasise that I was not asking them to generate the words from the ether so much as read the things off the board in a zombified tone. My left ring finger cracked open. I bled. My students laughed at that. It was probably the first time they actually laughed at something I did all month. Haha. Look at that idiot bleed.

“Me n…”

“Let’s all help her, yes? May…….” The class joins in, or rather the few who noticed that I’m asking them to help a girl out.

“May…..” She repeats.

Counting on my fingers to indicate the second word. The two best students in the class chime in with, “I…..”


Counting three fingers. Third word.



Fourth finger.


“Me….”  I let it slide, this minor mistake. Let this girl’s English persona be from England or something. That’s what I tell myself.

I have to prompt about three times with my face contorted and pulling my own finger for comedic effect, emphasizing how much a want them to just god damnit say the fucking next shit-arsed word in this sentence of only six words total. The class has wandered in the 20 seconds since we began chanting “May I have my…” I wonder what they chat about constantly. Probably, “Remember how her knuckle bled? huhuhuhuihuh, Yeah that was the best….”

“Book…” Relief. Thank you, one kid paying attention. Thank you, 2% of the class.


Close enough. It’s a notebook but close the fuck enough. 16:09.



I pass it over, feigning relief.

“That was easy, no? See, you can speak English! You can!”

Under my black blazer, my shirt is soaked through with the perspiration of a six-word question.

With that, the giant drum rings out and the students instantly start running out the door.

Raw Audio: Teaching Kindergarten on Two hours of sleep

It’s been a rough couple of weeks.

My hagwon put on a speech contest for the kindergarteners, I started having serious issues sleeping (now I can’t sleep in the mornings or when I lay down to sleep), and I continued to cough horribly for the fourth week in a row. Several students also quit this week.

I also suffered that most horrible of a world nomad’s fears when my grandmother passed away. I am preparing a proper post for her, but this recording is from Friday the 27th Korea time. The day of her memorial in the USA.

I slept about two hours before this recording was made. All that above to explain why I sound a bit angry towards the end of this.

Featured in this recording:

  • A four-year-old wandering into my classroom unsupervised
  • Circle time negotiations
  • My heavy coughing
  • The mysteries of trying to add an hour to the time
  • Call and response teaching
  • 37

Click here for the raw audio!


“Can I tell you something?”

I’m outside one of my toughest classes, having just been told that the kids inside are crying due to being (justly) scolded.

“I’m so proud that you did your speech this morning. Remember how when I got here, you couldn’t read very much at all?”

This is a student from the class with the following description: can’t sit in a seat for more than five minutes, little to no grit or resilience, five-six years old, one of whom could not find the pages in the book when I arrived (but now can!!!) and one who likes to climb on the table and kick the others in the face. Not hard, but still.

Of course, I love them still.

“Yes….” says the student. She understands everything I say to her, having spent a long time living in the USA.

“I am so impressed with you. High five! Seriously, though. I cannot believe how much progress you’ve made.”

The bright, humble smile this particular student possesses gleams into existence on her face. Only I can see it, in this passing moment between insane amounts of stress.

“I want you to know,” she turns that sunshine on me, looking up into my face from her standing level, around my knees, “This is the whole reason why I love being a teacher.”

DO I love being a teacher?

I do. I don’t. I bang my head on the door of the toilet at the school, in the briefest of moments I can both sit down for fifteen seconds out of a 9.5 hour day and perform a necessary bodily function. I plead. I beg. I shout. I cry (not normally out where anyone can see). I am entering my sixth year of being a teacher, and I am in a situation that reminds me daily of the first time I was called “Miss Coleen.”

In my first school, in Patagonia, I had access to the copy machine only when it had paper and ink. And when I could convince the janitor to copy something. And when it was connected to power. And when the time permitted. And when it was in service.

Let’s be honest. I had no copy machine.

I remember writing out worksheets by hand for my students with a red magic marker. I remember crying in front of my class and telling them that I was a volunteer, and than meant I wanted to be there. I remember them telling me that they didn’t believe I wasn’t being paid to teach them.

I remember paying out of pocket for the services of a print shop down the road from my homestay, feeling my stomach fall out and land near my shoes to be kicked along the pavement at the sight of a stiff, dead, orange kitten outside. It was maybe 6 July 2011, and I was about to leave Escuela 5 (Juan de Ladriellos) in Puerto Natales.

My very first day, I had to bend the law and my volunteering contract to cover a class for my colleague. It was Septimo A. It was the hardest class in the school. Seventh graders are, to this day, a challenge to me. But that day I walked in with no prep time, no lesson plan, no Spanish, and no prior training to be a teacher (excluding the prefunctory TEFL Certificate I had received an A for on the Internet).

I didn’t die, perhaps surprisingly!

But it was a tone-setter. The school was tough on veteran teachers. I was a newb with idealistic tendencies, who was an outsider and also always the good girl in classes growing up. I realised that I cannot easily anticipate the ways that students will go off the rails or try to hurt one another, or subvert my lessons, because I simply never dared to be naughty.

There was a three-day period where I almost gave up in Chile. I couldn’t find the strength to eat or get out of bed. I half-feigned illness and laid in bed, unable to sleep or even close my eyes for days, with the National Geographic Channel on 24/7. At the time, it seemed a perfectly logical response. Looking back, I was in serious distress. I made it through, decided to keep going, and went back to the school.

On my last day, I was mobbed by students who nearly knocked me over in the assembly called to confer upon me an honourary certificate. I remember tearing up in front of everyone, and people cheering my name. In some slow-motion from a movie, I remember the kids rushing me and shouting in a newly-minted teacher’s voice for them to be careful. Don’t hurt each other. Be nice. No, stop that. Be good. Be good. Be good.

In some Korean hagwons, we live a teacher’s nightmare.

There is no time to prepare your lessons, so they turn out like shit. You try to make them fun, and the kids respond by becoming so competitive that they are liable to start self-harming if they believe that there was some small slight to them.

Taking a bullshit, made-up, inherently arbitrary “point” away induces paroxysms of rage and ear-splitting bellows.

Many students carry a mobile phone around their necks or on their wrists, able to text mummy if teacher is even one second late to class or tells them off for being rude to another student. That way, parents can swoop in to watch the CCTV in real-time of our classes, without speaking to us or asking why their student was put in the Time Out Chair. Heaven forbid they should actually ask me about their child’s seeming inability to control himself or what swearword precisely he used to be sent outside. When you ask about why the moms are all so overbearing, you get the response that they are “very sensitive.” Every. Last. One.

Students are expected to be instantly fluent, and instantly perfectly behaved, and instantly copacetic. I have kindergarten students taking a goddamned TOEFL test! Yes, the one for college entrance! A four-year-old who was born in 2012 and cannot consistently use the toilet without assistance should definitely memorise a three-minute speech about animal defense mechanisms and predation behaviour. Yes, even the oldest have not yet mastered the mystery that is shoelace-tying, but they should analyse and regurgitate university-level news articles.

A familiar strain from Chile comes through….we’re often out of paper, and there was until today but one computer shared between six teachers. For a week in December, we had no paper to print or copy, and no books. I said, “Fuck it (internally, obviously), let’s make snowflakes and chat for two hours.” I buy and hoard my own supplies. I save scraps of paper to a fault. I find myself writing out worksheets by hand once more.

But that smile. That light.

It’s true, what I told that student today. No matter how insane it all gets, or how little time I have to pee, or how few pencils I have. No matter how much I feel the muscle knot I carry with me in my left shoulder, remnant of those three bedbound days in Patagonia. No matter how much I kick myself for shouting at a preschooler.

That light is like a drug. I am a teaching addict, and I chase the dragon every day. One second of that light, and it all seems worth it.

TEFL For Newbs: Teaching Writing

Basic, Important, But Tricky Topics in TEFL Grammar and Usage (2016 Edition)

by Coleen Monroe-Knight, M.A. Linguistics (UCL)
<–That is the very first time I’ve used my master’s letters! Wheeeee!

In this series for new TEFL teachers abroad who have no previous experience with prescriptive grammar and usage other than that time in Language Arts class in 1997:


Phrasal Verbs
Parts of Speech
Teaching Writing 

Coming SOON!

Supplementary (non-grammar) 

How to do an Open Door class and not lose your mind

Classroom Management For Newbs

Today’s topic: Teaching Writing

In my summer course on writing last year, I described the written word thus:

Writing is the only way we can communicate directly with both our ancestors and our descendants.

I do believe that’s true. Chinese students were very open to the idea, to be honest. They can read some of the earliest writing on the planet, with ease, due to the fact that they read both traditional and simplified Chinese characters. Through writing, one can hear the voice of someone who’s been dead for more than five hundred years. Through writing, it might be possible to have someone hear your own voice in another five hundred.

All that gloriousness aside, teaching writing is hard. It can be tedious, embarrassing, confusing, or downright angering for all involved if it’s done incorrectly. The worst course I took in college was an upper-level essay writing class. Three hours on Wednesdays, from 3-6pm. We spent more than three months beating Oedipus Rex to death, writing exactly one complete essay in that time. Someone started bringing a flask eventually. It didn’t help, but we liked to think the Jack Daniels would numb us to the sheer pointlessness of a class we all needed to graduate.

As a teacher, I never want to inflict that level of bullshit on my students.

In five years of teaching, I have gleaned certain tactics for teaching writing. This is simply an overview, but for a new TEFL/ESL teacher there are about five things you really need to keep in mind. Firstly:

Make it fun. 

Students learning about how to write a news article? Have them draw situations from a hat with ridiculous ideas to incorporate. Play a story game where they can only read one sentence at a time and then have to make a short story out of it. Create inkblots with paints and have them write a stream of consciousness about what they see.

Give them space. 

Teenagers, surprisingly, don’t like to feel on the spot or exposed. If you have them write a journal, be clear about whether you will be reading it or not. Tell them in advance about whether you will be doing peer-editing. Anonymise the drafts and let them have the opportunity to out themselves as the author if they so choose. Writing practice is writing practice, and just encouraging them to make it a habit without constant teacher checking can work really well at that age.

Emphasise the Process 

In my high-level classes, we write an essay every week. Every week. Every. Week.

As much as that horrible writing class in college was a pain in the arse, I can never unlearn the various steps by steps that our instructor insisted upon. This can be very difficult, if you’ve got exactly one hour per week with your students and they have 11 million hours of homework to complete each week. Find ways to give them the time to complete a full draft IN CLASS. If you assign it as homework, they simply won’t do it.

Remember that you are one of many teachers that your students see every week, and that most of the time additional English classes are not a priority compared to state testing. Be consistent, and make it so that a student who misses class can come into the process at any point.

Organisation > Style (At Least At First) 

Learn what style is most important for the tests your students are likely to take (i.e. TOEFL, Cambridge, etc.) and focus on helping students remember the formula for the type of essay that they need to write. Work hard on thesis statements! I describe them as a type of map for writing, which lays out the three arguments which will be supported in the body paragraphs. I draw an ‘Essay Candy’ on the board, with an inverted pyramid for the Introduction, a rectangle for the Body, and a triangle for the Conclusion.

Put a timer for two minutes on, and tell the students to make a basic plan for their writing during that time. They should make brief notes including their opinion (if needed), and a couple basic arguments. You can turn this into a game, too. Make sure that they understand that answering the prompt is most important!

For some students, sentence structure is the most important thing. Work hard on incorporating activities with unscrambling and making paragraphs, building into the essay structure.

Make Students Edit 

As much as possible, make students edit. Make them edit fake essays that you wrote on the same topic, pretending that it is from a student in the class. Make them edit alone. Make them edit in groups. Make a game out of correcting sentences on the board from their own essays/stories. Give rewards for catching mistakes in your own writing.

This should be something that you do every time you see them. Make it a routine. One thing that worked quite well is to make the students write one thing they will change from last week’s writing at the top of the page, before beginning their new writing for the week. This helps to prevent you writing, “Commas are not full stops!” fifteen weeks in a row on their paper, only to see:

I like eating ice cream, it is nice, i like it,

For the sixteenth time. Thereby saving you from stabbing yourself in the eye with your marking pen.

This is an overview. Teaching writing takes much of the same in terms of getting good at it. Practice a lot. Do it all the time. Make yourself write more, as you make your students do so. This year in China I had my own language notebook where I would write the same essays as my students in Italian, French, or Spanish.

“It’s only fair,” I’d say to them.

You will, if you are consistent, see improvements in your students’ writing. It takes time, but it is the most important academic skill you could impart to them.

How you do teach writing in ESL? What problems have you encountered? 

Accent Shift 2014-2014: April

Sorry for the lack of editing, and the lack of analysis. I haven’t posted an accent video in months due to a combination of being too busy, being too apathetic, and having a little bit of a crisis of faith in Linguistics. I’m posting this for your analysis, therefore.

What accent do you hear? Do I sound strictly Statesian? What words sound different from the first video?