dear abby

I’m supposed to be writing an intro to my endocrinology lab, but I just got done w/ my Russo-Franco-English (lol) tutoring session, and am in a more lingual mood atm.  So I thought I would write another entry about my pet subject: my ESL class.

Yesterday my students had their 3rd quiz of the semester (there will be five total).  I am pleased w/ the progress most of them are making, but at the same time, I feel we have also reached something of an impasse; they know most of the major grammar points.  What they need now is to utilize and practice w/ them until they come naturally.  The thing is, we only have a handful of hrs. together ea. wk, which is not sufficient in and of itself.  They need to put in some effort outside of class, not just to understand what I mean when I say “possessive pronoun,” but to go over examples of when and how to use them.  They are v. good at repeating after me and filling in the blanks, so I’ve been working on trying to get them to generate original content, while still being supported.  To this end, I purloined an activity described to me by a friend of mine, who is currently in Japan doing the JET program.  He gave his students “Dear Abby” type scenarios to read and then answer.

My first step was to find and print out a real “Dear Abby” question and its answer.  I chose one about some poor woman who had a really vile mother-in-law.  I distributed the question to the class, and we went over it, looking for new vocabulary and phrases.  Then I asked them what they would do.  Their answers ranged from “move to a new state,” to “leave your husband and find a new one,” to “kill the mother-in-law” (this was a great opportunity to emphasize the difference btwn. can and may for them.  “Can she kill her mother-in-law?” I asked.  “Is she able to?”
“Yes,” they chorused.
May she kill her?”
“That’s right,” I said, waggling my finger).

After that I gave them Abby’s answer, and went over it w/ them.  I then distributed a short worksheet.*
Pretend you are Abby.  Below are two letters for you to read.  Choose ONE letter to answer.  When answering, think of the following questions: What SHOULD the person do?  What should the person NOT do?

A) Dear Abby,

My boyfriend and I have been dating for one year.  I really like him, but I think he might be cheating on me!  Last night, I went to a concert at Tipitina’s, and I saw my boyfriend there with another girl.  He told me he was going to a basketball game!  Should I confront him with the lie, or should I wait to see what happens?  Help!

From: Confused in New Orleans, Louisiana

B) Dear Abby,

My son, who is 19, recently got a speeding ticket.  In order to pay the $970 fine (which included attorney’s fees), we made him return his Christmas gifts.  He says we were being very unfair.  Do you think we were too harsh?

From: Not Sure in Miami, Florida

Most people chose to reply to the (admittedly more titillating) first question.  The women tended to be less forgiving.  The men were more lenient.  Their advice: don’t jump to conclusions!  Your boyfriend is probably a nice guy!


Sometimes I am not sure how to correct their written work.  I mean, I know what they did wrong…but often the mistakes are not so much an mispelled word or misplaced comma so much as they are a matter of syntax.  Such sentences need to be completely rewritten, and I don’t have the room!  So I usually sort of compromise, correcting here and there, only restructuring if something is really incomprehensible.

Sometimes it’s really obvious when they’re translating something directly.  I can almost see the words (“Cuando hay amor, hay perdón…”) hovering above the page in a sort of soft focus, the way film projectors sometimes blur when they need to be adjusted, turning words into prisms of letters.

The differences between students are becoming more pronounced as we progress.  In the following period, I had some time before class, and so I went over the paper w/ a student.  It took a few tries, but finally he understood what I wanted.  As usual, he had ignored the instructions.  He’s not the only one.  I have an activity planned for them to get them into the habit of actually reading the instructions–ALL of them!

It is frustrating, but what I’ve realized is that you really can’t get frustrated.  The moment students detect any kind of annoyance on the part of the teacher, they start planning escape routes instead of listening to what the teacher is trying to say.  Furthermore, studies have shown that when peoples’ heart rates and adrenaline lvls get past a certain threshold, they are no longer able to actually listen to and process words.

That’s why people don’t pay attention to your heated arguments, no matter how apt they are!

I’m not trying to sound like a saint here.  We were learning the parts of speech, and I explained the definition of nouns, adjectives, &c.  To apply this, I had them break into pairs and complete a Mad Lib story.  I was working w/ the aforementioned struggling student, in order to give him a little extra help, and our conversation went something like this.

“So give me an adjective.”

“Adjective, adjective…”

“Yes, an adjective.  Is describes a noun.”


“Yes, it’s written on the board, a person, place, or thing.”


“Yes, that’s a noun.  Now, I want an adjective.”

Finally, after some heavy hints, he came up w/ “black.”

Twenty seconds later, I needed another adjective.

“Adjective, adjective…”

“Yes, give me an adjective.”

So we went through the whole thing again.  This time, he came up w/ “green.”

A few sentences later, there was a space for another adjective and…yep, you guessed it, we had to go over it AGAIN.  I had to practically wrench my zygomatic major muscle upwards and concentrate on keeping my speech slow and voice mellow.  My eyes began to ache with effort.  But I can tell it paid off b/c instead of retreating (as I’ve done w/ teachers until they give up and state the answer), he kept trying to answer.  And hopefully the third time was a charm, and he’ll never forget the word adjective again!

Happily, though, I can report that the Mad Libs were a success overall.  I had the students read a couple, and we laughed.  These jocular moments are my favorite parts of class, when we can comrades in humor.  Speaking in another language has a reductive effect, I’ve found (although I hadn’t really consciously realized it until my cousin Mischa pointed it out); one feels at a loss for words, and therefore stupid; the lack of vocabulary disfigures ideas, and gives the impression of shallowness.  So a little levity is always welcome.

All this makes me wonder how much I’ve made my language teachers suffer in the past.  I was looking at an old paper I wrote for my second-semester Spanish class, and it seems fine to me…

Un problema muy importante actualmente es el calentamiento del planeta. Ya hay algunos signos de los efectos de este fenómeno. La temperatura mundial está aumentando, porque los gases de invernadero han causado graves daños al ambiente.  Se puede ver los efectos de calor atrapado: el nivel del mar es más alto y los glaciares y las capas de hielo han empezado de derretirse….

But what do I know?  There are definitely some sentences came straight from French, like “Es esencial que hagamos todo que es posible con el fin de mantener y mejorar la salud del ambiente, sea con las programas de reciclaje, sea con la conservación forestal.”

I can totally see myself thinking, “Il faut que nous fassions tout notre possible pour entretenir et améliorer la santé de l’atmosphère, soit avec les programmes du tri, soit avec la conservation des forêts naturelles.”

*These questions I wrote myself.