Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The 7pm Students

I have a pair of students that have their classes scheduled on Mondays and Wednesdays at 7:00pm.   They were both my students at one of the English schools where I used to work. They quit the school and then a few months later, they called asking for private classes.

It's a man and a woman that are roughly the same age. I think they met AT the English school, but I can't be sure. Anyway, they almost never come to their class. They don't call to cancel. They never whine or complain to ask for a makeup class. They just don't show and they come to the next class as if nothing happened.

The man is married, but the woman is not. My theory? They are lovers. This is not just me watching too much TV. It's pretty obvious. Even Alexandre called it after talking to them for like, 2 minutes. He also said he came home one day as they were leaving, and the woman said, "no, let's go get some drinks!" and the man said "oh, ok."

They also make little comments and tell little stories that are pretty darn suggestive and telling. And I mean, telling your wife that you have English class is a pretty convenient excuse.

Drama in the world of students! I just really don't want to be involved. Let's hope that the wife never gets a hold of my number and calls asking if her husband is there.

A TOEFL Teaching Confession

Can I just be honest about something?

I really really really don't like teaching TOEFL prep classes.

Barf barf!

As the only native speaker teacher in town, I've been carrying this silly notion that it's my solemn duty to accept TOEFL students.  In case you don't know, the TOEFL is an international English test. If someone from a non-English speaking country wants to do any kind of college-related thing in the US (foreign exchange, a Master's, a fellowship, etc), they have to take this test. Some jobs for foreigners in the US also require a score.

The point of the test is to see if the student's English and cultural awareness are strong enough to thrive in an American university. So they test on academic subjects of all kinds (most Brazilian universities and "faculdades" are different from American schools in that you don't have take a bunch of classes outside of your major, so this is hard for some of my students), but they also test on cultural elements. (For example, the students will have to listen to a conversation between a student and a parking office attendant while he disputes a parking ticket. Or they have to listen and respond to 2 students discussing their opinions about tearing down a historical building to put a more environmentally friendly one. Things like that.)

Anyway, the test is pretty hard. It has a lot of different types of questions and activities. It tests the students' speaking, reading, listening, and writing. It also uses a ton of American college buzzwords that none of my students have ever heard (GRE, courseload, electives, GEs, spring break, midterms, etc).   The test takes about 3 hours to finish.

There is a company that comes to the relatively local public university a few times a semester to offer TOEIC classes, so many students around here end up taking that to prepare for the TOEFL. It's a different test, but it's better than nothing. But I don't know of anyone else in town who teaches TOEFL classes. Well, that's not completely true.

At that evil terrible school where I used to work, the boss had no idea what TOEFL was, and he thought that TOEFL meant "the most advanced English". So he wanted to use it with a group of advanced 16-year-olds to be one of the only schools using it. I explained that it was of no use to 16-year-olds, but he didn't listen. (He'd also tried to form a TOEFL class with a pair of pilots that came into the school looking for vocational English classes. His logic? "Pilots are smart, and TOEFL is for smart people!" Sigh.)  Anyway, I didn't teach that TOEFL class to the teenagers, and I quit before it started. He had one of his other teachers teach it, and then all the kids quit. (I know this because when they quit, one of them found me on Orkut asking for private classes. She gave me all the gossip. She explained that the other teacher just used their 2-hour class blocks to take practice tests IN CLASS. When they asked her what words or phrases meant, she said, "look it up online when you get home!". So, basically, useless.)

A lot of teachers in this town think that teaching English means reading the answers out of the teacher's book in an official-sounding voice. It's absolutely infuriating.

So you can see why I feel bad when people call me and say, "if I don't take the TOEFL, I can't study abroad, but I can't find anyone to teach me about the test!"

But.... teaching TOEFL is super boring. We don't get to have any fun conversations. It's a focus on formal English and college terminology.

But the other reason I don't like it is because with some of these small-town students, it's like beating my head against the wall. The test requires the students to talk/write a lot about their own experiences and preferences in academia ("Do you prefer many short vacations or one long vacation?" "Do you think it's a good idea for students to take a year off before starting college? Why or why not?"). However, it's really really hard for some of the students to ... think outside of the Brazilian interior box. These are some of the answers I've gotten on speaking and writing activities:

1. The question was, "Do you think it's better to be a child or an adult?" The student said, "It's better to be a child because on the weekends you can go to your grandfather's chacara and also to many birthday parties."

2. The question was, "Do you think it's better to live in a big city or in the countryside?" The student said, "I prefer live in the city because I can eat a lot of Japanese food. In the country, is difficult find good Japanese food, and I like."

3. The question was, "Is it important for your friends to have the same opinions and interests that you have? Why or why not?" The student said,  "My best friend is João. He is big friend. He and I both love to go to the churrascaria and eat picanha. Is better like the same things of your friends."

4. I always give my students a long document that I wrote about education in the US compared to Brazil. It's in easy English to teach them how they can talk about their degrees and stuff. Then I make them write out a description of their educational history in English. One new student last week wrote things like, "When I was a child I went to Jardim infantil I and then I went to Jardim infantil II. With 7 years I stared ensino fundemental. I went to high school and passed in the vestibular and now I am at a public college."

She obviously didn't understand the activity. When I asked her why she didn't just say things like, "I went to a school that was similar to preschool and kindergarten in the US", she said "but they're different! They're in one school!" Sigh. I asked her to do it again using only English words, and to explain things that were culturally different. We'll see how it goes.

If you live in Brazil, you are probably chuckling and shaking your head at these answers. If you don't, you probably don't really understand them. That's what I try to explain to the students. (1) They can't speak Portuguese words on the TOEFL test. Obviously. (2) They can't talk about culturally-specific things as universals. They have to remember that their test readers have probably never been to Brazil and probably don't speak Portuguese. So if I didn't live here and speak Portuguese, I wouldn't understand these answers. and (3) Ultimately, this test is to test their understanding of English and the American educational system, so they shouldn't be talking about Brazil so much anyway.

And none of this addresses the fact that the logic these people use is very basic and not reflective of the type of critical thinking they need to show.

I do keep teaching TOEFL though, as frustrating as it can be, because a lot of my TOEFL students ARE good, fast learners, and when they pass their tests and get to study abroad, it's very rewarding to know that I was a part of it.

But I mean... how do I teach critical thinking?! Do any of you have students like these who just seem unable to think in a different way or imagine the perspective of someone outside of Brazil? How do you handle them?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Sending the Good Vibes

Sometimes we read strangers' blogs and we treat it kind of like watching a TV show or getting those serial story in magazines in the mail (most of us are too young to have really done that, but you hopefully know what I'm talking about).  It's easy to forget that the bloggers are real people on the other sides of their computers, trying to live their lives as best they can.

So this entry is for Sara from Chile/Minnesota, from the blog Sarah's Titleless Blog. She's going through a rough time right now, so even though I don't know her personally, I wanted to leave her a public message to say I'm thinking about her and wishing her the best. Just because we've never met people face to face doesn't mean we can't feel for them or relate to them.

If there's someone whose blog you read whose entries affect you, take today to tell them that they're good people, even if you don't know them outside of the computer screen.

You're a good person, Sara! You can do it!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Negatives as Positives

There are 2 Portuguese expressions that really confused me and took me a long time to figure out. Both of these expressions use negative words in a positive way, which was so counterintuitive for my poor little English/Spanish-speaking brain when it was not also a Portuguese-speaking brain.

1. Pois não? = Can I  help you?

WTF?! The first time I heard this, I was so confused that it just destroyed the conversation. Relying on my Spanish skills (pois sounds like pues) and English intonation (Portuguese questions sound like affirmative English statements), I originally interpreted pois não? as "well, no."  I was on the phone with a bookstore, and the conversation was like this (or at least this was how I understood it):

Bookstore clerk:  Good morning, ABC Bookstore.

Me: Hello, I'm looking for a book.

Bookstore clerk:  Ok. Well, no.

Me: Umm... No?

Bookstore clerk: Excuse me?

Me: Um... I'm sorry, can you help me find a book?

Bookstore clerk (irritated and confused):  What book is it, ma'am?
 ...etc etc
I ended the conversation thinking, "either that clerk was totally rude, or there was some miscommunication going on there."
Later, when my Portuguese was a little better, I figured out that pois is like "because", still didn't make sense: "because no." or even "because no?"  Huh?

Then Alexandre and I were at the corn festival, and we went up to the little booth to buy our food tickets. And the guy working at the booth said, Pois não?  But he was smiling so politely! Alexandre responded to him with "We'd like some food tickets, please", and their exchange was totally friendly and cordial.

After we walked away from the booth, I asked Alexandre, "WHAT the hell does pois não mean?!"
"It's like 'Can I help you?'," he said.

"Well that doesn't make any goddamn sense!" I responded indignantly. "Is there some history of that expression? Was it longer or something?"

"I don't know", was his response, which is usually his response when it comes to grammar-related topics.

Yes. So now when I hear pois não?  I just have to ignore the little instinctive voice in my head that's shouting about how strange the question is.

2. que nem.... = just like...

This expression que nem shows up in a sentence like "He gives presents to lots of children on Christmas, just like Santa!"

But nem is a function word for negation that has a few different translations into English. Usually it means "not even" or "not...or" (like in the statements, "I was so tired last night that I didn't even eat dinner" or "I don't eat chicken or fish".)  (Most of my students incorrectly learn nem as "neither", which is rare, and then use "neither" way too much. But that's another issue.)

Anyway, if you think of  nem as a negative word, it's totally confusing to use it for "just like", which shows that 2 things are equal. At first, I understood it as "nothing like", but then my conversations got all messed up. Like this one, with Alexandre:

Me: That girl is totally spoiled and obnoxious.

Alexandre: Yeah, que nem minha irmã (just like my sister).     (I understood "Nothing like my sister").

Me: What? No, she's the same as your sister.

Alexandre: Huh? I know.

Me: What??

So that phrase is really against the grain for me, too. I mean, did it start out as something else? Or is it sarcastic?
Ahh..... the perils of teaching yourself a language. You don't always get it right.

Has anyone else been confused by these expressions, or by another expression that you've learned in a foreign language?

Monday, June 21, 2010

São Paulo Soccer and Politics

So my trip with Bruna to Sao Paulo went off without a hitch! It was really great and just what I needed.

The only problem was that I forgot to change the batteries in my camera, and they died! So you'll have to rely on my superior imagery descriptions... sorry!

We left bright and early Saturday morning. Bruna's parents had come on Friday to spend the day with her and then drive her back home for the school's 2-week vacation. (Yes, Alexandre technically has a 2-week vacation, but he used it to sign up for 2 internships. Super dedicated to getting a good residency!)

So Bruna's parents drove us to Sao Paulo. They also gave a ride to one of Bruna and Alexandre's classmates who lives just outside of Sao Paulo, but she was one of the dead fish types who doesn't say more than "yes" and "fine". So after unsuccessfully trying to hold down a conversation with her for the first couple hours of the drive, I just gave up and let her possibly feel left out while Bruna and I chatted. These types of girls get to me less nowadays because I just expect all the girls my age to be like this. Then I can be pleasantly surprised when they actually know how to engage in conversation and follow basic social rules.

We made a pit stop in a big leather outlet mall located in the Brazilian countryside (good place to get leather!). If you're familiar with Sao Paulo, you may be familiar with it. It mostly sells shoes, boots, and leather accessories. Bruna and her mom were looking for some new shoes, and found a few pairs that they liked. I splurged on a new mauve-colored leather purse. It's cuuuuuuute! And now Alexandre's mother can stop "kindly" suggesting that I buy a more sophisticated purse to replace my wonderful 10-year-old hand-made sack from Guadalajara. (I love my black Guadalajara purse. It's almost a decade old and still looks brand new. I still plan to use it sometimes, outfit permitting.)

With the stops for shopping, gas, and lunch, we didn't make it into Sao Paulo until about 5:00pm.

We relaxed at Bruna's family's apartment for a bit and waited for her boyfriend to show up.
We ate some delicious fruit, such as a giant Brazilian persimmon that was harder and not as sweet as ones I've eaten in America.

When Bruna's boyfriend showed up, we went down to the giant bookstore on Avenida Paulista (at my request). Remember? the one with 3 floors? It's always enjoyable and calming to walk around a giant bookstore, and even more helpful when a bunch of the books are in English.

I bought 2 books, one of which I finished on the bus ride home. It was excellent. Buy it here. She writes about Berkeley AND Palm Springs!
I had to resist some wonderful bird field guides, including a huge encyclopedia of Brazilian birds that comes with CDs to hear them (only 300 reais! pff).

Then, we went to dinner at a Japanese-Thai restaurant! (Can you tell that Bruna is a very good host? She did whatever I suggested. Haha.) I haven't had Thai food since Alexandre and I went home to visit last August. (That's not entirely true. I tried to make Thai papaya salad at home and failed miserably.) The restaurant was pretty expensive, but not too bad for Sao Paulo. Plus, there isn't much Thai food in Sao Paulo, so they can charge more without the competition. The food was authentic and delicious, and if we one day live in the big city, I'd definitely go back on a special occasion or something.

We stayed at the restaurant talking (and ordering more rounds of food) for a long time, so we didn't go out to any bars or anything after, as we had planned (totally fine by me-- I'll choose food over drinks any day!). Good food, good people, good conversation. After dinner, we just went back to Bruna's place and went to sleep.

Sunday morning took us to the Sao Paulo zoo. Bruna and her boyfriend (mostly her boyfriend) also share my interest in birds, so that was fun.

After the zoo, we had lunch with Bruna's very friendly parents. Father's Day is in August in Brazil, so no celebrations here.

Something interesting happened during lunch. Bruna's boyfriend got into a very heated discussion about politics with Bruna's mother. Of course, due to culturally acceptable octaves and Portuguese intonation, Brazilian conversations always seem a little more heated than they actually are to an English speaker's ear, but this one was serious. There's an election coming up here in Brazil (you wouldn't know it, though-- soccer dominates TV, and even more so during the World Cup). Bruna's boyfriend and Bruna's mother disagree on which candidate is best. Bruna and her father mostly stayed out of the argument because of a shared distaste for arguing, and I stayed out of it because I really don't know enough about Brazilian politics at all, certainly not as much as I'd like to, but even if I did know, I wouldn't have butted in. American readers can tell me if they agree or disagree, but I'm pretty sure that in the US, openly calling out your in-laws on their political views is a big no-no. So at first, I was worried that Bruna's boyfriend was going to mess up his chances on ever marrying Bruna or something, but apparently it's just not offensive here the way it is in the US.

I was really happy to see people be passionate about their political opinions, however. Almost every time I ask my students for their opinions on the president and on the election, they say, "estou fora disso!" which is something like "I'm so out of the loop on that!" (basically, "I don't follow politics and don't care about them.") So I do encourage any readers, especially Brazilian readers, to voice their opinions on the upcoming election in the comments section. I really wish people would talk about it with me more!

Well, the lunch was delicious, and then we all got ready for the big game against the Ivory Coast. (Gonna be honest here that I thought that the "Ivory Coast" referred to a region, and not a country. Terribly embarrassing. I blame my geography-starved American education for that one.)

I was one of the only bloggers in our little group who didn't write about my first game day, and truth be told, it was because it kind of sucked. But if I thought the game was a big deal in Hicktown, I had no idea what I was in for in the big city. Even though we were in Bruna's family's high-rise apartment, we could still see the neighborhood going crazy every time Brazil made a goal. Fireworks, car horns, blowhorns, you name it. The sky was grey with smoke.

But Bruna's family was much better company than drunk medical students (perhaps you can have a better idea of why the first game was a drag), and this game was much more exciting.  I got my bus home soon after the game finished, and Alexandre picked me up back in Hicktown.

Hooray for Sao Paulo! Hooray for an exciting soccer game in good company! Back to work today, refreshed.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Sampa Querida, Here I Come

This week was particularly frustrating.

I started like 3 different rant-y blog entries this week, but deleted them to save you all the trouble of feeling obligated to read them. Again, today, I was gonna sign in here and write a long rant, but instead of doing that and probably offending Brazilians with my rampant generalizations, I went to the gym and then came home and made a big complicated lunch of tutu from my new cookbook.

It didn't turn out that great (it was my first time trying to make it, and I've only eaten it twice), but it was pretty good for a first try, and more importantly, spending the 2 hours preparing everything was both soothing and rewarding. Also, Alexandre ate it and approved, even though I offered to order China in Box for him if he didn't like it (I'm not one to make other people suffer from my experiments). So I guess it wasn't that bad.

This weekend, I'm getting the heck outta Dodge (aka Hicktown, which is really driving me crazy). Our friend Bruna (the one who planned the crazy adventure hike a few weeks ago) is from Sao Paulo, and she invited me to her parents' house with her for the weekend. We're gonna shop and eat and drink and soak up the city and shake off this small town presa-stress.

(Presa means "trapped" in Portuguese. I think "presa-stress" sums it up pretty well. Maybe corrupto-presa-stress.)

So yes. More next week! "More" will likely be fun Sao Paulo adventure stories and pictures. Those are way better than ramble-y rant-y entries.

Have a good weekend!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Teaching Update

Since I know many of you read this blog because you're also ESL teachers or thinking about teaching English abroad and things like that, I thought I'd update everyone on what's going on work-wise. Hopefully I'll also end up with some advice!

I finally finally officially left the English school I was working at part-time (a small part), so now I'm 100% self-employed! Whoo hoO! It's a great feeling.

So where's my money coming from?

*I still sell my pronunciation book once in a while, and I finished my second book-- a grammar book! :D I just printed it up this week. So I've sold it to 6 students so far, and I'm going to start it with others once they finish their current books.

*I still get requests for scientific translations or corrections, but not as many as I got at the end of last year / beginning of this year (I think that coincided with when people turn in their Master's theses / have final exams / prepare papers for conferences?). I make an average of about 250 reais a month on that, which covers my half of the rent and "condominio" bill (like an HOA) (Yup, another benefit of a small town).

*I have one 3-person group at a company 2 mornings a week. That's the only time I need the car to get to work.

*I spend the bulk of my time teaching from home. It's going well. I have 27 hours of scheduled classes a week. About 41% of those hours are with groups of 2 or more (so more than half are still private 1-1 classes). 3 of those hours are TOEFL, and I charge more for my TOEFL classes because grading their practice tests is so time-consuming. I stopped offering reposição (make-up classes), so that helps my schedule a lot. I make plenty of money from my private classes to pay for my relatively simple, childless, small-town life.

The problem is that I have way more people calling than I'm willing to schedule. I currently have a waiting list with 12 classes on it (I say 12 classes and not 12 people because some of the classes are potential pairs). At the beginning of the year, I was saying "yes" to everyone, but I was getting way too stressed out, so for my own sanity, I put a moratorium on new students until someone quits.

But I hate having a waiting list. I feel like it's potential money that I'm just throwing away / ignoring. Also, when I deny people, I also deny all of their potential contacts. But I really just don't know what to do. Here are the options I've considered and the problems with them:

1. Just schedule more people, and teach 10+ hours a day.
Nope. Tried that. Almost had a nervous breakdown. Right now, my comfortable, "I can still teach really well and do other things in life" limit is about 6 hours of actual teaching a day (that doesn't include prep time).

2. Cancel some individual students and accept some of the pairs on the waiting list.
While I do make more money per hour with pairs, not all students are created equal. For example, one pair on the list is a husband-wife team. But the wife is a bigwig surgeon in the hospital, so I know that her schedule's gonna be a mess. Plus, they want to bring their 18-month-old baby to class. The mother said it was because she wants to expose the baby to English (because they're planning to move abroad and she's worried the kid will have a hard time with English), but that's a crock. I'm the linguist, and a baby moving to a new country at 2 years old will have no problem learning the language. I know it's just because they don't want to pay for a baby sitter.

So the point is, so far, none of the couples on my waiting list are worth canceling any single private students at the hours that the couples want.

3. Work a few more hours each day, and hire the maid on for more time.
Right now, the maid comes only 1 day a week for like 4 hours. It's a huge help, but I still do the majority of the housework and house-related things...and when I say "majority", I mean "practically everything the maid doesn't do". (You try living with a 24-year-old Brazilian guy in med school who grew up with 2 full-time maids and see if you can convince him to make a chores schedule.)

So this idea is kind of tempting, except I just still really feel uncomfortable having a maid one day a week, let alone more. But I make much more per hour than my share of the maid, and she cleans faster and better than I do. So I'm trying to balance my personal morals against the country's morals, as well as against economics.

But also, I kind of like being 33% house wife and 66% employed. It's a nice balance. Not sure if I'd like the extra income more.

4. Rent out an office space with more room, and have only group classes (or very expensive private classes).
If we stay in this city for Alexandre's residency, this is my plan. But he graduates in November, and we'll find out about which residency programs he gets into between November and January. Soooo... there's a good chance we'll move to a big city in 5-7 months (yippee!). So I don't want to invest in essentially opening a business that may be around for less than half a year.

5. Hire another teacher as a sort of partner, either just for referrals, or to actually work here from home with me.
This would work if the teachers in this area didn't totally suck. Call it high standards, but I just haven't met anyone here yet who I'd be interested in working with as a business partner. The teachers I've met who are actually well-trained and have good English (and who didn't make asinine comments or ask ignorant questions about America) weren't even interested in teaching private classes outside of their school jobs, let alone branching off into a private business. So I guess being really good at your job is kind of irrelevant if you don't have any motivation or initiative, or if you're scared of taking any kind of risk.

If we do end up moving away, I'll have the problem of where to refer my current students, because so far, there is literally no one qualified who wants the job. Really amazing. I'm thinking about teaching some people over Skype from the new city.

....So yeah. Is that it? Are those my only options? Do you guys have any ideas on how to not let my waiting list go to waste?

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Birthday Cooking

Today is my birthday (and my twin sister's birthday, too! Fancy that!).

the sister and me (happy birthday to us)

The sister and Alexandre conspired to buy me a FABULOUS cookbook called "Brazil: A Cook's Tour" by Christopher Idone. (Amazon link here.) It's Brazilian recipes organized by region, and it's all in English and the American measuring system. However, for the ingredients, he has an excellent glossary to explain foods specific to Brazil, how to prepare them (for example, how to cut/serve certain fruits), and the best part is when something is a misleading translation, he explains it. (For example, "abacate" IS "avocado", but the versions are different in the US and Brazil.) He also tells Americans where to buy certain hard-to-find ingredients in the US, and what can be substituted, and what can't. Then it has the conversions between the US and the metric system.

Alexandre found this book here in Brazil, so there's hope for those of you interested in it and living here, too.

Now that I'm finally FINALLY out of the school and I have a normal, post-industrial-revolution work schedule, I'm so excited to try out these recipes! I'm gonna start with easier things first (like tutu à mineira and sopa de castanha) and then hopefully make my way up to the more complicated things, like pato no tucupi (duck soup) and frango com quiabo (chicken with okra). I'll keep you posted (get it? Posted? In a blog? Har har har).

But I don't think I'll be doing much cooking today, because I'm recuperating from my birthday / véspera do feriado dinner and drinks last night. (So I suppose the title of the blog entry is a bit incorrect. Maybe it should be called "Birthday Hangover".) Also, tonight is one of the first Festa Junina parties in town, so we're gonna go pig out there.

Yay! I love food.
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