Sunday, October 6, 2013

Doing the (Distance) Delta in Taiwan: The Halfway Point

We've just started the 5th of 8 units in the Distance Delta, so I thought I'd throw down another blog post before hitting the books again. It's a good time to sit back and think about what we're getting out of this and what I wish were different.

Some good points about the course:

I'm learning a heck of a lot. Some of it is just putting terminology or academic weight behind concepts I had already been trained in or were implementing intuitively (I get the feeling that a lot of research in ELT and Applied Linguistics generally consists of studies of things teachers have known intuitively for awhile). Some of it is learning about language systems in general, which is helping me more accurately diagnose, test, explain and give feedback to my students on their language skills. Some of it is helping me look at tests and textbooks with a more trained, critical eye. Some of it, however, is just new stuff that's great to know.

It's forcing me to use the phonemic script enough that I can now actually claim to know it. I never did bother much about it after CELTA.

It's putting me in contact with widely-circulated ideas in ELT that, as a teacher in a school run by non-professionals (not one person on staff is a truly trained teacher - some claim to have training, and perhaps they do, but not quite to the level of what's needed to run a language school), and now as a "rogue educator", I wouldn't otherwise have access to.

It's giving me access to more people who really know the field, who can offer feedback and critique. As usual, things I thought I was weak in (analyzing form and use) I am actually quite strong in if I take the time to look over them properly, and things I thought I was strong in (discourse analysis) are areas where I actually need a lot of work.

A lot of this new knowledge is making me feel more confident about grad school - I won't be going in as a total rube.

I do find the exam practice is helpful for increasing knowledge and acuity, so I don't feel that I'm just studying to a test.

Finally, I appreciate how the reading recommendations on the course are a good way to suss out good books on ELT - there's a lot of reading material out there, and I don't have time to read it all. I do, however, have time to read a few carefully curated recommendations.

Finally, ELT gets a bad rap worldwide - it's known as a field full of ne'er-do-wells, itinerant hippies who need a job, inexperienced kids and idiots who couldn't make it elsewhere. Real teachers, apparently, teach in international schools or in schools back home, not in kids' cram schools around the world. It doesn't help that the owners of these schools are generally not terribly concerned about the talent and training of those they are hiring, and will hire the morons, no-talents, kids and hippies (and let's not forget about the old perverts). In one way I'm complicit in this: I wasn't too interested in a buttoned-down "real job" in the USA (tried that - no thanks) so I came as a young-kid-itinerant-hippie, and only later grew up enough, and became interested enough in the field, to make a real go of it.

So I'm happy to see that it's not this way everywhere, with every person. That there is a legitimate ELT academic field, with its own conferences, publications, luminaries, ideas and journals. It's not all just untrained people teaching kids to sing "A-ah-apple, B-buh-ball".

I appreciate that the ideas bandied around in forums and commented on by facilitators are pretty modern and progressive. You won't find any stuffy grammar prescriptivists among the staff. You won't find the online equivalent of your gray bouffant hairdo'd horn-rimmed glasses'd elementary school English teacher (I never had that teacher - I'm just quoting a stereotype).

Some things I'd like to see improved:

There's not enough time to do all the reading I want to do, and so I feel like because I don't have 20+ hours a week to devote to the course (we were told 6-7), that I won't do as well because I can't possibly read two or three books a week plus suggested articles plus the core material plus the exam practice. Eventually I'll catch up - I suspect I'll be doing a lot of the reading after the test, just for general knowledge. It would have been nice to be able to do that before taking the test, though.

I also feel that the amount of time they said we'd need to do the course (6-7 hours/week) was as off as I predicted it would be. I do wish they'd just give a more accurate assessment at the beginning. I had to quit Chinese class until December because I just didn't have time for that and Delta. With Chinese class I only had 2-3 hours per week to study, and the rest had to happen on weekends. That just wasn't working for me. It also meant Brendan got way ahead in reading for awhile (he still is).  If I'd known it was going to be this far above their stated estimate, I wouldn't have started new Chinese classes to begin with!

It'd also be nice if the test was open-book, not because I want an easy way out but because that's how life works - life, including working in ELT, is one big open-book test. So why not add some construct validity by testing us in the way we'll be executing this knowledge in the real world?

I do sincerely wish one thing - and I hope someone from Delta staff reads this and takes this idea to heart: I feel there's an undercurrent of academic snobbery in the whole system. No idea if that came from Cambridge or if it's home-grown or what, but it's there. It manifests itself in a few ways:

1.) Readings: there's a list of core texts, which we did purchase and borrow. That's fine. The list wasn't all that long, although if you are on your own in some foreign country ordering all these books just for you, because you have no access to them otherwise, it can get really expensive really fast. Because we are two people who need just one set of books, and because we were able to borrow many titles, it was OK for us. But imagine if it was just one of us in some small town in Indonesia without resources or other students nearby.

The greater issue is all the "suggested" reading. If you do it all, or as much of it as you can, you'll almost certainly do better on the exam. But the suggested reading implies that you have access to it - and we don't! The articles suggested are not available online or must be paid for, and the books aren't exactly sitting around in a library where we can borrow them. So some candidates are already primed to do better than others because they have 'access', and we don't. That seems a bit snobbish to me - the 'in' circle is inherently more privileged because they have a way to read all the literature. Those studying at British Council or International House centers would have access, as would those in major Western cities with good library systems, but the whole point of the Distance Delta is that not all candidates have these things, nor do they have inexhaustible funds with which to buy the suggested texts. And they are suggested, but you know, a lot of things are "suggested but not required" in life, but are more essential than people realize (networking, access to good education, the ability to afford to do the unpaid internship that'll get you the job, that sort of thing).

2.) Fees: the initial and exam fees are fine. At the beginning we're then told there may be an 'invigilation' fee for the exam, but not how much that is (to be fair, it varies by center). I guessed it'd be twenty bucks or so. Then we all start registering for the exam, and find out it's half the cost of the initial exam fee, which raises the total cost of the exam to 50% higher. That's only for British Council centers - for outside centers, they can charge whatever they like, and that can as much as double the initial fee (or more)! We're never told this - you only learn that it will cost that much more in October, when you're already invested.

We're not struggling, so it's not like we can't pay the fee. It's just...the snobbery inherent in knowing that British Council will charge so much, and other centers often charge twice that - and they must know it - and not telling us, assuming that people can just pay the fee because that's what ya do, is surprising. What's with the assumption that everyone has a hundred extra pounds kicking around? Especially in ELT, where you can get paid very well by local standards (as we are), but in the beginning you're often just scraping by? Why do they assume it's fine to drop a fee like that on everyone, and it won't be a big deal? That academic fees are somehow 'different' and if you want to be a part of this inner academic circle, you have to have the ability to pay them? It reminded me of GW in that way, and I am no fan of GW and their overpriced tuition and nickel-and-diming ways.

I can imagine a person doing this test without much money - perhaps on a reduced teaching schedule so they have time to study - who actually doesn't have the extra fifty or hundred quid to pay for the 'invigilation' fee within the window of time that it must be paid, who then has to postpone the test until June (putting him or her at a disadvantage, although it would mean more time to read). And all that could be avoided by just being upfront about the expected fees.

3.) The test reports: I can't put my finger on it, but something about the wording of the test reports and Cambridge ESOL Guideline Answers is a bit snobby. I am sure they don't intend it to be that way, but the whole "Stronger candidates did this" and "weaker candidates did that", plus a few other choice phrases, strikes me as formal British academic phrasing that, to American ears, sounds Posh English Snobby. As a friend put it "what is this? Evolutionary biology?"

Anyway, that's it for now. I have to get back to reading. Woooo.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Autumn in Taipei: Hipster-iffic pumpkin spice muffins


Today's the first day of fall that it's been chilly enough for me to briefly wear a long-sleeved shirt, and we've had a few other cool, gray days recently. So I figured, time to make something delicious and autumnal and rehabilitate the mainstream backlash against pumpkin spice.

For a few hours this week, my apartment has smelled like Hipster Autumn, and I just don't care. I'm not a fan of "pumpkin spice" coffee drinks, because there doesn't seem to be much actual pumpkin flavor in there, and because what flavor there is seems to be mostly artificially manufactured. But pumpkin flavored products with actual pumpkin in them? Sign me up! I love pumpkin! (For real - my favorite pasta is homemade pesto with chunks of sauteed pumpkin).

I couldn't find any canned pumpkin puree - what most people use for their pumpkin baked goods - so I took it up a notch and made my own (it's not that hard - use peeled sliced sliced pumpkin, or even butternut squash, but I prefer real pumpkin, it's got a creaminess, nuttiness and starchiness that butternut squash lacks and purees into a thick, creamy goo whereas butternut squash purees into the texture of applesauce. Cut it into chunks and sautee in nonstick pan with either butter and vegetable oil or butter and water, cover and cook until it's falling apart - with water this will be more like a steaming and with oil it'll be more like a frying - then whizz it in the food processor perhaps with a little water).

I topped it off with maple cream cheese frosting - even better if you add a bit of butter! - dusted with cinnamon and nutmeg and decorated with walnuts, raisins and cinnamon candy. I also baked walnuts and raisins into these delicious things.

And boom! Autumn in Taipei may be somewhat disappointing - you often get good weather but this year we haven't been that lucky, it's never cool/nippy (by the time it gets cool out, it's winter and always overcast), and I'm still in t-shirts - but this recipe will add a little fall to your expat life.

Pumpkin Spice Muffins (OK, cupcakes, shut up)

2 cups pumpkin puree (see above)
1 stick of softened butter (and a little more never hurt...almost anyone)
4 eggs
2 tsp vanilla (REAL vanilla, NO FAKESIES)
A shot of your favorite thing that goes with pumpkin (I used whiskey for my first batch, nothing for my second as a pregnant friend will likely eat one of these) - brandy would also be very nice but stay away from anything too fruity or citrusy as you don't want to overpower the pumpkin
A pinch of almond extract or walnut oil would also be fine, but is optional

3 1/2 cups flour (substitute some for ground flaxseed if you wish)
2 cups packed brown sugar - really packed, you want that sweetness
Hefty amounts of ground cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, allspice and ginger (ginger can be fresh grated or powdered, I used powdered as it was easier to distribute in the batter) - and err on the side of too much, not too little (all of these can be purchased at City Super, Jason's or Trinity Indian Store near Taipei City Hall) - a tablespoon of each would not be overdoing it
1 tsp baking soda
3 tsp baking powder
Salt - should be one teaspoon but I find one spoonful from the tiny red spoon in my salt cellar was enough

Chopped walnuts to taste (I find half a cup works) - these tend to be cheaper at traditional shops and shops that sell traditional goods plus Chinese medicine
Raisins to taste (black ones are better than gold)
Butter or oil for greasing
An oven (sorry, I know these can be hard to come by but a cheapo electric one works)
A muffin tin
Ground cinnamon, nutmeg and other decorations (walnuts, raisins, cinnamon candy, whatever)
A rubber spatula scraper thing

1 packet cream cheese, softened
Half a stick of unsalted butter, softened
2 tablespoons confectioners' sugar
3 tablespoons maple syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla extract (real)
Icing tube and tips (optional - you could just spread it)

Preheat oven to 190C, grease muffin tin (I smear a little butter in each one and use a paper towel to smudge it around for an even coating)

1.) Sift all of the solids together. Use a colander if you don't have a sifter.
2.) Mix solids together completely - use an egg whisk, it retains the fluffiness of the various powders. Trust me.
3.) Mix all of the liquids together, you can do this by hand or give it a whizz with a hand mixer (that's what I did)
4.) Add the liquids to the solids and beat briefly until just about mixed
5.) Add raisins and walnuts if desired
6.) Beat, whisk or hand-mixer it one more time until just mixed but not a second longer (keeps the batter fluffy)
7.) Pour into muffin tin, make sure each depression is full to the top so you'll get a nice "muffin top"
8.) Bake for 20 minutes or until they look done (golden on the sides)
9.) While baking, beat softened cream cheese until fluffy, add butter and beat until fluffy again, add confectioner's sugar and keep beating it, add maple syrup one tablespoon at a time and keep beating. Then add vanilla and beat that too. I find a fork works best. Transfer to icing kit if using one. Do not refrigerate.
10.) Take out muffins, allow to cool. Use rubber spatula to get under the muffin brim and separate the muffin from the tin, this will make it come out more easily (you can usually just gently twist them out)
11.) Since we're not in America and our ovens are not big enough for multiple tins, clean muffin tin, re-grease, re-fill and bake more. Makes about 14 muffins, or 2 full tins + two more.
12.) Allow to cool completely, ice, dust with spices by sifting them through a tiny mesh colander, decorate with whatever you want, and then eat.

If you don't go all glutton and eat them all, you can then refrigerate them.