A Whirlwind Trip to Hong Kong

Near the end of April, I was offered a truly once in a lifetime opportunity—going to Hong Kong to present at the Postgraduate Research Conference at the University of Hong Kong (HKU). While my airfare wouldn’t be covered, my lodging would be, as would some of my meals and transportation. Of course I said yes.

Zoe Falls also joined the trip, becoming my travel buddy.

You can view the presentation I gave here.

Below, enjoy some of the shots of my too brief sojourn to Hong Kong.


We flew out of Lincoln and had several hours in Chicago O’Hare before boarding our 15 hour flight.


View from my hotel room at the swankier-than-expected Hotel Jen Hong Kong.


I HIGHLY recommend this hotel and chain (Shangri-La Hotels). The hotel is located in the Western District, less than a block from the HKU Station, which you actually cut through to get to campus…unless you feel compelled to take the stairs from Hades there.

The first full day in Hong Kong, we had the morning and early afternoon to walk around the Western District. We discovered this huge, bustling market, one that seemed to particularly specialize in seafood and fresh produce. Most of the seafood was still breathing.

Before heading to HKU for the beginning of the conference, we had lunch at a French-style cafe-cum-bakery called Panash. I had a mint drink and a Caesar salad with avocado. I couldn’t resist buying a tiny pot of pineapple jam and a red bean curd donut as a small dessert.

The campus is a lush, green paradise with an interesting mix of colonial and modern architecture. In the middle is the Sun Yat-Sen garden.

Our hotel stay included a full breakfast every day, buffet style. You could choose from American/Western-style and Hong Kong/Eastern-style dishes. The selection was diverse and extensive. Everything we tried was exceptional.

On the evening of the second conference day, we took Star Ferry’s Symphony of Lights Harbour Cruise, which was amazing. These photos do not do the cruise and light show justice.

The next morning, we got up early and took the Mui Wo ferry from Central Pier out to Lantau Island to visit the Tian Tian Buddha and Po Lin Monastery.

That afternoon, we met up with Dr. Elaine Chan, one of the professors from our department at UNL, and her family for a tour of the Wong Tai Sin Monastery and a Singaporean-style dim sum lunch (no pictures, sorry).

The next day, our last full day in Hong Kong, we headed into Central to visit the Peak Tram. It was cloudy and foggy almost our entire trip, so the city views were mainly views of clouds; however, it was amazing. On the way to and from the Peak, we popped into the St. John’s Cathedral grounds, which are a gorgeous respite from the bustling city.

At the Peak, we did some shopping (I had to replace my pants because they ripped…oops), hand bubble tea at an adorable cafe, and had lunch at the scrumptious Hong Kong Day restaurant. If you’re ever in Hong Kong, definitely try the French toast—it’s fried with a peanut butter filling. Delicious!

That afternoon, we headed to Yau Ma Tai to visit the Jade Market and the Yau Ma Tai temple. The Jade Market was a fun, traditional experience.


And, then, sadly, we had to fly back to Lincoln the very next day.

Hong Kong, here’s hoping I get to spend more time visiting you one day.


A Chill of Dread Mixed with Shock: A Response to the DeVos Hearing

My post to facebook in response to the DeVos hearing has been honored by being posted on the Badass Teachers blog. While not specifically written about linguistics or ELT, this is an important issue and a message that I hope all hear. Please feel free to share.


One Small Step

I’m officially a doctoral candidate now, having passed my comps with flying colors. I’m currently working on my proposal and plan to defend it in February. I will be focusing on the ESL administrator gap, particularly the lack of training for principals and assistant principals in regards to the legal environment of ELT, program models and approaches, and the diverse needs of ELLs. Outside of this work, Zoe Falls and I have had a book chapter accepted for a text on innovative methods in ELT for elementary school (submitting final chapter in March) and I have been selected as a 2017 Emerging Scholar for the Association of Teacher Educators. I have additionally been nominated for UNL CEHS’ Outstanding Graduate Teaching Award. Finally, I’ve found my real love in academia outside of teaching—I LOVE administrative work. I have been working as an RA for the current elementary education chair for my department, which means I am helping run the department in addition to working on research with her. This work energizes me and I can truly see moving into administration in the future.


This semester I am back teaching Linguistics for the Classroom Teacher (TEAC 438). This is a course I am particularly passionate about and I am very proud of what I developed and put into action last fall. This year, I’m looking to build on that success. I want the course to be even more interesting, engaging, and challenging for my students and myself. To this end, I’m implementing a number of changes that I hope will turn this into the best semester.

First, I am integrating TED Talks into my course in three ways. Each session, I’m beginning with a TED Talk that is engaging and relates to the topic at hand. Already, I’m seeing students make connections between the TED Talks and the lectures or readings. Second, I will be introducing TEDxESL lessons as models when relevant to topics at hand. For example, during our two weeks on grammar and syntax and our week on morphology. Third, I am asking students to integrate TED Talks into their group unit plans.

Second, I am attempting to integrate more interactive technology through active use of Google Docs, Slides, and our course Google+ Community. The discussion capabilities of the community have already proven to be powerful formative assessment tools and having students be able to interact with one another via Google Docs and Slides engenders more collaboration. Fingers crossed that this continues to work well.

Third, I am challenging my students to present their group projects at the undergraduate student research conference put on by the college. Many (if not most) of my students are seniors and are getting ready to go out on the job market. I want to empower them to achieve professional success and encourage them to see themselves not only as teachers, but also as leaders and researchers. My hope is that presenting at the conference will help them develop that mindset.

Here’s to a great semester!

Reflections on my time in the “Land of the Morning Calm”


I’ve been back in the US for a week now. I’m still adjusting back to the time zone (oy, am I still adjusting) and it is a bit strange not to be constantly surrounded by fast-paced, still 99.9%-of-the-time unintelligible Korean. I most assuredly missed my soft, cozy, just-perfect-for-me bed and it is great to be back with my friends, getting back into the groove of my life in Lincoln, NE, land of easy access to French fries, not-so-spicy foods, and, most precious of all, Dr. Pepper. The moment in the San Francisco airport when I was able to turn my cellphone off WiFi-only was a shockingly amazing moment in my life.


Not that I don’t miss South Korea. In fact, my time in South Korea was one of the most amazing of my entire life. Getting a first-hand glimpse at education in another, non-English medium country, was an almost indescribable experience. I was able to actually see my own field of expertise in action, abroad.


When I first decided to major in Applied Linguistics, it was with the intention of eventually going abroad to teach—living, working, exploring abroad, globetrotting on my TEFL (and later TESL) credentials. Except, I fell into teaching in the US and, well, for a variety of reasons, haven’t really looked back. Well, that is a bit of a lie, were I wealthier, younger, or braver, I would happily be abroad right now—or, at least, be able to look back fondly on my time spent teaching abroad. You know, on those days when the “what-ifs” outsmart the “what-ises”. But, most of the time I am happy to do what I do, where I do it. In fact, I’m terribly passionate about the need for highly qualified ESL instruction here in the US for both adults and children. That is the niche that I happily fill.


But, I’ve always felt that my expertise was just a bit hampered by my lack of experience abroad. I know too many amazing teachers (and a few not so amazing ones) who fell into great US jobs in the TESL field based on their time spent abroad, even if they lacked the training and content knowledge I have honed. Not that I’m jealous—not at all. More that I am frustrated on occasion by a lack of consistency in training and qualifications for ESL, ESOL, and EFL educators, even when the “best practices” are so well-known.


Yet, now, now I have a better understanding of just what education—English education in particular—looks like another country. My expectations and fears were confirmed just as much as they were rejected. Having read significantly on the history of education in South Korea (and knowing several South Koreans and Korean Americans who were either educated in both South Korea and the US or who have experience teaching in South Korea), I was prepared for rote memorization, drill-and-kill instruction, and test mania that far outpaces the current test mania that is taking off in the US.


I observed some of that—yes, some of that. However, I also observed classrooms and schools that were colorful, shockingly well-resourced (we did see some of South Korea’s most sought-after schools, of course) classrooms, school buildings that ranged from outdated but sufficient to brand-spanking new, a shared school focus on students developing their artistic and athletic talents (no matter what those were) in addition to their academic ones, and a society that is increasingly (and sometimes laughably) integrating English in unique ways.


The Good:

The English instruction I witnessed often featured technical bells-and-whistles, games, and colorful materials, with one school even featuring space for communicative dramatic play in English via mock storefront setups. The classrooms often featured two teachers, a native English speaker and a native Korean speaker, working together to provide instruction to students. The materials and curricula themselves appeared to be of high quality. No expense appeared to be spared in outfitting these schools with the resources to teach students English in the South Korean way.


The Bad:

While colorful and engaging, the observed lessons did often seem to feature right answers—right answers that might even lead to docking of answers that were just as communicatively correct as the sought for right ones. Very little true communicative practice was observed in the classrooms. One school was outright in its admission that English instruction was limited to test preparation, though the teachers, neither of whom were native English speakers (though both had high levels of technical proficiency), seemed almost regretful in that admission. The best communicative English—no, the most confident communicative English—we encountered was produced by those who had spent extensive amounts of time in English-medium countries or had otherwise been in situations where they were immersed in English on a daily basis, other speakers. Other speakers we encountered were tentative at best, nearly silent at worst. Intriguingly, I encountered more elderly South Koreans who were willing to give a go at communicating—even poorly, even only a few words—in English than young ones. In fact, on several memorable occasions, it was elderly South Koreans who actually went out of their way to greet us in English or to welcome us to their country or their city. This was in contrast to the young children or the students we encountered who were more likely to clam up or to the occasional adults we encountered who had far, far less proficiency (let alone fluency) than they assumed, leading to misunderstood questions, for example. I am not certain where this generational gap might come from, though I do wonder if the diminishing role of the US in South Korea since the 1980s has had an impact on the desire to speak at least a little English, if not had an impact on positive feelings towards Americans. Not that we weren’t received warmly.


The Ugly:

Ok, nothing was truly ugly. In fact, our experiences were pretty much amazing all around. The people were warm and welcoming, the food was amazing (though spicy!), and we were truly given more access to schools and to South Koreans than I could have expected. But, one aspect of the English instruction we observed grated on my nerves. I have already written about this complaint, so I will not go into too much detail; however, in short, the lack of highly qualified, trained teachers of English and the use of native English speakers—as if just speaking the language is enough—is distressing to me. I understand why, but it still frustrates me because it would almost be preferable to me for the teachers of English to be less fluent if they were to be actual teachers. I would love to see South Korea work on two things. First, further developing a cadre of native South Korean teachers of English. Perhaps, providing government funds for those students and for current teachers of English to spend 1-2 years earning a master’s degree in education, teaching, or Applied Linguistics in an English-medium country; providing opportunities to demonstrate proficiency and fluency that go beyond test scores, perhaps fostering more speech and debate opportunities, English language drama and art programs, etc; and recruiting more foreign faculty for teacher education programs. Second, only recruiting EPIC teachers who are actual trained, certified teachers, not just native speakers.


I adored my time in South Korea and cannot wait for my next opportunity to travel abroad, let alone my next chance to visit South Korea. I hope on my next visit to be able to observe education in South Korea again. I wonder what changes and what similarities I will observe. I can’t wait!



Education in South Korea has long been praised by those who decry the perceived inadequacies of American education. It has also, though perhaps less loudly, been bemoaned as creativity-killing, overly rigid, and/or too focused on exams. While in South Korea, we were able to glimpse a range of South Korean schools. Recounting all of these experiences would take far too much time for this simple blog; therefore, I will briefly focus on two English education experiences we observed.


Our first school visit was to the Chuncheon Attached Elementary School, a bright, colorful model or laboratory school that is apparently both prestigious to attend and to work at. Here, we observed an English class that was extremely engaging. The instruction featured co-teaching, with both a native English speaker (perhaps an EPIC teacher) and a Korean English speaker, and was game-based, integrating videos. On the surface, the instruction was the model of CLT; however, there were obvious “right” answers to the questions and prompts, with communicatively valid answers being dinged as incorrect if they were not exactly the same as the “right” answers. Further, there appeared to be a significant element of rote memorization involved in answering the questions and prompts correctly. Thus, the students may be unable to develop true communicative competence in English. This begs the question: Is engaging, bells-and-whistle instruction worthwhile when it is just a cover for non-communicative language instruction? In other words, is technology or are games enough without changing the actual instruction or curriculum?


We also visited a prestigious specialized high school, Gangwon Foreign Language High School. This school is a boarding school where students receive class-based instruction from about 7:30am-6pm, have an hour to eat, then study from 7pm to Midnight, Mondays through Fridays, with more study time on Saturdays. Students are required to select a major language and a minor language, from English, Japanese, and Chinese, and to also play an instrument and play a sport. Students who major in English take all of their academic courses (mathematics, sciences, history, etc) in Korean, but also take an intensive, exam-focused English course with some communicative focus. While these students likely score very highly on their English exams, they receive limited opportunities to use English communicatively and do not benefit from immersive English instruction. Further, while a co-teaching model similar to that used at the primary school was observed, the native English-speaking teacher is not a trained educator, let alone a trained language educator. This begs the question of whether intensive instruction is sufficient to prepare students to use English?

Once-in-a-lifetime, part 2

Two of the students we met presented an interesting contrast that illustrated the class disparities often at play in refugee resettlement and successful immigration. Let’s call them Finnick and Peeta.


Peeta, his name selected to honor his dream of becoming a baker in a nod to Hunger Games, had not been able to complete primary school. After his family moved cities when he was eight or nine, he was forced to leave school and began manual labor. Though a young child, he would work long, hard, backbreaking days for years, until he finally escaped through China and eventually into South Korea as a young adult. He is now attempting to complete his primary and middle schooling, in hopes of pursuing vocational training as a baker. The school is providing him with assistance to pass the required tests and plans to help train him.


Finnick, name inspired by the handsome, gregarious, and perhaps slightly wealthier Hunger Games character, was afforded a very different life than Peeta. As a young child, he and his mother escaped into China. Somehow, they were able to integrate into Chinese society, with Finnick attending school in China, becoming fluent in Mandarin and even learning English. He completed high school in China before eventually making it to South Korea. His high school diploma; however, is not recognized in South Korea. The school is helping him complete the required test(s) in hopes of pursuing higher education.


Peeta’s dreams, amazing as they are for someone who grew up in a society that limited dreams, are limited by his lack of education, in addition to the stigma of being North Korean in South Korea. On the other hand, Finnick’s dreams are far less limited because he was able to receive education and he is multilingual. Sadly, Finnick may have a higher chance of being a “successful” immigrant than Peeta. But, the school is determined to help both achieve their dreams.


Traveling abroad, let alone to South Korea, already seemed a once-in-a-lifetime experience to me. I was able to get the first stamps in my shiny new passport, was able to experience being surrounded completely by another language, was able to experience foods I would never think of trying back home. In short, I was happy to be a student and tourist in an unfamiliar country, open to every new experience that might come my way.


I knew going in that we would likely visit the DMZ, though I truly wasn’t certain what that might involve. I sort of imagined some viewing point or something, but nothing specific. When we arrived, we learned that MERS and joint military exercises (and possibly a recent North Korean defection) would cause our original plan to visit the main DMZ point—the one where you can cross into North Korea briefly—to be scrapped. Our leaders were scrambling to figure out a replacement and we all settled into the first few touristy days without giving it much thought. It would have been a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but we probably would have replaced it with something just as interesting. At that point, we were too jetlagged and too dazzled by Seoul to care much.


And then, we headed to Chuncheon National University of Education. On one of our very first days in Chuncheon, we had a once-in-a-lifetime experience that far outweighed any trip to the DMZ. I will turn thirty in a few weeks and in my nearly thirty years, I’ve experienced many amazing things: the Grand Canyon last fall (finally!), jubilee on the Gulf Coast, Mardi Gras, the turn of the Millenium, an Olympic games local to me, and more. This experience, though, was unlike all the rest.


Our group was able to meet, face-to-face, and talk with North Korean refugees (defectors, being the less PC term, perhaps). After learning about the program from the director, two groups of North Korean refugee men sat down with us and shared much of their stories, their lives, their experiences with us. We were struck not only by their openness, but by their spirit. These were men who had sacrificed everything, had risked everything, for the possibility of freedom, unguaranteed as it was.


As a ardent supporter of high quality ESL/EFL instruction for adults and children, I was struck not only by their stories—of which an entire blog could not hope to recount everything—but by their self-learning drive. These were men who, though employed in low-level jobs and assisted by the government, strove for more. They had dreams, even when dreams had been denied to them before they defected. Their dreams were simple or complex, practical or impractical. But, they were their dreams. Their dreams. And one way or another, the center was trying its best to help them achieve those dreams.


As a teacher, I know all too well how hard it can be to motivate students, to keep them engaged, to know when to push and when to step back. I have taught students who were growing up in virtual war zones, who faced gang violence, criminal activity, and instability on a daily basis. I have taught students who escaped war-torn countries with the clothes on their backs, either recently or many years ago. I have taught wealthy students and poor ones. Yet, I have encountered few learners as motivated, even though most of these men where having to start with elementary or middle school level material—they were years, decades behind their age cohort in South Korea. I was motivated by them. I plan to share this experience with my future students, hoping they will be motivated as well.

I’m going to the chapel…erm, temple…;-)


This past weekend saw me embarking on a 24ish hour long homestay with a lovely Korean family. The family (mom, dad, and an 8-year-old little boy) were wonderful hosts and very pleasant. Their family and another host family banded together to take another UNL study abroad-er and I to Chengpyeongsa Temple this morning.


After breakfast, we loaded up and headed out.


Arriving at the basecamp area, we disembarked, beginning our trek up to the slightly isolated temple (ok, not really, wow, there were a ton of shops and restaurants leading up to it).





One of the things you can do at a Buddhist temple, apparently, is to write down a prayer you have and pay for the monks to pray on it, attaching it to a paper lantern.


Almost all of the seemingly hundreds of lanterns featured prayers written in hangul or in Chinese characters. A few may have been in other Asia writing systems as well. At least two were markedly different; however: both were in English.


I was only able to just barely photograph one of the two.

“across the world no troops Iraq & Syria” was written on it. This struck me for two reasons.

First, wow, to see a prayer written in English in a Buddhist temple in South Korea seems so remarkable just considering the sheer distance from English-dominated areas and the relative lack of significant Buddhist presence in the English-speaking world.

Second, the English was not necessarily native-like. While one might perceive it, ignorantly, as child-like, the handwriting seemed to be adult (or, at least, of high quality). It was only the language usage that was simplistic. Thus, I was struck by the possibility that a second language writer may have written that prayer. Perhaps, he or she may have been a tourist—like me—and visited the temple. Perhaps, he or she may not have known if his or her L1 would be recognizable to the monks (to Buddha?) and, so, chose to use English as a Lingua Franca (ELF), trusting that English was the next-best-thing to writing in Korean hangul or Chinese characters.


This second “aha-moment” stands out to me as particularly representative of the pervasiveness of English and of the growth of ELF as its own World English (WE). With the native speaker model slowly losing ground to the non-native speaker model, perhaps we will see more ELF in the future. What this might mean for the evolution of English, I’m not certain, but it is certainly exciting.


Lost in Translation, part 2

While at the Korea National Museum, we encountered further indication of the danger in rote memorization of grammar and vocabulary over communicative instruction and practice. With EFL settings often limiting access to native speakers for practice and to immersion, effective CLT and TBT/A can be quite limited. This can, with advancing levels of English vocabulary and grammar acquisition, produce striking gaps between BICS and CALP skills. 

Such striking gaps can produce very articulate and poised tour guides who have excellent English ehen “on script”, but who struggle significantly when asked “off-script” questions or placed outside the setting or situations they have prepared for.

Our exceptionally poised and effervescent tour guide at the museum spoke excellent, wonderful English. Until a question was asked outside of her repertoire. At that point her very strong, very academic English struggled to understand and answer the questions in the way the interrogator looked for.

This gap in communicative competence is not unsurmountable. With CLT, TBT/A, communicative practice, and, when/where possible, immersion.

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