Sunday, May 29, 2016

Tutor conference

In March, the Portland Literacy Council hosted a one-day workshop for tutors and other educators. It was held on the fairytale campus of Reed College, meaning I got only one photo of the event and ninety pictures of the grounds, haha.

I was a little bit skeptical going in, thinking this was going to be about the basics of working with students. There were some workshops taught at that level, but there was definitely enough of a selection to keep everyone happy. First, though, can we just ooh and aah a little bit more at the campus?

Okay, back to the conference. The opening session was taught by professor John Runcie from Concordia University who was so entertaining, it didn't even matter if you'd missed out on coffee that morning! He had tons of great advice on helping students with pronunciation issues.

Everyone is always freaking out about accents, and I totally get this. I hear my own accent when speaking Russian and think "ewww, gross". But on the other hand, what's the big deal? Are you going to be a super-spy or something? A lot of people think Russian accents are sexy, and I tell my students this when they starts panicking about th sounds. (If only American accents sounded as sexy in Russian. *sigh*) Professor Runcie also had same approach to accents- what matters is being understandable, not being perfect. (Also, to any Russian spies reading this; forget the accent and watch out for the sneeze instead. If you say up chee instead of ah choo, it's a dead giveaway.)

Another good point he made is that the learner has to be able to hear a difference between sounds before they can recreate them. In Russian, I have trouble with the и and ы sounds. I could never make the ы because it sounded the same as и. Only when my ear could finally hear the difference, could I start to try using the ы.

The next session was another presentation on pronunciation, this time by a speech therapist. She brought several of her students along to co-star, which was cool. One thing she said was a total ah-ha! moment. At that time I'd been working with a Vietnamese speaker for several months. We'd been doing a lot of pronunciation work, most recently on words that end in -x or -ks.
I would say "six" and she would say "si".
I'd say "books" and she would say "buh".
The speech therapist said that Vietnamese drops the final consonants in words. Bingo! Thanks to that morning's sessions, the next time I met with the student we would a) make sure she could hear the sounds and b) go over this difference between English and Vietnamese.

The sessions were just over an hour each, and you know what happens when you don't feed your attendees often enough in this country ;) So, lunch! Lunch was held in another building, which meant more campus admiration.

There were student speakers, tables of food, and lots of good conversation. My companion most of the morning was another Katherine (Katheryn?) who had once applied to teach in Russia and was now getting her masters in TESOL. There were textbook giveaways everywhere, and most people loaded up on the freebies. I finally discovered which textbook my old Ukrainian school had copied all their material from ;)

After finding our way back to the other building...

... there was one more session. This one was hilarious- it was on grammar, so everyone showed up for a lecture blah blah blah. But it was not to be.

Instead, the presenters modeled grammar as a verb. By this, I mean they didn't speak any English for 75 minutes. They started by introducing themselves in a foreign language. All of us had to go around (with looks of incredulous wtf-ery) introducing ourselves in the same language.

Then we wrote down words and sentences in second foreign language while the presenters corrected our writing. Then we conversed in a third foreign language and ended with tongue twisters in yet another foreign language. I think there might have been a fifth foreign language in there too.

You can see some of the languages here. The introductions were done in Russian and people spoke like they were afraid they were going to break their mouth ;)

It was a good reminder in how far you can get in languages with sounds similar to your own... and what it feels like to be an absoluter beginner!

You can probably guess what I did after the conference ended-

- even finding areas that looked more lived in. Slightly.

I feel like I know this campus really well now. In just one month, there was the nuclear reactor tour, this conference, and then the Putinism lecture.

One other advantage of coming here is that it's accessible by train + short walk.

Once you get off the train, you follow the golf course to the rhododendron garden-

- while wondering who lives in the masterpieces on the other side of the street.

Since the conference ended, I entered my 9th month as a volunteer tutor here at a Portland non-profit. I do the intake / ESL testing and teach one class a week. The students are, as they are everywhere, insanely amazing. The non-profit is, as they are everywhere, chaotic and underfunded and well-intentioned. In the last few weeks, people from Somalia, Vietnam, Micronesia, Ukraine, Belarus, China, and Mexico have come in for testing. It's so much fun to work with them!


  1. The phonological chart looks really interesting. Is it in a published book or just a handout you got?

    The campus certainly looks like a nice place to enjoy in the breaks!

    1. Oooh, good question! It was just a handout, but I see this on the bottom of the page: Asian Project, Los Angeles Unified School District, M.Choy, 1981, Adapted for Vancouver Public Schools.

      How is the language learning / teaching going? Is Bulgaria winning you over, or is Vietnam still in your heart?

  2. I wish I could take professional development courses here in Russia. I feel like I need a refresher on everything!

    Russians are SO critical of their accents. It's actually annoying. I love Russian accents. I hate the way my boyfriend speaks English (unfortunately, my Russian is horrible so we have to stick to English), but he's trying to talk in an American accent. He once spoke with a really Russian accent and I couldn't stop laughing because it was so funny!

    1. Aww, Russian / American couples are the best! <3 Have you guys gotten on the topic of childhood cartoons yet? Funniest. Topic. Ever! You definitely have to discuss these 2 things:

      The school I taught for was also pretty weak on professional development. I ended up doing my own teacher development through blogs and online courses (MOOC). Did you look into those options?