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Compelling Conversations for English Teachers, Tutors, and Advanced English Language Learners

  1. Passion and Persistence: Self-Published ESL Authors Tell Their Stories

    January 25, 2010 by Eric Roth
    Eric Roth

    What motivates ESL teachers to become authors? Why do many of these authors self-publish? What’s their likelihood of success?

    Naturally, I’m quite interested in these questions – and hope other English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers will share my interests. The acceptance of this panel discussion by CATESOL for the state conference both surprised and pleased me – especially since I’m the third panelist!

    Here is the original 300-word proposal written in third person to make it sound more academic. Elizabeth Weal, the panel organizer and ESL author, wrote the successful proposal. She also chose the catchy title.
    Passion and Persistence: Self-Published ESL Authors Tell Their Stories

    In this CATESOL panel discussion, three authors of ESL books will share the pleasures and perils of self-publishing as well as offer tips for those contemplating writing and publishing an ESL text.

    Like most sectors of the textbook market, the ESL textbook market is dominated by a few large publishers. But the situation is rapidly changing as increasing numbers of ESL professionals-turned-authors start their own publishing companies, maintaining control over virtually every aspect of the book production process.

    In this panel three authors of successful ESL books will recount their experiences publishing ESL texts. What motivated them to put pen to paper? Why did they self-publish as opposed to turning to a traditional publisher? How do these authors define success? What has been their greatest disappointment? What previously unfilled niche does their book fill?

    The authors also will touch on some of the key issues self-published authors most address: Concerns about self-publishing and academic respectability, risks and benefits of self-publishing, and steps to follow in the self-publishing process.

    Each panelist comes to the table with a different perspective. Diane Asitimbay, author of What’s Up America? wanted to answer the most common and embarrassing questions ESL students asked her; Eric H. Roth, author of Compelling Conversations teaches international graduate students the pleasures and perils of writing and speaking in English at the University of Southern California. Elizabeth Weal, author of Gramática del ingles: Past a paso and English Grammar Step by Step wanted to find a way to explain English grammar to Spanish speakers who knew very little about grammar in English or Spanish.

    Ample time will be left at the end of the discussion to take questions from the audience.

    Self-publishing is both a pleasure and a headache, but I’m going to accent the positive. After all, as Churchill noted, “success is going from failure to failure without a loss of enthusiasm.”

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  2. What Does Success Mean? What Definition Works for You?

    August 10, 2009 by Eric Roth
    Eric Roth

    Sometimes the simplest questions create the best conversations.

    What does success mean? What definition are you using? How is that definition working for you?

    After a hectic summer teaching English and directing a private high school English program in Vietnam, I’ve been asking myself these questions quite a bit. I learned many lessons, deepened a close friendship with two old friends, met many fine English teachers, and enjoyed working and living in a rapidly developing nation. I discovered new places, ate new dishes, and saw new sights. That sounds like success.

    From a professional English teaching perspective, I also made some significant curriculum changes, adding more student-centered activities and oral presentations. Further, I oversaw the creation of a new, tailored version of Compelling Conversations: Questions and Quotations for Vietnamese English Language Learners. From the resume perspective, the summer certainly was successful. The bank account shows progress. Success right?

    Yet there were several disappointments and setbacks both inside and outside the private school and EFL classrooms too. “Stunning” became an adjective of choice, and often as an expression of exasperation. The everyday restriction of information and huge income disparities continually discomforted me. I experienced culture shock for weeks, and often felt dislocated and ill at ease. I didn’t exactly feel successful. Or at least, this success didn’t feel so comfortable. As George Bernard Shaw noted, “Success covers a multitude of blunders.”

    Therefore, I’ve been reflecting on the meaning of career success, and having some wonderful conversations with friends and fellow English and ESL teachers. Do you know the website I often go there for ideas – and sometimes classroom materials for advanced ESL students.

    Today, this lecture on developing a kinder, gentler definition of success from a TED conference by Alain de Botton commanded my attention. With wit and humor, the philosophical author critiqued the contemporary obsession with career success.

    Personally, I found Botton’s words and reflections refreshing and helpful. You might too. Listen for yourself, and found out!

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    A kinder, gentler definition of success


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  3. Authentic Conversations vs Crazed Crowds in Slumdog Millionaire and The Wrestler

    February 22, 2009 by User ImageChimayo Press
    Chimayo Press

    Have you seen Slumdog Millionaire yet? What about the Wrestler? Both of these outstanding films offer many poignant scenes, powerful performances, and excellent dialogue. Both movies should collect at least a few Oscars tonight.
    Yet one often overlooked feature of both films remains their depiction of the allure and danger of crowds. A mob scene, fueled by religious hatred, leads to a brutal massacre in Slumdog Millionaire that haunts the main character. Unfortunately, as the recent televised terrorist attacks in Mumbai show, religious intolerance remains a huge problem both within India and between India and Pakistan.
    Likewise, The Wrestler shows the pleasures for a star pe- whether as a wrestler or stripper – of a crowd’s attention and brief affection. Yet the film also discloses both the fragility of the crowd’s affection – and ugly underside that can emerge. Wresting crowds scream for righteous violence, pushing performers to both abuse their rivals and themselves to appease the calls for literal blood. How far have we really come since ancient Roman gladiators?
    Further, both award-winning films show how individuals need to connect and overcome isolation. Authentic, private conversations offer a chance for characters to find solace, friendship, and love.
    The Wrestler gives glimpses into the possibilities for a broken father-daughter relationship with seaside walks and talks. Yet it also painfully portrays the gap between vague intentions and actual commitment when a father fails to ask questions, listen to, and pay attention to his daughter.
    In the film, the wrestler knows almost nothing about his daughter – and can only relate on a superficial role to role manner. Without giving away too much of the plot, the main character’s inability to really talk to and care about females leads to dangerous dependence on worshiping crowds. He could relate to groups of people – and his profession encouraged relating based on stereotypes. This failure to engage with individuals instead of abstract types causes many painful mistakes – and helps push the Wrestler over the edge.
    I recognize that creating space for authentic classroom conversations, especially in a second, third, or fourth language is difficult. Private English tutors often form a closer, more natural bond while teaching English than many adult education English teachers working with large classes. That’s probably inevitable since numbers do matter. After all, tutors can tailor their private English lessons to their clients and allow natural conversations to evolve.
    Yet caring, thoughtful English teachers can also carve out some space for students to express their thoughts and share their experience in both classroom discussions and private conversations. Conversation practice, however, makes English class far more student-centered and gives students a chance to learn by doing. In fact, I consider teaching conversation skills to be an essential skill for everyone – parents, children, immigrants, workers, wrestlers, policeman, and family members. Conversation allows us to learn about others, explore our own lives, and overcome loneliness. Just asking questions, listening to responses, and exchanging a few reflective words can deepen and improve relationships – inside a classroom and outside in the world.
    Authentic conversations as the healthy counter to mindless violence of crazed crowds can be clearly seen in both Slumdog Millionaire and The Wrestler. Perhaps that message will reach some of the estimated 1 billion people watching the Oscar show later tonight on television and at parties. I hope so.
    As Thomas Mann wrote, “Silence isolates… Conversation is civilization itself.”

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  4. English Teaching Professional Strongly Recommends Compelling Conversations!

    January 29, 2009 by User ImageChimayo Press
    Chimayo Press

    Consider my global soul satisfied this morning!

    English Teaching Professional, a glossy magazine for ESL teachers and language school directors, gave a glowing review and strong recommendation to Compelling Conversations: Questions and Quotations on Timeless Topics. “In sum, Compelling Conversations is a recommended resource for teachers who want to make their conversation classes more learner-centered,” wrote reviewer Hall Houston. “It should be especially appealing to those who who to escape the confines of the Presentation-Practice-Production approach and do without a formal grammatical or functional syllabus. It reflects the authors’ considerable professional experience, and would be a notable addition to any English teacher’s bookshelf.” The review also features a large copy of the book cover. Wow!

    Houston also writes, “In my own teaching, I have found questions and quotations to be highly effective in promoting student discussion.” The review continues. “Questions are useful in that they require a response from the listener. Asking them also helps students master the tricky rules of the interrogative.”

    “Quotations are brilliant flashes of wit expressed in the shortest space possible, often just a sentence or two,” observes Houston. “The authors have compiled a formidable collection of quotations by famous people from Napoleon and Aristotle to Tom Cruise and Sylvester Stallone. Some will have the students roaring with laughter ‘My movies were the kind they show in prisons and airplanes because nobody can leave.’ – Burt Reynolds), while others require careful introspection (‘Love is not just looking at each other; it’s looking in the same direction.’ – Antoine de Saint Exupery).”

    The reviewer goes on. “The authors also add some wise proverbs here and there. My two favourites were ‘Recite “patience” three times and it will spare you a murder’ and ‘When money talks, truth keeps silent’, which are from Korea and Russia.” Houston, by the way, is the author of the outstanding ESL textbook The Creative Classroom: Teaching Languages Outside the Book. Coming from Houston, these words are especially pleasing.

    My co-author Toni Aberson also appreciates that Houston, an English teacher working in Luzhu, Taiwan wrote the review in a British magazine with British spellings about an English textbook published in the United States. This international element adds a special delight to a long, three column review. “I just love it!”, exclaimed Aberson. We certainly live in a wonderful time to be English teachers.

    While I my copy of English Teaching Professional two days ago, the January 2009 issue has been out for at least a week. The review appears on p.44 in Issue 60. Subscribers can access the full review at

    This positive book review might help explain the recent surge of class set orders. It also helps explain the sudden collection of emails and calls from Vietnam, Russia, Italy, and Canada in the last week about Compelling Conversations and possible collaborations. The appreciation of fellow ESL professionals gives me additional confidence, joy, and popularity. Sweet!

    Let’s enjoy our 21st century lives!

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  5. How Many American Adults Can Not Read This Blog? Can Not Read?

    January 10, 2009 by User ImageChimayo Press
    Chimayo Press

    Illiteracy, the inability to turn abstract symbols called letters into meaningful words, should be a vanishing problem. Unfortunately, in the United States, adult illiteracy remains quite widespread.

    How many American adults can’t even read this blog? How many American adults can’t read a simple newspaper article, understand warning labels, or write an effective complaint letter? Can’t read? Take a guess. Five million adults? Ten million adults? Twelve million adults?

    According to a new federal study just released, an estimated 32 million American adults remain functionally illiterate in 2009.

    Greg Toppo told part of the depressing story yesterday in an excellent, concise USA TODAY frontpage article. Title? Literacy Study: 1 in 7 U.S. adults are unable to read this story. “A long-awaited federal study finds that an estimated 32 million adults in the USA — about one in seven — are saddled with such low literacy skills that it would be tough for them to read anything more challenging than a children’s picture book.”

    Is the situation improving? NO! “From 1992 to 2003, it shows, the USA added about 23 million adults to its population; in that period, an estimated 3.6 million more joined the ranks of adults with low literacy skills.” A U.S. Education Department expert explains. “”They really cannot read … paragraphs (or) sentences that are connected,”

    USA TODAY deserves credit for bringing more attention than usual to this avoidable tragedy. President John F. Kennedy famously noted that “a child miseducated is a child lost.” Those lost children have become adults!

    So how can we explain these shocking (yet very familiar to experts) findings? How is this possible? Why is this awful situation tolerated? Please don’t tell me that there is a lack of money because the federal government just gave away – without conditions or even pretense of accountability – $350 BILLION dollars to wealthy banks and mega international corporations.

    The American public education system is failing on multiple levels. Adult education remains the stepchild of public education. Underfunded, often overlooked, and seldom appreciated, adult education plays a vital role in teaching essential life skills – including reading and writing – to thousands. Thousands of adult educators work long hours in stressful jobs, often part-time without fulltime benefits, to help high school dropouts prepare for a GED and new immigrants learn English. Yet the gap between the objective educational needs and funding to provide a real first world education to these struggling adults remains huge.

    “Only the educated are free,” noted Epictetus, a former slave and Greek stoic philosopher, over 2,000 years ago. How free are those 32 illiterate American adults?

    Will President Obama address this widespread, documented crisis in public education? Perhaps.
    The United States is wasting our capital resources! It’s long past time to invest in our own people, rebuild our inner cities, and recover the American dream. So will Obama reorganize our education system and direct billions needed to provide real universal public education?

    Consider me, as so often, a sceptic.

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  6. Let’s Talk About the American Elections, Voting, and Democratic Values in English Class

    November 7, 2008 by User ImageChimayo Press
    Chimayo Press

    Who makes the rules? Who chooses the rulers? Can citizens peacefully replace ineffective, unpopular leaders?

    Yes, we can!

    In the United States of America, voters enjoyed their opportunity to hire and fire their President. People voted, machines counted the votes, and millions of people around the nation smiled, laughed, and felt hopeful again. Senator Obama, as so often, captured the power and beauty of the peaceful transfer of power in his eloquent speech Tuesday.

    “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer. “

    Barack Hussein Obama (1961- ), President-elect of the United States

    Read Obama’s entire speech.

    What a patriotic quotation celebrating freedom! Cara Fulton, at and ESL maven, suggests adding Obama’s quote to the list of great quotes and next edition of Compelling Conversations. Cara, who helps students develop the full spectrum of English language skills, sees the power of Obama’s election as a celebration of America. Reka, another friend and ESL teacher is adding excerpts from Obama’s speech to her oral skills course for international students. (Note: Reka watch the two times – back to back – on election night.) Americans, across the country, felt united in a shared moment of hope and pride. Our system, the democratic system, still works! Voting counts.

    We are coming back – to our ideals, our citizens, and our best traditions! The United States, the first nation explicitly created on enlightenment ideals, will become an inspiring 21st century nation.

    This surprising election seems like a very teachable moment. Immigrants and international students can rest assured that they made the right decision to come to the United States. English language learners around the world should feel the enlarged possibilities that come with our strange tongue. European sceptics and Arab critics should candidly reassess their prejudices about Americans and the American government. After all, Obama – the son of an international African student and an adventurous Midwestern scholar – has just won the Presidency of the United States. Where else could that happen?

    ESL teachers, especially in the United States, can and should celebrate this democratic tradition in our classrooms. Immigrants, refugees, and international students – in the United States and other western democratic countries – often understand the power of democracy on a deeper level than many jaded Americans. The passion of students for good government, justice, and voting will lead to an engaging discussions. Let’s give students a chance to speak up in our classes, and marvel at the election of Obama.

    Click here for a free advanced ESL conversation lesson on Voting from Compelling Conversations.

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