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Interview with Tom Kenny

tom_kenny.gifTom Kenny is co-author of Nice Talking With You.

(Note: At the time of this interview Tom taught at Nanzan University. He is currrently teaching at Nagoya University of Foreign Studies -ed.)



On Japan

ELTNEWS
What bought you to Japan?
Tom
When I finished graduate school, I had a degree in linguistics and no interest in jumping immediately into a Ph.D. program. It just seemed like teaching ESL was the right thing to do, and Japan was the right place to do it in. I have to admit that I had no particular fascination for things Japanese prior to coming here, although I like living in Japan just fine now.
ELTNEWS
What advice would you give to prospective teachers thinking of teaching in Japan?
Tom
I guess, first, it depends on how you define "teacher." Does it mean anyone who speaks English as a native language? Is it any native speaker who can occupy a student's time for fifty or ninety minutes? Otherwise, I'd ask prospective teachers "Why do you want to come to Japan?" If you think that you'll be a novelty here with your gaijin-ness, fuhgeddabowdit.

"English teachers" in Japan are a dime-a-dozen. If you don't know anything about teaching, don't think that someone will teach you how to do it. You will have pretty much have to figure it out for yourself. If you want to come, however, for the teaching challenge that Japan presents, then come on! You may have the time of your life. I am.
ELTNEWS
How does working in the Japanese university system compare with those of other countries you have worked in?
Tom
Can't say, really. Except as a graduate teaching assistant in the US, I never taught in any other country's university system. That aside, they seem to like meetings around here. Lots of 'em. Good time to catch up on my kanji study.

On Japanese Students

ELTNEWS
It is generally acknowledged that the level of English proficiency among Japanese -- despite the amount of money spent on EFL in the country – is below average compared to other countries. What are your views on this?
Tom
I can't imagine that I could say anything new that hasn't already been said over & over again on this topic. Pass!
ELTNEWS
How do you compare Japanese students with those of other nationalities you have taught?
Tom
Some of the Latin American kids I've taught were decent enough speakers, I guess, but I remember getting them to do what you want them to in class was always much tougher than with the Japanese. I guess that the reticent nature of the Japanese has always motivated me – once you get them going, it's such a joy to see them improve. There's such a payoff in that. The Japanese have always been my favorites, as students go.
ELTNEWS
What activities or exercises do you do for a class you have met for the first time? Do you have a personal favorite?
Tom
It's part of my personality to come on strong, and I expect classes to rise to my energy level quickly, the first day. I like to do a TPR activity that's very noisy, one with lots of hand-clapping & foot-stomping. Later we trade the physical noise for a spoken cacophony! I like anything that gets them out of their seats & chatty quickly – "Find someone who…" activities are great for that.

Otherwise, I'm not a big fan of games: I'm not saying that they don't work well, it's just that I don't know enough of them. I don't like the "Pet gaijin teacher" attitude, so I don't believe in answering all your student's questions about you & your life on the first day, you know, "Where are you from?" "Why did you come to Japan?" sort of thing. I think it's better to keep them guessing about you. Reveal yourself to them bit by bit over the semester, if at all.

One thing that I think is essential for teachers to do on the first day is to tell the students what to expect from you and your class. I'm not talking how about much fun every class will be, or about what textbook you'll use, or running down a list of THE RULES. I mean share with your students the vision that you have for their learning. You will never have their attention better to accomplish this than on the first day. Be concrete and concise. Tell them what they will be able to do at the end of the year that they can't do now, at that very moment. And let them know that you will serve as their guide. Introducing "the vision thing" right at the start, and then leading students back to it, saves a million hassles with motivating learners later.

On Publications

ELTNEWS
How did you get into writing course textbooks?
Tom
Nobody calls you up out of the blue and asks you to do it, that's for sure. And you don't start by saying, "Hey I want to be like Michael Rost when I grow up, so how do I get on that gravy train?" You start by using everyone else's books, seeing what works, discarding the stuff that doesn't make sense to you, while all the time you're building your ideas about what learners need –at the level you're teaching them—to improve their acquisition. The 'Nice Talking With You' text came out of the materials that we (gradually) designed for our classes at Nanzan University, beginning in 1994.

I'd felt for a long time that university freshmen in Japan need to master basic lexical phrases & communication strategies. To my ear, that's the stuff that's missing from their "question-answer, question-answer" type conversations. The other thing is that they need the chance to talk A LOT. And I don't mean just regurgitating memorized dialogs, or going through tightly-controlled "Information gap" exercises – I mean, letting them experiment with spontaneous, interactional language in free practice. I also discovered a few other cool things in teaching them–

* by giving them a framework (how to begin & end their conversations) and by keeping conversations short (1 or 2 minutes at first, longer by semester's end) they gained a lot of confidence in free practice.

* because the conversations were short, I could train students to notice language items their partners' used or that they used.

Giving them a brief period of reflection after each conversation helped to reinforce what they were learning. Anyway, Linda Woo, who was just coming into Nanzan full-time, and I started working on this material together. We made up a list of basic phrases that we felt our students just HAD to know, and then integrated the phrases into some easy topics, so that we could push fluency out of our students.

It worked so well for us! Our classes were very bright, very active. With noticing we felt like our students were not just better speakers, but also better learners. By the time our students had been through 2 semesters with us, we could see that they were more confident. We felt like, because of the material, our classes really made a difference in our students' learning.

We brought the material to Macmillan Language House, who (gratefully) gave us the freedom to keep it really different from any other conversation text on the market. They let us keep the material's methodology woven right into the syllabus as it was. This will probably frustrate teachers who expect a text to teach itself, you know, the type who is concerned only with making sure that students' time is occupied for 90 minutes. Nice Talking With You won't let you do that. You've got to keep the big picture –your vision for your students' learning— in mind. It is definitely the kind of text where it helps to read the teacher's book!
ELTNEWS
What advice would you give to prospective textbook or material writers? What essential points must be covered before submitting proposals and ideas to publishers?
Tom
Most publishers are rather conservative, so if you have a text that is very different from anything else on the market, be ready to explain the ideas that support it. Make sure that you know how your book fills the need in the market. Finally, don't count on your publisher to do all of your selling for you – get out there & spread the word about your text!

On Research

ELTNEWS
Are you engaged in any academic research right now? What avenues are you pursuing and why?
Tom
I really love to read and write and talk about what I'm learning. I get together with a handful of colleagues pretty regularly, and we talk about the articles we've stumbled across, or the books we've picked up recently. It's fun. We're just grad students at heart, I guess. In second language acquisition, I'm doing a lot of reading in listening, speaking, and lexical acquisition. I'm much more interested in the spoken language than in reading & writing. In linguistics, my favorite areas are pragmatics and discourse analysis. I'm constantly searching for insights into language that I can apply with my learners.
ELTNEWS
How many presentations do you give every year? How do you select the theme of your presentations? What themes are you going to cover in future events and conferences?
Tom
I give about 8 - 10 presentations a year, including JALT's national conference. The themes are almost always related to what I'm doing in the classroom, so they're about ways to improve students' fluency, consciousness-raising activities, and learner self-evaluation. Lately, I've been working in listening strategies and communicative competence. I'm also finishing a study on the effect of teaching pragmatic markers. Stay tuned!

On Professionalism

ELTNEWS
A significant number of schools in Japan, particularly in the conversation school sector, don't require teaching job applicants to have any formal teaching qualifications. Some people argue that knowledge of EFL methodology is essential in providing students with good quality lessons, others say that it is not. What are your views on this?
Tom
Of course, this begs the question, "Is providing students with good, quality lessons essential?" Lots of good second language learning goes on without any lessons at all, just highly motivated, hard-working students ganbaru-ing. How essential are teachers to the process? A lot has been written about how to teach, but, in fact, very little is known about how learners learn a second language. So I don't think that everyone trained as a teacher can be assumed to be a great facilitator of language learning.

If there is one lesson that we have learned from the conversation schools, it's that any native speaker can be groomed to pass as a teacher. I worked in them, I paid my dues! I worked with some people there who had no business standing in front of a group of learners. But I also worked with some very dedicated people who loved teaching, with whom I learned a thing or two about teaching.

What can I say? It's a mixed bag. And I promise you this – students get a mixed bag of teachers WHEREVER they go, universities and high schools are no exception. So, will knowledge of EFL methodology make a teacher? Probably couldn't hurt. Is it absolutely essential? No. Should education focus more on the learner learning rather than the teacher's teaching? Yes.
ELTNEWS
What resources (e.g. books, web sites, teacher organizations) have been beneficial to your professional development as an educator? What resources would you strongly recommend to a teacher?
Tom
Naturally, I've gotta say the Internet! The web sites that have cropped up over the last two years have been immensely helpful in getting teaching ideas, access to research and keeping people in touch.

As for teaching organizations, I owe a true debt to JALT, and I encourage everybody to attend their conferences and to present for themselves. Presenting forces you explain very clearly to others that which you believe. It makes you develop—and explicitly state—your beliefs about language, language learning, and your teaching.

If you're looking for some good books, try David Nunan's 'Second Language Teaching & Learning' and 'Second Language Acquisition' by Rod Ellis. I also like Michael Lewis' stuff: Start with his book on practical teaching and then move to 'The Lexical Approach'. Brown & Yule's 'Teaching the Spoken Language' and 'Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching' by Richards & Rodgers are a couple of essential classics that should be on everyone's bookshelves.
ELTNEWS
Thank you for answering these questions.
Tom
Not at all! This was great fun! Hope to talk with you again…



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