When I saw this question on Walton Burns' website, it made me pause and reflect on what it must be like to be an ESL student, and how as teachers, we may contribute to our students' boredom. I had the pleasure of interviewing Walton who is an experienced teacher, materials writer and the Chair of the Materials Writer Interest Section of TESOL. Find out what happened when a brave student piped up about Two Truths and a Lie.
Here is my interview:
Thank you for doing this interview Walton. Can you start off by telling us where you teach?
At the moment, I do some freelance tutoring mainly for international students or adults living in the area New Haven area of Connecticut, USA but I’m currently doing more materials writing as it allows me to spend time with my son.
How long have you been teaching?
I began teaching in 2001 when I traveled to Vanuatu in the Peace Corps and I started writing materials professionally in 2007.
Can you describe a typical working day?
After breakfast, I usually run up to my home office and answer emails for half an hour or take care of some other small quick business, like paying bills. My wife gets our son ready for preschool. It’s my job to take my son to preschool, he has decided. Then I come back home, pour a second cup of coffee, and get down to work.
If it’s a day I have a lesson, I start off prepping right away. I always like to prepare for lessons first thing in the morning, regardless of when the lesson is. If not, I try to tackle the biggest project I have on my plate, such as working on a textbook. I’m usually at my most focused in the morning. Around 12, my son comes home from preschool and we do a family lunch. After lunch, I may have a lesson or I may go back up and work, while my son naps. If I have a lesson, I usually get back just in time to wake Adam up and watch some YouTube videos with him.
My wife and I swap days playing with Adam in the afternoon. On my working afternoons, I usually try to do something that doesn’t take as much concentration, such as reading articles or doing invoices. And like many freelancers, I’m often finishing things up in the evening, too.
What do you do in your spare time to relax?
I love playing Minecraft. And Portals. That’s a fun game. I also like to read and listen to podcasts. And I’ve managed to combine the two. I’ve recently been listening to the Game of Thrones books as audiobooks while doing chores around the house, which is brilliant.
What is your biggest challenge as a teacher?
Since I love to learn new things, I find it hard when I encounter a student who needs to be convinced why he needs to learn. I’ve done a lot of tutoring, so my students usually come to me and they have a particular goal in mind. They want to learn English to pass the TOEFL and study in the US. They want to be able to do errands in English. They need English to write memos at their job. So it’s always difficult when I teach a class because there are always students there who lack those kinds of goals and motivation. In those cases, I try to find something interesting for them in English, even if it’s talking about soccer or being able to understand songs and movies in English.
You took on the tremendous task of writing a book. How did you come up with the idea for your book 50 Activities for the First Day of School?
I’ve always loved teacher resource books. I have a shelf full of titles by Penny Ur and Mario Rinvolucri. So I knew that the first book I developed myself was going to be a collection of activities for books. But why classroom community builders and first day activities?
About four years ago, on the first day of a new session at an Intensive English Program, I was teaching fourth period. I told my class we were going to start with a fun game of “Two Truths and a Lie” and asked if they knew how to play it. Students muttered, “Yes, teacher,” and others gave off sighs or put their heads in their hands. I asked what the problem was and one brave student told me, “Teacher, we played that game three times today. All of our teachers today played that game with us.”
My first thought wasn’t, “How uncreative!” My first thought was actually, “I hope that next term my class is first semester so I can play Two Truths a Lie with them before they get bored of it!” That’s when I realized I had a problem. So I started collecting these activities and recording them with very clear, easy instructions so I could pull them out in the blink of an eye.
What do you wish you knew before you wrote your book?
I suppose every author says this, but I wish I’d known more about marketing. Still, it’s rather fun to learn as I go. Hopefully, I’m not making too many mistakes. And the fun side of marketing is that I’m doing a lot of interviews, like this one, and guest posts and spending more time developing my PDN (professional learning network). Before, I tried to do those things in my free time, but now it’s part of my job to keep up with Facebook groups and tweet a lot!
How long did it take you to write your book?
Well, I’ve been collecting the activities and adapting them as I use them for years. As far as actually sitting down and writing it and then getting it edited and designed, it took around 4 months. If I’d started from scratch, I’m sure it would have taken much longer.
How has the book been received in the ELT community?
Overall, I’m amazed at how many people really seem to like the book. I think people like having a lot of activities all in one place. Teachers also seem to appreciate the variations and adaptations. No activity is going to fit every classroom, so I tried to include a lot of ways to doing the same activity. It’s also fun to note that everyone seems to have a different favorite activity. And different activities they’ve never heard of before.
I’ve also gotten a lot of positive feedback about the way the activities are presented. There are thousands of icebreakers out there, but on the first day we don’t want our students doing a perfunctory icebreaker just because they’re supposed to. The point of doing a getting to know you activity is to build classroom community and rapport. I’ve tried to approach these activities with that greater goal in mind.
Where can teachers purchase your book?
It’s available anywhere you buy books or click on the link http://www.alphabetpublishingbooks.com/buy-50-activities-first-day-school/
Thank you so much Walton. I will never think about Two Truths and Lie in the same way again!
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