Thursday, February 12, 2015

Writing, Teaching, & Technology EJ's Way

EJ Sepp teaching his current level-6 class.

NYLC instructor EJ Sepp and a group of post-advanced students headed to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, for a class project last session. Their task was to track down different types of hipsters, observe one, then write a short essay or poem about the person. They were to watch and take photos from afar lest they bother anyone. With the neighborhood being the current hip hangout and home to New York City artists and musicians, the students found no shortage of subjects to covertly follow, take pictures of, and write about.

"I told them to think of how they viewed the life of these people," EJ says, "what's important to them; what their values are."

Their writings, photos, and drawings have been compiled into a self-published booklet called "My Hipster" and is now at the Brooklyn Art Library as part of the library's Sketchbook Project, which allows patrons to add their work to its shelves for the price of a blank notebook. This task was one of the students' favorites, but it was just one of several in the 8-week Reading and Writing course, which was also designed to introduce students to different neighborhoods in the city and teach them about each area's personality.

The textbook used for the class, "English Express New York: A Cultural Reading & Writing Text for English Language Learners," was written by EJ, himself, together with his sister, Mary, who has a Ph.D. in linguistics and teaches ESL (English as a Second Language) at CUNY. The book is published by Kendall Hunt. His sister wrote most of the exercises and projects, while EJ penned most of the stories that constituted the meat of each chapter, and they were based on stories told to him by past students, including some from NYLC. Using his own textbook to teach a class proved eye-opening. He learned which activities worked better than others and which neighborhoods were more popular among the students. Based on his experiences with the class, a future project might include creating supplemental materials with extra activities to complement the textbook, and he's already thinking of improvements for a second edition.

EJ has taught at NYLC since the summer of 2010; however, he's been teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) for two decades. A native New Yorker, he received his Bachelor's of Arts in Journalism at Fordham University, then he spent time at the University of California to study screenwriting. He left ESL after getting married to work in web production, content management, and writing and held positions at MTV and Comedy Central, but he later returned to ESL after spending three months in South America with his wife. Now, he's working on a Master of Science in Instructional Technology with a side focus on web design. 

He admits he reluctantly got into ESL in the beginning when his sister, who once worked for Berlitz offered him a teaching job there right after college, but now he enjoys it. In addition to providing him with a decent part-time job while in school and steady work when he's needed it, teaching English for him combines a lifelong love for writing and a keen interest in technology. In fact, "English Express New York" includes suggestions for the use of technology in each chapter.  Now, he's moving toward instructional design and would like to get involved in creating curricula for higher education. Technology in the classroom is sure to be in the forefront of his future projects.

"ESL needs to catch up with the rest of the world when it comes to using technology," he says. "Students already have the ability to use it, teachers just need to figure out ways to get students to use it in the classroom."

To apply what he strongly believes, EJ often incorporates blogging into his lessons and often has students post on his blog. He also has them email their homework. Some students need major coaxing, and some are embarrassed about posting their work online, but with persistence, about 90% eventually do the work and benefit from the exercise.

Tomomi, Kunnada, and Safak, who are currently in his level 6 class collectively agree that they appreciate being able to see each other's submissions online. They also like getting EJ's corrections and seeing his examples of the homework on his blog.

His passion for using technology in the classroom came through during NYLC's annual faculty training session when he led a workshop on how to incorporate technology in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages). Fellow teachers appreciated learning about specific techniques such as Skype reporting, which sends a student outside to interview passersby while taking questions from the class inside. His presentation garnered some positive comments from his colleagues, a couple of whom found it inspiring to have a fellow NYLC instructor share his expertise.

These days, EJ heads to a second job where he's the web producer at a law firm and in-charge of updating web content. His ESL background often comes in handy at the firm, as well, where he's considered a grammar expert and gets asked a lot of questions on how to string sentences together.

The writer in him, of course, is happy to oblige, and his background in TESOL equips him with the expertise to explain the grammar to native speakers. Indeed, it seems writing, teaching, and technology all exert a unified gravitational pull on him, urging him toward great things in his future. We wish him great success.

written by Joe Yu, ESL instructor

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