Continuing Education

“We Do a Lot of Laughing”: Striking Up Everyday English Conversation

For some instructors, teaching is an opportunity to perform before a live (albeit captive) audience. The curriculum stands for their script and the classroom their stage. For Everyday English Conversation instructor Susan "Susie" Ross addressing a classroom was not a substitute for the life of an entertainer, but the logical addendum to long and colorful career.

ImageRoss came from a prestigious artistic background, her father, Stefan Schnabel, was a successful professional actor, having been a long-time ensemble member of Orson Welles’ Mercury Radio Theatre and actor on the daytime drama The Guiding Light for 20 years.  “He was a huge influence on me,” says Ross.  “I loved his life, being part of it, and learned about acting by watching him and other actors perform.”

Ross’ own career as a professional actor would eventually encompass 30 years spent in LORT and Regional Theaters all over the country. However, as any seasoned actor will tell you, theatre is a high energy calling that requires a great of energy and mental retention, qualities that become less reliable as we age. Ross eventually found herself making a career shift by enrolling in Seattle’s S-TESL program in pursuit an ESL teaching degree.

For Ross, teaching ESL and English Conversation just made sense considering her background. “Coaching and directing actors have also always fascinated me,” she says. “Teaching English is closely allied to these skills. Teaching the meaning of a word often requires acting it out, creating situations that show how a word is used.”

“I came to North in the summer of 2007 teaching English to Japanese High School kids, and then was asked to stay on as a regular ESL teacher in the Fall of 2007,” Ross recalls. “I taught until 2015 in the Intensive English Program (IEP), teaching academic English to young foreign students.  My specialty area is Listening and Speaking.”

According to Ross, reading and writing a new language is not as difficult as speaking it. “Learning to speak a new language is quite terrifying,” she says. “As a teacher, I am aware of the shyness and difficulties most students experience.” At the same time, it came as a tremendous surprise to her that her students are generally better Imageeducated about English than Americans. “Their understanding of English grammar and the structure of English is far greater than most Americans because they have studied our language in far greater depth than we have.”

Speaking a new language can be a terrifying experience.  Ross says laughter is the best antidote to that fear. “We do a lot of laughing and having fun with English conversation in my class.  In my classroom, we work to relax enough for good English conversation to happen.  English pronunciation, the music and flow of the English language, and excellent diction are accentuated skills students learn in everyday conversation.”

A big part of Everyday English Conversation is introducing non-native speakers to American idiom and slang. Ross says age really dictates interest where this aspect of conversation is concerned. “So much depends on the age of the students,” she says. “Well, you know, the ‘f’ word is high on the hit parade.  They want to know all about it.  And sex and dating slang words in general.  This is an area of deep fascination for the younger ones.  Mature students want to know about business and work idioms.  Our language is rife with idioms.  I give my students a great study book called 101 American English Idioms, a colorful, well-illustrated book full of our most common idioms.”

Ross says establishing a common ground for people from many different cultures is paramount and the best way to do this is to bring the world outside into her classroom. “Every day, students meet a wide range of American people on buses, in restaurants and at school. In class, we converse about those experiences,” she says.  “Every week, I bring American guest speakers into the classroom who introduce different American cultural topics from their professional Imagepoints-of-view.  Engineers, foster parents, scientists, poets, ambulance drivers, and philosophers, people with a wide range of experience and expertise give the students a new vocabulary to deal with, and then sit down and have one-on-one conversations with the students.  Students have an opportunity to discuss cultural differences with me and with the guest speakers.  And of course, they have a chance to practice, practice, practice their English conversation skills.”

That being said, how does an instructor connect people from different cultures in actual one-on-one conversation? Ross starts with a question: “What is an appropriate conversation topic and where and with whom?  After building up confidence in speaking English in the classroom, I bring up interesting, forbidden topics (for example, politics, sex and dating, religion), subjects that perhaps they never would talk about in their school in their home country. These topics are agreed on by the students who find the idea of these conversations both challenging and fascinating.  This is America.  We can talk about anything!”

Ross says she hopes her Everyday English Conversation students will come away from her class with a greater ease, enjoyment and understanding of speaking English. “I hope they will gain comfort with talking to strangers, American work colleagues, and each other. I hope they will learn how to start a conversation with a stranger, and how to reply to invitations for conversation in social situations.”

Learn more about Everyday English Conversation.

Photo credit #3: WSU Vancouver_cc_2.0