Voracious VIPKid

I completed the CELTA in mid-August 2016. The next task was, of course, to find a job. At the end of the course, I was exhausted and looking to get away from the DC summer. Accordingly, I bought my ticket to Greece on the last day of the course, IN the class, earning me the award “most likely to travel spontaneously”. It’s not a bad honorable mention. I left the US in mid-September. I was also heading to Amsterdam to see Jasper, and my return ticket to the US was not until just before December.

I have always been an entrepreneurial sort of spirit, and I did what every enterprising person who wants some extra cash does in the emerging gig economy of the 2010’s. I posted my extra room on Airbnb that year. It was a great success and I met some amazing people that I am still friends with today. I had about 200 people stay with me from January to September. A couple from Beijing stayed with me after my CELTA course was done and they told me about an ELT company that was taking China by storm. VIPKid was its name and edutainment was its game.

I wasn’t sure about the edutainment aspect of teaching, and the jury’s still out. I had wanted to teach in a classroom environment to adults initially. But then I considered the possibilities with teaching online. Online allowed me to be anywhere in the world with stable internet. I was a little concerned with the entertainment side of teaching kids as I am a natural introvert but thought that I’d be able to be a little entertaining. So I took the plunge and applied. I did two mock lessons and got hired. I started teaching in October 2016. I left for Greece shortly after being hired and I opened my schedule to classes as soon as I got there. In those bygone days of 2016, you had to open a minimum of 7 hours a week and wear an ugly orange shirt. Luckily the minimums are a thing of the past and thankfully so is the orange shirt. Though I will say that on the days that I didn’t feel like figuring out what to wear, the orange shirt as ugly as it was, came in handy.  But woe unto you if you dare to get sick at VIPKid because their cancellation policy is on the draconian side, though that too has loosened up a bit. You could get six cancellations in a 6-month contract period, so you had, and still have, to be super careful. I went to Denmark and set a stupid hour and a half a day teaching schedule. I used a few cancellations for that. Then I got more careful and the only other times I canceled were because of tech issues I couldn’t control, like when my dad’s internet died while I was staying there, and when I accidentally spilled liquid on my Mac while teaching in August 2017.

I discovered that I am a pretty good edutainer, but I am a better teacher for the older kids who have language than the younger ones. There are of course exceptions to that, like two of my students who are beginners who make my week when I see them. I am in touch with a few parents via WeChat, a Chinese chat app, and one mom has told me that I am the teacher that gets her soft-spoken, rather shy kid to talk. I used to have to prep a lot for each class, but now can literally do them in my sleep.

In my last post, I talked about the insane hours that I was waking up to keep my head above water during the CELTA. Once the idyllic vacation in Europe was over in the winter of 2016, I started thinking about working a 36 hour week in the US. You are likely rolling your eyes at that if you are a teacher at a brick and mortar school. But those were teaching hours, as in on camera, with the student teaching hours. That didn’t include any prep time. And did I mention my workday started at 3 am in the winter and 4 am in the summer? And so it was that in the winter of 2016 while everyone was snug in their beds while sugarplums danced in their heads, I was teaching Baobao (it means very clever in Chinese) his ABC’s and learning how to hide my yawns in the absence of coffee.

Needless to say, it wasn’t long before I started thinking about the glorious European hours and how to get back there. That story’s up next.

That’s all she wrote for this Inkreadable installment. Stay tuned, as always, there is more to come.

 

 

 

 

CELTA Confidential

Picture it: Washington, DC 2016. DC summers swelter, and the sidewalks shimmer with the heat. The air is close, and there is no wind to break it. The almost daily thunderstorm that we get isn’t enough to cool anything down, rather it causes the humidity to set, a fog that rolls in making the trees glisten with moisture. Luckily, unlike the rest of the world, the US loves her airconditioning so it isn’t too bad. The difference in temperature between in and out you do feel, as the two are quite extreme. That was the environment in which I began a foray into my own personal hell. At least, that’s what I thought at the time.

If you have ever learned a language, you know how hard that is. I grew up speaking both Greek and English at home and don’t remember the actual learning of them. I did go to Greek school and so remember some learning but it didn’t feel challenging. The same with learning French, though that was more formal and less osmotic. I actually had to learn rules rather than just absorbing the language as a child does. Learning Dutch as a 42-year-old, THAT’s a challenge. Actually, that’s almost impossible, but the CELTA was still harder.

When you speak and use a language implicitly, you just know when something in the language is used incorrectly by a non-native speaker. You know that it needs fixing and CAN fix it, but explaining how to another person who doesn’t speak the language is extremely difficult. Explaining why it’s wrong, and then explaining the correct way to use the language is hard. Studying for the CELTA, brought that impossibility home like nothing else. Learning a bit of Dutch comes close, but my CELTA was still a hell of a lot harder.

The CELTA is a month-long intensive course of the equivalent of 120 hours class time. That means that for 19 work days, we were in class for eight hours a day. In addition, there was a ton of homework. Four papers about ELT including a pre-course task that was 40 pages long ( and nearly soured me on the whole course),  the differing needs of learners from different parts of the world,  your observations from the classroom and your plans for teaching in the future. The nine hours of teaching actual students was the most difficult for me. I mean, I’m a writer. I HATE being the focus of attention. And standing up in front of people is my nightmare, public speaking is paralyzing. What was I thinking? For that month-long period, I was waking up at 4 am every morning to keep up with the avalanche of work that was the CELTA. It turned out that would stand me in good stead for what was to come. Wondering how? Don’t worry, that’s up next.

Well, that’s all she wrote for this Inkreadable Installment. Stay tuned, as always, there is more to come,

Brexit Brouhaha

So my best friend became my boyfriend in September 2015. I went from being single to being in a committed relationship. My family would probably tell you that I needed to BE committed. But be that as it may, I followed my heart and it changed me in so many ways. It would be a while before I made any decisions, however. I knew that Jasper would never come back to the States so if I wanted a relationship that was not long distance, I’d need to move. Which was fine by me.

But I am the queen of the long distance relationship. In fact, I spent nearly two years commuting to the suburbs of Philadelphia in my only other adult relationship.  I wasn’t worried. I had been thinking about going back to Scotland since my mom died. I never expressed in any of my blogs what Scotland meant to me. Ever heard the term “soul country”? It’s a country that you have no genetic connection to, and yet when you step off the plane, you feel like you have come home. That was, and still is, Scotland for me.

I first went to Scotland in the Summer of 1992. It was my first solo trip, and I went to visit my friend Laura who I’d met in DC where she was an exchange student living with an administrator who worked at WIS. Laura and I became good friends in my junior year of high school and when she invited me to Scotland, I jumped at the chance to go. I stayed two weeks with Laura and her family. By the end of that trip, Laura’s parents, George and Kathy had become as dear to me as my own parents. I ended that trip calle=ing them Mum and Dad, like everyone else did. I did indeed fall in love with Scotland and resolved to come to Scotland for University. Laura’s parents took me to see St. Andrew’s. The minute I saw the campus I knew I wanted to go there. Alas, St. Andrew’s wasn’t to be, but in the summer of 2011 armed with a Greek passport and a passing knowledge of accounting, I pulled up stakes in the US and took myself to Scotland. To learn more of my adventures there check out my blog from that time: http://www.edinburghenchanted.blogspot.com.

I resolved in 2015 to get back to Edinburgh but was certain that I didn’t want to do it on the strength of an MBA that I barely used. Also Bread and Chocolate was beginning to get a little stale. I played with the idea of going back to Edinburgh for the first half of 2016. I left it too late. On  23 June, the UK the UK voted to leave the EU. I woke up on 24 June to a very different world. I knew that at my age, I did not want the uncertainty of moving to a country that two years later might tell me that I wasn’t eligible to stay. I was crushed. There went my dreams of living in Scotland again. I had to come up with another strategy.

A customer at Bread and Chocolate suggested that I take a course to certify in teaching English as a Second Language or ESL for short. It’s also called ELT or English Language teaching. I began to consider the possibilities, and I started looking into programs. Briefly, I considered going to London to do the course but ultimately decided to stay in DC to do it. After a ton of research into the options, I settled on Cambridge University’s Certificate of English Language Teaching to Adults or CELTA. The CELTA and the Certificate from Trinity College in Dublin are considered the gold standard for ELT in the world. Employers in the field look for these two certificates when they hire. And yes, the certificate is from THAT Cambridge. I signed up for the course that ran from the end of July to the middle of August 2016.

It was the hardest thing I have ever done in my adult life. Asking why, yet? Stay tuned that’s up next.

That’s all she wrote for this Inkreadable installment. But stay tuned, as always, there is more to come.

Paradigm Shift

After my sister’s wedding, as had become habitual for me, I went to see Jasper. He had been invited to the wedding, but for reasons of his own, decided not to come. My sister had invited him for my sake, and he had accepted the invitation. The thing was, he didn’t unaccept it, so up until the Monday before the wedding, I had no idea that he wasn’t coming.  To say that I was disappointed would be an understatement. I was, in fact, livid. I was so angry that I changed my ticket. Instead of returning to Amsterdam for the end of my trip, I decided to cancel that leg and remain in the UK for an extra week.

Still, the part of me that couldn’t let go of our relationship, decided to go to Amsterdam and see what was up. I won’t bore you with the specific details of the how, but the what is not a state secret. I went to Amsterdam as Jasper’s best friend, his very worried best friend, and left for Scotland a week later as his girlfriend. It was a surprise to everyone, but most of all, me. You see, I had gone to Amsterdam to say a permanent goodbye. I was angry and felt that the respectful thing to do would have been to let me and my sister know that he wasn’t coming.

I had so many complicated feelings for and about Jasper. I had loved him for five years before we got together in that fall of 2015. But I hadn’t moped or waited around, as some people seem to think. I just didn’t broadcast my attempts to find a relationship. If I had had the gift of magic that my main character, Nerys has,  I might have foreseen this change and it wouldn’t have been such a surprise. I also wouldn’t have changed my trip and stayed in the UK, but I did and it ended up being a good decision.

While in Scotland, I had met some people that I became quite close to. When I left Scotland, I went to them in Wapping. I barely knew Colin and Caroline Hampden-White in 2012, having met them in the fall of 2011 through my sister Alex. In 2015, it was a different story. By 2015, I considered C and C (sorry, its just too time consuming to write Colin and Caroline) very close friends. They had been at the wedding and asked me to come and stay with them in London. They could accurately read my mood and knew that cheering up, plus a lot of whiskey, was in order. So off I went to London. It was just what the doctor ordered. Colin and Caroline were the first people to express support for my decision to enter into a relationship with Jasper. Caroline is very level headed and rather than judging me, she told me to jump. I am to this day, so grateful for the unconditional support, and of course, the whiskey.  With them, I processed what all of this meant and what that might mean for the future.

I left the US responsible to and for, myself in 2015. I returned in the fall accountable to someone else. I hadn’t been in a relationship for nine years. I wasn’t sure what to expect or if I could do it again. But I had found my writing, and that would help with the changes to come.

That’s all she wrote for this Inkreadable installment. How did  I manage a very long distance relationship and all the other things I juggled?  Stay tuned, that’s up next.

The Tunnel

I don’t really remember too much about the first year after my mom’s death, except that I was stuck. Like being in the middle of a long tunnel under a water, when the light hasn.t started showing yet. Here’s what I do remember: I spent the first couple of months after her passing in Greece with my sister. We left the US shortly after the funeral and seeing to the most pressing issues, including becoming co-guardian of my twin sister, along with my Dad. I don’t remember the specifics of Greece too much either. Two of my mom’s friends in Crete stand out Eirini Railakis and Eirini Bitsakis.

These two amazing women, (who tended (and still tend) to be spoken about as though they are one unit and in the plural: the Eirines), wanted to remember my mom in their own special way. In order to avoid confusion, in this post, I’ll just call them Eirini B and Eirini R. After all, if I called them Eirini One and Eirini Two, that would be too close to Dr. Zuess (you remember Thing One and Thing 2) for comfort. And I am not yet ready to let my happy shine through.

What they did was mind-blowing. I remember walking into Eirini R’s beautiful home in the countryside in a picturesque village. She’d decorated it with fairy lights and flowers. There was a table with pictures of my mom. And most amazing there was a dry branch tree strung with fairy lights and notecards attached with people’s tributes.

Not to be undone, Eirini B cooked up a storm.  My mom loved her cooking, and this time she cooked all of my mom’s favorites. My mama liked lots of things so there was a mountain of food. I mean that literally. Greek people cook for 50 people if they are having just the family over for dinner. For instance, eat a little salad, a chicken leg (that’s the whole leg, mind you, not just the drumstick), a couple of sides and someone is sure to tell you that you haven’t eaten a thing. In Greece, that’s the appetizer. Of course, the same person that says that is bound to have at some point commented earlier in the evening that you’d gained weight.

Being in Greece with my sister, Alex, brought us closer than we had been, I think ever. My sister is nearly 10 years younger than I am and the age difference is partially to blame, but we are also quite different. That first summer after my mom’s death was hard for me, but I think even harder for her. There would be so much that my mom would miss and I think that affected her deeply. Still, we talked like we hadn’t and I think it was healing for both of us. My Dad, as I mentioned in my last post was a godsend, particularly in that first year. We also became closer while in Greece and he was to help we navigate the complicated aftermath of my Mom’s death.  I was, and still am grateful to both of them.

I had lost contact with a lot of old friends in the summer of 2014, but quite a few of them came back into my life, some after a brief absence, and some after quite a long time. One of these friends was to figure prominently in changing my life in ways I didn’t expect.

That’s all she wrote for this Inkreadable Installment. Stay tuned, though, as always, there is more to come.

 

Darkness Descends

All was not sunshine and roses in that long ago Spring/Summer of 2014. In April, my world shattered. My mom, the most vivacious person I have ever known, was diagnosed with stage 4 melanoma. We’d been living together (by which I mean I was living at home) for two years, since returning from Edinburgh. My mom was so stoic, we didn’t even know she was sick, and indeed, for a short time, she kept on doing what she needed to.

The effect on me was profound. In an instant, all of my creativity was sucked away, like dust through a vacuum running over high pile shag carpet. I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat, and couldn’t write. I stopped going to my critique group. I stopped thinking about future classes and told the parents that I was closest to what was happening. I had agreed to give a few students private classes and agreed to keep doing that, but asked if I could do a more intensive schedule of multiple days per week. The parents of my students agreed, and so instead of doing a month-long session, I agreed to do it on a week by week basis. I was thankful for their understanding, and so I did the best I could under the circumstances. I think I deserved an academy award for my showmanship. I became very adept at not showing what I was going through to my students.

Looking back today, I can be grateful that my mom’s illness progressed quickly and that she didn’t suffer for a long time. I had seen my mom cry before, she’d been through a lot of physical and emotional pain in her life. She bore her diagnosis with grace and dignity. She only cried once during her illness: One night, shortly before she died, my mom fell and she was so bloated from the fluids that she was too heavy to lift. It was then, lying on the ground that my mom cried like I had never seen. This was not the delicate crying of tears rolling artistically down the face, you all know that single tear that just so gently rolls down one cheek. That night I saw my strong, invincible mother hyperventilating from her terror. Never, not even when she’d broken her leg in two places and dislocated her spinal cord in a car accident, not when she was put in a halo to stabilize her spine on the long trip from Greece that summer did she lose her composure. She was even stoic when the halo was put in without anesthesia. She cried so hard that night that my sister and I couldn’t get her off the floor until we’d calmed her enough that she could help. Still, it was so difficult that she bumped her head on the tile hard enough that the sound of anything hitting the floor brings me back to that night and gives me nightmares. So many things happened to my mom in the last fourteen weeks of her life, they are too numerous to count. The sound of sirens and the ringing of the telephone late at night still cause me to wake up with an irregular heartbeat and in a cold sweat.

Still, they were not all bleak those final days. I continued to teach my private students and go to educational fairs to promote Inkreadable Kids. I asked my mom if she wanted me to cancel all my private classes, and her response was “Hell no, this is for your future.” We also celebrated her last birthday in style. My sister, genius that she is, decided that we weren’t going to give my mom a party, it was to be a women-only surprise party. My mom nearly spoiled the surprise part of it though. When we started talking about her birthday, she said she didn’t want a party, and my sister started planning a surprise party. My mom could sometimes be true to her Gemini nature and change her mind. She did in this instance as well, asking us to plan a party for her, a day before her birthday. We had already started making arrangements for the party but were good enough actresses that we exhibited the right amount of annoyance at my mom’s change of heart. While the party did not go off without a hitch, and my mom wasn’t truly surprised having suspected something, she later told us that what surprised her was when a usually reserved friend of hers jumped out from behind the couch and shouted surprise.

The day after her birthday my mom went into the hospital for the final time. I spent the 11 days between my mom’s birthday and my own visiting her at the hospital. By this point, I had stopped teaching altogether but was getting calls from parents just to see how I was doing. On 28 June the doctors told us that they could do nothing more for my mom. My birthday came on the 29th of June and my mom called sang me and my twin sister, Tatyana  Happy Birthday. I was in tears for the whole conversation. “Worst birthday ever” would be my facebook status for that year. It was probably the penultimate time I’d hear my mother’s voice. I can’t remember anything about the 30th of June.

In the early morning hours of 2 July Mom suffered “a respiratory event” and had to be intubated. I will never forget waking up from a fitful attempt at sleep, to see missed calls from the hospital. Seeing the exchange 444 on my phone would terrify me and I would have a knot in the pit of my stomach. My mom had such an expressive way about her that even unable to speak she commanded the room. She got things done with the crook of a finger and a glance. Afterward, the staff in the ICU would tell both my sister Alex and I that my mom was one of the strongest and kindest people they had ever had there. Also apparently the funniest as she joked with them while she was still able to write.

When the end came on 19 July, it was a relief. My mom hung on for 17 days. It was enough time for us to make the preparations for her funeral including going to get my sister Taty from the facility where she lived in New Jersey. My father was a godsend in this time as he came back from Greece to help us with everything, which was extra special as my mom and dad had divorced 30 years before and it wasn’t my dad’s responsibility.

For over a year, I went through life feeling nothing and everything. I couldn’t write or create. I certainly couldn’t teach. I went to work, I came home, and I dealt with the aftermath of my mom’s death. It was oppressive that darkness. For the longest time everything I ate or drank tasted like sawdust. I couldn’t swallow past the ever-present lump in my throat.

A couple of things were to happen that would pull me out of the dark and change everything. They deserve a post of their own. That’s up next.

That’s it for this Inkreadable Installment but stay tuned. As always, there is more to come.

 

Story Cubes and Summer Camp

I look back on those long ago days of 2014 with nostalgia, but I was also conflicted. Even though I KNEW that I was good at teaching writing and that the kids enjoyed the classes, but I was consumed by doubts: could I make this something that would take off and make me a living? And even more important could I get adults interested as well? It had always been my intention to grow in a couple of different ways. I didn’t only want to focus on kids, I knew from my two writers groups that adults, especially seniors, were an untapped market. Seniors have such stories to tell. They can connect us to our home, our ancestors, and our history. They place historical events in a living, breathing context. All of these things were ruminating in the back of my mind, but with no idea of how to execute the marketing needed for that kind of growth, I let the ideas percolate and continued teaching. It was good that I had the teaching because things were soon to get very dark indeed. But now is not the time for darkness. It is a time to wax happy. Wax on, Danielsan.

Towards the end of that session, I had found a new teaching tool. One of the moms turned me on to Rory’s Story Cubes. The game has nine dice with a different picture, one on each face. You roll the dice and make up a story using the pictures that come up. I wanted to see if the game would work for children under seven years old whose reading skills are not quite where they need to be.

The manager of the community center approached me about teaching a session of Inkreadable to her summer camp attendees. I agreed with alacrity. Since the mom of my student had recommended story cubes, I hadn’t had time to go out and purchase them. I thought that with 15 kids, they might prove useful. So I duly ran out to the best toy store in Washington DC called Child’s Play and got not one, but two. It would be a good thing, too.

I walked into the community center early and found to my trepidation there were not fifteen kids to teach, but twenty-seven. Twenty-seven. Turns out, there was nothing to worry about, the kids were fun and receptive. We did three stories in an hour. They are too random to recount, and also I can’t really remember what the stories were.  The experiment was so successful, that I used it with my trio of brothers as well. No writing was done, but we became impromptu storytellers so that we could include the youngest child of the household.

The youngest brother stole the show. Well, him and the story cubes. On this particular occasion, I was asked to do a marathon class for the kids as their summer was booked for the next three weeks. We had two classes left and so I agreed to do a two-hour session to wrap up. Little brother entered the scene early on in the marathon class, earlier today. He was playing with some stones that he blithely informed us were magic rocks. Magic rocks, you say? Magic rocks. It’s one of those ideas that, once taken hold, refuses to go away. We all decided to write a story about magic rocks. My students wrote complete stories that have a beginning, a middle, and an end. I struggled to write a story that was complete so I actually added magic rocks into my existing novel.

Well, that’s all she wrote for this Inkreadable Installment, stay tuned, as always there is more to come.