Using Data to Understand ELL Students

In August, I surveyed my students about their motivation for learning English, their opinions about our class and my teaching style, and what resources they were using to study English outside of class. By analyzing the results using some of the statistical tools I’ve taught myself this year, I came up with some effective strategies for reaching the disengaged students in my classroom.

At the moment this post goes up, I’ll be giving a presentation about that project at Fulbright Korea’s fall conference in Gyeongju. Here’s a digital version of the talk:

And here’s a detailed write-up of my survey design and results.

Budget Update

I wrote thirty snail-years ago about my budget strategy, which is to pay myself a weekly allowance that I track using a spreadsheet. I input my bank balance every two weeks, and the spreadsheet does the rest.

All I pay attention to is this graph, which shows the balance of that virtual allowance account. If I spend exactly my allowance and nothing more, it stays flat. In general, it has roughly the same number of negative and positive points, which is our goal.

I’ve made only a few changes to the system since I last wrote about it:

  1. I upped the allowance by twenty percent since I’m cooking for myself and paying my own utilities instead of living with a homestay family.
  2. Instead of updating the spreadsheet on the 9th and 24th of each month, I’m doing it every other Tuesday, which makes it easier to remember and mitigates interference from my tendency to spend more money on the weekend and less on weekdays.
  3. If I discover that I’m significantly ahead of budget on a check-in day, I go ahead and zero out my allowance account (actually, I usually make it slightly negative) to discourage myself from impulse buys. Later on, if I decide to make a major purchase, I can then discount it against those corrections. If I didn’t do this, the graph wouldn’t be very illustrative on the week-to-week level. You’d just see it go up and up and up, then tank every six months when I take a vacation.

This method of budgeting works pretty well for how little effort it requires. On the worst day, April 23, I was down ₩96,974, or about $80. not bad!


Every time I think I’m starting to get good at teaching, the students evolve new defenses against learning. Lately a troublesome crew has discovered that, if they up and run out of the classroom and flee in separate directions, I will not pursue them. Instead, I carry on with class and write a note to their homeroom teacher detailing the incident. She assigns them penalty points or makes them write me a letter of apology. Little changes.

But I have a soft spot for contrarians. A few weeks ago, I stole a lesson about ethical dilemmas from one of my college writing professors. I started by making the students debate about the trolley problem (should you divert a train so that it kills one worker instead of five?), and then have them pick sides on increasingly perverse permutations of it, such as the famous “fat man” dilemma in which the way you can save the five is by pushing a fat man off a bridge. Usually there are three or four students in every class who say yes to all—that is, they choose the most mathy, utilitarian option, even if it requires doing something intentionally cruel. These students come up to the front of class to be crowned the kings and queens of utilitarianism. After we watch a short video explaining utilitarian philosophy, I hit this devout group with the hardest dilemma of all: The transplant problem, in which a surgeon has five patients who each need a different organ transplant.

Should the surgeon kill a healthy, young traveler to save them? Since the math is the same, a true utilitarian, given no other information, should say yes, but so far I’ve only found one student who didn’t buckle under the pressure of his moral instincts. Interestingly, that student is one of the most docile kids we have. Perhaps it’s his desire to avoid conflict that draws him to the idea of an objective, universal moral calculus. But coolheaded rationalists always creep people out, and this class’s lone wolf was no exception. After the bell, a couple of baffled peers carried on arguing with the utilitarian-in-chief as he approached the smartboard, gestured at my stock images of hospital pateients, and scrawled Xs and Os over their nonplussed expressions. He won no converts.


  • I was here at this time last year; how did I miss those electric crape myrtle blossoms?

I Coded

From my desk to yours, a pair of birdbrained Python projects.

Steve and Dave: A Python Doodle

Let Steve and Dave be two souls who occupy the same body. This means that they receive identical sensory input, represented here by the function environment. We want to study how Steve and Dave’s emotional philosophies help or hurt them in coping with their environment’s ups and downs.

English Conversation Questions Generated by AI

I am the world’s first artificially intelligent Fulbright grantee.

Others in our cohort applied to be English teaching assistants in Korea because they sought challenge, adventure, and human connection. In their applications they gushed about their interest in global cultures, their enthusiasm for language learning, and their desire to do good for others. They believed their intelligence, progressive politics, and moral certitude made them strong candidates.

But I was the perfect candidate, because I am a robot.

Simple Equations

Last week, our school took the second graders on a three-day trip to Seoul and back. We did the standard route with a few twists: Namsan Tower (fig. 1), Changdeokgung Palace (this is an “ATM machine” kind of title, by the way), a full day at the Lotte World amusement park, a play, and visits to a few science museums on the return trip.

I’m being somewhat vague for the sake of our students’ safety, since the school takes a similar trip every year. I’m always surprised by Korean notions of safety and personal privacy. Many people who wish to show off their sensitivity to cultural differences will voice simple equations like, “Americans value privacy, whereas Koreans value sharing.” To be sure, there are areas where that’s true: For example, before we could depart on our trip, we had to call a police officer and have him breathalyze both bus drivers; this is a standard safety precaution in Korea, but I can imagine many Americans taking umbrage. (As far as I can tell, only New York has considered a similar policy.)

On the other hand, Koreans in general are much more protective than Americans when it comes to sharing photographs. It’s very common, when posting photos to Korean social media, to blur out (or stick a cute animal on top of) the faces of your friends, since you don’t have their consent to post it. Even my students, after we went on a roller coaster together, asked my permission before sending my photo to their homeroom teacher. And when we ended up picnicking alongside a group of elementary schoolers at one of the museums, our school’s homeroom teachers reminded the students to angle their photos so that no kids would appear in them.

A slightly less clear-cut example occurred when it came time to search the students’ bags. We had all the students leave their bags in the hotel lobby and line up outside as the student council checked for contraband. The reasoning was that it would be an invasion of students’ privacy for teachers to do the bag searches themselves—a moot point, because if anything suspect turned up, the first question the teachers asked was, “What bag is that?” Still, letting students serve as their own auditors strikes me as a significant trade of safety for privacy.

As the foreign teacher, it felt truly special to be invited to join in this trip, since the supervisory duties are technically beyond my qualifications. But most of the places we visited had several staff on standby to welcome our group; they took care of all the wrangling, leaving us teachers to grab coffee and gossip. That made this trip a welcome chance to get to know my coteachers in a relaxed atmosphere. Many of them have taken circuitous routes into teaching, and hearing how they settled on middle-school boys as their target demographic reminded me that despite how exhausting it is to deal with shouting students, other groups present other problems. And now that most of the faculty know that I’ve applied to extend my grant for another year, I’ve sensed a greater willingness let me assist with student discipline and help me understand the layout of our school’s bureaucratic plumbing.

On the bus, I got to talk at length with my vice principal, who just started at our school this semester. A former English teacher himself, he had lots of questions I couldn’t answer about the American school system and differences in cultural attitudes toward education and work. Probably the most useful sentence I have in such cases is, “America is very regionally diverse,” which is really a euphemism for, “I honestly have no idea what it’s like in red states.” We found common ground in our love of Yuval Noah Harari, whose 21 Lessons for the 21st Century my vice principal was reading in translation. “People get so hypnotized by technology,” says my VP, “but I have some doubts. It’s important to learn to be patient.”

I told him my hobby nowadays is sitting at the park and counting frog croaks. He seemed impressed.


I accidentally swore in front of my class yesterday. I intended to say 종이 똑같다, but I got the consonants shuffled around, and the students went wild. I was doing this thing I do where I keep a score for myself in addition to for their teams (awarding myself outrageous bonuses if, for example, no student gets a correct answer), so I went ahead and recorded a −20 in my column, which placated them.

I did something else new: Often, when a student is struggling with a problem, a smart one will try to “help” them by just translating the whole thing or telling them the answer straightaway. But yesterday, I saw one of my students taking great patience and care in assisting another, guiding him with strategic hints but never revealing the full solution—thinking, in other words, like a teacher. I used our school messaging app to write a memo to his homeroom teacher, letting her know it was cool to see his initiative, and she thanked me for noticing.

While there’s only so much I can do overnight to correct my awkward mannerisms and sheepish demeanor around the office (I am the least experienced!), written communication seems like a good way to maintain a sense of connection with the faculty and compensate for my frequent mistakes.

This level of investment.

Although I still play things rather selfishly about my office hours and study time, and although I often advise overworked friends to cultivate a sense of detachment from their work, I notice myself caring more and more about this job. Every time my patience is worn thin by a tough class and I start to acquiesce to the thought that teaching must just not be for people like me, something beautiful happens, my heart melts a little, and I get excited for the next day again.

  • Concept: What am I hesitating about, if I already know I’m happy?
  • Concept: What if (as Pete Buttigieg likes to say) this is a local minimum?
  • Concept: It’s too early to tell.