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Interview with Jack Pillemer

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Introduction:
Jack Pillemer has been teaching English in Jerusalem, Israel for more than 25 years and it goes without saying that has he a lot of experiences under his belt. In this interview you will get useful information on how to learn English effectively. Read and enjoy.

Torsten:
Jack, why did you decide to become an English teacher?

Jack:
I was born in South Africa and grew up with English as my mother tongue. When I immigrated to Israel, I decided to use this to my advantage. Besides, I had always enjoyed playing with words and found my experience as a youth movement counselor to be useful in generating enthusiasm in youngsters. That's more or less what brought me to English teaching

Torsten:
In addition to English, what languages do you speak yourself?

Jack:
I speak Hebrew, remember a little Afrikaans from South Africa and manage to get by with a few words of Spanish that I have learned from my wife who was originally Argentinean. Actually, I don't think I have a natural ability to learn new languages.

Torsten:
You have created a variety of materials for learners of English and most of these valuable resources are available on the Internet for free. Why do you want to share your expertise and experiences?

Jack:
The truth is that it seems the most natural thing to do. Once I have worked hard in creating something which I believe to be worthwhile, I would like others to try it out and see if it works for them. They make changes to suit their needs and pass it on. It started with a project developed by Sue Kerman and I based on teaching literature using the film «The Dead Poets' Society». I posted it on my site JackPillemer. and found that my colleagues were eager to try it. Thereafter, I created «The Lyrics Project» which requires students to choose the lyrics of a song and do a number of activities based on those lyrics. The project requires translation, analysis, research and so on and then requires creative work on their part. This particular project became very popular among Israeli English teachers. In fact, it became so popular over the years that I decided for my Masters dissertation in TEFL to analyze the tasks in the project with the help of teachers and pupils as a case study on the subject of learner motivation in EFL. Following this, I created materials and lesson plans for the teaching of Romeo and Juliet to EFL students using selected texts and, amongst other things, two film versions of the play, the one directed by by Franco Zeffirelli and the other by Buz Luhrmann. Lately I've created a project for the teaching of English through the study of art.

Teachers have more to offer teachers than anybody else. Academics and language acquisition researchers provide direction. Textbook writers provide a solid teaching/learning framework. However, in my experience, tailor-made, tried-and-tested activities that emerge from teachers' personal experience in the field are invaluable. I gain from others, they gain from me and a positive dynamic creative process is generated which gives the English teaching profession a freshness that can so easily be lost to tedium.

Torsten:
You have also co-written an English teaching course book together with Sue Kerman. How did the two of you meet and when did you get the idea of creating a book?

Jack:
Sue and I worked together at the «Mae Boyar High School» in Jerusalem. We share many of the same assumptions about language learning and so when she suggested writing a book together, I agreed.

Torsten:
The title of your book is «Choices (ECB)». Is the name significant?

Jack:
Yes, it is very significant. The concept of the book derives from the conviction that students have to feel that they are personally engaged in an activity to really derive benefit. EFL/ESL activities perceived as mere exercises tend, in our view, to be much less effective. When students make significant choices of their own, their identification with the task increases. In this book students are given choices of this kind. In addition, the content is quite personal and deals with individual choices teenagers are probably making in their lives.

Torsten:
What does «ECB» stand for and where can readers obtain your book?

Jack:
ECB is the publisher, Eric Cohen Books. They have a rich, well — maintained site where one can get more information. «www.ecb.co.il»

Torsten:
Another interesting project you initiated was an email based English course. Could you please tell us more about it?

Jack:
This was one of my first attempts at using the new technology of e-mail and Internet. Back then I was very excited by the potential afforded me by the new technology. I still am but my enthusiasm today is perhaps less unreserved. I have always felt that I lack the time and the framework for individualized instruction when I teach full classes at school. Creating a private personalized channel of communication not limited to a specific time or a specific place seemed ideal and so I developed the project. I used this successfully with a number of students and have partially incorporated the idea into my teaching today.

Torsten:
Did you create your web pages yourself?

Jack:
Yes I did.

Torsten:
When and how did you acquire the necessary skills?

Jack:
Well, it has just been a natural process of learning. The moment I decided that I wanted to have my own site, a need was created. Needs tend to motivate learning. Geocities.com hosted sites for free (and still does) and and both Netscape and Explorer browsers came with tools for creating web pages. Later I took a short course in basic HTML. It was then that I created the site for teaching: «www.etni.org/teachers/jack/master.htm» and used it to try out frames and using forms. I'm proud of the site. I use my limited knowledge of HTML to fix up little problems here and actually would be at a loss if I didn't have that knowledge. That is more or less what I'm able to do. I have not kept-up-to date and find that what I am able to do is sufficient for my purposes.

Torsten:
Studying all the information on your website I have also come across a page that contains a lot of funny material. I take it that humour plays an important role in your teaching. Is that correct?

Jack:
Yes it is. Language learning should take place in a relaxed atmosphere and humor contributes to that atmosphere. But, actually, humor is not so easy to use. Enjoying and understanding jokes often require a level of language proficiency that learners lack. Humor and language are so intertwined.

Torsten:
You live in a region that suffers from violent conflict. Does this influence your teaching?

Jack:
Yes it does. I do not see my role as an English teacher merely as teaching a skill. As an educator, I feel I have a duty to try to contribute to the lessening of prejudice within the society. Exposed as we are here to violence on regular basis (students of mine have been victims of terrorist attacks on numerous occasions), it is natural to get caught up in the storm of emotions that results and to loose our moral compass. I feel it is important for me as a teacher to encourage my students to see that groups are made up of individuals. I sometimes consciously choose material for English teaching which is likely to raise issues which might otherwise get blurred.
For a few years now, I have been a participant in The Middle East Children Association (MECA). This organisation brings together groups of Israeli and Palestinian teachers who see education as vitally important in encouraging and accompanying peace in our region. We meet, talk, argue, listen, learn and give support to each other as human beings caught up in this conflict. We get to know each other and, as professional educators, we try to plan English-teaching classroom activities that may encourage pupils on both sides of the conflict not to de-humanize the other. It is not easy.

Torsten:
What are your goals for the next couple of years? What projects are you currently working on?

Jack:
At the moment, besides my regular high school teaching, I'm also responsible for an extra-curricular English program for disadvantaged elementary school kids around the country. It is a loose flexible framework which, in my view, would be more effevtive if it were more tightly controllled. To achieve this I'm heading a team to write topic-based material for teaching young pupils on three different levels. It is an ambitious task and I fear I may have bitten off more than I can chew. Time will tell. I'm not alone and there is an escape route if this is not for me.
I'm always ready to take on some challenge. It keeps me stimulated and provides a diversion from the classroom. In the past I have written articles and created activities and crossword puzzles for the Jerusalem Post Youth magazines, taught at the foreign ministry, contributed material to an on-line course, taught a college course for student teachers in using computers in EFL classrooms and so on. Actually, I'm open to suggestions. If anyone approaches me me with an interesting project I'll certainly consider it.

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