Posted by: Sarah Isberner | 5th Dec, 2014

The End is Nigh

Auf Wiedersehen

Goodbyes are hard, even if they are only temporary. Ending the IEI summer program was an emotional day for everyone involved, but especially for the tutors and the students.


IEI held a small “graduation” ceremony at the end of the program. It recognized that our boys had gotten through the program and had done really well while doing it. Each of the boys was awarded a certificate of completion, as well as another small award for something kind of cheesy and dorky (like “Most Willing to Learn”). There was food and the instructors talked about their experiences with the students. The tutors and the students has prepared something special to show everyone else: a really ridiculous video of a dance we had choreographed and practiced during the course of the summer (no link, because I want to keep my dignity).

There was so much to be proud of. We had successfully pulled off the first cohort of the Intensive English Institute, the boys had done well, and we all had a great time while doing it. One of the boys wrote a short speech thanking the tutors for all of our work with them, and it included one of our inside jokes. I’m pretty sure just about all of us cried a little. Sometimes you just need to hear from the students that you’ve helped them and touched their lived, even though you already know it.

It was really difficult to come to the realization that we wouldn’t be seeing them every day anymore. We wouldn’t be spending hours at a time together, helping them with their English skills and becoming closer as a tiny family. It was so weird, though, because it wasn’t like we weren’t going to see them around campus for the rest of the year; they weren’t going back to Brazil just yet.

Last Goodbye

We did end up saying goodbye to one student for a much longer period of time. One of our boys decided it would be best for him to transfer to UW-Milwaukee to continue his education in the United States; UW-Whitewater didn’t have quite the program that he needed for his major. Knowing that we weren’t going to be seeing this student around campus was a terrible feeling, but he’s only in Milwaukee. We can still visit him and see how he’s doing.

I just don’t know how saying goodbye for good is going to go at the end of next summer. I’m not really looking forward to it; their program won’t allow them to leave Brazil for two years after they’ve returned and keeping in contact with them might be rough. But I know that they’ll do well with whatever they get into. Saying goodbye will just break all of our hearts, though.

I will probably sob when they leave

Two of my “sons.”


Posted by: Sarah Isberner | 5th Dec, 2014

Practice Makes Perfect

Warm Fuzzy Feelings

Watching a student make visible progress and improvements is one of the greatest feelings in the entire world. That’s a fact. There is literally nothing better than reviewing a student’s writing week after week and seeing these small improvements that just come together in the end and suddenly their writing is better, it’s more clear.

Again, there are those weird quasi-parental feelings that come in and you just want to hug your student.

Two Semesters of Work

I’ve been working with one student since I started tutoring last spring. Working with her has been a lot of fun and we’ve become good friends. Between working on word order and commas and vocabulary, we joke about running away to Europe, boyfriends and husbands be damned. Things were a little rough between us at first, but they have gotten to much better.

She’s a really smart student, and I think she’s at least sort of confident in my abilities as a tutor. Working with someone for more than one semester is definitely an interesting experience because you actually can see a lot more of the improvement. While working with this woman, there has been such a drastic change from the first few sessions last spring and our most recent session this last Monday.

What Changed?


For one, her vocabulary has expanded extraordinarily. Her confidence in her own abilities is also much higher, and she’s really only making minimal mistakes. Her writing has developed  such a strong voice, and that’s something I didn’t hear much in the spring. While I was reading over her research paper this last Monday, I was just blown away at how much she has really improved.

All semester so far, we had just been working on little pieces of writing and small chunks of this much larger paper. Seeing it all come together and reading a lot of what she did on her own— and did near perfectly— just made me so proud of her. It brought tears to my eyes and I just wanted to hug her.

This happens a lot with my students, but it happens more often with my internationals. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that they are immersed in a different culture, surrounded by a different language, and they are making such strides. I’m really proud of all of my students, from the small victories to the big changes.

She's the best.

My feelings for my students are warm and fuzzy, just like this cat.

Posted by: Sarah Isberner | 5th Dec, 2014

I Choose You!

Reverse Adoption

Occasionally, you don’t get to adopt students. Instead, the students adopt you. I really love these students the best (sorry, everyone else I’ve basicalyl ever tutored). They really want the help, and they actually like you enough to keep coming back to you– and generally only you– for help week after week. It’s a really great feeling.

~Related Title That Is Also Amusing~

I’ve only really had a few international students do this while working with me. I met one woman this summer while I was working with the IEI kids in the library; she had been working on one of the computers in the satellite tutoring center while we were working. We were just finishing up our supplemental instruction session and leaving when she called me over and asked what program we were doing. I explained IEI to her, and we all went on our merry ways.

So fast forward to September. I was working in the actual tutoring center with another client when this same woman comes up to me and asks if I’m an English tutor. I told her that, yes, in fact, I am. She then asked me for my email address and said she was going to email me and make an appointment.

So that’s how I was adopted by one student. After that first appointment, we started meeting on a weekly basis to go over her writing and also to check her comprehension on the readings for her upper-level English courses. Working with her has been a treat and I’m looking forward to working with her next semester as well (hopefully).

Unintentional Client Stealing

A weird thing happened the other day: I may have accidentally stolen a client from another tutor. This girl had been seeing another tutor in the center, but ended up seeing me when I covered that tutor’s shift. At the end of our first appointment, she made another appointment for two days later.

During our second session, she brought up meeting with me weekly next semester to help her work on her English conversation skills, as well as continue with her writing.

It’s really exciting when clients decide that they like you enough to put up with you on a weekly basis. Most of the students I work with don’t have a choice in the matter, so it’s really special when students decide they want to dedicate that much time to working with you.

Posted by: Sarah Isberner | 5th Dec, 2014

Use Your Words

Something Here Isn’t Quite Right

One thing I’ve never really be too sure about is how plagiarism is viewed in other countries. Here in the ridiculous system that is education in the United States, plagiarism is basically one of the worst crimes you can commit against humanity.

Okay, it’s not that extreme, but it’s still terrible. You can get kicked out of school for plagiarizing, either intentionally or unintentionally. All of my students know that I do not take lightly to plagiarism. At all.

Scaring Students

Over the summer, I very vocally expressed my opinions on plagiarism to my Brazilian students. We discussed the consequences of plagiarism in one of their classes, as well as what counts as plagiarism (answer: a whole lot). Unfortunately for these students, one of them made a comment about plagiarizing in spite of all the things that can happen to you

That did not make me happy at all. What my students got out of that was me lecturing them for a good twenty minutes on how serious is it and what I personally will do if I catch them plagiarizing on any of their papers. Basically, I told them that I would follow them back to Brazil and make sure that they got kicked out of their universities there, too. They were so annoyed about the situation that they complained about it to two of the other tutors, who thought it was hilarious.

Let’s face it: I go for the nuclear option.

Seriously? Seriously.

So I previously mentioned not being sure about how plagiarism is viewed in other countries. It actually wasn’t just to introduce to topic, but it had an actual point: I really don’t know.

I could look it up, but that takes time that I’m currently very quickly running out of for this blog. I could ask one of my students, but the sane ones are probably asleep right now. Also, I don’t happen to bring my students everywhere with me, so I don’t have one on hand to ask right now.

Instead, here is a point: a lot of the international students I’ve worked with (but not all) occasionally intentionally plagiarize. A few students have just copy and pasted paragraphs from online sources, which I don’t really understand why that would make sense to do in any circumstance. The worst part is when they think that no one will notice that suddenly there is a massive shift in their language, voice, and sentence complexity.

The second worst thing about this situation is having to explain to them why they can’t do that and when they argue with me about it.

However, not many students have tried to fight me on it. Fortunately, 99.9% of my students are wonderful people and go back and paraphrase and cite their sources. It makes my job easier when people trust me and when they are actually willing to learn.

Posted by: Sarah Isberner | 5th Dec, 2014

I Pity the Fool

The Inherent Flaws of the System

Sometimes you come across students– whether they’re international students or not– that just want to abuse the tutoring system. This is a sacred system, student tested and administration approved, and it should be treated with respect. Instead, it’s often exploited.

Such beard. Much communism.Wow.

Look at this beautiful man

A Short List of Commonly Exploited Things

Frequently, students forget that we are not an editing service. Tutors actually want to help students learn. Most of the time, luckily, students who do actually want to learn come and seek help. However, there are some that just want you to do the work for them. Again, I’m not saying that this is just international students— it’s native English-speaking students as well. Everyone can be a huge  jerk sometimes.

This Is NOT How Things Work

Sometimes, students just want someone to do their homework for them. This is common if the students is frustrated with the subject/language and stressed out already with other classes. The gutsy ones will think they’re being clever by asking you to type it out for them after you’ve given a suggestion for how a sentence or paragraph should be rephrased. But they know that we know that they’re basically asking us to write their papers for them.

The students that I always feel bad for are the ones who jokingly ask me to write their papers for them, and laugh it off, but I can see the desperation in their eyes. Yes, it would free up some time for them if I wrote their papers for them, but it’s not something that I will ever do for a student.

Moral of the story is to never ask anyone to do your work for you. The point of doing the work is to practice and to learn. If you have someone else do your work for you, can you really say that you’ve learned anything?


Posted by: Sarah Isberner | 4th Dec, 2014

Global Perspectives

and REALLY long feathers

German culture also comes with some cool headgear

What A World!

One great thing about working with international students is that they come from such a wide variety of backgrounds, both personal and cultural. Through working with these students, it’s easy to learn a lot about different cultures and the different perspectives that these students carry with them. Some of them definitely maintain an outlook that’s really traditional to the culture they come from, and others are more progressive. Really, it’s a mixed bag even among students from the same culture

Saudi Male-rabia

One of my all-time favorite students to work with is a Saudi man. He has graced the writing center with his presence for the last few semesters, and I have been fortunate enough to with with him pretty exclusively, starting this last summer. This student is actually one of the reasons that my boyfriend  and I are together; we first started talking during a tag-team tutoring session for him.

But that’s beside the point. More than anything, he is just an enjoyable student to work with. He’s very eager to explain the concepts that he is learning, and he’s very kind.

He also has a rather traditionally Saudi view on the world. His wife, for example, is not allowed to drive. He and I have talked about his wife a few times, and he has repeatedly asked several of us tutors to go tutor his wife in English (which we can’t, because of policy reasons). I’ve never seen a picture of her, although I have seen pictures of his two little daughters.

Other than his views of women, he has explained a few cultural things to me. During our first meeting this semester, he brought me a package of dates from Saudi Arabia as a thank you for helping him during the summer. I tried to tell him that he didn’t need to give me anything, and that helping him was gift enough. He then explained to me that in his culture, they frequently give people gifts for helping them.

I got to make a really great pun about getting dates from tutoring when I got home, so that was another plus.

A Broader Education

Another Saudi student that I had this last summer and who continues to see me from time to time now is a female. She’s sweet as pie and smart as a whip. When I started working with her, she had only been learning English for two years, but spoke and wrote better than a good portion of the native English-speaking students in the class. This woman as a little more of the progressive Saudi woman. She wore a hijab still, and was very devout in her faith. It was great to listen to here provide a different religious perspective in the class I was tutoring for. The best part of this was that she was getting an education, which is great and atypical for a married Saudi woman.

A lot of people take the fact that most people in their classes at UW-Whitewater hold very similar cultural backgrounds. It’s really rare that some of these students are exposed to something other than white middle-class lives. That’s part of the reason it’s such a fulfilling experience working in a classroom that’s mixed with international students and American students; you can see that they are learning about the world from each other.

Next: I Pity the Fool

Posted by: Sarah Isberner | 3rd Dec, 2014

Story Time!

A Tiny Family

Something that happens when you work with international students on a daily basis on a basically deserted campus is that you become a small family. It doesn’t happen consciously or on purpose. It happens kind of the way that you start being best friends with your coworkers: you’re basically forced into spending a lot of time together.

In a lot of ways, this is just like spending time with coworkers. There’s a level of professionalism that is supposed to be maintained. There are rules that need to be followed. However, there are a lot of ways that it is so much better. You don’t have the same relationship with them as you would with a coworker. It’s something closer than that, maybe like a cousin. No, that’s not quite right… You’re responsible for helping them learn and grow and you realize that oh Lord, these kids who are older than me are basically my children.

Not even the check will be able to ave you from the camera, Diogo!

A really terrible picture of me and one of my “sons.”

So You’ve Adopted a Student

Admittedly, this is something I’m notorious for: I “adopt” students. While I adore all of my students, from my English 90 kids to the seniors that come to me for help with MLA formatting, there are some that I just decide are my babies. These are the ones that I connect the most with, the ones that come to me for outside help the most, the ones that are just in need of someone to encourage them along. Does this make me a bad tutor? I don’t know.

This summer with the Intensive English Institute cohort was the first time I really experienced that bond with my students. Again, it probably had a lot to do with the fact that I spend hours and hours per day with them. Another part of it was that they were here during the summer when the campus is so ridiculously alive with students and activity (read as: it was deserted). We were basically the only contact on campus that these students had besides the instructors.

Honestly, I think it was really important that they had a weird little family structure at school. A lot of the time, the boys were homesick and stressed out. While we were there as tutors and we maintained an air of professionalism 94% of the time, we were still able to be there for them and provide some sort of motherly-or-sisterly comfort and advice. I think it helped them to feel a little bit more at home.

Parental Pride

All four of us tutors were about as proud as any parents would be of “our” boys. Watching them improve over the course of the summer was such a treat, and forming a bond like this with them was even better. Whenever I see the boys around campus, I give them a hug and see how they’re doing. I do worry about them, though. I spent most of my morning on Thanksgiving trying to get a hold of three of the boys to make sure that they had somewhere to go for Thanksgiving dinner. If they didn’t, I was going to kidnap them and take them home with me. Fortunately for them, they were able to avoid spending the day with their adopted mother. I did warn them, however, that the same thing will likely happen at Christmas.

 Next: Global Perspectives 

Posted by: Sarah Isberner | 3rd Dec, 2014

On the Other Hand

Quick Thought

You know what’s weird? Prepositions. No one likes prepositions, and they are especially confusing in a foreign language. I know that I struggled with them even just in German, so I can kind of understand my students’ pain when they are confused about which preposition to use.

For those who need a refresher, here is a nice definition of what a preposition actually is.

Seriously, English is Complex

While prepositions in normal sentences don’t often give my students much trouble, using prepositions in colloquial phrases is basically the worst for them.

Some examples:

  • On the other hand
  • In other words
  • Phrases using “with” or “by”*

*Lack of examples due to the fact that I have been thinking about this example for several days, thought of something constructive in the shower, and then didn’t have the means to write it down so I could remember it. So way to go, Sarah.

But seriously. It’s actually really difficult to explain why some prepositions are used in common phrases instead of others. Why do we use “on the other hand,” rather than “in the other hand”?

It’s not something you often think about having to explain until the moment is upon you and all you can do is stare at the paper, stall for time, and go, “Uh…well…”

I think part of why this is so difficult for a lot of ESL/ELL students is because it often feels like some prepositions change meanings with the context they’re being used in. Obviously, most prepositions will still keep their same meanings no matter what context.

“In” and “on,” however, have proven to be the most challenging for my international students. It’s a rough ride. Think of how many different ways we use “in” and “on.” It’s absurd. And it’s hard.


I don’t have a solution for this yet, which is unfortunate. I haven’t been able to figure out how to explain tiny little differences in language like that…yet. That doesn’t mean that I won’t be able to ever figure this out, but it’s going to be quite a bit of work.

 Next: Story Time!

This is my sister.

This weird girl is wearing a basket on her head.

Posted by: Sarah Isberner | 4th Oct, 2014

Pronunciation is a Beach

Welcome Back!

Welcome back to Adventures in ESL! This week, we’re going to be taking a quick trip back to Summer IEI.

My Mouth Doesn’t Make These Noises

One thing that my Brazilian boys really struggled with was pronunciation, specifically of “th” sounds. Words like “the,” “three,” “there,” and “that” end up coming out like “da,” “tree,” “der,” “dat” when they said it. This was actually a much bigger problem than it seems: Portuguese doesn’t have a sound like that, so the other tutors and I basically had to teach them from scratch.

Something that is really weird to think about is where your tongue goes in your mouth when you’re speaking. When saying a “th” sound, your tongue goes between your teeth, creating a soft, almost hissing sound. You then pull your tongue back, creating an “uh” sound.  As single as this sounds as well, the boys still had issues with it.

We had several supplemental instruction sessions where we spent the entire hour practicing this sound using the cruelest method of all: tongue twisters. My co-tutor and I looked for some online that might help, but a lot of them seemed too difficult due to either vocabulary or length. We didn’t want to make them suffer through a long, complicated tongue twister in a foreign language (I’m actually pretty sure that’s punishment for shoplifting in some countries).

The best solution we found was to make our own short tongue twisters. “Those three trees over there by the theater,” was one that we worked on over and over again. We would go around the room, having each boy repeat it and then work on something else for a bit, and then have them repeat it again. It got really frustrating for the boys, but they did eventually get it. Hard work and dedication and all that.

Curse Words

Another pronunciation issue we ran into was one of the long “e” sound. There were a few instances in which our students would try to say innocent words like “sheet” and “beach,” and instead say. . . not-so-nice words. You can use your imagination. It was honestly just a silly problem, and they are adults, so it wasn’t like anyone was going to be terribly upset with the error. However, we weren’t going to keep letting them do it.

To fix this, we worked on finding pairs of words where one word had a long “e” sound (peach, reach) and the other had a short “i” sound. We went through the pairs, and soon got to the point where the accidental curse word no longer came out instead of “worksheet.” We did have a lot of fun working on it, and the boys’ faces when we told them what was happening were priceless.

Next week: On the Other Hand


It's sort of related

Look! The Pacific Ocean! It’s a beach!


Posted by: Sarah Isberner | 22nd Sep, 2014

Obligatory Introduction Post

Welcome to Adventures in ESL/ELL!

I’m Sarah, and I will be your guide in this descent into madness and English as a Second Language/English Language Learners.

This blog is going to be a variety of things, but it isn’t going to be about


My two “Luci” and I having a blast at Whitewater’s Fourth of July carnival

  • real ESL techniques,
  • the private lives of my students,
  • or kittens.

The audience that I’m hoping will be attracted to this blog is going to be people who are working with or hoping to work with international students, as well as people who are generally interested in the ESL/ELL tutoring experience. It’s important for people to realize that working with international students is actually a really fun opportunity and it isn’t as frustrating as people think.

Can it be frustrating? Oh good god, yes. But not always.

My current students are Lu from China, Jocelyn from China, and Ben from Mexico. I have others, but these three are my main kids. They have their own UWW blog for the Intensive English Institute.

I’ll also bring back some stories from the IEI: Summer Edition. Those students and the three other tutors I worked with are featured in the banner for this site. They were basically the best part of my summer. Those students were Valdir, Diogo, Glasses Lucas, Little Lucas (all from Brazil) and Lu. Yes, the same Lu that I’m working with now. Keep those names in mind, because they’ll show up a lot.

Next week