When you feel sad, or under a curse
Your life is bad, your prospects are worse . . .
Temples are graying, and teeth are decaying
And creditors weighing your purse
Your mood and your robe
Are both a deep blue
You’d bet that Job
Had nothin’ on you . . .

This blog has been mostly silent through a summer filled with just such tribulations, which neither began nor ended with the burglary that cost me my laptop, my work, my sense of security and empowerment. (Robbed, July 14). “What  more could possibly go wrong?” I moaned one night in late June when I misplaced a brand-new $104 Metrocard. “Don’t ask,” said my friend Leslie, who knows about these things, having lost a daughter to cancer last year. She was right. The burglary happened the next day.

What else went wrong this summer?  In chronological order:

My brief return to the pages of The New York Times served mainly to remind me of all the reasons I left. A dream trip to Italy turned out to be, while far from the trip from hell, something less than a dream. Through no one’s fault but my own, I lost as good a friend as anyone could ever hope to have. A happily anticipated return to Columbia University proved physically and mentally draining. My three weeks at Columbia opened  with a cold and closed with food poisoning. Whether cause or effect, a paralyzing (though apparently short-lived) depression took hold through July and August, making everything else that much more impossible. No wonder I spent much of the summer humming that cheery little number from “Godspell.”

But summer has come to an end, and with it, I hope, a season sadder than any summer should be. The pace of life in New York has picked up, and mine with it; I’m starting to feel and act like myself again. I’m back to ushering at “War Horse” (Travels With Joey, July 13, 2011), though the end is in sight; a closing notice has been posted for January. One of my Columbia students hired me to teach him and his wife English privately until they return to Japan at the end of the year. Most promising is the new role I’m inventing at  City University’s Graduate School of Journalism, as ESL coach to the international students.

Talk about niche marketing. I must occupy the narrowest niche in history: I’m either the only journalist who’s trained to teach English as a second language, or the only ESL teacher who knows journalism.  Whichever, this unusual combination of skills has led to a most intriguing assignment.

Going back to school has always been a pleasure for me; I was better at school than anything I’ve done since. My mother sounded so wistful when she remarked, sometime in the early 1990s, “This is the first time in 50 years I haven’t had a kid going back to school.”  (In a family with four children born over a 20-year span, three of whom grew up to be high school teachers, the passage from first enrollment to last retirement did indeed last a half-century.) I feel much the same in years I’m not going back to school myself. This fall I’m disappointed not to be teaching in Poland for the first time in five years, but it does feel good to be back in a building filled with classrooms, students and possibilities.

The CUNY gig came about after I approached a professor at the J-school about  what role, if any, might be open to me there. “Is there any need for someone to help international students with English?” I asked. “No,” he said firmly, and that, I thought, was that. But he passed my C.V. along  to a writing coach who responded with an enthusiastic  “Yes!” Now I’m holding office hours on Monday afternoons and by appointment.

So far I’ve coached eight students privately — one Japanese, one Chinese, one Austrian, one Portuguese, one Belgian and three Russians.  During  their orientation, I got back up on the horse that threw me and conducted a formal class, an introduction to American and journalistic English; it went fine, confirming my belief that this year’s Columbia experience was an aberration. This work can only enhance the course I wanted to invent for Columbia and still hope to offer in Poland or elsewhere: “English for the Media,” an intensive for working journalists, students, broadcasters, online content producers, press officers, public relations specialists and any other non-native English-speakers  whose work involves contact with the media. (Any takers? For the proposal, click here.)

For someone trained for classroom teaching, where one curriculum must fit a dozen or more students, the opportunity to address individual concerns is a luxury. One student needs help with prepositions; another, whose native language has no articles, must be reminded when to use them and when not.  Nearly all need some fine-tuning in pronunciation — the correct O sound in product, for example,  or why the final A’s are different in caravan and corporate. A session that begins with language may end with an explanation of the New York State Legislature or Rosh Hashanah.  One Russian student asked if she should be reading journalism or literature to get a feel for English writing. (My answer: “You should be reading everything you can get your hands on.”) Nearly all are challenged by accuracy in note-taking, especially in a second language.

Being a firm believer in the Mrs. Anna School of Pedagogy — “If you become a teacher/By your pupils you’ll be taught” (from “The King and I”) — I’m also learning. (Take that, Bill Maher! Your remark on last season’s closing show that any teacher claiming to learn more from her students than she teaches them is a lousy teacher was unusually mean-spirited and just plain wrong.)  What’s the most gratifying thing I’ve learned this semester?

Despite all the new technology, all the available (and mandatory) platforms, all the bells and whistles, today’s journalism students have the same problems my generation had when we started J-school 40 years ago. They may have arrived already adept at Twitter and Final Cut Pro, but they need to learn how to do research, how to organize information, how to walk up to total strangers and get them to talk. In short, they need to learn how to do journalism. My clients have the added burden of learning to do it in a foreign language and a foreign culture.

To help address students’ questions between sessions, I’m initiating yet another blog, English for Journalists, hosted by CUNY.edu. If you’re an international student confused about word choices, uncertain about prepositions or totally ignorant of an arcane grammar point, this blog is for you. If you’re not a student but confused anyway, you’re welcome, too. Look for the first post soon.

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