language stuff work stuff

Teaching English, part 2, tips and tricks

< Read part 1 of my teaching adventures

Kids are harder to teach than adults.  Their attention spans are shorter, they are not very obedient, and often times they’re forced to be there by their parents to sit in a dreary classroom instead of playing outside with their friends.  It is one of the toughest things I’ve had to do.

But, despite my rants on how tough it is to teach little kids, I hope you can tell that I actually love it.  Sure you’re drained by the end of the class, but afterwards it feels so rewarding you wouldn’t mind doing it all over again.

Recently I picked up two tutoring gigs from a school call Tomi’s English, a one-on-one tutoring school by day and a bar by night.  I don’t make much money from these gigs since I only teach one hour a day, four days a week, but I wanted the experience and figured it would be fun.  Also, the knowledge I gain from teaching these kids will help us make our English learning website better.  Hey!  Free beta testers!

One of my students is a five-year-old girl who is extremely shy but extremely intelligent.  She is also very obedient and enthusiastic about learning English.  I have a blast teaching her every time, because of how quickly she learns and how easy going the classes are.  Right now her English is probably better than all the first-graders in all of Xi’an, and she’s still only in Kindergarten.

Now compare that with my other student, a 6-year-old boy spoiled by his rich parents, who has his own study room and his own iPad and countless toys and distractions vying for his attention, I learned that the teaching experience varies widely from kid to kid.  This boy is a hyperactive machine on legs.  His attention span is less than five minutes, and to top it off he isn’t very obedient at all.  I can’t get him to sit still long enough to go through a proper lesson.  But he is also extremely intelligent, and I think he gets bored easily because of it.  Sometimes short attention spans doesn’t indicate ADHD, it just means the kid is bored with what you’re teaching him.  So I’d had to invent quite a few tricks to get him to learn.

Make learning fun, use games and activities to hold their attention

Kids get bored easily, you can’t just go through a lesson in a book and expect them to stay focused.  Best way to keep their attention is when you’re doing something fun together.  Here are some activities we’ve done.

1. Hands-on activities.  Kids love making stuff and doing stuff, such as drawing and coloring and cutting shapes out of construction paper.  I bring a set of “tools” that includes construction paper, color pencils and crayons, safe plastic scissors, glue-sticks, and masking tape.

Have them learn their shapes and colors by cutting them out of construction paper.  All kids like to draw, so do some drawing activities with them.  They also love being to choose what they like, so ask them to pick their favorite colors and ask them to draw their favorite animal or some other objects.  You can write the English word on the page after they’ve drawn it, teaching them the written version of the word.

2. Play games with them.  For example, I teach numbers by playing Bingo with my students.  I have an iPad app that chooses and calls out the numbers, but you can easily make them out of construction paper.  There are free bingo card generators online you can use to print out your game cards.  If the kid’s number knowledge is only up to ten, read out the numbers higher than ten individually, say two, one instead of twenty-one until they start to get the concept of the higher numbers.

3. Reading is essential.  If you want the kid to retain their English vocabulary, you have to teach them the written version of the word.  Just being able to hear it and say it isn’t enough.  The best way to teach the written language is to read story books to them.  My favorite books are Dr. Seuss books, because they’re fun, simple, and they rhyme!  Kids love rhyming stuff!

But don’t just read to them straight out, have them interact with you as you go through the book.  Ask them questions, make them repeat a particularly fun sentence in a funny voice.  The key is to keep them engaged.  You can pick a random word and ask them to spell out each letters, saying the sound equivalent of each letter at the same time.  Huh-H!  Aah-A!  Tuh-T.  Hat!  Once you’ve done it enough they’ll start to get the concept of reading and recognizing the printed words.

4. Sing!  Most kids love singing.  Some kids are too shy to sing, but they almost always love to hear it.  The human brain is just naturally drawn to music, and singing is the best trick to help them learn new words.  I like to teach The Itsy-Bitsy Spider and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.  You can write the lyrics down in huge letters on pieces of paper and point to the words as you sing with them.  You can also make it fun by doing the corresponding dance with each song.  Make up your own if the song doesn’t have a traditional dance associated with it.  🙂

5. Cater to the kid.  The personalities of each of your student varies greatly, but if you can afford to teach them one-on-one, or spend a little bit of individual time with them in a classroom setting, you can use what they like to gain their enthusiasm.

The boy student likes Thomas the Engine, so I read Thomas the Engine books to him and show him Thomas the Engine videos on my iPad.  The girl student likes Disney princesses, so I teach her Disney songs like Part of Your World from The Little Mermaid and A Whole New World from Aladin.

6. Everyone loves taking pictures and videos.  One trick I learned is to use my iPhone to get them to act out the lessons I want them to learn.  This particular video I’m particularly proud of, because I didn’t think the kid learned anything at all from our lesson.  He was always running to his computer trying to play video games or play with his toys as I tried to teach him the words.  But then he surprised me by showing me how much he learned.

There are a million ways to teach a kid.  Just experiment with different methods until you find the ones that work for your students.  And remember to keep learning fun!

language stuff work stuff

Teaching English to Chinese kids

I thought teaching English would be easy. Holy Cheesestick it’s harder than trying to put a sweater on a wild panda! At least that’s how I feel after the recent stint at the J Plus English school and the tutoring lessons I’ve done here in Xi’an. Kids are like monsters on little legs!

Granted, I’ve never taught this age group before, but how hard can it be? I thought.  A few weeks ago I answered the plea of a desperate friend in need of a substitute teacher, he couldn’t make it to class that weekend due to the flooding in his town. They would pay me 100 kuai an hour, I would teach classes of 4 to 7 year-old kids for a few hours each day. Cake walk, I thought.

Nothing went as planned. I had a whole lesson in mind when I walked in to the classroom, and managed to get through about 10 minutes of it before the classroom became a circus of clowning kids vying for attention. First, it was questions after questions of, Are you Chinese? Why are you from the U.S. when you look like you’re Chinese? To … “Look at me teacher look what I can do”!  Luckily, the experienced assistants knew what they were doing and were there to dig me out of the hole before things got out of hand. I would be strung up like Gulliver and his little people otherwise.

They did warn me not to be too nice, or they’d walk all over me.   But I couldn’t help it, how could you be stern to these adorable kids?

I reviewed their ABC’s by using The Body Language Alphabet Dance, imitating each letter with my arms and legs.  I taught them how to sing the Itsy-Bitsy-Spider Went Up the Water Sprout song. I had them pick their favorite colors from the box of crayons I brought, drew pictures of bears and cars and houses, played hot potato while counting up, played Hangman with the older classes, and read them the story of Sleeping Beauty and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.  We must’ve done a million things.  I swear Einstein’s theory of relative kicked into full gear, as the speed at which time passes was proportional to the hyperactivity of the kids.  I was drained by the end of the first class.

I did enjoy reading the stories to them as they gathered around huddled on the cushioned mat floor.  You don’t get the same enraptured attentiveness from your adult friends.  They were all wondering why the princess was so stupid she let an ugly old hag pricked her with a spinning wheel.

They also taught me this joke:

What kind of “ma” (horse) has only two legs?
Answer: ObaMA!  Ahahahahaa!

At the end of the second day, a little girl and her mom came up to me to say their goodbyes.   The girl tugged at her mom’s dress, she had something to tell me but she was too shy so she was making her mom do it.  The mom said, “She wanted to ask if you will come back next week to teach the class.”  I told them I didn’t know, it depends on if the school still needed me or not.  Then the little girl said something quietly to her mom.  The Mom repeated it to me, “She said she wanted you to come back because she really likes you.”  And then the little girl ran away.  That was so sweet, but it broke my heart knowing that I would probably not be back anytime soon.

> Read part 2 of my teaching adventures

work stuff

Farewell Rackspace

To my most affectionate Rackers,

April 1st is my last day at Rackspace.  It has been quite a journey this past 8 years growing and sharing experiences with you all.  We’ve laughed together and danced together and sweat through rough times together.  We’ve labored through long days and toiled through late nights and built digital monuments together.  And I wouldn’t trade any second of it for the world.

I am moving to China in May to start a company with a friend, and to teach English at the same time.  For the next few years I plan to travel all over the world living in various cities to experience the culture and learn the language.  Maybe one day I can learn to speak all the major languages of the world and be some sort of ambassador for mankind. Ambitious I know, but a guy can dream 🙂  Wish me luck!

I’m not going to be able to see each and everyone of you to say our goodbyes.  Please hug each other on my behalf and pass the hug on.  Maybe someday in some distant land I’ll get a random hug from a stranger and he or she’ll turn to me and say “That hug was from so-and-so, from this date and time, and has found its way to you.”  That would be so cool!

Thank you for everything!  You all will always hold a special place in my heart.  Take care of yourselves and each other. May our lives intersect again one day.

Much Love,

p.s.  You can follow my adventures by subscribing to this blog or friending me on Facebook (

You can also reach me on Skype ( or Google (  I’d love to hear from you, don’t hesitate to send some love once in a while :).  <3

personal stuff work stuff

Why I Want to Teach English in China

This was the letter I wrote to the academy in China where I will teach English for 6 months starting in September.  The interview process took a few weeks over several Skype sessions, and I officially accepted their contract today.  I’m so excited!  But if you’re curious to know why I’m quitting a well paying job to do this, you can find out by reading what I wrote.  It’s kinda cheesy,  I know, but it worked!  😀


Why I want to teach English in China
Huey Ly

I love the study of linguistics, and have always found it easy to learn a new language.  Growing up in Vietnam, we spoke both Cantonese and Vietnamese at home.  My brother, sister and I would speak Cantonese with our Mom and Dad, and Vietnamese with our friends at school.  When we moved to the United States, English came naturally to us.  We were speaking English to each other within a few years of coming to America.

Language and linguistics, to me, is the essence of thoughts.  The collective sum of our experiences cannot be described and remembered without the use of language.  Advance thoughts and complex concepts cannot be formed, analyzed and processed without the use of language.  Indeed, to learn a person’s language is to be able to think as that person.  Language is more than a form of communication, learning a language can give a person insights into the culture of which it belongs to as well.

Furthermore, I love traveling and learning about the different cultures around the world.  Every city has its own characteristic, and the people living there seem to see the world in a slightly different light.  I want to be able to experience these differences, quantum leaping thru the heartbeat of each city until I’ve seen them all.  Learning about the language and culture of a place will bring me closer to that place, and eventually, the rest of the world.

And that is why I want to teach English in China (or Vietnamese, or any other languages for that matter).   It gives me the opportunity to share my love for languages with others, and at the same time help me learn new languages from the other side.  I plan to quit my cushy job as a software developer and travel the world in the next few years, teaching English and learning new languages as I go.  I plan to stay at least 6 months to a year at each location, but my schedule isn’t rigid.  I can stay longer or shorter depending on the situation.  Hopefully, by the end of it, I could say I’ve lived in all the major cities of the world, and picked up a handful of languages a long the way.

Thank you for your time and consideration.  I would love to join your institution to follow this dream.

Huey Ly
January 14, 2011


personal stuff work stuff

I Took the Strength Finder Test Twice

The company I work for have stacks and stacks of the Gallup Press’s Strengths Finder books.  Everyone that work for us have to take the test to find their top 5 strengths.  New recruits will have a print out of their strengths by the end of the orientation process, to be taken to their cubicles to proudly display it on their desks.

When we got acquired by Rackspace in 2007, this was one of the things we had to do as part of the HR transfer process.  I played along (I’m not a big consumer of self-help books).  There were reasons for me to believe that this test was a bit bogus, which I will get into in a bit.  But overtime, the results and philosophy of this process grew on me, and I’ve come to change my mind about it.  So recently, as Borders was closing its stores all over the country, I went into one and grabbed a couple of extra copies.  I gave one to my friend and kept one for myself, so that I can retake the test completely independent of the first test and see if the results match up.

Here’s how it works.  Each book contains a code that allows the owner to go to their website, register, and create an account.  It can only be used once, so you’d have to buy multiple copies of the same darn book if you want all of your employees to take it.  Once registered, the user can take the strengths finder test by answering a series of eHarmony-like questions.

The format imitates some personality tests I’ve seen in the past, where they offer two different statements that best describes you, and you are to pick which statement you’d lean more toward.  Here are some sample questions:

  • I am a sensitive person;  I am a logical person.
  • I get to know people individually; I accept many types of people.
  • My view of humanity guides my life;  My ambition guides my life.
  • I enjoy giving recognition;  I enjoy receiving recognition.
  • I enjoy relaxing;  I enjoy cleaning.

As you can see, some of these descriptions are pretty obvious in terms of what type of person would pick them.  But others are a bit more vague.  I mean, I enjoy both giving recognition and receiving them!  Some days I enjoy relaxing, other days I want to go clean things!  You can’t put labels on people this way because our moods change from day to day. Furthermore, the answers I gave became almost arbitrary.  When I came up against a vague question, I would randomly just pick a radio button, without analyzing it and making sure that it even matches my personality, because any answers could be correct depending on the day of the week and what was happening at the time.  So I became skeptical on how accurate the result would be going through these tests.

The first time around, these were my top 5 strengths:

  1. Connectedness
  2. Intellection
  3. Includer
  4. Strategic
  5. Input

If you want to get in depth with what each of those strengths mean, you can read the descriptions of a few of them on my About page.  But apparently, they were able to categorize the whole spectrum of human skills and capabilities into 34 different labels.  Another bogus flag went up for me.  It sounds almost zodiac-like!  Indeed, if you read some of the descriptions of these strengths, they read like a paragraph out of a horoscope.  For example, here is an excerpt from the Intellection strength:

This need for mental activity may be focused; for example, you may be trying to solve a problem or develop an idea or understand another person’s feelings.  The exact focus will depend on your other strengths.  On the other hand, this mental activity may very well lack focus.  The theme of Intellection does not dictate what you are thinking about; it simply describes that you like to think.

I mean, doesn’t that read like a horoscope entry describing people of the Pisces sign or something?  Also, many people will be able to identify with the above statement, going “Yea!  That’s me!”.  Furthermore,  I noticed they sprinkled their descriptions with these tidbids of general facts that makes you inadvertently agree with them.  Sentences like “The earlier time was a simpler time.  It was a time of blueprints.”  And “The world is exciting precisely because of its infinite variety and complexity.”  Yes!  Those statements are true!  So the whole paragraph seems to be more truthful and official.  Sneaky sneaky!

But despite my skepticism, I did eventually buy into the whole thing.  Yes, take the test with a grain of sand, but it can be useful in its own right.  Firstly, it forces the test taker to analyze his or her own personality, making that person spend more time thinking about what they are good at.  We often go about our daily lives without spending so much as a second for introspection.  But introspection is the ultimate catalyst for growth, and we should really do it more often.

Secondly, sometimes the person grows into the role.  The test says I’m an “Arranger”, so I’m just gonna go start arranging things!  Yea, more meetings! This placebo behavior did have its effect on me.  One of my strengths was “Includer“.  Most people I work with would go “Oh yea … you are definitely an includer” whenever they see my strengths.  Which really just means I’m friendly and sensitive to people’s feelings at certain times.  But it did make me become even more empathetic and making sure no one feels left out more so than before.

And lastly, they make great icebreakers and water cooler discussions, and provide a legitimate way to throw labels on each other and not waste too much time trying to actually figure out what a person is really like.  Yea, sarcasm.

So, all that said, let me reveal what I learned after taking the test the second time around.  I wanted to see how accurate (or precise?) this test was based on how closely the results of the two tests reflect each other.  To my surprise, they were pretty similar.  Here is the result of my second test:

  1. Intellection
  2. Connectedness
  3. Context
  4. Developer
  5. Input

As you can see, my top two strengths are still there, but swapped places.  Of the 5 top strengths, 3 of them still remain after the 2nd test.  The two that got swapped out were Includer and Strategic, which honestly I feel that I’ve care less about those traits recently.  I bet they’re still in my top 10 though.  And you can also argue that people strengths do change over time, as the environment or the experiences they went through slowly shape them.  An ideal test would be to force a subject to take the test once, wipe his memory of taking it, then make him take the test immediately after.  Regardless, the test doesn’t seem as arbitrary to me anymore after seeing these results.

So, for $24.95, this book maybe worth it for you if you’re into this kind of thing.   The analytical self-help setup adds a level of legitimacy to the process.  And it does help you think about yourself in clearer, more productive terms.  I know my company believes in its value, and on certain days, certain parts of my brain do too.

personal stuff work stuff

Nostalgic Blacksburg

I made this video in the winter of ’09 before I left Blacksburg for Austin.   It’s only been a year, but those days seem so long ago.  I miss everyone there, thanks for being a part of my cherished memories.

On a side note … I figured out to convert a video to flash and embed it into a webpage without going through YouTube.  YouTube kept stripping the audio because of the song.  But the video isn’t the same without it.

work stuff

Austin Paperweight Ping Pong Tournament

For the past few weeks, I’ve helped organized the first Cloud ping pong tournament here at the Austin Rackspace office.  You’ll be surprised how much a simple ping pong tournament can bring your co-workers together!  We completed the finals yesterday and as an added bonus, I’ve recorded the events as memory keepsakes for the top players.  Enjoy :0)

Devdatta v Nick Bailey:

Nick Bailey v Zachary Carberry:

work stuff

A Tour of Castle

Here is an unofficial, hacked up tour of the Rackspace office in San Antonio, which we lovingly named “Castle” after its predecessor, the Windsor Park Mall.

It has been mentioned before, but worth mentioning again: Rackspace is all about substance over flash.  Instead of spending a crapload of money building a new campus from the ground up, our mighty leaders made the decision to buy up an abandoned mall, in a not so nice part of town, and turned it into a kickass office to work in.  We saved tons of money, and at the same time we are helping revitalize the neighborhood.

We are encouraged to be green, fuel efficient cars can park in spots closest to the building, and there are also designated areas for people who car pool.

This is the first thing you see through the front door.  No fancy reception area.  No wasted space.

Panels documenting the process of converting the mall into the new headquarters.

1900 tons of material was recycled during the demolition of the mall.

Nothing fancy, just a big wide open space for Rackers to do work in.

There are break areas scattered around the building for Rackers to meet or just to step away from their desks for a bit.

Fueling stations!  Rackers run on coffee, soda, and Mexican food.

More green initiative.  There are no Styrofoam or other throwaway cups in the building.  We are provided mugs and plastic cups at the fueling stations.  When we’re done we just put them in the sink and they “magically” get cleaned.

Rackers can hang work-friendly flags above their desks.  I think this is the billing department, by the Benjamins hanging from the ceiling.  5-year and 10-year Rackers also get a special flag to mark their triumph.

Cool posters around the building.  This one says “RAX.  Public We Are.”

There is a giant chess set in the rally room!  I took the opportunity to set up a photogenic moment, but couldn’t find anyone to play a game with.

Company-issued recycling bins, every desk has one.

No paper towels in the bathroom, just a super-powered hand dryer!  Yea baby!

There are even these water-saving toilets in certain bathrooms.  Push up for number 1s, down for number 2s.

There are lots of these getaway rooms and conference rooms, for meetings and planning sessions and conferencing.  There are lots of meetings at Rackspace.

The break room, I think they kept it low key to discourage people from hanging around too much.

The wall of superheroes.

The Rackspace University classrooms where Rackers can signup to take classes in anything from karate to Redhat System Administration.

And there’s still tons of cool stuff I couldn’t show you, but this post is getting quite long so I’m going to stop.  But as you can see, I’m pretty fond of the place.  I work in the Austin office but try to make the one-hour commute to San Antonio whenever I can.  Being in the office just energizes me and reminds me what an amazing company I work for.  Go Rackers!

random stuff work stuff

Birthday Pranks at the Blacksburg Office

This is both a testament to the creativity of my fellow Rackspace co-workers, and the amount of free time they have at work.  In either case, these are exercises in love and compassion for each other …in the let-me-pull-your-hair-because-I-like-you kind of way.