Monday, October 20, 2014

Interviews with Communicative Greek Teachers (7): Jordash Kiffiak

This is now the seventh in this series, and possibly the last. I sent out a few others but have not received definitive answers; I will persist in encouraging those few others to consider completing their interviews. With this post I think you'll agree that it has really been a rewarding enterprise, hearing what such teachers are doing, where and how.

Earlier posts in this series may be read here (one, two, three, four, five, six)

Edit: The Eighth interview, with Randall Buth, can be read here.

Today we hear from Jordash Kiffiak....

1. What is your personal academic background?

I received my BA (University of Victoria) in History in 1998. During my undergraduate studies I also took courses in French, Spanish, Latin and Teaching English as a Second Language. An MA (University of British Columbia) in Religious Studies, focussing on the New Testament, was awarded to me in 2004. I am currently writing my PhD dissertation (Comparative Religions, Hebrew University of Jerusalem) on responses in miracles stories in the Gospels.

2. How did you first learn Greek?

I first learned classical Greek, through a grammar-translation approach, at the University of British Columbia (UBC), Canada.

3. What made you shift to a communicative methodology?

The first influence leading me towards using ancient Greek as a living language was, despite the traditional approach, my first-year classical Greek instructor, Dr. Shirley Sullivan (UBC). She absolutely insisted that we pronounce the Greek words we read with the accent on the correct syllable. Thus, for example, we would not mistake Τύρος (the city of Tyre) with τυρός (cheese). The principle she instilled was invaluable. This is a language—let's treat it like one!

Following a second-year classical Greek course, I began memorizing chunks of text from the New Testament for academic and personal interests. This is when I first began to use ancient Greek, here Hellenistic Greek, in a way that approached or was living-language usage. Sometimes I would use phrases in the text I had memorised, manipulating them for new contexts. This procedure aided in both memorising text and internalising the language.

Another important step occurred when I adopted the Imperial koine pronunciation system outlined by Dr. Randall Buth, upon the insistence of Joanna (Jo) Woo, my then long-distance girlfriend, whom I am now married to. It was a great decision on many levels.

Jo was a member of an informal Greek group based in Jerusalem and the surrounding area, meeting at Margret and Randall Buth's home to read Koine Greek texts and discuss them in the language. Upon my arrival in Israel in 2005 I was warmly welcomed into this small yet vibrant Greek-speaking community. In addition to my connection to Jo, relationships turning into friendships between me and Randall, Margret, David Bivin, Sharon Alley, Gary Alley and others in that circle of Greek-speakers were the biggest factor in my shift to the communicative methodology.

4. How did you first equip yourself to use a communicative method? What were some of the difficulties?

When Randall asked me in the summer of 2006 if I wanted to assist him the following summer to teach what would effectively be the world's first-ever, intensive beginners' communicative Koine Greek course, I knew that I would have to do a lot of hard work to get myself up to speed to be a useful assistant. For one I had never taught Greek before. Also, my level of ability to communicate was severely limited at that point. Even Randall, though he had taught Greek communicatively before (a once-a-week beginners' course), knew that he would have to put in numerous hours to be ready for what lay ahead: 4 hours a day, 5 days a week, for 6 weeks. As the Biblical Language Center (BLC) began to advertise, we began to make the most of the 10 months or so that lay ahead of us for preparations to teach.

That academic year (2006-2007) at the École biblique et archéologique français de Jerusalem I enrolled in Dr. Christophe Rico's first-ever second-year immersion Greek course. (At the time, to the best of my knowledge, this once-a-week course was the most advanced immersion Greek course officially offered in the world.) Despite the pronunciation difference (Christophe and all the students save me spoke with Erasmian pronunciation), this course offered me the best opportunity for preparing to teach the following summer. It met regularly and offered lots of comprehensible input. Also Christophe is fun and animated—he keeps your attention. Some of the texts were amusing and engaging, some a bit dry. I was talkative in class (all the while making mistakes, of course) and outside of class I spoke with other students, including on some archaeological field trips, organised by the École, which allowed for a lot of relaxed time together. Frère Paul comes to mind immediately as a great conversation partner.

The meetings that year with Jo, Randall and others were more sporadic, if my memory serves me right. Additionally Randall and I did meet periodically to do recordings for BLC's Living Koine Greek: Part 2a&b. I remember feeling so overwhelmed with all the vocabulary. (More than once he recorded my voice reading a sentence whose meaning I was not even certain of!) For me one of the basic challenges I faced was simply getting my range of vocabulary to a place where I would be able to follow unaided the texts we were scheduled to teach with the following summer—let alone ask students grammatically correct questions about the texts!

When it got closer to the time of the BLC course, I was over at Randall and Margret's house much more frequently. We would talk together about simple things, such as what we were eating. Alternatively, I practised giving commands to anyone who was willing to “play” with me—Dr. Brian Schultz (then a doctoral student), Randall and Magret's son-in-law, who was often at their house at the same time as I, was very generous with his time in this regard.

Thus, with a great stroke of luck, in preparation for venturing out into teaching using the communicative approach I found myself learning from Randall and Christophe, the world's two leading communicative Greek instructors, in contexts where they were speaking at more advanced levels.

In addition, on my own, I continued daily memorising large portions of the New Testament (a practise I wish I was still in the habit of doing). I also read some simple Greek texts, such as Revelation.

The BLC course went well. For teachers and students. It was exhilarating. It was exhausting. It was a whole lot of fun. I am still in touch with many of the students. I think I learned more that summer than all of them!

One of my biggest challenges—with 4 hours a day of class time and so many hours daily in preparation for the next—was simply having enough mental reserve to stay focussed. It was difficult to stay on top of the vocabulary in the texts too. I know that I was more useful to Randall during the first two weeks than the last two!

The intensive course, incidentally, prepared me for something I was not expecting, a fearful undertaking—teaching on my own! In the academic year 2007-2008, at Christophe's request, I taught one of two sections of first-year immersion Greek at the University of the Holy Land (UHL). Christophe in one classroom and I in another, we used Polis, the textbook he was then preparing to publish. He graciously accepted some of my suggestions for exercises and the like.

In those days, while the harvest was plentiful, the potential workers were indeed few. This fact, as with the BLC course, afforded me many opportunities, for which I am grateful. At the same time, the results these courses sought to provide were beyond what was realistic to expect from my stretched and strained skill set.

5. What courses or materials do you currently offer?

I currently offer two online communicative Greek courses. I teach one; two colleagues teach the other. A course runs for 10 weeks of sessions at 2.5 hours per session (one session per week). An upper intermediate course (nine participants; me as teacher) deals primarily at this point with specific Hellenistic texts—a Gospel, a letter of Paul, excerpts from Josephus etc. Many of the members of the group have been with me in this context for three years, as one set of 10 sessions follows another.
A lower intermediate course (eight participants; G. Schliesmann and C. Smoker as teachers) has just begun. This course is currently focussed on stories I have designed, which aid in internalisation of the language through use of TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Story-telling; Blaine Ray). Some short New Testament stories (from the Gospels) are read and discussed.

The requirement for being in either group is previous usage of Greek as a living language, notably through participation in fluency workshops offered by BLC in Fresno, California, a number of which I helped teach. In both courses participants range from Greek enthusiasts through BA and MA students to Greek instructors.

To put the courses in context, I will give a quick history of the group I teach, which has essentially been together continuously since before it became an online group. Following this I will explain more about what we do in a given session.

In the winter of 2010-2011 I started hosting a weekly Greek session, focussed on conversational fluency, at Jo's and my place. This occurred especially on the insistence and encouragement of David Bivin, a friend who also lived in the Jerusalem area. One friend in Tel Aviv and, a later, another in the United States, who were both prohibited from joining us physically, joined the group via Skype. This was before the days of free video-conferencing. We had to use two laptops in our apartment to Skype each remote friend. So there were three or four of us physically present and two virtually.

When Google+ hangouts first appeared in the fall of 2011, we were ready for the service. A hangout allows for ten participants. At this point we switched to being an entirely online group, with Bivin no longer coming over to our place. The rest of the spots in the hangout filled up quickly with people I had formerly taught, mostly through BLC. At this point, also, I started to charge for participation in the weekly sessions, though I allowed a discounted or waived tuition for those whose finance situation required this.

As for the format and contents of the sessions. A weekly 2.5 hour session has a 10 minute break in the middle. Since a given reading is rarely completed in one session, some of the sets of 10 sessions have been modular, focussed on Mark 1, John 1, Philippians, Philemon or, presently, Luke 4. Other texts we have read include passages from Acts, Genesis, 2 Kings, 1 Enoch and Josephus, Judean War. Alternatively, a given session may cover in its entirety a short story I have written.

Blain Ray's Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling or TPRS is the main approach utilised in the sessions. TPRS is a communicative teaching method which focuses on the core vocabulary and structures used in a given language. An unfamiliar story with a simple plot structure forms the base of each lesson. Repeated asking and answering of comprehension-based questions—constantly varying, though often subtly—allows for the copious repetition of the target vocabulary and structures in meaningful contexts necessary for acquisition. A significant period of asking questions follows every new line in the story. Student boredom, which in a mother-tongue situation might well be expected, given the slow pace of the story, is generally not a problem, since students have their hands full learning the language expressing the story. In measured doses questions calling for creative input from students are asked in addition to the comprehension questions. The story remains flexible or negotiable—open to even significant change. However, the ultimate decision about what will happen in the story remains the prerogative of the teacher.

When the story is found in a reading, Ray uses the same basic principles. Thus, for example, the plot is not fixed. Creative input from the students and the teacher may well be incorporated. Thus the story that is “read” by the class may be different in the end from what is printed on paper.

Ray insists on less than 100% immersion in the target language. It is better, in his opinion, to give a quick gloss of a new vocabulary item in the mother tongue, say English, rather than take a number of minutes to describe it accurately in the target language. (This may happen especially for more abstract nouns.) Similarly, he does not hesitate to jump into English if the phrase and/or grammatical concept he is introducing needs explanation. He advocates writing both the new vocabulary item and the English gloss on the board and leaving them there for the students' reference throughout a class. From watching some recordings of his teaching Spanish, I would estimate that he stays in the target language 90% of the time.

For Hellenistic Greek instruction the TPRS method works well, just as it is, for the stories written by me and others living in the 21st century. As regards written stories found in ancient texts, however, TPRS needs some modification to suit the needs of Greek pedagogy. Modern readers are very much interested in what the ancient texts have to say. Thus, though the type of comprehension questioning remains the same, we do not allow for a change in the outcome of a given story. Nevertheless, participant creativity is elicited, at times, for imagining extra, plausible details that might add colour to the story at hand.

I use the chat box provided by the Google+ hangout for displaying what might need to be written, whether lines from a made-up story or text or a new word or phrase and the approximate English equivalents. As the text in the chat box scrolls upward when new text is added, participants often have to scroll up in order to see words or phrases introduced earlier in the session.

Regarding English usage, I follow Ray's approach, taking the liberty to explain in English new Greek structures and, when necessary, important semantic nuances of a new word that may not be apparent if I were simply to give an English gloss. This is especially true of, for example, particles—δέ, καί, οὖν κτλ (etc.). At times I may speak in English at some length, if it seems necessary. Alternatively, some new words in Greek can be fairly effortlessly and speedily described in the target language, using if necessary dolls or gestures.

One of the down-sides to using TPRS for teaching Greek is that the method is slightly artificial with respect to communication for at least two reasons. First, content questions are constantly asked for which the answers are presumably known or knowable. Second, answers are often given using a full expression of the words used in the question. This procedure is unnatural in normal communication. In addition, as focus is set on internalising core vocabulary and structures, it is more difficult in lower language levels to devote significant time to topics of great interest to the learners, such as historical and social realities in the first century CE, for a richer vocabulary is needed.

In addition to the two-and-a-half hours online, participants typically receive, a day or two after the session, the following: the text of the TPRS story and/or of the ancient text concerned; a voice recording of me reading the same; and a list of comprehension questions, about 10 per line of the story or reading.

6. What sort of outcomes do your students generally finish with? Where are they ‘at’ when they’ve completed a course of study with you?

To answer this question I will focus on the more advanced group (the one I personally teach). After a 10-week course students can describe in their own words the situation and/or story relevant to the text we have read. For example, they would be able to tell about what happened upon Jesus' return to the Galilee (Luke 4) and what transpired in the synagogue in Nazareth. Or they would be able to describe why Paul is writing to the Philippians and what has taken place where Paul is. They will of course also be able to read the respective text, with comprehension, without recourse to aids. They will also be able to approach similar texts that they have not previously read and follow in large part what is being communicated without turning to dictionaries and the like. Students also will usually be able to describe aspects of their own life, employing concepts and language from the text being studied (again using Luke 4 as an example—where one was born, has grown up, whether one is well known and/or respected there etc.).

The longer one stays in the group, the greater the results. As I said previously, the group that I am currently teaching continues to advance collectively and raise the bar. As a group we recently witnessed one (friend and) participant, W. Hafen, speak to us all for around 10 minutes, playing the role of the assistant in the synagogue (ὁ ὑπηρέτης), as he described what he knew about Jesus from growing up, what he had heard about his recent activity in the Galilee and, especially, what happened on the Sabbath in which Jesus taught in the synagogue. All of this was done without recourse to written materials and spoken freely, though he had prepared for the theatrical stint early in the week. To me it seemed a milestone in the use of Hellenistic Greek for communication. But the biggest dividends are when it comes to reading. It is hard to quantify. But I trust this friend, when he tells me that he has seen a significant improvement in his ability to read ancient Greek texts, on account of his participation in the online courses.


Paul Nitz said...

Wonderful interview. Thanks again for doing these. I wish we could have all these interviewees in one room together talking about issues of Greek pedagogy.

Joshua W.D. Smith said...

This has been a great series. If you're still interested in anyone teaching Greek with these methods, I have been working these in for some time in my 12th grade Greek class. I'd be happy to share my experience at that level, if you think it would be helpful.

Seumas Macdonald said...

Joshua, would love to. Is it possible for you to email me: seumas.jeltzz at