Keep on moving…

I could talk for days about my time at Praxis and SpanishPod, and why I left; the same goes for SpanishPod101.  I’ve talked to my friends about it until their eyes glaze over.  Even some listeners who seem to want all the behind the scenes dirt, I seem to bore them after a few minutes.

So even though this part of my professional career has been very, very public, I’ve largely kept quiet about it.

When I first moved to China in 2007 to work for Praxis Language, I was hired as an Academic Developer for SpanishSense.com, which was a terrible podcast.  I was hoping to change some things about it going in, but I had no vision of being the Project Manager.  I was moving to Shanghai for adventure, not work.  I was sick of teaching high school.  I accepted a five digit pay cut to make this move, rented out my townhouse, and left… imagining that I’d have a day job, I’d study and master Mandarin, and travel on the weekends.

It did not turn out that way.  On my first day of work, they offered me the Project Manager position to launch the new SpanishPod.com, to help build it from the ground up.  I accepted, thinking hey, I got a promotion on my first day!  The founders of the company sat me down and told me, we want you to fight for your ideas!  Fight us!

It would be months before I had an idea, and the more I got to know them, the less I wanted to fight them.  I was learning the ropes, learning their system and philosophy.  I was also freezing, as there was no insulation in that office; we wore our coats in the office.  There was a freezing draft that blew directly onto my keyboard, so I took to typing with my scarf laid over my hands like a blanket.  We caulked the window several times.  The management watched us, amused.

Anyway, that model of day job/language learning/weekend travel was out the window for me.  Instead I was busting my ass during the week to get the lessons entered into the system so that the popup definitions would work, keeping up with user comments in the evenings, working weekends.  The fledgling SpanishPod site got all my waking attention.

There were some huge flaws in the program.  The exercises, for example, were designed by a computer programmer for cPod; there is no instructional or pedagogical value to them.  You can search the whole archive and never hear me recommend them once.  Worthless.  “But some customers like them,” was the response…. sad.  When I asked what the instructional value of the exercises was, the answer was “because they are computer generated!”

Also, I can’t believe how many hours of my life (and Esti’s life) were wasted on those stupid popups:  when you mouse over words in the lesson, their English definitions and parts of speech would pop up for you.  Newsflash:  Spanish is not written with characters.

So I kept plugging away, but after about a year I really wanted to leave.  My expat friends were all getting paid better, jetting off somewhere on the weekends, studying Chinese at their leisure.   Me, I was working my ass off and getting paid like a first year teacher.

The work got better.  I negotiated a modest pay raise, got my apartment paid for, got five more vacation days, and a round trip plane ticket home (one per year).  They signed me up for a health plan.  The office moved from that gross cold factory to a nice new building.

Still, at this point, it wasn’t fun.  The management had started pulling the rug out from underneath us.  They were reorganizing the office, changing the products, discussing cuts.  When Leo was transfered to the Marketing Dept, Leo told me himself… in a chat.  There was no memo, no meeting.  I found out from a user comment that Pa’ Que Sepas and Del Taco Al Tango were paid content instead of free.  They regarded our video series “La Clave” and “Cooking with Tabasco” as a waste of time and resources.  I was mad at how they were treating Clay, Amber, Marco, Erica… I knew I wasn’t safe.

I remember hearing a lot of crazy shit from the management, which shows how out of touch they were with us, with language learning, and with the Spanish learning market in the USA.

  • “Aspirational learners do not want lessons about food.”
  • “A dictionary does not need definitions.  It’s still a dictionary, just without definitions.
  • “The website is pretty self explanatory.”
  • “I don’t think you can make grammar entertaining.”

There are plenty more of these gems, buried in the back of my mind somewhere.  Embarrassing.  There was that time when KC wanted to talk about SLA and regaled us with his cursory knowledge of Krashen (which would have been groundbreaking had it been 1981 and had he actually understood it).  Embarrassing.  There was another time when the two Irish dudes in the office rounded up the PMs, four Americans, and proceeded to tell us what American learners want.  Embarrassing.  I was embarrassed for them.

Anyway, near the end they were panicking, because sPod and the other services had plateaued in terms of sales.  sPod was paying it’s own way, but Italian and French were not, and growth was not increasing.  Italian and French were closed down, Spanish was reduced to 3 lessons a week.  They said that ChinesePod would also reduce to 3 lessons a week, which was a lie that they told us.

HH came up with a stupid idea called “Open Language,” which would reorganize our content and be sold to teachers, so that teachers could shop for content.  I quit going to those committee meetings, because the premise was too stupid; teachers do not want to pay to make work for themselves.  I am a teacher, I said; wake up.   HH yelled at the rest of the group, apparently, for their lack of commitment.

Finally, the management discontinued sPod’s video series by memo.  They thought it was a waste of resources.

So they were cutting cutting cutting, and no marketing to speak of.  Our success depended on people discovering the service and signing up for subscriptions, but they refused to advertise or do anything to bring the message to the people.  So I left.

When I left, I had had an offer in my pocket from Innovative Language Learning in NYC, and was trying to swing a teaching job back in Seattle.  In the end, the teaching job fell through, so I took the job at sp101.   Which I can talk about in another post.

I found out a few months later that KC and SW had fled China.  Their other business, Kai En English School, had failed.  Their teachers began missing paychecks.  The local staff, it turns out, hadn’t been paid in months.  Apparently “gangsters” came to their offices to collect their debts, but SW had returned to England, saying he needed back surgery.  KC fled to Taiwan, and told people “he didn’t feel safe.”  It was a scandal in the local news, in the expat community, and among the cPoddies.  Well, the cPoddies didn’t care that much; all they wanted was to make sure they kept getting their lessons.  KC responded to the criticisms, saying “there were some inaccuracies,”  which is a sad sad sadly weak defense.

Anyway, all that cutting, the layoffs, the lies they told to us… it was not about the company succeeding; it was all about them trying to scratch together some money to keep the gangsters at bay one more day.  And in the end, they fled the country.

A tragedy all around?  I doubt it.  For all their sorry crying about how the company wasn’t making enough money, it turns out that the management were all taking home six digit salaries.  One night JZ left her contract out on the cPod table, and the Chinese staff saw it.  She was making three times what I was making; easily over a hundred times what the local staff made, for two days a week of work.  Must be nice to be the star.  You can’t tell me the three founders were making less then JZ.

It doesn’t offend me so much that they took home truckloads of money every year, I know that people are greedy.  I’m more mad at myself, that I believed them when they said they needed to cut content and staff due to the global economic crisis and poor sales.  Once I saw that my career aspirations were just a cog in their money mill, I got out.

Also, my supervisor was kind enough to recommend that it was a good time to leave.

34 thoughts on “Keep on moving…

  1. Is it wrong for me to wish you would create the site you wish sPod could have become, had you had a real opportunity to do it? You are an awesome teacher and I would use that site.

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    • Hi Viki, I’m trying to figure out how to do just that! The problem is that I’m all about the academic and production aspects of the job; I would need to find parters for the tech side and the business side. I’ll let you know if I come up with something! Thanks for the vote of confidence!

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      • That would be fabulous! I did actually download everything from sPod while I was there…and I mean everything. So I continue to learn on my own, at my own pace which is “mas despacio”. But I would love to know that there may be a site in the future that I could land at to hone my language skills with feedback.

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  2. Wow JP! Sounds like a pretty crappy company. Well, if it makes you feel any better, I enjoyed the podcasts. Your way of explaining the grammar concepts really made sense to me. Also, you guys had great personalities which made listening to the podcasts fun. So, your hard work was not all done for nothing. I’m pretty darn good at Spanish now!!! Thanks!!

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  3. “I accepted a five digit pay cut to make this move, rented out my townhouse, and left… imagining that I’d have a day job, I’d study and master Mandarin, and travel on the weekends.”

    Sans the travel bit, since I’ve already done quite a lot of that in China already.. this is also my plan for this year. Essentially the same goal though.. for a bit of adventure, to master (or at least see a significant improvement in) my mandarin skills and to rub shoulders with the locals.

    I think that if I keep my expectations low, which they are, then I think it could work out.. and in the end, it is all a learning (haha) experience. A crappy and cringe worthy one maybe.. but I’m sure that there were still many, many things that made the other parts of experience positive in some ways. Like the friendships you formed with Esti, Liliana, Leo and other Praxis staff etc. As I’ve said to you before, the lesson content when you were there and presenting/teaching is still the best of the best.

    The only initials I can’t work out are SW… the rest I know.. and you coming out like this really sheds a lot of light on some grey areas I’ve had myself… now I will be racking my brain to work out who SW is… *sigh*

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    • You’re right Luke, it was a learning experience, and I’m glad I did it. I made some amazing friends when I finally decided to have a social life outside of work; if you can imagine it, I was hanging out with brits, aussies, and a kiwi, saying things like “sorted” and “arvo.”

      Also, I did learn a lot of Chinese, but I didn’t have the time to put into it as I wanted to.

      If you don’t know who SW is, don’t sweat it; I don’t know him either anymore.

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      • I did a bit of digging and found an extremely extensive forum post over at one of the expat sites regarding the debacle.. so I did eventually work out who he was and what he looks like etc.. I definitely never bumped into him on any of my visits.. then again I never bumped into HH either and my meeting with KC was by pure random chance on a street in the Pudong district, so not knowing who he is isn’t really that surprising. It’s quite eye opening really.. and changes a lot of perceptions I had about some of the key people involved. It also explains a lot about another ex-Praxis staffer I have formed an online friendship with too: Aric.. anyway.. thanks for the story..

        Yes.. I think that’s what really matters in the end.. the people you share your life with.. and that is the truly sad and unfortunate part of the situation, that you had to say goodbye to those people. Even though you can still talk to them online and potentially go visit “one day”.. it’s just not the same as sharing your life with them. I hope to build equally as strong friendships with the people there when I, hopefully, head over there for an extended stay later this year.

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  4. Oh yes.. and I think it’s worth pointing out that both SpanishPod and ChinesePod have made grammar fun! So it IS possible.. OF COURSE it is possible.. what WERE they thinking…

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  5. good story. i always had a really low impression of the management at praxis, having been a listener from the beginning. you joined after the launch of V3, which was one of the shittiest web site designs i’ve ever seen, yet was thought to be genius by the big 3. they thought it was super intuitive to use, but really it was probably one of the worst websites in existence. that initial home page with KC’s face on it and essentially nothing else was horrible. they got rid of it after about 6 months i believe.

    i remember liking cPod quite a bit at first, then after a few months I realized KC’s mandarin sucked the big one. then they brought John in and things improved a lot. SW I’ve gathered was the one who killed the Saturday Show, or at least changed the link to a light grey link text link at the very bottom of the site, and that’s when I stopped paying my basic subscription to CPod. i did however keep listening, but mainly just to the podcasts with Amber in them, and quite a few entertaining ones with you and Clay as well.

    for some reason i always continued to enjoy reading the message boards, not lesson related stuff, but when cPod management would make huge public relations blunders, which was at least on a monthly basis, that always provided for some entertaining reading material. then there was the upgrades that always went horribly wrong. fun to read about, luckily i never used any of their premium content features. i did try out the exercises and thought they were really pretty sad. i ended up hiring an awesome private teacher over skype for 3 hours a week. i always figured it must blow away the 10 minutes the executive subscribers were getting, and my money was going straight to the worker with no overlords taking a 90% cut.

    i did check out spanishpod on occasion, as well as frenchpod and italianpod. i actually registered a pod language site a long time ago, and still have it actually… now that french/italian/spanishpod are history, the value of my pod domain name has completely evaporated. i was hoping to extort money from KC for it someday, but i see now that’ll never happen.

    i heard tell of employees having to punch time cards there. was that for real? or is that common in offices in china? i don’t think i could handle that for long without breaking something or hurting people.

    i’m wondering now that you mention it, all of those venture capitalist rounds of funding HH kept blogging about, i’m guessing that money was going right to the big 3 and JZ’s salaries as there is no way they were making that much money through subscriptions, while paying rent and salaries for all of the other staff.

    last thing, I read recently shanghai recently changed how english learning schools are run, in terms of refunding students money, etc. i’m assuming the whole kai en debacle was at least part of the impetus behind that.

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    • ahh, yes, the punch clock. That is a funny story. The punch clock was tied to the 10 kuai lunch allowance, which the Chinese staff cared about a lot. Punch in on time, get your daily allowance.

      One day as a cost cutting measure (scream hysterically “global economic crisis!”) the bosses cut off the office coffee (which was swill) AND the lunch allowance. I wrote an email to SW, saying “I hope this means we can stop punching the clock.” SW went nuts on me in a reply, and I still sometimes revisit that email for fun. It was basically “I don’t see what the big deal is,” which every high school teacher knows is NOT an argument. Embarrassing.

      Anyway, on a calmer day, Alto asked the bosses again in a meeting, and they agreed that managers didn’t have to punch in anymore; he told me that the difference was that he asked at the right time.

      During my contract negotiations, SW was showing me an org chart in which I was going to report to Catherine, who is much younger than me. He asked if it was going to be a problem, and I looked him square in the eye and said, “No, no it won’t be a problem. Catherine treats me like a professional. When you treat people las a professionals, they behave as professionals. When you treat them like factory workers, you should expect them to behave as factory workers.”

      He did some kind of awkward British flinch, which I don’t know how to interpret.

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  6. I’m glad to hear your side of the story, mostly because I, like viki, have such a great deal of respect for you as a teacher. You made some _incredible_ podcasts during your time there: humorous, focused, and coming from the perspective of an intelligent, well-studied, non-native speaker. Thank you.

    So do you think it’s really over for sPod now? If they were self-sufficient, why stop producing? Does this mean Lili etc. are all going ot leave?

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    • Nathan,
      Thanks for your kind words. I shouldn’t speak for Lili or Marco, but I know Yenny has left China already. I think shutting down has been in the cards for a while; I’m surprised they’ve tolerated it this long. They were ready to abandon the idea of separate pods before I left the place.

      Also, it was very hard to hire in Shanghai. First of all, the talent pool of Spanish language teachers was pretty limited; second, they weren’t really paying a professional salary. Also the job of academic developer (i.e., Esti’s job) was a burnout job.

      We actually had the same hiring problem in NYC with sp101; although there were plenty of Spanish speakers, very few of the ones that applied knew the standard Spanish orthography. The ones that did, of course, wanted a real paycheck.

      In summary, I was a giant sucker for three years, working way below my pay grade.

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  7. Believe it or not, the companies internal issues would always come through in the podcasts. There were a few podcasts I remember from the early days where KC would make not so subtle jokes about sacking staff to which JZ responded with nervous giggles.
    That company gave me a bad vibe JP, so I am glad your superior abilities are being appreciated elsewhere.
    Just remember it wasn’t all in vain because you now speak mandarin like an angry Cantonese shop keeper.

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  8. I’m an old white guy here in Seattle. I’ve listened to SP since Oct, 2007 – the first or second podcast. As a former teacher with my own masters in linguistics I really admired what you were doing. I couldn’t get enough of it, which is what you need to learn a new language if all you have is an ipod.

    La Clave was brilliant. A fool could watch La Clave and understand what the imperfect meant.

    But when you and Esti left, for me, it really was “the day the music died”. I followed you to SP101 and left it behind the minute you left.

    Why do I even look at this blog of yours? I think it’s just my own pathetic attempt to recover a tiny part of what was lost when your mic went silent.

    You were right – they were wrong. And lots of people know it.

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    • Dear old white guy in Seattle,
      You’re here in Seattle! I didn’t know I had local listeners! Thanks for the nice comment, I’ve been reading it and rereading it now for the last 5 minutes.

      Only, I’m so sorry and embarrassed you followed me to that other podcast. I mean, Fernando, Tito, and I did our best, but the circumstances were not conducive to excellence… I should leave it at that.

      Anyway, do I know you from the comments section?

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      • No, I never commented – only lurked. We did exchange emails once early on, but that’s it. I keep an eye out for you at some of your food haunts, but we don’t know each other.

        Don’t worry about having to be identified with SP101. I think without knowing the details in either NY or Shanghai, most listeners could infer from circumstances what was going on.

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    • I second this post (although I’m not from Seattle and, alas, I am a lawyer, not a linguist). I’ve continued to listen to sPod since you left (and I also listened to you at sPod101), but it wasn’t the same. You have a natural ability to spot whatever portion is likely to trip up an English speaker. Native speakers just come from a different place (linguistically) and speed over the few sections that were confusing to focus on the “easy” sections. You DEFINITELY need to get another podcasting gig.

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  9. Wow nice post!
    I had figured some of it already, but this is very eye opening.
    Can’t wait for the one on SpanishPod101, seems also they aren’t doing very well.
    Cheers!

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  10. You know I’ve really enjoyed your teaching at both SP & SP101. Neither company realises what they’ve lost in losing you. Or maybe they do but they don’t care.

    Either way I’m another one who will be signing up to your next podcast venture should there be one. I truly hope there will. In the meantime I shall try not to get too jealous of the high school students in Seattle that are lucky enough to receive your teaching…

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    • Thanks, Zoe, that’s nice of you to say! If I do leave high school teaching again (I’d miss this festival of eyes rolling at me) there’s no guarantee it would be a podcast. I’m not convinced podcasts are the future, now that people all have phones instead of iPods, and will all have tablets in the near future. Podcasting is super easy to do, but my future language media might be something less 2006… we’ll see! Thanks so much for your vote of support!

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  11. i just subscribed to spanishpod.com a month ago. I finally got to the “fancy dress” elementary lesson and realized this wasn’t JP anymore. What the hell? I found this confusing because there was no formal introduction of this new guy, and no goodbye from JP either. I actually said to my gf who was sitting next to me, “I think this guy just got up and quit, because there is no formal transition here between instructors. it just happened.” so then lo and behold, i find this informative blog. Haha. I’m downloading all the pods and canceling my subscription there. I love the whole story behind you leaving, its more entertaining than the podcasts!

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  12. Can’t believe I missed that. Anyways, your superior teaching skills always gave me the impression that you ran the place. It surprised me to find out you were a grunt worker making only average wage. This is where they failed as a business, by not recognizing and using your full talent. Dude if I had the resources and money I would hire someone like you and immediately make them VP. I hope you never get walked on again.

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  13. Thanks for all the details about your time at SpanishPod! I read quite a bit about KC shortly after he left China but I wasn’t aware how bad the rest of the management was doing. It’s amazing how you were able to keep up that positive atmosphere in the podcasts under such circumstances.

    With respect to the next medium after podcasts: for me the great thing about podcasts was that I could listen to them on my way to and from work, even when walking on the street. Most people won’t take their tablets out of their homes, and the ones who do might often decide not to take them out of their bags. Also, you shouldn’t use a tablet while driving a car or a bicycle. To me, podcasting is an evolution of radio (I actually listened to many radio shows as podcasts) and since radio hasn’t died (inspite of the existence of TV in internet), podcasts probably won’t either.

    One the other hand, I believe most podcasts aren’t able to take full advantage of the “web 2.0” approach: to let users produce value. Livemocha is really good at that. On the other hand, the free content of Livemocha is even worse than SpanishSense or the worst podcasts of SpanishPod101.

    Anyway, here is an idea to consider: a web site that lets users upload videos in Spanish (e.g. a Spanish learner trying to communicate in Spanish with a shop assistant) and allow other users to rate, tag, classify the videos and write transcripts and comments about the vocabulary and grammar in that video. To start it, you could use the Spanish students in your class. I think it could be a lot of fun for everyone. (And no, I have no idea how to make money with such an idea! Maybe advertisement for SpanishPod101? 😉

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  14. I saw a comment you wrote on “The Linguist Blogger” and I was thinking, “JP of Spanish podcast(s) fame??”, so I followed the link to your blog here. Thanks for the detailed look at all that happened with the spod management. Being a listener of cpod way back when, I had gotten glimpses into management drama.

    I first heard you on Amber’s cpod show. Then last year, in preparation for our trip to South America, I figured I should try to revive some of the Spanish I learned 10+ years ago in high school. I don’t know what the management was thinking — “La Clave” and “Cooking with Tabasco” were awesome! I also listened to spod101 a bit and was pleasantly surprised when I started hearing your voice there, too! (And this would be the first time you’ve ever heard from me LOL)

    I don’t think the future of podcasts is dead. They help with listening comprehension and you can listen to them anytime, anywhere pretty much. Now there just needs to be a language learning site that manages to combine the podcast model with the best of “web 2.0”, AND not lump the teaching of all languages into the same set of bins. Each language has it’s own intricacies in terms of teaching/learning after all.

    Anyways, great to see you’re back in Seattle. I’m in Cali, so we’re on the same coast now hehe.

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    • Melisa, thanks for writing in. I would be very surprised if any of the management ever watched “La clave.” As for “Cooking with T,” the three of them were honestly puzzled at the idea of food as an attention getter… they were not foodies themselves, and they weren’t familiar with the food network phenomenon… I would bet you money none of them could name a celebrity chef. I don’t think they ever understood why the three Romance language teams (Spanish, French, Italian) were always talking about food.

      One time when the FrenchPod team was just starting out and doing test podcasts, KC shot down a lesson about crepes; he said that people didn’t care about the word for “raspberry.” The frenchies were puzzled. I told them KC was wrong; that frenches ALWAYS have dessert (the frenchies thought about it for a second and realized I was right) and then I asked everybody in the room to imagine what a raspberry smelled like.

      The reaction was immediate: everyone, including KC had a visceral reaction. Stop, JP, stop! they said, you’re making me hungry! And I was like, look you dumbasses, I just made all of you hungry with words: THAT is good radio. THAT is communicative teaching. They looked at me like I was a jackass.

      One more story: I used to do a lot of voice acting for the EnglishPod dialogs. One time SW asked us to re-record a dialog, because we had acted it too dramatically, too compellingly. We needed to re-record it and do it more boring… like a real business meeting.

      So this is how clueless they are: they think people pay money to be bored.

      Anyway, the point is, they were really did not have a sense about what people find compelling. Also, they didn’t have much of a sense of what moves an American audience. They were about to have some success with cPod because they could relate to their audience; they were nerdy sinophiles making something that nerdy sinophiles would find sexy. But dear God they absolutely did not know anything about what American learners of French or Italian wanted.

      I still maintain that “Cooking with T” was the best, most pedagogically sound thing that we produced at that company, for any language. It was pure listening comprehension + a topic and visuals that Americans find compelling. Pair one of those episodes with a worksheet, and you have vocab, descriptive language, and imperative grammar for days.

      Anyway, they cancelled them. They were annoyed that the studio manager spent time editing our videos, they needed him to put background music on their podcasts. That same background music that hasn’t changed in six years! hahahaha

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      • It’s obvious that you know what you’re talking about when it comes to teaching foreign language. I’m curious why you don’t blog more about your present teaching. As a high school teacher, I would be eager to just see some old worksheets or lesson plans or something to get a better feel for what you’re like in a classroom setting (I’m guessing you’re just as engaging and witty in person as you are on my iPod…). Of course, I also know how hard it is to document what you do in a classroom for someone who will never see you “live”, but I would be interested in hearing some or your general thoughts about high school language instruction.

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  15. I discovered spanishpod just as I decided to take Spanish learning seriously. I listened to every episode you guys made (even the one I couldn’t understand) and loved everything you did. You, lili, esti and leo made a fantastic team and learning Spanish hasn’t been as fun since you packed up. Appreciate all that you did there, jp.

    P.s. Cooking with tabasco was awesome!

    Like

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