We're Listening:
An Interview with Randall Davis

By Iryna Kovalenko

The original article appeared in the fall 2015 issue of AZTESOL News ( http://aztesol.org/aztesol-news/ ).

Introductory comment by Randall : Over the years, I have been interviewed regarding my work, and I have found that my interests and focus have evolved. For this article, the editors of AZTESOL news asked me to share my insights regarding my work that could benefit others in the field.

1. What led you to create Randall's ESL Cyber Listening Lab? Has it become what you imagined it to be? What next?

I address this question, in part, on my Web site at: http://esl-lab.com/faq.htm#create . I never could have imagined that I would still be developing Web sites 17 years later. My interest now in not simply driven by providing new content to improve students' English skills; rather, I am motivated by sharing experiences that improve lives and expand our world view of others. For example, our son, Joshua, died by suicide in 2012, and this experience has helped me realize that so many people struggle daily to make sense of life and find fulfillment in what they do. Thus, many of my listening topics not only focus on building language skills but also seek to help people use English to understand themselves and the world around them. With this in mind, I will continue to make interesting and humorous language activities as well as other deeper and expansive conversations that engage learners in finding meaning in the lives. Teaching English isn't all that interesting until you use it to talk about the world around us

2. Are you planning on creating more science related texts? Are the Academic texts related to any Academic standards?

I'm always considering different directions in which to grow my sites depending on the comments made by teachers and students who visit. Science-related topics are certainly what I enjoy creating, and when I think of science, I often think of the social sciences. Most recently, I have created listening activities on cyberbullying, suicide, and substance abuse to address some of these areas. I am surprised when people say that such topics address similar issues that their students are confronting in their own lives. I also have created some on earth sciences. There are so many possibilities.

3. Why do you think Randall's ESL Cyber Listening Lab is such a popular site?

I think the site has been popular because of the personal nature of my conversations that reflect many aspects of my own life and the lives of so many who use them. All of my children's voices have appeared on the site for years, and many of these conversations flowed from our experiences. I tried to make the conversations as natural as possible; many started from semi-scripted transcripts that evolved as we recorded them in our bedroom where I do most of my work. Furthermore, it was impossible to ask a four-year-old to read a transcript, so the rawness of the conversation made for interesting, authentic listening. I've tried to keep the site easy to use, and my kids joke that it looks like I haven't changed its design for years. That's true because my focus hasn't been on flashy design, but on meaningful content.

4. How many English learning sites are you involved with? Do you think there's a formula for creating a successful site?

I have worked on about eight Web sites over the years, and a successful formula is to try to focus on one specific skill area rather than attempting create a Web site that does everything. Depth, not breadth, has been the key for me. I've seen so many Web sites that started out with great energy only to dwindle into obscurity because it was too overwhelming to try to do everything. Furthermore, because my most important job is being a father and husband, I can't do this well if I am so dedicated to my online activities that I forget their names and birthdays. Simplicity, realistic expectations, and balance are key.

5. Obviously you are a very busy person. How are you able to manage what you do for the Lab and your other time consuming hobbies, like traveling and conquering the mountains?

Balance. At the beginning of my career (perhaps like many people), I wanted to make a name for myself, so I accepted every invitation and opportunity to travel and present. It was fun to see the world and meet so many wonderful people. I treasure those experiences; however, I also realized that my family needed me even more, and nothing would compensate for my being away from them. Over time, I learned how to balance things better, including adding my kids into my listening activities. This helped gave me time to nourish my own soul and build memories with them. Over the years, we have spent a lot of time in the outdoors in Utah, and I realized that older kids need even more bonding time with parents. One year when my fourteen-year-old daughter wanted to go snow camping in the frigid mountains of Utah, I didn't blink. When kids that age want to spend time with dad, you jump at it because that feeling might not last. In that case, we had a blast eating clam chowder and crackers over a fire. Finally, my wife and I have found that when you don't take care of yourself, emotionally, physically, and mentally, it is impossible to take care of others, including your own work. Now, I work on different parts of my sites every day, but I am able to balance the things that I want to do and those things that I need to do. Many things in life can wait for tomorrow

6. How do you generate and organize your ideas? Do you have other people working with you and for you that assist or even inspire you?

I am inspired by so many other colleagues in the field who have done amazing projects in so many unique directions. For me personally, I generate many of my ideas by seeing the learning and life struggles of my own students, and then, I often come up with ideas as I go trail running in the mountains. This might sound like an unorthodox way of being inspired, but it works for me. Sometimes, the more distant I found myself away from technology, the more refreshed I feel as I approach new tasks using in.

7. I heard an interview with you that your wife conducted. In what other ways, does she support your commitment to helping English language learners?

Support is so important in any relationship. In the first few years, I was so involved in the Web site that there were times that I would be up late into the night trying to get a Web page to work and trying to fix problems on the Web sites. She patiently gave me room to grow professionally, but I also knew there were limits. Without perspective on how such work can consume your time, there can be the tendency for your work to spill over into family time. Fortunately, I have taken my wife with me on some of my trips to conferences and have enjoyed these experiences together.

8. Do you happen to cooperate with any International organizations, schools, universities?

Over the years, I have provided training to such groups in different parts of the world, specifically with regards to teacher training and educational technology. There is nothing better than rubbing shoulders with so many colleagues that are yearning to learn and share ideas and concerns with others. I have found that true wisdom is knowing that you know nothing, and if I remain teachable in all aspects of my profession, I might be able to learn and share ideas with others who have similar interests and goals

9. What would be your advice for all ESL teachers who look up to you, envy your achievements and experience?

When I was 21, I thought I knew about everything; now, decades later, I realize that I know almost nothing. What I mean to say is that I tend to view every moment of the day as a learning opportunity to discover something new. I don't mean to be philosophical about this, but rather, I find that being open to change, to correction, to advice from others, allows you to grow and flourish personally and professionally. Teachers and students write me all the time with advice or suggestions, and I appreciate their willingness to reach out and share. If I could share some advice to teachers, students, and future Web site designers, it would be to �keep falling forward� in everything you do. If something doesn't work as you planned, try something else. If one idea flops, consider a different approach. If someone believes you're heading in the wrong or unprofitable direction in your career, allow some room for self-reflection. A few years ago, I participated in a 100-kilomter mountain running event that almost chewed me up. There were points when I felt overwhelmed and worn down, but I kept telling myself to keep falling forward. I was the last finisher in the event, and it took me over 22 hours to complete the race but I had to remind myself that one third of all those who started with high hopes and great energy a day before dropped out sometime during the race due to injury or fatigue. Likewise, I encourage teachers to keep moving forward in their work, one day at a time. Great things can happen with every small step we make

10. You provide materials and lessons that support CALL. Right now there are so many applications and programs available that the time it takes to learn and use it to the benefit of our students can be overwhelming. On the other hand, many of us get excited at the prospect of using a new technology often at the expense of the class objective. What's a good teacher to do?

We have a tendency to follow a herd mentality. We often think that if it's a new device, and there is a booth at a language convention that displays it, then it must be better whatever we currently have. However, all too often, we choose a technology and then try to spend a huge amount of time trying to figure out how to weave it into the classroom, usually unsuccessfully. Rather, we have to select course objectives and learning outcomes first, and then choose a gizmo or gadget that can address that need. In many cases, the most efficient and effective gadget is simply a marker and whiteboard, and not an iPad or computer. Less is often more. We simply shouldn't get caught up in the rhetoric that technology enables learning with a wave of a magic wand. Furthermore, I don't believe that administrators should evaluate a teacher's effectiveness if you appear to employ technology in the classroom. Otherwise, they will feel forced to use something that might stall learning rather than facilitate it. Open communication is key.

Iryna Kovalenko teaches English Language learners at Global Launch, ASU.


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