August 2013
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FROM THE TRENCHES: AN INTERVIEW WITH JENNIFER LEBEDEV, Part 1
Jayme Adelson-Goldstein, MWIS Newsletter Editor

Jennifer Lebedev, a gifted member of our MWIS community, is also one of its first Internet superstars. Videos posted to her YouTube channel, JenniferESL, typically get 1–2,000 hits a week from ESOL learners all over the world. Jennifer’s online bio and website describe her background and give details about her work as a classroom teacher, program administrator, and teacher educator. (One can also learn that she counts Polish stuffed cabbage, Filipino pancit, and Russian potato salad as culinary accomplishments.)

In this month’s From the Trenches, Jennifer provides insights into a working life that (as she says) is “both limited to, and liberated by, the Internet.”

MWIS: How would you characterize the work you do?

JL: My work is rich, demanding, and rewarding. It’s driven by the need to do something worthwhile. My career path has also been shaped by my circumstances. Many who know me associate me with YouTube, but I cannot and would not limit my professional work to YouTube alone. YouTube was a wonderful medium to turn to at a point when I needed to restrict my activity to what I could do at home so that I could work around my children’s daily lives. It has grown into a wonderful springboard for other projects, and for that I am thankful. I wear a lot of different hats both in my personal and professional life. I very much want to explore the different ways I can teach and create instructional content.

Today I have an ELT blog, I create content for a corporate English site, I moderate a community forum on my site, I do volunteer work for TESOL, and, yes, I still work as JenniferESL on YouTube. I’ve also been lucky enough to contribute to print publications in big and small ways. My online and offline work puts me in contact with many different people.

MWIS: Walk us through a typical day at work.

JL: I sometimes start my day with a Skype lesson at 9 am, but often I can only find time to work after 10 or 11, when the kids are off to school and morning chores have been done. Correspondence with learners and other teachers can take up to an hour. Then come the e-mails, from present and potential business interests. An occasional phone conference pops into my weekly schedule as well.

As the day goes on, I try to devote some time to content development. I blog for Pearson once a week, I create video and quiz content for GlobalEnglish each month, and I post materials on my website as time allows. I have a whole list of ideas and topics waiting for me to turn them into YouTube lessons. Any recording needs to be done before the kids return home from school at 3 pm. That doesn’t always work out. I’ve been known to ask them for silence while I wrap up an explanation in front of the camera in our living room. They’re pretty good about that. In fact, they listen attentively. My daughter likes to pick up a marker in her little hand and start imitating me once my filming is over.

Over the years, I’ve taught late evening lessons on Skype to reach students in other time zones. Recently, I gave a short, informal webinar for university students in Costa Rica. So on that evening, after getting the children off to bed, I prepared for my 10 pm Skype call. Nighttime becomes work time in the summer, too, when my children are out of school and quiet time at the computer can’t be found during the day.

Volunteer work has a place in my weekly schedule. I make frequent visits to my children’s elementary school during the school year, and each month usually brings a new assignment from TESOL’s Book Publications Committee (BPC). Being a BPC member has allowed me to learn more about the publications process and meet other professionals in our field.

MWIS: What expectations accompany your public presence on the Web?

JL: I didn’t become JenniferESL on YouTube with a grand plan. Even today, I’m not exactly sure where I’m headed as a YouTube content creator, but as the numbers grow, so do the expectations. I’m very aware of the responsibility I have as a representative of my profession, my country, and my family. I don’t want to let anyone down. I sometimes grow anxious over labels like “authority” and “expert.” I’m not perfect, and there’s still so much for me to learn. I can only promise that I’ll deliver to the best of my ability. Learners also know that when I don’t immediately have an answer, I go looking for one. It’s exciting to upload a video and know that within a day it will likely get a thousand hits, but I also upload with the sincere hope that the content will make a positive difference in someone’s studies and that it will truly reflect my hard work and love for teaching.

When you put yourself out there as an online teacher, people expect you to be accessible. I devote a portion of my time each day to responding to comments and questions—not an easy feat considering I can only work part time. Learners and teachers turn to me with public and private requests and while I want to offer the help they all need, often I must be extremely brief in order to respond to everyone. There are times when a particular teacher’s request requires a significant time investment, but I am willing to work with other teachers because by supporting them, I’m also helping their students.

Thankfully, almost everyone who contacts me does so with positive intentions. When I am faced with rude or even threatening words, however, I practice self-control and professionalism. YouTube is a social media site that gives birth to many beautiful connections, but it also has its trolls and other vicious entities empowered by anonymity. I’ve been fortunate to have people rally to defend my work and support me in the face of harsh criticism. Imagine if all your lessons were rated on a 5-star system or accompanied by a public tally of thumbs-up and thumbs-down signs! Mine are.

MWIS: Before JenniferESL, you were a published author and you’ve continued to write, most recently on Pearson’s New Generation Grammar series. How did your work with ESOL publishing prepare you for your digital work?

JL: While working on Vocabulary Power (Pearson), Kate Dingle and I were introduced to the process of writing for a major publisher: developing the discipline to stay within the parameters of a project and learning to work with an editor through revisions. I learned even more in my next job, working with Linda Butler on tests for her series New Password. Being a materials writer teaches you discipline, and I think that helps in making videos. I try to remind myself to keep to the parameters I set for a particular playlist, because consistency makes for an easier viewing experience.

I love grammar and have always wanted to be part of a major textbook series, so writing with Pamela Vittorio and the rest of the team on Next Generation Grammar (NGG) was a dream come true. The templates for the digital component were an enjoyable challenge: They’re not always user-friendly, but you need to master the tools before you can create content for online labs. NGG also allowed me to work in front of the camera as the NGG Grammar Coach. I read scripts written by the entire author team and had a director. Seeing him at work taught me a bit more about video making. For example, I now know to hold a smile and wait an extra second before ending a clip. In my earlier YouTube videos, I often ended a clip too abruptly before transitioning into the next segment.

MWIS: Can you give us a short history of your website, englishwithjennifer.com, and tell us what you are most proud of on the site?

JL: I’m just proud that I have a website and that I’ve learned to update it on my own! YouTube viewers had been asking me to do this since 2007. I’m not a techie, and learning the basics of HTML was difficult. I had help building the site in 2009, and it launched in 2010. I added a community forum in 2012, but after failing to deal successfully with spam, I had to remove it. By the spring of 2013, I installed new software and again had a place to answer learners’ questions at length. On YouTube there are too many restrictions in the comment sections. Also this spring, I received some guidance from my colleague and fellow YouTuber, Mike Marzio of Real English, and was able to add interactive exercises to my site. Like all my other projects, it takes time to create all that I want.

MWIS: The site has a few income streams: the advertising and café press items as well as the book store. What guided your decision on how to monetize the site? Do you have control over the advertising on the site?

JL: When you’re an independent contractor, you can’t depend on one source of income. As they say, don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Café Press is a nice addition to my site, but you can’t expect to pay major bills with any profit from the sale of coffee mugs and tote bags. Using Google Ads has been a good decision. The content is customized to each viewer, so I’m assuming what appears for visitors has relevance to their online activity. Other parties have contacted me about advertising on my website, but while I wish I could earn more and start a college fund for my kids, I feel extreme caution is necessary when it comes to endorsing products or services, so I’ve steered clear of those ways to monetize my site.

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Curious about the future of interactive authoring? Take a look at this article about Inkling or visit the Inkling Habitat website.

Writing for the Educational Market features resources for freelance writing in the education market.

Mark Your Calendar
2013
Sept: T&AA Webinar: Pushing Your Writing, Raising Your Profile 17/9/13; 4-5 ET
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2014
Feb: MWIS Newsletter
March: TESOL 2014, Portland (26-29 March)