November 2016
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WHO IS JenniferESL?
Interview by Sarah E. Elia, Haggerty English Language Program, State University of New York at New Paltz, New York, USA

Jennifer Lebedev, also known as JenniferESL, has been teaching English for nearly 20 years. She has been working exclusively online for the past 9 years. Jennifer currently has more than 400,000 subscribers to her YouTube channel and millions of views on her videos, making her one of the most popular instructors of the English language online today. Jennifer loves the diversity of her work opportunities: aside from posting instructional videos as JenniferESL, she shares teaching tips and activities on her Pearson-sponsored blog, has works in print, creates digital content for different organizations, and publishes additional learning materials as part of English with Jennifer, website, a Facebook page, and Twitter.

Tell me about your teaching background. How did you get started?

I was originally certified to teach Russian at the high school level. I completed my teaching practicum at an inner city school in Pittsburgh [PA]. Later while living in Moscow, Russia, I began giving private English language lessons to businessmen and children. Then at a language school, I taught group classes. I must admit that the teens presented the biggest challenge in terms of classroom management and motivation. Back in the United States, I worked primarily with young adults at a private intensive English program in Boston [MA]. Today my online learners range from children to adults.

The work that you do in online teaching is really well done, and you are a natural in front of the camera. It takes a special skill to put yourself out there to the world and be open to unfiltered feedback. Were you always this comfortable when you started off? How have your video-making and teaching skills evolved since you began?

Thank you! Truthfully, even now I still feel a sense of vulnerability when I put myself and my work out there, but I've always received much more support than criticism. It's extremely rewarding to know that each day someone in the world is learning from one of my lessons. Teachers, too, have expressed their appreciation from the very beginning, and having support from my peers has given me courage.

There are many talented English teachers on YouTube (YT) today, and my channel isn't the most visited one. However, I was among the first who ventured onto this platform to deliver English lessons, and I'm happy that I've had the opportunity to grow as a videomaker and build a loyal following. I knew little to nothing about producing videos when I started, but I promised my viewers that if they continued to show interest in my lessons, I'd make an effort to become a better videomaker. As teachers we owe it to our students to continue our professional development, and as a YouTuber I've had to invest the time and money in order to create better videos.

I think part of the appeal to learners is my homemade brand. Back in 2007, I was just a woman who turned on her camera in her home and shared her knowledge of English. My videos looked very low budget, but my teaching was solid. Early comments included questions like, “You’re good at teaching. Are you a real teacher?” I didn’t introduce myself as a teacher or published author. I was just someone inviting viewers into my living room to study some English.

To this day, I film in my home and open up a bit of my life to my audience. I speak to the camera like a friend or good neighbor. I believe that no matter what the classroom looks like, the teacher has to make a connection with her students. My sign-off has become “Happy studies!” I want to set my audience at ease and make them feel comfortable and confident enough to learn English.

One of my goals has been to remain professional, but establish a friendly connection with my online audience. That extends beyond my videos. Through email and comments, I've always been accessible. I've had countless exchanges with students and teachers. I want to be a source of support, not just in terms of giving information, but also by providing encouragement.

JenniferESL in her home studio.

How is your YouTube page organized? Also, what type of English language learners are your videos most suitable for?

All my videos are grouped into playlists. Once viewers understand this, the large collection becomes much easier to navigate. My newer playlists include a 20-day Fast Speech Challenge and a series on English prepositions. The content is appropriate for all ages. I mainly have the independent learner in mind. Most of my viewers are young adults.

Some of my most popular playlists are the series for beginners (Learn English with Jennifer) and the series on verb tenses (Verb Tenses in English with JenniferESL). Sometimes I create a playlist in response to demand. But I've also created lessons based on needs that I observe.

Are you able to gauge who your “students” (those who view and comment on your videos) are in terms of age range and skill level? Do you refer to them as your “students” or something else?

Most of my YT viewers are in their twenties, but I've had viewers in elementary school as well as people studying English in their retirement. Subscribers range in skill level, and that’s why I’ve chosen to cover a broad range of topics. In a sense, they are all my students, but they choose to receive different forms of instruction. Some only watch my videos. Some watch and then comment. They may even post questions or their own examples for me to correct. More dedicated viewers interact with me on Facebook, taking advantage of tasks I post for additional practice. We share more of our personal lives on my English with Jennifer Lebedev page. Then there are viewers who want live interaction with me. They are the ones who either take private lessons or enroll in my group classes.

It hasn't happened often, but people have recognized me on the street as their teacher from YT. Once it happened in a restaurant, when the server told me she studied with my lessons. Also, when I went to NYC a few years back, I met two YT viewers: one on top of the Empire State Building and another in Central Park. Recently at the airport a young man came up to me and introduced himself as one of my virtual students. It was a pleasant surprise.

You coauthored and contributed to several textbooks. Any books for students in secondary education? What got you into materials writing?

The Vocabulary Power series (Longman) teaches words from the General Service List and Academic Word List. It's very appropriate for those in secondary schools. Also, Next Generation Grammar (Longman) was designed to appeal to the younger generation, the digital natives in our society today. It's a hybrid grammar textbook series that engages learners through the digital component and allows teachers the kind of flexibility needed. Much can be done in a classroom, in a lab, or at home. I coauthored book 3 and I'm the series Video Grammar Coach.

Ever since I stepped into the classroom, I've created my own materials. I like to modify what's given to me or create something from scratch. I customize every lesson plan for my private students. I truly enjoy writing. My first publication was in a children’s magazine in Russia. I wrote a fable that contextualized reflexive pronouns. I remember the thrill of seeing my work in print for the first time. What's great about publishing online is that I get direct feedback from my audience. I never knew if my children’s story brought smiles to younger learners or not!

Do you ever collaborate with live classroom teachers?

Yes, I've held Skype calls with some classroom teachers. My YT viewers include English language teachers, and I've offered professional development through private lessons. I've also interacted with entire classes. Once I greeted a group of students who didn’t believe my colleague knew me personally. A couple other times I was invited to greet classes in South America and offer study tips.

What is your advice for secondary education teachers who would like to (1) engage their students while (2) meeting the demands of student learning outcomes in a limited time frame?

The choices technology presents are overwhelming, but knowing a few good tools can make a difference. For example, instructional videos can save time. Let an ESL video help provide the explanation needed, especially outside of class time. Then use class time for practice and production. Listen to the recommendations of other teachers who are already using technology. I learned about the voice messaging app, Zoobe, for instance, at the last TESOL convention and then shared it on my ELT blog. I don’t know any teacher who isn’t busy, but if only once a month, I’d encourage teachers to visit my ELT blog and look over recent articles for topics that are relevant to their work.

Sarah E. Elia is editor of Secondary Accents, the newsletter of TESOL International Association’s Secondary Schools Interest Section.

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