A Man with a Virtual Passion
by George H. Clemes III
When you meet Dave Sperling, creator of the popular Web site "Dave's ESL Cafe," you'll quickly realize that he is a man of passion. Dave is passionate about the Cafe of course, for which he is most known, but he's also passionate about teaching, writing, lecturing, his family and life in general.
Dave has good reason to be upbeat: his award-winning Web site gets over one million hits a month and raves from around the world; he loves his teaching job; the latest version of his book Dave Sperling's Internet Guide was just released this year; he is lecturing around the world about the Internet and ESL; and he has a lovely wife and two kids.
What is inspiring about Dave, however, is that his positive attitude doesn't spring from his success in life; rather, his success comes from his positive attitude.
Besides calling him exceptionally optimistic, Dave's closest friends and colleagues attribute his achievements to a unique blend of congeniality, ingenuity, and hard work. The reason Dave can be so pleasant and hard working at the same time is that he genuinely loves what he does.
Dave is a California native with global interests. He collects music from around the world, frequents ethnic restaurants and Asian cafes in Los Angeles, and enjoys Asian cinema. He speaks basic Thai and Japanese as well as Spanish, which he practices in Mexico where he takes his family for the occasional get-away. He is not afraid to try new things and, in fact, thrives on it.
Dave Sperling has a lot to teach us. In the following exclusive interview, ESL Magazine learns what has made Dave, at the age of 37, such a successful pioneer in ESL.
How did you get started in ESL?
I traveled extensively as a kid, which made a powerful impression on me. My first trip was to the Middle East and Europe when I was eight. Maybe this was the beginning of my interest in ESL! I've always been fascinated by people from other countries, and most of my best friends in high school and university were from abroad. I also backpacked through Europe in the summers of 1979 and 1980 and traveled overland through Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, and the Sudan in 1982.
While in college, I wanted to be a psychologist and earned a psychology degree from Pepperdine University in 1982. After I graduated, I had the opportunity to visit friends in Japan. My plan was to take two years off from school, live in Japan, and then continue my studies in psychology. Needing to support myself, I got my very first teaching job teaching grammar at the Tokyo International College in Meguro, Tokyo. With no prior teaching experience, I had no idea how to teach grammar, so I stood up in front of a very bored class and started teaching the parts of speech! Oi! I learned fast, though, and soon made oral communication the central part of my teaching.
After teaching only a short while, I was hooked! They say that you either love teaching or you hate it. I found I loved it and stayed in Japan for five years.
I then went to northern Thailand looking for a change from the fast pace of Tokyo. What I found was my wife! Dao and I met at a party and were married a year later. I also taught English at Chiang-mai University in northern Thailand and at the American University Al-umni Language Center.
We came back to the U.S. in 1992. I left psychology behind and earned an ESL teaching certificate from California State University, North-ridge in 1993 and an M.A. in applied linguistics and ESL in 1995.
Have you always had an interest in technology or computers?
A lot of people are surprised that I don't have a background in technology. I took a computer class in high school and hated it. Most of the other computer students were really into math and science, but I wasn't. In fact, that was the beginning of my computer phobia! I managed to resist computers for another 15 years! Even in college I typed my papers on a typewriter.
Where I first taught in Japan, only a few of the secretaries had computers; there weren't computers in rural Thailand either. However, when I started graduate school in 1992, I had no choice but to use computers to conduct research and write my papers.
How did you get involved with the Internet?
I bought my first Mac in 1992, and it came with a modem. The very first night I got online and sent my first e-mail from my home in Los Angeles to a friend across the world in Bangkok. Imagine my exhilaration when I received a message back from him within minutes! I was amazed at how quick and easy it was, and again I was hooked!
How did Dave's ESL Cafe begin?
The Cafe started in the fall of 1995, but it almost never happened. After I earned my M.A., I went to Thailand for the summer of 1995 to visit friends and family, and I was almost killed in a motorcycle accident. I hit a pot-hole hidden by a puddle and landed on my head, breaking several bones in my face. My helmet saved my life. When I came back to the States after a summer in the hospital, I was in the mood to do something more with my life.
Having surfed the Internet in 1994 and 1995, I had realized that most of the ESL/EFL Web pages were not very interactive, interesting, or fun and usually consisted only of pages of information and links to other Web sites. I wanted to create something completely different.
I got a job teaching an English writing class at California State University, Northridge. My students had been in university ESL programs before and simply weren't motivated, so I offered to teach them writing in the context of the Internet. Reluctantly, they agreed. I got access to the campus computer lab and introduced the students to the Web, which was just beginning at that time. I bought a $99 digital camera and began teaching myself and the students how to use graphics and create Web pages.
In December of 1995 we produced our first Web page using the class's digital pictures and writing samples, which were humorous autobiographies. This was our first effort, and we successfully published it on the World Wide Web! We called it "Dave's Writing Class." It's still there! (http://www.csun.edu/~hcesl004/ CSUN.html).
In a few short weeks my students began to receive e-mail from dozens of students around the globe, and to my surprise, they quickly became motivated to read, write, and communicate daily in English on the Net, as well as in my classroom. This was truly a stunning transformation. At the beginning of the semester, the students had barely attended class. Now they loved class! They also weren't writing anything before using the Internet, not even in their own language. Now they were writing daily! The students progressed noticeably in their English and began to communicate quite well. The computer really is a powerful language acquisition tool!
That was the beginning of my publishing on the Web. I thought, "If I can do this for my class, why not do something for the whole world?"
Originally I wanted to form a team to create a Web site for ESL students and teachers. I tried to get a programmer, a graphic designer, writers, but nobody would even consider doing it. They asked, "What does it pay?" and I told them, "Nothing. At least not yet. Maybe someday!" You have to remember that in 1995 the Web was still in its formative stages.
With no takers I had to develop the Web site myself. I experimented with some ideas, and the first page I came up with was the Graffiti Wall, which came as an inspiration from my environment!
There is a lot of interesting graffiti in Northridge-some really artistic stuff. Someone would write something and someone else would respond and add to it and so on. This interested me, and I wondered if I could do this on the Internet for ESL students by creating a site where they could express their creativity on a virtual wall. I came up with the idea on a Monday, and by Friday I had it up and running!
I had some time off that winter and continued to experiment with additional page ideas. I came up with the Question Page, where I answer questions from students and post the answers in a kind of "Dear Dave" column. As students began writing questions concerning methodology or TOEFL, for example, I began to search the Internet and give students links so they could get more information for themselves.
The more pages I created, the more I loved it. This became my way of publishing. I had learned that getting published was really a very difficult thing to do. I had always loved to write, but nobody wanted to publish me! I wasn't looking for money, I just wanted to create. So when I learned about the Internet, I thought, "Wow, I'll just do it myself right here!"
Eventually I needed a place to put all these pages I was creating, and I came up with Dave's ESL Cafe. A virtual place where ESL/EFL people meet.
Did you have other name ideas?
No, that was it. I have always liked cafes and hang out in them even now. A cafe is an interactive place with a nice atmosphere where people meet. So I picked the word "cafe" as part of the name. I considered some high-tech names like "Virtual" or "Cyber Cafe" but decided on "Dave" because I'm Dave and "ESL" because I teach ESL!
However, I often joke with my students that I need to change my name because on the Internet in Japan my students called me Da-bu, which means "fat." And in Thailand, Sperling is sometimes pronounced Super-ling, meaning "Super Mon-key!"
Is your Web site for teachers or students?
It's about 50/50. There is a lot for both, and I try to keep a balance. Teachers often use the Cafe in their classes. The most popular teacher page, however, is the Job Center, especially the Job Offers, where I post about 20 jobs a day. There is also a job discussion area and a place to post resume links. We get over a million hits a month!
At one point I wanted to create an entire course in ESL on the Web, but that is very difficult. I created individual modules instead. I've got 15 teacher forums which include class activities, adult education, linguistics, bilingual education, computer-assisted learning, elementary education and employment.
We also have 15 student forums on such topics as hobbies, holidays, current news, movies, computers, literature, music, learning English, etc.The student forums are very interesting. I learn a lot about students from various countries in the forums!
Do you have any help with the Cafe?
My friend and colleague Dennis Oliver, who teaches at Arizona State University, has collaborated with me on much of the Cafe's content and has been a great help. He is my main writer and has written the idiom section, phrasal verb section, many of the quizzes, and the "Hint of the Day." I run everything past Dennis before it goes up on the Web.
I also have a team of teachers around the world who help answer questions on my Help Center, my global virtual classroom for ESL/EFL students.
Where do you work on the Cafe?
I do most of the work at home, in my bedroom, actually. I also work from my laptop when I'm traveling. A lot of people think I work in some slick office with computers humming all around me and assistants scurrying to and fro, taking care of Cafe business. In reality, I work from a desk in my bedroom. I'm known on the Net as "Papa Dave" because it's common for me to work with my children on my lap and my dog at my feet!
Once I was in my hotel room at a conference in Yuma, Arizona. I had the door open and was working on my laptop on the bed. Two teachers walked by my room and did a U-turn and came back. They knew of me and the Cafe from my conference presentation and asked, "What are you doing?" I explained I was posting jobs on the Cafe. "Is this how you run the Cafe?" "Yeah," I said with a grin. They had envisioned a big staff, office building, etc. All I need is a telephone line and my laptop. I can work on the Web site from just about anywhere, and no one knows the difference.
How much time do you spend on the Cafe?
The Cafe takes several hours a day. My routine starts at 5:30 or 6:00 in the morning. With a hot cup of coffee nearby, I work on e-mail for an hour and a half. Then I take a break to cook breakfast for the family, shower, dress, and take my son to school. After more work on the Cafe, I break to walk my dog, Alby.
Daily Cafe work includes lots of e-mail, updating pages, posting graffiti onto the Graffiti Wall, posting answers to my Question Page, posting new jobs, screening submissions to the Job Discussion forum, logging onto the Cafe's Chat Central to make sure everyone is behaving, validating and adding links into my Web Guide and fixing various areas of the Cafe.
When I actually add a new page to the Cafe, it can take 15 or more hours per day, and I literally don't sleep! It's easier now than it used to be, however. If I made a programming mistake in the past, it could take two hours to find and fix it. Now I can usually remedy a problem in a matter of seconds. More processes such as deleting postings are now automated, too. The Cafe can be a lot of work, but I really do enjoy it.
What kind of feedback have you received about the Cafe?
I get feedback from all around the world. Creating something so visible tends to attract a lot of attention. The feedback has been really fantastic, and that's what keeps me going! Occasionally people suggest changes such as making a background less obtrusive. Sometimes I can make the changes, sometimes I can't. Overall, the feedback is really motivating.
At the beginning of March this year my server crashed. For about 40 hours the Cafe just didn't exist. I got about 300 e-mails a day saying, "Dave, where's the Cafe!?" That was a disaster.
What are your future plans for the Cafe?
Get it out of my house, or at least my bedroom! Also, I'd like to fine-tune my ESL Web Guide, which is now up and running with over 1,500 ESL/EFL resources and over 350 categories.
I've also just started taking on sponsors after avoiding it for three years. The cost of operating the Cafe was getting to be too much to maintain on my own. My last bill was almost $600 for the month! Now I'm getting into the business end of things, which is a challenge.
You have written the first book about ESL and the Internet. What inspired
you to write it?
My book project began in 1996. I had given a presentation at the CATESOL conference in San Francisco, and I was approached by editor Sheryl Olinsky from Prentice Hall Regents to write a book about the Internet. It sounded interesting, so I gave it some thought. We got together and brain-stormed different ideas. I wrote up a proposal, sent it in and promptly forgot about it. By the next summer it was approved.
The book is called The Internet Guide for English Language Teachers (Prentice Hall Regents). I wanted to write an introductory guide for teachers who knew almost nothing about the Internet but at the same time provide enough information so it would be useful for everyone. I knew from my own experience that such a guide would be helpful for learning a new technology.
The project happened quickly. The book went into print in March of 1997 and has been very well received, I am pleased to report. As any writer knows, once you have a book out there, you worry that someone will just tear it apart, but nobody has. I use the book when I give workshops.
We've done a 1998 revision of the book called Dave Sperling's Internet Guide (Prentice Hall Regents). This update has a host of new addresses and comes with a CD-ROM. I'll also be publishing a student guide called The ESL Internet Activity Book for Students in time for TESOL '99 in New York.
As a result of the books and the Cafe, I get a lot of invitations to speak on the Internet and ESL all over the world. Recent engagements have been in Orlando, Boston, New Jersey, New York, Hong Kong, Sao Palo, Rio, Japan, Thailand, Chile, Bolivia, Malaysia and Singapore. It's been fun!
Is it hard to juggle teaching, lecturing, writing and the Cafe?
It's very difficult. Even with help from colleagues like Dennis Oliver, the Cafe takes several hours a day. I teach 20 hours a week. Somehow I've managed to write a book and lecture around the world. My friends and family know I can be a workaholic at times, so this year I've tried to have more balance. I'm spending more time with my family. At some point I'll probably have to cut back on the teaching.
Of all your jobs, which is your favorite?
Teaching. I love teaching. Whether I'm teaching students or teachers about computers or the Internet, it's just a part of who I am. I especially love teaching ESL. I've been doing it for a long time, and it's amazing that I still have such a passion for it. I'm thrilled that I can have such a great time in the classroom! Right now I'm teaching a listening/speaking class with students from about seven different countries and a beginning English class. I just love it. Honestly, not a day goes by when I don't think, "Wow! I'm really fortunate to be doing this." It's not like a job to me.
My teaching style is fun-filled, high-energy, and personable. Humor is important in my teaching and in my life. I love to laugh and to make people laugh. If students can understand my humor and laugh, that builds their confidence. I also enjoy having students visit my home. I'm always learning from them.
Writing has been a new but wonderful experience for me. It's very different from what I've done in the past. It's not like putting a grammar book together, which has already been done. The Internet guide was brand new; there was nothing else out there like it. What is really gratifying is that it is changing people's lives. I get e-mails from teachers who tell me that the book has really helped them.
I also enjoy the Cafe. There are two things that I really love about it. First, it's such a great feeling to be able to publish what I want. When I have an idea like the Graffiti Wall, I don't have to go through any bureaucracy-I can just do it.
Second, the number of people I have met through the Cafe has been astounding! Dennis, for example, is now a close friend. There are so many other people whom I would never have met had I not started the Cafe.
For me, Dave's ESL Cafe is more than just publishing something; it's creating and enjoying relationships all around the globe. The Cafe is a central location where ESL/EFL students around the world congregate.
What would you say is your biggest accomplishment?
I'm really proud of the Cafe. The obstacles I've overcome have been amazing-my lack of technical training, the fact that I'm not a programmer, the lack of financing, and the lack of income from the Cafe. I've been able to overcome all that and put together something that helps countless people around the world.
I've learned that lots of things are hard, but the hard things always pass. I can't let them bother me or hold me back.
What words of wisdom would you like to pass on to your ESL/EFL colleagues?
I often close my presentations with the following quote from Lynore Carnuccio, a teacher in Mustang, Oklahoma:
"We have done some work with the Net, but what I find when I speak to other public school teachers is fear. However, in many cases, I think the fear comes from lack of experience or exposure to the Internet."
My advice to teachers: overcome your fear and apprehension about the Internet and give it a try. I promise that you won't regret it. The Net is a fun, useful, and extremely powerful tool for both you and your students, and it is going to be more and more difficult to ignore it as we approach the twenty-first century. My motto is "Just do it!" That's what created Dave's ESL Cafe.
George H. Clemes, III, M.A., is publisher of ESL Magazine.
This article first appeared in the May/June 1998 issue of ESL Magazine.