Teaching frustration of the day

I don’t really want to use my blog as a place to gripe, but I need to vent for a moment.  What do you do with a student who never listens, always offers (lame) excuses for not doing his work, irritates the other students, and generally manages to ruin class on a regular basis?

I’ve got a great listening/speaking class.  They’re fun students, and they all seem to like each other.  Except for this one student that nobody likes.  Our class is 2 hours long.  He’s frequently late to class, which means he gets locked out of the classroom for the first hour, but he gets in during the break.  That first hour without him is wonderful.  That second hour with him is torture.  He constantly pulls me aside (interrupting my work with other students) to explain why he doesn’t have his book, or he forgot to bring a pen to class, or he can’t work with that student over there.  I’ve tried ignoring him; he keeps talking.

He always has excuses for everything.  Students who constantly make excuses for their poor work just aggravate me, and yet he doesn’t seem to understand why this bothers me so much.  He looks at me every day as though I’m the unreasonable one.

He has tried on a few occasions to rile up the other students.  He’s from Jordan, and most of the students in my class are from Saudi Arabia.  He clearly doesn’t like them very much, and he has made comments in class clearly intended to offend them.  Of course, I don’t allow those comments.  Of course, I shut him down when he’s going down that path.  But I can’t control what he says to them outside of the classroom, and from my students’ reports, he has been extremely rude to them when I’m not around.

I pride myself on being a teacher who knows how to develop a sense of community in the classroom, who makes the classroom environment helpful and friendly, who includes every student.  But I’ve pretty much had to give up on this guy.  It’s very discouraging.


Promoting social awareness in the ESL classroom

Yet another topic I’ve been thinking about lately.  Our reading book has a chapter on economics.  The first half of the chapter focuses on poverty and efforts in some countries to provide work for women.  I got a little inspired and checked out this website: The Global Poverty Project.  I’m working with a high-intermediate group of students.

Here’s a little of what we’ve done so far:

First day – We discussed this quote: “Prosperity is a way of living and thinking, and not just money or things.  Poverty is a way of living and thinking, and not just money or things.” — Eric Butterworth, author of Spiritual Economics. Homework: visit the Global Poverty Project website blog and choose a blog post to share with the class.

Second day: Students shared their blog posts in groups.  We practiced oral summaries, and then we discussed some of the issues that came up in their group discussions.

Third day: We watched this video from the blog.  Students wrote down new words, and then they read the article below the blog.  I created a short worksheet with some inference and comprehension questions.  We talked about Nelson Mandela’s quote: “Education is the powerful weapon to save the world.”

We’ve only made it to the third day, but I like where this is going.  We had a great discussion about the power of education and what a positive influence it has had in all of our lives.  I’m trying to think about where to take this next.  Any ideas?

Here are some other interesting links I found related to the Global Poverty Project: Live Below the Line, a Huffington Post article on Live Below the Line (would be too advanced for my students, but perfect for a higher level class)

Homework – to give or not to give?

I’ve been pondering this question a lot lately, and I just don’t know what the answer is.  I hate giving homework because I hate grading it.  And yes, I do feel obligated to grade most (not all) homework I assign, or the students won’t do it.  I hate grading homework because it takes away from time I could be spending lesson planning, working on my own professional development, or watching TV (which is also really, really important, and eats up about 15-20 hours out of my week.  Watching TV is my second job.)  I also hate giving homework because there’s always someone who forgot to do it, and then you have to decide – do you accept late homework?  How late can it be?  Everybody forgets homework sometimes, right?  Do you really want to be the mean teacher who doesn’t accept any excuses (especially the “my daughter had to go to the hospital last night, so please be nice to me” excuse)?  On the other hand, will you be able to maintain your slippery hold on sanity if you let students turn homework in late?

I love giving homework because it means that learning continues outside of the classroom.  I want students to know that they don’t stop learning English just because they’re not in my class.  I love giving homework because then I can really see my students’ progress, and I can give them consistent feedback (and thus feel like I have fulfilled my solemn duties as a teacher).  I love giving homework because, as much as students complain, they actually complain if you never give them homework because they begin to wonder if you really taught them anything.  Homework is a great way to prove “yes, I really did teach you something.  So there.”

But I am so tired of being “the homework police.”  I’m up to my ears in grading, and it’s all little assignments scattered around in little piles all over my office.  Giving homework makes me tired, and I think it makes my students tired too.  Learning shouldn’t be exhausting.  Learning should be exhilarating.  When did learning become about assigning busy work so that I can prove that I’ve done my job?  There’s got to be a better way.

Of course, it’s the middle of the session.  This post wouldn’t pop up the first week when I’m running on the excitement of new students and new ideas, but I think the idea nags me even then.  I don’t know if the benefits of homework really outweigh the drawbacks.  I also don’t know what kind of looks I’d get from my boss and co-workers if I said I was going to nix homework next session.  Thoughts, anyone?

Corrective feedback in writing

Yuck. I hate grading writing.  I love teaching it, but the grading is awful.  So many questions – do I correct all errors or just some?  Should I correct the error, or just mark it?  Should I just summarize a student’s mistakes at the bottom and have them find their own errors and correct them?  What if the grammar is terrible, but the essay structure is also wrong?  They’re going to have to rewrite the whole essay, so is it even worthwhile to mention the grammar mistakes?

And the biggest question of all: does any of it actually make any difference at all?  There are linguists who argue strongly against corrective feedback.  With all due respect to the linguists, that’s a really bad idea.  But one I’m inclined to agree with when I’m feeling lazy or my students have written particularly bad essays.

Here are my thoughts after a few years of teaching:

1. Students say they want feedback, but many ignore it.  Or how else can I explain the fact that they make the same mistakes over and over again?

2. Some students are afraid to make mistakes. I always explain that mistakes are okay because they show me that the student is learning.

3. Some students are not afraid to make mistakes. In other words, they pay no attention to what they write and make careless errors constantly.  I find this comes as a result of thinking “this is just an ESL class, not a real class.”  So, I make them write online or share what they write with their classmates.  It’s amazing how when their audience expands, they try a little harder.

4.  Students get easily overwhelmed, particularly at low levels.  So, I limit my corrective feedback at those levels to just what we’ve discussed in class or what I can reasonably expect them to know.

5.  Students get too cocky, especially at high levels.  I often teach students who feel that they don’t need my class; their writing is fine.  So, at high levels, I mark a lot of mistakes.  Maybe not everything (I don’t care if they don’t use the right preposition), but enough to let them know they still have a lot to learn and pay attention to.

6. I never correct their mistakes.  I use abbreviations instead: “wf” means “word form error,” “vt” means “verb tense error.”  They have to figure out how to make the corrections on their own.

7. I hold a LOT of conferences. I’ve found that I accomplish more in a 10-minute, one-on-one session with a student than I do in an hour of class time with 15 students.  I feel no guilt in canceling class for conferences.  They really seem to learn more, and they work harder.

8. Eventually, I stop marking the mistakes at all.  Especially for more advanced students, I feel that we reach a point where I have made them aware of their patterns of error.  They know their trouble spots, and I should be able to say “subject-verb agreement was a problem again,” without having to mark every subject-verb agreement error.

Today, I will be collecting the second draft of my students’ first essays.  We’ll see what they’ve learned so far.

Brown-eyed susans (are delicious)

And here’s the recipe, courtesy of my mother, and courtesy of Kay Ewing:

Here’s the thing: you’re going to need more of this chocolate icing. Unless you aren’t really a chocolate icing fan, in which case you are weird, but you can follow the recipe as given.

1 cup butter (I use unsalted, unlike my mother. That’s for you, Mom, because you love me even though I am a butter snob)
6 tablespoons powdered sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1/4 tsp salt
2 cups flour

1 cup powdered sugar
2 tablespoons cocoa
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 – 1 1/2 tablespoons hot water

Preheat oven to 350F. Cream butter and powdered sugar until smooth.  Add vanilla, salt and flour until combined and smooth.  Roll pieces of dough in hands to form 1 inch balls. Place on greased foil lined baking sheets (or parchment paper, which doesn’t need to be greased at all. Who bakes cookies on foil? Am I being a snob again?).  Flatten slightly in the center, using your thumb to form an indentation. Bake about 15-18 minutes, just until a very light gold color.  Cool on sheets.

Make icing by stirring together all ingredients until smooth and slightly thick.  Using a small spoon, place a small amount of chocolate icing in the indentation of each cookie. Let sit until firm.  Makes about 3-4 dozen cookies. (I didn’t get that many, but my cookies may be a little on the big side. I got 30 cookies.)

Creating a blog for my program, initial thoughts

So, I’ve put together the blog.  There aren’t any posts on it yet, but come Monday, I’ll have added a “welcome to the blog!” post and the first “news and events” post will be up.

The tentative plan for the blog:

Mondays: news and events, both in the city and on campus

Fridays: fun posts and interviews

Fun posts are of the students’ choosing.  They decide what to write about – reviewing a restaurant in town, interviewing their favorite teacher, writing up their visit to a local museum, etc.

Interviews are a way to include all students in the program.  My students will be interviewing students from each level in the program and posting these interviews on the blog.

Thoughts so far:  The students have no idea how to pick appropriate news and events.  Their choice for Wednesday, September 14 was a “Sorority Showcase” for girls interested in joining a sorority.  Hardly something relevant for students in our program.  We’ll have to work on that.  Which makes me a little nervous about the Friday posts, which I haven’t seen yet.

Anyway, here’s the link to the blog.  No posts yet, but at least there’s something there to look at!  Here’s hoping this experiment is not a disaster.

Learning ESL students’ names

I hate learning students’ names.  Not because I can’t, but because I feel like it always takes me so much longer than everyone else.  I try really hard, I swear, but every time I can tell the other teachers already know everyone’s names and I’m the lone idiot still struggling.

Here’s what I do: I break the students into small groups of 3 or 4.  They choose names for the groups (fun things like “Tornado” or “Star Wars” – they choose, I don’t know why natural disasters seem like a good choice).  I find 6 groups of 3 students is easier to deal with than 18 students.  It’s great, too, for those moments when you have two or three students whose names you just keep confusing.  As long as they’re in separate groups, you can keep them straight.

At my old school, we had the advantage of a roster with everyone’s student ID pictures.  That helped so much.  But at this school, no such luck.  And we have new students coming and old students leaving constantly.  I have students moving up to another level and out of or into my class.  I have students who just decided not to show up the first week, or who couldn’t get a plane ticket in time.  And then I get even more confused.  And when they’re all named Abdullah, I want to scream.

I found a few interesting links (from The Chronicle and an article for ESL teachers) on the subject, but I think this is just one area I’m always going to struggle with.  I believe in learning students’ names and learning them quickly, but I’ve been teaching them for a whole week now and I’m only at about 50%.  My goal is 100% by Friday.  We’ll see.