Updates on our service learning project

My co-worker, Laura, and I had this idea to introduce service learning to our students.  We’ve started small with a coat drive for the holiday season.  I’m using the blog as a way to keep track of what we’ve done, and the success we’ve had, so here’s a little update:

We began by getting my writing students to put together an announcement for the university-wide announcements emailed out each day.  Laura’s grammar students corrected the grammar, and the announcement has been posted.  This was a fun assignment that I made into a competition among groups of students in my class.  Each group drafted an announcement, and we voted on the best one.

We met with an administrator on campus who organizes volunteer and community service activities.  She’s been a great help, and we’re going to be promoting our coat drive at the ODU Illumination, an annual tree lighting service that is well attended.

Today, my speaking/listening students walked around our student union, asking offices if we could post fliers for the coat drive in their windows and on their bulletin boards.  It was great speaking practice for my students, and the offices were all more than happy to help.

We’ve gotten a few donations so far, and I’m sure we’ll have even more at the Illumination.  It’s been wonderful to see how eager the students are to help.  We have many Muslim students, who assured us that helping others is an important part of their religion, so they believe strongly in getting involved.

Now, we need to start looking to a bigger project for next semester.  This has been a great project, but it would be wonderful to have the students regularly volunteering as a significant component of their class.

Productive proscratination…

… a phrase I’m totally stealing from a good friend of mine who used it on Twitter.  I am really, really good at productive procrastination – the art of getting so much accomplished, but not actually accomplishing the one thing you really needed to do today.

I’ve got a conference presentation coming up in about a week, and I have been productively procrastinating all through the Thanksgiving holidays.  But, I did stumble onto some helpful websites along the way, so I thought I’d share (yes, I’m also using this blog post to productively procrastinate).

Classroom 2.0 – I can’t believe I didn’t know about this website before.  Great resources for teachers and another social network to join (as if you didn’t belong to enough of them).

Wix – cool website for creating your own flash website. I created one with handy links to all my networking information.  It was super easy to use and really fun.

Screencast-O-Matic and Screenr – both are free screencasting websites.  Since my presentation will be about the screencasts I’ve created for my students, I decided to look into the different programs that are out there.  These two are pretty good (and free!), though I still think Jing and Camtasia are tops.

Now, here’s my presentation website (I set it up through Google Sites). It’s unfinished (I told you I’ve been procrastinating), but it’s getting there.  I’m looking forward to the conference and bringing back even more great tech ideas!

When students tell you how to teach

Does anyone else have this problem? Because I have this problem all the time.  Students often think it’s appropriate in the middle of class to tell me how much they dislike an activity.  They like to suggest “better” activities.  “Teacher, we should do this in class instead.  Your activity is confusing and difficult.”

Here’s how I generally address this problem:

  1. I preempt the problem by explaining the purpose of each activity before we do it.  If I think the activity might be confusing, I demonstrate it first before I ask the students to do it.
  2. That’s it. I don’t know how else to address this problem.

And yet the problem persists. I’ve noticed it’s always male students who make these comments. I’ve never had a female student tell me how to teach.  I’m also young, younger than some of the students I teach (though age doesn’t seem to be a factor – both young and older students have told me what to do before).  I think it’s also fair to say that it is mostly my Arabic-speaking and Eastern European students who make the comments. Could be a cultural thing, though I don’t get the impression they tell teachers in their countries how to run the classroom.

I sometimes wonder if it’s a misunderstanding of American culture.  My students always remark on how outspoken Americans are.  Do they think this extends to criticism of my teaching in the classroom?  I don’t know many Americans who would think they could get away with that.

Honestly, it doesn’t bother me when I know I’ve screwed up.  I’m not a perfect teacher, and sometimes I don’t explain an activity well or justify my lesson plan enough.  I’m not offended by criticism when it’s fair.

But, here’s what happened to me last Friday: I reminded my listening/speaking students that they need to be making appointments with me to make their video presentations.  This session, they’re making videos on Jing and we’re posting them to YouTube as an alternative to the traditional (boring) presentations they usually give.  One of my students spoke up: “Can we just do a regular presentation?  This is too complicated. No one likes this assignment.” He says this, despite the fact that I spent an entire class period explaining and discussing the assignment at the beginning of the session, and everyone seemed enthusiastic.

What is my response supposed to be? It’s Friday, I’m tired, and I’m not going to justify this assignment again.  When I snapped, he responded, hands in the air, “It was just a suggestion.”  But it wasn’t just a suggestion, even if that’s what he meant it to be.  When they question and criticize me in class like that, they undermine my authority.  When they catch me when I’m tired, I come off like the teacher who overreacted, and they’re the students who made a reasonable suggestion.

I honestly don’t know how to address this issue or if it even can be addressed.  I don’t know how to respond most of the time when a student calls me out in class.  I don’t understand what gave him the impression that was acceptable behavior in the classroom.  I can never tell if I’m under- or overreacting to the situation. Most of the time, I feel like saying (and sometimes I do), “You’re doing it because I’m the teacher, and I said so.”  Yes, the response mothers give to their children to shut them up. Because, though they may legally be adults, my students act like children more often than not.

Teaching writing and thinking – can you do both?

I’ve been grading my students’ essays, and they’re not great. That’s about par for the course, though. At least they’re not outright terrible.  To be honest, however, it might be my fault that they’re not great.  It’s certainly not entirely my fault, and there are definitely some good essays in the mix, but I’m going to take my share of the blame here.

You see, I asked my students to write a reaction essay because that’s the chapter in the book we’re supposed to cover (my frustration with textbooks shall be discussed at a later time).  The textbook offers examples of reaction essays that are pretty dumb, if I can be blunt.  One essay responds to a boring picture of an hourglass.  Another essay responds to Dylan Thomas’ poem “Do not go gentle into that good night.”  Yeah, like I’m going to teach my students how to analyze poetry.  That’s right up there with spending 3 weeks teaching the correct use of prepositions as “biggest waste of time ever.” In my humble opinion.

So, I asked my students to respond to one of two articles about whether mothers should stay at home or work.  I chose this assignment because I remember writing essays like this in college, so I think it might be a useful assignment.  I chose the topic because I knew it’s a topic everyone’s got an opinion on.  And I chose the articles – one from Salon.com and the other from The New York Times.  This is advanced writing class, but even so, those were some tricky articles.

I’m not unreasonable, of course. I gave them plenty of time to read the articles. We discussed the topic in class. I encouraged them to bring questions about the articles.  And, naturally, they all waited until the day before the essay was due to begin reading the articles and writing their essays. That’s why I can say confidently that their bad essays are largely their fault.  They had plenty of time to prepare these essays and ask me questions.  They chose to wait till the last minute.  You write in a hurry and you get a crappy essay. That’s a fact of life.

But what I’m also seeing here is a complete lack of understanding the articles and the assignment in general.  Despite the significant amount of class time I dedicated to preparing them for this essay, their essays still reflect a certain confusion about the assignment.

Some of the best advice I ever got as a teacher was: “Handle one difficulty at a time.”  In other words, the first time you try to teach your students to identify fact and opinion statements, don’t make them read an article about greenhouse gases and the ozone layer.  They’re practicing a new skill while getting exposed to completely new vocabulary. They can’t do both at the same time, so they’ll wind up doing neither very well.  Teach fact and opinion statements with an easy article and work up to more complex readings.

Yet, here’s the problem with teaching advanced students writing: I’ve also got to teach them to start thinking the way their university professors will expect them to think, right?
We talked about mothers as the breadwinners of the family, and my students respond with ridiculous generalizations like, “Men don’t know how to take care of children.  Women were created for housework.”  You just can’t say stuff like that in an American university class. You’ll be laughed out of the classroom.

So, I pick challenging articles that force them to think – this mother stayed at home, but now she’s divorced and can’t get a job because she has no relevant skills. What are your thoughts on that? But it seems like when they’re forced to think a little harder, the writing suffers. I’d get better writing if I chose an easier topic, but I’d miss out on an opportunity to prepare them for the challenging topics they’ll encounter in their university classes.

It feels like writing and thinking is an either/or situation – you can’t have both.  So, I choose thinking. I don’t know if that’s the right choice or not, but it’s the one I pick every time. It’s the one I wished my French professors had picked when I was studying writing. (Those French university classes were hard, and my good grammar didn’t make up for the fact that I couldn’t seem to think like the French.)  It’s the one I think will most benefit my students. So, I guess I’ve got to stop complaining that their grammar sucks.  It’s partly my fault, anyway.

Why I (kind of) hate (some) ESL curricula

Disclaimer: I am solely basing this complaint on my experience in four different intensive English programs here in the States.  Which is not to say, however, that I disliked working in these programs or that I am completely questioning the structure of these programs.  I have learned a great deal from each teaching experience I’ve been given, and I am grateful for this.  What follows is simply my observation of weaknesses within the curriculum and assessment methods I’ve worked with.

1. The curriculum is divided by skills.  The program I’m in now has four skill areas: Grammar, Writing, Reading, and Listening/Speaking.  My last program also had four skill areas: Grammar/Writing, Reading, Listening, and Speaking.  The program before that had three skill areas: Grammar/Writing, Reading, and Listening/Speaking.  (Poor Reading out there all on its own.)  I’m just not convinced that language learning divides so easily along these lines, however.  Grammar is relevant in all skill areas, not just writing.  Listening connects easily and wonderfully with reading.  Speaking and writing also go well together.

I realize that IEP’s use skill areas out of convenience.  It’s a lot of work to teach a class that covers all skills.  But I’ve found a lot of drawbacks here.  For example, my Arabic-speaking students tend to excel in speaking and listening.  Accordingly, they become convinced that speaking and listening are the most important language skills, and they should advance further in the program because of their superior ability.  I’ve also found the reverse to be true: a student who fails at one skill develops a mental block about that skill.  She struggles in her reading class, thinks “I can’t read well,” and gives up.

This is also, I’ve found, a huge issue in low-level classes where it’s nearly impossible to teach the skills separately.  How do you begin to teach writing without the students having some basic understanding of English grammar?  How do you teach speaking when the students may still be in their “silent period,” where they need to be taking the language in without being forced to produce it?

2. The curriculum is divided into levels, with lists of specific skills that students should master at each level, and students are assessed based on their supposed mastery of these skills.  Every IEP curriculum I’ve seen has detailed lists of the language skills a student should be able to perform in any class at any level. Of course, there’s some validity to organizing the curriculum like this, but here’s my problem: tell me when, after my students leave our program, that they’ll need to identify the topic sentence of any given paragraph.  Tell me when a professor will ask them to distinguish fact and opinion statements, or when their knowledge of the “will/going to” distinction will come up in their electrical engineering class.

Of course, I know your response: “Well, no, Ashley, these items won’t come up in their university classes because this sort of knowledge is assumed at that level.  We teach it explicitly so the students will be prepared.”  Yeah, I know, I know.  But I still feel like I’m expending a lot of energy on activities that only make them marginally better at reading or writing or whatever, but do somehow make them much better at taking a test I, the non-expert in assessment, wrote.  Which leads me to my next problem…

3. Students advance within the program based on grades and test performance. This one really concerns me.  I’ve yet to work in a program that didn’t base placement on tests, and I’ve seen no upside to this other than convenience.  Assessment is a necessary, integral component of any curriculum, but it’s important to look at what assessment does: evaluates and, if possible, educates.  But if we expect teachers to enact the curriculum in new and exciting ways, why do we insist at the same time that assessment (the kind that actually counts for something) has to be a test, with right and wrong answers and a time limit? It feels like taking two steps forward only to be yanked three steps back.

When my students are assessed based on their performance on tests, I get a little annoyed.  Most tests I’ve come across were either written by another teacher in the program with little to no expertise in assessment, or they were written by me, and I know I’ve got no expertise in assessment (though I’d like to think my common sense and teacher’s intuition counts for something here).  Not only is the validity of these tests up for debate, but I’m fairly certain that there are more than a few students out there who need alternative forms of assessment, which, by the way, they’ll likely be given in their university classes.  (I can remember doing lab experiments, making portfolios, and keeping journals as just a few of the non-traditional ways I was assessed in college. And I went to LSU. Not some fancy, experimental liberal arts college.)

Finally, grades.  Grades, which are designed to motivate, but often have the exact opposite effect.  I just came from a program that didn’t give grades, and the students were lazy.  I’m working in a program now that does use grades, and the students are completely obsessed with them.  They may be motivated, but if they don’t get an A, I get angry emails and visits to my office.  And then I have those rare (but yes, they do exist) students who work really hard, but still fail the tests.  Poor grades make them less motivated.  Where’s the benefit in that?

To sum up… I’m worried that the structure of so many ESL programs reflects an inherent procrastinatory (which is a word, even though Firefox insists on underlining it like it’s not) attitude within education.  It’s the attitude that says, “Well, we know we need to rethink our curriculum and assessment and do what’s best for the students, but we’ve got too many other problems to deal with right now.  We’ll get there eventually.”  And eventually never happens.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that we educators procrastinate because we’re lazy; I think we really do have 11,000 other things to do and rewriting the whole curriculum just isn’t going to make the cut today.  It’s kind of like putting “change the world” on your to-do list.  It’s a nice idea, but someone’s gotta pick up the dry cleaning and cook dinner, right?

What worries me is that while we tend to the day-to-day problems, there are all these students moving in and out of our ESL programs not really getting the best education we can offer.  And I think we owe them better than that.  I think we owe them a useful curriculum and a thoughtful assessment process. I firmly believe that we always have time for the things that matter.  So, if our students really matter (and surely we’d have all picked other careers if we didn’t care about students), it’s time to get to work.

Rant over. If you stayed till the end, God bless you.