Am I a weird teacher?

An interesting (to put it mildly) encounter with a grad student I’m mentoring got me thinking about this.  I’ve long known that my views on education are not run of the mill.  I am not, nor will I ever be, a traditional teacher.  It’s funny how often that freaks people out.

In this conversation with the student, it occurred to me that education is a lot like religion: we all have very specific ideas about what it is and what it should be, and if your ideas are different from mine, then your ideas are wrong.  Which, of course, is ironic, since isn’t it the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain ideas you disagree with and open yourself up to other points of view?

This student and I clashed on various issues, but one area where we clearly could not see eye to eye was homework.  I’ve blogged about homework before and turned it over in my mind many times, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I kind of hate homework.  So, I don’t give much of it.  She was convinced that students will not learn if they’re not given homework.  I am convinced that students will not learn if they don’t want to.  If my homework makes them want to learn, then they will learn.  But if my homework does nothing more than fill up the hours they spend out of my class, it may actually have the exact opposite effect.  I believe I defended my position well, but I know she left that conversation still certain that I am wrong about homework.

This conversation with her dredged up all these latent feelings of guilt I have about not giving homework.  I, too, grew up with the idea that homework is necessary and beneficial.  When I thought about giving it up, I almost couldn’t because I was sure it made me a bad teacher.  But I’ve traded piles of homework for in-class assignments and projects that more authentically assess my students’ progress in English.  I’m not the “homework police” anymore, so I can actually enjoy my students more.  I’ve learned more about them, and I feel better equipped to speak to their linguistic ability.

But, you know, it’s funny, those same students who used to complain about having too much homework now complain about not having any homework.  It’s like homework is the security blanket of education; we don’t feel like we’re learning without it.  My students now have more time outside of class to use their English.  They can go have coffee with that new American friend or go check out that movie they’ve been wanting to see.  There’s not as much homework to get in the way.  Of course, they don’t see it that way.  I’m just the weird teacher who doesn’t give a lot of homework.

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Documenting our experiential learning project

My co-worker and I have created an experiential learning course for our “Basic” students.  These are the students who get off the plane knowing how to say “Hello” and “Yes” and that’s about it.  Several of us spent a few days in December writing a brand new curriculum for these students.  Part of that curriculum included developing this experiential learning course.

The best way to learn language is to interact with it authentically, so we created a small course to encourage such an interaction.  The students take 20 hours of classes a week: 15 hours in an integrated skills course and 5 hours in our class.

In our class, we review the language they’ve learned and give them “real-life” opportunities to use that language.  In the first week, they took a tour of our university campus.  They learned the names for the important buildings they need to know and practiced vocabulary related to classrooms and giving directions.  The second week, they learned about signs, and they walked around taking pictures of various signs they saw.  This week, they’ve learned about family, so they met with an American family and learned about American customs and interests.

We’ve been thinking about assessment for the course and decided that a blog might be a fun way to evaluate their learning.  They take pictures of the various activities they participate in, and they’ll be posting them on the blog, along with sentences describing what they did.  So far, it’s been a lot of fun.  If you’re interested, check out our class blog.  There’s only one short post so far, but they should be adding to it over time.  The students are incredibly excited about learning.  Students in other levels have come to me and asked why they can’t be part of the class, too.  I love seeing this enthusiasm for learning English.

Using Fotobabble with ESL students

I love finding new websites.  One of my current favorites is Fotobabble, which allows you to upload pictures from your computer or your Facebook account and then create a short recording to accompany each picture.  It’s a terrific idea for a birthday card, but I’ve been using it with my students for speaking practice, and we’re loving it.

Each week, the students post a new picture (has to be a picture they have taken – no stealing photos from the Internet) and they describe or explain the picture.  I’ve learned so much about my students, and I think they love getting to share a little more about their lives. It’s also been great for focusing on speaking accuracy skills, like pronunciation, vocabulary, and oral grammar.  Since the recordings can’t be longer than 60 seconds and the topics are easy (talk about your picture – can’t get much easier), students can really pay attention to form more than content.

I’m attaching a Fotobabble I did as an example for my students so you can see what it’s like.  If you’ve used this website before, I’d love to know what you did with it.

The current letter I want to post on my office door

Dear Students:

It is never a good strategy to blame your teacher for your poor decisions.  Believe it or not, I did not actually create an assignment so impossibly difficult that you had no other recourse but to have a friend do the work for you. That is called cheating. It is always wrong. It is never acceptable. Not ever. Even 5 year-olds know this.  Some of you have children around this age.  Ask them.

I also did not tell you to procrastinate on that big project, nor did I lead you to believe that procrastinating would not result in frustration and a failing grade. When I gave you the assignment weeks in advance, I actually did so because I expected the assignment to take you a significant amount of time.

Surprising as it may be, it is not my fault that you spent hours doing the assignment incorrectly.  My directions are not so absurdly complicated that they cannot be followed. They are worth reading at least once, however.

When apologizing to me, you probably should have stopped after “I’m sorry.” The part about how I caused your incompetence was a spectacularly poor move.  I was already frustrated and disappointed.  But now I’m angry.  And that, I think it’s fair to say, is your fault.

Sincerely,

Your teacher

(I probably shouldn’t have waited to publish my first blog post of the New Year until a few weeks into classes, when the frustration sets in. But thank you for indulging me.)