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.


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.)

Reflecting on another session

Our Fall II session is over at my school, the grades are in, the relaxing begins soon.  It was a good session, even if it was often crazy and my students drove me nuts at various points.

My goal for this session was to rethink homework.  I always wind up giving homework sporadically and spontaneously because I don’t plan ahead well.  Then, I inevitably regret this decision when I have stacks and stacks of paper and enormous amounts of grading to do. So, I changed it up this time.  I planned homework assignments before the session even began.  I didn’t give in to those pre-class “strokes of genius” (I know! I’ll have my students paraphrase this 12-paragraph article for homework. What a great homework assignment! — Cut to me, 8 days later, still trying to pretend like I don’t see that stack of paraphrases over there).  For my 2 advanced classes, my students submitted everything online via Google Docs.

The result? Sanity! (and a little cheating).

I had far less paper on my desk. The grading was manageable, and therefore I got it done in a timely manner, which the students always like.  Of course, when assignments are submitted online, it increases that natural urge so many students have to cheat.  Now, my attitude toward cheating is basically: Go for it. You can cheat now, but you won’t pass the TOEFL or get a degree from this university through cheating.  If you cheat to pass my class, you have cheated yourself.

At the same time, I would not be a very good teacher if I completely ignored cheating.  And I know that the cheating this time was in part my fault.  I know that it’s possible to create assignments that make it difficult for students to cheat (and one of my assignments didn’t exactly fit the bill).  Unless you’ve got the student who asked his uncle to write his research paper for him.  I don’t know what to do about that.  I’m not going to make the students do all of their writing in class.

Lessons learned: I create much better assessments when I work on them before classes begin.  I like not having so much paper on my desk, and I really don’t mind reading essays on the computer.  Students like turning their work in online so much better.

For the future: We’re currently rethinking assessment in our program, and I’m grateful to work with people who are letting me do my own thing, assessment-wise.  I’m already planning how to improve my portfolio assignment so that it serves as an actual assessment of the student’s ability and doesn’t just act as a self-assessment tool.  I’m even rethinking tests and quizzes (How many of those do I really need? Are they useful?).  And I’m putting the students in charge a little more.  At various points last session, my students were teachers, lecturers, and discussion leaders in class.  It was great.  There needs to be far more of that this time around.

For now: I’m going to try to enjoy the Christmas holidays and not think about work for a few days. Merry Christmas, everyone!


The perpetual frustration of “language levels”

At work, we’re in the middle of “Curriculum Development Week,” in which we’re supposed to tackle the curriculum problems we’ve noticed over the year and fix them.  This is great, in theory, but if you’re a teacher, you know this is often unsuccessful in practice.

One of the big problems facing our program right now is a lack of assessment standards.  This often makes me laugh, having recently come from a program that was obsessed with assessment, to put it mildly.  One of our teachers has put together a possible solution to our problem: we should create cumulative final exams for each class.  These exams would be worth a significant portion of the grade (she proposes 50%), so students can’t skate by on attendance and participation alone.  Hard workers also have to demonstrate that they have the skills.  Of course, I could write a book on my thoughts about assessment.  Maybe I’ll do that someday 🙂

But my main concern today was the title of my colleague’s presentation: “So you wanna teach to the level (and not to the students).”  Immediately, I recoiled.  Why would that even be a choice?  Of course, we should always want to teach to the students.  The idealistic educator in me doesn’t even understand why this would be a question.

But the practical side of me does understand what she means.  We often get students who enter our language program at one of the lowest levels.  Their English is poor, but eventually, they work their way up to the highest level in our program.  Unfortunately for those of us who teach the higher levels, we’re often stuck with students who are really out of their element (Is that the idiom I want here? I’m trying to say that their language level is much lower than the level of the class.  Geez, sometimes I forget my English being surrounded by non-native speakers all day).

So, what do you do?  There are curriculum objectives to meet, and the university has certain expectations for entering students.  If we lower our standards to meet the students where they are, they’re screwed later when they’re not able to pass the TOEFL or they’re not prepared for university classes.  If we maintain the standards of the class, we risk a large number of students failing, and even more feeling completely unmotivated.

My colleague’s thought is that rigorous assessment will eventually lessen this problem (I think we all know it’s not going away completely).  If we have strict standards for each level, ultimately, this will pay off.  We won’t get as many students advancing into levels far above their actual linguistic ability.  I certainly agree this is a problem, and it’s one we’ve got to tackle sooner, rather than later.

But here’s my worry: in an effort to help future students, are we going to (unintentionally) do wrong by the students we have now?

So, here’s what happened in class today…

My reading students have been working on a research project all session.  They chose a research topic of interest to them, and they brought in one article a week about their topic.  At the end of the session, they would be required to give a presentation on what they learned.  My goal was threefold: to teach them how to evaluate the credibility of all the information they find on the Internet, to improve their oral summary skills, and to practice some critical thinking skills by asking them to synthesize and analyze the information they collected.

Today, we had the presentations.  One of my students is from Haiti, a country both I and my students don’t know much about.  My student researched the causes of overpopulation in Haiti, and he gave a wonderful presentation.  But, it was the question and answer time that really stuck with me.  My students were so moved by his presentation, and his obvious passion and concern for his country.  They asked questions eagerly, and everyone attentively listened to his answers.  He’s usually a relatively quiet student in class, and none of us would have guessed the difficulties he’s faced back home.  Students offered encouragement.  One student said, “If the young people of Haiti are all like you, then I’m sure your country is going to improve.”

Today, I witnessed my students coming together in support and concern for a fellow classmate.  I saw the power of education, which has changed his life, and which he hopes to bring back to his country.  I learned that we might accomplish more in classrooms these days than in all the political buildings in the world.

It might be cheesy, but I am grateful for days like today that remind me that what I do is bigger than the four walls of the classroom.  I am relieved to know that even when it seems like things are only getting worse and worse, I teach students who imagine better lives for their countries and each other.  I really do love my job.

VSTE 2011 – My thoughts

For the past three days, I attended a wonderful conference in Roanoke – the Virginia Society for Technology in Education conference.  It was my first time to attend the conference, and I was a first-time presenter.  Here’s a quick summary of what I learned and the cool resources and ideas I got from this wonderful conference.

Lessons learned:

  1. Conferences are exponentially better when there are bowls of M&M’s everywhere.
  2. It sounds like it’s sometimes incredibly fun and sometimes incredibly frustrating to be a K-12 teacher.  I have a newfound appreciation for working in higher ed.
  3. Don’t expect a great Internet connection (even at a tech conference).
  4. You can do some really awesome stuff with Apple products. It also helps to be a Title I school.  Does anyone know how a university intensive English program can get grant money? I want to buy iPads for the classroom too!


  1. Use what you already have: I learned how to use the Microsoft Office suite to create Madlibs, comic books, and choose your own adventure stories.
  2. Let students teach each other, and let students create their own assessments.  These are two ideas I’ve already been exploring in my own teaching, but it’s great to hear that other teachers believe in the power of the students’ knowledge.

And here are some websites to visit:

  1. TPACK – this was new to me, though, of course, it’s not new.  It stands for Technological, Pedagogical and Content Knowledge.  The idea, as I understand it, is to look at how these three kinds of knowledge interact.  Integrating technology without understanding how it works with the pedagogy and content is missing the point.
  2. Here’s a presentation I wanted to make it to, but didn’t.  Fortunately, the presenter posted a website full of great links to a lot of different Web 2.0 tools.
  3. And here’s another presentation I didn’t get to see about using Google. And we all know how much j’adore Google.
  4. And another great presentation I didn’t attend about how to streamline your web usage. With all the information that’s out there, it’s nearly impossible to keep all the information you need handy.  But, this website helps you get close.
  5. Finally, here’s my presentation website, once again, for good measure.  (You see, I did make it to at least one presentation.)