An Adjunct’s Reply

Several of the colleges I’m affiliated with for work past and present email faculty teaching tips every so often.

One of these colleges sent the following two articles in the last month:

  1. A Simple Request: Please See Me!
  2. Getting More out of Exam Debriefs

Both of these articles extol the benefits of teachers scheduling one-to-one meetings with students to take place outside of class hours.

After receiving the second of the above messages, I drafted a reply that I feel compelled to publish here. Being an adjunct is one facet of what teaching ESL is for me, and so it will be one (small) facet of this blog.

Dear _____,

I appreciate your sending out articles from Faculty Focus. They are consistently practical, lucid, well-researched, and interesting.

The most recent two of these excellent professional development emails arrived about two weeks apart and shared a theme: the quantifiable value of professors meeting with students outside of class. Both articles lay out logical, engaging, research-based narratives emphasizing the importance of such meetings. Indeed, the articles frame this time outside of class, even if “brief” (both articles were vague as to the actual time spent per student), as a major factor in students’ ability to master material and pass classes.

I am pleased to see that we all agree that students need their instructors to be available outside of class hours. However, it needs to be acknowledged that adjunct faculty are only compensated for in-class hours.

This is a conundrum. The college relies heavily on adjuncts to teach its courses, and the college pays them for very limited functions. Yet the college itself just forwarded two articles in as many weeks that convincingly argue that the paid functions of adjuncts are not sufficient to ensure student success. There is conflict here between the college’s mission and its hiring practices. This is an institution-wide, leadership-level quagmire.

A cynic might wonder if by emailing the adjuncts about the effectiveness of meeting with students outside of class, the college intended to recast a deficiency in faculty compensation as a deficiency in the faculty themselves.

Happily, I am not a cynic. I believe that this was a simple case of one person identifying good content and sending it out in good faith to her usual stakeholders. It was to be sure a bit of a faux pas to send this theme to the adjuncts at all, let alone twice in one month. But as they say, if we never accidentally offend anybody, it’s because we’re not doing anything at all.

Kudos to you for all that you do to support all faculty. And extra kudos if you would kindly forward research about the importance of increasing student-instructor interactions not only to the instructors, but also to those who fund them.

Many thanks,



In fairness, the issue I raise is not unique to this specific college, but is widespread in all forms of higher education institutions across the USA.

In case you are interested in the topic of adjuncts in higher education, one mild narrative piece is O Adjunct! My Adjunct! (New Yorker). For a very readable and organized summary of how things currently stand, I was impressed with the sections I read of The Role of Adjuncts in the Professoriate (AAC&U).

For more impassioned/inflammatory reading than anything you’ll find here or in the above links, Google “adjunct crisis.”

You’re reading An Adjunct’s Reply, originally posted at



Activity Corner: Conversation Jenga

(I thought it might be helpful to readers and myself if I described some of my favorite activities from time to time. See all my ESL Activity Corner posts here.)

One activity I’ve had enormous success with as a first-day ice-breaker was Conversation Jenga.2432270195_63a2118440_z

In Conversation Jenga, you write a different number on each block in a Jenga set. As students take out a block, they look at its number as they place it on top. Then they read and answer a corresponding question.

The purpose is to get students who don’t know each other comfortable talking to each other. In this activity they have somewhere to look, something to do, a shared experience, and lots to talk about. Many thanks to my mentor for pointing me toward this activity!

(Photo credit: “The Jenga” by Ed Garcia on Flickr)


  • Have one Jenga set per 8ish students.
  • Write or tape a different number 1-54 onto each block in each Jenga set.
  • Write numbered questions 1-54 (or use my examples below) you’d like your students to discuss.
  • Model how to play Jenga. Then model how and when to answer which question.
  • I had each student read the question and answer it. I did not ask everyone to answer each question – it would have taken too long. Spontaneous conversation did arise around some of the questions, which was great!
  • Give the students the list of conversation questions.
  • Have students separate into groups of no more than about eight.
  • Let them know how much time there is, and encourage them to play again if time allows!
  • Note: I did not model how to re-set or put away a Jenga tower, which was an oversight on my part. However, I thought that the resulting group problem solving and authentic conversation turned out to be super valuable.

Example Questions:

Here are the questions I handed out to my Conversation Partners class. It was the first day so I had never met them yet, but I knew that my ESL students and my native English speaker volunteers would be playing together so clarification would be readily available. I also knew that generally speaking, the ESL students would be international students and community college students of typical college age.

If you have a different group (and you probably do), definitely switch up the questions! Consider English level, age, presumed disposable income level, and presumed openness to being silly.

I would change a lot of the questions if I had a different group, but this is a starting point!

  1. List all the cities/countries you’ve ever lived in.
  2. What did you have for breakfast today?
  3. What’s your favorite time of day? Why?
  4. What’s your favorite time of year? Why?
  5. What classes are you taking this semester?
  6. Tell us about one of your good friends.
  7. Tell us about someone in your family.
  8. What are two of your hobbies?
  9. Name your 3 favorite phone game apps.
  10. Name your 3 favorite phone apps for staying organized.
  11. What do you like to do on weekends?
  12. What do you enjoy reading?
  13. What do you enjoy watching?
  14. What do you enjoy listening to?
  15. What do you enjoy writing?
  16. What do you enjoy chatting about?
  17. What are your favorite ways to exercise?
  18. Where are your favorite places to visit here in Maryland?
  19. Where do you hang out on campus?
  20. What are 3 cool things you know how to do?
  21. What is the funniest thing that’s happened to you in school?
  22. What’s your favorite snack?
  23. Do you prefer houses or apartments? Explain.
  24. Do you prefer big cars or small cars? Explain.
  25. Is picking out clothes in the morning fun, horrible, or not an issue? Explain.
  26. Do you prefer to eat in or eat out? Explain.
  27. Do you do homework right away or at the last minute? Explain.
  28. Do you prefer sandwiches or wraps? Explain.
  29. Do you prefer chocolate or vanilla? Explain.
  30. Would you rather visit Hawaii or Alaska? Explain.
  31. Would you rather canoe or water ski? Explain.
  32. Would you rather go to a comedy club or a dance club? Explain.
  33. When it comes to money, are you more of a saver or a spender? Explain.
  34. Do you prefer to have just a few friends, or as many as possible? Explain.
  35. Are you messy or neat? Explain.
  36. What’s your favorite book?
  37. What’s your favorite song?
  38. Would you rather visit a museum or a garden? Explain.
  39. Do you think children at restaurants are adorable or annoying? Explain.
  40. Do you prefer hot tea or iced tea? Explain.
  41. What’s your favorite animal? Why?
  42. Do you prefer winter or summer? Explain.
  43. Do you prefer spring or fall? Explain.
  44. Do you love hand sanitizer or hate it? Explain.
  45. Do you enjoy exercising? Explain.
  46. What do you think of baseball? Explain.
  47. What do you think of soccer? Explain.
  48. Do you enjoy going to big cities, or do you avoid them? Explain.
  49. Do you think earthworms are cute or disgusting? Explain.
  50. Do you think snakes are great or scary? Explain.
  51. How do you feel about hunting? Is it a traditional skill or a cruel hobby? Explain.
  52. Which type of skiing is better: downhill or cross country? Explain.
  53. Do you love roller coasters or hate them? Explain.
  54. How do you feel about math? Explain.

Other Content Possibilities:

I think this could be very flexible – the Jenga bit is just a fun way to randomize which student gets which little assignment.

  • Grammar: convert one of the listed sentences into today’s grammar point, or fix the intentional error in the listed sentence
  • Vocabulary: each listed sentence could be a clue pointing to one of the unit’s vocabulary words.
  • Academic writing: identify whether the sentence is a thesis, topic sentence, hook, conclusion, transition, etc.

You’re reading Activity Corner: Conversation Jenga, originally posted at

Assistant (to the) Teacher

In a spate of blog-updating energy, I gave a quick update and then talked about a Conversation Partners class I got to teach earlier this year.

Next on my list is my new role as an Assistant Teacher.

How I Got There

I thought I wasn’t going to be able to teach this semester. My family moved such that commuting to the place(s) where I used to teach became nightmarish. I’m just not cut out for a drive of less than 15 miles taking 50+ minutes. I guess one of the benefits of being an adjunct with no possibility of benefits is that I’m at least not tethered with golden chains to a specific brutal commute. I applied to programs closer to our new home and discovered another group of lovely people running a great program, and I was very pleased to be welcomed onto their roster of teachers. The problem was that their courses all meet twice a week.

I actually prefer the twice-a-week model to the once-a-week model in terms of learning retention, assignment pacing, class camaraderie, etc. The problem was that in order to prep my once-a-week class I was already tiptoeing around the home office before sunrise to get my planning in. Planning twice as many sessions was going to push me into the zone of “I’m Probably Overextended But I’m Doing My Best Given The Circumstances” for both my teaching and my momming (I am in charge of the kids during the day). This is an uncomfortable zone to be in, and in my own experience comes with a frenetic pace and lots of crankiness. The cost-benefit analysis was pretty clear: it didn’t make sense to teach this semester. When the kids are older, when they (and I) sleep better, when they can be expected to play on their own for a reasonable amount of time, then would be the time I could take on a twice-a-week class and give it my actual best.

Then I got an email from the department asking if I’d like to assistant teach this semester. Half the in-class time commitment and none of the prep. That sounds like about what I can handle right now – yes please!

The Experience

So I go in for about an hour twice a week. The location is really quite convenient to my  home – hooray! The teacher is kind and welcoming, and I enjoy brainstorming with her and working with the students.

This is actually my first time assistant teaching  and it’s a hugely valuable experience to be in an ESL classroom throughout the whole semester but not be The Leader. I can bring a much more low-key energy, focus on different things and different people, and see the classroom from a not-the-teacher perspective. Really, it’s like a semester-long professional development activity that I’m getting compensated for.

One source of irony is that this experience, like other great PD, is a huge idea generator. But as the assistant, I really don’t have a say in how the class goes (though the teacher is super collaborative and asks for and values my opinions). I’m taking detailed notes on specifics so I can apply some or all of these ideas to my next class. In the meantime, I’m doing my best to stay in the moment and not get carried away with the possibilities. Having the space to wind down and be is a huge benefit of being “just” the assistant.

I wouldn’t want to forego actual teaching, leading, and preparation for any length of time – I value it and I already miss it. But I’m just so pleased at how things worked out this semester: I’m involved, I’m not overextended, and I’m growing as a teacher.

You’re reading Assistant (to the) Teacher, originally posted at



Reflecting on Conversation Partners

In my last post, I hoped to write a bit more about the Conversation Partners class I taught earlier this year.

It met one hour a week as an elective course for students enrolled in English instruction full-time. I had two groups of people attend my class: the ESL students enrolled in the class, and the volunteer English speakers who partnered with them to chat.

During class, I basically proposed a topic and/or activity that would encourage students to converse. I listened, conferenced with people as necessary, and tried to interject as little as possible. This is why I say I was more of a facilitator than teacher.

The syllabus was a rather terse thing of beauty. Students had two responsibilities: show up to class, and meet with their partners one hour per week for conversation time. That was it.

I still had two students who didn’t pass. One lied (flagrantly, provably, and for weeks in a row) and I had to write him up. The other had a truly incredibly amount of trouble keeping his commitments to meet with his partners (he went through three). But he kept trying even when he knew he was failing the class, and hopefully he got something out of it all.

Anyway, some tidbits on how the actual day-to-day class went:

  • Overall, the first 3/4 of the semester was mostly getting-to-know-you type topics. The last 1/4 of the semester really got into Issues – the election, philosophy, feminism, etc. Looking back, I think I should have been more bold about getting into more serious topics earlier. That said, there was value in the students knowing each other fairly well before things got intense.
  • Tactile activities were especially interesting to all of us. Two examples:
    • Jenga. My mentor had Jenga sets in which each block was numbered. I wrote a conversation question for each number. The conversation partners played Jenga as usual, but had to answer the question that corresponded to the number on their block. It was a great warm-up on the first day, actually.
    • Building Blocks. This was a great recommendation from a colleague. The conversation partners took different roles: the Designer built something that nobody else could see. The Engineer had an identical pile of blocks and wanted to replicate the Designer’s building. The Consultant walked between the Engineer and the Designer and had to convey the instructions for how to build the same structure.
  • I didn’t foresee feeling pulled between my two groups of participants. Obviously the volunteers would have different needs than the ESL students. I think I underestimated the volunteers’ needs before I began, seeing them more as helpers and less as volunteers.
  • I had a mentor assigned to me as a newly hired teacher, and it was a super helpful set-up. Just knowing who to ask first is so huge for a new teacher – the division of labor in established departments is mind-boggling to the uninitiated. She happened to also be a great mentor and a person I like, so it was a very positive experience.
  • As a person and a learner, I tend to be rather bookish. It was really great for me to be in charge of a verbal-only class, with no textbook, no formal presentations, no pronunciation drills – just verbal communication. This experience will definitely inform the (bigger) role of conversation in my future classes.

I really enjoyed facilitating this class, and I’d be teaching it again this semester if the scheduling weren’t so inconvenient. I hope the current teacher is enjoying it as much as I did!

You’re reading Reflecting on Conversation Partners, originally posted at

What I’m Up To, and What’s Next

Hello again! Just stopping by with another update.

Since we last spoke, I’ve had some great experiences in teaching ESL.

First, I did make it to one day of big TESOL in Baltimore early this Spring. Overall it was a good experience. The sessions I went to were good (if not game-changing), but the networking and re-connecting aspect of being there was completely fantastic.

Second, I taught a class that was new to me. I was more of a facilitator than a teacher, really. It was a Conversation Partners elective class in a full-time program for international students to improve their English. That deserves another post, which I hope to send your way soon!

Third, I’m currently in yet another ESL teaching position that’s new to me: assistant teacher. I waltz in for the last hour of class, help, and then leave. There is no prep. There is no stress. My only responsibility is to show up. This is not my long-term wish for my teaching career (is it weird that I miss the obsessive prepping?), but with the kids so young, it’s pretty much glorious for right now. I believe this gig warrants yet another post – I’ll get on that!

And fourth, a couple of the community colleges I’m affiliated with send out teaching articles as part of ongoing professional development. I think this is a great idea, though I wish there were a bit more dialog about them. I was thinking of posting some links and commentary here from time to time.

Since We Last Spoke


Here’s what I’ve been up to since you last heard from me:

As you know, I gave myself “maternity leave” from the blog when my first baby was born. We are about to celebrate her fourth birthday, as well as her little sister’s first birthday. And we moved from our condo into a house. Lots of changes!

Professionally, I completed my MA TESOL. It was a great experience. It took my teaching to a new level, and it opened the door to teaching English for Academic Purposes (EAP), which I’ve been doing for a couple of years.

I’ve also committed to not just attending the annual MD TESOL conference, but making sure to be as extroverted as I can be while I’m there. So far I’ve stuck to it for two years running and it’s just such a wonderful chance to keep up with and meet more of the inspiring people in our field. I’m hoping to get to TESOL 2016 also because it’s in Maryland. It’s a big commitment of time, money, babysitting, and extroversion, but I suspect it will be worth it!

I would love to commit right here and now to blog journaling my next class the way I used to, but we’ll just have to see how it goes. I take teaching seriously, and I also take my family seriously. The past few years there hasn’t been much left for taking a blog seriously too, even though the reflection time and long tail of notes are both so valuable to me.

So that’s my status!