I was just reading through some old blog posts, and I couldn’t believe I left this anecdote out of the Controversy piece.
I was teaching Beginning way back in my library learning center days, and we were making a list of vegetables. I was writing quickly, leading, listening, and encouraging more answers… and in my distraction, I didn’t write pea. I wrote pee.
I quick erased the error and fixed it, but not fast enough. Someone noticed. If I remember right, I think whoever it was knew what pee meant and thought it was a funny mistake. I agreed both then and now. But not everyone knew what it meant, and they asked, and I had the sort of uncomfortable task of explaining it.
Then a student asked, “What’s the other one?”
I asked her what she meant. Even years later as I write this, I recall feeling embarrassed and desperately hoping against all hope that my vegetable lesson wasn’t devolving into fecal matter.
She explained that she was at the store one time, and she went to the bathroom and there wasn’t pee on the floor, but the other one. She needed to report this but she didn’t know the word.
And I thought that was a really good reason to spend a few minutes of class talking about excrement. It was a legitimate vocabulary question that clearly related to surviving and thriving in an English-speaking country. Why would I cajole the class into naming vegetables they may or may not use, but refuse to name something with universal relevancy and serious health implications?
My embarrassment evaporated, and that was the night I wrote poop on the board.
It seemed unlikely to be valuable because I was feeling pessimistic about conferences in general, and also because volunteer management is kind of a “fluffy” profession, not backed up by much research or data or formal history.
I’m thrilled to report that I was pleasantly surprised. The sessions I went to did not perpetuate the fluff, but sought to give us concrete ideas and skills for taking our work to the next level.
I gained background in creating a volunteer-led ESL curriculum, setting up focus groups (of students and volunteers), addressing the 80/20 rule of life (that 80% of your effort will go to 20% of your tasks and problems), and creating well-designed flyers and brochures.
I think I actually found the last one to be the most useful. Making flyers is one of those random parts of my job that I’m expected to just do, and I have never had the slightest bit of training on how to do a good job. The presenter walked us through the four pieces of the puzzle that we need to consider, and three days later I still remember them: proximity, alignment, repetition, and contrast.
Here’s what I think she did right:
limited her scope,
stayed focused on it, and
provided different levels of meaningful practice.
That presentation had no hand-outs. This was disconcerting at first, but it turned out to be a strength. Her goal wasn’t to give resources, but to convey four interrelated elements of design. She didn’t try to make us into designers that afternoon. The unified design she was teaching us was reflected in her presentation: she taught what she said she was going to teach, and she did it in a way that assured our attention was never split. She also followed the basic format of a good ESL lesson: I do it, we do it, you do it. By this I mean she gave us opportunities to practice what we were learning, and that over the course of the session she went from actively guiding our practice to letting us work through examples independently.
I think what made this conference stand out is that all the sessions I went to were taught in this way. I hope other conferences catch on soon.
Confession: I manage my volunteer mailing list on a Word document.
It’s true. Even though I enjoy Excel formulas and mail merges, have harsh words for presenters who don’t know the ins and outs of PowerPoint, have actually built more than one relational database, and love to find the optimal information tool for a given task. I am that person, and I copy and paste my mailing list from a Word document.
It didn’t used to be this way. In my old job at the main office, my Outlook contacts list was a well-organized-frequently-mail-merged thing of beauty. But when I got to my new job at the learning center a little over a year ago, I only had Outlook Webmail. Managing contacts solely with webmail is pretty much impossible. Word was there, I used it, and it worked. Months later, my nonprofit helped me install real, actual Outlook Anywhere on the learning center’s laptop (I’m unable to install anything on the main computer, which is library property). And months after that, I have yet to rework my emailing system.
Three thoughts on this:
My Word document of contacts actually meets about 80% of my current needs quite efficiently. Can I justify spending time reworking it?
Just because you’re not optimally using a given technology tool doesn’t mean you’re a moron.
This type of situation leads me to think broadly about the fact that people need more than initial training and ongoing Q and A to work effectively with digital technology; we need support in the form of quality tools. Even the people who “get” digital technology are severely hampered by slow, outdated, and/or limiting applications and hardware. When we have to figure out how to make our antiquated or locked-down equipment be good enough “in our spare time,” it either just doesn’t happen or it happens at the expense of the rest of our jobs.
I wish that the demands put on educators, especially in this age of obsession with computer-based and distance learning, could be accompanied by thoughts like, “Do they have the tools to accomplish this well?” or even better, “We should ask them what tools they need to facilitate these desired outcomes and then follow through.”
If all I have is a teaspoon and you’re surprised I’m not hammering nails with it, there’s a problem and it’s not with me.
MinneTESOL was last Friday and Saturday. Overall I’m glad I went, but I wasn’t quite blown away.
To my mind, the conference’s highlight was when Kao Kalia Yang, author of The Latehomecomer spoke on Friday evening. It was poetic and moving and beautiful.
The rest of the conference was a let-down except when I went to presentations by Hamline University faculty. And no, Hamline did not pay me to say that. The fact is that their presentations were exactly what they sounded like, were well-thought out and easily within their expertise, included hands-on practice of what we were learning, engaged and engaging presentation style, and successfully distributed useful materials that I’ll be able to use and/or alter at the learning center.
There was actually one other worthwhile presentation about a research project in neurolinguistics. It was just a talk with a PowerPoint but the speaker’s energy and focus on actually communicating with the audience made it work wonderfully. My colleague also pointed out that the scope was perfect for a short presentation.
The other presentations committed the following (what I consider to be) sins:
the keynote was plain lecture with a busy, dense PowerPoint for an hour straight. Also, they didn’t know that PowerPoint has several pointer features and that they didn’t have to point to parts of their graphs with their shadows.
one woman actually just read her paper to us without pause while her busy PowerPoint went on behind her. I’m sorry, but I didn’t get up at 6:45AM on a Saturday for your airport voice. Thank goodness she only wasted 20 minutes of my life.
the following 20-minute session was at least an attempt to communicate with the audience, but he had not only made too few hand-outs but misplaced some of them and didn’t freely pass his card around for us to contact him later.
the special interest brainstorm session on Adult Education had potential, but I ended up in a small group that was taken over by a group of three women griping about terrible cooperation between ESL/ABE and the MN State Colleges and Universities. I wish we could have moved past that phase of the discussion.
I went to another 20-minute presentation in which the speaker concluded that adopting technology in the classroom was easier than people think and they just need more time. Clearly he hadn’t seen the keynote in which they thought they knew PowerPoint.
I feel the conference as a whole could have done a better job with:
making sure there were on-site photocopying resources
facilitating electronic communication of presentation hand-outs in lieu of paper hand-outs (i.e. a Conference Resources page on their website, or an email directory of the presenters)
laying down some standards of presentation style
Several people I talked to agreed with me but remarked that these are perennial issues with conferences. Which begs the question… why? These are very fixable problems!
I wrote a note to each teacher explaining the assignment and my motivation for it, and I included suggestions on how to explain it to their level of student. I asked them to introduce the activity to their class… and then have everyone get up and walk over to the big classroom to do the actual writing.
We had some music in the background and students sat at random tables. They wrote on colorful slips of paper about what makes them smile, what they’re proud of, etc. When they finished a piece, they brought it to the front and taped it onto a poster. They were encouraged to do multiple pieces, and the teachers enjoyed participating too.
At the end we had a colorful patchwork of student (and teacher) writing at all levels. More importantly, everyone left with a huge smile on their face. Success!
Epilogue: One of the librarians offered to run it through their giant laminator for us, and our now very shiny poster is on display between our classrooms and the circulation desk. I’ve seen students and general library patrons reading it, and several students who were absent on writing poster day have come to me hoping they’ll be around for the next one and suggesting future writing prompts. I’m very pleased and plan to do this again soon!
(At the end of this post I ask a specific question about my tone. Please tell me how I come across!)
I recently attended a small conference (maybe 80 or so participants) for half a day. There was some good information and valuable context, very little of which I absorbed. In short, here’s why:
I was not on board with the theme.
I could not see the speakers or Power Points properly.
The answers we needed were not there during our small group discussions.
A bit more on these points:
Not On Board
The conference was about distance learning, mostly about how we’ll be doing a lot more of it.
Well, ok. Yes, there are many benefits, and yes, there is potential for us to reach more students.
But what about the fact that most teachers teach because they love the in-person interaction? What about the fact that many of our students attend class as much for the social connections as the content? What about the interesting combination of emphasizing things like additional trainings and “designating a distance learning staff member” while talking about looming budget problems?
These were issues on the minds of everyone I talked to, and the conference did not address them. They were talking, and the participants were thinking, and they were not necessarily about the same things. I think they really missed an opportunity here by not meeting the skeptics where they were at.
I Couldn’t See
Ok, full disclosure: I arrived five minutes after the program started. Sitting in the back was my fault.
That being said, lots of people had to sit in the back – there wasn’t room for everyone in the front. All of us sitting in the back trying to see the Power Points and speakers had to contend not only with the people sitting in front of us, but with floor-to-ceiling support poles. Not the greatest space. In the future, no poles.
And now let’s talk about the PowerPoints. They had a ton of tiny text, often in colors that didn’t have much contrast. The presenters appeared (from what I could tell) to use them as notes. Where does the nonprofit obsession with Best Practices go when it’s time to bust out a PowerPoint? Seriously, we can do better. Seth Godin has some great pointers.
The Answers Weren’t There
Thankfully, the organizers did not plan an all-PowerPoint program. For the second half they broke us into small groups with facilitators and well-thought-out questions to discuss.
The discussions were very “Collective Intelligence,” intended to have us share our knowledge. We discussed some common fears too: What if my job changes in a direction I find utterly mind-numbing (i.e. computer/internet troubleshooting)? How is administration going to support the additional trainings I’ll need? What assurances do I have that my other work will be reduced when I start taking on this new distance learning work?
My group actually did a great job of not focusing on the negatives or the potential negatives. Still, it would have really helped us to be listened to and have some of those fears assuaged (or at least noted).
We took notes, and the organizers collected them at the end to type up and email out to our groups. I really liked that. They never said whether they plan to read them for content and respond to them though. I very much hope that our notes are taken as an opportunity to listen and reply – the higher-ups and our students both need us folks in the middle to be on board.
So… on the spectrum of whiny vitriol (0) through groundbreaking problem-solving (10), where does this post land?
Have you ever noticed how many programs out there serve only one age group?
Even when we can manage to combine some form of childcare with adult classes, it’s often not free and basically never addresses the needs older children.
This isn’t because we believe that youth and teens are unimportant, or that our students have no children, or that it’s easy for a family to be in four different places for four different services all at the same time. It’s because the funding is dictating the structure of our services, and not the actual need.
That being said, without funding we wouldn’t have any services.
On Saturday morning I held a training for my volunteers called “Muffins and Testing.”
I got up early that morning and baked two dozen muffins that we munched on as we talked about testing our students (CASAS and TABE, as required by NRS standards). You can probably see why I advertised the muffins before the subject matter. Still, we had a great time.
I had an attendance of four, which at first glance (I have close to 30 volunteers) seems disappointing. One of the benefits of such a small training, though, is that everyone can really participate. I was able to tailor my talk to the questions they asked, assuage fears of only teaching to tests (we’re not only teaching to the tests, but the competencies on these tests are actually really useful to students), and lead a brainstorm that included ideas from everybody.
Though I did give them time to look through examples and to explore the online resources we have, I wish I had done about 20 minutes less talking when it came to looking at an example test-related classroom activity. Talking too much in front of the room is a pattern of mine as a teacher and trainer, and I’m continuing to work on it!
I didn’t do a formal evaluation, but based on hearing “ah ha,” “oh, I didn’t know that,” and “wow, this means we should really try to follow the curriculum” each more than once, I’d say that they learned something. I’m very excited to work through the brainstorm list of how we can all better support testing, from simple office tasks I can complete in 20 minutes to changing our online lesson reporting to having a volunteer be the assessment liaison. Since learning happened and next steps appeared, I’d call it all a success!
The result of these changes is that stressed-out people rely on habits, and that these habits can become “ruts” and downright counterproductive behavior. From the article:
“Behaviors become habitual faster in stressed animals than in the controls, and worse, the stressed animals can’t shift back to goal-directed behaviors when that would be the better approach,” Dr. Sousa said. “I call this a vicious circle.”
Angier also emphasizes the plasticity of the brain, noting that the brain returns to normal when the stressors are removed.
Some interesting groups of stressed-out people whose brain chemistry might be favoring habits over goal-driven behavior:
Refugees and immigrants
People struggling to pay bills (be they heat or private college tuition)
Overworked, under-supported teachers
This has some pretty interesting ramifications. What I see applying to my students (many of whom are refugees):
they need a safe, relaxed, predictable environment to help them think
many would respond well to repetitive exercises, vocabulary drills, etc.
teaching them basic survival habits will help them through future stressful situations