MD TESOL 2017

As an ESOL teacher in Maryland, I was pleased to attend the annual Maryland TESOL conference a couple days ago.

As always, it was a nice experience.

I’d say that the theme of my conference experience was a dearth of presentations that were applicable to higher education.

And the uncomfortable corollary: if I want something to be there, I need to consider providing it myself, even though I’m just me.

Summary

The keynote was about students with limited/interrupted formal education. It was well-considered and well-presented, and I thought she made several good points about literacy- and school-related cultural differences between many of our students’ home countries and the USA. But overall, her topic was not new to me and I don’t know that she added a whole lot to my schema. I also don’t know how relevant it was to higher education students and classes. I mean, we have SLIFE students, but I didn’t leave the presentation with ideas for how to work with them more effectively within the confines of the syllabus-led courses we teach. I was hoping for more than this from a keynote.

There were three breakout sessions, and I only attended one specifically relevant to higher education. This session dealt with a very specific study of a very specific group of international students, and though it was interesting, I didn’t feel like I walked out of that session with any insights that were actionable.

The other two sessions I attended were both interesting as well. The first session was about public schools. It was a stellar presentation – easily the best of the day. But since the public schools are peripheral to my professional life, the likelihood of my ever using information from this presentation is low. The second session was about corpus linguistics. The speaker’s energy for her topic was contagious and would have sparked anybody’s interest. However, I was already interested, and I was disappointed with how much time she spent on the mechanics of using the search functions on the corpus websites. She did give a couple of activity ideas which I might be able to adapt to my future classes, but I wished for many more ideas and much less of the assumption that my students had the time and/or inclination to play with the corpus tools in or out of class.

Though I had a great time and feel that it was a pleasant use of my personal money for my professional development, I was a little disappointed to walk out of the conference with nothing that was clearly actionable in my current work setting.

Feeling Disappointed? Get Busy!

Again, none of this is intended to be a complaint. I think it’s more just a long-winded justification for wondering if it’s time for me to step up and present. Not because I think I know more than the people around me (I’m pretty sure I don’t!), but because this is the kind of gap we ourselves need to step up and fill. And I think it was a gap. I can’t be the only person who was looking for more higher-education-related sessions – I’m just not that special!

So I’m trying to think through what I wish had been there. What would I have loved to have attended?

  • grammar anything (I’m a grammar geek), maybe particularly re: academic writing
  • advanced grammar review for teachers – clause types, non/restrictive commas, etc.
  • the color vowel chart (I’m a pronunciation geek, too)
  • tips on teaching/tutoring essay writing
  • academic activities based on corpus linguistics… that could fit into a syllabus class
  • cultural presentations (i.e. Cultures of West Africa 101)
  • how to run a small-scale study
  • how to run a large-scale study
  • grading essays efficiently
  • working with your college’s librarians
  • working with your college’s tutoring center

Many of these are enticing to me because they represent gaps in my knowledge and experience. I could not present on many of these topics, at least right now.

But several on my list are my interests/hobbies. I’d like to attend sessions on them in hopes of going deeper. Perhaps those would be subjects to consider presenting on next time, in case anyone else is interested too. And if nobody else is interested, that’s OK! I’ll go attend someone else’s and learn something new!

How do you figure out what to present on? And when you’re “good enough” to present?

You’re reading MD TESOL 2017, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.

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Throwback Draft: Off on the Left Foot

Tying the Knot by psyberartist on Flickr
Tying the Knot by psyberartist on Flickr

[I have a collection of unpublished drafts in this blog, and I thought I’d publish some from time to time in a Throwback Draft series.]

I wrote this piece more than five years ago, as I was transitioning from being in nonprofits to being in ESL. I’d like to keep the timeframe vague because it will help protect the identity of the kind  people and beneficial orgs in the specific example I describe.

I turned out to be happy teaching the class I describe in this article, and I have been happy with my current part-time contingent role at multiple sites through multiple community colleges over the years.

That said, looking back at this post more than five years later, it still resonates with me. I’m happy teaching and assistant teaching, but what’s going on around my classroom is still significant. The nonprofit I wrote about here has shut down. Academics is considered to be having an ” adjunct crisis.” I think a lot of us have a sense of doing ever more with ever less. Our students are not benefiting from this trend, and I’m not sure who is.

***

The beginning of this new teaching gig has been a string of annoyances and errors so far.

I’m blogging about them because I feel like they exemplify what’s wrong with running low-efficiency operations hog-tied by arbitrary funding rules and changes.

Background: I will be working through a community college to teach ESL at a small nonprofit.  I have met everybody involved and there are no slackers, no morons, and no mean-spirited trolls; there are just good people trying to run a good program.

The Comedy of Errors

  1. Disrespectful scheduling: I requested morning classes through the college.  They were all listed as 9AM – 12PM.  I was scheduled as the teacher for one of them at “Nonprofit A.”  Then the college moved my class one hour earlier.  I found out via a mass email of the changed schedule.  There was no acknowledgement that I did not sign up for an 8AM class, nor were there offers of flexibility or explanation.  There were, however, enough obvious errors on the schedule that I had to email the office to confirm that the change was not a typo.
  2. Slow Information: Teachers were going to receive materials at a meeting over a month before classes started.  This meeting was then moved to be two weeks before classes started.  So much for planning ahead.
  3. Inefficient, Ineffective Meetings: Said last-minute meeting was so generic that the teachers still did not know what to plan.  It had to be followed up with other small-group meetings the week before classes started.
  4. Chase Grant or Prep Teachers?: Said small-group meeting was derailed because the leader of the meeting unexpectedly had to deal with changes to our grant (which begins Monday) that morning and so was unable to be prepared for us.
  5. Logistical Detail Disaster: Remember how they pushed my class one hour earlier?  Nobody thought about building access.  The regular teacher who has a key is currently hospitalized.  And the Nonprofit A staff who have keys to the building don’t normally come in until 9AM.  The director is graciously coming in at 8AM to let us in.  Yes, that’s zero set-up time for my first class.  And a potential security issue in the future if the only people in the open building are small teachers in their classrooms.
  6. Technological Ineptitude: When I called Nonprofit A to see if I could come in today to at least drop off some materials, their voicemail message was the generic one that comes with the phone, confirming the telephone number but making no mention that I had reached Nonprofit A.  An internet search to confirm the phone number and find their hours of operation showed that they don’t have a website.  Seriously?

My Conclusion: We Have Low Overhead

What Low Overhead Looks Like (photo by jhf on Flickr)
What Low Overhead Looks Like (photo by jhf on Flickr)

I see too few people trying to do too much in too few hours.  I see good things done poorly.

This is why it might actually drive me crazy one day when I hear that people interested in donating money are quite strongly opposed to said money going to overhead.  This mentality implies the belief that somehow their money will magically help “the people who need it” more if the organizations trying desperately to serve them are as starved for resources, infrastructure, and staff hours as possible.

I strongly suspect that the reason we’re locked out of the building until class time is because budgets are too tight to have extra keys available and a safe place to store them.

I’m quite sure that there was no special meeting for teachers new to the college because there wasn’t the staff time available to run an orientation.  I’m also positive that the office staff would have loved to send out an error-free schedule that was backed by lots of one-to-one talks with the teachers to be sure there was clarity and harmony in the department.  The way things actually went just smacks of a scarcity of staff hours.

I’m sure that Nonprofit A would love to have a web presence, but I’m also sure they don’t want a crappy website that nobody has time to update anyway.

And nobody wants to be unprepared for a meeting, especially one you’re leading.  But when your bread and butter grant changes under you four days before it starts, you kind of have to drop everything and respond.  We’re so starved for funding that we have to sacrifice the very quality the funders are trying to encourage in order to just survive.  They intend to underwrite excellent programming, but unreliability undermines it.

But what can we do?

Thus, My Conundrum

Everywhere I look in my work with nonprofits, I see broken systems and a dearth of the power necessary to fix them.

I see a great many people who are working hard and doing their best in good faith that it’s enough.  If we just pour enough of ourselves into the effort, it will be enough, right?  I’m hardly a seasoned veteran, but even I have seen more than one nonprofit worker get stressed out to the point of serious physical illness.

But I see little change.  I no longer have the faith that just showing up as I am and doing my best is enough.

And I ask myself what my role in it all should be.

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 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,

Emily

 

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 learningtoteachenglish.com.

 

 

Since We Last Spoke

Hello!

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!

Late Summer Update

I took the summer off teaching in order to accompany my husband on a seven-week business trip.  It’s good to be home again!

Today I officially went to graduate school orientation.  I’ve already taken one class as a non-degree student, and now I’m continuing part-time as a degree-seeking student.  Masters in TESOL, here I come!  Slowly but surely, of course.

I start teaching again September 12th.  I’ll be teaching Level 3 this time.  Can’t wait!

Journal: On Planning Ahead

Yay Planning

I’ve done a great job this semester of planning the week’s lessons the weekend before.  It’s a necessity with my busy schedule this fall.  I also did a great job of planning ahead for this week two weekends ago because of last weekend’s vacation.  Go me!

The Lessons Could Be Better

The problem is that I’ve been feeling kind of disconnected from what I planned even though I’m the one who planned it and I review it the morning before class. Today, for example, it was an OK lesson with a nice balance of interaction, accuracy practice, and fluency practice.  We even had a discussion about our neighborhood that involved us making a huge map of the school’s neighborhood together.  But it was all somehow uninspired, and I think uninspiring as well.

I’m not trying to be hyper-critical of myself here, just honest.  I’m doing it (or at least most of it) right, but something feels a little off.  This is kind of concerning to me and I think it’s important that I look into it before I go numb to it.

Potential Answers

I saw a really interesting article in the New Yorker that I think sheds an interesting light on this.  The topic is really about procrastination, but it discusses research that suggests that individuals actually have differing identities within them all negotiating for and against different decisions we make.  Here’s a quote from the New Yorker’s article (emphasis mine):

But some of the philosophers in “The Thief of Time” have a more radical explanation for the gap between what we want to do and what we end up doing: the person who makes plans and the person who fails to carry them out are not really the same person: they’re different parts of what the game theorist Thomas Schelling called “the divided self.”

So I feel a little less silly now about confessing that I feel less like I’m teaching when I follow Last-Weekend-Emily’s lesson plan instead of Last-Night-Emily’s lesson plan.  It generally feels much more like I’m using a lesson plan out of a textbook, like I’m following a script, even though I wrote the “script.”  Why does that feel so separate from actively observing, supporting, guiding, and teaching?

Maybe it is this idea of the “divided self,” that “someone else” really did write the lesson.  Maybe it’s tied to my style of interacting and my deep enjoyment of well-informed improvisation.  Maybe I’ve been planning mediocre lessons.  Or maybe I’m being too hard on myself.

Moving Ahead

Regardless of the philosophical or psychological causes of my conundrum, I’d like to move toward being happier with my lessons.

It’s tempting to try going back to planning the night before.  I just think it would be a horrible idea given my other scheduling commitments and the other obvious issues with relying on last-minute planning.

One workable next step is to ask my students for feedback even though 1) it’s difficult to ask abstract questions to beginners and 2) it’s going to be hard to get honest criticism from such kind, respectful people.

Another way to shake things up could be to review my lessons the night before (instead of the morning of) to try to get back into my original mindset more thoroughly.

Rest assured that as I tweak my process, I’ll try to not be too hard on myself.