Journal: Quizzing and Stress! (but it went fine)

Students: 18

One thing that went well:  I gave them a six-question grammar quiz as part of our accuracy review this morning.  Honestly, my motivation for doing so was to get data that was meaningful to them for our daily mini-demo on spreadsheets.  But the data turned out to be very informative for me.  I found that one of my questions was unduly difficult and why (whoops), about 2/3 of the class was pretty solid on the grammar point, and about 4 people (I was surprised at who they were) were struggling considerably.  Very good to know!  Note to self: low-stakes quiz more often.

One thing to improve:  The warm-up was weak and lacked any structure at all.  This was not a choice, but a result of saying during my planning, “I’ll come back to the detail of how exactly they should practice each other’s names” and then doing so when I didn’t have enough time to figure it out.  I ended up telling them that they had 7 minutes to study each other’s names, first and last.  It actually seemed to go pretty well: many of them used their grids from Monday, everybody was involved, and later on during the break I heard snippets of “how do you spell your name?”  Free-form seemed to have been a good idea – I’d just like to use it intentionally in the future.

One surprise:  This week, several students have mentioned to me that they’re stressed in class.  Not in tears or anything, and always with a laugh, but still.  In some ways this is not actually a surprise because a couple of them just moved up from Level 2.  But one of the students has been Level 3 for a while now, and though her writing is excellent, she mentioned that it really stresses her out.  I guess I’m surprised that I could both be stressing out my students and that they’d be willing to tell me so – you’d think they’d be mutually exclusive.  Also, I’m not really sure what to do.  Thoughts?

Journal: First Day of Computer Lab

Students: 18

One thing that went well:  The warm-up turned out to be quite a success.  We practiced each other’s names.  I kicked things off by saying we should test the teacher.  I went around the room and named everyone who was there so far.  (100% correct, not because I worked at it, but because names generally come easily to me.)  Then we split into two groups and did name chain drills that rapidly turned into free-form name repetition, which I had no problem with.  Next, we mixed up the groups a bit and repeated.  We wrapped up with a second test for the teacher because more students had arrived since my first test.  Everyone is very friendly but maybe a little shy, and they seemed to really enjoy this excuse to get to know each other a little bit more.

One thing to improve:  We’re doing some process writing, and we’re getting to the point where they need more individual time from me for guidance, corrections, etc.  I’m not really sure how to provide that in a class of 18.  Weekly conferences?  Email?  I’m not sure what’s best.

One surprise:  Our first computer lesson was not an unmitigated disaster.  Granted the room was locked when we got there (just like last semester), getting everybody up and running went slowly, and the room was seriously cold.  Still, they all got to my website, and all but one student successfully filled out the online survey I’d made to get a sense of their computer skills and their interests.  I didn’t realize I was missing someone because I had 18 answers and 18 students.  It turns out that somebody filled it out twice… with totally different answers each time.  Ah well.  We made it through, they’re more familiar with my web resources, and I’m more familiar with their interests and needs.  A surprisingly solid start!

Journal: Planning Extensively Paid Off

One thing that went well:  Conversation time at the end.  We only had about 15 minutes for it, but I asked them something to the effect of, “If you could choose only one, youth or money, which would you pick?  Why?”  They seemed to find it interesting, it made for a really fun mood with which to end class.  Yay!  Also, it wasn’t the only part of the lesson that went well.  Double yay!

One thing to improve:  Explaining and modeling the warm-up could have gone better.  Specifically, we were practicing quick, formulaic small-talk you might have with your neighbor if you both happened to be walking to your cars at the same time.  However, I didn’t make this clear enough and some students took the opportunity to have a longer chat.  This wasn’t catastrophic, but it also wasn’t the purpose of the activity. 

One surprise:  My (perhaps obsessive) planning from yesterday actually resulted in a laid-back pre-class morning, well-paced and in-depth English practice, exactly the right amount of material for our three-hour class, and overall good feeling as everyone filed out the door at noon.  I’m not sure that all of that has ever happened before in one class period as a result of my good planning.  Maybe I’m getting better at it!  Confession: I didn’t pick out the conversation starter itself until it was time to write it on the board.  But I’m still Captain Planny for the day, ok?

Journal: Day 2 of Level 3!

Classes officially began yesterday!

I’m going to try a new format of daily post. I hope it will help my posts be short and thus more likely to happen.

Students: 17

One thing that went well: The flow of our work with goals. We read four short pieces from a great book called Journeys.  Each piece talked about the author’s goals, and they were all quite different.  From there, we thought about our own goals and made lists.  We’ll continue to work with those lists.

One thing to improve:  Teacher talk.  I talked too much.  “They can understand me” is not a good excuse!

One surprise:  How much more settled in it already feels to me.  Yesterday seemed a little awkward, and I wondered if I came across badly.  Today I felt that we all communicated with each other better and have started to become a class.

Journal: AmTrak… right?

Just a quick anecdote from Monday:

We were studying different options of public transportation.  The students brainstormed everything from cars to planes to walking to taking the bus to riding a horse.

short train by Bright Meadow on Flickr.com
Train, photo by Bright Meadow on Flickr.com

We all live between Baltimore and DC, so we have an alarming number of train options: the light rail, the metro, the MARC train, and AmTrak. 

They’re all trains, but they’re all different.  The light rail serves Baltimore and its suburbs.  The metro serves DC and its suburbs.  The MARC train serves the corrodior between DC and Baltimore… but only on weekdays.  AmTrak serves major cities nationally, but it’s much more expensive than the other options.

They seemed really interested in AmTrak and asked a lot of questions. 

Where does it go?  Does it go to Canada?  Is it the terrorists?

What?

After September 11th.  Terrorists.  AmTrak.  Envelope.

I was slow to catch on.  I was wondering if there was some sort of train attack I didn’t remember.  Can you tell what they meant, readers?

One of the students finally looked it up on his iPod.  No, is antracks.

Ah.  Anthrax.  Got it.  No, AmTrak is different.

Journal: Not in the Text!

We’re in a unit on travel with a unit test coming up on Thursday.  Today we were working within the framework of four new vocabulary words: exciting, interesting, relaxing, and unusual.

The students gave lots of examples to show their understanding of these words.  For relaxing, they talked about sleep, sitting, massages, and spas.  For exciting, they talked about roller coasters and action movies.  For interesting, they talked about visiting museums and the White House. 

For unusual, they had trouble thinking of examples.  This makes total sense – it’s much easier to think of things that are usual than things that aren’t.  Finally, one student said, completely non-judgmentally: “sometimes, a man dresses like a woman.” 

“Transgender” is a fantastic teaching point for so many reasons.  You can break the word apart to show “trans” + “gender” to construct the meaning.  You can bring in such fantastic movies as “The Birdcage” and “To Wong Fu.”  You can get into freedom, tolerance, and discrimination in the USA.

The thing is, these are all tangents within our travel unit.  I made sure they had the word “transgender” for the concept the student brought up, and then I felt we should get back to our travel context.

Come to think of it though, transgender is a tangent within all of our units.  I will basically never teach “transgender” (or “blossom,” or “poop,” or “Xbox,” or “accuracy vs. fluency“) without knowing that I’m straying far away from the bounds of the textbook’s scope and sequence.

I understand that texts must have a limited scope and a logical sequence in order to be usable.  I’ve said several times in this blog alone that I think our text does a lot of things really well.  And I’m lucky to not be tied to teaching the text and only the text. 

But isn’t it interesting how these shiny books with their grammar charts, canned dialogs and amusing illustrations are teaching me when I’m “straying” and when I’m teaching “real” material?  The material seems so natural when you’re flipping through the book, but everything they put in (and everything they leave out) is a value judgment.  I find the subtle power of their voice to tell me and my students what’s normal, what’s acceptable, and what’s worthy of talking about to be a little frightening.

And for all that power, are textbooks really more valid than the experiences and questions the students bring to the table?

Journal: Hello, Metacognition!

Metacognition just means “thinking about thinking.”  Or in the case of my class yesterday, learning a bit more about how they learn.

It was time to revisit our revised learning schedule (longish computer time twice a week, and a longer lesson twice a week ending in conversation) after a one-week trial.  The students were telling me what they liked, what was so-so, and what was terrible about this new schedule.

We did decide to stick with it for another four weeks and then revisit it again.  But along the way, one of the students said that she thought conversation time was terrible because during it, they speak broken English instead of correct English.

At this point, I took a risk.  I reminded them that I’m a student, studying to get my Master’s in teaching ESL.  People study students and how they learn.  I taught them something I learned.

There are two different speaking skills: speaking correctly, and speaking fluently.  It was easy for them to understand the former; I demonstrated the latter and explained that fluent meant smooth, easy, and with not much thinking.

I drew a line between the two on the board.  I told them that you can’t practice both at the same time.  They are different.  They can do both in Spanish and Korean and Chinese because they’ve known them for a long time.  But when you’re learning, you can’t be correct and fluent together.

I told them that if we only study speaking correctly, after five years they’ll sound like this: “Excuse me……………..where…………..is- no are………………..the………………………pants.”  (It sounded even more awkward than it looks!)  It’s correct, but it’s not comfortable and it’s not fluent.

So it’s actually important to make some mistakes in conversation time, because that means you can practice being more fluent.  I explained that in every lesson, I tried to give them time to practice being correct and time to practice being fluent. 

I know my class pretty well, and I wasn’t seeing baffled bewilderment on their faces, nor was I hearing distracted side conversations.  I should have checked for understanding better than I did, but I have reason to believe that they were with me.  Very cool.

Later, when we moved from an accuracy activity to a fluency activity, I pointed it out.  I used my hands to show them that in the first activity, I wanted high accuracy and low fluency, but in the next activity I wanted more fluency so they could worry about accuracy a bit less (not zero though!).

Maybe this was the key to overcoming my natural hesitance to use a lot of fluency activities: the class now knows some learning theory too, so I have to be sure I don’t lean too heavily toward accuracy!