Brains

A friend of mine had a stroke about a year and a half ago. As his recovery continues, he has become a popular writer at a traumatic brain injury blog.

I promise that this has something to do with teaching ESL.

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Isaac hates therapy (physical, speech, occupational – you name it) and won’t attend. Nobody who knows him is surprised.

He’s in charge of his own recovery, and his self-determined program has been impressively successful. Nobody who knows him is surprised.

He recently explained for those who don’t know him why he’s done with therapy:

“My doctor tells me all the time I have a strong and disciplined mind, but I never underwent a therapy that acknowledged that I might already have something going for me and work from there.”

And,

“We are all individuals and what is best for one of us is not necessarily what works for others; if no two brain injuries are alike, why is so much therapy one size fits all? No one else can know what each of us needs most, so why not individually tailored therapy?”

And maybe most unnerving to me,

…I have to wonder how much [caregivers] listen to what those in their care have to say or what they think. I have to wonder how many are prepared to deviate from the pre-written script and meet those under their care where they really are.

So…

Is it just me or is there a pretty clear corollary to learning and education in general?

 

Does my teaching acknowledge what students already have going for them and work from there?

Does my teaching begin from the premise that no two brains are alike?

Does my teaching style welcome fiercely independent, blindingly intelligent people like Isaac? Or is there only room for the most quiet, compliant personalities?

Do I listen? Or is it all about “my teaching?”

 

And my favorite perennial conundrum: balancing the need to teach a syllabus as part of an educational sequence in a degree-earning program with the need to teach the unique individuals who are in my classrooms.

 

Photo CreditLara Danielle on Flickr

You’re reading Brains, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.

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Humbling Moment: Healthy Breakfast

About eight years ago, in the learning center in Minnesota, one of my volunteers and I had a humbling moment.

This particular volunteer was not only extremely well-qualified, but a joy to work with for me and the students alike. And because wherever she went she was always one of the few volunteers with years of experience and an MA TESOL, she was always asked to teach Advanced. After years of this in various programs, she asked me if she could switch to beginning.

With some schedule wrangling, I made it happen, and my fabulous volunteer happily went in to teach beginning English for the first time in ages, excited to be working on basic meal and nutrition vocabulary instead of the intricacies of modals and such for once.

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When we all reconvened after classes, she bashfully handed me the sign-in sheet she had passed around the class.

It said, in the handwriting of eight different students:

Attendance (Monday)

Maria
Ahmed
Fatuma
Ayaan
Luis
Healthy Breakfast
Pa
Hyun Mee

It’s humbling to realize that one of your students is (and thus likely has been) so lost that she doesn’t recognize an attendance sheet and probably also doesn’t understand what the words are that she’s copying off the board with great intensity.

As the library was shutting down around us, we wrote notes for the next day’s teacher and brainstormed a plan for supporting this student more effectively during class.

Inadvertent formative assessment, and a reminder that great teaching begins again every day not with the content of our lessons, the brightness of our enthusiasm, or the years of our experience, but where our particular learners are.

 

Photo Credit: jules on Flickr

You’re reading Humbling Moment: Healthy Breakfast, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.

EVO – Teaching Pronunciation Differently

Back in February, I began TESOL’s Electronic Village Online (EVO) course called Teaching Pronunciation Differently.

I want to be up front that I didn’t finish it (yet).

But every minute I spent on it was a revelation and a half – except for the videos of Audrey Hepburn singing as Eliza in My Fair Lady.

Their premise is that teaching pronunciation using a “watch and repeat” method is not particularly effective for most adult learners.

They purpose instead direct instruction on breathing, mouth position, and other physical aspects of articulation that students can learn step by step.

My most excited moment was when they taught something I had vaguely noticed when learning Russian – I thought of it as holding my mouth differently. There’s a word for that! It’s called articulatory setting! And people actually study this to better understand it! And apparently English has kind of a weird one.

They also offered many strategies for helping students sensitize themselves to different types of breathing, the interior of their mouths, etc.

Many thanks to EVO and to the TPD course instructors – even a fraction of this course was incredibly valuable and absolutely fascinating!

You’re reading EVO – Teaching Pronunciation Differently, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.

Thanks to “Impolite” Students

This is a post I drafted in the last few years. It’s just three examples of students taking the time to set me straight, and of me taking the time to listen. I didn’t post it right away because I was concerned that it might be taken out of context and misunderstood as an indictment of me as a terrible teacher, or of my students as aggressive jerks. Neither is the case. My concern has not gone away, but what I wrote still rings true to me. In the spirit of stepping up like my students did, here’s the post.

Working for years in Minnesota, followed by years in super-supportive ESOL departments in Maryland, all with mature and gracious adult ESOL students, I am blessed with a whole lot of positive feedback in my professional life.

I don’t know if it’s that I’m originally from near New York City or if it’s just a personality quirk, but at some point, a lot of positive feedback rings a bit hollow to me. I know I’m not perfect, so receiving criticism matches my world-view way better than praise does.

Too much positive feedback can actually make me uneasy. What aren’t they saying, and why? Is everyone just being polite? What are they hoping I’ll figure out? 

But here’s one thing: speaking a reasonable and relevant truth is not necessarily impolite.

And here’s another thing: it’s okay to be impolite sometimes. We don’t intentionally step on people’s toes in our day to day lives because that would be rude and cause pain. But if we’re walking along and a motorcycle is suddenly hurtling toward us, we leap out of the way even if we land on someone’s toes. That’s an extreme case, but the point is that some things are more important than manners.

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I owe a lot to the few students who have stepped up and told me some of the “impolite” things that I suspect many other students were thinking. Their willingness to risk stepping on my toes has helped me see class from students’ point of view and adjust my teaching accordingly.

Circulating from Student to Student

Early in my assistant teaching days, in addition to gauging how pushy I should be in helping my students, I was also figuring out the balancing act of helping everybody in a limited amount of time.

One lesson, I wound up addressing quite a few of one student’s questions with her. It took a long time. When I finally moved on to the next person, she told me frankly that I shouldn’t have spent so much time with the first woman. She pointed out that many students were waiting for my help and that it wasn’t fair to give too much time to one individual. She said I should have addressed one or two of the first woman’s questions, then checked to see if anyone else needed me. Then if not, I could work more with the first woman. Talk about specific feedback! No arguments from me then or now.

Before this conversation, I had seen this circulation balancing act as my own internal struggle. But the student’s comments made it clear to me that my class is paying more attention to that kind of thing than I’d thought. And I wasn’t giving them enough credit for understanding our need to work with everyone even when they still have more questions.

Overwhelming Written Comments

Back when I was lead teaching an academic writing class, I spent what felt like an eternity writing comments on my students’ diagnostic essays. We had a relatively small class and I’d decided to use that as an opportunity to start everyone off with a generous amount of personalized guidance.

Unfortunately, to one student, my comments somehow came across as sarcastic. I’m not 100% sure how it happened, because I remember being genuinely impressed with the essay and saying so. I was surprised that I had caused offense, but I accepted that I had and made amends accordingly.

I think that the problem was in how I’d made my comments: they were intended to be plentiful, but instead they were long-winded, which made them arduous to read and left too much room for incorrect interpretation. My takeaway there was to make sure future comments were short, plain, and focused.

Another takeaway I gleaned from that situation was that students don’t see our comments as a gift, no matter how generously they’re intended or how valuable they are. They’re overwhelming, they hurt, and students often don’t know how to implement them. I needed to be more judicious and practical with my comments.

Confusing Speech

When assistant teaching, I was having a writing conference with a pretty fluent student. After asking for clarification of something I’d said a couple of times, she exclaimed in exasperation, “Why can’t you just talk normally?!”

As I’m sure you can guess, the problem was that I was talking normally. Conversationally, even: many words, lots of linking, natural speed, meandering point.

It’s questionable whether I should alter my normal talking speed or prosody in the very last level of EAP before direct enrollment in mainstream college courses. But I think the cognitive burden of listening to my natural speech would have been manageable if I had just made sure to be direct and terse rather than chatty.

How many other students were too polite or too overwhelmed to get me to rein it in?

Overall: Focus

I feel like all three of these “sidekick slaps” came down to my losing focus in the moment. I wasn’t meeting my students where they were. I wasn’t respecting that more is not necessarily better. I wasn’t as direct and organized as I needed to be.

This doesn’t mean I’m never focused; it means that when I’m not focused, it shows.

I know where to go from there, and that’s a good feeling.

 

Real feedback is not always positive. Criticism is not always sandwiched neatly between two positives. But insight is always valuable, and who better to give us insight into what our students need than our students themselves?

May I keep listening and keep learning.

 

I’m pretty sure none of the students I referred to in this post are aware of this blog, but just in case: guys, thank you for making me a better teacher.

 

Photo Credit: cmjolley on Flickr

You’re reading Thanks to “Impolite” Students, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.

How I Described Rubrics

Substitute teaching last month was such a rich experience!

At one point, I found myself suddenly needing to explain what a rubric was to an advanced EAP reading class.

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I think that overall, rubrics are intimidating and ugly. I have yet to see a warm, fuzzy grading rubric, and if one ever did come into existence, I doubt that it would manage to be warm, fuzzy, and useful.

Coming from my experience of needing to talk students down from the edge of panic after receiving rubrics in other classes, I decided I needed to try to sell rubrics.

 

These were the two points I made on the fly:

Teachers want to grade fairly.

We want to be consistent from student to student and hold everyone to the same standards.

We also want to be clear to students what those standards are. This way they don’t need to guess what will earn them a good grade.

The rubric is your friend.

Use the rubric. It is a guide that tells you how to get a good grade.

Read it.

Compare your work to what the rubric asks for. Do you have all the requirements? Make sure they match.

 

What would you add?

 

Photo Credit: microbiologybytes on Flickr

You’re reading How I Described Rubrics, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.

PowerPointing Better

Just last week, I wrote a post about improving my classroom communication by limiting my public speaking.

I was put to the test sooner than I expected.

As my substitute teaching gig continued, one of the provided lesson plans called for presenting two already-made PowerPoints on two different topics in one hour of one class session (the other hour was spent on an in-class quiz).

The thing is, subs really need to stick to the syllabus and provided lesson plan. My job was as much to provide stability as it was to reach the students. This was really not the moment to radically change the content delivery or otherwise deviate far from normal.

But putting everyone to sleep while I droned on wasn’t going to be particularly helpful, either.

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So here’s what I did:

  1. Set expectations.
    I always put an agenda on the board and cross out what we’ve finished. When we got to this last chunk of the class, I explained that we would do a PowerPoint and then practice it… then another PowerPoint with a practice activity. So we had a lot to do in the last hour of class, and we all knew it.
  2. Kept it short.
    Neither was one of those egregiously long PowerPoints, thank goodness. I did make an effort to keep it snappy without rushing.
  3. Kept it interactive.
    I used Think/Pair/Shares and asked for lots of responses during the presentations. The first one was clearly designed with an interactive class experience in mind, so this was easy for me. The second one was more of an information-dump and it was more of a challenge to keep it from being a soliloquy.
  4. Used the whiteboard.
    I wrote down my oral instructions (i.e. “think of two more examples with your partner”). This saved a lot of time and kept people focused. I also used the board to highlight or explain key points from the slides, e.g. the most important signal word, examples of prefixes, etc.
  5. Built in change.
    The plan was that after each PowerPoint, I’d immediately have students move their seats to practice the material in the context of the textbook article they’d read for homework. This was not going to be a solid hour of PowerPoint!
  6. Went meta.
    My assistant teacher knows this course extremely well, and told me that the students’ final project involves making a PowerPoint. She suggested that I point out good and bad attributes of the PowerPoints I was using today. I pointed out some, particularly on slides that were too wordy.
  7. Split into smaller groups.
    Though I presented to the whole class due to prep, space, and tech restraints, I split them up as soon as I could. I numbered them off (1, 2, 1, 2) so that the assistant teacher and I could explain the practice activity to the smaller groups instead of to the whole class. Those small groups then split into pairs and triads to carry out the activity.

I don’t want to come across like I think I taught the perfect lesson. I felt like I was spinning too many plates to be fully present with the class. Despite my PowerPoint vigilance, I did lapse into teacher talk at least once. I also gave my assistant teacher some vague directions and blanked on a couple ways I could have helped several students with general academic issues. Nothing disastrous, but enough that I couldn’t let this post be only about how focused and awesome I am.

That said, I did manage to focus on making the most of the PowerPoints, and I think it made a difference. In the all-class presentations, the students were engaged and answering questions, not passively reading slides. And the practice time made use of small and tiny group interactions to make the content more meaningful and help people stay alert at the end of a night class. I’m really glad it was in the forefront of my mind.

Photo CreditMelissa on Flickr

You’re reading PowerPointing Better, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.

Formative Assessment in Action

I’m still subbing for an advanced academic reading course and really enjoying it. I still don’t love following someone else’s lesson plan or having only one class session in mind while I teach, but it’s worth it to be back in the classroom for a bit.

They’re reading the novel A Man Called Ove, and there was a quiz ready on Canvas for the students to take last week. It was just four short-answer questions that would quickly show if anyone hadn’t done the reading.

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I warned them about it first session last week, and then second session I handed it out and gave them about 15 minutes to complete it. I intended to quick grade them as they were handed in.

That “quick grade them” plan went out the window almost immediately when I made several discoveries:

  1. Some students were flagrantly borrowing their neighbors’ work. I did the usual to get them to stop, including rather ostentatiously watching them take the quiz and not doing anything else. Is it just me, or is a short-answer quiz really not the ideal format for the stealthy copying of answers?
  2. There were many “gray area” answers, which are very subjective to grade. I didn’t think that as a substitute it was my place to make judgment calls about the specifics of scoring.
  3. There were enough wrong incomplete answers, and enough people sneaking answers from the folks next to them, that it was clear that many students did not have stellar comprehension of these 23 pages.

So instead of grading, I reigned in and closely monitored the “quiz by committee” proponents while planning in my head how to adjust the lesson plan. I changed it to address the evident confusion about what happened in the novel’s first three chapters.

A pretty classic case of formative assessment providing feedback that allows the lesson to meet the students where they actually are.

 

Photo Credit: mer chau on Flickr

You’re reading Formative Assessment in Action, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.