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[I have a collection of unpublished drafts in this blog, and I thought I’d publish some from time to time in a Throwback Draft series.]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

Duolingo and Teaching – Part 2

12791947485_5ee1562a3dIn Part 1, I looked back at my own history of language learning and then my current experience using Duolingo.

In this post, I’ll be looking at how, based on these experiences, I see language teaching and great free tech like Duolingo as intersecting and what questions I have about it.

Possible Roles of Duolingo-like Tech in Classrooms

none – teachers pretend that tech like Duolingo doesn’t exist and just do what they’ve always done how they’ve always done it.

unofficial supplement – students use the tech on the side, even as their teachers ignore it.

supplement – teachers intentionally use Duolingo as a separate supplement for traditional class. Some class time might be devoted to using it, or it might be homework.

guide – teachers change their instruction based on Duolingo (or whatever tech). The class becomes a supplement to the tech.

replacement – teachers are replaced by educational technology because the tech is cheaper, more time efficient for each student, easier to collect data on, and is possibly more effective.

Thoughts on the Guide Role

I’m all about data-driven decision making, including decisions about instruction. Duolingo certainly has a lot of data and it might become reasonable for it to influence our instruction, or even place our instruction in a more supplemental role.

That said, I see two clashes between formal education and Duolingo (or similar tech) that I think will hamper the app from taking on this leadership role.

First, Duolingo is set up to reach individuals. By contrast, formal education is set up to reach groups of students separated by “level.” Grouping students is always problematic, but we educate huge numbers of people this way for convenience. In my opinion, it’s going to be hard for the hyper-individualized instruction of Duolingo to carry over into formal education without a major structural shift in education. I’m not opposed to such a shift – I just know that education is slow to change.

Second, Duolingo’s pedagogy relies on grammar translation (so lots of L1 use) and the audiolingual method to teach through repetition what “sounds right.” By contrast, most classes for adults I’ve been involved with emphasize direct instruction – learning the language and learning about the language. I don’t think either philosophy is perfect. I do think that a change away from direct instruction would be a major shift and would be an uphill battle for Duolingo to face, even armed with a lot of data.

These two clashes are both pretty major. I don’t think it would be smooth sailing for the two different systems to play nicely together in this way.

Agaist the Replacement Role

I’m an ESL teacher, so obviously I have a vested interest in not being replaced by a free app.

That said, I also had eight semesters of very pricey Russian lessons in college that really didn’t reach me effectively. Yes, I’m largely to blame – I could have tried harder. But as a teacher, I try to meet students where they’re at, and I think my instructors also could have tried harder.

The point is, I hope that my own disappointment in traditional language lessons helps me be open to teaching language better, even if that means stepping aside entirely.

Before I’m willing to cede my role to Duolingo (or whatever other free app crops up next), I think it ought to address some of its shortcomings:

  1. Its audio is really limited. I love the way it’s integrated into just about every question, but the computer voice is always the same, sometimes not clear, always disembodied, and only as good as my speakers.
  2. Its error correction is quite good but not as reliable as a knowledgeable teacher’s. It also doesn’t seem to take into account what is an error of understanding and what is an error of accidentally clicking the wrong button. And its error correction does not seem to immediately cause similar questions to pop up to practice the shaky skill.
  3. It cannot help me with my pronunciation. This is one area where human teachers are still far, far superior.
  4. The impersonal nature of it is great at the beginning to avoid embarrassment. But the lack of interpersonal communication quickly becomes a liability. I see that they’re piloting automated “chats” in French, and that’s a good step. But no computer is going to glare at me when I accidentally use the informal “you” instead of the formal “you.” That was a mistake I only made once in Russia.
  5. Sometimes an explanation is needed, and Duolingo does not provide.
  6. Duolingo excels at providing a sentence’s worth of context for grammar and vocabulary. So far Duolingo has not done more than this, but connected text and thoughts are a crucial part of any language. Perhaps I’m just not far enough along, though?


img_2778Some Questions

Lastly, I wanted to pose a few questions I’ve been thinking about as I continue to teach in a traditional system and continue to use Duolingo for myself.

  • How and why is Duolingo free? It’s a good program with a nice, well-designed interface. It seems to be working for me, at least in the beginner/intermediate levels, so I bet it’s working well for many other people. The quality is good. Perhaps even great. So I don’t understand why it’s free.I truly don’t know the answer. Three thoughts though:

    1) Crowdsourcing. I looked at the Duolingo incubator and it looks like there’s a process of crowd-sourcing new language modules and then reviewing them. Is that where all of the levels and languages come from? Does this drastically cut costs and allow it to be free?

    2) In-app purchases. I broke my streak (sad!) and it offered to un-break it for me for a mere $5. “This helps us keep education free.” Really?

    3) Data. I assume that it uses algorithms to look at my answers and other taps and use that info to determine which questions should come next, which units I should review next, etc. It is collecting similar data about an incredible number of other language learners. If I were this company, I would aggregate and examine and use this data. Is it financially free because it wants our data? If so, for what purpose?

  • Who is Duolingo? And why should we (or shouldn’t we) let it influence our learning and our pedagogy? What are their motives, and what is their long-term game?
  • Why does it teach the way it does? It is essentially collecting data that I assume supports the use of grammar translation and audiolingual methods of teaching. Why did it choose those two? Does/did it run other versions that use (and thus measure the effectiveness of) different methods? This also ties back to wondering what purpose they will put their collected data to, and who they are to begin with.
  • Is it reasonable for formal education to rely on free apps? Duolingo is a relatively new app that is currently free but has a short track record. Will Duolingo still exist in two years? Will it be much the same? Will it still be free? If we were relying on it and then it disappeared or abruptly transformed, what would we do?

I think that’s a pretty complete summary of what I’ve been pondering when it comes to Duolingo and teaching, at least for now.

I’m really interested to see what they do next, and how educators embrace or ignore them over the coming months and years.

And I’m really excited to continue with my Russian exercises and see how I do.


Photo CreditBem photography: 0983194978 on Flickr

You’re reading Duolingo and Teaching – Part 2, originally posted at

Sidekick Manifesto for Teachers

I recently happened upon the Sidekick Manifesto, authored by Shawn Humphrey. I read it in the context of a thoughtful international development blog and was struck at how well it applies to teaching, not just poverty and development issues (though of course there’s overlap there).

The manifesto says that we must stop seeing ourselves as heroes and embrace the role of sidekick. It calls for us to “ride in the side car” and “hang up our capes.” My personal favorite is when it declares we must “welcome [our] sidekick slaps.” Do check out the whole infographic.

What if we saw ourselves as the class’s sidekick? What would that do to teacher talk, and even the syllabus?

What if our students had the capes (and knew it)?

You’re reading Sidekick Manifesto for Teachers, originally posted at

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!

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: Update and Ponderance

I’m finding it difficult to maintain the homework blog, my other commitments, and this blog too!  Sorry!

The class has undergone some changes since I last surfaced.  One is that our room changed.  Instead of having a medium-sized room with a wall of windows, we have a smallish room with no windows and not enough electric lights.  I like to think of it as The Cave, but it’s not horrible, just a small step backward.  Another change is in our schedule.  We’d been having computer time daily, but the class decided to have longer computer sessions twice a week instead.  So far it’s working out well!

Class size has been hovering in the high teens, except that Monday we had 21, which is a lot for The Cave. 

One issue that’s thus far been a non-issue is our textbook.  It’s actually quite good, but it’s geared for English as a Foreign Language, not English as a Second Language (EFL, not ESL).  The difference is that EFL is for people who are in their own, non-English-speaking countries, learning English in classes.  ESL is for people who are in English-speaking countries, learning English both in class and in their life through necessity. 

One general difference between the two groups is often (but not always) income.  Think about it: who has more plentiful opportunities to earn good money, someone who speaks the dominant language of the country he/she’s in, or someone who is just learning to do so?  In other words, ESL students are (generally) less well-off than EFL students.

This in turn impacts the units present in textbooks.  Right now we’re in a unit about vacations.  This is soon to be followed by a unit on transportation (plane, ship, train, rental car, limo) followed by a unit on shopping.  My students are not all living in poverty by any means.  Many of them clearly have some disposable income.  But many of them simply do not have the means to choose between an African safari and a cruise in their normal, everyday lives.  I feel a little awkward harping on spending (lots of) money for three units in a row.  It seems particularly ironic since there’s a distinct absence of a work-related unit.

Now thank goodness my program cheerfully gives us the freedom to modify and to write our own unit tests.  In this way, I have some flexibility regarding what to focus on within the units.  At risk of looking a gift horse in the mouth, I can’t help but notice that the responsibility is falling on me to donate (a lot of) my time to fix the textbook.  This is not a case of my program being oblivious.  It’s a case of scarcity and all of us doing our very best with what we have.  I think we do a great job.

But why is this level of scarcity acceptable to our students, our government, and our society?

I’m happy to go along with it out of respect to my students and my employers.  I’m improving my own skills in the process.  Looking at a macro level, though, I worry that all of us doing exactly what I’m doing are in a way perpetuating the scarcity.

Thoughts on High School Blog Scuttlebutt

I have exactly 15 minutes to write this post, so forgive the un-editedness of it.

I saw on’s junk news headlines that a high school teacher got in trouble for her anonymous blog (now taken down, but the cache is still available), in which she discussed aspects of her life including but not limited to her frustration with lazy, grade-grubbing students.

I have many related thoughts:

  1. One reason I really enjoy working with adults is the maturity they bring to their education.
  2. One reason I really enjoy teaching English to adults in the USA is because nobody tells me that I have to create motivation in others.  It’s a necessity, and all “shoulds” aside, we all know it well help them and their families succeed.
  3. I don’t feel you can actually create motivation in a motivational vacuum.  It can be magnified, but something has to be there first.
  4. High school is plagued with its bizarre social structures, out-dated curriculum, and the vestigial idea that completing it is some sort of accomplishment: thus the lack of motivation.
  5. High school is meaningless (see above) except inasmuch as it gets you into college: thus the grade-grubbing.
  6. What do we think we’re going to produce in that kind of an environment?  Students who appear lazy except when it’s time to argue about grades, and teachers who are ticked off a lot.
  7. Free speech.

That is all for now.