Which 5 Weeks?

A major downfall of my 5WC has been that it ignored the rhythm of my life.  I started it without regard to the monthly visits I have with my long-distance boyfriend.  This was silly of me.  I basically set myself up to fail.

The great news for me is that he’ll be visiting in just a couple of days.  The good news for my self-directed professional development is that I’m looking to change the 5WC structure starting when he goes back home.

So, I’ll be back late next week with some proposed changes.

Quick Report

Happy Snail by davey-boy on Flickr
Happy Snail by davey-boy on Flickr

Although I’ve been slacking with the blogging, I wanted to let you know that I’m still inching along with the 5WC about teaching.

I had an “interview” with one of my volunteers who’s an experienced adult ESL teacher.  It ended up going much differently than I’d expected.  We both teach Advanced at my center, so we ended up talking a lot about that class specifically.  It was fantastically helpful, I think for both of us, and I think it will result in some positive changes that will benefit our students.

I was surprised that I was able to give back during our chat.  She asked more about the 5WC with the idea of bringing it to a group she’s involved in.  I was also able to give her helpful tidbits about Macs and social media.

So I’m really glad the 5WC spurred me to actually take the time to talk to people instead of just saying, “yep, that’d be a good idea someday.”  The 5WC made “someday” become a “today.”

I have to admit, I’m not doing so hot with my reading.  I also have no idea where I’m at in the five weeks.

But for now I’m still going (at a snail’s pace, but still going!) and finding that every effort I’ve put in has been rewarded far more than I’d expected.

Spring Break!

Airplane Wing by Zoagli on Flickr
Airplane Wing by Zoagli on Flickr

Spring Break snuck up on me.  As a result, it’s looking like radio silence from me and my blog till Monday, March 23rd. I’d been hoping to not to disappear for over a week, but some things came up and I’m not prepared to keep talking.

The fact is that the 5WC and blogging about it are medium-priorities for me.  I’m enjoying it and learning from it, but family, work, and my need to sleep are higher priorities.  It’s refreshing to not have to pretend otherwise.

I’ll be packing my physically smallest 5WC book to (theoretically) read en route, and I’m still hoping to watch some Cleese/Child demonstrative videos during the trip… and I’ll let you know how it went a week from Monday!

Practice and the 5WC

Memorial Day Practice by Sister72 on Flickr
Memorial Day Practice by Sister72 on Flickr

Mary Jane left a comment that I didn’t have time to properly reply to this morning.  I don’t really feel I have the brainpower to properly reply right now either, but I should at least try.

Basically, she encouraged me to not forget about actually practicing what I learned from Renner.  And, despite all my reading about experiential learning, I’m wondering whether practicing things I’ve learned fits into this project.

It all comes down to this:

  • I wrote learning objectives while I was unlearned (they focus on gaining a broader awareness of the field).
  • MJ’s advice is in line with the reading I’ve done so far, but would divert me from my stated objectives (by pursuing more depth than I’d planned to).
  • I still like my objectives, but I’m only marginally more learned than when I wrote them.

My current compromise:

I think that right now, or rather tomorrow, I can go back through what I learned from Renner and select a few promising tidbits that might be particularly useful to me in the near future.  I’m looking to go beyond activity ideas to other points I might work with less directly.  It would start a short-list for what to put into practice when the opportune moment arrives.  Maybe that moment will be this Thursday, or maybe not for a month or two.  Either way, I’ll be ready.

Future considerations:

I would like to build intentional practice into future 5WCs, and I think it would be well-suited to a relatively narrow topic.

I’d also like to learn more from books and other teachers before deciding what to subject my students to.

Also, after a slightly strange conversation with a long-time business manager today, I realized that I do act upon very clear  priorities: students first; volunteers second; administration/accountability/curriculum third; everything else if I have time.  5WCs would end up being in the “everything else” category at work because they’re not directly and immediately focused on the students.  I’d have to be strategic about when I decided to implement a practice-based 5WC or else it would just be another good idea I didn’t have time for.

Other ideas for what to do are welcome!  I won’t necessarily act upon them, but I would enjoy the chance to consider them.

Done with Renner – Now What?

I have to say, I’m happy have finished Renner.  Knowing that I’ve kept up with my project and that I have solid notes to use just makes me feel good.  A minor accomplishment, but I’ll take it.

I’m also liking that the blog holds me accountable to my 5WC.  Most of my readers seem to be people I know (my grandma is one of them!), and they comment on the blog and in person.  I also can’t just passively skim and call it done – I’m posting my notes for all to read, and they’re staying posted and public for a good long while.  Who knows what other readers will happen along?  I have to follow through, and I have to follow through well.   This is good for me.

Next up is to figure out where I am and what’s up next.

First let’s figure out where I am.  I’ve been vague about the dates up till now to give myself wiggle-room, but it’s now time to nail it down.  I’ll call my official start date the date of my first 5WC post: Tuesday, February 24th, 2009.  I’d been thinking on it before then, but I think the general start-up time can be considered outside the course itself.  That puts me at slightly over week and a half in right now.  I have about three and a half weeks left.

Something to consider: Spring Break.  I’m going on a ten-day trip to the East Coast starting this Friday, and I’m not sure how it and this project are going to function together.  I could mimic school and just be on break, with maybe one reading assignment?  Or just totally take a break.  Or take no break whatsoever and hold myself to the same standard of a post a day by hook or by crook.  If I choose a break or partial break, how will this affect my five-week timeframe?  Opinions are welcome, and I’ll let you know what I decide.

Something else to consider: I’ve set up one interview with an experienced teacher for the middle of this coming week, and another teacher has agreed to talk to me at some point but we haven’t hammered out the details yet.  Preparing for them, talking with them, and writing up what we talk about is going to take time, so I need to not go crazy with the reading list.

Now, to the syllabus.  Time to organize and set priorities for the end of this week and at least part of the next..

“The Art of Teaching Adults” – Overall

The Art of Teaching Adults from Worldcat.org
The Art of Teaching Adults from Worldcat.org

I spent about a week going through “The Art of Teaching Adults” by Peter Renner.

I picked it up because it was available at my local library and because the title was pretty spot-on with what I was looking for.  I was expecting a nice overview of the field, and I pretty much got one.  Renner defines “the field” a little differently than I do – he doesn’t relate anything specifically to English Language Learners, or even to remedial education in general, but his discussion was still useful to me.

As Jen mentions in two comments, Renner seems to go back and forth between “educational miopia” and “practical and helpful ideas.”  (Jen, I’m not 100% sure I know what you mean by ‘educational myopia’, but I’m about to go off on my own interpretation.  Feel free to hit the comments to add your two cents as it was intended.) I see him as myopic in two ways – in that he doesn’t really seem to say anything new or see beyond his time, and in that he’s looking closely to dissect but not necessarily at the big picture.  These limitations worked pretty well for me – I needed some reflection of the time and some small bites of methods and techniques. And Renner does a great job of citing some big-picture people his work is derived from.

RI - Newport: The Breakers Gateway by wallyg on Flickr
RI - Newport: The Breakers Gateway by wallyg on Flickr

In fact, I’d say that one of the chief values of this book for me was that it was a gateway. Renner introduced me to other authors’ work, noted his discussion pretty thoroughly, and I’ve been able to identify and include works on my syllabus that I want to peruse.  I’m considering making note of his whole bibliography for future reference – we’ll see.

You should know that I’m going to have frustrations with pretty much any book I read.  I’m picky.  One of my chief frustrations with this book was when I felt his content to page-space ratio was page-space-heavy.  At times I also found myself wondering about his editor – why was Renner allowed to write fluff (i.e. his discussion of Kolb’s learning style inventory), include “classic concepts” where they made no sense (i.e. an overview of underlying assumptions of adult education at the end of a chapter focused on overhead projector how-tos), and focus on silly content (i.e. when to throw out markers) while glossing over key content (i.e. how to plan an effective lesson)?  Aren’t editors there to help authors avoid these kinds of things?

Despite some frustrating moments, this book was valuable to me for its introduction to the field, its bibliography, and its concrete ideas for running an adult class.

I Apparently Can’t Spell

Oops by estherase on Flickr
Oops by estherase on Flickr

I’m pretty embarrassed because I just caught three spelling errors in my last post.  These ones weren’t even like mixing up “cite” and “site” – they were just flat out wrong.  And I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more I didn’t catch.

I’ve corrected the errors I found, but I know the corrections won’t show up on people’s RSS feeds or emails.  Sorry about that.  I do re-read and edit, just probably too soon after I finish writing.  I’ve definitely got it earmarked for improvement.

“The Art of Teaching Adults” – Chapters 25-27

The last three chapters of the book!

Overhead Projector by Tango McEffrie on Flickr
Overhead Projector by Tango McEffrie on Flickr


Projecting Overhead: What Renner says about using overheads is largely transferable to quality digital slides.  In six points he manages to say that simple is best and to focus on readability.  He then lists a bunch of Dos and Don’ts, which emphasize the value of controlling the learners’ attention by only revealing a bit of information at once, not leaving old slides on the screen, leaving lights on to allow for note-taking, and minimizing distractions such as waving your arms.  He also emphasizes the importance of setting up the room so that everyone can see and spends a page listing diagrams.

He includes a “classic concept” at the end of this chapter that to me seems entirely incongruous but important: Knowles’s assumptions of adult learners:

  • adults are motivated by what they feel they need to know;
  • adults are more life-centered than subject-centered;
  • adults have many experiences, and these should be analyzed in their education;
  • adults want to engage in self-directed learning.

Seems a little ironic after a chapter of “how to transmit knowledge to learners via a one-way presentation.”  Or maybe the juxtaposition was intentional?

Flipping Charts: Renner encourages posting flip-charts as records of what was discussed, but only inasmuch as they help the class focus.  He spends four paragraphs talking about different qualities of paper and how to tear it, even describing and recommending the “matador tear.”  This struck me as a little odd, or a little desperate to fill space.  He recommends multiple easels or a blank wall, and specifically mentions that it’s nice to have a separate place for brainstorms and side-lists that aren’t the main focus.

Tools by Adactio on Flickr
Tools by Adactio on Flickr

He suggests bringing a screwdriver and pliers with you to presentations to remove pictures and nails from walls so you can hang flipchart paper.  I cannot even imagine feeling comfortable un-decorating a meeting space that’s not my own.

He diagrams how to set up a row of flip-chart paper along the wall with already-torn tape in a neat line above it for writing and posting ease.  He also diagrams how to tape the caps of four markers together, resulting in a “handy four-color dispenser,” which I thought was kinda clever.  Then he crosses the line into micromanaging by telling you when to cap and put down your pens, and goes so far as to recommend throwing out dry markers immediately.  I mean, sheesh.

His suggestion to use colors in such a way that learners can see them and to help organize text is also a bit obvious.  He encourages abbreviation and posting an abbreviation key, which I agree with but there’s no mention of potential difficulties for English Language Learners.  Encouraging presenters to remember to face the learners and to observe the sheets from a learner’s point of view were helpful pointers.

All in all, perhaps needlessly detailed.

Showing Films: Renner warns that old videos are more humorous than helpful, that they’re passive unidirectional tools, and that they have to have a purpose that relates to the topic.  He spends a page and a half emphasizing planning ahead and previewing material.  Then he reminds us to prepare the learners – give the film some context and tell the learners where you’ll be going with it, and then go somewhere with it both short-term and long-term.

He lists eight ways to go somewhere with films, including Q&A sessions, pitting the film against an article with a different viewpoint and comparing them, and creating “viewing teams” that address questions, clarity, disagreements, agreements, and application.  I can actually use those ideas.  Way to end strong, Renner!

My Overall Impressions

In writing notes on that second chapter, I kind of couldn’t believe he was still going.  I’m still astounded that he spent the same amount of space discussing paper and markers how-to than he did when discussing how to properly prepare for, screen, and follow up with an educational film.

I was also surprised that there was no wrap-up to the book.  It’s not one that’s necessarily intended to be read cover to cover, and each chapter was separate, but in a work that emphasizes discussion and debriefing, it was an abrupt ending.

More about the book overall in the next post.

“The Art of Teaching Adults” – Chapters 21-24

Octopus Journal by Mollycakes on Flickr
Octopus Journal by Mollycakes on Flickr

Notes and Commentary Together

Writing in Journals: It takes Renner six pages to convey about a half-page worth of information.  He suggests providing some class time for writing and sharing, providing some guiding questions, and periodically reading the journals as a teacher.  He provided case studies to give examples of how journals can be used.  A list would have sufficed.  Six pages.

Assessing the Course: These six pages were more justifiable, as the examples of different types of evaluation (i.e. first-day, mid-course, self-evaluation, daily, post-activity) actually deepened his initial explanation.  All examples were noticeably qualitative.  Some of the example questions felt obnoxiously leading (i.e. “How did you build group spirit?” and “What could you do to increase productivity?”), but just seeing all the different pieces of a course that can be evaluated was helpful.

Giving and Receiving Feedback: Renner’s most helpful suggested guidelines for giving feedback are to focus on observable behavior, to give feedback as soon as possible after the event, and to not give too much at once.  His guidelines for receiving it are to actually listen, to not worry about responding right then and there, to be sure you understand, and to stop the giver of feedback when they’re giving too much of it.  Seems pretty clear and reasonable.

Whats More Stupid: the Question or the Answer? by Ewan McIntosh on Flickr
What's More Stupid: the Question or the Answer? by Ewan McIntosh on Flickr

Designing Tests and Quizzes: Renner busts out two adult learning principles that I’m not remembering from earlier chapters:

  1. when learners know what they’re going to learn, they’ll learn better
  2. immediate and long-term reinforcement also helps

He relates this specifically to tests, but they seem like basic principles that could have been unifying themes in the book.

His test-writing tips can basically be summed up as: “Don’t be an idiot.”  I do appreciate his mentioning that true-false questions are set up to penalize students who can come up with exceptions to even seemingly-obvious statements.  True-false is pretty much the bane of my test-taking existence.  I also appreciate his little margin quotes of bizarre test questions.  I guess I’ll close with my favorite:

Write not more than two lines on The Career of Napoleon Buonaparte, or The Acquisition of our Indian Empire, or The Prime Ministers of England.

N.B. Do not on any account attempt to write on both sides of the paper at once.

“The Art of Teaching Adults” – Chapters 16-20


These chapters are around the same length as the last five – quite short and focused on recommended activities.  I’m a little surprised he didn’t group them together into a unit or somesuch to differentiate them from chapters more focused on theory or general practice, but I can hardly complain about organization.

Inspiring Participation – Renner highlights two activities: Speedy Memo and Spend-a-Penny.  Both activities give everyone a venue to communicate, and both are extremely low-prep.  I’ll summarize basically:

  • Balancing Coins in Coroico by JayTKendall on Flickr
    Balancing Coins in Coroico by JayTKendall on Flickr

    Speedy Memo

    • Ask a question, particularly to get anonymous but quick feedback or opinions
    • Request very short responses – one or two words
    • Learners write their response on a small piece of paper and pass it to the front
    • Answers are mixed up and read out loud
  • Spend-a-Penny
    • Each learner gets three coins (or tokens, or whatevers) to “spend”
    • “Spending” is answering questions or commenting in class.
    • When a learner spends a coin, they put it in front of them.
    • When all three are in front of them, their turns for the session are over.
    • The goal is for all learners to spend their coins during the activity/class session.

Studying Cases – Renner encourages teachers to write case studies for students to work with.  These stories can help learners focus on lower-level content such as “what happened?” and higher-level problem solving.  He advises that you write like it’s a story, using real names and at least some dialogue.  He also advises against flashbacks – just tell the story chronologically.

Inviting Experts – Renner points out that this can benefit classes and presenters with limited experience.  He gets into the nitty-gritty of finding and booking the expert.  It’s obvious, but prepare the students for the speaker.  He also proposes student debates in lieu of an outside expert.

Learning Outside the Classroom – Yes, fieldtrips are good.  A really great point is that adults don’t need chaperones – you can send them out into the world to do, for example, four hours of “work” in a related field.  Such a thing wouldn’t be possible with a whole classroom’s worth of students all at once.  They still need support, including clear instructions, an explanitory letter, and some suggested contacts, and class time should be taken to let learners share experiences.

Individualizing Assignments – This follows logically from the last chapter’s discussion of individual field trips.  It talks about setting up independent projects, the purpose being to develop self-education skills.  He says: define topics, provide guidance, set completion date and consequences for lateness, figure out what the end product will be and how to collect it, and make sure they learned accurate information on their own.

Renner ties this to Lewin’s experiential learning model, which is:

  1. have an experience
  2. note the results
  3. build a general theory around this – “if I do this, this will happen.”

I’m confused as to why this was at the end of this chapter instead of the previous one.

My Overall Impressions

Though I enjoy the short and meaty chapters, I felt that a two-pager on how to run a competent independent project was kind of sloppy.  These could go horribly awry – I need more guidance.  I have a lot of “how” questions, I think tied to the question “in what context?”  In a classroom of even 15 students, I need some more details on how exactly to manage 15 disparate projects effectively.  Some common pitfalls to avoid would have been nice too.

Elements of Style (Illustrated) from Amazon.com
Elements of Style (Illustrated) from Amazon.com

I definitely appreciated the activities that give all students room to participate.  One of my students is specifically in my class to improve his conversation, and he rarely speaks.  I asked him about this after class one day, and he said he doesn’t speak up because he’s giving the other students a chance to speak – he doesn’t want to be rude.  Well, I found I couldn’t argue with that.  These activities foster communication differently than “shout-it-out” answer time and than the ever-tiresome round-robin.

I also love that Renner encourages teachers to write case studies.  Published readers are handy, but often pretty sterile reading.  Why use something canned and not quite right if you can do it better yourself?  His tips for writing quality pieces were well-taken.  I would add that we should all read and take to heart The Elements of Style.