Useful Tech:

I’m one of those teachers who’s a bit in-between on using technology in the classroom.

On one hand, I’m happy to learn new tech and I think that it’s important to not try to divide students of any age from the technology of the era. In fact, part of our job may indeed be to actively connect students with modern tech, even when that is not an item on the syllabus.

On the other hand, I’ve found that tech can be unreliable and underfunded. Also, my students’ experience with it and access to it are inconsistent. As a result, using it in class can quickly turn into an implementation nightmare.

So when I mention that is super useful, I also mean that it’s pretty usable.

It’s a free vocabulary drilling website/app. It works well on computers and smartphones.

Students don’t have to have an account to use it. They can still find and use your vocabulary sets.

You can type in the information, or your students can, or you can make use of other peoples’ sets. When students click on a vocabulary word, the computer’s voice pronounces it.

Here’s a desktop screenshot of a set I used in a Listening and Speaking EAP course a couple years ago.













As you can see, the program has different ways to test yourself (Flashcards, Learn, Spell, Test), including a couple of simple games (Match and Gravity).

If you want to invest a bit of time into getting everyone set up with an account and added to one of your classes on Quizlet, it would probably be worth it. It’s not super difficult. Many of my students like the convenience of studying on their phone. It’s also handy if you want students to use it for a few minutes during class.

It has other features that come with paid accounts. I’m not going into those features here because none of my schools provides us with paid accounts.

And I’ll be honest, it irks me that Quizlet’s business model seems to be really focused on getting individual teachers to pay out of pocket for teacher-centric services (and refer their networks to do so too?). So I’m here to advocate using what they kindly offer for free, and challenging the widely accepted practice of teachers paying for so many of their own school supplies and materials.

What useful, usable tech would you recommend?


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Journal: Moving to Fluency Practice

Today I had a total of 23 students attend class, though we were a class of 20 as class ended at noon.

One interesting challenge that’s come up is that my enrollment cap is thirty, but there are only 21 computers in a computer lab.  So far I’ve never had more than 21 students at computer time…

Anyway, we were very grammar-heavy in yesterday’s class, focusing in on the structural similarities and differences in using “can” and “have to.”  I really wanted to get beyond the form, meaning, and even pronunciation fo  of the words and into usage.  To do this, I needed to design a fluency activity.  This means I had to set the stage, step aside, and let them use the language. 

To set the stage, they needed a quick vocabulary review of different activities.  I tend to struggle with vocabulary, but I was pleased with how this one turned out.  By the end of this activity, they had gotten up out of their seats, reviewed the vocabulary, demonstrated some level of understanding by putting it on a spectrum, and put a huge word bank on the wall to prepare for the upcoming writing activity.

Here’s what we did:

  1. At home, I wrote 22 activities on 22 notecards in dark ink.
  2. I wrote on the board, “Shh!  Do not read the cards out loud!”  I drew a picture of a card and wrote “secret” on it.  I explained verbally too.
  3. I asked a student in the front to tape a card to my back.  Naturally, someone read it out loud.  🙂  We repeated the directions and laughed.  I demonstrated that I could not see it, but everyone else could.
  4. I taped a card to each student’s back.
  5. First, students walked around silently, reading each other’s backs.  I demonstrated first, and gave them 5 minutes.
  6. Second, each student had to figure out what was on his/her back, still with no talking.  I demonstrated the charades game and told them they had to act.  I gave them about 7 minutes.
  7. After they’d figured out their cards, I had them tape them to the top of the blackboard, organized from great exercise through no exercise (for example, play basketball and talk on the phone were on opposite ends of the board). 

I was very happy that it was quick, interesting, and a nice transition piece.

The writing activity was to write three invitations using “can.”  For example, Can you play golf on Saturday morning? 

We then used these invitations to begin the part of lessons that tends to make me nervous: fluency practice.  For fluency practice, the teacher sets the stage and then backs away to let the students actually use their English.

Students paired off.  Using their written work either as a script or as inspiration, they invited each other to do things.  The invitee made up an excuse using “have to” (i.e.  Sorry, I have to teach class then.).  Then we changed the rules so that the invitee had to accept (i.e. yes, sure, good idea). 

Tomorrow, we’ll do a small amount of accuracy practice, probably sentence scrambles.  We’ll spend much more time making calendars and having some real conversations about them with even less of a script than we had today.  We’ll see what happens!

Journal: Campus Email

It was a good class.  There were 18 students, even though it was a freezing cold (for Maryland) Monday!  We did lots of varied practice around the same grammar point, including writing, talking, and filling in blanks.  I was pleased with my planning and execution, and I feel good about my direction for the rest of the week.

I’ve had some ongoing frustrations with my campus email, but today I had a real problem: I got a gmail note from one of my colleagues that her messages to my work email were bouncing back.  I cleared out the few offending medium-large (they were by no means huge) messages that I’d received late last week and into the weekend.  Since gmail doesn’t have that kind of a bounce-back problem, I decided I’d quick set up email forwarding to run my campus mail through gmail instead.  The system said to call tech support to do so.  When I called tech support, they said it was impossible.

I don’t believe that forwarding email is actually impossible, so I’m spending today’s post-class time working around the restrictive email system (I’ve got several ideas for at least partial solutions, and am testing one right now).  I normally use this time for my lesson reflection, planning, and prep.  I guess all of that will have to come later on in the evening sometime.

When I have prohibitively dull tools, I have to stop my real work to sharpen them.

Proof and Motivation

I believe in being nice to people and in helping out when I can. I believe it’s the right thing to do, and I also believe that it pays off in the end so it’s stupid not to.

My philosophical debate of the day is this: does the “paying off in the end” bit cheapen or confirm the “right thing to do” bit?  Can it be logical and good at the same time?

Proof, by Kodama on Flickr
Proof, by Kodama on Flickr

This came to mind because twice in the past couple of weeks, one of my advanced students, C, asked for help sending videos of her little daughter out to family in Mexico, and also with getting her hand-me-down laptop to join the library’s wireless network.

To me, these are life skills, most especially when your family lives far away.  Limited access is a problem, and when I had the chance to address it for even one person, I couldn’t not.  So I had her come in during the afternoon lull and spent maybe an hour and a half total helping her out.

Then Wednesday evening, I had an unprecedented number of new students enrolling, including four men who spoke Spanish but little English. C was there because one of those men was her brother – she brought him in. She helped him understand the application and the mechanics of his test, and when he was good to go, C also helped me with the three other Spanish-speaking students.

So on one hand, what goes around comes around, and it’s amazing to be part of a cycle of such positivity.

On the other hand, I have this very concrete proof that going the extra mile for students yields more students and more helpers.  Does this proof suck any “good” there might have been out of my desire to help my students?

I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t know where my motivation to serve my students ends and my motivation to serve myself begins.

At least they’re aligned?

Blog Action Day: Poverty

Blog Action Day seemed like as good a way as any to get back into blogging after my random, unexplained hiatus.

The idea is for everyone to discuss poverty to raise awareness and cause some action.

I’ve skimmed a couple of other posts in my RSS feed, and they were very “us” and “them.”  Given the resources you need to be involved with blogging and other interactive social media, I’d be very surprised if the majority of voices raised today were saying “we.”  Still, discussion and awareness are good things.  Let’s just be aware of whose voices we’re hearing and not hearing.

So here are my rhetorical questions:

  • Are you living in poverty?  I’m not asking if you can afford that motor boat you’ve always wanted.  I’m asking about poverty.
  • Do you know anybody living in poverty?  I’m not asking if you pass them on the street.  I’m asking if you know them.

My guess is that most (not all) answers to both of those questions are “no.”

I think there’s a divide.  I think it’s sad and dangerous.  I think a lot of people agree with me.  I’m not going to get into it here because it’s not my main point.

My main point is that the divide doesn’t have to be there.  Difference in resources doesn’t have to translate to parallel lives lived entirely separately.

  • What are you doing to build relationships across the poverty line?
  • What are you teaching your children about poverty, equality, and humanity?

Poverty in itself is unfair and tragic and theoretically avoidable.  We should end it.  But until that day comes, let’s not sit back and say “those people.” One post I skimmed suggested that you give something to someone who lives in poverty.  Yes, resources are important, but in my opinion, that’s the “those people” mentality talking.  How can you share instead of just giving?  How can you make a friend instead of just talking?  How can you cry with someone instead of just for them?

I guess what I’m saying is that money isn’t good enough.  Lip service isn’t good enough.  Education isn’t good enough.  Genuine pity isn’t good enough.  Intellectual outrage isn’t good enough.  Without the deep and widespread understanding that each person is a person, anti-poverty efforts will just skim the service.

It’s not something anything but your own experiences with people can teach you.  What are you going to do about it?

After Fancy College, Jobs in Service?

The NY Times published an interesting article about a push to encourage graduates of top colleges and universities to work in service positions (including National Service such as AmeriCorps and Teach for America) instead of investment banks.

Some points that gave me hope and food for thought:

  1. The highest-ranked colleges and professors are at least paying lip service to the idea that the purpose of their fancy education is not necessarily to create more investment bankers or consultants.
  2. Some colleges are putting money and scholarships behind this lip service, some even paying student loans for grads who go into service.
  3. It’s easy for Jr.s and Sr.s to apply for lucrative positions – the systems are in place.  Let’s put them in place for service positions as well.
  4. Obama supports National Service(!) and people have noticed (!!)

At a recent presentation by Jason Lum, he expressly encouraged the service-oriented audience to pursue scholarships to further their education so that they could afford to continue to serve their communities.  Nobody had ever specifically pointed that out that challenge of a public service position: it’s nearly impossible to pay for the credentials that are required.

This article gives me hope because it talks about barriers to service being addressed right now – awareness, prestige, access, and debt.  Fantastic news!  How can we keep up the momentum?

Personal Internet = Successful Usage

This blog started out as an experiment in limited internet access, and I’d like to quickly revisit that theme by comparing it to my constant access now.

I spent a while working to customize my internet experience through bookmarking, assembling an RSS feed, starting my own personal blog, starting a Flickr account, and keeping up more regularly with twitter, Facebook, technorati, etc.  Out of that social media category, I’d say the RSS and blog had the most impact in making the web more comfortable and rewarding to visit.

I feel significantly more connected with everything since I took the time to personalize my browser.  I consolidated my switch-hitting between Safari and Firefox (Firefox won).  Then I sat down and made my bookmarks toolbar sensible and usable, and cleared out old bookmarks I hadn’t used in ages.  I’ve started with some add-ons, most notably Google Notebook.  I no longer feel like I’m just visiting the internet; I’m home.

Based on my own experiences, I don’t see how people popping into the library to use the internet for an hour, or even people who have a laptop but no home internet access, can have the same rich experience that I’m having with my full set up.  So much time goes into organizing and arranging things to be just right, not only for my enjoyment but to help me keep up with everything.  It gives me an advantage in terms of research (school, career, and beyond) and in terms of social media presence over people without my modest but crucial resources.

How are web developers working to enable custom internet experiences for people who don’t have their own personal computers?  How are those free or cheap wi-fi projects I keep hearing about going (I think there’s one in Minneapolis…)?  When are some $200 laptops going to hit the American market, and would they be usable enough to bridge the digital divide within our country?  And what can one person do to share her technological advantages?


How badly does slow response speed come off to people more plugged in than I?  Is 21 hours in fact an eternity?  Are my limitations only barriers in my own head and insignificant out there in the Internet community?  Are they in other would-be Internet participants’ heads, stopping them from trying?

Whine Whine Whine

Really, whining is not what I’m trying to do.  My purpose is to highlight what unequal access means for people through my own, “not exactly roughing it” experiences.

One of my frustrations has been that the internet is self-propagating.  To find networking answers, for example, I found that what I needed was an internet connection.  <ironic sigh>  What I mean to say is, the poor get poorer.  Ancient phenomenon, modern medium.

The other thing is, typical solutions (“Eh, just go to the library”) don’t work.  It’s almost never about just popping onto a computer for an hour to take care of a couple of things.  It’s much broader than that.  To stay current with what’s happening on the internet, you (or at least I) need to be on it.  Yes, part of staying current does include the latest drunk pictures my friends from high school posted on Facebook.  But part of it is reading blogs like Beth Kanter’s (and following the recommended links), or establishing myself in the nonprofit Twitterpack, or just poking around and seeing what I find.  Popping over to the library once a week doesn’t really cut it.

The nature of the beast is that without home internet access, you’re cut off from not only important “putter time,” but also from the best resources about the resource.


What the hey?

My home internet went down a few months ago.  My Internet provider says it’s a problem with my computer.  My computer service people say it’s a problem with my Internet provider.  I find myself stuck in the middle with no home internet access.

Now, cut to my professional life: I work for a nonprofit and am the de-facto tech guru of my group within the organization.  Much of what we expect of the people we work with is online, whether it’s learning English, filling out their timesheets, or applying to be part of our programs.  We always tell people that if they don’t have Internet at home, they should just go to the library and get access there, or just use the Internet at work, or just go to a coffee shop.  No problem. 

Well, problem.  Many problems.  And that is what and how I am challenging myself to blog.