Journal: High Energy Day!

Today was super fun!

What surprised me:

  • We got a computer lab!  For the exact days and times I was hoping for!  Wooo!
  • I had 19 students!  Yesterday we were at only about 11.  Several were people who moved up from my class from last semester, so it was like a chain of mini reunions as familiar faces walked in the door.
  • How long one tiny grammar point, just quickly “covered” in the book, took to practice. 
  • The student who asked me to do the Homework Blog over the break told me that she used it a lot!  I’m not sure if she meant the blog specifically or my Computer Class page of resources, but either way, I was very excited to hear that at least one student got extra study guidance from it.

What went well:

I think I did a good job of staying out of the spotlight today.  I liked the emphasis on students learning each other’s name.  First we used a standing chain drill, then quizzed volunteers to try to say everyone’s name in the circle.  Then we sat back down and took turns being the teacher, asking one student how to spell his/her name and writing it on the board.

Overall, I like our textbook, particularly the TV series it comes with.  One of its weaknesses, at least for my classes, is that it crams a ton of material into not just one unit, but any given page.  I took one tiny piece of the grammar suggested for Monday’s lesson and we practiced it (meaning, accuracy, and fluency) for a large chunk of the class time.  Also, it was great to do a lesson in that format.  I learned it in TEFL class, and it’s just a great format. 

I was pleased that I had the good sense to ask students to self-identify their computer level before we went down to the lab.  Some people had already publicly told me they were computer beginners, so I wasn’t afraid to ask everyone who needed help getting to the internet to raise their hand.  I asked them to look at each other and to sit together when we got to the lab.  I explained that I wanted to help them without running all over the room.  It worked out well.

What needs improvement:

A couple of grammar details surprised me during class.  I didn’t have a problem handling these surprises, but they could have been prevented if I had prepped the point itself (as opposed to our practice of it) more thoroughly.  This is the type of thing that will get more and more automatic as my accumulated knowledge grows, but right now I need to keep on it!

Thoughts for Next Week:

I already miss having a beginning routine like we did last semester.  I don’ t think the dates practice will serve this class as well as it did Level 1.  Ideas I’m kicking around include spelling dictation practice and vocabulary games of some kind. 

Looking forward to starting the “Getting In Shape” unit!  I’d also like to incorporate some additional reading into our work.


Journal: Day 1 Again!

It was a lovely Day 1!

What a difference it makes to already know where to park, where to go when the copier is broken, who to ask for a computer lab, and some of the students in the class.

What surprised me:

  • how drastically the new pre-registration process cut down on first-day paperwork nonsense.  Yay office!
  • the profundity of an error in which a student wrote, “I am not grammar.”
  • I had exactly the same number of Spanish speakers as Korean speakers, meaning that I could make conversation pairs in such a way that they needed their English.

What went well:

I was happy with my pre-teaching of the grid activity, both content and process.  The students found out about each other and practiced some slightly tricky listening as well (“What do you do?” vs. “What do you do on weekends?”)

We got our minimal paperwork and policies out of the way with little pain and little confusion.

We were pretty focused on the question, “What is the most important to study?  Reading, writing, listening, speaking, computers, or grammar?”  We talked about the meaning, separated into conversation pairs, and then wrote responses.  I liked that they practiced different modalities while giving me input about how class should look for the next semester.

What needs improvement:

One of my students is significantly hard of hearing.  Being loud is helpful but isn’t enough.  I need to be much more mindful of how I can support what I’m saying with writing.  This will also help the students who can hear but have trouble understanding.

The class needs more structure, but I’m having trouble getting one into place when I don’t know for sure if I’ll be able to have a computer lab or not.  I did put in a very sweet request – I just hope it can work out.

Also, I discovered a few students who apparently have trouble sitting next to each other and getting in-class writing done at the same time.  I actually had them all at one point last semester, so we already have a good rapport.  I used this rapport to tell them I thought they were distracting each other.  I’m not here to treat adults like children, but I will be watching them like a hawk to see if I need to respectfully split them up, at least during the next writing activity.

Thoughts for tomorrow:

Stay student-centered.  Lay some grammar groundwork for the beginning of the unit on Monday.  Reading.  Continue trying to get a computer lab.  That should do it!

Journal: Computer Helper Update

Just wanted to quick follow up on how computer time went today. 

As I mentioned yesterday, I found that one student needed not just lots of help, but constant help.  I was not able to provide that alone as the sole instructure in the room.  I asked one of the other students if he could help her for one session, and he said yes.

I was conflicted about whether or not I should do this.

I decided to try it because the status quo was a waste of her time  and asking another student to help was the only workable solution I could think of.

Today I gave Teacher Student the struggling student’s online learning login.  I also told him and wrote down for him an end goal for the student, “She can use USA Learns with little help.”  I said today this is maybe not possible, but we can start. 

I also gave some related targets:  

  • she should stop mousing sideways (it looks very uncomfortable!)
  • she should understand
    1. the meaning of key buttons on the USA Learns interface (“next,” “listen,” “check,” etc.), and
    2. that she should click on them to cause the appropriate action to take place (i.e. if she wants to go to the next page, she should click “next.”).

Teacher Student said that she made progress with mousing and with understanding what the buttons did.  He also said that he liked working with her, and that he would feel good working with her again if need be (I checked twice, and I think he both understood me and was being honest). 

Interestingly, the student still absolutely hates computers.  Hates.  So even now that we have some of the mechanics more under control, we have a new problem that’s even more important to address: convincing a 70+ year old that it is worth her time to learn how to use this new-fangled contraption.

I have a few thoughts on making them seem relevant to her, but do you have any suggestions?  Thanks in advance!

Journal: Families and Helpers

Today we continued our work with Family vocabulary, reiewing possessives and “Who is ___?” questions and answers.  We also added a new vocab word, siblings, and began looking at the grammar of has and have. 

For the sake of context, I’ve been starting each class with pictures of a different family.  Monday was the Obamas, Tuesday was my own family, and today was a family I was friends with in Minnesota.  This family looks nothing like me, so even though I tried to explain it in three different ways, I think the students didn’t understand that the people in the pictures were good friends of mine.  Toward the end I’d put in a picture of me holding the family’s baby and everyone sat up straighter and exclaimed, “Woah!  Teacher!  That’s you!”  Note to self: always check for understanding!

We then constructed this family’s family tree together on the white board, and during the process I learned that most of the students pretty much understand how a family tree works… but that not all of them do.  It was good practice.

We practiced accuracy using have vs. has using  a textbook worksheet and then with a more personalized chain drill.  There were a few errors on the worksheet, but we must have ironed them out because in the chain drill there was literally not one instance of mixing up have and has.  Sweet!

During computer time, I had three students who needed constant or near-constant help navigating the English-learning software.  It felt kind of like I was playing three games of checkers at once.  In 45 minutes of computer time I was able to help literally one other student one time for about one minute.  Thank goodness the three who needed me most were sitting near each other. 

One of those students really needed constant help, not just the every-few-minutes help I was able to provide.  I don’t think she got a thing out of computer time today, to the extent that I’ve asked one of our other students (someone with medium English skills and high computer skills) to work with her on mousing (i.e. don’t turn it sideways) and nagivation concepts (i.e. if you’re finished, click “next;” if a button on the screen is flashing, click it.) for one session the next time she comes. 

I’m a little conflicted about this.  On one hand, it’s not fair to deny the higher student his individual learning time.  He should not have to lose out because the school does not provide adequate personnel or software appropriate for very beginning computer users.  On the other hand, it’s not fair to deny the lower student support I know she needs that I know how to get for her.  Furthermore, the higher student is a quite a skilled computer user and a kind person; the chance to help out in this way may actually be very welcome. 

I’m now off to write some computer learning objectives!

What Computer Time Was, Is, and Should Be

I would’ve thought that my higher-level students would have used computer time to do more difficult English work.  After all, the most basic and immediate benefit of Computer Time is that it’s inherently multilevel. 

Yesterday, however, I noticed that everyone (even my temporary Level 3 student) was on the beginning level.  When I suggested to a few students that they try Level 2 or Level 3, they were all eager to do so and they haven’t seemed to look back. 

Maybe I wasn’t clear about what the purpose of computer time was (very, very possible).  Maybe they’re cautious learners.  Maybe they felt it was some sort of respect to the Level 1 teacher to do Level 1 computer work.  Maybe it’s a mix of all of those.  I guess the point is that the first days of computer time weren’t actually as multilevel as I’d thought!  Luckily, fixing that was simple once I realized it was an issue.

I also feel that we have an issue in that we have Computer Time as separate from our “real” learning time, and that we use our computers solely to run unidirectional software and never (so far) for students to collaborate and create content.  These issues don’t have quick fixes.

One big reason it is this way right now is that students lacking basic mousing skills or who type at 8 WPM are going to have a ton of trouble collaborating and/or creating content.   I think the foundational work we’re doing has great value.   But some of my students are not novices.  All of a sudden, I’m back in a multilevel conundrum in which I can’t effectively plan for specific individuals because attendance is erratic. 

We just have a long way to go.  The next step is probably to do a project in the class in which we collaborate digitally, for example, making a cookbook during an upcoming food unit.

Everyday we come a little closer to using our digi-tech how we should.  As Granny says, “We’re getting there, inch by inch.”

Journal: Multilevel Listening

I would just like to report that I was pleased with my impromptu multi-leveling of our listening lesson today.

One of my low-beginning students returned to class today after being in a car accident last week.  She has some magnificent bruises and quite a bump on her head, but thank goodness, she’s OK.  I wasn’t sure when she’d be coming back and I wanted to be sure she felt welcomed back to the classroom when she did.

There was no way she could do the listening worksheet that comes with the video without extensive one-to-one pre-teaching that I can’t really provide.  The worksheet had exercises A, B, and C.  So I made her a handwritten worksheet also with exercises A, B, and C.  Exercise A was “Yes.”  B was “No” and C was “Nearby.”  She was to listen for these words and count how many she heard. 

I was pleased that all of the students were engaged with the same listening (we have headphone issues), and that we could even all check in about exercise A together.  I just asked her how many times she heard  her word and then checked in with the rest of the class.

It comes much more easily to me to modify a worksheet down a level or two than up a level or two.  My goal for our next video activity is to have a listening modification plan up my sleeve for any higher-level students who might attend that day.

“Tech or Die:” A Response

Dangerously Irrelevant, a technology and education blog, posted a strong opinion that we should not just accept that some teachers eschew digital technology because they are either oblivious to it  or choose not to embrace it.

To the post itself, I reply that I agree with the sentiment that digital technology is important to teach.  I have to admit that I did not appreciate the slightly over-the-top tone.   The conversation in the comments is frank and nuanced though – I highly recommend spending a few minutes reading (and joining) it.

For me, a huge problem with using digital technology in the classroom is Plan B.  Specifically, Plan B is extraordinarily difficult.  If my pencil breaks, I can sharpen it or use a different pencil.  If I suddenly can’t get onto the internet, there aren’t usually options; I don’t generally have a spare router in my purse.  I either wing it or use the analog activity that took an additional, unrelated two hours of prep to create “just in case.”  (Note: prep time is often uncompensated.*) When you look at it like that, it’s a major drawback to even starting to use digital technology in the classroom, let alone relying on it.

Support for lessons like the one I taught Monday tends to be quite weak, and that’s problematic.  Teachers don’t have to go find and haul their own textbooks.  They don’t have to change the fluorescent lightbulbs in their classrooms.  But they’re apparently supposed to keep their class moving forward while fixing the networking problem** that’s causing hotmail to think that one person is trying to sign up for six email addresses at the same time.  It seems out of sync with other expectations.

No, teachers should not be allowed to pretend digital technology doesn’t exist.  But education systems and reformers should not pretend that unpredictable SNAFUs don’t happen all the time with digital technology.  Steve Jobs of Apple had major technical difficulties while unveiling iPhone 4 a few months ago (scroll down to 1:44 and 2:05).   Even in a high-powered professional setting, technical difficulties and the efforts to fix them were noted as being “awkward.”  Imagine if Jobs were less savvy, and if he didn’t have a team of experts working with him to fix the problems.  “Awkward” would have become “total and prolonged waste of time” – which, incidentally, is the teacher’s nightmare.

Sadly, teachers don’t usually have a team of experts dedicated to just their classroom.  They and/or their tech support are generally not able to rapidly fix problems.  Rapidly switching to a similar digital alternative is also generally impossible.  In my experience the other choice has been to move to a non-digital activity while the tech problem is resolved or given up on.

Add to that situation the typically outdated equipment and rampant understaffing schools of all kinds face, and we are just not setting up teachers for smooth or successful tech-based lessons.  No wonder so many want to avoid it.  There’s a great potential for a huge mess, we will almost always face the mess without adequate (or sometimes any) help, and we will be held accountable by our students and our managers for the learning that is not happening while the computers unfreeze.

Is this enough reason to just not “do” digital technology in the classroom?  No.  It has a lot to offer, and as I said Wednesday, I think it’s worth the headache.  But we need real, constant, broad support, not just “should.”

* I know that students come first, but one reason we have trouble recruiting exceptionally talented folks to be teachers is that we don’t respect teachers’ time and skill with an adequate paycheck.

**Really, the teacher would probably not have the permissions to fix the networking problem.  The way I see it, (s)he would have two choices:
1) wait for the overworked tech staffer to get to it and go analog in the meantime, or
2) hack into the system to fix it her-/himself, risking termination and imprisonment but keeping the class on task.
OK maybe that’s a little overly-dramatic, but the point is that there is a LOT outside a teacher’s control even when the teacher is a serious computer expert