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

Journal: Tech-Teaching Improvements

The computer-based lessons went much, much more smoothly yesterday and today. 

I talked with students after computer time both days, and they like it.  We decided together that we’ll do 30 minutes of computer time everyday.  I plan to keep checking in about it at least once a week, so it might change.

Now, a bit more about the journey that has been computer time:

First “Lesson:” Oops

In my first computer “lesson” I made a lot of mistakes.  They stemmed from my own experience (I’m in many ways a “digital native“) and from my lack of experience (my training is in running a communicative classroom, not in preparing a computer-based activity). 

I would like to add that the surprise technical difficulties I had were not in any way helpful. 

It was a painful hour of my life, but the learning curve was quick and eye-opening.

What I Improved:

  • I decided to log everyone into the computers myself during the break.  Typing in the nonsense logins and passwords with 100% accuracy was really too much for many students the first day.
  • Most students already had email addresses after the first day – phew!
  • I created a simple website, Teacher Emily’s Computer Class.  Students go to it ( and select their activities. 
  • I quick talked to individual students about their computer skills.  “Are you good with computers?”  Everyone was able to catch my meaning and tell me bood, bad, or so-so.  It was enough to figure out who I had to watch like a hawk, and was therefore super helpful.
  • Thanks to my website, I could quickly send students who struggle to even use a mouse over to a mouse practice program.

How I Want to Keep Improving:

  • seat all of the beginning computer users together (obvious, but hard to remember at the time!)
  • methodically help everyone be more self-sufficient on computers.  A maybe-logical sequence off the top of my head:
    1. learn to mouse
    2. learn to open the internet browser (Internet Explorer- gr…)
    3. learn to type in the address to my website
    4. learn to select an activity from the website and maximize the window
    5. learn to log in to the computer
    6. learn to type quickly
  • tweak my website in two ways:
    1. improve the organization and clarity, particularly for lower-level English readers
    2. add more resources, particularly for higher-level computer users

Why It’s Worth the Headache

It’s multilevel.  That’s my first and final answer.  The most important priority I have is to help students move forward from wherever they’re at with their learning. 

My multilevel class includes students at many, many levels.  Here are quick sketches of five actual students in my class today:

Student A: low-intermediate English skills and zero computer skills. 
Student B: beginning English skills and zero computer skills. 
Student C: high-beginning English skills and near-expert computer skills. 
Student D: high-beginning English skills, wants to learn how to type faster.  
Student E: new; will certainly test into Level 3 and leave our class by next week.  

There were also ten other individuals I didn’t mention.  All of them can learn at their level simultaneously during computer time. It’s amazing.

In my opinion, the resources we’re using during computer time are not adequate substitutes for classroom interactions.  They are, however, awesome suplements that let students take the lead in their education and function at exactly their own level.  A solid way to spend 30 minutes.

Journal: Thrice Blasted Internets

Internet learning is officially rolling in my classroom!

And by rolling, I mean kind of dragging along the ground.  Uphill. 

Things that would’ve helped:

  1. A second instructor.
  2. Any kind of pre-test in technology skills.
  3. For hotmail to not have disallowed us from signing up for more than 5 email addresses.
  4. For my college email’s search function to function.

Many students did not have email addresses.  This didn’t really surprise me.

Some students had trouble locating the url bar.  When they did find it, some had trouble with troubleshooting, i.e., noticing that they’d spelled the url incorrectly.  This was only vaguely surprising. 

Some students could not find the “-” key.  Some could not use the mouse.  This should not have surprised me, but it did.

Even for just getting set up, we were so multi-level in terms of computer skills (let alone English skills) that I had to ask one of the students to help the others make email addresses.  I had to ask all of the students to wait many, many times.  And I had to not swear at the machines. 

So I guess this class period was the pre-test.  It has certainly informed instruction.  It will be hard for tomorrow to not be smoother or more productive in comparison.