Thanks to “Impolite” Students

This is a post I drafted in the last few years. It’s just three examples of students taking the time to set me straight, and of me taking the time to listen. I didn’t post it right away because I was concerned that it might be taken out of context and misunderstood as an indictment of me as a terrible teacher, or of my students as aggressive jerks. Neither is the case. My concern has not gone away, but what I wrote still rings true to me. In the spirit of stepping up like my students did, here’s the post.

Working for years in Minnesota, followed by years in super-supportive ESOL departments in Maryland, all with mature and gracious adult ESOL students, I am blessed with a whole lot of positive feedback in my professional life.

I don’t know if it’s that I’m originally from near New York City or if it’s just a personality quirk, but at some point, a lot of positive feedback rings a bit hollow to me. I know I’m not perfect, so receiving criticism matches my world-view way better than praise does.

Too much positive feedback can actually make me uneasy. What aren’t they saying, and why? Is everyone just being polite? What are they hoping I’ll figure out? 

But here’s one thing: speaking a reasonable and relevant truth is not necessarily impolite.

And here’s another thing: it’s okay to be impolite sometimes. We don’t intentionally step on people’s toes in our day to day lives because that would be rude and cause pain. But if we’re walking along and a motorcycle is suddenly hurtling toward us, we leap out of the way even if we land on someone’s toes. That’s an extreme case, but the point is that some things are more important than manners.

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I owe a lot to the few students who have stepped up and told me some of the “impolite” things that I suspect many other students were thinking. Their willingness to risk stepping on my toes has helped me see class from students’ point of view and adjust my teaching accordingly.

Circulating from Student to Student

Early in my assistant teaching days, in addition to gauging how pushy I should be in helping my students, I was also figuring out the balancing act of helping everybody in a limited amount of time.

One lesson, I wound up addressing quite a few of one student’s questions with her. It took a long time. When I finally moved on to the next person, she told me frankly that I shouldn’t have spent so much time with the first woman. She pointed out that many students were waiting for my help and that it wasn’t fair to give too much time to one individual. She said I should have addressed one or two of the first woman’s questions, then checked to see if anyone else needed me. Then if not, I could work more with the first woman. Talk about specific feedback! No arguments from me then or now.

Before this conversation, I had seen this circulation balancing act as my own internal struggle. But the student’s comments made it clear to me that my class is paying more attention to that kind of thing than I’d thought. And I wasn’t giving them enough credit for understanding our need to work with everyone even when they still have more questions.

Overwhelming Written Comments

Back when I was lead teaching an academic writing class, I spent what felt like an eternity writing comments on my students’ diagnostic essays. We had a relatively small class and I’d decided to use that as an opportunity to start everyone off with a generous amount of personalized guidance.

Unfortunately, to one student, my comments somehow came across as sarcastic. I’m not 100% sure how it happened, because I remember being genuinely impressed with the essay and saying so. I was surprised that I had caused offense, but I accepted that I had and made amends accordingly.

I think that the problem was in how I’d made my comments: they were intended to be plentiful, but instead they were long-winded, which made them arduous to read and left too much room for incorrect interpretation. My takeaway there was to make sure future comments were short, plain, and focused.

Another takeaway I gleaned from that situation was that students don’t see our comments as a gift, no matter how generously they’re intended or how valuable they are. They’re overwhelming, they hurt, and students often don’t know how to implement them. I needed to be more judicious and practical with my comments.

Confusing Speech

When assistant teaching, I was having a writing conference with a pretty fluent student. After asking for clarification of something I’d said a couple of times, she exclaimed in exasperation, “Why can’t you just talk normally?!”

As I’m sure you can guess, the problem was that I was talking normally. Conversationally, even: many words, lots of linking, natural speed, meandering point.

It’s questionable whether I should alter my normal talking speed or prosody in the very last level of EAP before direct enrollment in mainstream college courses. But I think the cognitive burden of listening to my natural speech would have been manageable if I had just made sure to be direct and terse rather than chatty.

How many other students were too polite or too overwhelmed to get me to rein it in?

Overall: Focus

I feel like all three of these “sidekick slaps” came down to my losing focus in the moment. I wasn’t meeting my students where they were. I wasn’t respecting that more is not necessarily better. I wasn’t as direct and organized as I needed to be.

This doesn’t mean I’m never focused; it means that when I’m not focused, it shows.

I know where to go from there, and that’s a good feeling.

 

Real feedback is not always positive. Criticism is not always sandwiched neatly between two positives. But insight is always valuable, and who better to give us insight into what our students need than our students themselves?

May I keep listening and keep learning.

 

I’m pretty sure none of the students I referred to in this post are aware of this blog, but just in case: guys, thank you for making me a better teacher.

 

Photo Credit: cmjolley on Flickr

You’re reading Thanks to “Impolite” Students, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.

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Assisting the Teacher: Writing Conferences

This is part of a series of posts called ESL Assistant Teaching Tips. I’m writing from the point of view of an assistant ESOL instructor in academic English classes at a community college. For background, here’s why I love assistant teaching, and here is what the basics of the set-up look like. I hope that other assistants will find this useful, and that this wonderful classroom model will spread!

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One way I have assisted my lead teachers is by conducting writing conferences with students.

With two different teachers meeting with students, but only one of them grading the students, this needs to be done with intention and good communication. What follows is what worked for us.

Clear Conferencing Goals

We had conferencing days for the express purpose of previewing students’ drafts of specific major writing assignments.

The lead teacher and I established before this class session that we would first check for topic and organization, and then move on to mechanics. We agreed on 15-minute conferences.

Time Slots

Students signed up for a time slot that worked for them. Students signed up to work with either her or me.

Full disclosure: I was last picked! I truly did not take this personally. Our students knew who would be grading them, and of course it seemed best to get advice from the grader herself.

Set a Timer (and expectations)

At the beginning of each conference, I welcomed the student and then used my cell phone’s voice commands to set a timer for 15 minutes.

Then I efficiently explained that I was going to skim their essay for structure. Then if there was time, we’d go back for details.

Start with Basics of Organization

I read their whole intro, identified their thesis out loud, then visibly checked that it matched up with topic sentences at the beginning of each paragraph. I then read their conclusion to make sure it restated the thesis and didn’t contain any surprises.

In their argument essay, the lead teacher and I also agreed that we should examine their 4th body paragraph pretty carefully. The counter-argument/concession/rebuttal can be tricky.

For a couple of students, we didn’t get much past this. Other students had this level of organization down no problem and we moved on to details.

Don’t Ignore What They’ve Done Well

It’s tempting, when you’re looking at a strict 15 minutes of one-to-one time, to pile all the advice you can onto each student.

However, having one’s writing critiqued feels personal. If the instructor speaks of literally only negatives, at best it becomes teacher talk and at worst it breaks hearts.

On the flip side, if the instructor is too timid to say what needs to change because s/he is afraid to hurt anyone’s feelings, that’s not really instruction.

Yes, address the problems. But also acknowledge some successes.

Touch Base After Conferences

After class, I quickly spoke to the lead teacher about the conferences: overall impression, overall organization, if they had a lot of major revision to do or just detail work, and if I practically begged them to go to the writing center for more help.

In the hour I was there, I could only meet with four students, so this was not an overwhelming amount of information.

However, in the future I think I should also quickly fill out a pre-made form with these basic comments so she could refer back to my notes. I do like notes!

Provide Input on Final Paper

When the final papers were completed and handed in, the lead teacher found class time where I could read through my four students’ final drafts and use the rubrics to share my thoughts about grading.

To be clear, I did not grade them. The assistant teacher is not in charge of grading. It was just input in case she was on the fence between one grade and another.

 

We just did these formal conferences a couple of times in the semester, but it made a big impact! It’s hard to beat one-to-one communication.

How do you do writing conferences?

 

Photo Credit: ASU Department of English on Flickr

You’re reading Assisting the Teacher: Writing Conferences, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.

Learning to Meddle

As I mention basically every post nowadays, I’ve been assistant teaching for a couple semesters, and it’s completely awesome.

I think I did a fine job in my first semester. The class was pretty small and pretty quiet, and everyone kept to themselves. I mostly worked with the same few students, though I did try to touch base with everyone each session. Sometime near the end of that semester, one of the students I helped all the time said something funny. When I smiled, she remarked that it was so nice to see me smile sometimes because I was always so serious. I really enjoyed that semester, and I was chagrined to find out that I was hiding it so well!

So this semester my number one goal was to come across as less grave and more friendly.

At first, this took the form of just making sure to smile even if I felt awkward.

And I’ll be honest, I was feeling very awkward about offering help. I mean, I’ve always been more than happy to help anyone who asks, but I figured that not everybody wanted my help. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted the assistant’s help when I was a student. And did it make sense to interrupt people’s trains of thought to see if they had any questions? I personally dislike being interrupted.

So I walked around remembering to smile, and helped out the few people who flagged me down.

But one thing I could do a lot as an assistant was observe. And as I observed this class, I realized that the students in this group were interacting with each other all the time, and that this was deeply connected to the very positive, energetic feel of the class. When I first described it to my husband, I exclaimed in disbelief, “They meddle with each other! And they like it!”

I realized that there was a significant divide between our cultures and expectations. And I figured that if they liked being meddled with, my respectful restraint probably came across instead as standoffish, even when I smiled.

The only way toward my goal was to join in the meddling.

This was definitely outside of my comfort zone. I’m kind of shy, and I fear being annoying. And it was extra unnerving to treat people in a way I was pretty sure I wouldn’t want to be treated. But I did it anyway.

It went so well.  It was an absolute joy.

The response was immediately 99% glowingly positive. I had to work a little bit on one person, but we got there in the end.

And I learned so much.

I learned to check that people understood the task’s instructions right away. (This is less obvious during class when I understand the teacher’s directions perfectly.)

I learned that talking face to face with one person or a very small group had much more impact than speaking from the front of the room.

I learned to go ahead and interrupt.

I learned to gently joke that if I did their writing for them, I’d be getting the grade.

I learned to have them remind me that they were next in line to work with me.

I relearned some basics for about the 600th time: to always start from what they know, to use examples, that they won’t remember what’s not written down, and to speak reasonably simply to reduce their cognitive burden.

I learned to help without leading. And I learned that leading is very distracting.

I learned to reach out in a way that I’d somehow missed before.

I’m grateful. And I’m looking forward to learning from my next class in the fall.

 

You’re reading Learning to Meddle, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.

Thoughts on Writing Conferences

I am an assistant teacher this semester, assigned to help in the last hour of an academic writing class. It’s pretty awesome.

We’re deep into the semester right now, and I’ve had the pleasure of conferencing with the same group of students over the course of a couple of months.

A few thoughts about it:

Improvement

Their writing has improved. They are writing within the structure of a five-paragraph essay much more consistently, the way they explain arguments is becoming clearer, and they are beginning to internalize exactly how to cite references.

Do they know that their writing has improved? When the teacher and I tell them, do they believe us?

Organization and Grammar

There is tension between the two. They’re very different writing skills, but you can’t really excel at one while having serious issues with the other. They must both be addressed.

It’s really hard to find time for both. When I’m teaching, I find it hard to do justice to both in my lesson plans. When I’m assistant teaching, I find it difficult to really address both in my conferences with the students. Seeing how my lead teacher handles the balance has been particularly great professional development for me.

7658225516_00cf277f83Tech

Most of our students use the technology (the internet, the learning management system, the printer, etc.) with ease. The tech facilitates learning, makes information available, and enhances communication. But for a couple of them, the links, the log-ins, the scrolling, and other basics are just hurdle after hurdle in addition to the content.

That means that most of our conferences are about writing, but with one or two students, the teacher and I spend a chunk of their conferencing time helping them find (or re-find) the article that everyone else has been scouring for claims and quotes for ten minutes already. We’re all working together to make it work, but the digital divide is real!

 

I am so glad to be assistant teaching this semester!

 

Photo Credit: CollegeDegrees360 onFlickr

You’re reading Thoughts On Writing Conferences, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com