A Fresh, New Semester

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Fall semester 2017 has begun!

There’s a bit of a change for me this time around: I am assistant teaching in two academic writing classes, back-to-back. First I spend about an hour in Intermediate, and then I walk two doors down and spend an hour in Advanced.

It’s pretty great. Both of my lead teachers are off to a solid start, and both of the classes are full of students who are highly motivated to learn the material so they can fulfill their dreams.

First day tidbits from both classes:

  • one classroom shares space with a few (computer) servers. I’m amazed at how little I can hear over their low hum.
  • both classes faced the usual Day 1 logistics of confusing computer log-ins, a wide range of student computer skills, confused people walking into class either by mistake or 45 minutes late, and the need to set a good tone while going over the syllabus and procuring diagnostic writing samples. It’s good to witness that this is ubiquitous and watch both teachers weather the challenges with grace, and help as much as I can.
  • I went to great pains to memorize my recently-updated work password so I could have access to Canvas during the first class. But then I couldn’t remember my username. Oops.
  • In both classes, there were a couple of students who particularly struggled with the computer, even down to basic keyboarding. I spoke privately to each of these individuals and recommended that they do free typing practice online every day, starting the very next day. I hope they’ll do it, or else their timed midterm is going to in effect grade their typing skills instead of their English writing skills.

 

We’ll see what the semester holds!

 

Photo Credit: USDAgov on Flickr

You’re reading And We’re Back, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.

 

 

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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 and I smiled, and 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.

Journal: Day 2 of Level 3!

Classes officially began yesterday!

I’m going to try a new format of daily post. I hope it will help my posts be short and thus more likely to happen.

Students: 17

One thing that went well: The flow of our work with goals. We read four short pieces from a great book called Journeys.  Each piece talked about the author’s goals, and they were all quite different.  From there, we thought about our own goals and made lists.  We’ll continue to work with those lists.

One thing to improve:  Teacher talk.  I talked too much.  “They can understand me” is not a good excuse!

One surprise:  How much more settled in it already feels to me.  Yesterday seemed a little awkward, and I wondered if I came across badly.  Today I felt that we all communicated with each other better and have started to become a class.

Goals, Patience, and Distraction

When I first started working at the learning center, I felt really new.  The teachers and students all had way more experience there than I did and I often responded to questions with, “I’m not sure, but I’ll find out.”

I was really, really looking forward to the day when I stopped being “the NEW coordinator” and became “the coordinator.”

That’s not the kind of goal I can keep in the forefront of my mind.  It’s all about just doing your best across a long string of days, and I wasn’t about to start repeatedly asking myself, “Are we there yet?”  So I moved my focus to other things: volunteer management,  schedules, conferences, teacher observations, new classes, and a hundred other things.

(By the way, research actually shows that one important strategy for maintaining patience is to distract yourself.)

Maybe a month ago I had an opportunity to chat with one of our students.  As we talked and she asked me for advice, I realized that I had automatic credibility because of that long string of good days I had worked.  I wasn’t new anymore.  It was a Pinocchio moment in which I became real.

It felt great to achieve that goal from over a year ago.  While I think I was right to not think about it all the time, I’m not sure I had to completely forget about it.

For those goals where you need to take your eyes off the prize, how do you not completely lose sight of them?  Do you just rely on chance circumstances to remind you?

On Getting Upset

Oh, Cookie! by esti- on Flickr
Oh, Cookie! by esti- on Flickr

When I do something badly, I get upset.

When people around me make decisions I disagree with that impact me, I get upset.

When I set a goal and then am moved in a different direction, I get upset.

Someone asked me why I let these things upset me.

The answer is change.  Because when I’m upset, I think harder, faster, and more creatively to make the situation change.  When I’m upset is when I say, “That’s it, I’m not letting [mistake] happen again and here’s how,” or “I know [this] is the right answer and I just have to make sure I’m heard,” or “Ok, [goal] just got harder but so help me I’ll get there anyway.”

Because if I don’t get a little pissed off sometimes, a one-time goof becomes a habit, what was once a mishap becomes normal, and the standards bar slides down unchecked.

A life of anger is not the answer, but neither is one of complacency.

I Need More Hours

I’m feeling overwhelmed by everything I want to do in the near future:

  • write an amazing two-week curriculum unit on Personal Finance
  • mentor my volunteers more closely
  • clean my office till it’s sparkly
  • devise a better system for collecting and submitting volunteer stats
  • have a balanced and from-scratch meal plan that I follow
  • completely deep-clean my apartment
  • get my TEFL from Hamline
  • start another 5 Week Course
  • have friends over for dinner
  • run/walk everyday
  • actually follow a laundry schedule
  • read and write more
  • continue to spend quality time with my long-distance family and boyfriend
  • start a pre-literate class at my learning center
  • reach out to the other people in my life more
  • start a peer-mentoring project with another coordinator
  • learn Somali
  • conduct numerous site visits to sites like mine and other sites that work with my students
  • roll my newsletter into a new, more professional format

I didn’t think about that list for very long.  That’s what it looks like off the top of my head.

Conventional wisdom says “just pick something and start.”  I have.  And it’s something.  I’m trying a new chili recipe as we speak, and I’ve been working on several other of the above personal and professional goals, as well as others that aren’t really blog material.

The problem isn’t starting (for once); it’s wanting it to all be in line Now.

So I’m going to go see how the chili turned out, and put on my running shoes, throw my laundry in this evening, and ponder curriculum as the machines are going, and remember that I’ll get there inch by inch.

Looking Back at College

Lifehacker and The Simple Dollar have been posting more content than usual geared toward college students, and it got me thinking about my own college experience.  It was a great one.  I worked hard, but I didn’t work smart at all, and because of that I’m not sure I lived up to my potential.

This isn’t intended to be a list of regrets.  I’m reflecting on a path I set out on when I was 17, and my perspective on it from my mid-twenties is understandably a little different.

What I Wish I’d Done In College

Basically, I wish I’d scheduled my time as though college were my 40 hour per week job.  Mind you that when I was in college I’d never had such a thing as a full-time job.  Still, I don’t think it would have been beyond me to:

  • set a regular (reasonably flexible) work schedule, planning to spend about 8 hours a day either in class or involved in studies;
  • spend time at the beginning of each semester marking not just mandatory class times on my calendar, but also project due-dates and my own draft due-dates;
  • make it my business to go to each prof’s office hours at least once;
  • treat class time more seriously (like it was a meeting or a conference) by taking notes and behaving in a more openly friendly way to my classmates.

I also wish I’d done a few less serious “school is your job” -type things, such as:

  • joining a club that would take me off campus on a regular basis;
  • sleeping more consistently;
  • spending more than one semester taking a karate class.

And honestly, I can’t help but wonder if taking a year or two between high school and college and doing AmeriCorps or some such work would have made the above wishes realities instead.

Again, no regrets.  I took interesting classes, did respectably well in them (except chemistry), made incredible friends, enjoyed participating in music programming, and reached out to some profs and acquaintences I hope I’ll still be acquainted with years from now.  I was also introduced to life in the Twin Cities and have continued living here since graduation.  I think of it all as a success.  And I’d have a different kind of success if I started it in September 2009 instead.