Connecting Syllabus and Student

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How do you teach the syllabus and teach the students, when they might be pulling you in two different directions?

I don’t have a comprehensive answer to this question, and to be honest, I’m not confident that anyone else really does either.

But here are two elements that I think work together to connect the students and the course objectives.

Feedback

Feedback has been on my mind a lot lately (formative assessmentstudent panel, exit tickets, being tuned into student stress levels, and coming up: surveys on Week 4). I think that it’s often given lip service, but not as often treated in practice as the lifeblood of an effective classroom.

If we think of teaching a class with a syllabus as building a bridge between the students and the content, we can most effectively bridge that gap if we know the landscape of both sides as well as possible. The teacher is ideally already a mater of the content, but I think especially in a community college setting, this isn’t enough. We have to build the bridge out to where the students are, not to where we imagine them to be.

The way to do this is to check again and again on where they are, how they’re doing, what their strengths are, and what they’re struggling with.

It comes down to asking, and to listening.

To be clear, “listening” doesn’t mean making the classes ridiculously easy. Listening means knowing what student needs are and taking some sort of action on them, be it simply reporting back to the department that the course is universally overwhelming, or referring struggling students to the tutoring center as early in the semester as possible, or conducting more activities that reach kinesthetic learners, or clarifying assignment instructions.

 

Examples of Desired End Products

I’ve noticed that a lot of language instruction, not just ESOL but also my own experience with Russian, is very bottom-up.

The idea with bottom-up instruction is that the pieces of language (nouns, prepositions, grammatical patterns) are learned and then assembled. It’s a bit like building a book shelf: acquire your boards, cut them to size, pre-drill holes for the screws you’ve gathered, and then all of those pieces get put together into a book shelf. (You can tell I’m not much of a woodworker, eh?)

But the thing is, you know what a bookshelf is, and that knowledge is top-down. You know what it looks like, what it does, and have some idea that if the shelves are not parallel to the floor or strongly supported, there are going to be major functional issues. You’ve used bookshelves before – you’re just building another iteration.

The students are bridging themselves to the assigned material, and top-down support helps them see what they’re aiming for.

When top-down processes are missing, it’s a bit like telling students they’re going to be building a snyrfhute. So when you start leading them through the process of collecting the necessary materials, they don’t really have a framework for understanding what all the bits are for or what the finished snyrfhute will look like or be used for. They can still build a snyrfhute with your guidance, but most are not going to have the same success that they’d have with a known end-product.

Top-down learning is not enough by itself either – just knowing what a bookshelf looks like does not give me the skills to make one.

We really need both.

Consider that we teach students how to use Present Perfect in speech and writing, but many ELLs are unable to hear Present Perfect as it’s used in everyday speech… so they don’t hear it in real use. Without help hearing Present Perfect in real speech, the top-down is typically missing and they’re just blindly conjugating for reasons unknown.

Consider that we typically teach students about MLA formatting when they have literally never read a journal article before. We get extremely specific and high-stakes about in-text citations while most of our students cannot relate to the conditions that in-text citations arose from: a pre-hyperlink world. Without examples of journal articles or successful assignments from previous semesters, we aren’t supporting their top-down process.

 

Meeting In The Middle

Feedback informs the direction of our teaching. It makes sure that our bridge-building connects our content to where our students actually are.

Using examples of end-products keeps students informed on the direction of their learning. They know where they’re aiming for and can use that knowledge to think critically, self-correct, and seek assistance. If they make a mistake, they’ll know their bookshelf doesn’t look right, but how could they know that about their snyrfhute?

 

Do you agree that there’s a great potential for synergy of purpose when a course has both adequate feedback and adequate top-down support?

What else do you see as crucial toward striking a balance in a syllabus-led course?

 

Photo Credit: sagesolar on Flickr

You’re reading Balancing Syllabus And Student, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

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.