Semester Report: Breaking My Silos

This semester I’ve been assistant teaching both an intermediate and an advanced academic writing class, back to back.

I also had the opportunity to sub twice for the assistant teacher of both an intermediate and an advanced academic reading class, also back to back.

I’m not going to lie and say it was easy for me or my family to have me at work three nights a week these past couple of weeks. It was a bit of a circus. But I’d been building a neat little silo around myself, and the bigger picture I got from subbing was fascinating.


First, the four teachers each have really different styles. Their personalities are completely different, which I think pretty directly informs their different ways of spending class time and going over assignments. Sometimes when I’m teaching, or even just assisting, I get this feeling like I’d be better at it if I were someone else. But all of these teachers are definitely themselves, and they all definitely make it work. It gives me more confidence to be me.

Also, my role in intermediate vs. advanced writing classes is a bit different, just with the level of grammar and writing advice needed. But the role in writing vs. reading classes is totally different. The reading classes gave me more opportunity to work with small groups to discuss vocabulary, the readings, etc. It makes me wonder if there are more opportunities for ad-hoc circulating the room in reading classes, and leading small groups in writing classes.

And finally, many of my writing students were also enrolled in the reading classes I subbed for. I got to work with many of the same people but in a different capacity and with different subject matter. It was super fun to see a couple of students who don’t seem particularly into writing in class articulately and vehemently explaining their points of view regarding the novel they’re reading.

Assisting in the same advanced academic writing class several semesters in a row gave me strong familiarity with that course, but at the cost of narrowing my horizons a bit. Branching out this semester has helped me see the silo I’d been in and break free.

Photo CreditNapafloma-Photographe on Flickr

You’re reading Semester Report: Breaking My Silos, originally posted at


Activity Corner: Fourth Week Survey


One of my departments has all of its teachers do a really, really smart thing.

About a third of the way into the semester, teachers hand out an anonymous survey to their students. The results are for the teachers’ eyes only, for the sole purpose of getting the lay of the land and seeing if any changes can be made to improve the semester.

The types of questions the department suggests:

  • Do students feel they can succeed in this course? What support do they need?
  • How is class time going? How could the teacher make it more effective?
  • How is homework going? How are the assignments, directions, and deadlines?
  • How are major assignments going? Are students prepared in class to complete them? What could be improved?
  • Are students getting feedback? Is it understandable? Is it helpful? How could it be improved?

Remember to ask for specifics and for suggestions. They might not all be workable, but at very least they help you see the students’ point of view. Point out that general statements like “this class is too hard” are not useful, especially coming from anonymous sources, because you have no idea what is too hard about it.

Now, with a survey like this comes the fear of negative feedback. What if everyone hates my class? And since this is during the semester, you’d still have to work with a group of people who may have told you you’re not doing as well as you thought.

My advice is: handle it. You’re an ESOL teacher – you’ve handled awkward in the past, and you can handle awkward this semester, too. It’s just not that big a deal.

And the rewards are significant: free professional development, very possibly a topic to present on at the next local ESOL conference, and most importantly, the potential to make a comeback and teach an epic class that really reaches your students.

Even if your department doesn’t nudge you in this direction, give it a try! Don’t wait till next semester to make positive changes!


Photo CreditAshley Van Haeften on Flickr

You’re reading Activity Corner: Fourth Week Survey, originally posted at

Student Panel


One of my colleges recently sent out a beginning-of-semester newsletter that included an interesting article: they had a student panel weigh in on what students want faculty to know.

I’m listening!

Here are most of their points, rearranged a bit and with a couple of notes:


1. Students Want Feedback

They want to know when they’re doing great and when they’re not. They want to know what their grades are, and they want us to notice and approach them when they’re absent or missing assignments. And they want to be referred to strategies and supportive college resources.

2. Intro Activities: “Authentic” and Names

Introductory activities should be “authentic” and help everyone learn everyone’s name. I’ve never been sure what exactly authentic means, so I usually put it in quotes. But I think here it means not too cheesy, and helping people really get to know each other. Thinking through my Activity Corner ice-breakers, I think Conversation Jenga, Quick-Switch Conversations, and One-Question Surveys, among others, might fit the bill. Do you agree?

I also recommend doing what a lead teacher of mine has done: have students make name placards using marker on a piece of card stock, and write their names on both sides. Collect them at the end of each class and set them in the front of the room for students to pick up as they enter each day. This way, name tags are always there and people can learn the names of people in front of them. This can also help the instructors, though I urge instructors to actively study student names so they’re down pat as soon as possible.

3. Show Enthusiasm for the Course and College Life

Students want us to be excited about our subjects – it helps them feel engaged. It’s OK to show that we’re total geeks! Whew!

To this I add a personal note: there are geeks who can’t wait to welcome new geeks into the fold, and there are geeks who look down their nose at the outsider philistines. Be the first kind of geek.

The students also pointed out that students need encouragement and specific suggestions to get involved in college life. I think this is especially important on commuter campuses. For us ESOL teachers, a quick plug for the international student club, Model UN club, field trips club, sports teams, and other relevant campus organizations could be the difference between our students feeling isolated and our students finding a way to plug into the campus community.

Of course, some of our students are middle-aged, working full-time, raising a family, and taking classes at night with no time for clubs or other such “kid stuff,” so be mindful of that, too. Not everyone is looking to get involved, and that’s OK.


Thanks to this college for sharing some student feedback! More on student feedback on Thursday.


Photo Credit: Jonathan Powell on Flickr

You’re reading Student Panel, originally posted at

Spring Break!

In honor of Spring Break, a few questions for our teacherly metacognition:

  1. What does Spring Break typically look like for you: a break, or catching up on work?
  2. In an ideal world, what would your Spring Break look like?
  3. What is one thing you can do to bridge any gap between the ideal and the real world?


Growth Mindset for Teachers

I recently came across a great article by Deborah Farmer Kris called Never Too Late: Creating a Climate for Adults to Learn New Skills.

3828790504_97bf89b607We’ve all (hopefully) heard about the amazing advantages that having a growth mindset can afford us.

As a teacher of adults, her article was interesting because it’s geared at the K-12 setting, in which students = children and adults = teachers and administrators. For me, the categories are not so neat, but her points hold true regardless.

What I really enjoyed about this article was that she discusses a workshop that Australian business professor Peter Heslin runs for business leaders that focuses on mindset. It appears to be based on a peer-reviewed article by Heslin and Lauren Keating. She shares four reflection activities from Heslin’s workshop that sound really useful:

  1. Reflect on the real-world ramifications of your mindset.
  2. Reflect on how a former weakness turned into a strength, and perhaps even more importantly, consider what made this happen.
  3. Reflect on mindset by writing a letter of advice to an employee whose skills need improvement.
  4. Reflect on a time someone exceeded your expectations of them. Did your low expectations hold them back?

I’m putting it on my calendar to go through these reflections myself. I’m completely confident that the exercise will be worth my time. I’m not completely confident that what I write will be blog-worthy, so I’m not sure how/when/if I’ll follow up in this space. Do let me know if you decide to tackle these reflections too!

Photo Credit: Katelyn Fay on Flickr

You’re reading Growth Mindset for Teachers, originally posted at

Duolingo and Teaching – Part 1

14697774654_e2b62638f0I have been using Duolingo to brush up on my Russian language skills and it’s made me think a lot about language learning and teaching.

Welcome to Part 1 where I discuss my experience learning Russian in college and then again with Duolingo years later. In Part 2, I’m going to discuss how I see Duolingo and being a language teacher as intersecting.

A Brief History

I studied Russian for four years in college, and spent one of my semesters abroad in Krasnodar, Russia. I still don’t know why I chose Russian. Also, I was pretty awful at it. I mean, really. We were studying case endings for months before I figured out what a case even was. 

In college, studying Russian meant one hour of class three mornings per week, plus a couple of hours of language lab once a week with a native speaker. It meant grammar charts and memorizing endings and long lists of vocabulary. It meant homework in the textbook, which included listening exercises on cassette tapes. (My friends studying Spanish got to do their listening assignments on the Internet. I was so jealous!)

I didn’t enjoy it. My primary major was International Studies, and it had a six-semester language requirement. I actually chose to study abroad in Russia because that semester would count as two toward the requirement. I could be rid of Russian a semester earlier.

But semesters abroad are transformative. Living the language, however bumblingly, changed how I felt about it. I went to Russia in order to quit Russian, but I came back from Russia with a newfound desire to keep trying to learn it. So I kept it up all eight semesters.

After graduation, I didn’t study anything at all. I was burnt out on being a student and I threw myself into being an independent young adult, finding jobs, and doing my best at them. Over the years I found my way to ESL, having never successfully learned a second language myself.


On a whim, late this October I decided to try Duolingo. It’s a free website and app. I use the app exclusively because it’s much easier to switch between English and Cyrillic on my phone’s keyboard.

With Duolingo, studying Russian means that I set a goal of how many lessons per day (I chose five, the maximum). A typical lesson takes 5-10 minutes. Listening, writing, and reading are all built in, unlike my textbook and cassette tape days. I often use my phone’s voice recognition to write my answers, which also helps my speaking to some extent.

I have not seen a single grammar chart or vocabulary list. Everything is presented in the context of a sentence, or occasionally just a phrase. In some ways I’m uncomfortable with this: if I can’t tell you the full conjugation of x verb I’ve been practicing, do I really know it? And there was one situation (verbs of motion, ugh) where my answers were basically random and I could not figure out what the rule was. I finally had to look up an explanation. But in other ways, I think it’s better: I’m (slowly) developing a feel for what sounds right in different sentences. And I’ve had to look up remarkably little so far.

Review is also built in. Each unit is rather small. After you complete the lessons in each unit, the icon turns gold. But after a few days or weeks, I think depending on your errors, the icon’s gold “wears off” and a little meter appears under it showing it about 3/4 full. That’s when you know it’s time to go back in and review. I assume that if I ignore it, the meter will count down, but I’ve never tried that. I am very motivated to keep all of my icons shiny and gold!

All of this adds up to the biggest difference I see between my college Russian and Duolingo Russian: fun. I dreaded Russian in college. I use Duolingo every day instead of playing games on my phone because it’s fun. And maybe kind of addictive. That is powerful.

The thing I dislike most about Duolingo is its automated error correction. Before I start whining, let me say that its error correction is a strength: I might worry about a person judging me for making the same mistake a third time in a row, but that’s not even on the table with a computer program.

However, the program is not perfect. For example, I translated a phrase as “Please take off your coat.” Duolingo marked it wrong, and told me that the correct translation was, “Please take your coat off.” Seriously? On every question you can flag it for problems, and so I did. I’m really good at spotting the English errors, what with the MA TESOL and eight years’ experience teaching English. But what Russian errors are slipping through the cracks that I either don’t notice, or worse, that I notice and learn?

Teaching Ramifications?

I am loving Duolingo. It’s not perfect, but it’s great. It’s different from the traditional language classroom. And in many ways, it’s better. As a teacher, I’m very interested in this, and I’m going to explore it more in the next post.

Photo Credit: slgckgc on Flickr

You’re Reading Duolingo and Teaching Part 1, originally posted at

Twitter Ifs

I would pay more attention to Twitter if:

  1. I could have a desktop client on my main computer at work;
  2. TweetDeck didn’t take up an enormous amount of memory on my home computer;
  3. itself made it easier to listen.

I would be happier with Twitter being part of the world if:

  1. People would stop fretting and fussing that Twitter is causing the general populace to cease to read longer texts such as books;
  2. It didn’t lend itself so easily to generating new words such as “tweeps.”  It’s ridiculous – I was half inclined to name this post “twifs.”

Things I’ve learned because of Twitter:

  1. URL shorteners are handy;
  2. Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog was fun;
  3. Automated messages are Irritating.

“The Art of Teaching Adults” – Flexing Learning Styles

Notes and Opinions, Together Again

Renner starts out talking about educational psychologist David Kolb’s theory.  I guess Kolb has to be on my ed psych list now because I can’t really handle his premises, at least in their truncated versions in this book.  I highlighted it on the syllabus for future study.

Goal, by ItsGreg on Flickr
Goal, by It'sGreg on Flickr

I have an issue with the idea that since learning is governed by a person’s needs and goals, educational objectives must exist in order for “the process of learning” to not be “erratic and inefficient.”

  1. A need and a goal are different; this appears to treat them as the same thing.
  2. Learning does not have to be of constant intensity to be effective.  In fact, I’ve experienced the opposite.
  3. There’s nothing wrong with not learning as quickly as humanly possible.
  4. I don’t believe that specifically enumerated objectives and “erratic and inefficient” learning are mutually exclusive, which is what this summary implies.

Renner says that in his Learning Style Inventory (LSI), Kolb groups learning behavior into “four statistically different styles.”  Perhaps I’m showing my ignorance of the field, but this phrase is too vague for me to have any use for it.  I get that the phrase implies that quantitative research has been done, but come on.  Impressing me by saying “look!  research!” isn’t enough.  Anyway, the categories are:

  • Converger – unemotional, likes things, likes to apply ideas practically
  • Diverger – imaginative, likes people, likes multiple points of view
  • Assimilator – logical, likes to make theories
  • Accommodator – intuitive, likes people, likes to test theories against reality

I can’t decide if I’m a Diverger or Accommodator.  Since I can see it either way, I’d probably test as a Diverger.

Renner says that the purpose of having this model is not to typecast people, but to help with “needs analysis” for lesson and course planning.  Later on, almost as an afterthought, Renner mentions that Kolb lists four abilities all students need for effective experiential learning.  These closely parallel the above groupings: have an experience, think about it from many points of view (Diverger), tie experiences to theories (Assimilator), use those theries to solve problems (Accommodator, Converger).  I’m surprised he didn’t more explicitly tie these together.

Even without making this connection, Renner does specifically say that the purpose of these groups isn’t to typecast people, but to help understand students’ needs for course and lesson plans.  It comes across as a fluffy disclaimer, but I still appreciate the point.  It’s about identifying which strategies tend to feel best to a learner, not giving learners an excuse to hide from certain skills.  (One of my pet peeves is when people use their classification-of-the-day as a wall, proclaiming they “can’t” do a certain thing because they’re This Type of learner.  It’s one thing for self-proclaimed “visual learners” to take meeting notes using graphic organizers; it’s another for “visual learners” to refuse to have a conversation about something.)

Overall, it was pretty fluffy.  I have to say, it seems likely that Renner faced the choice of either providing a cursory and inadequate introduction to Kolb’s work or not mentioning it at all.  I think it’s significant that Renner decided to include it.  The more I think about it, the more I think it’s important to take a closer look at Kolb’s LSI.

The Learning. It’s Mine.

Its Mine by Gabbcan on Flickr
It's Mine by Gabbcan on Flickr

One of the reasons my 5-week course project appeals to me is because I cannot get away with being passive.  I own the entire process.  If I’m not deeply involved, it’s not going to happen at all.  It’s mine.

A couple of days after the start of my pilot project, I was reading around The Bamboo Project blog by Michele Martin.  In one post, she said:

I think that one of the reasons people are so passive about learning is because everything in society conspires to make us believe that learning is someone else’s responsibility.

It really has felt like my education was everyone’s responsibility but my own.  Don’t get me wrong – I think my education has been a good one, and I’m sure the professional guidance was even more effective than I realize.  But I had to put my own curiosity on hold to make room for all that education.  It’s taken me several homework-free years to internalize the fact that when there’s something I want to learn about, I can just go learn about it.

Speaking of which, there’s some reading I’d like to do!