Journal: Easy Writing and Confusing Computers

Students: 12

One thing that went well:  We’re on our second big writing project, and this one is much easier for the class.  They’re writing letters.  I think it’s more concrete than just an opinion piece, so it’s less nerve-wracking, less academic, and possibly more useful.  Note to self: start with this one next time.

One thing to improve:  I’ve kind of stopped writing the daily plan on the board (i.e. 1. writing, 2. reading, 3. computers), but I think I should start again.  I just think it’s better to give the class a bit of a road-map of where we’re going on a given day.

One surprise:  The computer lesson.  Today’s topic was judging Google results.  I stated the goal (to judge Google results).  I demonstrated.  I checked for understanding.  We repeated the goal together.  The class had a sparsely-worded assignment to refer to.  But it turned out that a few people still had no idea what we were doing.  I discovered this when they emailed me answers that had nothing to do with judging Google results.  Sigh.  I shouldn’t have been surprised – my less tech-savvy students were the most confused ones.  Leveled computer classes, please!

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.

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: New Things Today

It’s a day of new things.

1) I radically changed my lesson planning style. The old way was fine for a relatively mono-level class, but I have an extremely multi-level class. It wasn’t fair to just teach to the majority in the middle.

I split the class into teams and planned separate and simultaneous activities for the teams. This is outside of my comfort zone and feels very risky (what if they have an important question after I’ve moved on to concentrate on a different team?). For example, the purple team was matching job vocab words with the appropriate pictures and the blue team was writing their opinion on a work-related reading while I set up the yellow team for a grammar/dictation exercise.

It worked decently well, with lots of room for improvement. I kept having technical difficulties (for example, Word crashed and lost the activity I’d just typed out, so it wasn’t ready before class started.  And the sound on the listening activity worked when I tested it but not 10 minutes later when it was time for the students to begin).   The students were also not accustomed to my reduced presence with any given group and didn’t seem sure when to interrupt me to ask a question (i.e. Wait, what exactly should we be doing? vs.  Is this spelled right?) .

I need to be clearer about which team I’m addressing and when they need to interrupt me for clarification.  My modeling has not been enough.  I need to always have two students demonstrate first and watch the activity for at least a minute or two before I go to the next group.  I need to reuse activity structures to reduce confusion (for example, they know what to do for a dictation activity).  I need to have low-tech back-ups for the tech-dependent activities, and given that this multilevel style of planning took me absolutely forever just to cover about an hour of class, I’m not thrilled about planning back-ups as well.

2)  I busted out the conversation cards during conversation time.  I wouldn’t say that they were a silver bullet, but they really did help students lead their own small groups for at least a few minutes instead of just looking at me (a circle of 12 students is too big to maintain for more than a question or two).

3) I start teaching another class through another organization this evening!  Their level is Intermediate 2.  It should be awesome!

I’m not sure when or if I’ll post about this other class.  It’s two evenings per week, and I won’t be able to post directly after class because we have to close up the building and leave.  Once I get home after 10pm, I’m doubtful that blogging will happen.  So… its presence on this blog will be a surprise for all of us.  🙂

A Note on My Current Class

This Fall, I’m teaching Level One Multilevel for 12 hours per week (Monday through Thursday mornings, three hours each day).  This means that most of my students are “Level 1.”

“Level 1”
Every level, Level 1 being no exception, includes a range of student abilities.  Some students at this level cannot easily understand the question, “Where are you from?” while some can have a conversation with me about their morning exercise routine.  Some are great at reading while others have trouble reading in their first language, let alone English.  Some students have been immersed in American culture for five or more years while others arrived a week ago.

It’s also typical for a given student to have higher skills in some modalities than in others (for example, one student I had back in St. Paul couldn’t understand a word I said but absolutely schooled a Level 2 reading test).

The “multilevel” distinction is an interesting one.  Basically, my class includes all of the Level 1 students, as well as the Level 2 and 3 students who aren’t able to make it to class at least 9 hours per week.

Mine is also the class where new students are sent to fill out forms and await their placement tests.  That’s why I had 17 students on Wednesday – many of them were just temporarily in my class until we could ascertain their level and schedule and place them in a class for real.

What I Think Of This
This set-up does add some chaos to my classroom, but I think it limits chaos on the whole.  First, it lets us keep our 12-hour classes for folks who can come for about 12 hours without just sending the others away.  Second, it makes sense to send new registrants by default to the lowest class because it’s better to risk them being bored than intimidated.

We were all hoping I’d have a volunteer aid to help with new students and with computer-based learning for the students from Level 2 and Level 3.  However, I don’t seem to have one.  One of the office staff does come by once or twice a week to test new students and help with paperwork, and that’s huge.

A few more thoughts on this:

  • This class, with solo teaching multilevel and being a demi-coordinator too, is really going to take my planning to the next level.
  • A paid classroom aid would make more sense to me than a volunteer.  Such a position would be a small expense compared to its impact on quality.
  • I could probably try to recruit a volunteer classroom aid from the college.

Yay Co-Teaching!

Despite three teachers calling in sick or out of town this week for today’s evening classes, I had full class coverage!  One coworker subbed, I subbed, and one class was covered by the co-teacher who wasn’t sick.  Perfect!

Army Air Corps Pilots by Smithsonian Institution on Flickr
Army Air Corps Pilots by Smithsonian Institution on Flickr

Setting up co-teachers is really, really nice for those sudden winter illnesses that happen.  Instead of having two hours to scramble for a sub, you just let the co-teacher know they’ll be flying solo that evening.  And in the event that they both come down with something, you can at least chalk it up to a decision made by fate and not your own poor planning.

Even though a solid handful of my teachers prefer teaching alone, I’m still working on them to either teach alternate weeks or have a “stunt double” who could come in for them, preferably even on short notice.

I’m just so pleased that we had enough teachers.  Even though it’s possible to combine levels if need be, it’s disruptive for the students.  Also, since it’s one answer to last-minute situations that arise, it’s rare to have enough time to write a fantastic multilevel lesson somehow relevant to both classes’ curricula.

So I think I should find a spare couple of hours to write a multi-level lesson or two to have on hand just in case.  And I think that I should keep at building up this co-teacher thing – I feel great about the quality it enabled us to give our students this evening.