Journal: Update and Ponderance

I’m finding it difficult to maintain the homework blog, my other commitments, and this blog too!  Sorry!

The class has undergone some changes since I last surfaced.  One is that our room changed.  Instead of having a medium-sized room with a wall of windows, we have a smallish room with no windows and not enough electric lights.  I like to think of it as The Cave, but it’s not horrible, just a small step backward.  Another change is in our schedule.  We’d been having computer time daily, but the class decided to have longer computer sessions twice a week instead.  So far it’s working out well!

Class size has been hovering in the high teens, except that Monday we had 21, which is a lot for The Cave. 

One issue that’s thus far been a non-issue is our textbook.  It’s actually quite good, but it’s geared for English as a Foreign Language, not English as a Second Language (EFL, not ESL).  The difference is that EFL is for people who are in their own, non-English-speaking countries, learning English in classes.  ESL is for people who are in English-speaking countries, learning English both in class and in their life through necessity. 

One general difference between the two groups is often (but not always) income.  Think about it: who has more plentiful opportunities to earn good money, someone who speaks the dominant language of the country he/she’s in, or someone who is just learning to do so?  In other words, ESL students are (generally) less well-off than EFL students.

This in turn impacts the units present in textbooks.  Right now we’re in a unit about vacations.  This is soon to be followed by a unit on transportation (plane, ship, train, rental car, limo) followed by a unit on shopping.  My students are not all living in poverty by any means.  Many of them clearly have some disposable income.  But many of them simply do not have the means to choose between an African safari and a cruise in their normal, everyday lives.  I feel a little awkward harping on spending (lots of) money for three units in a row.  It seems particularly ironic since there’s a distinct absence of a work-related unit.

Now thank goodness my program cheerfully gives us the freedom to modify and to write our own unit tests.  In this way, I have some flexibility regarding what to focus on within the units.  At risk of looking a gift horse in the mouth, I can’t help but notice that the responsibility is falling on me to donate (a lot of) my time to fix the textbook.  This is not a case of my program being oblivious.  It’s a case of scarcity and all of us doing our very best with what we have.  I think we do a great job.

But why is this level of scarcity acceptable to our students, our government, and our society?

I’m happy to go along with it out of respect to my students and my employers.  I’m improving my own skills in the process.  Looking at a macro level, though, I worry that all of us doing exactly what I’m doing are in a way perpetuating the scarcity.

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.