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


Connecting Syllabus and Student


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 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 master 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 that, 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 (we know where they are, so we can reach toward them) and adequate top-down support (they know where we want them to get, so they can reach toward it)?

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






Student Questions Matrix, Part 1

I’ve been thinking a lot about student questions lately. How do we balance questions with the syllabus? One student’s needs with the rest of the class’s? And once we figure all of that out, what are some great ways to use student questions?

It turned into an infographic and a four-part series. Welcome to Part 1!

My Old De-Facto Mental Model

I vividly remember several instances of student questions hugely derailing my class sessions when I was first teaching.

Questions during class used to feel a bit like being in a batting cage. Questions were fired at me and I remember feeling like was my job to swing at each one and hit as many as I could. A good teacher would be able to answer all of those questions, right? So I should try to do that, right?

Would a good teacher answer all those questions right there on the spot regardless of what they were, what unit the class was in, and who was in her class?

Probably not.

I think that a big part of my mental model was unconsciously seeing questions on a spectrum between “I cannot even begin to answer this” and “I can easily answer this.” Notice how each side started with “I.” In the name of helping my students, I was pretty preoccupied with myself.

A New Mental Model

Thanks to a lot of great teacher education and lots more opportunities to teach, I’ve been using a more intentional and constructive way to view questions as they come at me.

The x-axis is relevancy: how relevant is this question to the current lesson?

My y-axis is importance: how important is this to how many of the students in the room?

(See Part 2 for more details on the axes)

Also, having a Parking Lot in place that is part of my lesson planning and in-class routine is essential.

Without further ado, here’s my little graphic laying out the matrix and three action steps:


The setting where I use this has been in my English for Academic Purposes classes. It helps me navigate my two-fold responsibilities: I’m beholden to a syllabus and to my students. But I think that in a less academic or even a much more student-led context, the same basics can be used. The two axes are fairly subjective and adaptable.

More in this Series, Coming Up!

See Part 2 (the axes), Part 3 (action steps), and Part 4 (metacognition and activities) here in the next few weeks. [I will update these links when I post the new articles.]

Also, thanks for reading! I’d love to hear in the comments how you handle student questions in your own classrooms. I’m especially curious how it goes in classrooms that are more student-led than my academic classes have been.

You’re reading Student Questions, Part 1, originally posted at

Sidekick Manifesto for Teachers

I recently happened upon the Sidekick Manifesto, authored by Shawn Humphrey. I read it in the context of a thoughtful international development blog and was struck at how well it applies to teaching, not just poverty and development issues (though of course there’s overlap there).

The manifesto says that we must stop seeing ourselves as heroes and embrace the role of sidekick. It calls for us to “ride in the side car” and “hang up our capes.” My personal favorite is when it declares we must “welcome [our] sidekick slaps.” Do check out the whole infographic.

What if we saw ourselves as the class’s sidekick? What would that do to teacher talk, and even the syllabus?

What if our students had the capes (and knew it)?

You’re reading Sidekick Manifesto for Teachers, originally posted at

ESL Student Blog

I just wanted to point you toward a great ESL student blog. It is written by adult students who attend free English classes similar to the ones at my center.

This is a recent post of intermediate student writing.

And this post shows the students’ garden! The pictures are beautiful. Inspired and looking for a great, easy-to-read novel?  Try Seedfolks!

Proof and Motivation

I believe in being nice to people and in helping out when I can. I believe it’s the right thing to do, and I also believe that it pays off in the end so it’s stupid not to.

My philosophical debate of the day is this: does the “paying off in the end” bit cheapen or confirm the “right thing to do” bit?  Can it be logical and good at the same time?

Proof, by Kodama on Flickr
Proof, by Kodama on Flickr

This came to mind because twice in the past couple of weeks, one of my advanced students, C, asked for help sending videos of her little daughter out to family in Mexico, and also with getting her hand-me-down laptop to join the library’s wireless network.

To me, these are life skills, most especially when your family lives far away.  Limited access is a problem, and when I had the chance to address it for even one person, I couldn’t not.  So I had her come in during the afternoon lull and spent maybe an hour and a half total helping her out.

Then Wednesday evening, I had an unprecedented number of new students enrolling, including four men who spoke Spanish but little English. C was there because one of those men was her brother – she brought him in. She helped him understand the application and the mechanics of his test, and when he was good to go, C also helped me with the three other Spanish-speaking students.

So on one hand, what goes around comes around, and it’s amazing to be part of a cycle of such positivity.

On the other hand, I have this very concrete proof that going the extra mile for students yields more students and more helpers.  Does this proof suck any “good” there might have been out of my desire to help my students?

I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t know where my motivation to serve my students ends and my motivation to serve myself begins.

At least they’re aligned?


One of my adult students has been in the beginning ESL class for a long time.  He’s getting really frustrated that he’s still there.  The problem is that he’s not ready for intermediate.  I can tell from his tests, from talking to him, and from the fact that he had a little kid translate what I was saying to him.

Point! by a2gemma on Flickr
"Point!" by a2gemma on Flickr

The thing is, he has it in his head that the only thing that will help him is to move to the intermediate class.  He seems to think that the problem is with the beginning level class.  I asked him what he needs more of, he said he didn’t know, and he wouldn’t talk about improving the class.  This makes me less inclined to accept his finger-pointing, though improving classes is always on my mind.  He has just decided that he’s going to move up into a harder class even though he can’t pass the easier one.

And since I won’t move him up a level, he has stopped coming to beginning classes, thus ensuring that he will not be ready for intermediate any time soon.  He is also about to lose his spot in the class because of poor attendance – I have a wait list full of students who want to attend class.

I’m just seeing some basically self-defeating behavior, and my questions are:

  1. does he know it’s self-defeating?
  2. would understanding that it’s self-defeating stop the behavior?
  3. what could help him stop finger-pointing and start thinking about how he can achieve?
  4. how can I redirect competent adults from willfully shooting themselves in the foot?
  5. what cultural nuances am I missing that would help me understand the situation more fully?
  6. how can the beginning class be improved?

Regarding this particular situation, we’ll work through it and it will be resolved.  It probably won’t resolve quickly, but that’s ok.

I also see a more universal situation though.  We all do the self-defeating thing to ourselves at some point by insisting on the wrong goals, stubbornly blaming things on external factors and accepting no responsibility, doggedly pursuing paths that aren’t working, expressing frustration by breaking or ignoring our tools for success, and basically doing exactly what I see this man doing.  How can we notice this behavior in ourselves, and what could we do to redirect ourselves back to being constructive?

Maybe if I figure that out about myself, it will help me work more effectively with frustrated students.