Back to Basics

It’s easy to get mired in details at the beginning of the semester, so here is a round-up of posts on some core basics of good ESL teaching:

 

Prepping

Three-Phase Lesson Planning – I do it, we do it, you do it

Students Will Be Able To… – focusing on what students will be doing

Reducing Teacher Talk – saying less is valuable. Plan it in.

 

Teaching the Students

Frequent, Low-Stakes Quizzing – find out for sure what they got out of the lesson

Connecting Syllabus and Student – feedback and supporting top-down learning

 

Reflective Teaching

“You’re Too Hard On Yourself!” – am I? Reflection isn’t criticism, it’s honesty.

Beginning with the End in Mind – the end is coming! Get ready!

 

You’re reading Back to Basics, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.

 

 

 

First Day Round-Up

A round-up of posts relevant to the first day of class!

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Getting Ready

Beginning with the End In Mind – Thinking beyond the syllabus, log-ins, and diagnostic tests of the first day, to the larger question of how the semester should go.

Student Panel – Authentic introductions and warm-ups are important, according to a student panel at one of my colleges.

Student Questions – How will you be handling student questions this semester? Think about it, and set the expectation on Day 1.

Connecting Student and Syllabus – Best to start out with a plan for this!

 

Activities

Syllabus Activities – Ideas for going over the syllabus on the first day, plus more ideas for integrating it into class throughout the semester.

Conversation Jenga – A particularly great activity for Day 1 conversations.

Warm-Ups – All of my posts tagged “warm-up”

 

Journals

Awkward First Day – Classic journal post from my earliest days teaching EBS.

Comfortable First Day – Classic journal post from my days teaching EBS.

A Fresh, New Semester – My first day last semester – assistant teaching in for-credit EAP.

 

Photo CreditJeanne Menjoulet on Flickr

You’re reading First Day Round-Up, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.

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 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 LearningToTeachEnglish.com.

 

 

 

 

 

Beginning with the End In Mind

8580915870_f08788c2a9In anticipation of the beginning of the semester, here’s what’s on my mind:

  • What can I do to set a great tone for the semester?
  • How do I meaningfully and efficiently communicate expectations to everyone?
  • Am I prepared to help people log into the class computers? This system is particularly weird!
  • How am I going to support the students with the lowest tech skills?
  • What is a reasonable and early indicator that a student is in danger of failing the class?

Looking back at thoughts from the end of last semester, some more things to think about:

  • What are three things I can do this semester that I will be proud of?
  • What can I improve from last semester? (perennial answer: teacher talk, Emily. Teacher talk.)
  • What take-aways do I want to foster all semester long?

A few posts with ideas for the first day:

Lastly, just for kicks, a few posts from previous First Days:

 

Photo Credit: solidariat on Flickr

You’re reading Beginning with the End in Mind, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.

Syllabus Activities

14193201770_0f44e45da7The course syllabus gives students powerful information about the upcoming semester: learning goals, assignment schedules, grading policies, academic resources, and so much more.

But it just looks like a stack of paper.

Unfortunately, in my experience the students who need this resource the most are the ones least likely to recognize and understand all it provides.

In my opinion, the single most effective way to get students to realize what is in the syllabus and see how it can help them, is to have them use it.

Here are several activity ideas:

On The First Day

Embed Write-Ins

When you write the syllabus, leave prompts for students to write in personalized information.

“A classmate’s name and contact info: ___________________________”

“Dates I know I’ll have to miss class: ___________________________”

Take it a step farther and go for some metacognition:

“Which of these technical skills do I need help with? ___________________________”

“Is it better to go to the writing center or fail the class? ___________________________”

“What will I do if I get less than 75% on a major assignment? ___________________________”

Info Gap

Turn the syllabus into an information gap activity. You can do this with the whole thing or just one or two sections.

Make three different versions of the syllabus:

  • one complete master document
  • Version A (see below)
  • Version B (see below)

Name the files abundantly clearly.

In Version A, blank out 5-10 key pieces of information. Leave space for the students to write in the information during class.

In Version B, blank out 5-10 different key pieces of information. Double check that the information missing from Version A is present in Version B and vice-versa. Again, leave space for students to write in the information.

When you print them, be sure to label the cover of each. Color code, call them “Complete,” “A,” and “B,” etc.

Have students circulate and ask each other for the information they’re missing.

Note: Specify that the purpose of this activity is to practice conversation AND to be familiar with the syllabus.

Good question:  “When is the midterm?”

Bad question: “What is the third word in the second paragraph of page 2?”

Jigsaw Activity

This is the most advanced suggestion on this list.

During class, use the syllabus as the basis for a jigsaw activity.

Have small groups become experts in one section of the syllabus. Suggested activities: within each group, take turns reading a paragraph out loud while the others follow along. Then each student take a few minutes to develop a comprehension question on each paragraph s/he read aloud. The students quiz each other, closed-book. They share their opinions about how important their section is, and when it’s most useful. Last, together they put together a one-minute summary of their section that they will share with the others.

Then, these small groups break apart and form new groups with at least one representative from each original group. Within the new groups, students each share their one-minute summary. Then they give their opinion about how important their section is, and when it’s most useful (e.g. the grading policies section is very important, especially useful if you’re worried about your grades; the school closing section is important, but only if it’s snowing out).

After The First Day

Make Sure It’s A Relevant, Living Document

When you talk about grading or policy issues come up, refer back to the syllabus. Open up the document online or in your hands. Or both.

When you “complete” a course objective or a major assignment is handed in, graded, corrected and thoroughly finished with, take a moment during class to check it off on your syllabus. Use a document camera if you have one. Encourage students to check off accomplishments on their copies as well.

If your syllabus includes a schedule, and that schedule changes (e.g. Unit 5 needs another week), update the master copy of the syllabus. Ask students to put an X through their latest version of the course schedule, and then hand out updated (and labeled) hard copies.

Assign It As Content

Sometime in the second week, have the students complete a basic take-home assignment using the syllabus as a reference. Depending on your style, some might call this an open-book “quiz,” but others would simply say “homework.”

Ask straightforward questions that highlight what you want students to be most aware of.

“What happens if homework is late?”

“How much of your grade is your midterm worth?”

Use It As A Text

Going over coordinating conjunctions (FANBOYS)? Highlight them in the course objectives in the syllabus and discuss why each one was chosen.

Learning to paraphrase? Why not paraphrase some of the syllabus section on plagiarism?

Practicing intonation? Use the syllabus! There are certainly statements, lists, dependent clauses, and so on.

 

Wishing students and teachers everywhere a wonderful semester!

 

Photo Credit: Phillip Wong on Flickr

You’re reading Syllabus Strategies, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.

 

Highlighting the Value of a Writing Course

2233349300_9646c5864eOn Monday, I wrote a bit about what an in-person college writing course offers that free resources typically do not.

I also shared my opinion that these offerings seem to be overlooked quite frequently, and that including them in the syllabus is not enough.

Today, here are some routines and one-time actions that teachers can take to help students make the most of their ESL writing course.

Cohort

  • First class – names, ice-breakers, exchanging contact information with at least one other student
  • Activity – debate
  • Activity – brainstorming
  • Activity – communicative group work (e.g. jigsaw or grid activities)
  • Routine activity – peer review

A Teacher Who Knows You

  • First class – learn names quickly
  • Activity – early writing assignments where students can explain their own experience and opinions
  • Routine – use grading rubrics
  • Routine – be available before and after class, even though for so many of us it’s unpaid
  • Routine activity – conferencing

“Free” Services From The College

  • First class – emphasize that they are paying for their classes AND tutoring centers AND the library (and the gym, and so on)
  • Routine – when outlines and drafts are coming due, suggest (again and again) that students visit the writing center
  • Routine activity – offer bonus points for students who go to an appointment with the writing center
  • Activity – invite a librarian to class, or take a field trip to the library
  • Activity – initiate a chat with a college librarian during class
  • Activity – evaluate internet sources

 

Photo Credit: Benson Kua on Flickr

You’re reading Highlighting the Value of a Writing Class, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.

 

The Value of a Writing Class

5818134689_781773b3ddThere is an incredible wealth of writing resources available for free on the internet.

Aside from the ability to earn credentials (certificates, degrees, etc.), what do college ESL writing classes offer that is more valuable than the freebies?

Here are three strengths of in-person writing courses, such as ones I’ve taught and assistant-taught at various community colleges:

A Cohort

  • other students at approximately the same level going through the same difficult class provide cameraderie
  • people to brainstorm, develop ideas, and debate with
  • peer review exposes students to each other’s styles and scaffolds self-editing and metacognition in writing

A Teacher Who Knows You

  • teacher provides direction, assignments, accountability
  • teacher available during (and usually after) classes for in-person questions, plus emails
  • teacher provides individualized feedback on assignments

“Free” Services From The College

  • writing centers
  • tutoring centers
  • libraries with access to hundreds of electronic databases and full of academic librarians to help with research, citation, etc.

 

So What?

I was a decently successful college student. This was due in part to my fluent English, and also my strong academic background, with some luck and some sleepless nights thrown in. It really had nothing to do with my intelligently using course and college resources, including all of the ones listed above. That wasn’t even on my radar.

From casual observation of many students over the years, it doesn’t look like these elements of the class are on their radars, either. But of course, our students aren’t fluent, often have interrupted educational background, and have not enough luck and way too many sleepless nights as it is. As a group, they really need support.

So I think that we as the leaders and assistant leaders of the classroom should make sure that this support is front and center.

Including it on the syllabus and mentioning it in passing on the first day is not sufficient.

 

Some specific action items coming up on Thursday.

 

Photo Credit: POP on Flickr

You’re reading The Value of a Writing Class, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.

Activity Corner: Put It In Order

(I thought it might be helpful to readers and myself if I described some of my favorite activities from time to time. See all my ESL Activity Corner posts here.)

My lead teacher used one of these activities to introduce essay structure in our Advanced Academic Writing class last week. She gave each student an element of an academic essay (i.e. “thesis statement,” “topic sentence 2,” etc.), and as a class they had to tape them to the board in the correct order.

I’ve used it in the past to teach sequence signal words (first, then, etc.) and to review several different verb tenses all at once. I’ve also used a variation where students put words in an appropriate order to form a sentence.

One of my Russian teachers used it on us to teach… well, I’m not sure what she was trying to teach. It was the first week of class and she gave us two stanzas worth of separate lines of a Russian poem. We had to put them in order. It was waaaay over my head.

This is a great activity for students to do in small groups or as one big group. They’ll be negotiating meaning together and the conversations will be authentic because of that. It can be individually done as well, but there’s less conversation and lots more cutting out that way.

Process:

  1. Decide what you want your students to put in order. Some kind of chronological or other objective sequence (i.e. introduction, body, conclusion) is the most clear-cut way to do this.
  2. Decide how many students to a group, and how many groups.
  3. Decide where the students will be working – at their tables, on the board, etc.
  4. Cut out the pieces onto separate strips of paper.
  5. In class, introduce the activity. Explain that you’ll be putting the papers in order. Explain what the students will be looking for to determine the order.
  6. Give the students time to figure it out.
  7. Go over the students’ results. Highlight the clues that pointed us to the right answer (i.e. “last” would go at the end; a thesis statement always goes at the end of the intro). Go over what is correct and be sure to answer questions about it.

Variations:

Other prep ideas:

  • Bring several pairs of scissors and have students help you cut strips.
  • Write on index cards or sentence strip card stock.
  • Assign students to each write on each card, then they can put the cards in order. Example: ask each student to write one sentence that told one activity they did last week and when they did it. (This element can be practice of Simple Past.) Then they can put all their sentences in order on the board.

Levels of focus:

  • word building (i.e. prefix, root, suffixes)
  • sentence building (each strip is just one word)
  • paragraph building
  • narrative building / timeline

Other uses:

  • Conversation starter – have students put things in a more subjective order, such as importance, preference, fairness, etc. This sets up the class for meaningful conversations: students can discuss why they put things where they did, ask each other questions, and practice politely disagreeing. Examples: best food, most important belongings, spouse traits, etc.
  • Syllabus study – the first day of class, when going over the syllabus, have students put their major assignments in order so they for sure know what’s coming up in the semester.
  • Grammar study – include sentences in various past, present, and future tenses and aspects that the students are familiar with.
  • Content – put a step in a process on each strip, then have the students put those in order. Examples: photosynthesis, blood transfusions, rebuilding a carburetor, etc.

You’re reading Activity Corner: Put It In Order, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.

Shaping a Writing Class

2183799236_e16d497eccThe Fall 2016 semester ended last month. I was an assistant teacher in an advanced academic writing class. It was really incredible professional development, plus quite fun in its own right. And I’m scheduled to do it again this coming semester! So naturally I’ve been ruminating on teaching writing.

If a kind/diabolical genie granted me an advanced academic writing class for which I had to write a syllabus without regard for anything else, how would I shape it?

Content-wise, I think I would emphasize:

  • reading example essays and papers
  • logic, argument, and reasoning
  • grammar review
  • writing many, many shorter assignments
    • writing thesis statements (direct and indirect) for a huge variety of topics
    • writing body paragraphs or conclusions to complete example essays
    • intentionally using the four different sentence types (simple, compound, complex, compound complex) in shorter writing assignments
  • drafting and editing several full-blown essays

Pretest/Post-test:

  • edit the same essay (for grammar, argument, and structure) on first day and last day
  • write the same essay on first day and second-to-last day
    • compare the two on the last day

In the day-to-day of class, I would ideally have the basic structure be quite consistent:

  • warm-up time (grammar, argument, editing)
  • homework review time
  • reading/citation time
  • writing time
  • conferencing time
  • similar homework expectations each week

Homework:

  • due same week: grammar and editing work on same topic as was done in class, submitted on Canvas
  • due next week: writing, for peer review in class, then to be handed in

What am I forgetting?

Photo Credit: kellinahandbasket on Flickr

You’re reading Shaping a Writing Class, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.

Starting My Source List

Katie left a comment asking:

Also, how did you go about generating the list of reading materials for the course?

It’s been an ongoing process.

Books by Svenwerk on Flickr
Books by Svenwerk on Flickr

I started by searching my local library’s catalog for “teaching adults.”  I reserved several books that looked interesting and relevant and put them on the syllabus.  This way, even if they’re not The Books on the subject, I had somewhere to start after only 10 minutes of pursuit.

Actually, speaking of easily accessible, the library had several electronic resources that I emailed to myself and forgot about till I wrote that last paragraph.  There, I just popped them onto the syllabus.  Writing really does help me think.

From there, I looked at the resources referenced in the books, particularly in Renner’s The Art of Teaching Adults.  Renner wrote a great first chapter outlining what cannon of work informed his book and what it had to say – it’s basically a readable and engaging annotated bibliography.

One of my volunteers also just happened to mention an article he’d been reading about teaching adults basic reading skills, and when he offered to give me a copy I gladly accepted and added it to the syllabus.

Craning For A Book by *Your Guide on Flickr
Craning For A Book by *Your Guide on Flickr

I also realized that my learning center has a bunch of books, some of them teacher references, so I grabbed one I’ve been curious about (thoughts on “English from A to Z” here) and can definitely grab more.  This brought to mind how I’d love to LibraryThing my center’s books so that my volunteers, students, coworkers and I could know exactly what’s there and sort through it all in meaningful ways.  Right now I’m pretty much the only one who knows what we have, and that’s a waste of a pretty handy collection!

It’s kind of fascinating how even one or two sources lead to a huge number of sources.  Identifying them was definitely not the hard part.  All I had to do was start!

Other material-finding resources I considered but haven’t really tapped yet:

  • syllabi from Adult Education courses at leading colleges and universities
  • recommendations from experienced teachers (I haven’t really talked to any yet)
  • Wikipedia, used specifically for a list of other (reputable) resources

The beauty of the 5-week project is that another can start quite soon.  The sources I don’t get to can always go to a future project.