Assistant (to the) Teacher

In a spate of blog-updating energy, I gave a quick update and then talked about a Conversation Partners class I got to teach earlier this year.

Next on my list is my new role as an Assistant Teacher.

How I Got There

I thought I wasn’t going to be able to teach this semester. My family moved such that commuting to the place(s) where I used to teach became nightmarish. I’m just not cut out for a drive of less than 15 miles taking 50+ minutes. I guess one of the benefits of being an adjunct with no possibility of benefits is that I’m at least not tethered with golden chains to a specific brutal commute. I applied to programs closer to our new home and discovered another group of lovely people running a great program, and I was very pleased to be welcomed onto their roster of teachers. The problem was that their courses all meet twice a week.

I actually prefer the twice-a-week model to the once-a-week model in terms of learning retention, assignment pacing, class camaraderie, etc. The problem was that in order to prep my once-a-week class I was already tiptoeing around the home office before sunrise to get my planning in. Planning twice as many sessions was going to push me into the zone of “I’m Probably Overextended But I’m Doing My Best Given The Circumstances” for both my teaching and my momming (I am in charge of the kids during the day). This is an uncomfortable zone to be in, and in my own experience comes with a frenetic pace and lots of crankiness. The cost-benefit analysis was pretty clear: it didn’t make sense to teach this semester. When the kids are older, when they (and I) sleep better, when they can be expected to play on their own for a reasonable amount of time, then would be the time I could take on a twice-a-week class and give it my actual best.

Then I got an email from the department asking if I’d like to assistant teach this semester. Half the in-class time commitment and none of the prep. That sounds like about what I can handle right now – yes please!

The Experience

So I go in for about an hour twice a week. The location is really quite convenient to my  home – hooray! The teacher is kind and welcoming, and I enjoy brainstorming with her and working with the students.

This is actually my first time assistant teaching  and it’s a hugely valuable experience to be in an ESL classroom throughout the whole semester but not be The Leader. I can bring a much more low-key energy, focus on different things and different people, and see the classroom from a not-the-teacher perspective. Really, it’s like a semester-long professional development activity that I’m getting compensated for.

One source of irony is that this experience, like other great PD, is a huge idea generator. But as the assistant, I really don’t have a say in how the class goes (though the teacher is super collaborative and asks for and values my opinions). I’m taking detailed notes on specifics so I can apply some or all of these ideas to my next class. In the meantime, I’m doing my best to stay in the moment and not get carried away with the possibilities. Having the space to wind down and be is a huge benefit of being “just” the assistant.

I wouldn’t want to forego actual teaching, leading, and preparation for any length of time – I value it and I already miss it. But I’m just so pleased at how things worked out this semester: I’m involved, I’m not overextended, and I’m growing as a teacher.

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Journal: Passive Voice

Sorry for the blog hiatus.  We’ve been working on passive voice (i.e. “My wallet was stolen.”) for the last week and a half.  I can’t use the textbook’s materials because this topic is scheduled for next semester, not this one.  However, we needed it now, and they’ll need it again next semester.  So I’ve been working extra hard with no text to lean on, and it’s been wonderful but tiring.

Students: 12

One thing that went well:  Jigsaw reading.  In my attempt to not over-use it, I’ve been under-using it.  This time, I used two readings that were fairly long and hopefully high-interest.  The students read independently and worked on comprehension questions.  Then they got together into two same-story groups to discuss their stories: 1) main idea, 2) new words, and 3) what surprised them.  Then they split into different-story partners and shared about their story using the same three questions.  One or two groups finished early, so I had them compare and contrast the two stories.  That proved quite interesting – I wish I’d had everyone talk about it!  Two particular victories: I didn’t talk much, and it ended our class on an energetic and communicative note.

One thing to improve:  Eliciting student opinions.  I actually do it a lot – that’s not the problem.  The problem is that I’m usually met with ringing silence.  I’m clearly not framing it as well as I could, both leve-wise and culture-wise.

One surprise:  I gave a quiz in passive voice today.  I mostly left transitive vs. intransitive verbs off of the quiz – they’re important, but the class was simply not ready for a quiz on them.  However, I wrote a bonus question asking them to write a passive sentence with the verb “sleep.”  This is a trick queston because you can’t use “sleep” or other intransitive verbs in the passive voice.  My happy surprise?  Several students got it right!  It was very exciting.

Journal: Tiny Class

Students: 9 (sad!)

One thing that went well: Yesterday’s lesson.  And I still had abysmal attendance today.  Although I hope that if I taught horribly my students would stop coming to class, I just really can’t take it as direct correlation between bad teaching and low attendance.

One thing to improve:  Actually, today was pretty good too.  Even in terms of talking too much – I stopped myself several times.

One surprise:  Realizing for myself that English spelling rules for -ed verbs and pronunciation rules are both pretty simple and pretty consistent, but are 100% unrelated.  It’s so crazy!

Journal: The Verb +ed Common Thread

Students: 14

One thing that went well:   Yesterday felt very choppy, but today we were more focused.  We still worked on three different topics, but today the topics were related (-ed vs. -ing adjectives, pronouncing -ed endings, and reading a story that was mostly in the Simple Past).  I also did a much better job of having them practice rather than just talking at them.  One of the topics was in response to a pronunciation question they asked yesterday.  Though it wasn’t perfect (see the next paragraph for more on this), it felt good to teach a solid lesson based on something they asked about yesterday.  So I guess I felt that several things went pretty well today.

One thing to improve:  Although I think the lesson on the pronunciation of regular past tense verbs (think of the -ed in fixed vs. studied vs. interested) was pretty effective, I think I needed to more clearly tie what we were talking about to verbs ending in -ed and to pronunciation (as opposed to spelling).

One surprise:  We were reviewing the difference between adjectives for feelings that are made out of verbs.  There’s usually an -ed form and an -ing form and they mean different things.  Just think of “bored” and “boring.”  To help them practice this, I drew them a picture of me walking up a really long staircase.  I labeled myself “tired” and the stairs “tiring.”  Then I had the students draw pictures and label them.  Half the class did “interested” and “interesting,” and the other half did “embarrassed” and “embarrassing.”  I was surprised at just how useful it was for bringing out questions that solidified their understanding.  I was also surprised at how vehemently a couple of students either couldn’t or wouldn’t draw anything.  Incredibly useful but incredibly controversial.  Very surprising!

Journal: Grammar was driving us crazy!

Students: 13

One thing that went well:  I busted out a grid activity at a good time in our really exhausting grammar lesson.

One thing to improve:  There were so many incredibly picky questions, and most of them were not actually on the topic of our grammar lesson, which was Past Continuous (i.e. Grammar was driving us crazy.).  Transitive and intransitive verbs came up in one of our examples and there went 20 minutes (The chicken was roasting. vs. I was roasting the chicken.).  I did manage to avoid slipping into an impromptu lesson on Active and Passive Voice (I prepared the chicken. vs. The chicken was prepared by me.), but only because I’ve been revving up to dive into it in our next unit.  But anyway… grammar basically engulfed the whole class period.  And this was after I refused to answer half their questions (the Passive Voice ones).  How harshly should I reign things in?

One surprise:  How easy Past Continuous (you know, our official grammar point of the day) was compared to all the questions they were asking.

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!

Journal: Comfort Food

Students: 14

One thing that went well:  Today’s long reading was about comfort food.  I think it went well from beginning to end: it started with students’ experiences with comfort food, modeling and practice of figuring out confusing words from context only, and munching the cookies I’d brought in.  The timing of the lesson was pretty good too, and we ended class with a nice, up-beat feeling.  No complaints from me!

One thing to improve:  Making writing less stressful to students.  I’ve been trying with process writing (as opposed to one-shot, get-it-right-or-fail writing), examples, and pointing out my own writing’s shortcomings in said examples.  But I think I need to focus on it even more, especially framing writing stress as something the students can exert a degree of control over.

One surprise:  I thought that a few students in particular would struggle with today’s writing assignment, which was basically to map out the purpose and main points of the letter they’ll be drafting tomorrow and perfecting (inasmuch as writing is ever perfect) next week.  I kept an extra eye on them, so I can proudly report that they did just fine!