Student Feedback: Stress-O-Meter

Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

Steven Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

 

Stress matters, whether you call it stress, pressure, anxiety, or the affective filter.

How stressed your students are will definitely impact their attendance, participation, and their performance on assignments.

Do you know how your students are doing in this regard? How do you know – are you guessing? Or are you finding out too late, during an outburst in class?

Try this: create a very simple online form (I like using Google Forms) that you can send out to all your students on a regular basis – at least weekly. Ask no more than three questions, targeting their stress levels.

Stress Report Sample

 

What would this data show you about your course, your assignment instructions, your deadlines, and your students’ lives outside of your course?

What might it mean to a student who’s overwhelmed in his personal life, to be able to click that first 5 and know that he’ll get a kind word from you in class?

How would you change these questions to suit your own classroom?

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Book Review: Deep Work

508024134_140I recently read Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport.

It was a good read and made me look differently at what I want to do and how I go about it, but mostly, how I allocate my attention. I recommend it to anyone who feels that they don’t have enough time, which is high praise, because that’s most everyone I’ve ever met.

The main premise of the book is that it’s really important to carve out uninterrupted time in our days to focus on tough problems, ignore distractions, and do the hard work. He calls this “deep work,” and contrasts it to the shallow work of reacting to email, refocusing after interruptions, meetings, engaging on social media, and so on. He argues convincingly about why deep work is valuable, and writes extensively about how to go about it (e.g. scheduling, how to limit shallow tasks), as well as how to boost your concentration skills to make the most of your deep work time (e.g. meditation, memorization work).

I have to admit that it was a bit hard for me to get into it: as a stay-at-home-mom who can’t use the bathroom without getting interrupted, the multiple stories of single men retreating from the world for months at a time to incubate their genius in silence felt kind of like Newport was flipping me off. I’m glad I kept reading anyway, and I encourage you to do so as well. I think he’s just trying to be engaging by talking about so many extreme examples at first. In Part II of the book, he really delves into the how of deep work, and includes many suggestions and examples of people working deeply to great effect without abandoning their other responsibilities.

ESOL-Related Thoughts

Are we employing deep work strategies to perform our best as faculty? How could our departments support deep work of both full-timers and adjuncts? How can we as individuals harness it?

Are we fostering or impeding deep work in class? With our assignments? With our LMS expectations?

Is this a topic worthy of mention and coaching in our classes, like information literacy and plagiarism and critical thinking?

Excerpts from this book be a worthwhile text to use in an advanced class. The writing is pretty direct, has a strong voice, and makes really valuable points as well.

 

In case you’re interested but aren’t going to be reading the book any time soon, Newport has some talks up on YouTube, and he’s a great speaker.

 

You’re reading Book Review: Deep Work, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.

 

 

Throwback Draft: Off on the Left Foot

Tying the Knot by psyberartist on Flickr
Tying the Knot by psyberartist on Flickr

[I have a collection of unpublished drafts in this blog, and I thought I’d publish some from time to time in a Throwback Draft series.]

I wrote this piece more than five years ago, as I was transitioning from being in nonprofits to being in ESL. I’d like to keep the timeframe vague because it will help protect the identity of the kind  people and beneficial orgs in the specific example I describe.

I turned out to be happy teaching the class I describe in this article, and I have been happy with my current part-time contingent role at multiple sites through multiple community colleges over the years.

That said, looking back at this post more than five years later, it still resonates with me. I’m happy teaching and assistant teaching, but what’s going on around my classroom is still significant. The nonprofit I wrote about here has shut down. Academics is considered to be having an ” adjunct crisis.” I think a lot of us have a sense of doing ever more with ever less. Our students are not benefiting from this trend, and I’m not sure who is.

***

The beginning of this new teaching gig has been a string of annoyances and errors so far.

I’m blogging about them because I feel like they exemplify what’s wrong with running low-efficiency operations hog-tied by arbitrary funding rules and changes.

Background: I will be working through a community college to teach ESL at a small nonprofit.  I have met everybody involved and there are no slackers, no morons, and no mean-spirited trolls; there are just good people trying to run a good program.

The Comedy of Errors

  1. Disrespectful scheduling: I requested morning classes through the college.  They were all listed as 9AM – 12PM.  I was scheduled as the teacher for one of them at “Nonprofit A.”  Then the college moved my class one hour earlier.  I found out via a mass email of the changed schedule.  There was no acknowledgement that I did not sign up for an 8AM class, nor were there offers of flexibility or explanation.  There were, however, enough obvious errors on the schedule that I had to email the office to confirm that the change was not a typo.
  2. Slow Information: Teachers were going to receive materials at a meeting over a month before classes started.  This meeting was then moved to be two weeks before classes started.  So much for planning ahead.
  3. Inefficient, Ineffective Meetings: Said last-minute meeting was so generic that the teachers still did not know what to plan.  It had to be followed up with other small-group meetings the week before classes started.
  4. Chase Grant or Prep Teachers?: Said small-group meeting was derailed because the leader of the meeting unexpectedly had to deal with changes to our grant (which begins Monday) that morning and so was unable to be prepared for us.
  5. Logistical Detail Disaster: Remember how they pushed my class one hour earlier?  Nobody thought about building access.  The regular teacher who has a key is currently hospitalized.  And the Nonprofit A staff who have keys to the building don’t normally come in until 9AM.  The director is graciously coming in at 8AM to let us in.  Yes, that’s zero set-up time for my first class.  And a potential security issue in the future if the only people in the open building are small teachers in their classrooms.
  6. Technological Ineptitude: When I called Nonprofit A to see if I could come in today to at least drop off some materials, their voicemail message was the generic one that comes with the phone, confirming the telephone number but making no mention that I had reached Nonprofit A.  An internet search to confirm the phone number and find their hours of operation showed that they don’t have a website.  Seriously?

My Conclusion: We Have Low Overhead

What Low Overhead Looks Like (photo by jhf on Flickr)
What Low Overhead Looks Like (photo by jhf on Flickr)

I see too few people trying to do too much in too few hours.  I see good things done poorly.

This is why it might actually drive me crazy one day when I hear that people interested in donating money are quite strongly opposed to said money going to overhead.  This mentality implies the belief that somehow their money will magically help “the people who need it” more if the organizations trying desperately to serve them are as starved for resources, infrastructure, and staff hours as possible.

I strongly suspect that the reason we’re locked out of the building until class time is because budgets are too tight to have extra keys available and a safe place to store them.

I’m quite sure that there was no special meeting for teachers new to the college because there wasn’t the staff time available to run an orientation.  I’m also positive that the office staff would have loved to send out an error-free schedule that was backed by lots of one-to-one talks with the teachers to be sure there was clarity and harmony in the department.  The way things actually went just smacks of a scarcity of staff hours.

I’m sure that Nonprofit A would love to have a web presence, but I’m also sure they don’t want a crappy website that nobody has time to update anyway.

And nobody wants to be unprepared for a meeting, especially one you’re leading.  But when your bread and butter grant changes under you four days before it starts, you kind of have to drop everything and respond.  We’re so starved for funding that we have to sacrifice the very quality the funders are trying to encourage in order to just survive.  They intend to underwrite excellent programming, but unreliability undermines it.

But what can we do?

Thus, My Conundrum

Everywhere I look in my work with nonprofits, I see broken systems and a dearth of the power necessary to fix them.

I see a great many people who are working hard and doing their best in good faith that it’s enough.  If we just pour enough of ourselves into the effort, it will be enough, right?  I’m hardly a seasoned veteran, but even I have seen more than one nonprofit worker get stressed out to the point of serious physical illness.

But I see little change.  I no longer have the faith that just showing up as I am and doing my best is enough.

And I ask myself what my role in it all should be.

Duolingo and Teaching – Part 2

12791947485_5ee1562a3dIn Part 1, I looked back at my own history of language learning and then my current experience using Duolingo.

In this post, I’ll be looking at how, based on these experiences, I see language teaching and great free tech like Duolingo as intersecting and what questions I have about it.

Possible Roles of Duolingo-like Tech in Classrooms

none – teachers pretend that tech like Duolingo doesn’t exist and just do what they’ve always done how they’ve always done it.

unofficial supplement – students use the tech on the side, even as their teachers ignore it.

supplement – teachers intentionally use Duolingo as a separate supplement for traditional class. Some class time might be devoted to using it, or it might be homework.

guide – teachers change their instruction based on Duolingo (or whatever tech). The class becomes a supplement to the tech.

replacement – teachers are replaced by educational technology because the tech is cheaper, more time efficient for each student, easier to collect data on, and is possibly more effective.

Thoughts on the Guide Role

I’m all about data-driven decision making, including decisions about instruction. Duolingo certainly has a lot of data and it might become reasonable for it to influence our instruction, or even place our instruction in a more supplemental role.

That said, I see two clashes between formal education and Duolingo (or similar tech) that I think will hamper the app from taking on this leadership role.

First, Duolingo is set up to reach individuals. By contrast, formal education is set up to reach groups of students separated by “level.” Grouping students is always problematic, but we educate huge numbers of people this way for convenience. In my opinion, it’s going to be hard for the hyper-individualized instruction of Duolingo to carry over into formal education without a major structural shift in education. I’m not opposed to such a shift – I just know that education is slow to change.

Second, Duolingo’s pedagogy relies on grammar translation (so lots of L1 use) and the audiolingual method to teach through repetition what “sounds right.” By contrast, most classes for adults I’ve been involved with emphasize direct instruction – learning the language and learning about the language. I don’t think either philosophy is perfect. I do think that a change away from direct instruction would be a major shift and would be an uphill battle for Duolingo to face, even armed with a lot of data.

These two clashes are both pretty major. I don’t think it would be smooth sailing for the two different systems to play nicely together in this way.

Agaist the Replacement Role

I’m an ESL teacher, so obviously I have a vested interest in not being replaced by a free app.

That said, I also had eight semesters of very pricey Russian lessons in college that really didn’t reach me effectively. Yes, I’m largely to blame – I could have tried harder. But as a teacher, I try to meet students where they’re at, and I think my instructors also could have tried harder.

The point is, I hope that my own disappointment in traditional language lessons helps me be open to teaching language better, even if that means stepping aside entirely.

Before I’m willing to cede my role to Duolingo (or whatever other free app crops up next), I think it ought to address some of its shortcomings:

  1. Its audio is really limited. I love the way it’s integrated into just about every question, but the computer voice is always the same, sometimes not clear, always disembodied, and only as good as my speakers.
  2. Its error correction is quite good but not as reliable as a knowledgeable teacher’s. It also doesn’t seem to take into account what is an error of understanding and what is an error of accidentally clicking the wrong button. And its error correction does not seem to immediately cause similar questions to pop up to practice the shaky skill.
  3. It cannot help me with my pronunciation. This is one area where human teachers are still far, far superior.
  4. The impersonal nature of it is great at the beginning to avoid embarrassment. But the lack of interpersonal communication quickly becomes a liability. I see that they’re piloting automated “chats” in French, and that’s a good step. But no computer is going to glare at me when I accidentally use the informal “you” instead of the formal “you.” That was a mistake I only made once in Russia.
  5. Sometimes an explanation is needed, and Duolingo does not provide.
  6. Duolingo excels at providing a sentence’s worth of context for grammar and vocabulary. So far Duolingo has not done more than this, but connected text and thoughts are a crucial part of any language. Perhaps I’m just not far enough along, though?

 

img_2778Some Questions

Lastly, I wanted to pose a few questions I’ve been thinking about as I continue to teach in a traditional system and continue to use Duolingo for myself.

  • How and why is Duolingo free? It’s a good program with a nice, well-designed interface. It seems to be working for me, at least in the beginner/intermediate levels, so I bet it’s working well for many other people. The quality is good. Perhaps even great. So I don’t understand why it’s free.I truly don’t know the answer. Three thoughts though:

    1) Crowdsourcing. I looked at the Duolingo incubator and it looks like there’s a process of crowd-sourcing new language modules and then reviewing them. Is that where all of the levels and languages come from? Does this drastically cut costs and allow it to be free?

    2) In-app purchases. I broke my streak (sad!) and it offered to un-break it for me for a mere $5. “This helps us keep education free.” Really?

    3) Data. I assume that it uses algorithms to look at my answers and other taps and use that info to determine which questions should come next, which units I should review next, etc. It is collecting similar data about an incredible number of other language learners. If I were this company, I would aggregate and examine and use this data. Is it financially free because it wants our data? If so, for what purpose?

  • Who is Duolingo? And why should we (or shouldn’t we) let it influence our learning and our pedagogy? What are their motives, and what is their long-term game?
  • Why does it teach the way it does? It is essentially collecting data that I assume supports the use of grammar translation and audiolingual methods of teaching. Why did it choose those two? Does/did it run other versions that use (and thus measure the effectiveness of) different methods? This also ties back to wondering what purpose they will put their collected data to, and who they are to begin with.
  • Is it reasonable for formal education to rely on free apps? Duolingo is a relatively new app that is currently free but has a short track record. Will Duolingo still exist in two years? Will it be much the same? Will it still be free? If we were relying on it and then it disappeared or abruptly transformed, what would we do?

I think that’s a pretty complete summary of what I’ve been pondering when it comes to Duolingo and teaching, at least for now.

I’m really interested to see what they do next, and how educators embrace or ignore them over the coming months and years.

And I’m really excited to continue with my Russian exercises and see how I do.

 

Photo CreditBem photography: 0983194978 on Flickr

You’re reading Duolingo and Teaching – Part 2, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.

Duolingo and Teaching – Part 1

14697774654_e2b62638f0I have been using Duolingo to brush up on my Russian language skills and it’s made me think a lot about language learning and teaching.

Welcome to Part 1 where I discuss my experience learning Russian in college and then again with Duolingo years later. In Part 2, I’m going to discuss how I see Duolingo and being a language teacher as intersecting.

A Brief History

I studied Russian for four years in college, and spent one of my semesters abroad in Krasnodar, Russia. I still don’t know why I chose Russian. Also, I was pretty awful at it. I mean, really. We were studying case endings for months before I figured out what a case even was. 

In college, studying Russian meant one hour of class three mornings per week, plus a couple of hours of language lab once a week with a native speaker. It meant grammar charts and memorizing endings and long lists of vocabulary. It meant homework in the textbook, which included listening exercises on cassette tapes. (My friends studying Spanish got to do their listening assignments on the Internet. I was so jealous!)

I didn’t enjoy it. My primary major was International Studies, and it had a six-semester language requirement. I actually chose to study abroad in Russia because that semester would count as two toward the requirement. I could be rid of Russian a semester earlier.

But semesters abroad are transformative. Living the language, however bumblingly, changed how I felt about it. I went to Russia in order to quit Russian, but I came back from Russia with a newfound desire to keep trying to learn it. So I kept it up all eight semesters.

After graduation, I didn’t study anything at all. I was burnt out on being a student and I threw myself into being an independent young adult, finding jobs, and doing my best at them. Over the years I found my way to ESL, having never successfully learned a second language myself.

Duolingo

On a whim, late this October I decided to try Duolingo. It’s a free website and app. I use the app exclusively because it’s much easier to switch between English and Cyrillic on my phone’s keyboard.

With Duolingo, studying Russian means that I set a goal of how many lessons per day (I chose five, the maximum). A typical lesson takes 5-10 minutes. Listening, writing, and reading are all built in, unlike my textbook and cassette tape days. I often use my phone’s voice recognition to write my answers, which also helps my speaking to some extent.

I have not seen a single grammar chart or vocabulary list. Everything is presented in the context of a sentence, or occasionally just a phrase. In some ways I’m uncomfortable with this: if I can’t tell you the full conjugation of x verb I’ve been practicing, do I really know it? And there was one situation (verbs of motion, ugh) where my answers were basically random and I could not figure out what the rule was. I finally had to look up an explanation. But in other ways, I think it’s better: I’m (slowly) developing a feel for what sounds right in different sentences. And I’ve had to look up remarkably little so far.

Review is also built in. Each unit is rather small. After you complete the lessons in each unit, the icon turns gold. But after a few days or weeks, I think depending on your errors, the icon’s gold “wears off” and a little meter appears under it showing it about 3/4 full. That’s when you know it’s time to go back in and review. I assume that if I ignore it, the meter will count down, but I’ve never tried that. I am very motivated to keep all of my icons shiny and gold!

All of this adds up to the biggest difference I see between my college Russian and Duolingo Russian: fun. I dreaded Russian in college. I use Duolingo every day instead of playing games on my phone because it’s fun. And maybe kind of addictive. That is powerful.

The thing I dislike most about Duolingo is its automated error correction. Before I start whining, let me say that its error correction is a strength: I might worry about a person judging me for making the same mistake a third time in a row, but that’s not even on the table with a computer program.

However, the program is not perfect. For example, I translated a phrase as “Please take off your coat.” Duolingo marked it wrong, and told me that the correct translation was, “Please take your coat off.” Seriously? On every question you can flag it for problems, and so I did. I’m really good at spotting the English errors, what with the MA TESOL and eight years’ experience teaching English. But what Russian errors are slipping through the cracks that I either don’t notice, or worse, that I notice and learn?

Teaching Ramifications?

I am loving Duolingo. It’s not perfect, but it’s great. It’s different from the traditional language classroom. And in many ways, it’s better. As a teacher, I’m very interested in this, and I’m going to explore it more in the next post.

Photo Credit: slgckgc on Flickr

You’re Reading Duolingo and Teaching Part 1, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com

Useful Tech: Quizlet.com

I’m one of those teachers who’s a bit in-between on using technology in the classroom.

On one hand, I’m happy to learn new tech and I think that it’s important to not try to divide students of any age from the technology of the era. In fact, part of our job may indeed be to actively connect students with modern tech, even when that is not an item on the syllabus.

On the other hand, I’ve found that tech can be unreliable and underfunded. Also, my students’ experience with it and access to it are inconsistent. As a result, using it in class can quickly turn into an implementation nightmare.

So when I mention that quizlet.com is super useful, I also mean that it’s pretty usable.

It’s a free vocabulary drilling website/app. It works well on computers and smartphones.

Students don’t have to have an account to use it. They can still find and use your vocabulary sets.

You can type in the information, or your students can, or you can make use of other peoples’ sets. When students click on a vocabulary word, the computer’s voice pronounces it.

Here’s a desktop screenshot of a set I used in a Listening and Speaking EAP course a couple years ago.

quizlet

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As you can see, the program has different ways to test yourself (Flashcards, Learn, Spell, Test), including a couple of simple games (Match and Gravity).

If you want to invest a bit of time into getting everyone set up with an account and added to one of your classes on Quizlet, it would probably be worth it. It’s not super difficult. Many of my students like the convenience of studying on their phone. It’s also handy if you want students to use it for a few minutes during class.

It has other features that come with paid accounts. I’m not going into those features here because none of my schools provides us with paid accounts.

And I’ll be honest, it irks me that Quizlet’s business model seems to be really focused on getting individual teachers to pay out of pocket for teacher-centric services (and refer their networks to do so too?). So I’m here to advocate using what they kindly offer for free, and challenging the widely accepted practice of teachers paying for so many of their own school supplies and materials.

What useful, usable tech would you recommend?

 

You’re reading Useful Tech: Quizlet.com, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.

Thoughts on Writing Conferences

I am an assistant teacher this semester, assigned to help in the last hour of an academic writing class. It’s pretty awesome.

We’re deep into the semester right now, and I’ve had the pleasure of conferencing with the same group of students over the course of a couple of months.

A few thoughts about it:

Improvement

Their writing has improved. They are writing within the structure of a five-paragraph essay much more consistently, the way they explain arguments is becoming clearer, and they are beginning to internalize exactly how to cite references.

Do they know that their writing has improved? When the teacher and I tell them, do they believe us?

Organization and Grammar

There is tension between the two. They’re very different writing skills, but you can’t really excel at one while having serious issues with the other. They must both be addressed.

It’s really hard to find time for both. When I’m teaching, I find it hard to do justice to both in my lesson plans. When I’m assistant teaching, I find it difficult to really address both in my conferences with the students. Seeing how my lead teacher handles the balance has been particularly great professional development for me.

7658225516_00cf277f83Tech

Most of our students use the technology (the internet, the learning management system, the printer, etc.) with ease. The tech facilitates learning, makes information available, and enhances communication. But for a couple of them, the links, the log-ins, the scrolling, and other basics are just hurdle after hurdle in addition to the content.

That means that most of our conferences are about writing, but with one or two students, the teacher and I spend a chunk of their conferencing time helping them find (or re-find) the article that everyone else has been scouring for claims and quotes for ten minutes already. We’re all working together to make it work, but the digital divide is real!

 

I am so glad to be assistant teaching this semester!

 

Photo Credit: CollegeDegrees360 onFlickr

You’re reading Thoughts On Writing Conferences, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com