Assisting the Teacher: Writing Conferences

This is part of a series of posts called ESL Assistant Teaching Tips. I’m writing from the point of view of an assistant ESOL instructor in academic English classes at a community college. For background, here’s why I love assistant teaching, and here is what the basics of the set-up look like. I hope that other assistants will find this useful, and that this wonderful classroom model will spread!

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One way I have assisted my lead teachers is by conducting writing conferences with students.

With two different teachers meeting with students, but only one of them grading the students, this needs to be done with intention and good communication. What follows is what worked for us.

Clear Conferencing Goals

We had conferencing days for the express purpose of previewing students’ drafts of specific major writing assignments.

The lead teacher and I established before this class session that we would first check for topic and organization, and then move on to mechanics. We agreed on 15-minute conferences.

Time Slots

Students signed up for a time slot that worked for them. Students signed up to work with either her or me.

Full disclosure: I was last picked! I truly did not take this personally. Our students knew who would be grading them, and of course it seemed best to get advice from the grader herself.

Set a Timer (and expectations)

At the beginning of each conference, I welcomed the student and then used my cell phone’s voice commands to set a timer for 15 minutes.

Then I efficiently explained that I was going to skim their essay for structure. Then if there was time, we’d go back for details.

Start with Basics of Organization

I read their whole intro, identified their thesis out loud, then visibly checked that it matched up with topic sentences at the beginning of each paragraph. I then read their conclusion to make sure it restated the thesis and didn’t contain any surprises.

In their argument essay, the lead teacher and I also agreed that we should examine their 4th body paragraph pretty carefully. The counter-argument/concession/rebuttal can be tricky.

For a couple of students, we didn’t get much past this. Other students had this level of organization down no problem and we moved on to details.

Don’t Ignore What They’ve Done Well

It’s tempting, when you’re looking at a strict 15 minutes of one-to-one time, to pile all the advice you can onto each student.

However, having one’s writing critiqued feels personal. If the instructor speaks of literally only negatives, at best it becomes teacher talk and at worst it breaks hearts.

On the flip side, if the instructor is too timid to say what needs to change because s/he is afraid to hurt anyone’s feelings, that’s not really instruction.

Yes, address the problems. But also acknowledge some successes.

Touch Base After Conferences

After class, I quickly spoke to the lead teacher about the conferences: overall impression, overall organization, if they had a lot of major revision to do or just detail work, and if I practically begged them to go to the writing center for more help.

In the hour I was there, I could only meet with four students, so this was not an overwhelming amount of information.

However, in the future I think I should also quickly fill out a pre-made form with these basic comments so she could refer back to my notes. I do like notes!

Provide Input on Final Paper

When the final papers were completed and handed in, the lead teacher found class time where I could read through my four students’ final drafts and use the rubrics to share my thoughts about grading.

To be clear, I did not grade them. The assistant teacher is not in charge of grading. It was just input in case she was on the fence between one grade and another.

 

We just did these formal conferences a couple of times in the semester, but it made a big impact! It’s hard to beat one-to-one communication.

How do you do writing conferences?

 

Photo Credit: ASU Department of English on Flickr

You’re reading Assisting the Teacher: Writing Conferences, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.

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Considering Time

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During a recent class, I volunteered to convert a Works Cited page from circa 2010 to MLA 8. To me it was clearly something I should do as assistant teacher, freeing up the lead teacher to do more “teacherly” things. My idea was that I’d complete this task while the students were on their break.

The Task

Five citations (two websites, a book, and a magazine). 10 minutes.

Citation generator or the Purdue OWL guides by hand? With so little time, I went with Purdue rather than trusting the first citation-maker I tried to work.

Probably a bad choice.

One tiny screen. Three windows to juggle, plus tabs. I swear I spent more time trying to find the right window with the right information than actually updating the citations. At no point was I able to fully concentrate. It was unpleasant.

I got it done in about 15 rushed minutes. And by “done,” I mean that I improved them all but made many small errors in the process.

On Screwing Up

We went over it in class, the students pointed out my errors and the teacher updated the document further.

It was fine. The students got value out of correcting my work and we ended up with a correct document to reference.

But.

  • It was embarrassing. I’m one of the instructors and I got their exercise wrong.
  • I tell my students all the time that their mistakes are valuable and encourage them to move past being embarrassed.
  • This would have all been avoided if I hadn’t been rushing.
  • When I’m lead teaching, I rush my students through in-class assignments all the time. Often on clunky school computers, often on software they’re not familiar with, always in a distracting classroom, always in their L2.

So I now have some more empathy for my students when they dislike screwing up in class.

And I have more empathy for my students when they’re trying to produce zero-error work in an impossible amount of time.

Time

A New York Times cooking article referred to heat as The Invisible Ingredient in Every Kitchen.

I’m now wondering if time is the invisible element in every lesson plan.

The parallels are there: each is something we inherently rely on, that we don’t necessarily plan around and sometimes fudge, and in a way only notice when it’s not available.

Rushing is just not conducive to the detail work required in accuracy practice. Rushing creates stress, and stress is a great way to activate your affective filter / lizard brain.

And while I do consider time to some extent in my lesson planning, it’s been sort of an arbitrary measure on the side.

What would change if I upgraded it to a primary lens when I’m planning?

How could this be compatible with working with a syllabus?

What do you think?

 

Photo Credit: Jean L on Flickr

You’re reading Considering Time, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.

 

 

 

Why Assistant Teaching Is Completely Awesome

Last year, I was feeling overwhelmed with balancing my at-home duties and my teaching duties. I’m certainly not the first person in the world to feel that tug of priorities! Everybody makes the decision that’s right for them, and for me, the right decision was to decline taking on a class that semester. I was sad but relieved.

I was then offered the opportunity to assistant teach, and it was so wonderful that I signed up to do it again this semester.

Before I gush too wildly about how much I love assistant teaching, I do want to admit that I miss lead teaching. This week the teacher spent some time going over essay expectations (again), handing out rubrics, etc., and I seriously felt nostalgic about all of it. And since I’m so separate from the grading, I don’t have a complete picture of which students are struggling on their assignments and how they’re struggling. I mean, I can see their grades, but that’s very different from doing the grading. So there’s some disconnection there.

With that out of the way, here is more about what I am getting out of my assistant teaching gig:

Light As A Feather

I get to breeze in without preparing anything, work with the teacher and students on an as-needed basis, and then breeze out again without that big stack of grading. It’s very fun and relaxed!

Professional Development

I get to be in an hour of every session of someone else’s class. Sometimes I play second-banana, and sometimes I observe. Either way, it’s fascinating and I’m paid to be there! I have taken notes on so many great activities and explanations these past two semesters. It’s way better than a conference because it’s embedded in an actual class with real students across a whole semester.

Observing Students

My time is either spent conferencing with students or watching the class. Since I’m not running the show, I have attention to spare for keeping an eye on the quiet ones, watching people’s faces, seeing exactly which word tripped people up (and jumping in if needed, which is rare), and just being a fly on the wall and getting a perspective other than that of Leader Of The Class.

Working Closely With Another Teacher

Being an adjunct instructor is a lonely business! Especially working at secondary campuses and working at night – I just don’t usually have a lot of contact with my wonderful departments and colleagues. Being an assistant teacher, I’m always with my lead teacher, and any work I do supplements her agenda. This is really different from what I’m used to, and it’s valuable and refreshing!

Balance In My Life

All that time I’m not spending trying to prep lessons, write tests, keep track of late homework, and grade essays? I’m using it to blog, go to bed early, organize the house, start up a garden, donate the baby stuff my kids have grown out of, etc. I even get to read sometimes! I don’t feel so stressed and depleted. I have more to give. It’s good. It’s really good.

Prep

When I’m ready, I would be overjoyed to lead teach this class. And while assistant teaching it any number of times will certainly not make it “easy,” I am way more prepared to dive in than I would have been just reviewing the previous teacher’s syllabus. I have tons of specific activity ideas, familiarity with the textbook (though they’ll likely switch textbooks by the time I get there), and observation hours ready to inform my decisions, lessons, assignments, and grading. I’m looking forward to that semester, whenever it turns out to be!

You’re reading Why Assistant Teaching Is Completely Awesome, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.

I Need More Hours

I’m feeling overwhelmed by everything I want to do in the near future:

  • write an amazing two-week curriculum unit on Personal Finance
  • mentor my volunteers more closely
  • clean my office till it’s sparkly
  • devise a better system for collecting and submitting volunteer stats
  • have a balanced and from-scratch meal plan that I follow
  • completely deep-clean my apartment
  • get my TEFL from Hamline
  • start another 5 Week Course
  • have friends over for dinner
  • run/walk everyday
  • actually follow a laundry schedule
  • read and write more
  • continue to spend quality time with my long-distance family and boyfriend
  • start a pre-literate class at my learning center
  • reach out to the other people in my life more
  • start a peer-mentoring project with another coordinator
  • learn Somali
  • conduct numerous site visits to sites like mine and other sites that work with my students
  • roll my newsletter into a new, more professional format

I didn’t think about that list for very long.  That’s what it looks like off the top of my head.

Conventional wisdom says “just pick something and start.”  I have.  And it’s something.  I’m trying a new chili recipe as we speak, and I’ve been working on several other of the above personal and professional goals, as well as others that aren’t really blog material.

The problem isn’t starting (for once); it’s wanting it to all be in line Now.

So I’m going to go see how the chili turned out, and put on my running shoes, throw my laundry in this evening, and ponder curriculum as the machines are going, and remember that I’ll get there inch by inch.

Why Five Weeks?

The short answer: it was arbitrary.

The medium answer:  I was looking for a happy medium between a long-term self-education project I would never stick with and a project so brief that I would have no chance of significantly expanding my knowledge.  Five weeks seemed good.

Squared Stack by pbo31 on Flickr
Squared Stack by pbo31 on Flickr

The long answer:  The short and medium answers are true.  But there’s another dimension that’s harder for me to explain.  Before you get too frustrated with me, know that I do have educational psychology on my list of future 5WCs.

I notoriously have trouble with categories.  Especially categories like “relevant” and “not relevant.”  I’m an interweaving thinker.  With some people, it seems like the more they understand something, the more they’re able to divide it up into perfectly cubic little boxes arranged in a line.  For me, the more I understand something, the more I say “oh wow, that’s similar to this and this, and this indirectly but significantly affects that, and category A is both a parent category and a subcategory of B depending how you look at it,” and I definitely don’t end up with a neat row of cubes.  Knowledge is like a web of many long threads in my mind, and it feels unnatural to divide it into sections; doing so feels like cutting a square out of the middle of a knit sweater.

Seriously, it’s a thing for me.  Look how many categories I list my five-week project posts in on this blog.  Even after I designated a category specifically for five-week projects.

Lace Knitting by Amanda Woodward on Flickr
Lace Knitting by Amanda Woodward on Flickr

What I’m saying is that I have no trouble arguing that idea A is related to idea N even though they’re 13 steps apart.  This was nice back when I was on the debate team, but it’s not particularly helpful when it comes to defining a manageable self-education project.  I thought that a time limit would help me determine that while Topic X is indeed relevant to Topic A, it is not relevant enough right now.

It seems to be working for me so far.  My category issues are quieted by the possibility of future five-week courses.  Excluding a line of inquiry doesn’t feel like taking scissors to lace when I know the exclusion is temporary.  So the number five was indeed arbitrary, but the time limitation was quite intentional.