Reflecting on Conversation Partners

In my last post, I hoped to write a bit more about the Conversation Partners class I taught earlier this year.

It met one hour a week as an elective course for students enrolled in English instruction full-time. I had two groups of people attend my class: the ESL students enrolled in the class, and the volunteer English speakers who partnered with them to chat.

During class, I basically proposed a topic and/or activity that would encourage students to converse. I listened, conferenced with people as necessary, and tried to interject as little as possible. This is why I say I was more of a facilitator than teacher.

The syllabus was a rather terse thing of beauty. Students had two responsibilities: show up to class, and meet with their partners one hour per week for conversation time. That was it.

I still had two students who didn’t pass. One lied (flagrantly, provably, and for weeks in a row) and I had to write him up. The other had a truly incredibly amount of trouble keeping his commitments to meet with his partners (he went through three). But he kept trying even when he knew he was failing the class, and hopefully he got something out of it all.

Anyway, some tidbits on how the actual day-to-day class went:

  • Overall, the first 3/4 of the semester was mostly getting-to-know-you type topics. The last 1/4 of the semester really got into Issues – the election, philosophy, feminism, etc. Looking back, I think I should have been more bold about getting into more serious topics earlier. That said, there was value in the students knowing each other fairly well before things got intense.
  • Tactile activities were especially interesting to all of us. Two examples:
    • Jenga. My mentor had Jenga sets in which each block was numbered. I wrote a conversation question for each number. The conversation partners played Jenga as usual, but had to answer the question that corresponded to the number on their block. It was a great warm-up on the first day, actually.
    • Building Blocks. This was a great recommendation from a colleague. The conversation partners took different roles: the Designer built something that nobody else could see. The Engineer had an identical pile of blocks and wanted to replicate the Designer’s building. The Consultant walked between the Engineer and the Designer and had to convey the instructions for how to build the same structure.
  • I didn’t foresee feeling pulled between my two groups of participants. Obviously the volunteers would have different needs than the ESL students. I think I underestimated the volunteers’ needs before I began, seeing them more as helpers and less as volunteers.
  • I had a mentor assigned to me as a newly hired teacher, and it was a super helpful set-up. Just knowing who to ask first is so huge for a new teacher – the division of labor in established departments is mind-boggling to the uninitiated. She happened to also be a great mentor and a person I like, so it was a very positive experience.
  • As a person and a learner, I tend to be rather bookish. It was really great for me to be in charge of a verbal-only class, with no textbook, no formal presentations, no pronunciation drills – just verbal communication. This experience will definitely inform the (bigger) role of conversation in my future classes.

I really enjoyed facilitating this class, and I’d be teaching it again this semester if the scheduling weren’t so inconvenient. I hope the current teacher is enjoying it as much as I did!

You’re reading Reflecting on Conversation Partners, originally posted at


Volunteer Management Conference

After being kind of disappointed by MinneTESOL, I wasn’t hugely excited about the next conference on my list, the Volunteer Management Conference.

Concrete Bricks by Alesa Dam on Flickr
Concrete Bricks by Alesa Dam on Flickr

It seemed unlikely to be valuable because I was feeling pessimistic about conferences in general, and also because volunteer management is kind of a “fluffy” profession, not backed up by much research or data or formal history.

I’m thrilled to report that I was pleasantly surprised.  The sessions I went to did not perpetuate the fluff, but sought to give us concrete ideas and skills for taking our work to the next level.

I gained background in creating a volunteer-led ESL curriculum, setting up focus groups (of students and volunteers), addressing the 80/20 rule of life (that 80% of your effort will go to 20% of your tasks and problems), and creating well-designed flyers and brochures.

I think I actually found the last one to be the most useful.  Making flyers is one of those random parts of my job that I’m expected to just do, and I have never had the slightest bit of training on how to do a good job.  The presenter walked us through the four pieces of the puzzle that we need to consider, and three days later I still remember them: proximity, alignment, repetition, and contrast.

Here’s what I think she did right:

  1. limited her scope,
  2. stayed focused on it, and
  3. provided different levels of meaningful practice.

That presentation had no hand-outs.  This was disconcerting at first, but it turned out to be a strength.  Her goal wasn’t to give resources, but to convey four interrelated elements of design.  She didn’t try to make us into designers that afternoon.  The unified design she was teaching us was reflected in her presentation: she taught what she said she was going to teach, and she did it in a way that assured our attention was never split.  She also followed the basic format of a good ESL lesson: I do it, we do it, you do it.  By this I mean she gave us opportunities to practice what we were learning, and that over the course of the session she went from actively guiding our practice to letting us work through examples independently.

I think what made this conference stand out is that all the sessions I went to were taught in this way.  I hope other conferences catch on soon.


I keep thinking to myself, “Ok, I’m going to be really focused today.”

And then I think about what I’m going to focus on:

  • curriculum
  • volunteers
  • student attendance
  • outreach
  • preparing for this week’s appointments
  • preparing for break

And I realize that this is not focus.  It is, however, a starting point.

NY Times: Volunteering Waning in Recession

Volunteering Waning in Recession, Report Says –

This article points out an apparent contradiction:

A.  volunteer coordinators saw an increase in volunteers caused directly by said volunteers losing their jobs

B. a huge percentage of people say that they’re reducing their time spent in civic engagement and volunteering


I also love that it covers “do it yourself volunteering,” people getting involved on a local level without getting involved in organizations.  Even as a volunteer coordinator who needs more volunteers, serving through an organization is certainly not the only way to get involved and make meaningful change.  Check out Peter Norback’s project.

And as a last comment, it talks about nonprofits “using” volunteers.  Surely there’s a better verb out there that reflects the complex give-and-take relationship that organizations form with their volunteers.

The Super-Effective Volunteer

As the coordinator of an all-volunteer teaching staff, a large and fantastic part of my job is volunteer support.   I don’t know how I ended up with such great people, and I hope they stay forever.  I write this in hopes that more volunteers will contribute the way mine do.

I’d like to put it out there for whomever is listening that the most effective volunteers are not the ones who arrive with their own agenda.

Super Boy by Łéł†Āķ Mă3ý on Flickr
Super Boy by Łéł†Āķ Mă3ý on Flickr

Super-effective volunteers have their eyes and ears open to the needs of the organization. When something comes up and they have the ability to help with it, they speak up and dive in.

And you know, any help is help. Coming in and telling me exactly what you’d like to do is something, and I’m as grateful as I should be and I try hard to work with you.

But take a step back and think how amazing it is when a program realizes it needs something, asks for someone to do it… and then someone does it.

And now think about how well a volunteer gets to know the organization by helping where it’s needed.  Think what a great position this puts the volunteer in to make suggestions, push for change, and bring a relevant and mutually beneficial to-do list to the table.

Are you that kind of volunteer?

Muffins and Testing

On Saturday morning I held a training for my volunteers called “Muffins and Testing.”

Blueberry Muffin by rachel is coconut&lime on Flickr
Blueberry Muffin by rachel is coconut&lime on Flickr

I got up early that morning and baked two dozen muffins that we munched on as we talked about testing our students (CASAS and TABE, as required by NRS standards).  You can probably see why I advertised the muffins before the subject matter.  Still, we had a great time.

I had an attendance of four, which at first glance (I have close to 30 volunteers) seems disappointing.  One of the benefits of such a small training, though, is that everyone can really participate.  I was able to tailor my talk to the questions they asked, assuage fears of only teaching to tests (we’re not only teaching to the tests, but the competencies on these tests are actually really useful to students), and lead a brainstorm that included ideas from everybody.

Though I did give them time to look through examples and to explore the online resources we have, I wish I had done about 20 minutes less talking when it came to looking at an example test-related classroom activity.  Talking too much in front of the room is a pattern of mine as a teacher and trainer, and I’m continuing to work on it!

I didn’t do a formal evaluation, but based on hearing “ah ha,” “oh, I didn’t know that,” and “wow, this means we should really try to follow the curriculum” each more than once, I’d say that they learned something.  I’m very excited to work through the brainstorm list of how we can all better support testing, from simple office tasks I can complete in 20 minutes to changing our online lesson reporting to having a volunteer be the assessment liaison.  Since learning happened and next steps appeared, I’d call it all a success!

My Latest Lists

At work, I’ll periodically get this sinking feeling that I’m forgetting to do something.

Juggling Now, Soon, and In Two Months is hard for me – they don’t feel like they should be on the same list. Also, a list with 25 things on it, some huge and some small, can be kind of scary.

Pen and Paper by LucasTheExperience on Flickr
Pen and Paper by LucasTheExperience on Flickr

I’ve tried Checkvist and liked it, and I’ve tried Google Calendar Tasks, but the main problem with both is two-fold:  it doesn’t feel concrete to me when it’s electronic, and I can avoid the list by just not opening the list’s webpage.  Lifehacker has an interesting poll on the five best To-Do List Managers, and for them as for me, pen and paper won.

My latest strategy:

  1. Write down every task or project I can think of. I work on this for a day or so to ensure it’s as complete as possible.
  2. Estimate time per task. In the left margin, I write in the estimated minutes it will take.  This step eliminates a lot of “this list is scary!” for me.  “60 minutes of stats” is easier for me to tackle than “annoyingly time-consuming volunteer stats.”
  3. Rewrite the list in two columns: Longer Term and Shorter Term.  I fill in some details like due dates and collaborators in Longer Term.  I just make a plain bulleted list of the shorter-term projects (which are usually 60 minutes or less).  The process of rewriting it helps me internalize it.
  4. Circle my first four tasks. This way I can evaluate what my next priority is in a quick and ongoing way.
  5. Check them off when they’re done. It feels gooood.  🙂
  6. Keep my list in plain sight. The list lives just to the left of my computer.  It does not get put away, it does not travel, it does not get buried.  And it gets more and more crossed off until it’s done.

It’s not perfect.  I think they keys that make it work for me are that I sit down and really think about it in terms of minutes and that it’s always on my desk and in my face.

What makes a To-Do system work for you?