A Note on My Current Class

This Fall, I’m teaching Level One Multilevel for 12 hours per week (Monday through Thursday mornings, three hours each day).  This means that most of my students are “Level 1.”

“Level 1”
Every level, Level 1 being no exception, includes a range of student abilities.  Some students at this level cannot easily understand the question, “Where are you from?” while some can have a conversation with me about their morning exercise routine.  Some are great at reading while others have trouble reading in their first language, let alone English.  Some students have been immersed in American culture for five or more years while others arrived a week ago.

It’s also typical for a given student to have higher skills in some modalities than in others (for example, one student I had back in St. Paul couldn’t understand a word I said but absolutely schooled a Level 2 reading test).

“Multilevel”
The “multilevel” distinction is an interesting one.  Basically, my class includes all of the Level 1 students, as well as the Level 2 and 3 students who aren’t able to make it to class at least 9 hours per week.

Mine is also the class where new students are sent to fill out forms and await their placement tests.  That’s why I had 17 students on Wednesday – many of them were just temporarily in my class until we could ascertain their level and schedule and place them in a class for real.

What I Think Of This
This set-up does add some chaos to my classroom, but I think it limits chaos on the whole.  First, it lets us keep our 12-hour classes for folks who can come for about 12 hours without just sending the others away.  Second, it makes sense to send new registrants by default to the lowest class because it’s better to risk them being bored than intimidated.

We were all hoping I’d have a volunteer aid to help with new students and with computer-based learning for the students from Level 2 and Level 3.  However, I don’t seem to have one.  One of the office staff does come by once or twice a week to test new students and help with paperwork, and that’s huge.

A few more thoughts on this:

  • This class, with solo teaching multilevel and being a demi-coordinator too, is really going to take my planning to the next level.
  • A paid classroom aid would make more sense to me than a volunteer.  Such a position would be a small expense compared to its impact on quality.
  • I could probably try to recruit a volunteer classroom aid from the college.
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NY Times: Volunteering Waning in Recession

Volunteering Waning in Recession, Report Says – NYTimes.com.

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

Interesting.

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!

Training Feedback

Paperwork by luxomedia on Flickr
Paperwork by luxomedia on Flickr

I’m happy to say that I had a chance to read through the feedback from last week’s Volunteer Training party, and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. The evaluation was very open-ended, and I was pleased to receive specific comments and suggestions.

There was general approval of the presence of food, and universal enthusiasm for meeting each other. Many commented that they gained new activity ideas, and several mentioned “inspiration.” I was a little surprised by that last one – I wasn’t focused on it at all. Woo positive by-products!

The highest and most convenient praise was the near-unanimous request for more trainings, perhaps quarterly, like the one we just did! In other words, I don’t have to ask yet more of my volunteers by implementing quarterly trainings; I get to deliver something there’s a demand for.

The Pizza Guy by keltickelton on Flickr
The Pizza Guy by keltickelton on Flickr

There was some constructive criticism as well, asking for more depth and suggesting starting out with more general questions such as “What’s working?” and leading into more specific ones during the level-discussions. Well-taken. They’ll definitely be present in next quarter’s (requested and delivered!) training.

Outreach and People

Kyllian gaat tekenen by inferis on Flickr
Kyllian gaat tekenen by inferis on Flickr

This evening I set up an information table in the front of the library to advertise my free classes for adults that take place in the back.  My goal was to increase our presence in the library and to see if people who were in the library at around class time wanted to be students or volunteer teachers.

People were milling about near me or walking by.  Nobody came up to talk to me for a while.   Then a boy walked by and looked at the giveaway pencils I had out.  He touched one but started to walk away.  So I asked him if he wanted one.  This led to a simple conversation, after which he walked away with a big smile and a sharp new pencil.  About 15 seconds later, a man who had been sitting nearby pretending to ignore me came up to ask about classes.  And a small line formed while he and I were talking.

Smiling and having shiny materials did not cause potential students to line up to talk with me.  Seeing me be nice to that boy is what started it.

My conclusion: people want to work with people who treat people like people.

Is it cheating to make things easier?

Juggle Strobe by Sam UL on Flickr
Juggle Strobe by Sam UL on Flickr

Wednesdays are new student registration day at my learning center.  I’d never get anything done if I took new students whenever they walked in or called, so I have everyone come to fill out their application and take their placement test on one evening out of the week.

Yesterday I had 8 students signed up for registration, and I usually get additional people who haven’t contacted me.  That would have been pretty chaotic, even for me.  So I did the unthinkable.  I asked for help.

It was great.  My volunteer told people about the schedule and helped with the application.  Then I could focus on finding the right test for each student and monitoring their progress. We ended up only having five new students (it was about 3 degrees outside, so I wasn’t surprised) but it was still a much calmer, more controlled process than other nights with five or so intakes.

So I want to know why it took me so long to ask for help, and why it still feels a little like cheating to change the system so that I’m not needing to juggle five (or eight) people at once.