Thanks to “Impolite” Students

This is a post I drafted in the last few years. It’s just three examples of students taking the time to set me straight, and of me taking the time to listen. I didn’t post it right away because I was concerned that it might be taken out of context and misunderstood as an indictment of me as a terrible teacher, or of my students as aggressive jerks. Neither is the case. My concern has not gone away, but what I wrote still rings true to me. In the spirit of stepping up like my students did, here’s the post.

Working for years in Minnesota, followed by years in super-supportive ESOL departments in Maryland, all with mature and gracious adult ESOL students, I am blessed with a whole lot of positive feedback in my professional life.

I don’t know if it’s that I’m originally from near New York City or if it’s just a personality quirk, but at some point, a lot of positive feedback rings a bit hollow to me. I know I’m not perfect, so receiving criticism matches my world-view way better than praise does.

Too much positive feedback can actually make me uneasy. What aren’t they saying, and why? Is everyone just being polite? What are they hoping I’ll figure out? 

But here’s one thing: speaking a reasonable and relevant truth is not necessarily impolite.

And here’s another thing: it’s okay to be impolite sometimes. We don’t intentionally step on people’s toes in our day to day lives because that would be rude and cause pain. But if we’re walking along and a motorcycle is suddenly hurtling toward us, we leap out of the way even if we land on someone’s toes. That’s an extreme case, but the point is that some things are more important than manners.

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I owe a lot to the few students who have stepped up and told me some of the “impolite” things that I suspect many other students were thinking. Their willingness to risk stepping on my toes has helped me see class from students’ point of view and adjust my teaching accordingly.

Circulating from Student to Student

Early in my assistant teaching days, in addition to gauging how pushy I should be in helping my students, I was also figuring out the balancing act of helping everybody in a limited amount of time.

One lesson, I wound up addressing quite a few of one student’s questions with her. It took a long time. When I finally moved on to the next person, she told me frankly that I shouldn’t have spent so much time with the first woman. She pointed out that many students were waiting for my help and that it wasn’t fair to give too much time to one individual. She said I should have addressed one or two of the first woman’s questions, then checked to see if anyone else needed me. Then if not, I could work more with the first woman. Talk about specific feedback! No arguments from me then or now.

Before this conversation, I had seen this circulation balancing act as my own internal struggle. But the student’s comments made it clear to me that my class is paying more attention to that kind of thing than I’d thought. And I wasn’t giving them enough credit for understanding our need to work with everyone even when they still have more questions.

Overwhelming Written Comments

Back when I was lead teaching an academic writing class, I spent what felt like an eternity writing comments on my students’ diagnostic essays. We had a relatively small class and I’d decided to use that as an opportunity to start everyone off with a generous amount of personalized guidance.

Unfortunately, to one student, my comments somehow came across as sarcastic. I’m not 100% sure how it happened, because I remember being genuinely impressed with the essay and saying so. I was surprised that I had caused offense, but I accepted that I had and made amends accordingly.

I think that the problem was in how I’d made my comments: they were intended to be plentiful, but instead they were long-winded, which made them arduous to read and left too much room for incorrect interpretation. My takeaway there was to make sure future comments were short, plain, and focused.

Another takeaway I gleaned from that situation was that students don’t see our comments as a gift, no matter how generously they’re intended or how valuable they are. They’re overwhelming, they hurt, and students often don’t know how to implement them. I needed to be more judicious and practical with my comments.

Confusing Speech

When assistant teaching, I was having a writing conference with a pretty fluent student. After asking for clarification of something I’d said a couple of times, she exclaimed in exasperation, “Why can’t you just talk normally?!”

As I’m sure you can guess, the problem was that I was talking normally. Conversationally, even: many words, lots of linking, natural speed, meandering point.

It’s questionable whether I should alter my normal talking speed or prosody in the very last level of EAP before direct enrollment in mainstream college courses. But I think the cognitive burden of listening to my natural speech would have been manageable if I had just made sure to be direct and terse rather than chatty.

How many other students were too polite or too overwhelmed to get me to rein it in?

Overall: Focus

I feel like all three of these “sidekick slaps” came down to my losing focus in the moment. I wasn’t meeting my students where they were. I wasn’t respecting that more is not necessarily better. I wasn’t as direct and organized as I needed to be.

This doesn’t mean I’m never focused; it means that when I’m not focused, it shows.

I know where to go from there, and that’s a good feeling.

 

Real feedback is not always positive. Criticism is not always sandwiched neatly between two positives. But insight is always valuable, and who better to give us insight into what our students need than our students themselves?

May I keep listening and keep learning.

 

I’m pretty sure none of the students I referred to in this post are aware of this blog, but just in case: guys, thank you for making me a better teacher.

 

Photo Credit: cmjolley on Flickr

You’re reading Thanks to “Impolite” Students, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.

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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.

Writing Class Round-Up

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Some posts most relevant to teaching writing:

The Writing Course

Highlighting the Value of a Writing Course

Shaping a Writing Course

Reading in a Writing Class

 

Process Writing

The Point of Writing

Outlining?

A Small Victory

 

Editing and Peer Review

Seven Editing Challenges

Scaffolding Editing

Scaffolding Peer Review

 

Citations and Plagiarism

Plagiarism vs. Real Life

Communicating About Plagiarism

On Teaching Citations

 

Photo Credit: Chris Gladis on Flickr

You’re reading Writing Class Round-Up, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.

 

Activity Corner: Six Word Story

(I thought it might be helpful to readers and myself if I described some of my favorite activities from time to time. See all my ESL Activity Corner posts here.)

This is a nice little activity you can use as a warm-up, a mini-quiz, summary practice, or even grammar exercise, about basically any content.

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We have that famous so-called six word novel:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

What else can our students convey in just six words?

In Six Words Or Less…

  • Introduce yourself to the class
  • Summarize the article/chapter you just read
  • Share your goals for the semester
  • Write down what you learned today
  • Describe someone important to you
  • Propose a topic for the next writing assignment

The possibilities are pretty much endless! Give it a try!

 

Idea Credit and further reading: Students Write Life Stories in Six Words or Less

Photo Credit: Rachel Torgerson on Flickr

You’re reading Activity Corner: Six Word Story, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.

Assisting the Teacher: In-Class Down Time, Part I

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!

As an assistant teacher, I’m paid to come in for the second hour of a two-hour class. The idea is that this time in class should be set aside for group tasks, writing tasks, reading tasks, conferences, etc. that would all clearly benefit from having a second teacher in the room to work with small groups or individual students.

Second hour usually looks like this.

But it doesn’t always.

The first section of the class might run long, or an exam might take up the entire class session, or the needs of the students and curriculum might not fit that format every class period, or there might be a last-minute sub because the teacher’s car broke down and so the lesson got flipped up-side-down (true story).

It happens.

What I’m saying is, there will be occasions when you show up to class only to find that the teacher is working with the students in a way that does not remotely require a second teacher. You could literally play games on your phone – you’re that unnecessary.

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Ideas

Um, yeah, don’t play games on your phone.

You’re not necessary in that moment, but there’s the rest of the class period and the rest of the semester to consider.

And there are so many useful ways to fill the time.

In the past, I have used this type of class time to:

  • write answer keys,
  • evaluate particularly tricky-to-grade essays as a second opinion,
  • write sample paragraphs,
  • scribe as the teacher and class went over textbook answers
  • stand on the side, strategically near the most commonly confused students, so they could whisper questions to me,
  • take notes in my bullet journal of ideas and experiences to inform future semesters

You could also use the time to:

  • read the novel or article your class is working on,
  • reread the syllabus and schedule of assignments,
  • grade homework with objective answers

And there are certainly many more opportunities beyond these little lists.

What to Do If You’re Suddenly Idle

So you walk into class and the teacher shoots you an apologetic look as s/he leads an activity that clearly doesn’t include a second teacher. The agenda on the board shows more of the same.

You’re parked near the students who often need a boost, but they’re on their A-game today and they don’t need you.

My suggestion: see what preparation and grading help you can provide during those times. 

If appropriate, ask the teacher if there’s any homework to check or preparation you can do for next class.

If you can’t interrupt to ask, take a look at the syllabus and see if there are any samples you can prepare for future units.

If all else fails, take some notes for your own future use and be on the alert for anything you can do to help as the lesson continues.

How to Be Prepared

Even though it’s a pretty rare occurrence, there will be times when there’s nothing obvious for you to do as assistant teacher.

It’s not ideal for you or your lead teacher to be scrambling in the moment to find something to occupy you. I mean, it’s better than playing Candy crush or standing stock still against the wall, but better still would be if you already had a task in mind.

Specific tips coming up next week in Part II.

 

Photo Credit: Christian Hornick on Flickr

You’re reading Assisting the Teacher: In-Class Down Time I, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.

Assisting the Teacher: Actively Circulating

I’ve decided to write a series of posts in a new category: 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!

 

On Monday, I talked about the interruption conundrum: to interrupt, or not to interrupt?

Spoiler: interrupt!

In this post, I’ll break down how this not-very-extroverted person goes about circulating so actively so much that she thinks of it as “crowd surfing.”

The short version is: I don’t stand by and wait for more than a minute or so at a time. If I’m not being flagged down, I’m either quietly walking or verbally checking in.

Step 1: Greet Everyone and Check In

When I walk in in the second hour of class, everybody is usually working. In one classroom, I enter from the front, and I find this very uncomfortable. In the other classroom, the door is in the back, so people don’t know I’m there unless they turn around or I greet them.

Most days, I circulate around the room quietly and interrupt students individually or in pairs in order to greet them by name. It’s a quick hello and social question, asking about their weekend or something like that. I listen to their answers. If they’d been absent the class before, I ask if everything’s OK. They seem to respond well to that. I then remind them that I’m here to answer any questions or help however I can.

It’s important to me that we have this little connection. Honestly, I sometimes skip this step in the class with the door in the front. And it shows – I feel more connected to the other class. No more skipping the greeting, Emily!

Step 2: Walk Around Quietly

If nobody has any questions for me right away or they’ve just started working on something, I just walk around quietly. I look at their work, and I’m not shy about stopping to read and telling them that they’re on track… or making a suggestion to get them back on track.

I’ll sometimes ask how it’s going, especially if someone seems to have less done than the other students. Usually people nod or say “fine,” but occasionally I get a panicked “bad!” and then I talk that person through tackling the longest assignment they’ve ever written in English.

Step 3: Ask If I Can Check Anything

Once students have some work down, be it textbook work, an outline, or a draft essay, I ask each person if there’s anything I can check for them.

If it’s a small amount, I read and check it all. If there are errors, I point them out but I don’t give the answers.

If it’s a large amount, I ask if they have any specific questions.

If they seem to want me to spend 20 minutes checking all their work, I’m up front that I can’t. I encourage them to ask me only the most important couple of questions so I can check in with the other students, too.

I cycle between Step 2 and Step 3 for much of class, and I also get flagged down a lot.

Step 4: Build Up, Chat, Farewell

As class comes to a close, I make sure to point out to students what they’re doing well, to build up their confidence and their positive associations with writing.

I always stay a few minutes late in case people want to chat a bit – sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. I don’t chat a lot about my personal life, though I share a few bits about my family and other interests. I mostly just want everyone to finish class feeling  hopeful… and enthusiastically encouraged to utilize the college’s writing center!

I also make an effort to say good night to everyone and wish them a nice evening or weekend as appropriate. If they have a big assignment or exam coming up, I wish them luck. It’s a little thing, but like with the greeting, I think it just helps us feel connected.

 

It’s not rocket science!

But it is a lot of interrupting and a lot of initiating, both of which I’ve been a bit ambivalent about, especially as the mere assistant.

Over the last few semesters, I’ve decided that the interrupting is worth it and the initiating is definitely part of my role even though I’m not in charge.

Does crowd surfing come naturally to you?

 

You’re reading Assisting the Teacher: Actively Circulating, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.

 

 

 

ESL Assistant Teaching Tips

I’ve decided to write a few posts in a new category: ESL Assistant Teaching Tips.

Why

This is partly in hopes of sharing what I’ve learned in my last few semesters of assistant teaching.

It’s also partly in hopes of encouraging more programs to hire assistants for ESL writing and reading classes. Not all of my community colleges do this, but I wish they would. I think it would also be helpful in settings beyond EAP, though admittedly I’ve been pretty firmly embedded in adult EAP the past while.

The Basics

The way assistant teaching works at at least one community college I work for is as follows: academic reading and writing courses with a minimum number of students have an assigned lead teacher and an assigned assistant teacher. Classes meet for about two hours, twice a week.

Second hour of class only, the assistant teacher comes in.

The intention is for the first hour to be more about instruction, review, etc., and second hour to be reading and writing practice in class with two instructors available to lead small groups, circulate, check work, conference, etc.

Assistants are not hired to do preparation at home, including lesson planning or grading. They do not necessarily reduce the lead teacher’s workload; rather, they allow more to be accomplished during class, particularly in terms of interactions with students.

 

I will be periodically posting tips and ideas about how assistant teachers can support the classroom. I hope it’s helpful!