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Archive for the category “Teaching Philosophy”

Embracing Simplicity and Growth

Winter quarter begins in a couple of days, and I currently find myself reviewing notes I took at the end of Fall quarter. Each time the quarter begins, I set specific personal teaching goals and review my most recent teaching experiences. Last year, my goal was to be more organized with all the paperwork and materials I used and developed. Last quarter, my goal was to take less time to grade and give feedback. I’d be lying if I said I’ve accomplished all of my goals without any hiccups along the way, but I’ve learned that the best way to move forward is to do a little each day. Big changes don’t just happen overnight, but having these personal goals gives me hope that eventually my current challenges will all become easier to deal with.

The biggest lesson I learned last quarter was to focus on what I can do and to be flexible about making curricular changes as the quarter moved along. Fall quarter was challenging because not only did I implement an English composition course I designed over the summer, but I also started teaching at two colleges and had two more classes in addition to the writing course. A few weeks into the term, I found myself questioning everything I had planned for my classes and wondering how my students felt about the class content, the activities we were doing in class, and their assignments. I wanted to get their feedback before it was too late to change the way the course was carrying on.

This is where the big aha! moment took place. Based on an activity to gather student feedback I once read on Mike Griffin’s excellent (and entertaining) blog, I asked students to tell me anything related to the course that they wished stopped, kept happening, or wanted to see happen. I got student feedback on colorful papers: green for “keep doing”, yellow for “consider stopping”, and red for “stop doing”.

Reading through my students’ incredibly useful feedback, I confirmed many of my own observations and made immediate changes to the program. I also realized that sometimes I was being too hard on myself. The ego plays dirty tricks like that. Not all learning is about us, and my students were enjoying the subjects and learning in spite of my worries.

The most obvious of all student feedback came through comments telling me to slow down. To try to cover less and manage time better. And I’ll admit it. I struggled teaching 50-minute class periods after coming from having the same group of students for almost 4 hours every day. My takeaway? Less is more. I started planning fewer exercises and class activities but allowing students more time to delve deeper into their class work. This quarter, I plan to focus on what is truly essential in terms of learning. There always seems to be too many objectives to cover with the time we get in Intensive English programs, but “covering” language points and skills is not the kind of teaching that conduces to learning. Having a chance to explore, ask questions, and revisit language does promote learning.

While the perfectionist in me also constantly needs to be reminded to be kinder and forgive myself for making mistakes, I know that growth comes from being persistent, not beating yourself up, and revising what you’ve done. This time, as I finish planning the initial stages of my course, I am adding fewer assignments than I would normally incorporate. I will assume my students need more time and plan extension activities for class tasks instead of brand new tasks. I will continue to get their feedback as the course moves along, and I’ll make changes as needed.

Slowing down when there is so much to do is hard, but in the end, learning is more about having an opportunity to practice and less about “getting through” class content.

Wish me luck!

Blended Interactions in ELT

This post is my reading response to last week’s BlendKit chapter, “Blended Interactions”. Even though I have not taught a blended or hybrid course (yet), I am interested in exploring the possibilities of mixing face-to-face and online components in a composition class for English Speakers of Other Languages in the future, hence my participation in the BlendKit MOOC offered by the University of Central Florida.

This week’s reading explored the value of interactions occurring in both face-to-face (F2F) and online settings. Some questions that came up for me were, “how do I determine which objectives can be met via online interactions?” and “which learning activities would be more effective in F2F meetings?” My first instinct is to start listing all the objectives and activities I have arranged for my current course, which again, is completely F2F. If I were to teach this same course following a blended approach, could I expect my students to successfully participate in seminars online? Like many English teachers, I have often struggled to find ways to encourage class discussions, especially if students come unprepared to class. Could allowing them to read at home and take their time for asynchronous discussions yield richer discussions?

The authors of this week’s text claim that

“asynchronous activities allow students to enter more deeply into the material or an idea. There is time to look up facts, to draft an outline of what to say, and to revise mistakes before others respond. For students who speak English as a second, third, or fourth language, asynchronous activities give them time to translate instructions or other students’ ideas and to refer to other resources before they communicate their own thoughts” (Thompson). 

While I have had a similar experience as a learner, I realize that the issue is not just deciding which activities would work better online or F2F. This might be more of a practical question, but deep down, what I need to understand is what my role as a writing instructor would be in a blended course, and perhaps more importantly, what the role of students, including the interaction among themselves, should be in a blended course.

Thompson et al encourage teachers to think about the role of educators and the process of learning in a networked world by highlighting four different models brought forward by other educators. Those models, as listed in this 2nd Chapter, are: 

  • John Seely Brown’s notion of studio or atelier learning;
  • Clarence Fischer’s notion of educator as network administrator
  • Curtis Bonk’s notion of educator as concierge
  • George Siemens’ notion of educator as curator
modern art....fancy a taste? @fionamau

“modern art….fancy a taste?”
photo by @fionamau (ELTPics)

While I had never heard of these models before, Brown’s and Siemen’s models caught my attention because they describe processes that are (or could be) part of my writing classes. Brown’s Atelier Learning, for example, is about students showcasing their work in progress to a larger audience, perhaps via a blog or online page where students could write for a larger audience. Although my students do not currently write online, I would like to try creating an environment where learners would be free to read and comment on each other’s work online without some of the pressure that giving feedback can have in a F2F environment. My role then would be that of organizing our “writing studio” and creating an online place where students are aware of their audience and care for the feedback they’ll get from everyone who will be able to appreciate their work, not just their teacher.

The other model described by Thompson et al is Siemen’s Curatorial learning. In this model the teacher is described as an “expert learner” and one who “creates spaces in which knowledge can be created, explored, and connected” (qtd. in Thompson). This definition reminded me of those times when I’ve thought of giving student guided access to different resources (e.g., corpus-based tools for vocabulary, writing guides online) or when I’ve offered choices to students when it comes to topics to explore in their writing. Being a curator is perhaps not that different to being a facilitator, but what I appreciate about Siemen’s model is that it brings up this image of a carefully planned space that could stay for students to use as a resource long after the actual course is over.

But back to the value of our interactions in a blended course as it applies to teaching writing and/or ESOL, I have to wonder. In this day and age, how vital is it for students to be in a F2F setting in order to communicate in English? Thompson et al seem to encourage us to think of ways we can foster a sense of community and belonging in a blended course through the F2F component. Can students come together in the process of expressing themselves in a new language if they don’t see and hear each other in the same room? It is not uncommon to hear of many people around the world nowadays who have learned English because of their need to communicate with people they have not met in other parts of the world. Could it be then that we can transfer a sense of community and belonging to a blended classroom of English Language Learners? I don’t have an answer at this point, but I do have a deep curiosity and desire to give it a try in the future. In the meantime, I’d love to continue learning from your experiences or thoughts on blended learning in ELT!

“See you” all next week…

Sources:

Thompson, K. (n.d.). BlendKit Course: BlendKit Reader: Chapter 2. Blended Learning Toolkit. Retrieved May 5, 2014, from https://blended.online.ucf.edu/blendkit-course-blendkit-reader-chapter-2/

Thinking About Blended Learning in EAP

Image

Photo from ELTPics “Huayhuash Lake in Peru” by @VictoriaB52

 

 

This post is part of my reading response to the first unit of a Blended Learning course (#BlendKit14) that I am currently taking online (offered by the University of Central Florida and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities). I will continue posting on the topic of blended learning over the next four weeks.

Although I am not planning on designing a blended course for ELT at the moment, I am curious about the possibility of teaching English for Academic Purposes (EAP) online in the future. I would love to find out from teachers (or learners reading this blog!) if you think there could be advantages combining online and onsite learning activities in EAP. Also, what should we be mindful of when designing blended courses? I teach an English writing class to first year university students in non-English speaking country, and I am often looking for ways in which students will be encouraged to collaborate with each other in their writing and/or while reading and analyzing texts in class. What if students came to class for presentations and debates, but also had time offline to write their reading responses and interact with each other via forums and blog posts? Is blended learning a better alternative to traditional face-to-face courses or could it be mainly a beneficial option to some learners?

Hybrid or blended-courses are becoming more and more common at many higher education institutions nowadays. Some of the subjects taught range from accounting to marine biology classes. This is not surprising since the appeal of being able to learn through both onsite and online interactions is huge, especially when we consider that blended courses allow more flexibility for learners who need to complete work asynchronously due to their own work or personal schedules. But blended-learning works well for many learners not only because of the asynchronous nature of the learning activities in the online component. Blended courses allow participants to connect with each other in ways in which a traditional classroom does not often encourage (e.g., via blogs, sharing sources). Also, students get to participate in class by using different skills than those required in traditional face-to-face education only. Think of reading seminars and group work; discussions in online forums allow participants more time to think and polish their responses -a luxury we often don’t have when participating in a live class discussion. Additionally, in a face-to-face class we do not have the option of ‘skimming’ replies from participants who are speaking and focus our attention on replying to comments that caught our attention. I speak from personal experience here. Having completed an MA in TESOL (online) at the New School with the chance of taking some courses onsite during the summer, I have to say that quite often I enjoyed the online discussions more since I could browse different responses and think more about the replies I gave to others’ posts. I enjoy face-to-face discussions, but from my experience I’ve come to believe that online discussions can be deeper and more challenging at times.

By designing a course in which web 2.0 technologies are incorporated in addition to more common methods, learners are given the chance to explore online resources that they’ll be able to use and refer to in the future. BlendKit2014 facilitator Kelvin Thomson explains in his first chapter of the Blendkit Reader that “blended learning lends itself to learner-centered, teacher-guided (as opposed to teacher-directed), interactive, and student-collaborative learning.” As a teacher (and learner) who is drawn to the use of technology when exploring new content and connecting to others, I find myself wondering how a hybrid or blended course would work for English language learners in an academic context. What exactly about having an online component could benefit students in EAP? What are the limitations to keep in mind? I would love to see peer reviews conducted online, hoping that perhaps some of the insecurities of giving peer feedback in person would be lessened. But would they?

I’ll probably have more questions (and perhaps some answers?) as I keep reading and interacting with others in the BlendKit course. For now, I hope to hear from other teachers interested in blended learning. Please share some of your thoughts!

9 “Methodological Absurdities” revised

@ cerirhiannon, flickr.com/photos/eltpics

@ cerirhiannon, flickr.com/photos/eltpics

One of the books that was on my reading list for a long time was “The Lexical Approach” by Michael Lewis. Now that I’ve finally read it, I want to share my thoughts on some of the methodological implications he addresses towards the end of the book, where he presents a list of nine sentences that he claims any teacher in the world, including himself, has probably said in the past. All nine sentences, according to Lewis, are lexical items that should be removed from a teacher’s classroom expressions due to their “methodological absurdity” (192). Believing that these sentences would allow for a rich discussion about teaching methods and practice, I have added some comments next to his statements, and a poll to see how some of you feel about these so-called “methodological absurdities”.

Michael Lewis’ Methodological Absurdity list:

  1. “It’s quicker if I explain”.
  2. “They haven’t done…. yet.”
  3. “Can you say that in a full sentence please?”
  4. “Can you repeat that, please?”
  5. “Are there any words you don’t understand?”
  6. “What’s the word for… ?
  7. “I insist in English all the time in the classroom.”
  8. “I wish they’d say more.”
  9. “Do you need help?”

While I do not have any particular desire to engage in absurdities of any sort, I am definitely “guilty” of some of uttering those statements on occasion. And although I do agree with Lewis on the uselessness or problematic nature of some of these statements, I cannot say that all of these statements would qualify as absurd in my book of regular classroom expressions. Lewis’ explanation on why these statements are ludicrous makes a lot of sense to me –but to be completely honest, some of these statements really do serve a practical purpose in day-to-day teaching.

Which statements do you also regularly state (and defend doing so), and which ones have you said in the past but would like to take out from your repertoire?

Guilty, but … (food for thought)

6. “What’s the word for… ?

Sometimes I like to ask students to tell me what the word for something we’ve just discussed in class is in their L1. I do this mainly as a way to check that they understood it, especially when it’s an abstract concept or a hard word to put in context. If used sparingly or intelligently, why would this be an issue?

7. “I insist in English all the time in the classroom.”

I mostly teach Advanced English language learners, so it seems to me like there is little or no need for their L1 in the classroom. A bit ironic after what I wrote about #6. I suppose it’s alright if students are talking about the instructions in their L1 and want to do so to make it quicker, but I do think they would benefit more from using English most of the time.

Have said in the past, but will take out of my repertoire:

5. “Are there any words you don’t understand?”

I have asked students many times if there are any words they do not understand, even if I have to admit it never really felt right to take this approach. Did I really believe students would remember those individual, disconnected words? What if there are many words students don’t understand but don’t really have to know to get the gist of what we’re reading? Each learning context and each lesson requires a different awareness of the vocabulary encountered. And as Lewis implies, we should not just focus on individual words. Also, we can focus on what students to know and start building meaning from there.

8. “I wish they’d say more.”

I’ve definitely struggled when working with a group of students who tends to be silent. It’s scary as a teacher when you ask something and few students speak up, or when there are few questions being asked by students. Ideally, I’d like students to question what is being said, to offer their opinions, to speak in class. But why is this so important for me? Aside from the fact that I do believe the speaking practice is useful, perhaps the main reason is that I’ve always believed that students who speak in class are engaged and interested in the lesson.  But what does that say of equally engaged students who feel less confident speaking? What about those who need more time to process their thoughts and prefer to observe others? Lewis affirms that “cognitive involvement and acquisition are not less effective for being quiet, even silent” (193). While I will continue to engage students in class discussions when the task at hand calls for it, perhaps I should be thinking more about ways to understand if students are engaged –regardless of their spoken class participation.

9. “Do you need help?”

 I often state this while students are working independently (and silently) because I want them to know that I am there to help. I want students to know I won’t just passively sit behind my desk and ‘take a break’ while students work. Lewis highlights the fact that if we believe in learner autonomy then we need to encourage strategies that “help learners to help themselves.” Something I’d like to try before students engage in any independent work next time is to elicit some ways in which they can work through difficulties in the task they’re performing.

 

I agree -methodologically absurd: 

 1 –“It’s quicker if I explain”.

Since I believe in experiential learning, I’d have to say that the only thing that is quicker about me explaining something is that I can say I told students something. This is pretty meaningless in terms of them actually having learned something new. Learning a language requires doing something with it. In terms of students actually acquiring any new language or skills, it will not be quicker if I explain.

2-“They haven’t done…. yet.”

This statement reminded me of teaching grammar classes. It does not sit well with me to say that students “haven’t done” the present perfect, for example. What does doing a grammatical tense even mean? Students might not have had a teacher explain it to them in class (see previous statement for how useful that is), or may have not done any exercises relating to that one grammatical point in particular, but unless the student has been living in an environment in which there is no English language around them, I’d like to think some students could already have some familiarity with the language we’ll practice in class.

3- “Can you say that in a full sentence please?”

Asking students to repeat something in a full sentence when I completely understood what they said seems pretty useless to me. As Lewis asks, “if meaning was communicated, what is the purpose of the full sentence?”  I think there are better ways of doing this, e.g., in writing or by allowing full sentences to naturally take place. But if we are talking about lexical items? Why insist on students always speaking in (unnatural) full sentences?

Works Cited

1.Lewis, Michael. The lexical approach. Vol. 1. Hove: Language Teaching Publications, 1993.

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