February 2016

Getting Away from “Edtech for Tech’s Sake”

In 2013, the Los Angeles Unified School District began handing out iPads to its 650,000 students. This program was heralded as a great success for educational technology. Two years later, the massive school district halted the program and demanded a refund from Pearson and Apple. The program was not just a failure; it was a debacle. The curriculum and apps from Pearson were worthless in most cases, according to many of the teachers who tried to integrate the tools into their lessons, and the program’s failure highlighted just how difficult Edtech really is.

Photo by Lexie Flickinger/Brad Flickinger via Flickr Creative Commons

This story can be heard in many places, though few had the $1.3 billion price tag attached like it was in LA. Schools rush to buy laptops or tablets, through on some nanny software to keep the kids from looking at porn or playing League of Legends too easily, and hope their teachers can find some use for them. This is Edtech for tech’s sake. A principal or school board wants to not be seen as behind the times, to keep up with the charters, to help disadvantaged students. The reasons range from the banal to the saintly. But no matter how good your intentions are, if you haven’t approached the situation correctly, you’re joining the road crew paving the way to Hell.

Any use of Edtech, or just about any innovation or change, needs to start with identifying a need. What are the students missing? What are the holes in the curriculum? Where are the teachers struggling? If the answer to those problems is Edtech, then mazel tov. But far too often, the answer is going to be whatever pet project some stakeholder is trumpeting, regardless of the problem that may or not have been identified yet.

I’ve seen it several times in my program. A teacher will give a workshop on a cool app, and several of us might try it. Sometimes it’s great. Sometimes, meh. More often than not, they’re bookmarked and forgotten about. In an ideal environment, we would start with some problem and search for the best answer, which may well be an Edtech one.

googledocsI recently began to have my students submit their weekly writing assignments to me via Google docs, a service I’ve been using for years. My decision to integrate this tool into my class had to do with a hole I’ve noticed. The students do their writing, but we only give quick, mostly general feedback on content and grammar/vocabulary errors during their tutorial time, assuming they actually come. This level of feedback wasn’t sufficient, I felt, and the students probably forgot most of it as soon as they left the lesson. With a tool like Google docs, I can make in-line edits and give comments which they can see easily whenever they review for the writing tests.

So far, I would say that it is a not-unqualified success, but it is still early in the module. Some of the students have definitely indicated that they like the comments; on the other hand, it’s added a time burden to my workload, somewhat off-set by the ease of which it is to use Gdocs anywhere anytime. The first test for my efforts will be next week when they have their first of four writing tests. I don’t think this is going to be a panacea. My group of students began with rather below writing skills for the Intermediate level, and giving feedback with Gdocs isn’t going to work miracles. If it helps them to stop making subject-verb agreement errors and capitalizing words after commas, I’ll be happy.


When Grading Harms Student Learning | Edutopia

At our general staff meetings, our director will often ask us for feedback on the program and suggestions for improvement. On a few of these occasions, I’ve posited the idea of getting rid of the mid-term tests or reducing the importance of various assessments. These suggestions are not taken terribly seriously. Schools love grades. Whenever you here about a school that doesn’t use grades, it usually as a joke about hippies and new age foolishness.

gradesI’ve long been an opponent of grades, and I say this as someone who got good grades in school (if you don’t count the last year of college…*shudder*). Personally, I feel like grades are more often used as a way to generate chartable data and too oftennot fully indicative of students’ actual abilities. I will say, our English prep program does a mostly good job in assessing readiness for faculty work. But, I still find grades distasteful. I have some ideas about how we could handle a grade-less system, which I will write more about in the future.

This article on Edutopia hit a sweet spot for me. Take a gander: When Grading Harms Student Learning | Edutopia.


Worksheet Wednesday: Station Learning!

For this week’s worksheet, it’s a 4-nanza! Have you ever tried any station learning worksheetactivities in your ESL class? They’re a classic tool for young learners in native language classes, but they can be an excellent way to liven up your older-learner ESL classroom as well. In the university prep program where I teach, I’ve used stations in my classes for the past 4 modules, and they’ve mostly been very well received. (The first time I did it, I didn’t really explain it to the students that well, so they were a tad bit confused. Oops!)

So, for this week’s Worksheet Wednesday, I’ve included the 4 pages you would need to run this station learning activity. It’s an elementary level review activity, with a reading passage, adjectives of emotion, simple sentences, and error correction. I’m sharing these with you more to give you some ideas, not necessarily for you to use them directly, though you are completely welcome to if they meet your needs. If you do use them, you’ll need to do some cutting for each station. And since these are provided as examples, I didn’t make an answer sheet and the instructions are very light. Caveat emptor.

Station 1: simple sentences stations – station 1
Station 2: simple sentences stations – station 2
Station 3: simple sentences stations – station 3
Station 4: simple sentences stations – station 4


These worksheets are considered Creative Commons licensed; you can modify use them if you want in your classroom. If you redistribute them, though, we would like to be acknowledged, and don’t even think about selling them! It would be awesome of you to let us know if you use any of our worksheets, and if you see any mistakes or have any suggestions, please let me know!


30-Year Veteran Teacher Quits, Pens Viral Letter

via Teacher unleashes Facebook tirade about why she is quitting after 30 years.

While many of these points don’t fully resonate with my experience in the ESL education industry, others do. And we can certainly empathize with all of them. According to the author, Kathy Margolis, after 30 years, she decided to quit a job that she loves because the conditions have become so intolerable. Overcrowded classrooms, overstuffed curriculums, overemphasis on tests at the expense of play and other important developmental activities, and the like have made teaching a nightmare. Plus, people think that teachers have cushy jobs with vast amounts of paid time off, a common refrain but one that ignores reality.

Even though Margolis is talking about Australia, she could just as easily be talking about America or many other places.

What do you think? Is she exaggerating or is she right on the money?

My Gamification Project, Episode 1: The Intrinsic Menace

raisinghandsMotivation…or students’ lack there-of, the great scourge, the destroyer of many a teacher. This can be especially true for ESL instructors faced with a room of students who are required to take your class. They did not necessarily want to be in your class, studying past perfect progressive in a language they couldn’t give two flips about (at current exchange rates, 1 flip is worth about 0.65 rat’s asses). Looking out over a sea of glossy eyes or smartphone-illuminated faces hour after hour is enough to drive a teacher to drink. Drink more, anyway.

There is an age component to the motivation problem, in my experience. As long as you keep the lessons well-paced and active, little kids have boundless energies for almost any task, whether they really care about it or not. They’re like empathetic sponges, so if you’re excited about gerunds, they’ll be excited too. This effect diminishes as the learners get older. If you walk into a room of middle school students with a writing lesson after lunch, you can have an unlicensed proton pack of excitement strapped to your back and it won’t matter one whit. But what do you expect? They’re walking bags of rapidly-changing hormones, in a society and at an age where standing out can be social suicide. I thought that intrinsic lack of motivation was a phase. I was wrong. Oh, so wrong.

quotes_motivationWhen I started teaching at a university in Seoul, it was not my first time teaching older learners. I’d had many private lesson students, and I had taught community classes for a vocational school south of the metropolis. I had, I thought, a fair idea of what to expect in terms of motivation. The adults I’d been teaching for the past few years had all been enthusiastic. So imagine my surprise when, during my first lessons, getting my 18-20 year-old students to answer “How are you?” was like asking them to pull their own teeth out with a spoon. I should have realised the key difference between my university students and my adult learners. The adults I’d taught had chosen of their own free will to take my class. The freshmen at the university, by contrast, were required to get 4 credits worth of English in order to graduate. For the most part, students who were already good at English – i.e. the ones who wanted to learn the language – had long before mastered it, gotten high scores on standardized tests, and were thus exempted from the mandatory classes. Those who remained were decidedly uninterested in English, though many of them recognized that they did actually need it, if only to get a decent job at Samsung or Hyundai. But knowing you need to learn something doesn’t make you want to learn it. Necessity isn’t the mother of motivation.

One afternoon, I stumbled across a TEDx talk on something the speaker was referring to as ‘game level theory’. The talk wasn’t actually that good, and as memory serves, I believe he made have made some rather dubious claims, but at its core, there was something exciting and potentially revolutionary. He opined on the possibility of using elements from games – earning points, winning badges, leveling up – as a way of motivating people to do things that we – teachers, bosses, governments – want them to do but that they might not be interested in doing on their own. Of course, he what he was referring to was “gamification”. Put simply, gamification is the application of game-like features to non-game tasks in order to spur motivation.

An early version of my participation  level sheet.

As someone who’d grown up with D&D and video games, this was immediately fascinating to me. I set about that evening to create some sort of ‘level system’ for my classes based on participation. At first, I had some fanciful ideas about awarding points which students could use to buy armor and weapons and somehow compete in a fantasy world (see my D&D comment above). That I rejected as being far too complicated and potentially unappealing to many students. Not that there aren’t viable ways of doing just that. Instead, what I settled on was a rather simple system of 6 levels – our freshman program mandated that 30% of students’ grades be based on participation, so each of my levels was worth 5% of their overall grade. Each level had a number of little dots that had to be filled in if the student wanted to ‘level up’. They could fill in a dot every time they answered a question (regardless of accuracy), asked a relevant question (“what does this mean?” yes, “teach-uh, bath-uh-room?” not so much), did extra homework, and the like.

The system solved a few problems from the very first day I introduced it. One, students went from rarely raising their hands to fighting for my attention whenever I asked a question. Extra bits of homework, which weren’t factored into their grades, used to be ignored by nearly every student; once I introduced my level system, not only did they almost always complete the work, they would actually ask me for more. No one ever forget their books, as not having your material would cost you some dots. The students also no longer complained about their participation scores. If they only got a 15 out of 30, they knew why; they only had to look at their sad, half-undotted level sheets to see why.

In short, it felt like a great success.

But, was it? We’ll discuss that next time.


Worksheet Wednesday: Modals of Probability

worksheetEvery Wednesday, we share a worksheet with you to use as you see fit. These worksheets are considered Creative Commons licensed; you can modify use them if you want in your classroom. If you redistribute them, though, we would like to be acknowledged, and don’t even think about selling them! It would be awesome of you to let us know if you use any of our worksheets, and if you see any mistakes or have any suggestions, please let me know!

This week, we have a worksheet on modals of probability. This go-around, the answer key is separate; you’re welcome.

modals of probability

modals of probability AK

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