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Administratium, the Heaviest Element

I once had a professor who called bureaucracy, in our university or in business or in the public sphere, administratium, the heaviest element. It made everything slower, harder to wade through, and generally more frustrating by the fact of its very existence. While he talked about this fictive element jokingly, it was clear he felt stifled by the burdens of administration.

The teacher profiled in this NPR article, Rick Young, shared my old prof’s disdain for administratiumatom-clip-art-cliparts-co-kkxcjj-clipart

“Everything’s very time-consuming. In in my mind, it’s not productive time,” he says. “It’s not helping my students. It limits the freedom of teachers to really freely teach and of principals to freely lead and evaluate.”

Young, an effective and beloved instructor in an alternative high school, has given up teaching after 25 years, thanks entirely to the weight of imposed standards and formats and requirements from district, state, and federal authorities.

Much of the burden he and educators across the country face comes from our national addiction to data. Everything related to education must be turned into a metric that can displayed on a PowerPoint slide. If something can’t be datafied, then it is all-too-often deemed unessential and is tossed out of the school along with PE and Art and recess. Hence, our love of standardized tests and our push for teacher evaluations (which have been shown to be poor measures of ability). Standardized tests often just show whether a student is good at taking standardized tests, and can demonstrate wildly incorrect results based on a number of confounding factors (race, gender, sleep, diet, weather, etc), AND aren’t always good indicators of future academic or career success.

Instead of overburdening our educators with mandates, focusing on better training and support for teachers, paying them better and attracting more enthusiastic and capable people to the field, and, critically, not losing them in the first year or two, would go a long way to improving education in America. Train good people, give them the respect (salary) and support they deserve, and step out of their way.

What New Teachers Should Know

This article from Edutopia by Elena Aguilar has been making the rounds lately, for good reason. She captures the confusion and strains of the first year of teaching well. I’m not sure all of her points resonate so much with me, as my teaching context has been quite different than hers, but certainly I can relate to what she says. For one, I adamantly wish I’d had some sort of coach or mentor during my first year (point #5 in the post), or any year after that. Having to wing it, day after day, wears you down, even in the relatively low-stakes environment I worked in my first few years.

One thing I might add to her list, a trivial point, is to save your materials and make them reusable as much as possible. After the third or fifth or ninth time you’re cutting out the same Concentration tiles, you’ll want to turn those scissors on yourself.

scissors

Asking for an A

Every single semester while I was teaching at a university in South Korea, my coworkers and I had multiple students ask us for specific grades at the end of the term. The reasons were what you might expect: they needed a certain GPA for their scholarship, the student housing rules required certain minimum grades, their parents would be violently unhappy, etc. And every time, I would have the same kind of response:

Student: Teacher, I need an A to keep my scholarship.
Me: Oh?
Student: You have to give me an A [please] .
Me: First, I don’t have to do anything. Second, teachers don’t give students grades; students earn their grades.

animals-cat-kitten-cute-begging-kitten-wallpaperThen we’d have a long, sad conversation about what the consequences of them not getting the needed grade would be, and I’d asked them why they didn’t consider this when they were writing their essay at the last minute, or they were absent all those days, or why they half-assed their mid-term, etc. Then we’d look at their participation sheet (part of my gamification project that I used to grade their participation score, which was 30% of their overall grade as set by our department’s curriculum) and I’d ask them why they put in so little effort each week if their grade was so important. If they could make a very strong argument about their participation score, and they could do it in reasonably fluent English, I could give them 1 or 2 more points in their participation band. Sometimes that was enough. Often it wasn’t.

I had friends in other schools where this situation was even more fraught. One colleague at a university in a small city a few hours outside of Seoul had to put Scotch tape on his grades so the administration couldn’t easily go back and alter his students’ scores after the semester ended. Other friends talked about their department heads or deans getting calls from parents telling them to change their precious snowflakes’ grades, and then being forced by their bosses to make the change.

This article on Slate talks about the same phenomenon in the US. The author, Rebecca Schuman, says it well:

When a student claims to need a certain grade, she is operating under the assumption that grades are doled out arbitrarily—the result of a professor’s whim and mood. This stands in stark contrast to reality, which is that in an ever-more-torturedaim at transparency and fairness—even in so-called “subjective” disciplines like the humanities—a professor’s grading system often comes courtesy of multiple tortured rubrics. Those rubrics are themselves tied to ever-more-intransigent “learning outcomes,” resulting in an intricate web of math and check marks, all of which are explained in detail on pages 450-499 of the 900-page syllabus.

For myself, if a student came to me sometime before finals, I would always, always try to find some way for them to help themselves: let them turn in old homework for partial credit, tell them what they needed to do to earn a bunch of participation points, or whatever. They were being at least a little proactive, and I wanted to encourage that sort of behavior.

In my current job, I’ve encountered much less of this issue. There are a few of reasons for this. One, my program is a prep program; we have grades, but mostly students are just concerned with progressing through the five levels and passing the final exam so they can enter their faculty department. Grades just don’t matter that much to them, so long as they get the minimum of 60% at the end of the module. Secondly, the students often go over the instructors’ heads straight to the level or department heads. Unlike in Korea, though, the bosses here are not very willing to change the teachers’ grades, because, thirdly, we have a clear, promulgated, and mostly objective rubric for assessments. There’s little wiggle room for the students’ to ask or demand more points. Sometimes, our level head or supervisor might re-check an essay or oral presentation video and see if there is any gross mis-grading on the part of the teacher, but it’s rare that a failing student gets to go ahead into the next module after the teacher has submitted her grades.

So, teachers, make your assessment system transparent and make sure students are aware of their standing regularly.
And students, don’t tell your teacher you need a grade. Go out and earn it.

Groundhog Training Day

bearookie

Found on The Cornerstone for Teachers Facebook page.

Do Children Need Homework?

dogatehomeworkHomework is a topic of serious debate among educators and education stakeholders, with little consensus. From my own experience, I clearly remember Korean parents demanding that we give their 6 and 7 year-olds hours of homework each night. We tried to tell them that their kids needed to spend time playing in order to develop things like executive function and a host of other skills. Nope, they weren’t having it. Their tiny little guys and girls needed to become fluent in English and homework was the an intricate part of that. Madness.

This article talks about some research on the topic. Looking at a dataset from a large number of countries, it finds that homework is nearly ubiquitous, though the amount varies wildly. What interests me in this research is that there is little or no correlation between high test scores and the amount of homework assigned. In the Netherlands, for example, there is very little homework most nights, but their students perform extremely well on tests.

The article also noted that the drive for data, the increasing significance of standardized tests, packed curricula, and a host of other factors push teachers to dump work on students not because the teachers think it is meaningful, but because they feel they have to. That’s not a great reason.

This study wasn’t able to look at the quality of the homework or indeed many factors. However, I think it is one more interesting nail in the coffin of daily, look-busy homework.

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How to Learn a Language

learningIn the field of second language acquisition, Stephen Krashen is something of a guru and leading light. For whatever reason, this four year old piece from the Washington Post popped up on my news feed today, a response from Krashen to someone else’s explanation of how to learn languages. The person he’s refuting, a certain Andrew Eil, claimed that he learned to speak four language through ‘boot camp’ style, intense grammar and vocab study with forced production.

Not so, Krashen proclaims. What’s actually needed is not grammar and vocab study – that’s not how we learn our native tongues, after all – or uncomfortable speaking. No, the answer is “comprehensible input”, namely reading and listening. The more we take in and understand, the better our overall grasp of the language will become. We need to internalize rules, not have them fed to us.

What do you think? Is Krashen right? Is Eil? Neither, both, something in between?

What about Spelling?

A few days ago, one of those incessantly appearing Facebook quizzes caught my eye. “Can you spell the 25 most commonly missed [sic] words in English?” Well, it turns out I could in all by one case: noticeable was the noticeable mistake (I mis-clicked on another one, but I’m not counting that). I will quietly await the accolades a 2nd place finish deserves.

Normans_Bayeux
1066 A.D. The Battle of Hastings – This is why spelling sucks.

The quiz got me thinking: To what degree should spelling be emphasized in the ESL classroom? On the one hand, our learners need to be able to communicate competently, and spelling is undoubtedly a part of competence. On the other hand, English be crazy, yo. The time and resources we must muster for this task may outweigh the benefits of having impeccable spelling. Especially in the age of spellcheckers and emojis and text-speak, standard spelling (to whatever degree that is even a thing), it could be argued, is something of a deprecated skillset.

englishistoughConsider the second sentence in this popular meme. Through, tough, thorough, thought, and though all share ough in their spellings, but the sounds produced by those same letters vary.

  • through : ˈthrü
  • tough : ˈtəf
  • thorough : ˈthər-(ˌ)ō
  • thought : ˈthȯt
  • though : ˈthō

This may be an extreme example, but you can easily come up with many more: do and no, cow and bow (like a ribbon), and knead and bread are some more examples. It’s pretty clear that English is not a phonetic language. Our 26 letters corresponds to roughly 44 phonemes which are, in turn, represented by a staggering 250 different spellings (source).

The reasons why English is this way are legion; if you’re interested in that, check out the podcast series History of English, or read something like The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson. Suffice it to say, the many different tributaries that fed into the language in its formative centuries played a big role here, and no king or queen of England ever decreed a standardization of the language. By the time critics and academics realized that this would be useful, it was too late: the language had spread too far to try to impose order.

English is the wild love child of old Germanic, Anglo dialects, Norman French, and several other sources, and it roots show. On top of that, no one agreed how to spell things, and different monks and scriveners wrote words in the ways they thought they sounded, which naturally varied around the British Isles. Eventually, spelling finally began to settle into something like what we have now, with popular forms getting added to the dictionaries and school books, leaving English with quite a mess of its phonemes as depicted by the alphabet. As an interesting bit of trivia, outside of English-speaking countries, spelling bees are rare. Since most major languages have clearer relationships between their phonemes and spellings, there isn’t much challenge in spelling words correctly.

So, given the challenges of English spelling, is it worth devoting time and energy on in ESL? Maybe. Probably. Consider this passage from Why Teach Spelling?:

Investing instructional time in spelling can be profitable if the English language
is not treated as a haphazard writing system that can only be learned through
rote memorization. Students need to be taught how to learn and remember the
spellings of the words. This can be accomplished through:

* explicit instruction in phoneme-grapheme correspondences, phonemic
patterns in letter sequences or syllables, rules for joining syllables
or adding morphemes, elements of morpheme preservation in word
formation, and strategies for encoding irregular words;

* careful selection of spelling words that capitalize on students’
developing knowledge of the underlying structures of words; and

* repeated and cumulative practice in coordinating phonemic,
orthographic, and morphemic knowledge with immediate error correction.

Accurate spelling is a laudable goal, and not only because poor spelling is often
interpreted as a sign of laziness or a lack of intelligence (vos Savant, 2000).
The authentic benefit of being a strong speller, however, goes
beyond the superficial. A skilled speller is a stronger reader and writer. A
teacher can have confidence in affording spelling significant time and space in
the literacy curriculum.

There is value in being a good speller. Research generally shows that good spelling is associated with and may even encourage good reading and writing. It’s not a waste of time, assuming you do it effectively. But, how do we teach spelling in an effective way? We’ll explore that in another post. Same bat-channel, same bat-time.

In the meantime, what do you do about spelling in your ESL classes? How much time do you spend on it as a separate skill/sub-skill? How you found any effective methods or resources related to spelling? Please share!

Education Myths

I ran across this blog post about myths that persist in education a couple of days ago. It raises some good points; there really are a lot of notions that, despite being discredited or without evidence, nevertheless remain prevalent in education. She identifies 6 culprits:

  1. duck-quackThe Cone of Learning / The Learning Pyramid
  2. Learning Styles
  3. Right-Left Brain
  4. Brain Gym
  5. Brain-Based Learning
  6. Multiple Intelligences

Interestingly, we discussed multiple intelligence theory in my ICELT class a couple of weeks ago. My impression of the topic was that sounded more or less like astrology: vague, broad statements that could easily apply to almost anyone. While its primary proponent, Howard Gardener, has research to support his claims, and it may well be real, the only practical consequence for the classroom, I feel, is to make sure your lessons are varied and utilizing multiple modalities. Which, as we know, is just good practice anyway.

The ICELT Diaries: Out of Context

adelehello
Oh god, more grammar. – Every student ever.

“Hello, how are you? It’s so typical of me to talk about myself. I’m sorry.”

It would be fair to say that I was, until recently, a ‘context’ skeptic. It’s not that I didn’t see the value of establishing an overarching narrative or theme when teaching grammar or vocabulary or what-have-you. It’s just that I didn’t feel it was necessary. My worry has been that doing so will tend to encourage students to focus on that story or song or video clip or cluster of realia, perhaps at the expense of the target grammar or vocabulary. Or, if the learners do grok the objectives, then they may associate with the context of that lesson rather than seeing how it applies universally. Moreover, the way they will be expected to use it come assessment time will generally be devoid of context, even if there is some contextualization on the test – our listening assessment and writing assessment are complimentary topics, for instance – that context will almost never be the same one in which they studied the material.

What I’ve learned in ICELT, however, challenges my preconception about context. According to our instructors, establishing and staying within a context anchors the learners in a (hopefully) familiar frame of reference, allowing for the all-important activation of background schemata. Without such a framework, it can be difficult for the learners to understand the utility of the target language. As our tutor said, absent context, it’s all just random words and sentences. This is why coursebooks always have themes around which their vocabulary and grammar are centered. It is also why, perhaps, so many students buy texts like English Grammar in Use and never get more than a few pages into it. All those cloze exercises and transformations are devoid of any familiar meaning.

I still believe that there should be activities that provide more test-prep and universalized practice, but I am now more amenable to using context for my grammar and vocabulary lessons in the future. If only I’d come to that realization before I had my assessed observation.

A couple of weeks ago, I had 2nd teaching observation, the first one that would actually be assessed. The objective of the lesson was a notoriously difficult one, in my experience: infinitives of purpose, such that, so that, such…that, and so…that; an annoying cluster of grammar and functional language that only sort of go together. In the run up to the lesson, I spent a crazy amount of time on the lesson plan. Hours and hours. I wrote up stages, made materials, scraped the stages, and archived the materials. Why? I don’t know. It was not a pleasant experience, but it was an educational one, though mostly in hindsight.

Structurally, I opted for a PPP framework: presentation, practice, production. A solid choice, I felt; going for a task-based learning approach would have worked too, but it’s a style that I’m not as comfortable with, so not what I wanted to do for an assessed lesson. One of the things we’d studied in our ICELT course is the value of elicitation. Instead of just having the teacher show the learners the target grammar or vocabulary, it’s better to get the students to produce as much of it as possible and then nudge them in the right direction. Thus, I included a stage for elicitation of the target grammar.

But first, I wanted to do something a little fun and interesting. You know, lower those pesky affective filters. For the lead-in to the lesson, we listened to Adele’s Hello while students filled in the missing words in the lyrics on a worksheet I prepared. That stage of the lesson worked well, though there was a little technical glitch at the beginning of the lesson. I then used the lyrics to move into the first main grammar point, the infinitive of purpose.

Where I think I screwed up is in the next stage. The Adele song was a good, fun way to ease into the topic; unfortunately, I didn’t continue to use the song as we moved on to the next stages. Instead, I used a series of interesting but random pictures for elicitation of the other grammar structures – such that, so that, such…that, so…that – and unconnected sentences for a series of rewrite activities. The song should have been the context of the entire lesson. Had I started the hour off with some predictive activities and/or lead-in questions, then played the song and done the gap fill, then the target language presentation, and elicitation using elements from the song and the story the song presents, it would have been a far more cohesive, grounded lesson. Context, man.

The rewrite activities were another thing that was not as effective as they could have been, mainly because there were too many of them, and too frequent throughout the assessed part of the 2-block lesson. My thinking was that the students often do poorly on rewrites during the mid-term and final test, so the more practice the better, since the final was just a week away. My intentions were the best, but the lesson was not the better for them.

adelehello2
Does he ever stop talking?!

Another unfortunate part of my lesson was the amount of TTT: teacher talk time. When I was designing and redesigning my lesson plan, I thought I had minimized TTT. In practice, though, I found that the class was actually much more teacher-centric than I realized. In retrospect, some of the activities that I scraped, such as a running dictation, would have centered the class much more on student-student interaction. The main culprit was the PowerPoint I used. I know some teachers are totally against PPTs. I think that they are useful, it used correctly. In this case, I used it for highlighting text from the Adele song, for paper-reduction, for showing photos, and similar things. The PPT itself wasn’t bad; there was just too many stages that utilized it. Have a variety of different kinds of activities would have mitigated this issue.

In the end, the lesson was fine; I passed the assessment. Though the students learned the grammar points pretty well, I felt disappointed that the lesson didn’t live up to my expectations. Thankfully, though, I was able to recognize the mistakes I made in it and will be better able to avoid them in the future. “At least I can say that I’ve tried.”

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