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What the…?

Google Translate keeps getting better and better, which makes pure gibberish less common while also making it harder to figure out if a student has copied his essay from somewhere online, gotten help from someone more fluent, or somehow jumped up three levels in writing skill overnight.

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Bookmark This! #2

Here are a few more useful links for teachers. Get those bookmarking fingers ready.

  1. Triptico
    This site features a bunch of cool tools and games that work well in the classroom. A lot of them are ‘Premium’ now, which sucks, because many of them are great. Still, there are useful freebies. My personal favorite in the hourglass timer.
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  2.  Teaching with Songs
    Songs are great; they liven up class and students really enjoy them. There’s a lot you can do with them, from vocabulary to grammar to a variety of skills. Thanks to the YouTube and lyrics sites, it’s easier than ever to use songs in your lessons. This site can help you find the right song and some exercises to go with them. And there are tons of recent pop songs.
  3. Movie Segments to Assess Grammar Goals
    This site is an excellent site. There are dozens of video from popular movies associated with different grammar topics. The activities aren’t always perfect, but they’re often a good place to start.
  4. TV Subtitles
    Songs aren’t the only way to make class more fun. TV shows can be another great resource of authentic language, and they’re inherently more interesting than the average coursebook. The trouble is, for ESL students whose listening skills aren’t developed enough, understanding the dialogue can be challenging. With this site, you can find subtitles for most recent TV shows.
  5. Padlet
    padletThis site is great. You create a new padlet page and share the url with your students. They can then add comments, questions, links, or the like and everyone will see them on the page. They can do it anonymously if they want. This can be a very useful way for students to ask questions or offer comments without having to raise their hands or speak in front of their classmates.

Worksheet Wednesday: Kahoot!

For this week’s worksheets, I’m sharing my Kahoot quizzes with you. Do you know Kahoot? If not, it’s worth learning to use. The quizzes are easy to make and even easier to use with your classes. And best of all, the students love it, partly because it’s a fun game, and partly because it lets them use their phones. I think you’ll quickly find that Kahoot quizzes are a great way to assess vocabulary, grammar, and content quickly in class.

If you don’t have time to make a KahootTeachKahoot quiz, you can often find a good one to use for many topics, especially for grammar (much less so for writing, I’ve noticed). Sometimes you will find someone else’s quiz that would be great except for a few errors, or some in-jokes, or L1 stuff from a language unrelated to your learners. In such a case, you can click the ‘duplicate’ button and edit a copy of the quiz to your heart’s content.

Feel free to use or duplicate any of my Kahoots. Most of mine are vocabulary-focused, aimed at target words from our program’s coursebooks. If you find a typo in any of them, please let me know. Thanks, and enjoy!

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.

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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.

WriteLab and Roboreaders

maxresdefaultA few years ago, when I was teaching Freshman English in South Korea, our school purchased several thousand licenses for an automated essay grading system, the darling of a very large educational conglomerate. This system shall go unnamed, but let’s call it SuckTron3000. SuckTron3000’s ostensible goal was to take students’ essays and – beep, bop, boop – return immediate, accurate, and understandable feedback – as well as grades – to students and teachers alike. We tried it ourselves, with sample essays from our coursebooks, from previous students’ work still littering our desks, with any text we could get our hands on. The result? Garbage. Well-formatted, easy to understand, data-heavy garbage. Sure, the SuckTron3000 could mostly wrangle tense problems, identify run-on sentences, flag spelling errors, and the like. But in terms of content, cohesion, thesis statements, relevance, and everything else that delineates a strong essay from a weak one, the SuckTron3000 was just so much garbage.

Of course, we were obligated to use all the licences the school had purchased.

Naturally, I am skeptical of such systems. They will, eventually, play a role in testing regimes around the world, I have no doubt. But so long as artificial neural networks and quantum computing remain costly and rudimentary, they aren’t ready for prime time. Or so I thought. This article on Slate intrigued me. WriteLab doesn’t grade students’ work, for one, which is a point in its favor. Secondly, it uses an interesting, Socratic approach to giving feedback. Third, it does something that is confoundingly vexing: it encourages students to revise their writing.

I haven’t tried it, and the article quotes one of WriteLab’s developers as saying that many students stop using it after a few months (they grow frustrated with the Socratic questioning, preferring that the system just tell them what to do…sigh, millennials.), but it still sounds pretty nifty to me.

Take that, SuckTron300.

Resources for New Bloggers

As part of my presentation for Sehir University’s ELT Day, I am sharing some links to useful sites for new bloggers. Enjoy! If you find some others that you’d like to recommend, please let me know.

The Non-designer’s Guide to WordPress – a great presentation covering a variety of good design practices.

Colourlovers – A great site for finding color palettes and design ideas.

WP Beginner – Full of useful stuff for newbies.

Fabulous Blogging – A veteran blogger shares her knowledge with the masses.

Beginner’s Guide to Social Media: Blogging

Blogging Best Practices

Is your blog built to last?

How to Succeed (or Fail) at Blogging

 

Better Vocabulary through Technology

One of the most classic, time-honored traditions in foreign language learning is the venerable flash card. They were absolutely vital to my passing high school French and college Russian; the walls of my cozy apartment in Seoul were bedecked in thousands of little index cards (you couldn’t find the standard American-sized ones there…) with a staggering array of words in written in Hangeul in the run-up to taking the standardized Korean language exam a few years back. They have done their duty many times over in my life.

Yet, when I moved to Istanbul three years ago, I wanted to find a less paper-oriented way of studying Turkish. I had tried a couple of flash card apps on my iPhone, and they were fine, I guess. And then I heard about Memrise. Memrise combines a flash-cardlike mechanic with gamification. Which is why I was intrigued by it to begin with. And lo! It was good!

There are a couple of different ways to use it. You can either set up your own word list, as I did when I was studying Turkish at Dilmer language school (you can see the word list I made here). Or you can search

abe-mem-memrise-language-german-learningfor lists that other people have already made; the one that I am currently just about to finish is a very spiffy one consisting of the corpus of the 1000 most common Turkish words, sorted into convenient levels and sections. One of the cool things you’ll encounter as you study are “Mems”. These are mostly text-image mashups that people have made to help them remember a word and its meaning.

MEMRISEOnce you’ve got the list you want to work on, you’ll begin taking short ‘lessons’ where a few words (you can set the number in your preferences) are introduced to you, and then you are quizzed on them in a variety of ways. You can even have audio quizzes if that’s what floats your boat, though most words that I’ve seen don’t have an audio file recorded. You’ll have to get the questions right enough times to continue. The system also remembers when you learned the word, when you last were quizzed on it, and how often you’ve missed it. Then, every few hours or days, it will re-quiz you on it to make sure you still remember it. If you miss it, then it will go into a more frequent rotation for a little while. Eventually, the system decides that you know a word well, and you won’t see it in your reviews for a long while (unless you choose to do a general review instead of its algorithmically-divined practice).

And because Memrise is steeped in gamification, there are points and badges and other little dopamine jolts here and there. Also, it has both a brain and a garden motif going, which don’t quite mesh thematically, but whatever.

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Memrise. Use it!

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