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.

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


Found on The Cornerstone for Teachers Facebook page.

Games, Learning, and the Brain

A cool infographic from the MIND Research Institute looking at brain chemistry and how games play a role in learning.





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.

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 Scarecrow: Lesson on Relative Clauses

On Wednesdays, I (often) share a worksheet or lesson that I’ve used in my ESL classes. You are always free to use and modify these as you like. If you do, please include attribution to me and don’t even think about selling it. This week, the worksheet was designed for intermediate (B2+/C1) students.

scarecrowOne of the objectives slated for this week was a review of relative clauses ahead of teaching reduced relative clauses. This seemed like a great opportunity to put some of my ICELT training to the test, and to incorporate material from a great workshop on using speechless video in class given by my colleague Kendra last year. The video I chose for this lesson was a very well-made piece called The Scarecrow from, of all things, Chipolte. But don’t worry, there’s no advertising in the video. It features great visuals and a lot to discuss.

organic-sticker-19324676This lesson can be used to review relative clauses, if you follow my worksheet. But, it can also work for any number of other skills and language. The lesson starts with a vocabulary elicitation exercise; students generate some useful words based on several pictures. Then they discuss a few questions to warm them up and activate schemata. Then they predict what the video might be about. While they watch the video, they are encouraged to take notes, using a prepared note-taking box with space for characters, settings, things, events, and notes. After watching, they check their predictions (we learned in our ICELT class that most teachers cultivateforget or just skip this step, so don’t do that!). Then they are asked to write a brief summary using their notes, which I had them do with their partners. From that, we move into a few comprehension questions, but the questions are actually nudging them into the real objective: relative clauses. Each of the questions is written as a relative clause, which many of my students didn’t notice until I asked them what the sentences had in common.

crowThen there is an exercise centered around identifying the relative clause and its components. That’s followed by an error-correction exercise and then a return to the summary they wrote earlier, which they will rewrite using relative clauses.

That was all the time I had for my lesson, but if I had more, I would have included a speaking activity, where the students would write their own questions and quiz each other, all the while using relative clauses. With even more time, I would have loved to have used this for a group discussion activity, since we just set the group discussion assessment criteria and tasks in my class. C’est la vie.

As I said, you could easily re-work this lesson to cover many other grammar topics or receptive/productive skills. The video could easily lead into a group discussion lesson, debate, essay writing, surveys and presentations, and much more.

Download the worksheet:  the scarecrow – relative clauses

Have fun!


Creative Commons License
The Scarecrow: Relative Clauses by Chris Sanders is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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