Friday, July 11, 2014

New Experiences Ahead

On Monday, I will begin teaching an intermediate class at my new gig.

The first year or so that I taught in a classroom, the focus was ESL.  Lesson goals were based on life skills: "students will be able to check their grocery receipt against what they actually bought and report a discrepancy to a clerk or store manager".  Lessons were supposed to include a balance of reading, writing, speaking, and listening, but the default emphasis was (in my opinion) on reading.  A lot of the speaking was actually reading aloud, a lot of the writing was related to completing exercises, a lot of the listening involved reading along.  I had been taught to develop a lesson around a grammar point that would be needed or useful in the context of the life skills goal.  The lesson format was essentially PPP.

The remaining three years of classroom teaching saw a shift.  Lessons were to revolve around US Civics topics, with language learning as needed for this purpose.  I really liked this, because I could respond to whatever language needs arose as we explored together.  It was easy to include discussion sessions (speaking practice) and we regularly watched videos related to current events (listening practice).  Learners also researched and reported on topics (writing, pronunciation).  Vocabulary-building took a larger role as well.

I would like to have expanded to project-based learning.  My thinking was to involve the learners in a real civics activity of some kind.  Perhaps organize a snack sale to benefit our host (the library) or maybe other students at our agency (GED graduates who can't afford a cap and gown, or the fees for taking the exam). Another project might be to write a language learners' newsletter to distribute to other English classes (and maybe solicit contributions from the other learners!). And, of course, learners might bring in a need from their own neighborhood. The group would think of possibilities, choose one, plan it, execute on it, and then do a post-mortem.

I hope we get more out of conversation than this! (credit)
In my new assignment, the emphasis will be on speaking and listening. Current events or a civics project remain possibilities ... if learners are so inclined.  No matter what, as long as I am not working with a fixed curriculum I will be letting the group drive the content of our lessons.  I'll be doing this indirectly by observing what they seem to be interested in and what their language needs are, and directly: asking them to discuss and choose.  New for me:

- working with a fairly stable cohort
- shorter lessons, three times a week
- teaching a course of exactly 21 lessons

It's possible that some (all?) of the learners are continuing from past courses.  They may already know each other and have expectations based on their experience with a different teacher.  So, a big part of our first lessons will be sharing a lot about myself and how I teach (unplugged!) and learning as much as I can about them. If they don't know each other, then we'll all be in the same boat!

I think the unplugged approach will go over well because, after all, this is a conversation-based course.  I'm really excited about this chance to explore spoken English more thoroughly!

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Senior English Club

This is a post that I have been working on for several years!  It involves an issue that I ran into when I was a new teacher: perpetual students.  Frankly, I have nothing against lifelong learners -- I'm one myself!  But there is a conflict between the needs of such learners and the grant requirements that made our classes (and my paycheck) possible.  I'm posting this because another blogger very bravely shared a problem recently and it occurred to me that it's a lot easier to share insights and successes than it is to confess mistakes and raise issues for which we don't have answers ... but it's both aspects that make a good community, right?  Note: I have recently left the agency where these experiences took place, so I have revised the text to reflect this ...

The EL-Civics program I worked in until recently exists for a particular reason -- to encourage learners to become active participants in their neighborhood and this country, partly through improving their English skills.  Their grant defines "success" through a combination of:

- learner gains (a certain percentage of learners shows improvement on a standardized reading exam)
- if learners demonstrate that they have learned several kinds of civics facts (US history, government, laws, geography, rights and responsibilities, culture, etc.)
- if any learners become citizens, register to vote, vote for the first time
- if any learners engage in sustained community participation (are active in community organizations, etc.)

While the last three items are important, test scores play an overly-large role when agencies across the state are competing for grant money.

Public libraries are lifesavers! (credit)
But prospective learners don't know any of this.  As far as they're concerned, the word on the street is that there are free English classes at the library.  Period!  It's quite effective: I was often amazed to meet learners who had barely gotten over their jet lag before inquiring about classes.  These are the learners for whom the program is designed.  However, there is another group of learners who also take advantage of such a program: the "perpetual students".

Let's look at a composite student that I will call Igor (I have no students named Igor).  He shows up faithfully for every lesson and does written homework -- sometimes spending quite a bit of time on it -- but he doesn't speak English except to communicate with me or when forced to do so as part of a class activity.  He doesn't use English outside of class, being immersed in a family and community with many speakers of his first language (L1). He's not looking for a job -- he's retired.  He post-tests again and again at about the same level as the pretest, sometimes lower.  He resists participating  in communicative activities and, when pressed, will take non-communicative shortcuts to get the activity over with.  Igor appears to be looking for intellectual stimulation and the company of other nice people.  His goal is met by the act of coming to class. It was assumed that students come to class to get help with English and move on, so my program didn't have a clearly-stated policy about students who don't ever intend to leave.  So Igor stayed in class for months and months ... even years.  Igor was nice and I liked him a lot.  But what was my responsibility with regard to his learning?

At first, my thinking was that such a student was seeking participation in the community in his or her own way, and that this could fall loosely under our program's intentions.  And it seemed that I always had one or two students who fell into this category -- especially in morning or afternoon classes. So, I was easy with the perpetual student.  But, after some time, I realized that even one or two such learners can have a big effect on the success of a class.  Igor's non-participation detracted from the success of communicative activities, he provided a poor model for students who were hesitant about taking risks, he used his L1 with any other students that shared his language (which marginalized others and was an obstacle to my recognition of arising issues), he took a seat that could be filled by a student whose needs were more strongly in alignment with my program's directives, and (finally) he hurt my agency's numbers.  While I personally don't think that standardized test data provides an accurate reflection of student progress, the program did depend on it. Lots of bad data = no funding.  One student like this may not hurt too much, but read on ...

Once I had eight perpetual students at the same time, I kid you not!  When I put up signs announcing an afternoon class at a particular library, it filled quickly.  It turns out that six of the group were elderly retired people who knew each other and shared the same L1. These students all scored at high intermediate or a little higher on our pretest.  I liked them as people. They were really quite sweet, slipping me chocolates and being like a whole bunch of nice grandparents. But they simply did not want a communicative class and they worked as a group to try and drive me toward a traditional teacher-led format -- where they could sit back, collect handouts, and enjoy the show while commenting to each other in their first language. Their number increased to eight because other students with the same L1 who joined later found it easy to go with the majority.

Every time I tried to break the class into groups or get students out of their chairs was a struggle.  Every time I asked a group conversing in L1 to try English, they would translate what they were saying to me (as if the problem wasn't that they were supposed to be using English, but that I didn't speak their L1). In activities where learners were supposed to collaborate they would simply work out the answer using their first language, then sit quietly and wait to report -- or converse in L1 about something else.  Being a relatively new teacher, I assumed the failures were mine and worked relentlessly trying to figure out how to manage this group. After almost a year of trying new lesson ideas, negotiating expectations, explaining the language-learning purpose for each activity, joking, asking individuals privately for cooperation, and even nagging, one day I just burst into tears!

That day, a final failed activity broke the camel's back.  It was a typical student survey -- students were to go around with a bit of paper and find out three health issues that interested their classmates the most (this would inform future lessons).  What actually happened: the group of perpetuals sat around one table chatting in their L1 while passing their bits of paper around to be filled in. Meanwhile, the four or five students who didn't speak that language surveyed each other and then tried feebly to break in and get some information from the gang.  When I regained my composure, I ended the lesson early and arranged a meeting with my program manager.

I finally called for help! (credit)
With my PM's permission, the next lesson saw me post-testing everyone in the group.  The lesson after that, I handed out cupcakes to celebrate the completion of our program and "graduated" the lot.  I handed out leaflets from a local senior citizens facility that offers various activities, meals and even transportation to and from the library area.  Most of the group already knew about it and nobody was interested.  I also talked to the library branch manager who eventually found an area volunteer to offer a weekly one-hour conversation group.  All of the "graduated" seniors later began to attend that session -- and I made sure that it was offered on some day OTHER than the ones when my classes were scheduled!

The next week I began afresh, switching the schedule so that the daytime class (popular with retirees) served beginners and the evening class was for higher level students. I ended up with a delightful mix of sincere learners in both classes, which was wonderful!  I eventually discovered that another teacher (an experienced one, at that) had had the same problem at this location a couple of years earlier.  At that time, they simply closed the class down.

By the way, the post-tests with my gang of perpetual learners showed no gains; indeed, one student didn't even bother to finish the test, claiming she was tired.  It dawned on me that students may have deliberately been fudging their post-tests, because if they scored above a certain number they would have to leave.  I have since had individual learners in other classes state outright that they didn't intend to do well on the post-test because they loved me and didn't want to leave!

This is a long post, I know, but here comes the reflection at last ...

 First of all, I don't really like the "solution" to this problem.  For one thing, the students didn't graduate -- I kicked them out. For another, I couldn't serve higher level students during the day for fear of this situation arising again.  And closing the class (as was done before) serves no students at all!  The question is:

How can one open classes to all, including retired seniors looking for intellectual satisfaction, while preventing the perpetual student problem?

After this incident, my team of teachers had quite a bit of discussion on this.  Everyone had at least one or two students who had been around forever.  Were the goals of these learners in alignment with those of our program?  We decided to set a policy where learners could not stay in the same class for more than a year.  Learners in a lower level class could move up to a higher level class, if post-test showed that they were eligible, and they could have another year at that level.  Looking back now, I have some more thoughts:

- Not all long-term learners are perpetual learners.  Some don't have a lot of time for study because they have jobs and family to attend to. Some have sporadic attendance due to other life issues.  But they participate actively and communicatively when they are in class. The time limit may be unfair to this group.
- We only served two levels ("lower" and "higher").  It can take more than a year to move from the low end of "lower" to "higher". We ended up tightening both of these bands, which resolved the issue.  But it would be nice to add an ESL class (focus on life skills) to serve the lowest levels and prepare them to enter the EL-Civics program.
- Could learners also be graded on the quality of their participation in class with high-scorers earning another year at their current level if they were not ready to move on?   How would one do this grading?  Could it be related somehow to the "community participation" standard that the grant asks for?

I hope I never run into the extreme case of eight perpetual students again!  But I think I'm a tougher teacher than I used to be.  Back then I requested cooperation from learners, but thanks to my shutting the class down and starting over, I know that I'm capable of demanding cooperation in the future.  However, if at all possible I would prefer to organize the program around encouragement rather than deterrence!
Tough, but not this tough -- I hope! (credit)