Random Thoughts

about reading, writing, teaching and anything else that interests me

I can’t believe it has been two months!

Well, actually, it was four days short of two months.  But anyway… That is how long I had gone without working on the novel.  I am embarrassed to admit it, but it is all too true.

I have read a couple books lately about writing — one about writing fight scenes that may prove helpful — and they have gotten me going on the book again.

What I am coming to believe is that we have to just finish this book and get going on the next.  I got a glimpse of that at Bubonicon in August.  Why was I sitting there listening to people talk about writing rather than writing myself?  I don’t mean to imply that I know everything there is to know or that I didn’t learn valuable information at the con, but there comes a time when you have to just sit down and do the hard work of writing.

And it doesn’t stop there.  I also read The Pursuit of Perfection and How It Harms Writers by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, which made me realize that if I want to seriously be a writer, I have to write, publish, write, publish, and write some more.  She talks about writing as a career.  And while I am not planning to support myself with my writing at this stage of my life, I would like to publish and make a little money.  And that takes multiple books.

So, time to get off the blog and back to the book.  See you later!

Conference report

It has been over a week since I went to the NMAEA/NMTESOL conference, and it was just yesterday that I finally started putting my notes into some kind of order.  So I guess now it is time to share a few thoughts about it here.

I was fortunate in that the conference organizers contacted LINCS, the professional development arm of the US Dept. of Education and got two excellent presenters to come and share their knowledge and expertise.  All the sessions I attended were put on by these two women, Kathy St. John and Susan Finn Miller.

Their presentations were all about reading, something that I wanted to know more about.  I took classes on teaching reading in grad school, but it was a long time ago now.  At the very least, I felt I needed a refresher.  As an ESL instructor, with the new emphasis on career readiness, I can’t afford not to help my student read better.

I don’t know that I learned anything spectacular at the conference, but I have already implemented some of the strategies they suggested for helping students read better.  I am trying things out now, but I plan to do it in a more systematic way when the next term starts in January.

I love conferences because they give me a chance to learn.  They also give me a chance to talk with colleagues about education.  There doesn’t seem to be enough time for either of those activities in a normal work day.


Off to a conference

Tomorrow I am off to a conference, the annual joint NMTESOL and NMAEA conference.  We are driving over and back both days.  Actually, that isn’t true.  The GED instructor is doing the driving; I will just be along for the ride.

Conferences are always exciting to me.  I love learning new things.  After doing this for so many years, it sometimes seems like I have seen and done it all. Conferences have a way of making me realize just how much there is that I haven’t seen or even heard of before.  I am sure I won’t be disappointed this time, either.

I am excited!

And so were my students yesterday.  I had gotten a link to Jeopardy Rocks from Lesson Plans Digger, and I decided to try it out.  In both my classes this week we have been working on reading and on writing questions about the readings.  So Jeopardy seemed like a natural.  And it was!

I took the questions the students had written about the reading, added a few on my own, and set up the game.  (Unlike real Jeopardy, I had the students give the answers, not the questions, but it would have worked the “right” way, too.  I just knew that they had written and practiced the questions for two days and were probably tired of them.  I wanted to focus, instead, on the answers to the questions.)

We played in the morning class.  Only two students, both ladies about 40, showed up.  They are pretty serious.  But they spent the entire time we played laughing.  And answering questions.  I asked them if they thought it was fun, and they both said it was.

In the night class, attendance was also bad, but we didn’t let that stop us.  We had a great time.  It took much longer than it had in the morning because their reading had been longer and the questions I added were a little more difficult, but no one complained when the end of class arrived and we still had final jeopardy to go.  We played to the end of the game.  And they loved it.

My students are all adult immigrants, so they were not as competitive as a class of high school students probably would have been.  When someone couldn’t find the answer in the text or had trouble forming the answer correctly, they jumped in to help each other.  I gave them a hard time about it, but I was really happy that they cooperated so much.

I am thinking about trying another game – this one maybe about past tense verbs.  If it is successful, I am probably going to splurge and go pro.  It is only $48 a year.  You can print your game out, and you aren’t limited to three games.  I think I will talk to my boss and see if she is willing to pay for it, but if she isn’t, I will probably do it anyway.  If yesterday is any indication, it will be money well spent.

Giving up control

I am a control freak in many ways.  I like to think I only use it for good, but I am sure some people would disagree with me on that!  Anyway, as a teacher, I like to have a firm plan for what is going to happen in class.  I have options built in, of course, but I like to know what is going to happen any particular day in my class. In my current situation, using Matt Purland’s You are the Course Book method, I have been preparing weekly plans and I am quite comfortable with that.  He has a plan format that really works for me; everything is there and I can vary the order of activities depending on what happens in class.  I also build into it a few extra things — computer time, outside readings, etc.

This 8-week term I have larger classes than I did last time. They still aren’t big classes by any means, but there are more students.  It has taken a while to figure out how I wanted to do the class, but I think I finally have it under control.  And of course, having it under control has involved giving up some control.  Not always easy for me, but this time it seems to be working.

Really all I am doing is using Purland’s approach.  I am having students work in groups and come up with their own texts and questions and everything.  Last term we did a modified version of this, where we created texts as a group and I wrote them on the board, but this time I am just having them work in groups to develop their own.  Then we share the texts and make corrections as needed.  But they are doing the work.  And it is working!  We have done it twice already, and I have been very pleased.

Last night in class I saw a great example of why this is so important.  I had written a text about my weekend, and we had read it together Monday. This was to be an example of the kind of text I will want them to write next week.  We used it for vocabulary work and to look at past tense verbs as well as for practice in writing questions.  We finally got to the point where I turned it over to them: they were to work in groups to write questions that could be answered by the text.  And that is where I really learned a lot.

First of all, I discovered that my students couldn’t really form questions correctly even though some of them had been doing it with me since last term.  We had been practicing just the night before, and I thought they could do it.  At least when I was guiding them, it seemed like they could do it.  WRONG!

Then I discovered that they were having trouble writing questions because they didn’t really understand the text.  What was the surprise for my mother?  Was Natalie my mother?  They had been able to answer questions about it when we first read it, but I guess I picked the main ideas to ask about and to guide them through writing questions about.  Left to do it themselves, it was much harder.  Was the text too hard?  I don’t really think so.  But there were things that confused them — like pronoun referents.  Having them write questions about the text really helped me to see what they understood about the reading and what they didn’t.

In both these cases, if I had kept the control, I would never have made these discoveries.  I would have gone along thinking they could write questions and that they had understood the text when they really couldn’t and hadn’t.

There is no big new idea here — just a reminder that I have to let my students struggle sometimes.  The old 3Ps (presentation, practice, production) model of teaching doesn’t work well unless you give students enough time to practice without my guidance and then produce.  I wasn’t giving them enough time to work on their own, to struggle and finally to “own” question formation.  Purland’s method makes it pretty easy to do that.  I am glad I discovered EnglishBanana!

October Reading

October wasn’t as good as September as far as reading goes, but it wasn’t bad.  Here’s a rundown.

As usual, I only read one non-fiction book, The Martial Apprentice by Roy Dean.  It is the story of a young man who has studied a number of martial arts and is a pretty interesting comparison of the differences among them and among their practitioners.  I originally got it because I thought it would give me more insight into Japan, but his time in Japan is not a big part of the book. I kept reading it, though, because I enjoyed his insights.  You’d probably have to be interested in the martial arts for this book to be of interest to you.

I read two pieces of short fiction:

  • The Crystal Crypt” by Philip K. Dick kept my interest and surprised me at the end (Well, almost the end).  It is science fiction but almost more of a detective story, really. I enjoyed it.
  • Botchan by Natsume Soseki was another book read to expand my understanding of Japan. It is supposed to be a very popular novel in Japan.  Written in 1906, I am not sure if it is dated or not.  It didn’t really tell me a lot about Japan, I don’t think, but it was a good look at human nature.  I enjoyed it.

I listened to two audiobooks: The Dueling Machine by Ben Bova & Myron R. Lewis  and Plague Ship by Andre Norton.  I got both from Librivox, as usual.  I enjoyed them a lot.  I seem to listen to a lot of science fiction.  I read quite a bit from time to time, too.

Now for the novels.

  • A March of Kings by Morgan Rice is the second book in this series, which I started reading in September.  I am still really enjoying it.  This book was engaging and presented a world that was interesting and yet not so detailed that I ended up skimming over a lot of description.  I really enjoyed it.
  • Ruby Silver by Randall Reneau was a good book about a geologist and his partner who are trying to get a silver mine going again.  It is a mystery/thriller.  The author is a former geologist, so you actually learn something along the way.  It was a good book.  I wish I had read the first two in the series first, though.  I think it would have added to my understanding and appreciation.
  • Money Land by R.S. Guthrie was another great book.  I didn’t like it quite as much as Blood Land, the first in the series, but it was very good.  If you like Longmire, you’ll like these.
  • Under a Raging Moon by Frank Zafiro was almost too realistic for me.  It was a great book, really, but not a very happy one.  The blurb on Amazon says it is “like a paperback ride-along”, and it really is.
  • Enter the Janitor by Josh Vogt was an absolutely hilarious book.  The idea of a group of people keeping the evil in the world in its place isn’t that unique, but you have never read one like this! I highly recommend it if you have any interest in this kind of book.
  • True Life Adventure by Julie Smith was a good story, but the characters didn’t grab me the way some of her others have.  It took me most of the book to get a clear picture of the main character in my head, so it was a little bit of a struggle to care about him.  Once I got the picture, though, the story really kept me interested.
  • A Fate of Dragons by Morgan Rice was another in Rice’s Sorcerer’s Ring series.  This one was every bit as good as the first two.  I enjoyed it so much that I have started on the 4th book.

So that’s it.  Not a great month, but not too shabby, either.  Not sure how November will shape up; I feel like I am off to a slow start.  But you never know!

I got lost

Well, I didn’t really get lost, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at my posts here.  I have a million excuses, but I will only burden you with a few of them.

First of all, I didn’t settle into my new classes as quickly as I thought I might.  The first week went OK, and I thought the second week would go even better.  Instead, I had real sporadic attendance — 11 one night and 3 the next.  I planned to give some of the lowest level students some of the basics they said they needed, and they were absent.  It just made it hard to plan, and I had to do a lot of last-minute adjustments. This week isn’t starting off any better, really, but maybe it will improve.  We’ll have to wait and see.

Then, last weekend I flew to Illinois for a belated celebration of my mother’s 89th birthday. Preparing for that took a lot of my energy and kept me distracted from posting.  Then I was gone for 4 days and didn’t go online any more than I absolutely had to.

The final distraction, really, was losing all the October books I had posted to my reading list.  It was my fault, but that didn’t keep me from freaking out about it.  I didn’t want to have to try to recreate it all.  Eventually I was able to find out how to access revisions (It isn’t easy to do anymore!  Or at least it wasn’t for me!), but I spent two days working on it.

So anyway, here I am, back among the living.  I hope to get back into posting.  Maybe tomorrow I will get to my October reading list.  It was another good month for reading, so it will take some time to get the post done.  But I will try to do it tomorrow.  You’ll know soon whether I do or not!

New Classes

This week has been registration for our next session of classes.  I only have a few returning students and a bunch of new ones.  I find myself being a little apprehensive about these new classes.  Will the You Are the Course Book method work with larger classes? I am pretty sure it will, but I have no proof of that yet.  And, of course, there is the inevitable “getting to know you” period to be gotten through.  But we will get through it and come out in December working together as a class, having learned a lot of English along the way.  I don’t really doubt that, but I always go into a new class with a few concerns.

Our program has a 2-day registration period followed by 8 weeks of classes.  Then another 2-day registration and 8 more weeks of class.  I really think I would prefer open enrollment to this.  Yes, open enrollment – allowing students to enter at any time in the semester – has its disadvantages.  But I would rather absorb a student or two at a time over the course of the semester than now having my continuing students be the outsiders in this new, larger group of students.  The dynamics of the class always change with new students, but now it feels like we are starting all over again.  There are no dynamics yet.

It’ll all be fine, and next week at this time I will probably wonder what I was worried about, but in the meantime, I am worrying.

The problem with trying to teach grammar

Well, one of them, at least.

Hana had a great post about her grammar test.  I commented there but decided I should add more to the discussion here.

She said:

The reason why a grammar test can turn into a nightmare is because English grammar is really tricky and your knowledge of it will never be completely satisfactory.

That’s true.  Sort of.  I think it would be more accurate to say your knowledge will never be complete.  (But maybe that is my US bias.  Maybe to Hana that means exactly the same as completely satisfactory.  That’s part of the problem, isn’t it?)

She acknowledges that there is often no single correct answer and says:

I don’t really want to pretend I have all the answers up my sleeve, but I’m sometimes fed up with the there-is-really-no-correct-answer cliché. If you tell your students that there is no correct answer, what’s the point in testing them at all?

And that is maybe the best question of all.  The answer, I guess, is that we test grammar because we are required to.  I had to test grammar in the course I taught last summer.  I had to test grammar when I taught Developmental Writing a few years ago.  I don’t think many teachers anymore test grammar because they want to.  I could be wrong on that, though.  But testing grammar is difficult.

It would be easy if there were one correct answer to everything. But there are usually many answers that could be correct grammatically. Sometimes with more context, the field can be narrowed,but sometimes that can lead to more possibly correct responses. How can I expect students to respond with the one answer I have in my mind when I write the question? But that is what I do whenever I write a grammar test.  I know what I am testing with that question, but the students don’t.  They see it as a question totally without context.  And in that case, there are probably numerous correct responses.  And we as teachers have to accept them as correct, I believe.

To avoid this, we could always tell them what construction we want to see in the answer (Complete the sentences with the past simple tense.) Then it isn’t really testing their abilities to use the grammar correctly, though.  It is only testing their recall of that particular grammatical point (simple past in my example).  And that to me is a waste of time.  Memorization of past tense forms is necessary but it doesn’t mean they know when to use them.

Another way to test grammar is in authentic writing.  This is the best way, I think, but it is more difficult to grade.  And it would take a lot of effort to be sure the test was going to elicit the forms you wanted to test because as with any test, students can see possible answers we don’t see until they point them out to us.

One thing to keep in mind, I think, is that English grammar is changing.  I got an email from my boss the other day, head of a university department, telling me that her phone must have ate her earlier message to me.  I cringed.  But I understood what she was saying.  And she is far from being alone with this “mistake”.  I don’t think many people in the US younger than myself would even notice the problem because it is so widespread.

I think teaching grammar is important, but it has to be done in context.  And even then it is tricky.  I could totally relate to what Hana said at the end of her post:

To conclude my post, I’d say that grammar tests like the one I just described do suck and I’ll be very careful when designing something similar next time. Anyway, my students will probably consider me a schizophrenic once I hand out the corrected tests on Monday because they’ll see how many times I’d changed my mind before I came up with the final score.

Here’s to the schizophrenic in all of us who teach grammar!  I’d be more worried if we refused to change the grade just because the student didn’t give the response we expected.

No one ever said English grammar was easy.  Teaching English grammar is even more difficult!

Getting there!

Well, I finished going through the last chapters of the book today.  Much to my surprise (and delight!), I only found one chapter that needs a lot of work.  The others were much better than I had remembered.  There are little things to look at, but that’s it.

I also worked on the outline again, getting to the 3/4 mark today.  I will probably finish this task tomorrow.  At least I hope so!

Again, my thanks to Michelle at The Green Study for getting me going on this project after a fairly long break! It feels good to be writing again!

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