Random Thoughts

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

Nothing to Celebrate

I have carefully not read or listened to any of the hype about the 10th anniversary of Katrina.  Today I made an exception.  I read a post called KATRINAVERSARY BLUES: OF RESILIENCE TOURS, CARPETBLOGGERS & DISASTER TOURISTS.  And I am glad I did.  The author, Adrastros, starts the post with:

The hype behind the 10th anniversary of Katrina and the subsequent flood reminds me of a flock of turkey buzzards circling the city in search of carrion.

It’s another photo op.  It has nothing to do, really, with the disaster that was, and in some ways, still is Katrina.

I did not live in New Orleans during Katrina.  I lived on the North Shore, where all we had to deal with was the hurricane itself.  We stayed during the storm and felt the 100 foot tall pine trees fall all around our house.  We lost power and had no water.  But we did not suffer anything like they did in parts of the city.

We had it easy. We had lived without water and electricity before, and we could get water from the college where I worked.  My husband went back to work as soon as the roads were clear enough for him to get there, and I got paid while the college was closed. We did not lose our home. The only damage we suffered was a broken rear window on one of our cars.  But the experience of Katrina changed us forever.

My thoughts and prayers are with those who lived through Katrina and with those who did not make it.  We need to honor the people, not use their suffering and death for some personal or political advantage.

A Letdown

After such a great first week I should have expected it.  But I didn’t really and I am disappointed.  My classes this week seem to be kind of limping along.  And I am trying to figure out how to change that.

This week I was having students write “Who I Am” poems. The basic lesson came from the MN Literacy Council, and it is a good lesson. But I didn’t implement it well.  I started out giving the students a list of adjectives that could be used to describe a person since the poems required listing adjectives. The list I gave them was way too long and contained words that were too complicated for my beginner-low intermediate class.  I wasn’t prepared enough to help them with the list.  It went better in my mixed level class where most students are high intermediate or above, but that doesn’t make me feel much better.

Part of the problem is that I was trying to make this fit into Purland’s You Are the Course Book mold.  He offers the option of alternating between the student-created texts and prepared texts, and I thought I could make it work.  But it didn’t.  So I am trying to figure out if I should just use student-created texts all the time or if I can find a way to make the mixed method work.  I know that I don’t feel as much in control of the lesson this week as I did last week.  And some of the steps in Purland’s approach just don’t seem to fit with this text.  But that could really be because I don’t “own” the lesson.  Last week, although, the students created the texts and I followed his outline, I really felt like I was in control.  This week, I don’t.

Judging by how hard it has been for me to come up with texts for the next unit, I really think that I would do better just having the students create all the texts.  That requires them to extend themselves from where they actually are, band it doesn’t make unreasonable demands on them.  That’s what I feel like this week is doing: asking more of them than it should.

My fear, I think, is that students will get bored.  That is not really a problem, though.  Purland offers a myriad of ideas in the books on his website.  I think I would be better served by putting time in studying those books than trying to find texts and figure out how to make them work.

So I will try to modify what I had planned for the rest of this week but not worry too much about it.  Next week I will be better prepared and class will go better.  At least I hope so!  I’ll let you know how it goes.

An interesting blog

Now that I am back teaching ESL, after being gone from the field for almost 4 years, I am really enjoying catching up on some of the ESL teaching blogs that are out there.  Today one that I discovered is called In Your Country.  It is filled with lesson ideas that would work well with the way I am trying to do my classes.

The post that caught my attention was with picture prompts for describing people.  Rather than have students describe pictures of people, they are asked to describe the owners of different items: an old van, a pair of heels, and a dog.  I really liked this idea because it requires students to think and to sue their imaginations.  Based on what I saw this past week, my beginners could do that.

The nice thing about activities like this — one of them at least — is that it shifts the focus of the class from what students don’t know to what they do.  It allows them to build on their existing knowledge, to see the new material as an extension of that rather than something completely unrelated to it.

I will be trying some of these ideas in my class soon.  I’ll let you know how they go.

It’s pretty amazing to me…

I now have one week of my new classes behind me, so I can begin to think about and evaluate how it’s going. And I have to say, I think it is going well.

I teach a beginner class in the mornings and a mixed level class in the evenings.  The beginner class is actually mostly high beginner, maybe low intermediate.  The evening class is mostly high intermediate.  I am using the same basic plan with both groups, but the resulting classes are very different.

As I said before, I am using English Banana’s You Are the Course Book idea as the basis for these classes.  It is a lot of fun.  I feel like I am really teaching, and the students comment on how quickly the time passes.

This week I began both classes doing the 6-word memoir idea that Hana wrote about, adapted for my students after my near-fiasco trying it out in my summer class.  I chose words from these to use as our vocabulary words.  I really like the fact that we spent time not only talking about the meanings of the words but also syllables and stress.  I had students use rubber bands to practice stress.  That worked so well with the beginners that they get out their rubber bands on their own to practice syllables and stress for other words that come up during class!

The next step, then, was for the students to write a story using the vocabulary words.  I had students dictate the sentences to me, and I wrote them on the board.  The two classes came up with very different stories, in part because they had different vocabulary and in part because of their different abilities and knowledge of English.  These stories served as the basis for our work the rest of the week.  We revised the stories together and, in the intermediate class, as individuals.  I took sentences from the stories to talk about sentence structure and third person singular -s.  We used them for speaking and sentence stress practice.  We wrote questions about them and then answered the questions orally.  Long before the six hours of class for the week were over, the students had memorized the story they had written as a class and could talk about it easily.

The two classes both got what they needed out of the lesson.  The lesson was at the level the students needed it to be because they, not I and not some textbook designer, wrote the materials.  I had pre-selected some grammar points I thought might come up in their stories, so I was prepared to present those points if they came up.  If something else had come up, I had time to prepare to present it, too.

Except for about 30 minutes when students were working on a listening activity on the computers, we worked with the texts the students wrote all week.  The students weren’t bored at all.  As I said, they were surprised at how quickly the time passed.  I couldn’t have been happier!

Next week we will be following up on this, but I will be using what Purland calls “Mode 2” in his You are the Course Book.  We will be using some materials from the MN Literacy Council on poetry.  Since we are describing people, I thought a couple I Am poems would be appropriate.  Because I am giving them a text, I am prepared to talk about the grammar and vocabulary.  We will still go through the stages of Purland’s lesson, and I am confident that it will work well.

I have really seen how much more engaged my students are in these classes than my summer students were.  And I think, as Purland says, it is in large part because I am more engaged. I am truly excited about going to class and seeing what my students come up with.  And that is pretty amazing!

In with the new

Yesterday was also the second day of my new set of classes, or rather the second day of student orientation for my new classes. I am teaching a beginner class (Levels 1-2 or 3, depending on the student pool) and a mixed level class.  So far both classes are looking to be pretty small.  And that is OK — as long as they don’t cancel them on me!

For these classes I was told that I had to teach reading, writing, listening, and speaking.  There is no curriculum to follow and there are no books.  After the summer class, that level of freedom is exciting.  But it is also a little frightening.   I have pretty much decided on using ideas and materials from two main sources: the Minnesota Literacy Council and English Banana.

I was really intrigued by You Are the Course Book at English Banana.  Since I have no books, It seems like a good idea: Have students create their own texts and materials.  So I decided that would be the basis of the courses this fall.  Matt Purland, the author, outlines the program very well, and I feel pretty confident that it will work.  A lot of the success of any course is teacher buy-in with the materials.  I buy into this more than I bought into the materials I had to use over the summer.

Purland offers two approaches to the program — one where students create all the texts and one where they create one text and the next one is provided for them. This is the model I am going to use.  I think it will offer the students more variety and will give me a chance to work any kinks out of the program as I implement it.

I am going to use materials from the Minnesota Literacy Council for these other texts.  Their website offers a lot of readings and lessons tied to the kinds of topics I want to cover with my students.  I plan to use Purland’s approach for dealing with the texts rather than use them strictly according to the lesson plans that accompany the readings.  But there are elements of the lessons that will be adaptable to Purland’s approach.

I am excited to try this.  While it is very loose, it provides me with an overall structure,  After all the years I have been teaching, I feel pretty confident that that will be enough.

Purland says:

The main point is that when the teacher is engaged, the students are more likely to be engaged. Busy teacher = busy students; bored, passive teacher = bored, passive students. They take their cue from you.

How true!  Blindly following someone else’s ideas of what they think my students need isn’t engaging at all for me as the teacher.  I saw it happen time and time again over the summer.  I wanted something different for these new classes. And now I think I have it.  I’m excited!

Out with the old…

Yesterday was the last day of the ESL class I taught over the summer.  It was hard to say good-bye to the ladies. They have put in two hours a day Monday through Friday for two months on top of working 8-10 hour before class and sometimes returning to work after class.  I don’t know how they did it!

It was an interesting class to teach.  It was very structured.  I was given texts and a syllabus filled with requirements and told to teach.  The students (all women who work in the same factory) were at a variety of low levels.  Lack of confidence was the biggest problem for some while others really had almost no prior knowledge of English.

Yesterday, as they took their grammar final, I reviewed their portfolios.  And I have to say I was impressed!  They did a lot of work over the course of the summer.  Most of them had taken great care in organizing their portfolios, and I could see the pride on their faces as they handed them to me.  I wrote each of them a little note and stuck it in their portfolio.  At the end of class they were sharing those notes with their classmates.  It was a little thing, but it meant a lot to them.

I encouraged the women to sign up for classes through the local college now, but I understood when they told me they needed a break. They say they will sign up for the next term starting in October.  I hope they will.

Telling stories

Olga Sergeeva had another great speaking idea: small talk via stories.  She lays the lesson out clearly and I am intrigued.  The video clip is great but too complicated for my beginning students.  The lesson itself is too complicated for them, too.  But I love the idea of getting students to tell stories.

My students are almost always too focused on what they can’t do or what they aren’t sure about.  If I could get them to tell stories, I think it would help us get past that to some degree.  So how do I structure lessons around the idea of students telling their stories?  There is already some of that in what I do (daily routine, for example) but there isn’t enough.  What I want is to get students so involved in telling stories and so involved in listening to stories that they learn English.

In the video clip, the speaker points out the importance of sequence.  So what can I have them talk about that has a sequence.  Actually, I have an idea.  We are going to be looking at a picture and talking about what is going on.  After that, why couldn’t we pick one of the people and invent a story for them?  I would do this part as a group project, but then they could tell their own stories to each other.  They would already have some of the vocabulary and structures they would need.  I think it could work.

Only two days left in this course.  Will I get to this activity?  I would like to because I think it would allow us to end on a high note.  I’ll have to see.  If we try it, I’ll let you know how it goes.

As I read over this post, I am not sure why this strikes me as such a novel idea.  But I see it as something different, something I haven’t done before.  I think it is more a question of focus than actual content.  We all have stories to tell and we all want to be heard.  Telling our stories validates us — to ourselves and to others.  What is more important than that for beginning students?

My 6-word memoir test run

After reading Hana’s post the other day on using six-word stories or memoirs, I decided I would do that as an icebreaker when my new class starts next week.  Fortunately, though, I tried it out yesterday with my current class.  What I learned is what I already knew:  there is a difference between reading about a lesson plan or idea and actually making it your own.  That difference is what makes the activity successful or not.

Now, the idea of 6-word stories wasn’t a new one to me.  I remember when they first became popular maybe 10 years ago.  I used them with my students then.  But I haven’t thought about them in a long time.  So when I read Hana’s post I didn’t think it would be too difficult to pull this activity off.  And it wasn’t, really.  But I hadn’t taken time to really think of how I would frame it for my students.  And that is where my problem was.

Now, in my defense, yesterday was a crazy day.  Unannounced, they came to do teacher evaluations.  So my plan was thrown off.  The evals took about 30 minutes — one fourth of the class.  So when I got back into the room and started teaching, I felt rushed and off kilter.  But I was determined to try the activity, so I did.

And really, it went pretty well.  But it was a struggle rather than a fun activity.  And that was my fault entirely.

I presented the basic idea to the students and wrote a couple example on the board.  Then I passed out index cards and asked them to put their names on them and then write their own six-word stories.  They were confused.  I had used both a “sentence” example (Helps other people, needs help herself) and a word example (teacher, wife, mother, friend, daughter, sister) but they seriously didn’t get the sentence example.  They wanted to write sentences, with each sentence presenting one word that described them: I like to cook.  I like to clean. I am a good mother. I am a good worker.  I like to visit my children.  I am a nice person.  So there were a lot of erasures on the cards before we got what I was looking for.  But we got it.

Then I had them work with a partner and exchange cards.  The idea was to have them ask one or two questions based on what the card said.  So for instance, if someone had my card with teacher, wife, mother, friend, daughter, sister on it, they might have said, “You are a mother.  How many children do you have?” This part actually worked well.  They had good conversations.

Now these students are beginners at the end of a 90 hour course.  They all work together and know each other well.  My new students will be at about the same level but at the beginning of the course.  And they will largely be strangers to each other.  So I know I have to change this up a bit.

What I plan to do is just present the 6 word example.  I think this will be easier to explain to new students.  And it will make the conversation part easier.  Even most beginners will be able to ask that kind of question.  I hope.  At the end of the activity I will collect the cards.  This will give me some basic information about the students that I can use later on as I am talking to them.

I had explained to my class yesterday that they were going to be my guinea pigs.  (And then, of course, I had to explain what that meant!)  And I am glad they were.  They didn’t hesitate to tell me when they didn’t understand, and I could easily tell them that I didn’t want six complete sentences.  Neither of those would happen with a brand new class on the first day.  I learned a lot during this test run.  The lesson is truly mine now.

I’ll let you know how it goes next week!

Follow up on my cloze activity

I had written about the cloze activity I did made using Olga Sergeeva’s instructions.  We actually did it this week in class, and the students were able to read the text and insert the correct words.  Of course, I gave them the words to choose from, so that made it pretty easy for them.  I think I will next try doing this as a listening cloze, omitting just the verbs Sergeeva says are the most common in conversation.  That should be more challenging but very worthwhile!  I’ll let you know how it goes.  The most difficult part right now will be finding the listening.  We only have 1 week of class left, so I am running out of time.  But if it doesn’t happen with this class, there is always the next one — which starts in 2 weeks!

July Reading

When I look at the list of books I read last month, I am amazed!  How did I do anything but read?  But actually, none of the books I read were all that difficult to read.  They were more what you might call “beach reads” than serious reading.  That isn’t to say they weren’t great reads, though.

Again, I only read 1 non-fiction book: Roller Coasters, Flumes, and Flying Saucers by Robert R. Reynolds.  It was the story of the company that created most of the rides for Disneyland and many other amusement parks.  It was a read fun read.  I was fascinated to see how intimately Walt Disney was involved in the development of the rides.  I went to Disneyland in 1957 and, while I don’t remember much, I do remember some of what they talked about in the book.  These guys were real pioneers, inventing much of both the rides and the production process for them.

Now for the fiction:

This was an excellent story and very well written.  I was caught up in it from the beginning.  The characters — even the bad guys — were very well written and like able. I will read more in this series.

A professor becomes a cop while on sabbatical.  Pretty unlikely, I thought, but a good story nonetheless.  And then I discovered that it was actually based on a true story!  Written by the professor/cop and a cop turned professor!  I highly recommend this book!

I had started this book before and put it down.  Then after reading Louisiana Hotshot by Smith, I decided to try again.  And I am glad that I did.  It is a Louisiana kind of book, for sure.  Very twisted, filled with larger than life characters.  I am hooked!

What do you do when your beekeeping rival is found dead in your hives?  You investigate, of course!  This was a fun read.  It is another series I plan to read more of.

The story in this book was very good.  The writing made it hard to read, though.  Just the fact that people who worked together every day always referred to each other by title and last name — Deputy Coroner Shillings, for example — was enough to make me put the book down several times before I finished it.  But I did finish it.  And I am glad I did.  As I said, the story was very good.  And the characters were interesting.  I plan to read another book in this series to see if Benzaim got better with dialog as she has more practice.

This book left me a little unsettled.  I am all for flawed heroes, but I wonder if Jake isn’t almost too flawed.  It was a very good book, and I really enjoyed it in spite of that, though.  I haven’t read anything else by Zafiro yet — although I have another book on my ereader.  I will definitely read this next one soon.

This was a dark, complicated story, but I loved it.  Part of the reason, I know, is that I am still in love with books about the West.  If you are a fan of Longmire, you’ll like this book.

I loved this book!  It reminded me of Lindsay Buroker’s Emperor’s Edge books.  It was a fun story.  The characters are all fascinating!  I will definitely read more in this series!

I read two pieces of shorter fiction:

And finally, I listened to two audiobooks from Librivox:

  • Chessmen of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

As you may have noticed, I have listened to a lot of the John Carter novels by Burroughs.  I enjoy them.  I have to say that I really enjoyed this one.  It was one of the best I have listened to or read so far.

  • Flatland by Edwin Abbott Abbott

I have this book downloaded to read as well as having downloaded the audio version.  I have to say that I would probably never have read it if all I had was the “book” version.  I can now say that I have “read” it, though.  The only problem was that I didn’t have the drawings that accompany the text.  The reader described them well, but it wasn’t quite the same as looking at them.  Now that I know the story, I think I may actually read the text version of it.  I think it would be worth my time!

So that was my month in reading.  It was a good one.  As I start teaching new classes in a couple weeks, August may not be as good.  Oh well…

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