Losing my mind

What follows is a long, student-unfriendly version of a 3-paragraph paper (not an essay) on a 30-day challenge that I did with an intermediate integrated skills class.  The paper has to have an academic paragraph on the time before, the time during, and the time after the challenge.  Originally, the paragraphs had to use the past tense, present tense, and future tense (with any aspect), but I haven’t followed that rule faithfully here.

Getting lost in hectic thought was the default mode of my mind before I started my 30-day challenge.  The challenge, which was to meditate 10 minutes a day for 30 days, came at a time when I my mind was almost constantly in a state of emergency.  Every thought of grading, making new assignments, or updating a class vocabulary list was a red alert in a long line of red alerts.  I would be exhausted at the end of a day of classes, but unable to take a nap without thoughts of all the papers I had to grade rushing in and beating back my attempts at rest.  As a result, I was often in a sour mood and was inclined to greet any attempts at contact from colleagues or students as yet another demand on the limited resources of my attention.  When I had a minute, or just a desperate need to pretend that I did, I spent it with value-free distractions (the App Store specializes in them), afraid to glance back at the wave of paperwork threatening to crash over me from behind.

Since I started meditating, I haven’t ceased being distracted, but I have been better able to incorporate distraction into my workflow, i.e. to be mindful of distraction.  In the interior of my mind, thoughts of work have begun to appear less like photobombing tourists in the lens of my attention, and more like part of the shot.  I have become better able to take a long view of my own time and attention and to refuse to devote my full mental resources to every problem, incomplete task, or request that jumped into frame.  What is called “mindfulness” is key to this.  While I meditate, thoughts still appear, and I still think them, but I am aware of the process, and that awareness prevents me from identifying with them completely.  I become something of an observer of my own mental life.  I see how this could be described as being “mindful”, as it does in a sense feel like an additional layer of abstraction has been placed between my stream of consciousness and the thoughts that usually occupy it, but in a sense more important to me, something is also taken away.  That thing is the formerly irresistable urge to load that thought into the chamber of my executive-function pistol and start manically squeezing the trigger.  It is also the need to build a spider’s web around each thought, connected to all my other thoughts, and claim it irrevocably as mine.  In these senses I believe “mindlessness” is just as good a term as “mindfulness” for what occurs in and as a result of meditation.  In any case, disassociation from my thoughts, most of which are proverbial red circles with white numbers in them, has helped me to control the way that I react (or not) to them.

This brief experiment with meditation has given me a good deal of perspective to take with me into future semesters.  I can now see the regular rhythm of the waves of classwork as something other than a renewed threat.  Now, they seem more like tides, dangerous if unplanned for but predictable in their rises and falls.  Importantly, I also see the high water mark and know that as long as I keep my mind somewhere dry, it will recede without doing much damage.  In the future, as long as I refrain from doing something crazy like teaching 20 units, I think I will be able to maintain calm with the help of this perspective.  Also, in a more specific sense, I will be better able to resist the call to distract myself from my work.  I can recognize the formerly irresistable need to latch onto an interesting task, and this recognition enables me to prevent YouTube or WordPress (except for right now) from hijacking monotonous tasks like grading or… well, mostly grading.  Next semester and into the future, I will feel less threatened and better able to deal with inbound masses of schoolwork.


My black robes, pt. 2

Whatever a teacher’s job is now, it’s not knowing a bunch of things.  Everyone carries a device that immediately connects them to almost all human knowledge in his or her pocket.  Given that everyone also knows that this is true, why do people still show up in classes?  It may be that hearing a teacher talk vs. reading a Wikipedia page or watching an instructional video may be analogous to seeing a concert vs. watching on on YouTube.  I think it is also because listening to a teacher motivates you to do things that you wouldn’t do otherwise, even if they were still available.

In the last post under this title I posited that a major role of language teachers may be facilitating learning by simply stepping into the teacher role and using its authority to make students seek and attend to language input that is already all around them.  In this sense it was similar to the ability of judges to coerce (convince? cause? I’m not sure how relevant volition is to this effect) their charges to follow treatment programs, take medications, or enact behaviors that are available without the judge’s involvement but are more likely to be used with it.  In this post I mean to look into what exactly might be comprised in a teacher’s black robes, accepting for the sake of argument that we do indeed wear them.  What gives us our unique ability to influence students’ actions?

Insider status.  A teacher is more intimately acquainted with the culture that speaks the target language, with the school system, and with the educational culture than the students are.  If not, he/she knows how to fake it.  Seen through a Communities of Practice lens, a teacher is a knowledgeable insider that it behooves outsiders to listen to and adopt the practices of.  This overlaps somewhat with a judge’s insider status in the criminal justice system, although it should be said that a teacher’s black robes could depend more on students wanting to join a group that the teacher represents than drug users want to join a clique of criminal justice elites alongside their judge.

Positioning.  A judge sits apart and higher from everyone else.  A teacher is not usually different in this respect – even if the teacher isn’t always physically in his/her seat, that seat is usually at the front of the room, ready to be occupied.  The teacher also has the only desk with a computer provided by the school (sometimes) and the projector controls at his/her fingertips.  All of this says to students “we have to listen to this person”.  Something about the teacher facing the opposite way as everyone else cements this impression.


Timing.  The teacher is often the first and last person that students see on their way in and out of the classroom.  More than anyone else, a teacher seems to be a permanent fixture in the classroom.  I’m sure many of my students think I pull a futon out of the supply cabinet after they leave.  This may enhance the teacher’s ability to represent the institution whose classroom it is and may dovetail with the teacher’s status as a target culture insider.

Age.  Some of us are lucky enough to “look the part” naturally.  While this certainly isn’t fair and to an extent is a phenomenon that we should actively try to fight, looking like stereotypical conceptions of a “teacher” or just an “authority figure” can help make students listen to you.  Much like black robes incline people to listen to a judge, a paternal or matronly appearance might help give a teacher’s words some extra weight.  Extra weight itself might also help in this regard.

In the same vein…

Clothes.  Teachers may facilitate students’ dedication to studying simply by dressing like someone who is in charge.  Like the black robes that a judge’s authority metaphorically and perhaps literally derives from, a teacher’s clothes might give his/her words greater power.  Unfortunately, this is not simply a matter of moving a slider of formality more towards the funerary end, but means wearing a costume which may only be available in a Men’s L or XL.  Consider how much easier it must have been for Donald Trump to choose clothes that looked authoritative than it was for Hillary Clinton (and how her team but not his might have dwelled on whether “authoritative” was even a good look for her).

I have made recent modifications in my wardrobe partly for pedagogical reasons.  Because I used to work in a context where a paramount concern was getting students to relax enough to speak, I deliberately chose shirts and ties that defused any spark of threatening masculinity. Towards the end of my time in Japan you might have termed my style of dress “technicolor dandy” or “waiter at an upscale clown-themed restaurant”.  I have muted the colors because, as it turns out, students here could sometimes stand to be a little more respectful of the teacher’s authority.

Being male.  Here’s where it gets officially unfair.  In ESL or EFL, part of the rich melange of cultures present in the classroom may be some unreformed chauvinism.  Students are, broadly speaking, doing a very brave thing by living in a new country with a foreign culture and language, and even those who sometimes express opinions you would politely call “parochial” are clearly open to some new experiences and ideas – they’re here, after all.  Still, some resist suggestions, commands, and even assignments from teachers that they somehow don’t feel look the part, and a sizable chunk of looking the part is looking more like their dad than their mom.  There are disadvantages to being stereotyped “a male teacher”, sure, but getting students to give weight to your words is not usually one of them.

(Side note: There is an argument sometimes made against the effects of systemic oppression and in favor of individualism that really strong people can always succeed and do as well as anyone else.  It goes like this: Sure, life is hard and unfair, but that’s why you gotta tough it out, and if you don’t make it, it’s your own fault.  It’s usually true that especially strong people can find success when average people don’t, but the point is that non-oppressed people don’t have to pass that inner strength test or even think about it.  As it turns out, having to spend time and energy thinking about whether everyone thinks you’re legitimate creates significant drag.  Not having to even entertain the thought that anyone might consider you illegitimate in your position is a privilege.)

Being NS.  The conventional argument against native-speakerist hiring practices is that asking NSs to teach their language is like asking a fish to teach you how to swim.  That argument is persuasive to many people (mostly other English teachers), but neglects a major reason that students become interested to learn languages in the first place – they have some idea of what the target language community looks like, and they want to be part of it.  Failing to match the NS stereotype, even if the stereotype is incorrect or unjust, may make getting them to listen to you harder.  Yes, students can be brought around to accepting a NNS teacher, and some of them know the advantages and actively seek them out.  The point is, more of them will listen to a NS teacher and not need any convincing to do so.

At least the above is probably true in many contexts.  I found that in Japan my authority on what people actually said in English was usually considered more valid than any NNS, no matter how qualified (another example of NS privilege – our mistakes are considered features, examples of real-world usage), although students would be more likely to accept directions to study outside from my NNS peers (of course, both the students and NNS teachers were Japanese, which undoubtedly played a part).  I also heard from female teachers that students would accept their directives if they came as “support” rather than instructions.  I’ve seen many more female teachers openly disrespected by students than male, and in one case seen one openly accused of incompetence by a male student, who later seemed unable to understand why other people held her in higher authority than him.  Most teachers in the US seem not to dress up much, and this doesn’t seem to hurt their authority, while teachers in Japan generally wore formal officewear as part of looking the part (in both university and eikaiwa, although I suspect it served different semiotic functions).  I think in my case my demeanor might require some compensatory formality.  It is probably safe to say that what makes students take the teacher’s enjoinders to attend to ambient input and take their medicine varies from teacher to teacher and context to context, but the effect is one that it would behoove most teachers to recognize and use.

Fire alarm effects in ELT

I didn’t expect such a great metaphor for the ESL/EFL classroom to come from a writer on artificial intelligence.

In his article “There’s No Fire Alarm for Artificial Intelligence”, Eliezer Yudkowski uses the metaphor of a fire alarm to explain situations in which people act strangely without it being a faux pas.  His version of a fire alarm is a public messaging system that would give people permission to act with what in his opinion is the correct amount of urgency in the face of dangerously advanced and amoral (at least by our standards) AI.  A fire alarm, he postulates, is not simply an indication that danger exists (the other main indication being smoke), but a signal that it is acceptable to act as if it does in front of other people.  The acceptability comes from the fact that (actual and metaphorical) fire alarms are heard by everyone, and one’s knowledge that others also hear it enables one to take part in behavior like descending the stairs and paying a visit to the parking lot in the middle of a workday knowing that coworkers will not hold it against you.  Like many widely-shared messages, a fire alarm turns insane solo behavior into acceptable, even encouraged, group behavior.

(I heard this for the first time on Sam Harris’s podcast.  Yudkowski sounds exactly as you might expect someone with his job description to.  Incidentally, I have some basic disagreements with a lot of what Harris says, but still enjoy listening to his interviews.  I will be more specific in a future post.)

It’s pretty close to universal knowledge that speaking one’s L2 in front of other people is face-threatening behavior.  Consider the range of situations where reproach or shame are possible results – besides the obvious ones (sitting alone on the bus), you may be considered rude, stupid, foreign, pretentious, or just strange for suddenly bursting into French at your pâtisserie or watching Chinese soap operas on your phone.  Naturally, the number of “safe” contexts to speak your L2 increases if you move to a society where most people speak that language, but it is still not close to 100% of them – at the very least, you will mark yourself as a foreigner by “practicing” in public, and in the worst case, people can just be unbelievable assholes around 2nd language speakers.  Of course, there are learners who don’t feel threatened at all by speaking their L2, and maybe those are the same people who would immediately perform a fire drill alone at the first hint of smoke in the air.  Most people need acknowledgement that they won’t be judged negatively for trying and often failing to make themselves understood in a new code – they need a public signal that legitimizes it for everyone.  Something in the ESL/EFL classroom is necessary to transform society’s gaze from judgmental to facilitative.

This may turn out to be another black robe effect.  That is, the teacher might be the variable that turns language practice from face-threatening to the group norm.  The inverse is clearly true – teachers can definitely act in ways the discourage open practice or make students ashamed of failed attempts at communication (or worse, ashamed of imperfect grammar).  Teachers can also strengthen the norm of practicing English within the class by spelling it out explicitly and practicing it themselves.  I suspect though that a lot of the legitimization of language practice is due to the physical edifice of the classroom and the rituals one must go through to join a class – signing up, visiting the bursar’s office, carrying a bookbag, etc.  You can test this by walking out of your classroom during a task and secretly observing how much of the communication in your absence is still in English, and compare it to what happens when a waiter who shares an L1 with the cook is done taking your order.  As in the experiments that Yudkowski cites to make his case, students’ shared understanding of what behavior is validated is essential for any of that behavior to actually take place. Whatever it is that is acting as a fire alarm in language classes, its effects depend as much on the people as on the signal.

Grammar Mining (and the collected Mark SLA Lexicon)

Many of us agree that teaching “at the point of need” (as I believe Meddings and Thornbury put it) is an ideal context for formal grammar teaching.  Students’ trying to communicate something provides clear evidence that they need the grammar that would facilitate communicating it, and depending on how close they come to natural expression, evidence that their internal representation of English is capable of taking on this additional piece of information.

In interlanguage punting, I conjectured that taking a guess at grammar students may need in the future and organizing a lesson around a particular grammar point was justifiable if the lessons you used to introduce that grammar would be memorable long enough for a “point of need” to be found before the lesson was forgotten.  At the time, I was teaching weekly 1-hour grammar workshops with rotating groups students at different levels, and as I could not teach reactively I had to justify my grammar-first (formS-focused) approach.

Read on for the last post before the new semester starts.

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The things that nobody teaches teachers (my turn)

Inspired by Sandy Millin’s blog post of almost the same name:

Technical problems

The copier in one building requires a login to operate and breaks often.  The one in the next building doesn’t.  This turns out to be the most consequential piece of information in the entire community college system.

SLOs, whatever they are, are crucial.  One of those words (like コマ koma in Japanese university) that everyone knows and treats as incredibly important but never appears anywhere in any training literature.  From what I gathered at staff meetings for the first few months I was working here, SLOs are things that the state regards as even more important than grades and you have to give a special test for, but are often curiously at odds with what everyone you know actually thinks you should be doing.  If you’re wondering what SLO stands for, that’s another of the things that nobody explains.

Students may be using computers for the first time. This being 2018, most of them know how to use a smartphone, but when it comes to using a computer, your students may sometimes make you feel like a desktop publishing teacher from 1993.  Each convenience afforded by LMS like Canvas comes with even more class time devoted to how to use it and an even yawning-er generation gap separating the college-age students from the parents and grandparents.  Here are a few of the misunderstandings I’ve run across:

  • Double spacing does not mean hitting enter twice every line (a classic)
  • A 2 page essay does not need to be 2 separate MS Word files
  • “Here” on the Internet means “click here and then follow more instructions”, not “post your homework as a comment on the announcement”
  • Contrary to the rules of good design in most other media, an essay should have a ton of text on the page, no curly borders and no colorful sidebars
  • Emailing an essay as the text of that email makes it very hard to tell if you followed MLA format (this was more common in Japan)
  • Turnitin.com’s similarity scores are more convincing than your assurance that you totally didn’t copy (and on a related note, and this is an area of genuine interest for me, the phrase “in contrast with” is not plagiarism even if copied from the Internet, while non-idiomatic non-chunk 3-word phrases definitely are.  It’s probably not obvious to students why this should be true).

The air conditioner is the seat of power.  Aside from the copier, no device has held the power to completely ruin the atmosphere (literally and figuratively (is “atmosphere” meaning “ambience” not literal?)) of a class like the air conditioner.  I’m a believer in Dogme and conversation classes; a broken projector is like a golden opportunity.  The AC on the other hand has both physical and psychological power over the students.  The physical power is obvious, although you might not expect the difference between 73 and 76 degrees to produce such epic ranges of comfort in your students.  The psychological power is what really threatens to tear your class apart, though, as students challenge each other for the right to sit near the AC controls and take up the responsibility or opportunity to choose who is comfortable and who is not.  This was a problem for me last semester, and I eventually had to make a rule that only I can touch the AC controls, and later that I would only listen to AC-related requests once per hour.

Classroom facilities may be new-ish or may need exorcism.  Back in Japan my university had one wi-fi router per floor (of 10 or so classrooms that fit 50 or so people each), projectors that rejected all input like a stubborn grammar-translator, and chalk boards.  Here in California some of my classrooms have remote desktop workstations which seem like a good idea in theory, some have decades of accumulated teacher skin cells on the teachers’ keyboards and mice (mouses?), and some have large, space-taking file cabinets on which sticky notes declare the entire contents to be the property of another adjunct.  Many of the classrooms and facilities are also modern and easy-to-use, but almost all of them have no white board markers within a 5-km radius.  Part of the job is being prepared for whatever type of classroom, with its random array of functioning and non-functioning equipment, you will be working in.

The classroom phones might not be able to dial outside lines.  The aforementioned generation gap sometimes plays out in older students not doing coursework that is presented online, not being able to login, and sometimes not being able to reach you or be reached through electronic means.  You may need to call these students to ask why they haven’t shown up in a week, but you probably don’t want to use your personal number for this, leading you to pick up the classroom phone.  But surprise, these only call on-campus extensions.  There is a rumor that a phone in one of the break rooms can call outside, but nobody knows which one.

Students can’t access the LMS from China.  In ESL, students sometimes have emergencies (or just plan their vacations rather poorly) and have to fly off in the middle of the semester for a week.  This wouldn’t be as much of a problem if one country in particular didn’t block access to most of the Internet by default.  Your students in China will be even more out of touch than you might expect while they’re gone.

Finals week doesn’t stop the parking lot from having a lot of cars in it.  The rest of the world doesn’t care that you have a test.  People will have tailgate parties in the parking lot while students 20 feet away in the classroom are struggling to distinguish between “felt” and “failed” on a listening test.

Teaching in society

The meaning of your job depends on the society you live in.  JALT, the main language teachers’ professional organization in Japan, is full of worldly types who are accustomed to being automatic social deviants due to simple demographics.  They take a job that is stereotyped as unskilled yet impossible for Japanese people to do (native-speakerism in a nutshell) and try to find some professional pride in it by taking it ostentatiously seriously.  To most people in Japan, a university English teacher (at least a “native speaker” teacher) is half exotic transplant and half effete intellectual, and JALT members seem to take both of these identities on board – even the Japanese ones.  In California, ESL teaching at community college or university, which nominally requires the same qualifications as teaching university in Japan, seems to carry none of the same connotations.  Here, the job seems to be defined half by peace love and understanding and half by grammar pedantry.  I know a few teachers here who enjoy getting into the relationship between explicit and implicit knowledge, but the public face most ESL teachers put forward seems to be “I’m here to heal the world through adjective clauses”.

(Remember in Homeland when Carrie briefly quits the CIA and becomes an ESL teacher as part of her emotional healing?  It seems a lot more plausible now.)

Adjuncts need to balance attention with time.  Back when I was the owner of my school, I started each workday 10 feet from where I was going to be teaching all of my classes, with all my materials, board games, books, and office supplies close by.  It was easy to imagine making custom materials for each of my classes, if not each student, and spend some time reading stuff that was turned in afterward, as there were few official hoops I had to spend time pushing them through.  Now, if I need to use any office supplies or the copier I need to leave 90 minutes before my first class rather than 60, and the class after that might be in another city.  The time spent creating custom materials needs to be weighed against the time you’ll definitely need to take later checking them (especially if you made them open-ended, as I really, really love to do) and the possibility you’ll have to re-write them in coming semesters if they are too topical, not to mention the time they’ll take away from grading essays and answering add/drop request emails.  The point is, being a good teacher used to seem like simply a matter of having the best practices and applying them individually with each student and each situation.  Now, it seems like a matter of having the best practices that you can apply in 20 minutes maximum.

The 405 is the very worst of LA and Orange Counties.  The 405 and the 5 both go through Orange County, where I work, as do a few others.  Although I’ve been spending hours a week on both of them, I haven’t seen a major accident on the 5, while the 405 has accidents (including a crashed plane once) nearly every time I’m on it.  The 405 seems to have a perfect equilibrium of BMW-driving golems of entitlement, raised pickup trucks with custom rims that are more mobile advertisements for Limp Bizkit than modes of transportation, and Teslas which, like BMWs, seem to require the deposit of your frontal lobe to lease.  All of those exist on the 405 along with streams of normal people who are by some odious force only active on that freeway made to want to fill any space in front of the cars on either side of you at every opportunity.

It’s also name-dropped in my favorite SNL sketch ever.

Teaching in the classroom

Students come to play a role.  One of the first realizations you come to teaching English in Japan is that people who are regarded as “good learners” come to class looking to engage with the content silently in their own heads, not to interact with you in real time.  Back in the US, students from different backgrounds all have their own versions of what a “good student” and a “responsible teacher” look like.  ESL classrooms often feel like everyone’s been handed a different script that happens to have the same setting and characters.

Students react differently to your attempts to address affective issues.  A corollary of the above is that your attempts to “fix” students’ apparent reticence, overparticipation, or misunderstanding itself may have meaning to them that further affects how they see you and the class.  A stereotypical example from Japan is “NEST grows exasperated at quiet students -> NEST gives exasperated entreaty to PLEASE TALK -> Students now regard NEST (Native English Speaker Teacher) an overemoting foreigner”.  A slightly more advanced version is “Students don’t cooperate in NEST’s class -> NEST copies Japanese discipline styles -> Students are discouraged because NEST is no longer authentically a NEST to them”.  The general outline of addressing affective issues in the US is to give students more individual attention, more focus on them as unique people with unique stories, and overall more interaction, which may all be felt as bizarrely chummy and unprofessional.  Some students react how you might imagine to the teacher basically trying to fix what’s broken by breaking it even more – addressing mismatched expectations by going even further from the expected teacherly behavior – by withdrawing even more from the class.

You need to share.  When I was a school owner, I mostly just shared my students with public school teachers who had radically different objectives and methods than I did.  Here, I have a group of students for about 4 months, before and after which they’ve studied or will study with another teacher.  Their other teachers may be very Focused on FormS, very project-oriented, or take a much more holistic view of education than even I do, and I can’t very well spend time bashing other methods to create buy-in for the ones we’ll be using in my class.  This sounds obvious, but in eikaiwa, naming your house method, putting it in all of your fliers and on your website (a whole discussion in itself), and doing your best to set yourself apart from other forms of English education is simply a matter of survival.  Self-promotion (including things like blogging) has very little role to play in the community college system unless you’re trying to get classes at a new school or trying to move into a full-time job.  Likewise, your materials and methods are no longer what separate your school from your competitors, but ways for you to ensure students taking the same class from other teachers aren’t having too radically different an experience.  For the same reason, you need to steal from your colleagues as much as possible, and the students will be better for it.

My black robes

According to The Impact, a judge has an unusually strong effect on mental health patients in causing them to follow treatment plans.  This phenomenon is called the black robe effect, based on perhaps a metaphor for and perhaps the real, physical source of the judge’s authority.  After only on listening to the episode and googling the term “black robe effect” once, this is my understanding of the effect:

  • The effect on the patient is due to the outward signs of authority that the judge carries;
  • The effect is in causing otherwise uncooperative patients under the judge’s purview to follow advice/orders already known to those patients (i.e. the judge is not the orignator of the advice/orders);
  • Most of the effect is realized in the judge’s absence as an indirect effect of his/her authority (e.g. when the patient takes a daily medication at home);

The basic outline of this effect is something I’ve found to be a major part of my job as an ESL or EFL teacher.  I’m often in the position of telling my students do things that they could feasibly do without anyone’s saying anything, but they’re much more likely to do when I tell them.  This is probably the one way in which I most reliably assume the “teacher role” and exercise my authority.

In fact, this is probably one of the best justifications nowadays for teachers existing at all.  We are great at causing (or forcing or allowing or facilitating; I’m not picky on the causal metaphor) people to do things that they could always do for free, and ideally creating norm-governed communities where success at those things is celebrated.  We definitely aren’t the only ones in the room anymore with access to the right information – students have all the human knowledge in the world in their pockets.  We have authority and an agreed-upon role as an arbiter of the values of our in-class community, and not much else.

Reading circles are a good example of the black robe effect in my classes.  This semester, one of my classes has read a non-fiction book over the course of a couple of months, and every 2 weeks during that time we’ve done reading circles that cover the chapters we read in the previous week (for the curious, here are the roles that I use).  Now what is my role in “teaching” the weeks that we share our reading circles sheets?  It’s pretty much the black robe effect without the gavel:

  • The effect on the students is due to the outward signs of authority that the teacher carries; (i.e. they do it because the person in the front of the room told them to)
  • The effect is in causing otherwise uncooperative students under the teacher’s purview to follow advice/orders already known to those students; (i.e. the book we’re reading has always been available to buy, as are millions of other fine books – “uncooperative” here means “wouldn’t do it by default”)
  • Most of the effect is realized in the teacher’s absence (e.g. when the student reads at home – and although I’m physically present in the classroom when they’re sharing their reading circles, I’m not participating, so then too).

One of my staple activities is even more of a textbook example of a black robe effect – I give students something called a Language Log, which is basically a blank sheet with spaces for English input (things they watched or read or people they talked to) outside the classroom and what they noticed.  Nothing about the sheet requires some deep knowledge on the part of the teacher to design or implement – it is a kind of educational MacGuffin that furthers the goals of language development without containing anything meaningful itself (the educational MacGuffin was a staple of my classes back in Japan too).  Still, if some non-authority or even one of the student’s family members gave them the same sheet and instructed him/her to keep track of input, it would not work – family members, in ESL and in mental health treatment, don’t get to wear black robes.

I’ll post again at a later date about what exactly my black robes comprise.

5 correlations with final grades and what they tell me about my syllabi

The following numbers all come from one ESL class in California of fewer than 30 students.  The students range in age from teens to 50s.  Some are full-time students, some are part-time and some work.

0.63 – Correlation between homework scores and final grades

Homework is a tiny percentage of the final grade, but predicts it to a fair degree.  I usually gave homework a simple at-a-glance score between 1 and 5 points per assignment.  The highest score for homework for this semester was 108, and the lowest score was 12.  Homework is also correlated with attendance at 0.87.  Attendance, on the other hand, is correlated with final grades at 0.72.  This tells me I can cut the amount of homework (saving myself some grading time in the process), take attendance rigorously, and expect roughly the same distribution of grades.  Next semester’s students will be happy to hear being physically present is such a strong predictor of English skill.

0.82  – Take-home essays/final grades

Take-home essays are also, surprisingly, a tiny part of the final grade.  That is what makes this correlation so surprising.  Take-home essays predict final grades even more than they do in-class essays (0.76), although of course take-home essays are themselves not a part of in-class essay grades, while they are of final grades.  Blame my mild innumeracy for not knowing how much that should affect these numbers.  In any case, it seems prudent to replace some of the other homework (see above) with essay-related work like planning, more rough drafts, and reflections.

-0.03 and -0.85 – Numbers of tardies and absences/final grades

This particular class met in the early morning, which accounts for the high number of tardies (8.0 on average for the class out of about 30 class meetings, with a standard deviation of 5.8), but they didn’t seem to do much.  Students walking in late didn’t hurt their grades so much as annoy me personally.  This probably has something to do with my practice of starting each class with some kind of task rather than a quiz, which is arguably a bit of a conceit of mine.  Absences, on the other hand, were even more predictive of final grades than essays, and much more predictive than homework scores.  Again, being a warm body in the classroom seems to be a reasonable heuristic for a lot of heady work.

-0.55 – Years in the US/final grades

This number comes from a survey we did at the beginning of our classes.  I suppose this will surprise a lot of people who work in EFL – I certainly expected a more or less linear relationship between years in the country and degree of acculturation (similar to integrativeness, the motherlode of language learning motivation) before I got here (although I had reason to know better).  In fact, particularly with people who were partly educated here, the sense that one doesn’t belong in ESL is a significant barrier to buy-in for class activities and willingness to communicative with classmates.  ESL teachers often have a mix of eager international students with standard-issue grammar, communication and acculturation problems and jaded veterans of US society who have established an identity around their patterns of language use and definitely don’t see themselves as ESL students.  My main takeaway from this is to acknowledge the different needs and motivations of my main two student constituencies near the start of the semester to defuse any feeling among the veterans that they don’t belong there or don’t need to work hard.

0.45 – Hours of sleep before test 1/final grade

I usually put one “gag” item at the top of my tests – “Name: _____ Student ID: _____ Breakfast this morning: _____ ” to give another example.  Sometimes, these yield insights into my students’ lives (a lot have nothing but coffee for breakfast), and occasionally lead to educationally useful data.  The only time I had a quantifiable “gag” item this year was on the first in-class writing test, on which students were asked to write how many hours they slept the night before the test.  This number turned out not only to predict the scores on that test (albeit weakly, with 0.22) but their grades for the semester.  Now, this isn’t a slam dunk, but it is more predictive than most individual homework assignments (whose correlations with the final grades ranged from -0.14 for the first homework of the semester to around 0.60 for essay-related stuff).  Apparently the recipe for a high-scoring student is 8 hours of sleep a night before coming to class, not necessarily on time and not necessarily with any homework.  As I said, at least this simplifies my grading.

End-of-semester Quantitative Feedback

(Written to give my mind a rest from grading)

Introduction and Pedantry

At the end of the semester I like to use a survey to gauge what students found valuable in my class.  The survey is just a list of class activities from the semester and then two columns with spaces for scores – an “I like it” column and an “It helps me learn” column.  There is a Likert-style scale of 1-5 to be used with both columns across the top of the sheet.  So for example, a student who really enjoyed our reading textbook but doesn’t feel like it was useful for learning would give it scores of 5 (in answer to “I like it”) and 2 or 1 (in answer to “It helps me learn”).

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More or less like this.  Screenshot of MS Word with fun, colorful red and blue underlines kept intact.  In the future I will probably make this more intuitive-looking – some students opted to fill in the blanks with full written critiques.

I plan on standardizing this survey across my classes in the future, but this semester everyone had a different list of activities.  I know from their survey, for example, that my intermediate integrated skills class enjoyed their grammar book more than their reading book, but because I referred to these by name in the survey, I can’t really compare their answers to those for the reading and grammar books in my academic writing classes (naturally, the books themselves are different in structure and approach as well, which limits how comparable they are).  All of my classes did have a few items which were worded the same and were similar enough in practice to warrant comparison.

Those items were reading circles, Kahoot!, at-home writing, language logs, and teacher-fronted grammar lessons.  Before we get to the meat of this post, let me just make sure everyone knows what those are and explain how I do them.

Reading circles, in a nutshell, consist of reading reflection groups where each member of the group has a different “job”.  A group of 5 people in most of my classes might have had a Summarizer, a Vocabulary Enricher, a Grammarian, a Connector (who had to, for example, find articles on similar topics to the reading on the Internet), and an Artist.  On a reading circles day, everyone would have read a section of a book or an article over the weekend, and completed half of the sheet at home.  They would then gather in “expert groups”, consisting of people with the same job, and compare answers.  Some versions of my reading circles worksheets had a part of the worksheet that had to be completed during this time.  After a decent amount of time, they would meet with their reading circles group members, all of whom had different “jobs”.  All of my reading circles sheets had short sections that had to be completed during this time by listening to the other group members.  Much of this is standard for this kind of activity.  In practice, not everyone would do their homework, and 3 or 4 people out of a class of 25 would be hurriedly filling in the parts that they were supposed to have done over the weekend in their “expert groups”.  I noted who didn’t do the assignment for grades but let them do this so that they would have at least something to show their reading circles afterward.  Students always seemed much more engaged during reading circles than any teacher-fronted activities, but as we shall see, that isn’t necessarily reflected in the answers they gave to the survey.

Kahoot! is an online game-show-like platform that seems pretty well-known, although I’d never heard of it before my first CATESOL meeting last December.  I mostly used it to review readings (the same ones as the reading circles), about 3 times a semester, with Jolly Ranchers candy as prizes for the winning teams.

At-home writing comprises paragraphs and essays, any of which had at least 3 drafts.  Students turned these in on paper, Canvas, Turnitin.com or all of these at once.  As I found out a bit late, the steps for submitting work electronically or viewing feedback are not obvious for many students, and as in my time in Japan, there is a strong pro-handwriting bias among ESL students – some students view typing it out as the very last step in completing a paper.  Anyway, this was one of the few times in the semester that students would get individual feedback on their writing from me.

Language logs are simple scaffolds for out-of-class input.  They look more or less like schedules organized by weeks with spaces for students to write what they read and what they noticed (for writing classes – “noticed” here could mean content or form) or what they read, what they watched, and who they talked to (for integrated skills classes).  The spaces are intentionally kept small to keep the focus on input rather than rigorous and thorough reporting.  For me, these have a lot of room for improvement – I personally kept forgetting that students had them (I had planned to check them every 2 weeks, but it ended up being more like every 4 weeks), and the students reciprocated.  I also had to remind students quite a few times that the purpose of the logs was to record their extra input, not to record the homework that I had assigned them, and that conversations with their spouses in their first language didn’t count as language log material.  Also, the “I noticed…” sections were often filled with verbatim quotes rather than reflections.  Still, a number of students rose to the occasion and read, watched or talked voluminously.  I remember seeing written on language logs entries like “I talked to a woman at the supermarket about expensive eggplants” “CNN – California wildfire – scary!!” “Breitbart – Anti-Trump conspiracy” and plenty of other windows into my students’ intellectual lives.  Yes, I’m proud of the student who reads Breitbart – I suppose in terms of acculturation it’s somewhat analogous to Americans in Japan who become ardent supporters of the Imperial system and all of its apologia.  A sure sign of language learning progress, albeit also a phase I hope they grow out of.

A confounding factor for measuring how much students liked/valued the logs themselves is that I also had them share them with classmates before turning them in.  The discussions that arose from this were almost always lively and engaging, and it is certainly possible that some students answered positively for Language Logs while mostly thinking of the enjoyable conversations around them rather than the input that is their main purpose (at least from my perspective).

Teacher-fronted grammar lessons are probably familiar to most readers of this blog.  Mine are not particularly unusual, I think, except that I tend to give absurd examples and lots of analogies to food (an independent clause is a burger, a dependent clause is fries, and adverbials are drinks and toppings).

Numbers and stuff

On to the data.

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For all 3 classes, the most popular class activity was Kahoot! followed closely by grammar lessons.  The one most viewed as helpful was at-home writing, followed again by grammar lessons.  That’s a bit interesting.  The other values on the table are a bit more interesting.

The second column, consisting of t-values, shows basically how meaningful the differences between the “I like it” and “It helps me learn” are.  t-values, if I recall correctly from the last time I googled them, are roughly the odds that a difference between 2 populations (or a change in 1 population) could have been coincidence even if the populations themselves are actually not different with regards to the value you are testing.  Generally, the null hypothesis (that there is no significant difference between the populations tested) is rejected if t is below 0.05 or 0.01.  The computed value of t depends on the differences between the populations’ answers and on the size of the population.  I only computed t for “I like it” and “It helps me learn” scores for the same activity, and the numbers in the center column are those t-values.  As you can see, the only one that would pass a conventional test for significance is at-home writing, although grammar on the whiteboard is close.  This tells us that the different values for “I like it” and “It helps me learn” for at-home writing are probably large enough for us to assume that a difference would be found even if I taught thousands of students instead of about a hundred.  I find this interesting mostly because it shows how large the gap is between enjoyment and valuation of paragraphs and essays – a gap which might generally be found among students who feel that some things that aren’t enjoyable are nonetheless good for your brain, which might call the eating your vegetables effect.  (I would be tempted to conclude that the relative lack of enjoyment causes the feeling that it must be useful except that Language Logs have an even lower enjoyment score and a correspondingly low usefulness score.)

The last column is standard deviation, or how widely answers are dispersed.  As you can see, “at-home writing helps me learn”‘s answers are the least dispersed of any item, meaning that there was higher consensus around the usefulness of at-home writing than, say, Kahoot!.  This means that not only was the mean higher, showing that on average more people found it useful, but people agreed more on how useful it was.  Language logs, on the other hand, had wide disagreement on their usefulness (and enjoyability).  It seems that students are much more unanimous on some questions than others.

Last, I have the correlations.  Not too much to say about this, except that liking/valuing Kahoot! is negatively correlated with almost everything else.  The positive correlations between reading circles and Language Logs could be explained by the social nature of both (see the confounding factor of the Language Logs above).  I have no idea what could be behind valuing reading circles and valuing grammar on the whiteboard/projector.

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Discussion and hedging

One must keep in mind that students are likely judging the usefulness of activities based on changes in their abilities that they can detect; a very long-term effect or a subconscious one will be mostly invisible and may feel useless, while one that gives the rush of endorphine that comes from solving a puzzle may not be as effective in long-term acquisition but will seem to have led to some understanding.  This is a circuitous way of saying that we can’t trust students at the end of a 4-month course to know what actually helped them learn.  I tend to regard the Language Logs as the most beneficial, because they 1) facilitate large amounts of input, 2) are student-directed and therefore more likely to keep their interest, and 3) are the most likely to be continued outside of class.  Of course, stuff that seems pedagogically useless to students is not likely to lead to re-registration in the spring, and if students don’t sign up for classes, it’s hard to say I served them well by insisting on nutritious but unrewarding educational broccoli.  Activities like Kahoot! may be worth the time and effort if only to provide the hit of pure enjoyment that keeps people looking forward to the next serving of ice cream when they’ve finished their vegetables.

On Tyranny in the ESL Classroom: 20 Lessons from 20th Century Pedagogy

(Pace Timothy Snyder – originally this post was going to be “Democrating Backsliding in the ELT Classroom”, but I haven’t actually read the relevant materials for that.  The point is the same, though – a series of semi-political tips for not letting classes or institutions slide into tranmissive dictatorships.  The usual caveat applies:  I certainly don’t apply as many of these rules as I’d like, and in fact wrote this partly as a warning to myself.)

Do not obey in advance

Let’s assume your students have shown a pattern of reluctance to choose input for themselves or engage in self-directed learning, which is common in language classrooms around the world.  Do not assume that this pattern will continue forever, and do not change your teaching methods in anticipation of this reluctance even before it happens.  Do not treat your students as unready for communicative or other modern methods simply because previous classes may have been.

Defend institutions

Defend modern ELT in principle.  Many classes slide into teacher-domination because expedience seems to demand it – because teachers accept the unilateral authority that the forces of student expectation and curricular deadlines seem to require.  Temporary suspensions of student-centeredness in favor of transmission-style teaching should be resisted, not just because they do not work, but because they encourage the view that  researched and rigorous concepts such as interlanguage are inconveniences standing in the way of truly efficient impartation of knowledge.  In reality, of course, that efficiency is more a path toward perfunctory teacherly role-playing than toward learners’ mastery of English.

Beware the one-party state

Many classroom dictatorships arise not because a teacher arrogates power but because his/her pupils choose to cede it when given the option.  Do not take opportunities that students give you to take full control of the classroom, and do not use your authority as a teacher to consolidate attention and legitimate authority around yourself.

Take responsibility for the face of the world

The appearance of the classroom should not reflect the will of a single person.  The only writing on the whiteboard should not be the teacher’s, the only printed text used should not be from the teacher, and the only voice heard should not be the teacher’s.  Classrooms should physically manifest the priority given to students’, not teachers’, expression.

Remember professional ethics

Oftentimes, a teacher-centered class emerges because students feel pressure to play the part of the student as they understand it.  This part, which is often defined by passive receptivity and obedience, is not simply unconscious habit – students may see it as an affirmative moral value in itself.  That is, the job of the teacher may not be just to present a more interesting alternative to silent absorption of information, but actively discourage students’ preconceived ideas of “how to be a student”.  Students have their own professional ethics of classroom conduct, and teachers would do well to acknowledge their existence.

(Yes, this is the opposite of Timothy Snyder’s point on this subject.  Bear with me.)

Be wary of paramilitaries

Clusters of students that are apparently sympathetic to the communicative, egalitarian, task-based curriculum that the teacher is trying to effect may appear and begin to dominate classroom activities.  The existence of these seeming allies among the student population is welcome to a degree, but can begin to create a hostile environment for students who are reluctant to engage to the same degree for reasons of identity or ability.  Remember that the job of the teacher is not to give more advantage to students who are already advantaged because of a higher starting point or previous experience with modern ELT classes, or to signal a preference for those students.  The creation of a privileged minority of students within the classroom should be avoided.

Be reflective if you must be armed

For students: Being appointed, being selected, or volunteering to be group leader means that you are responsible for the maintenance of communicative norms within that group.  When you have power over your classmates, maintain norms of discourse that do not privilege particular viewpoints – yours especially – or consist only of participation by students who are already fluent speakers.  Some students will take the reduced numbers of eyes on them when working in a small group as an invitation to dominate the conversation or to shrink back into individual study.  As the local authority, your job is to prevent either of these from happening.

Stand out

Taking a modern, communicative approach may distinguish you from your colleagues in ways that are mutually uncomfortable.  You may feel that you are passing judgment on your colleagues’ or institution’s way of doing things by breaking from it.  Indeed, some teaching milieux may have norms so deeply established for so long that trying something new is seen as synonymous with questioning everyone else’s competence.  Be open about trying new techniques and approaches and be honest about their success or failure.  Be prepared to justify them with reference to research.  Above all, be honest about why you teach the way you do, and do not acquiesce to unjustifiable pedagogical norms no matter how many people with pages-long CVs are pushing them.

Be kind to our language

Do not adopt buzzwords needlessly, and certainly do not use them without understanding them.  “Learning styles” were a litmus test for being a modern teacher for 15 years or so, during which many teachers described their classes and students with the vocabulary of what turned out to be a false theory of educational psychology.  Many still use the terminology of “learning styles”, describing an activity as “ideal for kinesthetic learners” when they could just as easily call it “less boring than sitting still”.  By adopting this terminology, teachers have appeared to endorse a theory which was debunked.

Believe in truth

In some teaching contexts, a long career is seen as a substitute for reflected-upon experience and confidence in one’s methods as equivalent to knowledge of their efficacy.  Foreign language pedagogy is a field with a long history and plenty of research.  This body of research is mature enough to offer at least some tentative answers to long-standing questions in our field, such as how central formal grammar should be in classes and how much of a difference input makes.  Access to the current state of knowledge on questions like these, and more importantly, believing that the questions have answers that can’t be ignored in favor of a local or individual long-practiced method, is a step toward more effective and more justifiable pedagogy.


That said, the answers to pedagogy’s big questions may not come in an obvious form.  Sometimes a teacher will have great success with a method or technique that appears to come from the middle ages.  Commit to trying to understand how different teachers have success with different class styles and the principles underlying that success.  Above all, do not accept pedadogical prescription or proscription without the application of your critical faculties.

Make eye contact and small talk

Humanity can be brought to the classroom by simple engagement with learners as people.  Some one-on-one or small group interaction with the teacher not as a fount of wisdom but just as a person, and with the learner not as a receptacle of knowledge or target of remediation but as another person, can bring much-needed humanity back to the classroom.

Practice corporeal politics

PhD researchers who don’t teach and chalk-faced teachers who don’t reflect on practice or theory are a perfect recipe for each other’s stagnation.  Take theory that comes from people who haven’t set foot in a language classroom in years with a grain of salt.  You cannot realize good pedagogical theory without contact with learners.  I mean this in two ways – your theory will be useless if it doesn’t survive contact with actual people, and putting your theory into practice with your own students ensures that at least some people will benefit from it.

Establish a private life

You do not need to share as much with your learners as they share with you.  There is a happy medium between sterile professionalism in the classroom and complete shedding of boundaries.  Affective factors certainly do affect achievement, and that entails at least some rapport and sense of community beyond a shared interest in skillbuilding.  However, oversharing runs the risk of reducing the teacher to merely an affective variable and not an expert in either the subject or how to teach it.

Contribute to good causes

A local, institutional professional culture may fall short of maintaining pedagogical standards.  Sometimes, a national or international group, formal or informal, may function better as a community of practice for a teacher hoping to grow and keep up with current wisdom.  In any case, join (i.e., send money), attend, and especially present.  If a group of which you are a member is failing to provide something of value, you should provide it instead.

Learn from peers in other countries

ELT and especially SLA are worldwide fields, and different cultures, countries, and institutions around the world often practice radically different pedagogy.  Staying in one milieux for too long threatens to particularize your skillset; working in many countries or at least communicating with fellow teachers and learners in other countries exposes you to different sorts of problems to be solved and ways of solving them.  A frequent stumbling block in your milieux may have an extremely commonsense solution elsewhere in the world – and you may be surprised by the depth of thought that goes into an issue you thought only had one answer.

Listen for dangerous words

Pedagogy can be circumscribed a bit too cleanly by the words used to describe it.  “Syllabus”, “material”, “instruction”, “grammar”, “participation”, “master” and even “know” are all words that language teachers have good reason to take with several grains of salt.  If you hear these words being used as if their meanings were obvious, and especially if they are being used with obviously mistaken meanings, don’t be afraid to ask, “what do you mean?”  Often, the most useful discussions with colleagues and students occur over supposedly commonsense terms.

Be calm when the unthinkable arrives

Emergencies and exceptions are dangerous times.  The last day before the test might seem like a time when the norms of student-centeredness might best be suspended in favor of teacher-led review sessions.  This might even be presented as the only responsible option.  Of course, if teacher-centeredness is the most responsible path right before an exam, another exam will come soon, and the exceptional circumstance might be stretched a bit longer.  In fact, every lesson contains something of vital importance which seem to deserve priority over the luxuries of free student participation and self-directed learning.  There are always circumstances that would seem to make every class session a temporary exception or an emergency and cause the teacher to resort to a more “efficient” method.  Be very suspicious of exhortations or enjoinders because of the supposed unique circumstances of the present class period.

Be a patriot

Be a teacher, not a deliverer or keeper of information.  You can take for granted that you know the subject matter better than your students.  Knowing the metalanguage around your subject matter, including serious-sounding terms like “adjective clause”, makes it easier for you to convince other native speakers that you really earn your paycheck, but of course you will never catch up to Google search in your grammar knowledge.  Your job is bringing other people to a more complete understanding (see “dangerous words”) of the subject matter, not just knowing it yourself, and certainly not impressing your students with how much more than them you know.

Be as courageous as you can

If none of us is prepared to work for our betterment, then all of us will labor under mediocrity.

A River Runs through Summer TOEFL

To repeat a theme touched on in a few previous posts, my hypothesis is that schools are basically made up of the self-selected cohorts of students that run through them, more than their curricula, methods, or teachers.  (A fun metaphor for this is a river, whose constituent water molecules just happen to be guided by runoff and geography to go all the same way, which gives rise the the emergent property of being a “river”, much like students and staff in a school at any moment give it an illusion of durable existence)  All of these factors can influence the kinds of students who enroll and what the students do when they’re taking classes, of course.  In the ESL world, you have free Adult Education, unit-bearing Academic ESL, private ESL, and various less formal arrangements.  Some classes at the higher levels of private ESLs, as I experienced over the summer, are made up of students who have very advanced abilities and little-to-no motivation to study, making it a river with an action-packed but unpredictable course.

(I started this post this partly to distract myself from my first class of the semester, to begin in 30 minutes.  I slept fine last night but started getting the heebie jeebies as the countdown clock reached T minus 1 hour.  I’m revisiting it midway through that semester now, intending to publish it before I forget the summer)

An advanced degree itself being insufficient legal tender to pay the rent, I took evening classes at a private ESL over the summer.  My class was the TOEFL test prep class, which seemed relatively up my alley since I had done TOEFL for college students hoping to study abroad back at my school in Japan.  (I also used some TOEFL questions as a diagnostic exam for ESP classes of engineers, but I don’t think they knew this.  Perhaps they wondered at some point why so many listening questions involved students and teachers talking about planned renovations of campus buildings.)  Anyway, the summer TOEFL classes ran from 5:45 to 10:15 every weeknight except Friday, which accommodated the community college lab hours I had managed to arrange.  Obviously, the pay at private ESLs isn’t as good, but I figured it was a better use of my time than ruminating even more about the upcoming fall, which promised to be extremely busy.  It also offered a kind of class I’d never taught before: extremely high-level but low-motivation.

The omens started coming pretty early on: the coordinator warned me that many students in TOEFL are only there for lack of other options (having matriculated through all the regular courses but still needing visas), teachers joked about students not bringing their books for the entire term, some students smelled pungent in the particular manner of an AC/DC concert, none of the staff I talked to had been there longer than a year, and my first class had 20% attendance.  I quickly jettisoned my and my coordinator’s planned curriculum in favor of some loosely planned activities, the kind which allowed for participants to come and go midstream.  One of the first days I made the mistake of doing a bunch of questions in the first hour to be deconstructed, analyzed and played with in the second.  My plans came to naught when the class doubled in size for the second hour.

I learned quickly that demanding what might loosely be described as “student-like behavior” was a waste of time and effort.  I mean that in two senses: students didn’t want to play the apple polisher, and if I wanted them to do something, “demanding” was the wrong way to go about it.  My very first interaction with the students was telling them to sit closer to the front and having them openly reject the suggestion.  Not just refusing to move, but a lot of other officially and informally discouraged behaviors, like coming in late, leaving early,  missing random hours in the middle, and absolutely refusing to do homework seemed not to be stigmatized at this private ESL.  By this I mean you not only see these behaviors, but people, students and staff openly discuss them as expected.  This is something it seems a new teacher has to learn to live with or be constantly frustrated.  I managed to put the “meat” of the TOEFL lessons into periods 2, 3, and 4, leaving the first and last for review activities and improvised Dogme-style classes (which, true to form, provided the most memorable moments of the summer, outlined below).  Still, some more of value might have been found if this norm of nobody taking the classes seriously hadn’t had such deep roots.

The students and I found ourselves midstream in a river that started long before us and would probably continue for years afterward: a set of legal realities (hourly requirements for visas), economic incentives (the school didn’t want to lose customers just because they don’t do classwork, or as I was to find out, because they loudly berate a teacher in front of her class), and local norms that narrow the scope of outcomes that can be expected for any class. All the students in my class were veterans who knew how things worked – on more than one occasion I looked the fool for not knowing little bits of insider information like the fact that the 80% attendance requirement meant they could skip one full day a week, and that all the other teachers knew and accepted this.  For some reason at the beginning I thought I could change the course of this river by paddling really hard.


In community of practice terms, almost every member of the group has peripheral participation, demanding little of and giving little to the group, and this ironically is what marks them as insiders.  Sustained investment in the group is norm-breaking behavior, for both implicit and official reasons: people maintain a pretense of being at the school for purely instrumental reasons (even when they do make friends), and trying to involve other students in longer-term projects would interfere with their 80%-attendance-threshold-meeting plan of regular absences.  The kind of long-term or team-oriented activities (reading circles, for example) that are normal in college ESL courses are not only unexpected but clash with the explicit goals of the group as a CoP.

What success I had with the group was in seizing random topics of interest for whatever selection of the class was there that hour and inventing a justifiably TOEFL-related activity just for that hour or two.  The book almost always fell flat, if only because like most TOEFL books it viewed the best way to teach English as subdividing the skills necessary to read, write, speak, and listen on a subatomic scale, with sections like “Inferring a Conversation Topic from Pronoun Repetition”.  I ended up with a stable of activities that I used at least once per day.  Short articles printed from Vox or NBER with reading circles that were meant to be resolved within 2 hours worked sometimes.  (One student was positively offended that female MBA students understated their desired incomes when they knew their male classmates were watching.)  Vocabulary activities like Apples 2 Apples with TOEFL nouns, verbs (students had to nominalize them) and adjectives were surprisingly fun.  A version of Telephone (Chinese Whispers in the UK – yes, they have offensive names too) where each student had to give a TOEFL-style 45-second speech, their partner outlined it, that partner delivered the same speech to another partner who also outlined it, and finally that partner gave the speech to its originator and we saw how durable the topic sentences and supporting points were was reliably engaging, useful, and interactive.  But my favorite activity for the entire summer emerged Dogme-like from a conversation on why meat in California is so bland compared to that of South America and Eastern Europe (the homes of the two students present that hour).  We drew up a list of the competing concerns that chicken growers and buyers have, based mostly on their experience with a little input from me, and then they roleplayed a negotiation between them.  The South American student, playing the buyer, was a stickler for uniformity and quantity, and the Eastern European student, playing the grower, insisted on letting the chickens grow at their natural rates to their natural sizes.  The difference was resolved when the grower agreed to only raise one kind of chicken, under implied threat to lose the sale altogether.  I’m sure these two students will remember this activity long after they’ve forgotten what kinds of stars emit intermittent bursts of electromagnetic radiation (the topic of one of the practice reading sections).

Not every class was successful, as I have pointed out more than I probably should have, but I can’t really hold my frustrations against the institution or the students – again, private ESL needs students to stay in business, and the students themselves were the most fluent I’ve ever taught, which sort of implies that they are doing more right than wrong ESL-wise.  Next time, I will be better prepared if called upon to jump in this particular river again.