Goodbye to California, pt. 1

Shortly after my acquiescent post on the constant rejection one faces applying for full-time ESL jobs, I got an email curiously positive in nature and free of formulaic boilerplate. I had gotten so used to rejection that I almost didn’t comprehend it at first – but it was an invitation to interview, something I had gotten just a few times in the years since my MA. And after that first interview on Skype, I got another such email from the same place, inviting me for a campus visit. When the date came in late May, after I made sure my grading for the weekend was already done, I boarded a plane at John Wayne Airport at 4 AM and spent the whole day in a state besides the one that I have lived in since returning to the US in 2016.

Now, I was breathing such rarefied air at this point that I felt zero pressure to succeed, happy to plant my flag at the “second interview” stage before what I assumed would be a quick descent back down to solid adjunct ground. This was a Monday. I had classes again at my usual schools on Tuesday and plenty of proctoring and grading to do after that to help push the entire episode into the past tense – I was already imagining the conversations I would have in the break room at all the same schools next semester about the time I came this close to getting a full-time position.

But as a call a few days later informed me, I did get it, and very soon after this post goes up, I’ll be starting my first classes there.

By crazy when-it-rains-it-pours coincidence, this was the 2nd full-time job offer I took this year – although the first was a contract only for the summer. That job, which just ended, has given me a bit of a sneak preview of my life as a full-time teacher in a context other than Californian community colleges. I thought I would share a bit of my reflections here, both as a document of my thoughts for myself and as a guide for other adjuncts hoping to do something similar.

Adjunct Goodbyes and Full-time Goodbyes

I’m excited about my new job, but I do have a few regrets about leaving the colleges where I teach now. One of those regrets is that I did many things for the last time at my main schools without realizing they were the last times. I had my last norming meeting (and I enjoy those), my last walk with a student between the classroom and the lab to show them where it is, and my last unexpectedly long pause while the projector warms up, all without knowing that I would never do those things there again. I saw a bunch of people in passing in a hallway or copy room and said some simple words of greeting or an inside joke not realizing that those were the last times I’d be doing that with those people. Not to strike too melodramatic a tone, but for the most part these were the first workplace acquaintances I made in California, and they witnessed my whole process of getting my feet wet, asking silly or obvious questions really politely (“Sorry if this is obvious to everyone here but me, but what is an SLO?”). I will probably like my new coworkers – teachers are usually nice – but they won’t be my first coworkers in the US. I have a lot of words of thanks to go around, but I won’t be specific here. If we spent more than one microwave’s cooking time together, I appreciated it.

There are a few students who had let me know that they wanted to sign up for my fall classes with whom I’m not holding up my end of the bargain. This makes me feel a bit guilty, as does the fact that I won’t be able to wave or chat to former students that I see around campus, but both of these are a bit of an unnatural extension of the teacher-student relationship, which formally has a lifespan of one semester. The same goes for quite a few “single-serving friends” I made in break and copy rooms, for whom the loss isn’t of a deep friendship but just the potential for a longer one of whatever quality it was for 30 minutes a week while we both ate Amy’s frozen burritos. I got some kind words from my now-former coworkers, but of course the definition of an “adjunct” is something inessential to the major workings of whatever it’s part of. At any school with adjuncts, some portion of instructors and students will have the experience of suddenly not having a colleague or teacher on campus anymore every semester. I suppose part of my newbieness that never wore off was expecting to know when that time was coming for me.

(OK, I will single out for thanks 4 people whose initials are G.P., R.B., C.C., and B.W. who saw me at my most newbieish and imparted some very important and well-timed advice. Shucks, also my most frequent collaborators H.L. and D.P.. Also all my SIs.)

On the other hand, at my full-time summer job, we all knew pretty well from at least mid-June that I would be gone, and the program exists solely so that students matriculate out of it and into another program. The goodbyes here had pomp and ritual and lots of tears. People act differently when they know things are ending, and the entire last day of work was dedicated to ceremonial closing of the program, complete with thank-you cards being exchanged, speeches, skits, musical performances by every combination of students and teachers, and a lovely banquet to top it off. It was the best way to conclude a summer program and my time in California, with some really excellent people.

The lesson here, I guess, is to know as much as possible when you’re heading into a round of goodbyes.

More to come later.

Taking steps in class

I mean this literally. I got a Fitbit last year, and during the spring semester, I tracked how many steps I took during an average of 5 class sessions of each of the 3 courses that I taught.

My classes were a content-based IEP class with 13 students, a mixed-skills intermediate-level credit community college ESL class with 21 students, and an advanced ESL writing class with 25 students.

Across 5 class sessions, the average number of steps total for each class was:

  • Content-based IEP: 236
  • Intermediate CC: 626
  • Adv. writing CC: 440

Of course, since the class sessions were of different lengths, it makes sense to divide the number of steps by the number of minutes in which I had to take them.

Steps per minute of class time, including breaks:

  • Content-based IEP: 2.63 steps per minute
  • Intermediate CC: 2.78 steps per minute
  • Adv. writing CC: 1.96 steps per minute

Last, because higher numbers of students might feasibly require the teacher to move more and farther around the classroom, here are the steps per minute further divided by the numbers of enrolled students:

  • Content-based IEP: 0.20 steps per minute per enrolled student
  • Intermediate CC: 0.13 steps per minute per enrolled student
  • Adv. writing CC: 0.08 steps per minute per enrolled student

What does this tell me?

I tended to walk around more, all other things being equal, in the content-based class. I attribute this to the type of work they typically did – small group discussions in which I would move from group to group and either guide the discussion, participate as an equal, or just listen. The other two classes, at community college, usually involved at least some “lecturing”, standing relatively still or sitting at the computer and typing notes projected onto a screen.

I think my classes could benefit from structuring more lessons around small group work rather than lectures to begin with. As it turns out, a further benefit might be that it helps me reach my fitness goals.

Image result for fitbit blaze
Lecture disincentivization tool. (source)

The corpus of rejection

Every few weeks, depending on the season, I get a message like the following in my inbox:

Dear [name],

On behalf of the application review committee, we thank you for the submission of your application for the [position]. We recognize that the application process requires a great deal of time and effort on your part. Regrettably, you were not selected to move forward for an interview.

[more stuff that I never read]

Sincerely,

[Office of Somethingorother, name of college]

The slightest amount of experience with this type of letter lets you figure out the gist after the first line, or even from the existence of the email itself, coming as it does prefaced “DO NOT REPLY”, a subject line with the illocutionary force of a restraining order.

I’ve gotten enough of these over time (more than some, not as many as others – adjunct is a job with a depressing number of grizzled veterans sporting depressing amounts of grizzle) to start noticing patterns in the language that these messages use. A mini-corpus thereof can be found below.

Image result for gordon ramsay fuck off
Spoiler alert: This level of frankness would be refreshing.
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ESL Students’ Feared Selves

Part 3 of a 3-part series on possible selves (scroll down for parts 1 and 2).

If I’m being honest, these were the most fun to read, although as I stated before I can’t share any of them with you.

It’s not some kind of sadism that prompts me to say that: The descriptions in students’ responses to this final question were much more affective in content than the first two. Rather than lists of future colleges and jobs, here we had responses more along the lines of “I have no friends and I have a SAD SAD life”. Again, you can’t see them, but you can see what types of complaints were the most common, which should be just as fun. As in my last 2 posts, I combed over each entry looking for mentions of specific subjects. Because emotions were much more commonly mentioned for the feared self than for the other 2 selves, I tried sub-categorizing types of negative affect as well.

Below was the prompt, answered by my 2 multi-skill intermediate classes and 2 advanced academic writing classes over the past 2 semesters.

Imagine the worst version of you in 5 years (the opposite of the first). What happened to your English, and why didn’t you succeed? Give details. What is different in your life because you can’t use English?

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ESL Students’ Ideal Selves

Part 1 of a 3-part series. As an end-of-semester assignment, I had my summer and fall classes (4 total; 2 intermediate multi-skill and 2 advanced academic writing) write about their ideal, ought-to, and feared selves. Besides being a recent buzzword in ELT, possible selves make an interesting writing assignment for both the teacher, who gets to find out his students’ motivations in a bit more detail, and the students, who get to describe their (hopeful) future lives. Now, in fairness to you, I should point out right at the start that I won’t be excerpting their writing here; I didn’t warn them that I’d be using this assignment for my blog and I am one of those teachers who doesn’t even share pictures with his students’ faces in them without asking each one of them individually. Instead of showing you what they actually wrote, I will be analyzing each of their answers for the prevalences of certain topics and concerns and then doing some basic statistics with these. As it turns out, this takes a lot longer.

This post will only deal with ideal selves, with ought-to selves and feared selves to come later. First, here is the prompt and example that they saw.

“For this discussion, please answer these questions in different posts:

  • Imagine it is 2023, and you have succeeded in English in the best way. What steps did you take to get here? How do you use English now (in 2023)?
  • What can you, now, do every day to bring yourself closer to that future best version of you? What kind of things should you do? How should you “study” or “practice”?
  • Imagine the worst version of you in 5 years (the opposite of the first). What happened to your English, and why didn’t you succeed? Give details. What is different in your life because you can’t use English?

Last, reply to a classmate in at least 3 sentences.

Example first post:

In 2023, I am a college graduate. I have transferred to UCI and graduated with a major in computer engineering. I used English in all of my classes to do homework, work on group projects, and give presentations. Computer engineering was still hard, but my English helped me a lot. It also helped me to make friends and find a job. Now, I work for Blizzard Software and I design graphics for upcoming games. I use English at work, of course, but I don’t think of it as ‘practice’ anymore. Now, it’s just life.”

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I had a TESOL Certificate student

Here’s a short “before I forget”-type post.

An administrator of the TESOL Program from the nearby large, public university reached out to a bunch of the ESL faculty at my college and asked if we’d like to host a TESOL Certificate student for his/her practicum. I volunteered to host one in my intermediate multi-skill course.

(Practicum is not a word we used in my MA program, possibly because almost all of us were already working in ESL/EFL.)

I first met the student in question at a café in town in October, and as it turned out, he is already a professor in another subject and has been teaching for decades, and just wants the TESOL Certificate for something to do after retirement. This shifted my idea of what would happen next from “I beneficently guide an idealistic neophyte teacher” to “I am judged by my pedagogical and academic betters and found wanting”.

During his observations, I managed to forget I was being “observed” and ran my classes more or less normally, even ad-libbing at least a few tasks. I find that I default to gregariousness in the classroom, and just get more ostentatiously relaxed when I know I’m being watched. I heard from the TESOL student after every lesson and apparently he was surprised by some of the things that we did. I was pleased with those lessons as well – if only they were all like those!

After 3 observations, it was his turn to teach, and he prepared 3 of his own lessons on prepositions, conjunctions, and phrasal verbs at my direction. The content of his lessons would fit pretty exactly into the frame we call PPP (present, practice, produce), sometimes with the last P dropped in favor of everyone reviewing answers together from the second P. He gave PowerPoints full of abstract example sentences and demonstrated usage with a bit of “realia”, trinkets brought from home. He handed out worksheets with closed-ended grammar questions and had people work in pairs and then solicited answers.

Needless to say, this was not a modern ELT lesson. It seemed remote, pre-packaged, of little clear relevance and definitely not “student-centered“, although it was delivered with a professional touch. But given everything I’ve said about “playing the teacher role” in the past, I should have been prepared for the students’ reaction: they really liked it. Or rather, the students who don’t generally like my TBLT- or Dogme-ish lessons, the ones I might in a darker moment call ritualists in the cult of failed methods, really liked it. Students who I would have put in the bottom 1/3 of my class responded the most positively. I didn’t hear much from the students I usually get a lot of participation from, but I did see people whose engagement in the class can be described as “tertiary” work quite hard to get their worksheets done and really demonstrate concern that their answers were correct.

I don’t want this to come off as “the TESOL student succeeded despite himself”. He is an experienced teacher who delivered a lesson that understandably didn’t conform to modern ELT expectations. He also improvised when he needed to and established good rapport with the students. The thing I’m reacting to here is just that a lesson that was so different from what I usually plan worked very well with a demographic that my lessons usually succeed less with.

There were other things I noticed about his lessons, most memorably that intentionally striking academic professorspeak like “it can be compared to”, “simultaneously”, or “as a generic term for” from one’s working vocabulary at the podium is a challenge – one that I remember facing at the beginning of my career back in Japan. But my main takeaway as a teacher is that this “playing the teacher role” is even more powerful than I thought. If we take a certain amount of educational ritualism (in the form of embrace of the abstract over the personal, the effete over the practical, the comprehensible over the true, etc.) for granted in certain numbers in each one of our ESL classes, it may really behoove us to spend at least some of every week pedantically explaining grammar at people, for affective reasons if nothing else.

Construct validity vs. a tight ship

I have a fantasy where I’m one of those hardass disciplinarian teachers, the kind whose students march in synchronized rows to the auditorium where I’m given some kind of award that these kinds of teachers always seem to get. While I’m standing at the podium of my real-life classroom daydreaming like this, one of my students turns in a piece of paper with a coffee stain on it after walking into class 40 minutes late, and while imperfect, the assignment shows clear development in language control and engagement. Suddenly, my “runs a tight ship” fantasy collides with my inner applied linguist, which naturally wants to reward development, even as my inner disciplinarian threatens to complain about me to my inner department head.

Being a strict teacher sometimes works against the construct validity of  grades. That is, enforcing one’s lateness, makeup, and assignment format policies drags the crosshairs of one’s grades away from “English ability” (however one defines that) and toward “not annoying the teacher by making them put out small fires all semester” or more charitably “being a responsible person in general”.

This problem comes to vex me when I’m looking at a well-written paper turned in 30 minutes late without a cover sheet or a proper MLA header. Is the difference between A and C supposed to be the ability to follow abstract rules in principle? Where is that in the course outline, or to take a wider perspective, in any definition of linguistic competence?

I honestly can’t imagine a class where this (taking points away for non-language-related violations) doesn’t happen at all – and I can imagine my colleagues’ frowns of consternation that I would even consider loosening late work policies in favor of some persnickety notion of validity we all last heard about in our MA programs – but I’ve noticed a trend in my work recently of lots of points hinging on things like “finding parking before class” or “understanding the difference between submitting in Google Classroom and submitting on Canvas” which I don’t remember being a prominent part of any theory of SLA. After all, I do have more eggs in the basket of “effective pedagogue” than “well-oiled adjunct faculty cog”.

Below is a partial list of things that have been at times worth more points in my classes than any variety of English competence, hidden point-stealers from beyond the realm of language ability:

  •  “Please read and follow the directions for this assignment” Actually, “being able to read an assignment” is clearly part of the competence that should be tested in an academic English class – but assignmentese tends to have its own idiom and in my view needs to be taught explicitly as its own topic. Ditto for lines like “work must be accomplished without external assistance beyond what is available to all students in the language lab” in the syllabus.
  • “Please turn this assignment in on time” There is a clear relationship between accomplishing a specific language-related task within a time limit and linguistic competence. That said, I don’t think that extends to assignments that took all weekend and are being turned in 15 minutes late on Monday morning.
  • “If you don’t understand the directions, email me instead of waiting for the due date to ask a question in person” There is an unhealthy tendency to run all competences in ESL through the bottleneck of writing on computers, but I don’t really see a way around this particular issue. After a sour experience with a student who abused the ability to contact me, I don’t give students any other ways to reach out.
  • “Write your name” I do give points for people who forgot to write their names after I ask the class who this mysterious person named “Essay 2” is, but I definitely also give them a hard time about it. Some teachers don’t give points for work that is not gradable on time for any reason, and I certainly empathize. Not writing your name is essentially hijacking a few minutes of class time and precious mental resources of the teacher’s that could be going toward his seldom-read blog.
  • “Have friends that you can ask for help for days that you were absent” Given that Canvas, while equally available to everyone and therefore “fair”, is nonetheless intimidating to the point of inaccessibility for some low-intermediate ESL students, a lot of assignments’ scores depend instead on having a friend who will collect homework sheets for you, explain them for you, and sometimes turn them in for you. If you don’t use Canvas and don’t have friends like this in class, your competence as reflected in grades will drop.

Parts of this list make me react the same way my colleagues probably would: “You can’t seriously be talking about accepting…” or “Well, SOME teachers may not want their students to be responsible, but in MY classes…” and I understand this. I just want to point out that being responsible isn’t one of the areas of linguistic competence we all learned in grad school.

The affective issues cliff

Some issues that exist in students’ lives affect their academic performance in ways that are unfair and impossible to ignore – kids and jobs are two massive time-sucks that interfere with schoolwork, but everything from mental illness to changing bus routes in the city mediate how well students do academically. Particularly at community colleges, which exist specifically to serve non-traditional students, teachers have a duty to incorporate some treatment of what we call “affective issues” such as anxiety, work or family obligations, or negative self-image into our courses. The duties can be written into law, as with mandated reporting of suspected abuse (a legal obligation) or simply commonly accepted but not required “best practices” such as accepting late work or generally making yourself available to meet with students outside of class. Then there are the students who don’t have anything that has been recognized as an “affective issue” but are clearly affected away from classwork and towards League of Legends, and not much in our training says we owe these students’ issues any particular redress at all.

In American healthcare, there exists a phenomenon known as the “Medicaid cliff”, which is an income threshold below which you are provided with cheap and reliable healthcare, and above which you are required to buy expensive, complicated private insurance. A lot of people decry the existence of this drop-off in public coverage even if they support Medicaid in principle (that principle being that people who cannot afford health insurance still deserve to live). The cliff comes about because our definition of “poverty” has to end somewhere, and once you’re out of poverty, the government no longer takes an active interest in how you afford to stay alive. Thus, you could have an income of 130% of the federal poverty line and qualify for single-payer health care in the form of Medicaid, or get a raise to 140% of the federal poverty line and suddenly have to buy a private health insurance plan with a $7500 deductible. Pass the magic line and you transform magically from a victim of forces beyond your control to an upstanding and responsible citizen.

Read on if my point isn’t obvious enough yet.

beach blue sky cliff clouds

Photo by Danne on Pexels.com

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The shortest physically productive pre-activity

It’s common knowledge among ESL teachers that any activity should be prefaced with a pre-activity. Not only textbooks, but handouts, powerpoint presentations, and even off-the-cuff improvisations by the teacher are prefaced by some schemata-activating questions, discussion points or pictures, the theory being that students are better able to engage with the main activity after their brains have all the context-appropriate neurons firing.

I have never seen any evidence that the principle of preparing students for any activity should only apply to main activities, however, so it stands to reason if we are right about the importance of schema activation that these pre-activities could use pre-activities of their own. If you follow my logic, responsible pedagogy should involve a pren+1-activity before any pren-activity.

This presents a philosophical and practical pedagogical problem, as responsible language teaching now seems to entail an infinite series of increasingly small pren-activities, which in an echo of Zeno’s arrow, mean that we can never actually physically reach the start of our main activity.

With an eye toward helping my fellow language teachers out of this conundrum, I would like to propose a pragmatic (no pun intended) solution to the pren-activity dilemma, which is this:

Teachers should not have pre-activities whose length would be shorter than the time it takes for light to travel from the teacher to the nearest student. The last pre-activity whose length is longer than this time will be called the shortest physically productive pre-activity.

I will illustrate this principle by assuming a few values:

  • The speed of light is 3.08 * 108 m/s
  • Our main activity is planned for 20 minutes (1200 seconds).
  • Our pre1-activity is 5 minutes, or 1/4 the main activity, and schemata-activating pre-activities for other pre-activities will also last 1/4 as long as the activity that they prepare for.
  • For the sake of simplicity, the nearest student is seated 3.08 m from the teacher.

 

Given our values for the distance between the teacher and the nearest student, it takes 1/108 seconds for light to travel from the teacher to the nearest student. Any pren-activity that takes less time than that will be over before the last one can be physically sensed by the students.

It’s worth pointing out that light is the fastest known physical phenomenon in the universe; no cognitive activity (or any activity with a physical substrate) can outpace it, no matter how “quick” the student. The speed of light is, therefore, a crucial property to consider when planning pren-activities whose length is measured in millionths of seconds.

The question then is what value of n in a pren-activity yields an activity whose length is less than 1/108 seconds. I solved for n by plugging in the values above:

1200/4n = 1/108

1200=4n/108

120000000000=4n

1200000000001/n=4

Doing these calculations the old-fashioned way, I come up with a value of 18 for n as the last pren-activity whose length is longer than the time it takes for light to travel from the teacher to the student. Therefore, with the assumptions above, a main activity should be preceded by exactly 18 pre-activities, the 18th pre-activity being the shortest physically productive pre-activity.

It is to be hoped that teachers integrate this knowledge into their lesson planning thoughtfully and responsibly.