Friday, March 2, 2012

Year Two...

So, one of the things they never tell you when you set out to become a teacher (the complete tonnage of what they don't tell you when you set out to become a teacher is enough to stun a team of oxen) is that, if you have any free time, most of it will probably be spent doing teacher-related things. Grading term papers, planning grammar lessons, organizing student-centered activities (that won't leave said students either a) completely confused, or, b) in a zombie-like stupor) ends up eating up a lot of your evenings, weekends, midterm breaks, etc. As such, certain things fall by the wayside. Remembering to update your teaching blog suddenly becomes less important than making sure you have twelve Vocabulary Power books graded by Wednesday's class (or, honestly, if you remembered to buy light bulbs and/or feed yourself that day). 

I have been remiss in updating here, but for a very good reason: I love what I'm doing.

Honestly. That's the reason.

It's been four consecutive terms since I've written anything in this blog, and I feel that I have grown so much as an instructor in the interim. I have been extremely fortunate to have the support of a great teaching staff, to have access to engaging materials and curricula, and to have had an active and engaging line-up of students over the last year. I have entered 2012 -- my second full year of ESL instruction -- with a lot of tough lessons learned, experiences gained, and memories made. I enjoy going into work in the morning for the very real reason that I enjoy teaching, and that I have ended up getting back so much more from my students than I initially thought I might. 

Giving your life and heart to something means sacrificing other things. And if a blog has to get a little dusty because of it, then I'm okay with that. 

Now, where did I put those light bulbs?

Monday, February 21, 2011

                                                                                  From USA Today

One of the more interesting parts of this job is that, by nature of the types of students I work with, I benefit from keeping up with with the international news. Currently, we have about a dozen students in the program from Libya. Through conversations in and outside of class, our staff has learned about the hardships, fears, and gut-wrenching uncertainty of what's currently going on in that country. Many students have family in Benghazi and Tripoli. They are having difficulty contacting anyone in Libya because of the prolonged media/technological blackout. I can't imagine what that would be like: to be in a strange and alien place, separated from your family, knowing that violence is being perpetrated against the people of your country. And worse -- to not know if your loved ones are okay. 

Several of the male Libyans have received e-mails from their government, telling them that they must either go to Washington, D.C. and protest the United States' stance of silence on the revolution, or else risk being recalled back to Libya. We are being told to counsel students through this difficult time. 

The best way to help is to stay informed. The BBC News Web site is doing a good job of covering the story. I would also recommend The Guardian's coverage of the events in Libya. For live, streaming coverage visit Al Jazeera English, on YouTube.

Monday, February 7, 2011

We survived!

Though, not for lack of trying on the part of Mother Nature. A gigantic winter storm swept through the Midwest and much of the United States last week, playing havoc with driving conditions and forcing the university to shut down operations for two days. I used the extra time off to lesson plan, watch the directors' commentaries on every horror movie DVD I own, and catch a cold. (Who says you can't be productive in your spare time?)

Last week was also unique for the fact that my boss's boss, the director of INTERLINK, was in town to observe and/or audit our program. He had originally planned to observe each teacher (there are eight of us) in both our RW and CS classes to make sure that we are operating as close to our student-centered focus as possible. However, due to the weather, he only observed a handful of us -- myself included -- in either our RW or CS class. I'm going to state the obvious: having your boss's boss looking over your shoulder isn't exactly a stress-free experience. Though we knew he was coming weeks in advance, most of us planned activities for the week that were specifically tailored to showcase as much student participation as possible. Whether or not we hold to the same standards when we're not being observed is debatable; I think it's human nature to want to come off as competent and so we all make adjustments when they are needed.

Still. I think I did well. I mean, he observed my CS class for about an hour (which we spent doing student presentations) and had only minor notes during the one-on-one feedback session that afternoon. In this case, I think my newness was to my advantage. I said, "I know I'm young enough and new enough to teaching to be sure that I don't know everything. I'm not going to get it perfect out of the gate. What works for one class might not work for another and the reverse is also true. I am okay with making mistakes. If I learn from them, I get better." Which seemed to be, you know, kind of what he was looking for in the first place.

New challenges already this week: today I had to deal with my first instance of student plagiarism. I asked one of my students to write out, in their own words, a summary of everything that has happened in  the novel (The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe) up through Chapter 7. The student e-mailed me what they had written and, by gummit, if it wasn't lifted verbatim from (The student didn't even fix the formatting issues -- spacing, font size, indentation -- but just copy/pasted things exactly as they were seen on the Web site.) I asked one of my mentor teachers what I should do in this situation, as INTERLINK has no step-by-step policy for dealing with plagiarism (even though they take a "no tolerance" stance against it). She told me that it was important to nip this issue in the bud, so I e-mailed the student immediately and informed them that the assignment they submitted was unacceptable because it had been copied from eNotes, that they would receive a "0" for the assignment, and that they were in danger of failing the class if they continued to plagiarize sources. I blind-copied the student's CS teacher, as well as my boss.

I didn't take any pleasure sending that e-mail or sniffing out plagiarism. Honestly, I knew that it was a problem in universities and most other academic settings and that I would have to deal with it eventually. But at the same time, I'm just like, "Geez, just how stupid do you think I am? If you can find this stuff online, so can I." I'm also fortunate in that this week -- Week 5 -- has a block of time set aside for one-on-one evaluations. On Thursday and Friday, I will sit down with each of my students and let them know how they are doing in the class, where/what they need to improve, and whether or not they will pass to the next level if they continue to perform as they're performing. There's going to be a lot of "tough love" at these meetings, I can tell.

Monday, January 31, 2011


has (not surprisingly) led to this:

which, honestly, means that I'm doing a little of this:

See? Even teachers get excited about snow days.

I had a suspicion that they might close the university. All the cars driving by on the highway outside? Sound like they're driving over ball bearings. The ice has hit, and it's hit hard. Now it's just a matter of making sure that the power stays on despite the extra weight on the wires and transformers. If it does happen to go out in my area, I've been offered a place to crash by a couple of the veteran teachers who live close by. It's nice to be taken care of, even when I'm far from home.

Until that point, though, I figure I'm pretty sturdy. I've got candles (they were out of the emergency kind, so in the event of a power outage my apartment will smell like hazelnut and apple pie) and enough junk food to get me through the worst of the storm. Cookies for dinner? Mm, yes please!

(Just kidding, mom. I'm eating "real food," I promise.)

Friday, January 28, 2011

It's the end of my second full week of teaching and, to be perfectly honest, I'm plum tuckered out. Some activities went well, and others did not go as well as I would have liked. In either situation, I feel as if I am getting to know my students a bit better -- I am learning what they like, what they respond to, and how I need to structure certain activities to get the best/most responses. I've learned that you can spend an entire evening building what you are sure is going to be a great lesson, only to find out that you overshot the vocabulary, or forgot a step, or missed the target completely. It's very humbling. It's also the nature of the job itself: teaching is such a dynamic, organic process that it's virtually impossible to anticipate how well/how poorly something will do.

And in the end, maybe it's not so much a "failure" as a "learning experience." It's not the fault of the students; it's probably not even your fault as a teacher (although I tend to want to shoulder that responsibility, mostly because I'm the one standing up in front of the room). It's just the way that a real, live classroom functions. Expect the unexpected.

Also. I posted an alternate version of this on my Tumblr, but this has generally been my attitude toward lesson planning this week (in super geeky .gif form):






Here's to the weekend! :D

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

I was reliably informed before I started to teach that there would come a day when I would have enough anecdotes about teaching/my students to fill a book. I think, given the next two examples, I'm going to have enough by the end of the term to fill several.

1. My RW students are reading C.S. Lewis' The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe for class. Last week, we worked on making predictions about books based on their covers (a proverbial sin, I know). Every student is working from the same copy of the book. It looks like this:

I was just curious to see what vocabulary they knew out of the gate, so I had them name the things they saw on the cover of the book. I got the expected responses: "castle," "lion," "woman," "horse," "trees" (pretty good vocabulary, considering). Then, from some corner of the classroom, I distinctly heard the word "penis." I thought I'd misheard. I went on with the rest of the vocabulary. A few seconds later I heard it again, and this time there was no mistaking -- someone had just dropped the "p-bomb" in class. 

I said, "what?" (while probably coloring eight shades of pink) and asked that side of the room for clarification. One student held up the book and pointed to the pillar on the right-hand side of the cover. "I think this is penis," he said. A few other students nodded their agreement.

I have a sneaking suspicion that he knew perfectly well what it was -- maybe he didn't have the exact word for it -- but he looked pretty serious when he said it. I mean, I don't want to make assumptions about what they're teachings kids in Anatomy 101 these days (or Intro to Architecture, for that matter), but it could be mighty embarrassing if that student ever visits the Roman Coliseum on an architectural tour.

2. I've got a pretty diverse group of talkers in my classes. Some students like to contribute often, while others I sort of have to, well, pull it out of them. One of my students has absolutely no problem speaking up in class -- and he does so to such an extent that it's almost distracting. He's a bright kid, eager to learn and very motivated (he came to me during the first week of class and asked for extra homework -- extra homework, people). He's also got a great imagination. During a free-writing exercise in which I asked my students to imagine what they might see if they ever went through the wardrobe and into Narnia, he came up with an elaborate story about how he'd use the wardrobe as a time traveling device to go 1,000 years into the past, what he'd bring ("Pepsi and my laptop. I know there no electricity in the past. I invent it.") and all of the strange, strange creatures he might happen to run into. 

I mean, that story alone would be fodder enough for an anecdote, but would you believe it? There's more. 

Every instructor is required to teach two classes of standard curriculum instruction, for four hours a day. In addition, we must teach or participate in one to two hours of extra instruction a week, called a "module." Modules can be about pretty much anything the instructor wants. Some instructors have a "lunch module," where students go out to lunch at different restaurants around town. Others teach a "sports and fitness" module, which basically boils down to going to all of the basketball and football games in the area and requires very little actual physical exertion. This term I'm teaching a module on the history of Western music. I'm starting with the old fogey composers and hopefully by the end of the semester we'll be talking about the 'Stones and Lady Gaga. 

Today was the first session of my module. I almost scrapped it because no one showed up at the proper time (Arab students -- almost always late!) but we started cooking about ten minutes after the scheduled start time. I'd prepared a PowerPoint presentation with some questions -- What do you like to listen to? Why do you listen to music? -- just to get them talking. We got on the subject of types of music and so I asked them how many they could name off the top of their heads. Then I put up this list:

I asked them if there were any types of music on this list that surprised them, or with which they were unfamiliar. I commented that I, myself, was unfamiliar with what "House" music sounded like. My imaginative student raised his hand and confidently informed me that "House" music was a kind of music that happened when a few guys get together in somebody's kitchen or bathroom and play music. When somebody asked for an explanation of R 'n' B, the same student informed the class that it was a type of music played by three people named Ryan, Nancy, and Brian -- "R N B." 

Now, of course there's a danger that this kind of frequent participation can actually become distracting to the other students, and I hope that I am able to make the distinction between "funny" and "might become a problem." But for now? I'm enjoying their creativity and contributions to class. 

Friday, January 21, 2011

My first week of teaching is in the bag! It was crazy -- at times confusing, at others absolutely insane -- and I am pretty exhausted by the end of every day. But I have to say: being there in front of those students, helping them, teaching them something that is personally important to me and which I know will assist them as they go on to other things in their lives -- that really makes all the long days worth it.

There will be a longer, more salient entry later. For now? Pictures!

This is my office. Well, desk. Corner. 90 degree angle. The window looks out on a great view of the ISU campus, which I am sure I will come to appreciate when it is no longer eight degrees outside. The Japanese silk screen and the photos came with the desk. I feel kind of weird about taking them down. Also, I think the plant on the window sill is carnivorous. 

This is my classroom. It is down the hall from my office, which makes the 15-minute passing period between RW and CS a non-issue. The size of the room is not ideal -- especially for CS class, when I would like to have move activities where students move around -- but it has heat and a white board. Newbies can't be picky, anyway.

This is an alligator I drew in class today when we were talking about reasons not to go swimming in the Amazon River. Although, he looks kind of friendly. Maybe I should have drawn him a little more ferocious. I do not want to be on the receiving end of a wrongful limb-eating lawsuit.