I’ve Moved

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Please check out my new website at heyteach101.com.  This site is going to focus on providing materials for adults who want to improve reading and writing skills and build vocabulary.  It’s definitely a work in progress but I am pleased to have it up and running.

toreadtowrite (this site) will still be up and if I have more to say about teaching adults to read and write better I will post it here.

Thanks for following!

Neglect

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Mplsruins6copyThe echoes of neglect are deafening.  I just took a look back at all my posts, knowing it had been a while since I last wrote, but I was dismayed to discover that I haven’t written here since last January.  All my mental excuses were for my summer neglect, although even those sounded pretty lame when I listened to myself trying to justify my resistance to writing.  But to discover I hadn’t published a single post during the spring semester either is just plain embarrassing.

Spring semester was good, students were a pleasure to work with, no one was mentally ill or always angry or frightening in any way.  Students seemed to enjoy our time together, attendance and participation were good.  So what was there to write about?  Apparently I needed trauma to motivate me to write.  (Notice the past tense – I am in change mode as I write – no more crisis-driven functionality.)

Another issue that has challenged my writing on this blog is the choice I made for anonymity.  I stand by it for the reasons I gave from the beginning, but it has limited me in ways I did not anticipate.  I cannot benefit from this work professionally because I cannot claim it, and I cannot publish any of it under my own name.

For those reasons I am working on a website under my own name.  I will continue to use this site to write about students and personalities that need to exist under the invisibility cloak, but information about teaching and learning will move to my new site.

I have several new subscribers (you are the ones who prompted this post – I am so very grateful to you for your interest!) and I hope you will find my new site when it goes live.  I will announce the new site here once I am ready to go live.  If you are not currently a friend or family and are interested in following me for the teaching information, you can always write to me at heyteach101@gmail.com.

Stay tuned for a discourse on student dynamics – classes start in a few weeks!

Gratitude for New Beginnings

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Happy New YearHappy New Year!  Our semester starts early this year – classes begin tomorrow.  Half of our prep week was spent celebrating New Year’s Eve and Day, and since I am teaching a class I am not very familiar with I am feeling most definitely under-prepared.

But that discomfort is more than outweighed by the pleasure of knowing that I am starting fresh with this new batch of students.  I can teach differently, teach better.  Maybe this will be the semester when I figure out how to get everyone on board.  But whether it is or not, it is a fresh start, and I love that about teaching.

We don’t have to carry our baggage with us when we start a new semester.  My mentally ill students and the damage they did to my confidence are in the past.  I learned and hopefully I have moved on to a better place should I encounter such troubled students again (ah, the equanimity of those final days before classes start and reality sets in!)

I am teaching study skills, which can be a fun class to teach.  I am excited about the creativity that is encouraged by the textbook, which is full of diverse ways to teach and learn each topic.  It is the new pencil/new notebook syndrome: everything is fresh and new and full of possibility.  That is the gift of teaching – no matter how badly you screwed up last semester, the next semester is a new beginning.  I am so thankful to have this opportunity to perpetually be able to begin again with a clean slate.  I wish you the same – an ongoing supply of second chances.

Nov. 27 – Student Conferences

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I like to get feedback from students at every point possible throughout the semester.  It starts during the first week of class, when I block out time to meet with each student individually.  This means canceling classes for at least a day, usually two.  I have debated whether or not these initial conferences are worth the lost class time, and I even tried doing without them one semester.  When I didn’t have those meetings in the first week I never felt like I knew the students as well, and I realized that I use the information gathered in this initial meeting throughout the semester.  I returned to those first-week conferences the next semester and have done them ever since.

I have students fill out information forms before our meeting, and the information they provide gives me a basis for an introductory conversation.  Aside from the usual demographic stuff I ask them about their reading – what do they like to read, what do they most want to improve about their reading, what is their greatest strength as a reader?  Sadly, far too many students draw a total blank when trying to answer that last question – “I don’t have any strengths.”  sigh.

I also ask them if they are upset about being placed in a non-credit “developmental” reading class.  Most say they are resigned to taking it, though many don’t understand why they have to do so.  Some are honest and say that yes, they are angry about being forced to take a non-credit class they don’t think they need.  I find that acknowledging and addressing that resistance right away as honestly as I can is the most effective way to defuse it before the mood of an entire class is affected.

I also meet with students at the end of the semester in lieu of a final exam.  We talk about the semester and what should come next for them.  For many students it is a formality but for some it is a powerful moment of affirmation and connection, and for me it is a time to say “Well done” or “I know you’ll do better next semester.”

And now, in addition to these two meetings, I think I want to start having midterm conferences as well.  I have avoided them for a couple of reasons up until now: the additional lost class time and the question of how to just meet with the students I need to meet with, i.e. the ones who aren’t doing as well.  I thought about allowing A students, or perfect attendance students, or some such criterion students a pass on midterm conferences, but that seems to send the message that if you’re good you don’t have to do this thing, which makes “this thing” not a very appealing thing at all.  But why take the time to meet with students just to say “you’re doing great, keep it up?”  Or even more so, with the passively competent students who have absolutely nothing to say and look at me like I’m crazy when I thank them for coming in and ask if they have anything they want to talk about.

But I think it is so important to meet with the shaky students – the ones I might not lose if I reach out at the right time.  It’s so hard to know, and I do try to remember that I am not the only influence in their lives; so many of my students’ lives are so complex, with so many demands and challenges, that sometimes it seems a miracle they get to class at all.  Maybe I will come up with a journal assignment that will give all of my students something to say in a mid-term conference.  That way it is at least not a punitive event, and we might even have some enlightening conversations.  And maybe those good students need to hear that they are doing well.  Sometimes it’s easy to forget the quietly competent.  Don’t want to do that.  Here’s to all of the quietly competent – I think I will make these conferences as much about them as about the strugglers.  That will certainly make for a change of pace, and it will provide me with a new challenge as I design my conference plans next semester.  huzzah.

Nov. 26 – Teaching Vocabulary with Image and Rhyme

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photo made available by Creative Commons license from:
“Alright, we’ll take your word for it.”
geograph.org.uk

Our brains are hard-wired to recognize images – we see image so much more clearly than we do text.  I am convinced that there is a way to make use of that wiring to teach college students new words.  This semester I decided to move beyond my own paltry imagination and lack of drawing skills and try out some of the college-level vocabulary cartoon books.  I made a list of the words for which I had cartoons, then we chose words to learn from that list.

For each new word, I shared my vocabulary cartoon resources with my students, then looked for feedback.  In quizzes, I asked them to identify which words triggered a memory of the cartoons and which of those remembered images helped them identify the meaning.  Many more students remembered the images than the meanings, which tells me that, even for professional vocabulary cartoonists (?) it is not easy to effectively connect meaning and image.

In previous semesters I have had the students create their own images, and I think that turned out almost as well as using these pre-made cartoons.  There is a lot of initial resistance to creating their own cartoons for their vocabulary words, even after seeing my pathetic stick figure drawings on the board.  Lack of self-confidence about drawing skills is rampant.  But I think that if I use the extensive context example practice first, we could come up with images for the words as a class.

Image is such a powerful trigger for memory that I don’t want to give up on finding a way to utilize that trigger as I struggle to help my students build up their lexicon, to even their chances of succeeding in the academic world.  A worthy goal, a mighty summit.  hi ho.  Next semester for sure.

Nov. 21 – Teaching Vocabulary in Context

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word cloud by wordle

Over the years of teaching vocabulary to college students, one of the biggest challenges is trying to explain exactly why their sentences are wrong when they try to use new words.  The dictionary definition makes sense in the context of their sentences, but the sentences are just … not right.  This fall I finally decided to tackle the problem head on.  We had encountered the word cascade in something we were reading, and no one knew it so I gave them the definition.  In a quiz a few days later I asked them to create a sentence using cascade.  The dictionary had defined the verb cascade as “to tumble” and so many of the students wrote of tripping and cascading down the stairs.  Hmmm.  Not so much.  My quest to find a way to teach accurate usage was back on.

What I decided to try this semester was example sentences.  I had them go to the lab and find three sentences online that used each word.  That was a challenge at first because they were determined to make up their own sentences and pass them off as  online examples, but it was confirmingly easy to recognize those efforts.  One student complained about having to use other people’s sentences – “How are we ever going to learn how to use these words if you won’t let us make our own sentences?”

My argument was that these example sentences would give them accurate patterns to model to help them learn to use the words.  We practiced it together in class, and at first students were frustrated and confused: “I can’t see any patterns.”  So we practiced regularly, with each new set of words.  By week five or six, most of their own sentences were indistinguishable from the example sentences, and if someone went astray all I had to write was “follow the pattern more closely.”  The students told me they feel confident that they can use this technique to learn new words and, more importantly, learn to use them correctly in their own writing.  I do love finding a strategy that really works and produces tangible results.  Huzzah.

Nov. 20 – Teaching Vocabulary: Choosing the Words

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Wordle

Semester after semester, ever hopeful, I try out new vocabulary activities that promise acquisition without insult.  I want to make use of the research: research that tells us that simply providing a list of words to memorize is not going to add those words to students’ lexicons, brain research that tells us that we remember image and rhyme much more easily than we do text.  (And I must add that I feel I am living on the edge and throwing caution to the winds by not citing each instance of that research.)

The way I get around the first challenge – what words to teach – is to have the students create their own lists of words they’ve encountered more than once but still don’t know.  This semester, to make that process easier and give me material to use to teach the words, I made a list of all the words in two cartoon vocabulary books:  Picture These SAT Words by Philip and Susan Geer and Vocabbusters GRE: Make Vocabulary Fun by Dusti and Deanne Howell.  I chose those two books because I wanted to help students learn how to create images to go along with new words.  I’ll write about that effort in a follow-up post.

I gave all the students a copy of the list and had them choose the ten words they would most like to learn.  Then I tallied up their choices, took those choices and came up with eight new words to learn each week.  I then made a list of who requested which words and used that list to make sure that everyone had at least one word included in the weekly words.  And I added a few of my own (serendipity and discombobulated are high on my list of necessary words.)

Their new word list each week included the word, common definitions, synonyms, some kind of image, and at least three context examples.  Context examples are crucial for teaching students how we actually use the words – I will write on that too in a follow-up post.

I have learned that choosing words that students actually want to learn is the first step in a successful vocabulary acquisition project.  As a result, some students go out of their way to demonstrate their new words in every piece of writing they turn in.  I do love them when they do that, and finding reasons and ways to love my students is what it is all about.

Nov. 17 – Standing Side by Side

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One of the most ubiquitous recommendations for teachers is to get to know your students.  It is a powerful tool, but not always possible and definitely not always easy.  College students are on guard and on their dignity in the classroom, and the persona they present is at most a fraction of their true selves.  (I know that is true for all of us at any given time, but I think the artificiality of the classroom, the authority and power of the instructor, and students’ individual experiences with education or the lack thereof combine to make the classroom a difficult place in which to be genuine.)

One of my colleagues has come up with a technique I admire (maybe because I do love a show) – he puts on public exhibitions based on the content being studied in his classes and spends his time at those exhibitions talking to students, standing by their sides.  He told me that his students are so much more open and relaxed when he is by their side rather than in front of the classroom.  The stories students have shared with him have made his teaching easier as he understands what were formerly confusing or misleading responses, and he doesn’t mis-interpret student statements as often.   The effort required to put on an exhibit is amply repaid by the increased understanding he has gained.

Somewhere else recently (I apologize to the author of this as I have no idea where I read it – wasn’t thinking about noting the source for this blog at the time, apparently!) I read a suggestion to move your office outside – walk with students when you are meeting with them.  It has a similar effect to the exhibition conversations – being side by side offsets the power imbalance, even if only by a little bit, and students are more relaxed and honest.  The logistics seem a little challenging when I look at our campus, but I like the idea.  A friend of mine who advises first generation college students often walks with his advisees during their appointments – he says at the very least it keeps his weight down!

Both of these techniques are a start toward dismantling the barricades that prevent honest communication between instructors and students, and neither compromises dignity – trying to be like the kids is a road to disaster for me, so I appreciate a path that doesn’t require (hmmm – everything I start to write here sounds like a grumpy old professor who doesn’t want to go to the raucous noisy student events – I think I’ll just stop here!)

We’re walking, we’re talking.  I like.

Nov. 16 – Of Mosques and Mosquitoes

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Photo by david takes photos. Made available by Creative Commons license.

Yesterday in class we read Ishmael Reed’s “America: The Multinational Society.”  While the primary challenge of his writing style for my students was the length of his sentences (the students were convinced that there had to be of a run-on sentence in there somewhere!), it was their interpretation of the  word mosque that surprised me and unexpectedly enhanced my understanding of their reading process.

I have four sections of the same class, reading the same essay.  In the first hour, when the student who was reading came to the word mosque he first read it as mosquito.  With a few gentle giggles from his classmates, he corrected himself and we moved on.  Then it happened again in the next section – when the student who was reading came to mosque, once again mosquito was seen and spoken.  And again third hour.  And yes, fourth class read exactly the same thing.  So clearly this was not an aberration, one student only glancing at the first few letters and making a best guess from there.  Four students, 100%, every single time.  We had us a pattern.

To me those two words – mosque and mosquito –  don’t look that much alike.  Although they start the same way, the length and endings are clearly distinct.  But every one of the students who read the sentence which contained mosque saw mosquito.  I think they know the word mosqueand they definitely know the word mosquito, so I am thinking it is more about the technical aspect of what exactly our eyes are looking at when we interpret words on the page.  My theory is that they look at the first few letters and then guess at the rest.

I think I need to explore word recognition techniques and tools.  This seems like it may be another key that will help us move toward fluency.

Nov. 15 – Reading Aloud

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Image from Briarpress. Made available by Creative Commons license.

As a college reading instructor, I find the most effective way to teach the skills and strategies of reading complex text is to have the students, in a circle, read aloud.   I know the trauma of reading aloud is epidemic (“the other students made fun of me,” “my teacher would always make me read and everyone laughed” ad nauseum) but the practice is so beneficial to both students and teacher that I believe it is worth confronting the trauma head-on.

When I first present the practice at the beginning of the semester, I can see the panic in far too many eyes.  I assure students by telling them they always have the right to pass when it is their turn.  I don’t mind if they never read aloud all semester, and I most sincerely mean that.  Enough students read from the very first day to keep the practice going, and I rarely have students who pass on reading aloud every class.  The most frightened student I ever had passed for the first two months of the semester, and when, with the class’s encouragement, he finally found the courage to read aloud, he was cheered by his classmates.  In addition, each person only reads one sentence at a time, so it isn’t a huge burden.

And now, let’s look at the benefits.  The students hear each other stumble over vocabulary, over end-of-the-line hyphenations and confusing sentence structures.  They hear their classmates mis-pronounce words, mis-read words, and skip lines when they read.  They learn they are not alone in their struggle to make sense out of printed text.  Their fluency and confidence improve, sometimes dramatically, as the semester progresses.  Students frequently identify reading aloud and the circle as their favorite part of the class, and some have said that reading aloud has given them the confidence to make presentations in their other classes as well.

The benefits to the teacher also abound.  I learn just how many words they don’t really know.  I can hear when the sentence tangles them up, so we can stop and pull it apart.  I can hear when they are reading with interest and engagement and when the text has lost them.  I can stop and make connections, point out signal words and constructions, bring attention to text structures that will help them make sense out of the text.  I can help them focus on what is important, on introductory and concluding sentences, on lists, on similarities among details that will help them identify the main point.  And, at the end of the hour I know that every single student in the class has read that piece of text.

I have even brought the practice home.  My partner and I are reading The Happiness Project and we have been reading a section a day, taking turns reading aloud.  It’s been such a great way to share a book, and my students were delighted (or at least intrigued) to learn that I am reading aloud at home as well!

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