Newbie

Because the theme of this blog is THE TRANSFORMATIVE , I feel the need to show you how I transmorphasized ™ into a new teacher this past year. Call it evolution, call it intelligent design, call it what you will, but the fact of the matter is that when I started teaching this past summer, I was like a mix between the loser taxi driver Lloyd Christmas and the nerdy, unkempt professor Julius Kemp. And at the end of the year, I resembled someone much more respectable…and was rehired!

During the summer of 2010, I had the privilege of teaching a mixed group of students, young adults and parents, at the Intensive English Program (IEP) of the Monterey Institute of International Studies (MIIS). Before I met the students, I named the 8 week, project-based learning (PBL) with technology elective Imagining California. I thought that my students’ experiences in California could be the overarching theme for all their project work. I wanted to create a learner-centered elective that afforded students a lot of choices; an elective where students could individually, or in groups, work on a project they could share with interested friends and family, or anyone else interested, as they worked on accomplishing their own language learning goals. I wanted the elective to be as flexible as possible, although it was restricted by a vague project-based framework I had in my head (inspired by my own experiences as a student with PBL). Below is the elective’s silly bus ™:

The structure of the class ended up being project-based because the ever wonderful and supportive director of the IEP, Patricia Szasz, encouraged me, and in part, hired me for that specific purpose. Not knowing that I was following along the lines of professor Leo van Lier’s (2002) idea of triadic interactions, I wanted to facilitate my students’ interactions and language learning with computers, free web 2.o products online (e.g., Picnik, WordPress, Flickr, Youtube, Animoto, etc.) and software available at MIIS’s world class Digital Media Commons (DMC) (e.g., iMovie, iPhoto, Windows MovieMaker).

Only after professor Bob Cole overheard my class two weeks into the session, and the buzz in the air got him to step out of his office to watch, did I think of triadic interactions. He’s the one who suggested I record student interactions in order to study their language development. I don’t think either one of us knew that Jeon-Ellis, Debski, and Wigglesworth (2005) had done just that in an uncannily identical project-oriented computer assisted language learning (CALL) course. And that reading their article would bring back so many memories and questions about creating environments that encourage students to create and experience language learning opportunities, like Swain and Lapkin’s (1998) language related episodes. In all honestly, in the beginning of the summer I started out teaching like shooting from the hip, but my shooting resembled a shot-gun blast more than accurate aim.

I didn’t really have a linguistically oriented, theoretical basis for many of my choices, just gut instincts and a bit of background knowledge and experience. I wanted to accomplish a number of things by teaching the elective, like wanting my students to learn technologically related skills and content for telling stories online (because I love storytelling, almost more than teaching itself). Also, because of my enrollment in professor John Hedgcock’s Teaching of Reading course in the Spring of 2010, I felt pretty sure that blogging on WordPress would afford my students a great avenue for publishing their work in an authentic setting. So, though I had a base from which to begin teaching the elective, I guess I wasn’t really sure what I would learn from the experience.

As the elective got underway in June, I bumbled along like Lloyd Christmas, in the way only a buffoon carries confidence. I wasn’t yet aware that the lesson I would learn was something more novice than the expert knowledge I thought I would gain about trying out a new and challenging teaching approach, PBL, for the first time. As weeks turned into months, I started noticing that what I was really learning about wasn’t inherently about PBL, but was about my struggle with transitioning from a teacher-centered teacher to a learner-centered teacher. I began to understand why it’s important to include my students in the planning of lessons on the fly, to be able to seamlessly pass the floor over to my students, and to be able to explain activities and tasks clearly and quickly. Remember when Lloyd pulled up to the Austrian woman in the opening scene of Dumb and Dumber?

That was me on the first day of class, trying to get my students to understand the course and where I was coming from (I’m possibly being a bit harsh on myself, I’ve got to admit, but then again, maybe not). In my spare time, I attempted building my own WordPress blog for the students as a model, so that they would be presented with an idea of a possible final product (see it here). It had been my first time using WordPress, and I was using Imagining California as a way to teach myself how to use it. That was a risky decision, because as I now know, I needed months of self training on WordPress before finally becoming truly knowledgeable about teaching with it. But, on the flip side, I was able to teach myself enough to fool my students into thinking I was an expert. How much more teacher-centered could I get?

Looking back, I think next time I’ll give my students more options and decision power on what the final product should be. In the beginning, I was very self-centered, even though I was trying to focus on my students’ needs and wants. On the first week of classes, with my home-made needs assessment in hand, I wanted to begin a successful PBL w/ technology elective. I hadn’t thought to wait to include as much of my students’ interests as possible when I chose the format of the course. Today, after having read much more about making PBL successful in the language classroom (see the post Theoretical Support for Project-based Learning), I know that my adult students were more than capable of making their own choices in the process and design of their project. I was also very self-conscious throughout the session. Just a second ago I reread the journal I was keeping while teaching the elective and on a number of days I seem preoccupied by my rambling and mumbling, more so than whether group dynamics were supporting language learning, or whether I was giving my students enough feedback on their writing and  speaking. For a big chunk of the session, I was out of touch.

Remember the Nutty Professor? No matter how out of touch he is, you gotta love that crazy ol’ Professor Julius. Like him, I was genuinely interested in the subject matter of my course, which was supplied by my students’ experiences in California. But even though I showed interest and my students knew that I was interested in their work, I had trouble connecting with all my students in the same way. Throughout the elective, I wondered how a number of my students truly perceived me and Imagining California…I wondered whether the course was too easy for some and too difficult for others.

To make matters more mystifying, throughout the session I made clumsy, novice-teacher mistakes I thought I left behind me in Syria, and as I tried to recover from one, another slapped…me…straight…in…the…face. Luckily, at the end of the course, after my own goals-based evaluation (following Bailey, Curtis, and Nunan, 2001), and the IEP’s in-house evaluation, I found out that my students respected my passion for teaching and my willingness to look foolish for a laugh…among other positive things. You can check out my students’ evaluation of the elective below (it’s a bit tiny, so use the full-screen option or zoom in! Gotta love Scribd). But before you do, watch good ol’ Julius…the teacher in all of us.

As time went by, and as I began to observe and participate in the growing culture and dynamic of the class, the more my teaching fell in sync with my students’ needs, goals, and interests. I learned that becoming less teacher-centered wasn’t so scary, and that a healthy sense of humor and an attitude of critical self-refleciton helped me face parts of my teaching I was embarrassed about, like hogging the floor. In another class I taught that summer, Reading and Writing III, I made a short movie about my growing awareness of student energy and teacher talk. It was simple, the less time I spent talking about a task or activity my students wanted to accomplish, the more time they spent working with vibrant creativity. Check it out below (it’s about ten minutes long, so fast forward if you are crunched for time):

Now, let me give you an idea of the kind of teacher I was prior to my enrollment in the Masters in TESOL program at MIIS. That way, you’ll have a better idea of how I made like a caterpillar, and butterflied. I became aware that I behaved in contrast to new beliefs. In other words, that I enacted some old school teacher-centered practices rather than the new and radical learner-centered practices I subscribed to during my graduate studies.

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Before coming to MIIS, I worked for four years at the National School of Aleppo, in Aleppo, Syria. I began teaching in Syria although I had no prior language teaching experience. Here’s a blog I started about it, and if you’re interested in teaching in Syria, its a great introduction to it, or at least, that’s what I’ve been told by its readers. Before moving to Syria, the only other teaching experience I had was in the swimming pools and natural springs around Florida State University, where as a Dive Master, I assisted dive instructors in teaching beginner divers. In Syria, my teaching style was in constant flux, and though I went from teaching third grade to middle and high school students, I continued to rely on lecturing and micromanaging to get through the day. Gradually, I learned how to manage student behavior in a culture where teacher-centered instruction was not only the norm, but was the approach to teaching that was most understood and respected by the administration, parents, colleagues and my students. Though my ultimate goal was to emulate my favorite high school teachers, Mr. Beasely and Mr. Freedman of South Plantation High School (because of the way they inspired me to learn on my own), after four years of teaching in Syria, I have to admit I wasn’t the teacher I wanted to be. As a result, I applied to the MATESOL program at MIIS.

Once at MIIS, after four years of teaching without an academic/theoretical compass in Syria, I experienced the value of cooperative, project-oriented learning as an adult and no longer felt lost in the forest, so to speak. I highlighted Kumaravadivelu (2003), Walqui and van Lier (2010), and Larsen-Freeman (2003) so much, that they could be seen from outer space on clear nights. Not only did my courses get me to reflect on my own learning, they encouraged me to see my professors’ teaching approaches with a critical eye. I formally learned how to organize the ‘behind the scenes’ of teaching, and read an array of literature on language learning and teaching. My coursework served as experiments in linguistics, sociolinguistics, curriculum design, assessment, and pedagogy. In hindsight, I don’t think I had any other choice but to gear my summer course, Imagining California, towards PBL, because of the high regard my professors placed on constructivist/experiential approaches to learning. Also, I love creating. PBL is an approach to teaching that taps into my energy like no other thing, and a wonderful thing about teaching through creative acts is that there is always a possibility of being impressed by your students or yourself.

So, let me show you some of what occurred in Imaging California, through my students’ project work. The class was made of 13 adult English as a foreign language students from all over the world (i.e., Russia, Turkey, Japan, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Spain, and Taiwan). After a few weeks of playing games and having competitions that got us to know each other, I asked the students to form groups for their blogging project. The students grouped into four groups; three students in TKKYoon, four students in Road Trip 321, four students in Two Faces of California, and two students for EvilDevilEvil. When you browse through their blogs, you can see how the quality of their work varied and progressed throughout the session, just by referencing the post dates. Although I am very proud of my students’ work and of my attempts to teach a PBL w/ technology elective, I see that there is room for improvement.

Throughout the session, I had a feeling that I could do a much better job at scaffolding the interactions between students and students, students and me, and students and the technology. Also, I should record tasks and task types in order to see if particular ones afford more language learning opportunities, just like Jeon-Ellis, Debski, and Wigglesworth (2005) suggest. Following their recommendations, I should also make sure that I better prepare my students for working collaboratively. Learner training at the the beginning of the course could include the examples of the language related episodes that best encouraged language learning in the collaborative project work reported in Jeon-Ellis, Debski, and Wigglesworth (2005). Showing my students how Alice and Kelly worked together, and how they excluded Cathy, could help them interact in positive ways in the classroom.

One of the things that has helped me learn the most about my summer teaching experience with Imagining California has been the constant focus on PBL from various vantage points. After teaching two courses in the summer session, I returned to my graduate studies, and prepared for my final portfolio. I spent part of the semester assisting Professor Sarah Springer with her Project-based Learning with Technology Workshop, and  as a result of our collaboration, Sarah presented me with lots to read and reflect on. The influential articles and books she turned me on too are cited in the reference list here. Another vantage point into PBL came from a research angle. For my coursework in professor Kathy Bailey’s Applied Linguistics Research Seminar, I studied teacher attitudes on and experiences with PBL. You can find an embedded, online PDF version of my final report by following the link provided in the previous sentence. And finally, one more vantage point from which to view my summer teaching experience with PBL, is this transformative blog.

Part of the process of blogging is keeping records, and I’m keeping a record of my reflections here, for all to see. Writing here allows me to pretend that I have an audience who’s interested in what I learned, because maybe too, they can learn from what I experienced. I hope taking the time to read all this has been worth your time. If you have any questions or comments, please do not hesitate to blog, I’ll be glad to reply 🙂

References

Bailey, K. M., Curtis, A., & Nunan, D. (2001). Goals-based evaluation procedures: How students perceive what teachers intend. TESOL Journal, 10(4), pp. 5-9.

Jeon-Ellis, G., Debski, & R., Wigglesworth, G. (2005). Oral interaction around computers inthe project-oriented CALL classroom. Language Learning & Technology, 9(3),121-145.

Kumaravadivelu, B. (2003). Beyond methods: Macrostrategies for language teaching. New Haven, CT:Yale University Press.

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2003). Teaching language: From grammar to grammaring. Boston, MA: Heinle and Heinle.

Swain, M., & Lapkin, S. (1998). Interaction and second language learning: Two adolescent French immersion students working together. The Modern Language Journal 82, 320-337.

van Lier, L. (2002). An ecological-semiotic perspective on language and linguistics. In C. Kramsch (Ed.), Language acquisition and language socialization (pp. 140-164). New York: Continuum.

Walqui, A., & van Lier, L. (2010). Scaffolding the academic success of adolescent English languagelearners: A pedagogy of promise. San Francisco, CA: WestEd.

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