Teaching Academic Writing – The Challenges (Part 2)

No, there was definitely no touch of madness where academic writing is concerned (or maybe it was me who almost got driven to madness, more like it).

Sigh. Well, back to blogging.

In my previous post, I provided some background information on my Academic Writing class. It’s best for you to read that post, before moving on to this one.  Well, to be honest, this might just be a place where my rants are going to blow its’ sirens; I had a tiring, tough, challenging 3 months with my class for many reasons. Teaching writing is no easy task,and and there are several factors that made it even more challenging:

a) CLASS SIZE
I had a whopping number of 40 students in the class. Well, it may be quite common for some of you, but it wasn’t for me. It was really tough giving feedback for each of the writing activity that took place (although students were placed in groups of 4), as this was academic writing. While I gave feedback to some, the other groups tended to chatter away. I did not attempt any other form of feedback (peer feedback, self editing) in the classroom; I just could not see it happening! Student’s have never been exposed to academic writing before, and I knew (and felt) that they totally relied on me for the feedback that they received.

b) STUDENT ATTITUDE  
Well, to be honest, a lot of them did not read the materials that they were supposed to have read at home; I don’t think they considered this writing class to be an important one (perhaps some did, but a selected few). THey were, after all, dentistry and medical students, and as one of them put it “Miss, we have a lot of other important assignments for our core subjects; this is taking too much of our time!” It was a lose-lose situation on my end; If I proceeded without going over the notes, they’d be left in the dark; If I went through the notes in class, it would’ve taken a lot of time! I did try out some strategies, though, which worked to a certain extend. Then again, I kept reminding myself that this was a writing class – they HAD to get their “hands dirty” by getting into the writing part, regardless of whether they read the notes or not.

C) TIME CONSTRAINT
7 face to face sessions (with 2 hours per session) was a ridiculously short time. It was way too short a time to teach something as “heavy” as synthesis writing. The large class size didn’t help as well. It really felt like I was “cramming” as much as I could within the short span of time. Also, I felt like I was working around the clock, as a lot of the communication was online as well. I had to constantly reply fb messages, email messages, online assessment on the portal (which took up A LOT of time), vetting assignment topics, screening their outlines. A lot of times I found myself getting so exasperated. It felt like I was working around the clock, 24/7! Tough job. Yes, I it was jolly molly tough!

D) EXPECTATION ON STUDENTS
Or maybe this was my problem. I found that the teaching did not equate to the expectations that was placed on students. There were so many issues that had to be dealt with at a very basic level. Firstly, a significant number of these learners were weak in writing – they had basic grammatical issues, inability to link and connect ideas in sentences and between paragraphs, wrong usage of linking words, inability to logically arrange their ideas in order to increase the meaningfulness in writing. These are the issues that need to be dealt with first, even before they enrol into the academic writing class. It would be great if the university could have a “remedial writing” or “Introduction to Academic Writing” to help build their basic writing skills prior to enrolling into this module. In that case, yes, 7 face to face would be sufficient.

E) MODULE
Before I get into this, I must say that the head of department is a lovely, open minded person, willing to take in feedback and ideas to help improvise this module. Perhaps I could give her the link to my blog!  Anyway, getting back to the module, I do feel that the module needs to be reordered and edited again – some of the terms were wrongly used (thesis statement and topic statement were used intermittently when they actually did not mean the same thing!). Also, some of the journal articles selected were way too challenging for the students –  the contents were too complex. Yes, I do understanding their reasoning as to why these articles were selected – these were medical students, after all. My argument is, though, that this writing course was aimed at building learners skills in terms of scanning for main ideas, extracting these ideas, paraphrasing them, using citations, synthesizing these ideas using synthesis-specific language which all, then, led to the writing itself. If this was to be successful, the content definitely needs to be simpler. Students, will then, not be faced with the challenge of trying to understand and make out the content first, before getting into the writing task (which I found, took so much of time in class). Of course, another way is for them to read the articles at home before getting into the writing task, but as mentioned earlier, they fail to see the importance of doing so.

F) TASK SHEETS AND ASSIGNMENTS
It was a great attempt to get students to do the tasksheets at home. I do think that the number of task sheets could be reduced – some did not seem to serve the purpose, and did take too much of a time. Also, rather than having individually written assignments, it might’ve been better to have the first assignment done as pairs, and the 2nd one individually. There are several reasons for this: Firstly, the world of academic writing can be very daunting to students. It would’ve helped to build their confidence gradually, where they could first collaborate on a piece of writing before attempting the second one by themselves. They could also have learned and helped each other out. Perhaps, conducting an initial placement test in writing, and using the results to pair stronger and weaker students together for the first assignment might have helped. It’s sure worth a shot!

G) CLASS TIMING
Long shot, yes. I don’t think much could’ve been done to change this – the university issues the schedule. Classes were usually between 4-6pm. I think, by then, students would’ve had a long day!

On the overall, I found that the classes were rather teacher centered, at least in terms of feedback given. In my next post, I’m going to list down some of the strategies I tried using to help make my large class more student centered and most of all, . Ironically, a lot of the CELTA methods wouldn’t have worked! ;)

Coming up next – Strategies for teaching academic writing……

Teaching Academic Writing – Part 1 (The Overview)

I just realized that I last blogged about 2 months back, reason being – it’s been an absolutely crazy 3 months, teaching 3 EAP classes (2 of which being Academic Writing) to about 35-40 undergraduate students per class. I’m going to break this blog post into several parts, because, yes, I still have loads of marking to do (and keep telling myself  “this too shall pass” . In this part of the post, I’ll touch on my job scope, student background and attitude towards the Academic Writing class.

JOB SCOPE

My job scope includes the following:

a) Face to face contact hours (which includes teaching, class feedback, writing workshops)

b) Vetting of assignment topics (individual assignments – I need to give online feedback -via the varsity’s portal – to each student, await updates on changes, and provide feedback again)

c) Assessing written assignments (both online via the varsity’s intranet website AND feedback on written assignments). Written assignments include group writing tasks, formative tests, and 2 assignments per semester (all individual work)

d) Final reports

e) Dealing with student problems such as : “Ms, I can’t upload my assignment on elearn” OR “The system is too slow” OR “I don’t know what happened, my computer just crashed” – (Ironically you get all these the minute after the deadline)

f) Assessing task sheets – Task sheets are in class assignments given as homework to students. This needs to be marked (and that means I’d have to mark around 35 – 40 tasksheets for each individual student).

It’s been a tough and busy few months. I feel like I’m working throughout the week and on weekends as well. And the endless marking really does take it’s toll. But above all, teaching academic writing to such a large group of undergraduates can really be energy consuming. How do I give individual feedback? How do I select areas in writing that need to be prioritized and addressed in the class? Can I even help them improve their writing skills via weekly 2 hour classes within a 2 month time span (perhaps, around 8 face to face classes)?

Well, honestly, I don’t know. I just thought of using this blog to reflect on my teaching practice, note down observations of my class, students and the strategies I attempted with the hope that it did, make, some form of change.

STUDENT BACKGROUND

The students who enrolled for this module were either psychology, medical or dentistry majors. This means they are proficient in the language. When I asked them as to why they enrolled for the course, their answers include the following:

“I need to improve my writing”

“I don’t have a choice. This is a core module”. 

“I don’t know why I need to do writing, Miss. My major is psychology, and I have assignments that are much more important that writing”.

“My writing is very weak, especially with academic writing. I don’t know what academic writing is, and I want to know”. 

So, I guess we can say that the group was of a mixed motivation. Also, most of them were Malaysians, with a handful of foreigners from India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, the Maldives, and Canada. Most of the students have either completed their A-Levels, Diploma, or Matriculation. However, I don’t think they were prepared, or even had the slightest inclination about what they were getting into. Also, Malaysians are generally, very very poor readers. A lot of us (me included, at their age) read mostly fiction. We hardly read non-fiction. Academic journal articles were definitely a far cry. Also, a lot of these learners came from schools where English was a foreign language (Chinese schools). For these learners, the situation could be worse – they’d be very hesitant to participate, inquire and express their thoughts in class.

COURSE AND MODULE OUTLINE AND ASSESSMENT

It was a pretty interesting outline, I’d say. The course included blended learning and the flipped classroom method. It spanned for over 3 months, with 7 (2 hour) face to face session. Prior to each face to face session, students were required to read up materials that were uploaded onto the varsity’s online portal, so that class hours was used for the actual writing practice and feedback sessions. The class mainly focused on synthesis writing (which was pretty much a class on writing literature reviews), with the notes containing the following must-read materials:

a) Overview of the module

b) Explanation on thesis statement and introductory paragraph

c) Introduction to referencing

d) Introduction to classification essay and writing introductory paragraphs

e) Writing workshops

f) In-class group writing

Students were assessed in several ways, and this included two written assignments, one formative test (which was to be assessed online), group writing workshops (which were also assessed online), and 5 (out of 12) tasksheets that need to be submitted to the teacher. These tasksheets contained various parts of the writing process, and needs to be marked by the teacher as well.  The final assessment was via the final exam. We were encouraged to used the materials given by the university. Any other supplementary material needs to be ‘declared’ and provided to the other teachers as well to ensure standardized dissemination of information.

 

 

Of Lexis and Love…..

I find my mind being filled, right now, with a myriad of thoughts on teaching. A part of it nudges me on mechanicality concerns – What are your aims? Which of your activities are going to help you achieve your aims? How can you reduce TTT? How can you increase STT? Some, functional language, perhaps? Oh ..yea, possibly. But the class it too big! How can you manage your class? And so the monkey chatters on. I’m suspecting this to be the fresh-out-of-CELTA part. The CELTA is, after all, what it is – a professional certificate on the mechanics of teaching. But what lies beneath the mechanics is the act of humanizing language teaching, which extends within and beyond the classroom. Humanizing, I’d say, is a way of lending a personal touch to your lesson. It is the act of moving beyond “playing” the template role of a teacher to being yourself, in your element. It is laughing together, at each other and with each other. And most of all, it is about taking risks, sharing your inner lives (Courage to teach – Parker Palmer) and listening to the inner lives of your students. Teaching is so humbling, really. When you think you’ve got it right there (you think), it laughs back at you cheekily, pats you on shoulder, opens up a completely unexpected package, leaves you in daze, winks and moves on. And there you are, back to square one. Exactly how I felt last week. Let me share a little something that happened a week ago.

I had my first class with a group of fresh young minds doing their degree in psychology. I loved them and they, in return, loved me. It was a wonderful start and I was sure the semester was going to be brilliant. As class went on, I caught a learner looking intently at me. I looked at her quizzically, questioning “yes? Is there something you’d like to say?” with my eyes. She blurted out “I’ve seen you before”. I laughed and said “I’ve got a pretty common face, it was probably someone else”. That did not deter her. She continued staring at me.

Just as class ended, most of the learners gradually trailed out of the classroom, some staying back for a bit of after class chatter but eventually leaving. From the corner of my eyes, though, I thought I saw someone waiting. And there she was, the same Chinese learner. We looked at each other, and she blurted out “Ms, I need to talk to you. Do you have some time for me?” . Do you have some time for me, wasn’t exactly, the issue. The issue was the fact that I was feeling a little nervous myself. It was, after all, the first class. And I wondered what she had to say / complain about (#thepessimisticme).

So we sat down together in an empty classroom. Looked at one another. Moment of silence. I broke it saying “Yes dear, what would you like to talk about”. She looked at me intently again, and blurted out “Ms, please don’t be worried I’m not going to complain about anything. I want to talk to you because I really like your teaching style, it is very western (I later found out she was taking extra English classes at the British Council, and I gathered that she must’ve made some connection there)” . And listen, did I do, for she had a story to tell.

“I just need to talk to you and want you listen to me. I have very bad experience learning English. When I was young I couldn’t speak a word of English. My mother didn’t speak English, my father didn’t speak English. We only spoke Chinese at home. When I go to school, I could never answer properly in English class. Each time that happen, my teacher pinched me so hard on my waist. It was so painful and I almost cried. At one point I had so many red marks around my waist I eventually stopped trying to speak at all. There was too much fear in me, and it went on until my secondary school, until I came to university. I am now trying very hard to improve my awareness of English but I know my English is very poor. Do you know, teacher, I had to take my uni entrance exam here for 6 times before I could get in? That is how bad my English is. Now I want to try hard in class. Sometimes I just cannot open my mouth. When I do, the red marks on my waist come as photos in my mind. Then I feel my tongue gets stuck and I can’t speak. But I want to try. I want to try hard in class. Sometimes I can’t seem to focus at home to learn English as well. My other modules are difficult too.”

And then she held my hands. And said “thank you for listening”.

At this point, I was, honestly, too stunned, unable to react, reaching out frantically in my mind for something to say. All I managed to blurt out was “the fact that you got through the 7th time shows what a survivor you are. Just participate and be active in all classroom activities and you’ll be fine. If no one speaks in your group, you speak, you be the leader, and you make them speak. I’m here right with you”. 

She smiled, squeezed my hands, and said “I will, Ms. I will. Thank you for your time, you really made my day”. And we parted ways. Gosh, it was a tough moment. I wonder if she noticed the crack in my voice as I spoke. I wonder if she saw the stunned look on my face. I wonder if she felt how touched and honored I felt to be trusted with such a private, yet painful experience. That day taught me a great lesson as a teacher. It taught me how much teaching isn’t only about what’s going on when you teach, but what’s going on in the hearts and minds of students and teachers. Teaching is about the background story. It’s about connections that extend beyond the mind and goes right into the heart. It’s nothing about lexis and all about love.

I still wonder what I did to have made her day….But that smile, oh, that was priceless.Truly.

(and this post, by the way, is a dedication to Josette for encouraging me to put this out into the world. A true Josette moment).

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Fluent Enough – A guest post

Having just gotten back from getting my CELTA done (which definitely requires some blogging on!), I’m now well on my way to get back into blogging with a bang! What better way than to start off with a guest post from a lovely friend of mine, Anthony Vaughan?

Let me fill you in about this person. Anthony is a teacher and a teacher trainer who has taught both in Kuala Lumpur and Bali over the last few years. He blogs at www.anthonyvaughan.com/category/blog/. Among the things that has left such a lasting impression of working with him is his ability to pick up languages so fast! Anthony spoke Malay (Malaysian’s official language) so fluently that I was always left in awe. In fact, he even managed to pronounce words exactly the way it sounds and spoke pidgin Malay so well too! He, obviously, became a favorite among many of us here. I have always been curious as to how he managed to learn Malay so fast and so well, and invited him to write a post on my blog. And here he is – presenting to you the wonderful post entitled “Fluent Enough”  by Anthony Vaughan. A very interesting read, I assure you! And of course, please do leave your thoughts here, and he’ll definitely get back to you :)

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I find languages to be fascinating. I love the sounds. Even more than that, people who have grown up speaking more than one language intrigue me. I used to sit in the office and listen to Ratna (the owner of this blog who has so kindly asked me to contribute this piece) speaking to her colleague in a mixture of English, Malay and Tamil. Their hearty laughter told me that when using three languages to communicate simultaneously, conversations become three times as funny.

This is the backstory to this post. I asked my friend Ratna to write for my blog about this trilingual phenomenon. In turn, she has asked me how someone who grew up speaking only one language has managed to pick up multiple languages so fast.

It’s a good question. Most people learning languages want to learn fast. They want to learn to be fluent. They want to learn everything in the language. So they can say: “I’m fluent.”

Then I would ask, what does “fluent” mean? Being fluent means different things to different people.

For me, it means that if I’m in a foreign country, I can do everything I need to do during the day using that language. If I’m studying at a University in France and I can understand my lectures, I’m fluent. Or should I say fluent enough. If I’m an English teacher in a foreign country and I can order food and speak to colleagues about simple things, then I’m also fluent enough.

Maybe for other people, being fluent means learning all the grammar rules of the language and knowing thousands of vocabulary items. But then, would you ever become fluent if you were not a native speaker. That’s no fun. Outside of professional contexts, it’s funny when you’re not fluent, because you have to lose a bit of yourself to communicate your meaning. Or laugh when you can’t communicate what you mean.

I met Ratna when I was working with her in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. She tells me she is quite impressed with how quickly I became “fluent” in Malay. (Thank you for the compliment Ratna. You’re too kind!) So, here I am, sharing with you that my fluency is part illusion, part “cutting to the chase”.

Cutting to the chase

For me, I start with the sounds in the language. The languages I have learned generally have some sounds which are the same as English. You can eliminate those sounds from your study as you can already make them. Even Chinese, which admittedly I failed to learn, has some corresponding sounds, though don’t get me started on those tones.

Next, you need to have fun trying to copy the weird sounds which do not exist in your own language. Your mouth has never made them before. So you have to work out which muscles are doing what. You need to know what your mouth should look like. Native speakers will find this endlessly hilarious and as accurately as you manage to do it, they’ll possibly tell you its still wrong. I blush a lot at this point, but it’s worth it. Later on, as you’ve progressed with the language and speak it more often, your own mouth muscles will start to remember the new positions and eventually you’ll be able to do it. And if not, it doesn’t really matter. But if you can, well done!

Then, study a bit of grammar. I studied linguistics in a past life, so I do enjoy this part. If you don’t, you might need to find a cheat guide, like the condensed subject guides that university students read before exams. It should give you an overview of the grammar and the parts that are different from English. If you can’t find one, try Wikipedia. But do go too crazy. When you are in country, you don’t actually use a lot of the complex grammar that is taught in school foreign language classes. Or you can find a short cut. There is often more than one grammatical way to say the same thing. As long as you can understand it, it’s enough. Just learn the grammar necessary between past, present and future. If there is more than one of each tense, just learn the easiest one first. That way, at least you can distinguish between different periods of time. Some languages are not so fixated on this like in English, so if they don’t, just take note of that and work out how they do differentiate the time (it might be just contextual or using clear time words like “yesterday” or “tomorrow”, as in Malay and Indonesian).

Next, learn some vocabulary. Just enough vocabulary. Don’t learn too much. I have heard it said that you can remember 7 to 8 new words in a study session. So don’t waste your energy learning thousands too quickly, it will take time.

Finally, pretend that you know what’s going on most of the time. This is the “illusion” part I eluded to. The concept of fluency depends on how you define it and your language goals. For example, if you just want to buy some rice from a street vendor, you can smile, point at a picture and then say thank you in the local language. That will be enough to get the ball rolling. Later on, you can try some simple sentences. If you give the illusion that you can understand more than you can, people will speak to you more. This will give you a chance to hear the sounds more and to practice the little that you have learned. Overtime, you start to learn more. Then you will be fluent enough. Whatever that may be for you.

So I’ve been Tagged!

So, I’ve finally been tagged in this very interesting series of blog posts, where bloggers tag one another and challenge each other with a set of 11 questions! It’s such a great way to get to know members of your PLN better. A definite breath of fresh air from the conventional language-education laden posts!

SO HOW DOES IT WORK?
If you’re tagged:
a) Acknowledge the blogger who has nominated you
b) Share 11 random facts about yourself
c) Answer the 11 questions the nominating blogger asked you
d) Nominate 11 more bloggers of your choice
e) Post 11 questions for the nominated bloggers and let them know they’ve been nominated.Don’t nominate a blogger who has nominated you!

And here goes:

11 THINGS ABOUT ME
1. I love singing. I’ve performed on stage many times since I was young and will do so anytime I get an opportunity.
2. I’m terrible at remembering birthdays. My sister has taken it as her lifetime mission to remind me of all the important birth dates.
3. I think food unites people together. I love inviting friends to my home, meticulously planning the meal and feeding them like there’s no tomorrow. I love food. Sadly,this is not going to go along with item (7) below.
4. I’m not very proud of myself in hiking, especially when descending. I always feel like I’m going to slip and fall.
5. I’ve recently completed classes to obtain a Certificate in Baking from the Malaysian Institute of Baking.
6. I watch Criminal Minds because of Shemar Moore. Shemar Moore. Shemar Moore. He’s handsome and makes my knees go weak! **sigh**
7. Losing weight is my lifetime goal, no matter what people say. When I was 16, I’ve attempted throwing up and almost became bulimic. I’ve starved myself into getting gastric before. I’ve long since outgrown that.
8. I love making people laugh, and being around people who make me laugh.
9. I love yoga, everything spiritual, believe in reincarnation and am a vegetarian.I go by my intuition more than my logic.
10. I once climbed over my neighbour’s 6 ft tall fence to pluck some beautiful flowers when my neighbour was out of town. Obviously, my neighbour wasn’t very fond of it.
11. When I was 8, my dad told me that he’d get me a set of 36 colored pencils if I got the top score in class. I didn’t. So, during Physical Education, I snuck back into the classroom, stole the top scorer’s exam papers, erased and wrote my name instead of hers, and slipped the exam paper into my bag. Of course, the teacher found out, called my parents, and I received a warning letter from the school. My dad still teases me about it.:P

Now, for:

ANNE HENDLER’S QUESTIONS TO ME!

1. What was your very first job?
A data-entry clerk to a company lawyer.

2. What is your most valuable possession?
I’d say a few. My purse,cellphone,wedding ring and pendant.

3. Where do you want to go to retire?
I’ve never really thought about it.

4. What is the most important thing you learned from your parents/ parental figures?
How to love, love and unconditionally love your children that you’re willing to sacrifice so much for their best interest.

5. Mountains or Ocean?
Mountains. I love looking down from the Mountains.

6. Most beautiful thing you have ever seen?
The glorious sunset at the cliff of Uluwatu, Bali. It was so ethereal I felt like I was in another world. Bali itself exists in another realm. A truly magical place.

7. What’s your favorite blog post you’ve written?
‘Learning to See’ for the ITDI blog. It is a constant reminder to myself that being a human far surpasses being a teacher.

8. Favorite education quote?
When you take a step towards your teacher, the teacher takes 9 steps towards you.

9. Have you ever done something adventurous? Please share!
I’ve hiked inside the biggest limestone cave in Malaysia called Gua Tempurung. It’s filled with stalactites and stalagmites. At one point, the passing between the stalactites and the riverbed was so narrow we had to move through the narrow passing on our backs with the sharp stalactites just inches from our eyes. One wrong move and it pierces right into your eyes. That was a rush of adrenaline for me!

10. The correct number of hours of sleep is ______ in 24.
7 in 24. I can operate without food but my system totally shuts down without sleep.

11. What is something you do that has absolutely no connection to TESOL?
Organizing events and baking.

Now that I’m done answering Anne’s questions, it’s time to select the next 11 bloggers, and here they go!
@GemL1
@adi_rajan
@malusciamarelli
@indriepravita
@datEnglish
@pterolaur
@aClilToClimb
@barbarabujtas
@MiaMacMeekin
@SerraRoseli
AnthonyVaughan

MY QUESTIONS FOR THEM:

1. What’s your signature dish?
2. If there are two things you could change about the way you look, what would it be?
3. Devil’s food cake or cheesecake?
4. How do you relax and wind down?
5. Which book would you strongly recommend to your PLN members?
6. What’s the most dangerous risk that you’ve taken in your life?
7. Hapiness is _______________________________________.
8. What irks you?
9. How do plan your investments?
10. Describe your very first day of teaching in the language classroom.
11. Time is an illusion, What say you?

Let’s get the ball rolling, friends!:)

Happy Belated Birthday! – A personal letter to my blog

Dearest bloggie,

Before anything, please accept my biggest apologies for not wishing you on time. But late’s better than never, am I right? So here you go : HAPPY BELATED BIRTHDAY TO YOU and many many more lovely years to come! Yaay! Bring on the cakes and balloons, oh and oh, I hope you love the ‘taste’ of the red velvet cupcake I’ve made you. Big hugs to you!

And now, for the second biggest apology : I’m so sorry for not updating you as often as I wanted to. Sometimes there’s just so much going on in life that I find myself both physically and emotionally drained of energy that awakening the intellect posed as a bit of a challenge. At other times, I just seem to hit a dead end where blogging is concerned; I just don’t know what to write about. In those times, I find myself admiring individuals who are able to update their blogs several times a week, writing on such interesting topics at that. I never fail to wonder –> how did they come up with such brilliant ideas to write about? Where did they get their ideas from? How do they write so engagingly? Why don’t I get these ideas to write as well?  But you know, bloggie (you know I just LOVEEEE calling you that), come to think of it, we’re all on our own personal journeys as educators, growing in different ways under different circumstances. Blogging is not about being a part of the rat-race, is it? It’s more of a diary on our journey along the various ELT paths that lead to a several shared objectives :

a) Striving to continuously improve ourselves as educators – it’s a life long pursuit

b) Keeping a personal log of what works and what needs to be improved on in our classroom

c) As our very own branch of professional development (which, in my case, is such an attraction when included in my resume)

In that sense, I can’t really compare my ELT journey with another, but I can be inspired by what others have experienced on their paths. Which is exactly how I feel right now. Reading every ELT blog has made me realize how “rich” the ELT world is. Some blogs have been such great inspiration and motivation to me that these are the one I find myself often turning to for my drive to keep materializing my thoughts through you (despite the irregularity of the frequency per se). I will give you my word, bloggie, that no matter how tough life gets or even if I hit the next blank wall, I will not stop writing. You, bloggie, will always hear from me. I am not going to promise you but I’ll do my best!

Did you know that the past year (from the time you were born) has been a true eye-opener of all sorts for me in terms of developing myself as a teacher. It was a whole new world! I broke out of my shell consisting of the single question of “how can I continue developing professionally as a teacher”. The memory of how it all started seems fuzzy. I remember browsing through ITDI’s website and the next thing I knew, Chuck Sandy was cajolling me into writing an article for ITDI. I vividly remember the Skype conversation with him : “But Chuck, I am JUST a teacher! What can I write about?” and I clearly remember his answer “Write from your heart. Keep it simple and have your own style. Do not try to emulate other people’s writing; You are a unique individual with your own style”. I have never forgotten that advice until today.

Chuck did one of the things he did best : he helped me connect with me flair for writing and got me connected with some wonderful teachers in Korea (here’s to you Josette). I also stumbled upon several blogs by teachers based in Korea while attempting to land myself a job there (hello Mike!). I remember leaving a comment on Mike Griffin’s blog and reading his reply made me so excited! He actually replied! From these teachers, I got to know other teachers whom I met at the KOTESOL International Conference 2012 in Seoul  (here’s to you  Anne, Mike, Gemma, John, Alex, Barry Jameson, Tim) and the PLN just took off from there (James Taylor, Chiew Pang, Kevin Stein, Icha, Ann Loseva, Malu, Barb, Debbie, Rose, Vicky and the list just goes on).

You know bloggie, I am so very glad to have quit my job and followed my partner to Korea. The extra time I had in hand came to good use as I explored different areas of professional development in teaching. I got the opportunity to write for ITDI, start my own blog (migrating from posterous to wordpress midway, an experience in itself!), attend online workshops, talk and be among other encouraging teachers (all of it online), presented at 2 conferences(both online and live), attended online professional development workshops, read other blogs with such an abundance of ideas and most of all, just connecting with educators from around the world!  It feels that in 365 days, my entire outlook on professional development got a complete makeover! The best part about it is, everything went down on my resume and when I got back to Malaysia, most universities that I applied to liked what they saw on my resume.

The support I got from my group of teacher friends is really impossible to describe. Their words and their very own journeys have sometimes been the best inspirations on days that I felt the lowest. In one year, I learned more than I ever did in my 5 year career back in Malaysia. I know that I’m not alone on the teaching path; there are so many others who are there together with me, facing similar challenges, working on similar ideas, supporting, motivating making their presence felt and just being there for me. For that, I need to thank them ever so gratefully!

So there you go, bloggie! I may not be right there where many teachers are, but comparing myself with others is pointless. I think I’ve done pretty okay in the past year. And one last thing: thank you very much for putting up with my irregular blogging habits and lending your ears when I needed to get something off my chest. Let’s raise both our glasses for togetherness in years to come. Cheers!

Yours sincerely,

Ratna

Wowing Your Audience : Tips for online presentation

This post may be way past the deadline, but certainly needs to be written, especially as my point of reference for any future online presentations.

When I first heard about the RSCON 2013 E-Conference, I was awestruck by the idea of 10 keynote speakers, 3 panels, live musical performances and 100+ presentations (by educators from all around the world) convening on a single platform for a straight 72 hours in the virtual world. The entire idea seemed almost surreal.

So when I received an invitation to present at this conference, I was absolutely thrilled. But what do I present? Where do I start? How can I engage my audience? How do I even find audience? These were the questions that drove me along this technological journey. And I can tell you one thing for sure : it was an unforgettable experience!

With that in mind, I’d like use this post to share my observations on what (I think) are some of the most invaluable lessons that can help infuse the WOW factor into our online presentations. This post has been divided into 3 parts : Pre-Training, During Training and Post-Training (as how I see it), and the contents of each part are not in the order in which they need to be carried out; They’re just actions that need to be completed. I do hope it would be beneficial to you as how it was to me!

PRE-TRAINING
A. THINK OF AN ENGAGING TITLE AND ABSTRACT
The first thing that catches the audience eye is the title of your presentation. Think of a catchy title that would instantly grab your readers’ attention. Titles should be between 5 – 7 words; the shorter, the better. Use adjectives that ‘çapture’. The same goes to writing the abstract. The best abstracts are ones that are compact, concise and interesting to read. There is absolutely no necessity to explain your entire presentation in your abstract. Just remember that : your abstract is the first impression of your presentation. If the audience love your abstract, they’d most certainly attend your presentation. These links provide some useful insights on writing abstracts for presentations at conferences:

http://www.cgu.edu/pages/865.asp

http://academic-conferences.org/abstract-guidelines.htm

http://blog.tesol.org/tips-on-writing-successful-conference-presentation-proposals/

And a link for some sample ELT abstracts:

http://narva2008.wikidot.com/abstracts

B. ATTEND TRAINING TO FAMILIARIZE WITH ONLINE PLATFORMS
If you’re part of an online conference, the organizers might be kind enough to provide training to get your familiarized with the online collaborative platform that they’d be using for the conference. Attend at least 1 training, and read up the user guide on how you can make the most of the provided platform. Yes, we’re all busy with work and are probably pressed for time, but these trainings definitely helps familiarize you to the platform. I find that as an online presenter, I’ve got to work extra hard when engaging and increasing interactivity with my audience. For one, you don’t really get to see them face to face (maybe you do, but that would only be in the initial stages of the presentation) and most of the time (80%) PTT – Presenter Talk Time would definitely be high. So, how can we engage our audience,? We need to use some of the features provided by the platform which help increase interactivity, and these are some of the areas that are usually covered in the training.

C. GET REGISTERED, EXPLORE AND DO TEST RUNS OF THE PRESENTATION
This is one of the best things that you can do for yourself as a presenter. Register for a trial version of the platform (Blackboard Collaborate allowed a 1 month sign up), and try to spend some time exploring the platform and performing trial runs of your presentation. These trial runs are really helpful in several aspects: it helps you improvise on the visual aspects of your slides, the timing of your presentation, the intonation of your voice, familiarity with the platform, and most of all, to build your confidence as a first time presenter. You can also decide on how you want to increase interaction with your audience (which can be done by the features provided by the collaborative platform – features where audience can “type” on the slides, “raise” their hands, “smile” to show agreement, “speak” their question into the mic, etc).  Try to get some friends to help out as audience (there seemed to be a limit with my trial version, I only managed to have 3 people being participants) and to give feedback after the trial run. I found that to be really helpful to me. Also, convert your PowerPoint slides to a version that is supported by the collaborative platform. It makes life a whole lot easier as the slides take lesser time to be uploaded back to the platform! 

D. CONTACT AND PRACTICE WITH YOUR MODERATOR
In large conferences such as RSCON, lots of individuals volunteer as moderators. Moderators are those who will help out with the technical aspects while you focus on the presentation itself. I consider myself very very lucky because a lovely person named Deborah Tebovich got in touch with me and offered to be my moderator.I more than gladly accepted! I was so privileged because Debbie was such a passionate, focused and hardworking moderator; Although we were at opposing time zones, we worked things out and managed to practice the presentation at least once. Debbie gave me some wonderful feedback on things I had to improve on, and I could never thank her enough for this.

E. READ EVERY EMAIL SENT BY THE CONFERENCE ORGANIZERS
Sometimes I found my mailbox swamped with emails from the conference organizers. It was overwhelming, but I did my best to read all of them up (I may have missed some). I’m glad I did that!

F. AVOID WORDY SLIDES – VISUAL IS THE WAY
When I was preparing the slides, my husband asked me a question which set forth the wheels of thoughts in my mind: “Are your slides information packed or information based?” My initial slides were full of words and I didn’t realize that. Once I attended several other sessions of the conference (which I highly recommend!), I panicked and realized that my slides were too wordy. I completely changed the layout of my presentation to be more visual (not too much of it though) so that my audience would be able to understand what I’ve got to say by just watching my presentation. Of course, there’s more room for improvement (My slides can be found here)

G. BACKUP, BACKUP, BACKUP
This is something that is most often overlooked by us. We take things for granted; we assume that everything will go smoothly and all will be well. Wrong. Positive thinking is great, but pragmatic thinking is even better. Technology can sometimes stab you in the back at the most unexpected time! So, always remember : backup your PowerPoint slides, and save it in different medias (thumb-drive, external hard-disks, Google drive). Better still, send a copy to your moderator. This really really helps to avoid problems of missing or dysfunctional PowerPoint slides. I’ve learned this from some very painful experience in my past. Trust me on this one!

H. PROMOTE, PROMOTE, PROMOTE YOUR PRESENTATION
The organizers do their best to promote our presentation, but that really isn’t enough. As a presenter, we’ve got to do whatever we can to promote our presentation and reach out to the audience. I’m sure you know how to : facebook, twitter, posting on various ELT SIG groups on facebook, and most of all, doing it consistently; people tend to forget, it’s good to always remind them!

DURING TRAINING
A. BE PUNCTUAL

No matter how many times you’ve practiced, it’s always good to be punctual. In this case, ideally try to enter the room about 30 minutes prior to scheduled presentation time. This would give you time to load your slides, test the sound and microphone, deal with sudden fixes, and welcome and get to know the audience as they “enter” the room. Just imagine having a home, and having guests streaming in. Wouldn’t it be wonderful being a graceful host?

B. PRESENT WITH ENTHUSIASM
Some of us may not be privileged with high-speed broadband in our areas, in which we’re advised to disable the video function for the presentation to be smooth flowing. This means that our audience may only be able to hear our voice. It can be a challenge sometimes. Our voice, then becomes, THE tool of our presentation! Show the audience that we’re enthusiastic about the presentation; try to sound as natural as possible (I had some keywords written, but because I practiced several times prior to the real thing, I was a lot more confident and learned how to modulate my voice to hold my audience attention). Practicing really helps.

C. CONTACT DETAILS
Remember to add your contact details on the last slide, extending support to audience in the case where they’d like to experiment with the ideas from your presentation.

POST TRAINING
RE-WATCH YOUR PRESENTATION - I found various areas that needed improvement when I re-watched my presentation. Next time, perhaps?

And there you go! I hope this post would be helpful when you decide to conduct a webminar. If I’ve left anything out, please feel free to add them in the comments section, and it’ll be my pleasure to re-edit the post.

Thrilled To Bits – Presenting at the International RSCON4 2013 E-Conference

reformsynposium

 

(image courtesy of http://www.futureofeducation.com)

I feel so thrilled to present at the 2013 Reform Symposium e-conference (October 13th, 2013 at 4pm (MYT)) on the topic of “The Magic of Games : D’Amazing Race Project”. Some of you who frequent my blog may have read about this project sometime back. However, I’d love to reach out to more teachers around the world to share this awesome idea cum game, one which is so adaptable it can be used by teachers across the board (all age groups and levels of proficiency). What better place to share than an international e-conference with 10+ keynote speakers,  100+ presenters and 3 panels!?

It’s peculiar how it all started. Nature’s best laid plan I’d say! A couple of days back, I read an excited shoutout from one of my PLN – friends, Ika, which sounded something like “yaaaaaay, I’ve been accepted”. My curiosity took over me and that was when I found out about the reform symposium (via the Future of Education website). Even then, it never occurred to me that I’d actually be presenting; I was more than excited to even participate. Who wouldn’t? It was free, it was international, and most of all, it brought together educators (of different time zones) from all around the world onto a single platform. I signed up as a member (in order to participate) and excitedly posted shoutouts to teacher friends, inviting them to participate in this event. And then, the unconventional happened – I was asked if I wanted to present! (to which, of course, I obliged to without a 2nd thought).

Presenting at this e-conference means so much to me on different levels. For one, I’d be able to contribute my ideas to a group of global educators, knowing that they’d appreciate and even try it out themselves! And then, there’s the part about getting connected with all these wonderful teachers, listening to their ideas, getting myself abreast with the trends in the ELT world and. most of all. developing myself professionally. And this is merely the tip of the iceberg.

With numerous update emails received from the organizers, non-stop twitter and facebook promotion of the conference and presenters getting connected via pre-conference training sessions, one cannot help feeling the soaring excitement that’s building in the seamless global community.

I don’t think I need to say further. You must experience the e-conference to know what it truly is. Lots to take back to your classrooms from the wealth of innovative thoughts as well. Trust me, it’ll be an experience that you’d never forget!

So, here’s to transformative education of the future –> “Cheers!”

See you there! :)

Picture This! Understanding reading texts via visualization

FILES 009

(courtesy of teachingmyfriends.blogspot.com)

PART I – OVERVIEW

Have you ever felt like you’re watching a movie in your head while reading a book? I feel that way all the time. In fact, when the the pace increases, I find my eyes racing through the words, aspiring to keep up with the rapid-movie in my head. Interestingly, I realized that the movie never fails to help me understand the story line.

I thought of drawing from this experience while planning a reading lesson for my Business English students, and little did I know that visualization was actually one of the 6 reading strategies. Apparently, “proficient readers spontaneously and purposely create mental images while and after reading” (Keene and Zimmerman, Mosaic of Thought). As an avid reader myself, I wouldn’t say that I purposefully create mental images, but rather, it just happens! (and I remember how excited I got when the Hippogriff (Harry Potter) I visualized looked exactly the same in the movie!) . If you’d like to try it out in the classroom, literacy consultant, Cathy Puett Miller, has suggested 5 simple steps on how visualization techniques can be nurtured (You can read more about it here).

I found many resources on the internet on visualization as a reading strategy, but every article focused on General English. The question is, can we use visualization as a reading strategy for Business English articles?

Before proceeding further, let me give you an overview of my learners and the challenges they face when transitioning from secondary school to college / university. These challenges were the basis for me to design this lesson.

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Module Taught : Academic Reading and Writing in Business English

Learner Background : 90% of the learners came from Malay medium government schools in Malaysia, which plainly means that the English language that they’re accustomed to in school is a far cry from what they’re currently being exposed to / expected of at the university. Yes, of course they’d be familiar with simple genres of academic writing ( argumentative, compare and contrast) but nothing compared to what is expected of them now (350 words vs 800 to 1000 words.  Get the drift?) I’ve more than often, observed their looks of distress, intense concentration and wrinkled foreheads while poring over their complex reading materials. Not to mention the looks of exasperation when they ask me “Ms, what does this mean? Why is it so difficult to understand? What do they mean when they say…….” and I can’t help feeling sorry for them. The complexity of the text, the corpora of vocabulary as well as business and corporate concepts can take months, or even years, to grasp. And it doesn’t help that, although Malaysians have the highest literacy rates in South East Asia, only 3% of the reading population read books compared to newspapers which yielded a whopping 77%! (published in The Star tabloid, 18th April 2009).

Their challenges: Within a length of 3 months, learners are expected to understand, master and produce different forms of academic writing (argumentative, summary, literature reviews, research reports) which incorporate appropriate lexis and well-developed ideas, read pages and pages of articles and research papers brimming with difficult jargon from the world of business, finance and economy. The challenge increases when this is expected within a set time limit. Such injustice from an education system that sets unrealistic high evaluative standards!

So that’s when it probably struck me : if I can show them a way in visualizing their text, they might be able to understand it better.

Again, this lesson might seem a little too easy for a Business English level, but it was a deliberate attempt to show learners that making meaning out of academic text isn’t as daunting as it may seem. All they need to do is practice visualizing it in their minds! The basis of this lesson was to get learners to draw their representation of the summary of each paragraph.

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PART II – LESSON PLAN

Pre-Reading Activity 

1. Display the following Powerpoint Slide. In groups of 3 : a) guess the title of the text   b) what might the content of text be about? Why do you think so?

2. Get two groups to exchange and compare the answers from their group discussion.

During Reading activity

3. In pairs, get learners to, first, read the entire text to get a general idea. The text can be found here.

4. Next, for each paragraph, get learners to draw a picture (in the given space) that best represents the paragraph.

5. Request learners to cut the pictures out carefully, and exchange their set of pictures with that of another pair.

6. With partners, request them to match the new set of pictures to the paragraphs.

7. Request learners to check their answers with the pair whom they exchanged their pictures with. Discuss the reasons for both correctly and wrongly matched pictures, as well as the reasons for doing so.

Post-Reading Activity

7.  Request 2 pairs to get into a single group, and discuss the following questions together.

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POST ACTIVITY OBSERVATIONS

My learners liked the little change in activity. It helped them wind down, and also realize that reading can be fun, even if it’s a Business English text. The text I selected for this activity was easier than the ones they’re usually exposed to in class.  Again, this was preplanned, as I wanted them to start simple when visualizing text. If they consistently practiced text visualization, I believe they’d be able transfer this skill to texts that are more difficult.

Another important point to note is that text visualization helps learners to shift from the paradigm of reading word to word and sentence to sentence to a more holistic reading practice, as they’re compelled to visualize the overall idea of the text. Learners comprehend better when they employ visualization to interpret the bigger picture (Cubukcu & Eylul, 2007).

I also think that visualizing the bigger pictures facilitates when the text needs to be read within a time limit (and this especially helps when tasks require learners to provide a critical discussion on specific concepts within the text).

And to end the discussion….

One of my learners posted this as her facebook status : “Today we did drawing in our English class”, followed by a snapshot of the activity.

picture

RESOURCES FOR FURTHER READING

I found the following resources very useful and informative for further reading (click on the titles below):

Curious about reading strategies?

Visual Imagery in Reading

An Investigation of Reading Strategies

A comparison of metacognitive reading strategies used by EFL and ESL learners

A study on the use of cognitive reading strategies

Experimenting with The Flipped Classroom

flipping-a-coin-gives-you-the-truth-of-the-matter-21350026

I’ve been reading a lot about the flipped classroom method lately; I’m guessing that it’s been around for quite a bit, but has resurfaced and greatly sensationalized thanks to the power of technology and by word of “PLN” s mouth. There are lots of online resources providing information about the flipped classroom that it’s impossible for me to list all.  But some that I’ve read include the ones below:

http://www.knewton.com/flipped-classroom/
http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/eli7081.pdf
http://www.edudemic.com/2013/07/flipping-education-freeing-up-class-time-for-interactive-learning/

Generally, the outcomes of the flipped classroom model appears to be of great benefit to learners, so I decided to experiment with it during the last month of the term. I F.L.I.P.P.E.D my Business English classroom.

So, what is the Flipped Classroom Model? 
Very simple concept, it is. Learners read lecture notes at home (prior to attending class) and the subsequent day’s classroom time is used for working on assignments, homework, or tasks with the teacher as a guide.

How did I go about it?
It was the best time of the term for me to experiment with this method. I was teaching ‘Writing Research Reports’, where learners were required to conduct a mini research and present their findings in the form of an academic report. Teaching research report writing can be a bit tricky; it’s not so much about raising their awareness on the kind of lexical conventions involved in writing research; the challenge was more in helping them hone their research skills as well – framing the research problem, objectives, deriving the hypothesis, designing questionnaires and so on. I realized that as important as classroom lecture notes were in providing the theoretical know-hows of conducting the research, the most learning would only take place when learners get themselves immersed in the actual research itself.

To start off, I prepared and posted a series of PowerPoint lecture notes on the class’s Facebook group. Each part of the series was posted about 3 days in advance of class. At the end of the PowerPoint presentation was the task we’d be working on in class the next day. The reason I mentioned the task was to ensure that learners could source for the necessary materials that would help them complete the task in the class.

What did my students feel about the flipped classroom?
They were very happy to have more teacher-learner time for discussions about the assignment / research. Of course, I had some irresponsible and uncommitted learners who did not do their “homework” – reading up the slides at home. I’m guessing that they were bent for time, or plainly thought that reading up was irrelevant and unimportant, taking for granted that I’d explain it in class the very next day. However, after the second class, they started feeling the pressure of being left behind when their classmates were moving forward with their research (of having studied the lecture notes at home and spending quality time in discussing the tasks with me in the class). Without having much of a choice but to get a grip of themselves and catch up (fortunately for me), all flipped classroom sessions seemed to turn out to be dynamic and well-spent indeed.

What did I think about the flipped classroom?
I loved it. Classroom time was used in a very productive manner and I sensed a great amount of learning taking place. I’ve become quite an advocate of the flipped classroom. However, there are several areas that I think teachers need to be aware of prior to implementing this method in the class:

SIMPLICITY OF LECTURE NOTES
We need to remember that learners are reading the notes at home, and they’re new to the idea of having to read it by themselves and not have the teacher explain it to them. I made my notes as simple as possible, avoiding complicated jargon and unfamiliar research terminologies. Even if I had to, I defined these terms in simplistic, easily understandable ways. Also, rather than writing long sentences, I drew up charts and diagrams using PowerPoint tools, with sufficient examples for each new concept that was introduced. I could’ve designed videos to make my lecture notes more interactive, but that would take time and I need to get more familiarized with this area of technology.

CONCEPT CHECKING
I totally forgot about this part :(. Ideally, at the end of your lecture notes, it would be good to write up some questions that help learners to gauge their understanding of what’s been read. Nikolaos Chatzopoulos has also suggested some very effective ideas that can help engage and captivate learners’ attention on the lecture materials. He suggested that in key parts of the lecture notes, learners pause the presentation / video, and answer a question, take notes, make a prediction or work on a short problem that helps to apply the newly acquired knowledge.  This can be read in detail in his article here.

APPLICABILITY
Although the flipped method has, on most parts, been discussed in positive lights, I still question its’ applicability across the board.

TIME FACTOR
It is more time consuming for teachers, as more attention needs to be given in preparing the lecture materials for self-study purposes. Teachers need to be a couple of steps ahead of class, sourcing a wide variety of materials that can span into a couple of days. I felt burned out at times, because this wasn’t the only class that I was teaching. A lot of attention and focus were given on creating simple and comprehensible lecture materials.

Would I flip my classroom again, then?
For sure I would. I don’t think I’d have had enough “working time” with my learners with the traditional method. It was fulfilling to watch them grow to be the little researchers they were. Of course, I’d not be able to do it in every class; it would then become boring, both for me and my learners.