Ed Jam Twin Cities

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Here is a great professional development opportunity if you’re in the Twin Cities area (or will be for these days).

According to their website (and a personal contact involved in the event coordinating), Ed Jam (Education Jam) is a 48 hour event where people from various fields come together and basically have a giant brainstorming session that will take ideas from conception to prototype. The goal of the event is to address the achievement gap in education in Minnesota.

Basically, it’s a non-partisan, design jam in which participants will develop specific action for closing the achievement gap for students in the Twin Cities.

I feel like I can’t really do it justice. Just visit their site and register if you’re at all interested in participating, sponsoring, or just seeing what it’s really all about. It’s the first of its kind, and it should be a pretty cool experience.

 

 

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Thoughts on: Professional development

Reflection, Teacher Support

 

I have been thinking a lot about professional development, and in an attempt at pinning down exactly what “PD” means to me, I’ve written a list of qualities of effective PD (from my perspective) and the reasons one might seek PD experiences. My ideas are my own, but the prompts are from Pursuing Professional Development: The Self as Source by Kathleen M. Bailey, Andy Curtis, and David Nunan.

 

Ingredients in Professional Development

 

What factors promote professional development as a lifelong process? What elements are necessary for it to occur?

 

  • Context & teacher-centered topics: Effective professional development (to me) means that the topics being explored are of immediate interest to the teachers involved in the PD and applicable to the immediate educational context in which the teachers find themselves. I sometimes wonder if institution-lead PD events are really effective, as they might not reflect the concerns or interests of the majority of teachers forced to partake in the PD event. We recently had a PD event centered around creating effective assessments. While I found the topic to be of mild interest (I can always have more practice creating truly effective language assessments), I felt as though assessments were not of primary importance to many of the teachers in attendance. However, the topic may be one of those that you do not realize is of primary importance until someone shows you how ineffective your assessments have been. And while theory can be interesting, PD events should involve practical applications and examination of actual teaching and learning within the immediate context in order to be truly meaningful.
  • Open and trusting collaboration: Effective professional development must entail a certain level of open-mindedness and trust among the collaborators participating in the event. As a novice teacher, I sometimes feel that there is a power imbalance among teachers of varying levels of experience. Of course the instructor who has been with the institution for ten years has more knowledge than I do! However, I think that for professional learning opportunities to be really effective, everyone must enter the experience with a mind open to learning. Novice and expert teachers alike can learn from the experiences and insights of shared during PD events.
  • Goal alignment among collaborators: While this is not necessarily needed for successful professional learning, it seems that teachers would best benefit from learning and PD events that focus on common goals among teachers. With regard to the assessment PD event recently held at my institution, the primary goal of all collaborators was to gauge how effective our assessments were in measuring achievement of our program learning outcomes. While not all the teachers were concerned with their ability to assess language skills, I do think it was beneficial for the whole group to discuss ways in which we have been successful as well as ways in which we have been challenged to assess language skills in relation to program learning outcomes.

 

Why do it?

 

Reasons for pursuing professional development.

 

  • to acquire new knowledge (content)
  • to acquire new teaching skills (method)
  • to build relationships among colleagues
  • to adapt to changes in your teaching context
  • to stay relevant with regard to teaching techniques and technology
  • to gain a better understanding of the field as a whole
  • to maintain positive attitudes toward the teaching profession (moral support)
  • to empower your voice within the field

 

Thoughts on: Sharing Information

Reflection

I came across this post by Tom Whitby today, and it sort of made me smile. The post amounts to a well-written rant about the online culture of information exchange and sharing. While just about every social media tool allows users to participate at varying levels of actual participation, there is something to be said for taking that step into contributing to the discussion by sharing pre-existing information of interest or information straight from your own brain.

When I look back at my own relationship with my personal learning network, I realize that I spent the first year or so only participating passively, receptively via my RSS feed. I didn’t use my Twitter account yet, and I didn’t blog about my experiences in academia. However, I was reading posts of interest and building my subscription list. I was also tagging and saving posts of interest via Diigo (which I found to be a valuable archiving tool). About a year into what I now realize was my unguided attempt at self-directed professional learning, I began sharing articles I found on my RSS feed with the Twitter #esl community. I slowly began following fellow educators after I sat in on a #ellchat Tweetchat session. It was my first experience with the synchronous use of Twitter, and I was hooked. After some fumbling around with netiquette conventions, I found myself interacting with Twitter followers and freely sharing information I came across via RSS feeds and other sources.

While lurking is an acceptable form of social media use, Whitby is onto something:

If we are to benefit from the Internet as a profession or a society we need to feel an obligation to be more than takers. We need to be makers and exchangers as well. We need to keep the exchange alive by not counting on the few, but by involving the many. We need to believe in the premise of Share and Share alike.

One of the best things about collaborating and learning online via social media is the fact that both novice and experienced teachers have a voice. It can be kind of daunting or scary to think that people will read and judge you based on what you share online, but when it comes down to it, your voice is only as loud as you make it. Everyone has something to say, and even novice teachers should not stifle their voices in fear of reproach.

MNWE 2013 Conference: ESOL Supersession/Workshop Overview

Reflection

The Minnesota Writing and English Conference (MNWE) was seeking a larger ESOL presence at their annual gathering this year, and I decided to offer a proposal for a presentation/workshop. I presented yesterday to a room of about 18 people (including all the other presenters in the supersession) about using social media to facilitate professional learning, especially in the context of novice teachers making the transition from graduate school into the field. This was my first official presentation, and I have to admit I was a little nervous as it got closer to the conference. I bolstered my confidence by reading this article on the Brain Pickings blog about public speaking. The post itself describes the work of George Plimpton, but I found a couple of the points extremely helpful as I prepared for my presentation.

As I prepared for the conference, I sometimes felt like this:

There were moments of doubt where I thought things like, “why would anyone want to hear what I have to say?!” and “I’m just a grad student…” But after going to the TESOL Convention in Dallas and seeing many presentations on various topics, I realized that even more experienced teachers and academics probably have these thoughts. Until I went to TESOL I doubted the need for a discussion about the use of social media in the field of English education. I will delve into my thoughts on the value of connected conferences in a subsequent blog post, but it was obvious by the lack of social media interaction at the international level convention that there are tons of teachers in the field who have yet to explore and experience the benefits (and challenges) of using social media to build their personal learning networks.

I felt like the presentation itself went quite well, and I felt comfortable talking to this room of strangers. However, I encountered a couple issues that I think I will have to consider more closely if I intend on making future presentations of this nature:

  • The topic of social media in conjunction with professional learning can be approached from various positions of expertise (or lack thereof). It was hard to gauge how familiar the audience would be with social media in general, and how basic or in depth I should make my presentation. Upon a very informal survey of the audience, almost everyone raised their hands when I asked if they used some kind of social media for personal use. I can imagine almost all of those users were referring to Facebook. When immediately asked who used social media for professional purposes (with students or with other professionals) only one person raised her hand. I went into the presentation with the idea that the audience would have some general notion of what social media tools could do for them (in any capacity), but based on the fact that only about 10 people (including myself and the event account) were tweeting during the international TESOL Convention, I predicted that few people would be actual users. I was right. In light of this reality that I keep stumbling upon at in-person PD events, a couple questions come to mind:
    • First, how can people within the field who have experienced the value of using social media tools to facilitate professional development express this value to colleagues who have not ventured into the realm of social media?
    • Also, while I have felt supported and feel like I’ve gained confidence and insight through my use of social media tools, it is quite difficult to try to quantify or measure these outcomes. Without a satisfactory method of measuring how the use of social media can influence professional learning or student outcomes, is the use of social media something that is worth exploring? I feel like it is, but I can hardly give justification for the endeavor that amounts to something like, “I just feel like it’s a really good thing to do.” Tom Whitby recently wrote a blog post that explores this question a little bit further.
  • While there is a substantial educational presence on social media outlets, it may be useful to relate the specific tools to specific subdivisions within the field of education and ESL. I’m finding that there are far more K-12 voices than adult ESL voices on social media venues. How can I promote the practice of utilizing social media for adult ESL educators if there is not much of a current presence online? I think there is great value in interacting with all educators, but sometimes I wish there was a larger presence of educators within my subdivision of the field.

Overall, the presentation experience was valuable, and I would do it again if I had the chance. I would also plan to present less information in the allotted time, as I was rushed at the end and didn’t have much time for actual discussion of the issues.

After my presentation, there were six other presentations related to ESOL issues:

The Impact of Audiovisual Material on the ESL University Student’s Note-Taking and Writing Performance, Jun Akiyoshi, Younghoon Kang, and Ayami Murakami–MSU, Mankato

Reading: The Missing Link in Writing, Yue Qin–University of Regina (Canada)

English Writing of Non-English Majors at Tertiary Level in China, Jun Wu–Anui University (China)

Multilingual Writers in the Writing Center, Renata Fitzpatrick–Carleton College

Building Academic Literacy for the Transitions to College: Connecting Writing with Social Science in a Learning Community for First-Year Multi-lingual Writers, Robin Murie–University of Minnesota, Duluth

Concept Mapping in First-Year Writing Courses for L2 Students, Kira Dreher–University of Minnesota, Twin Cities

Here is are the slides from my presentation.

TESOL 2013: Day 4

Reflection

Identity and Language Learning Across Time and Space, Bonny Norton, University of British Columbia

This session by Bonny Norton was something many attendees were looking forward to, and she didn’t disappoint. Her talk focused on research Bonny and some colleagues are doing in Uganda. Their research examines how technology can change the identities of the learners and teachers in an EFL setting. The guiding assumption of the research is that identities change over time and space, for both learners and teachers. Our identities are shaped by what is possible in the future. A critical definition of identity assumes multiple identities across time and space within one person, which deviates from the traditional definition of identity that assumes more polarized attributes (introvert/extrovert, good/bad, etc).

A guiding question during this session was:

What is the learner’s investment in the language and literacy practice of the classroom or community?

If investment is constructed socially, both the learner and the teacher are responsible for learning and language is a social practice. With the more rigid, traditional view of identity, the teacher is responsible to impart knowledge onto the learners. This view of identity seems to mesh well with a technologically-driven society where learning is not confined to the classroom. While Uganda differs from the United States and other more developed nations with regard to the types of technology and resources that are available, the ideals associated with social constructivism still seem to be present. Even with limited resources, students are invested in the digital.

Bonny showed a picture of a keyboard that a student had fashioned out of clay. While not functional in the way that we typically think of keyboards as being functional, the clay keyboard acted as a transition into actual digital tools. The imagined communities of the student that created the clay keyboard, those communities in which the student hopes to belong in the future, include digital tools. If we are to help learners reach their potential by acknowledging their multiple identities and their desires for the future, we need to give them the language associated with their imagined communities.

Take-aways:

  • Technology, however basic, can make the familiar strange and the strange familiar.
  • “When you communicate, you think your own English.” (as opposed to rote memorization)
  • Learners’ relationships to each other and within their communities change through the use of technology.
  • World Englishes allow learners to be unashamed to speak (even if it isn’t “The Queen’s English”).

Some questions to consider:

  • How have the technological changes influenced literacy and language?
  • How do you democratize knowledge flows with limited resources?

 

How Interactive, Practical, and Fair are Teacher-Made Assessments?, Stuart Landers, Missouri State University & John Thorpe, WestEd

This session was a review of the theoretical issues guiding teachers as they create language assessments for their learners. Having just come out of my required assessment course with Andrew Cohen, the theoretical portion of the presentation was interesting, but redundant. For teachers who hadn’t just gone through a semester-long course on assessment, it was probably a nice refresher. The practical aspects of assessment presented included a brief examination of example test items.

The characteristics of test usefulness that teachers should keep in mind while designing assessments for their learners include:

  • practicality–is the assessment worth the time, effort, and money it takes to administer and score?
  • reliability–is the assessment consistent and dependable? (both among students and raters)
  • validity–is the assessment measuring what you want it to measure?
  • authenticity–is the assessment asking learners to complete tasks with language that would actually be used?

What Teachers Learn from Professional Development: Two National Perspectives

This session was about an ongoing research project that looks at the available professional development opportunities for public school English teachers in Chile and Turkey. The researchers examined what opportunities were available, what was the teacher uptake resulting from professional development attended, and how did uptake influence practice in the classroom and student outcomes. The session focused on the second question of teacher uptake from PD opportunities attended.

The study was implemented on a scale that I can only imagine: 1,101 respondents and 3,345 PD events in Chile and 2,960 respondents and 8,945 PD events in Turkey. The data was collected between 2008 and 2011 via online questionnaires distributed by the ministries of education in each country.

While the presentation was interesting and it gave some insight into what it means to take on a research project of this magnitude, I think the main take-aways from their findings were:

  • The number of years of experience a teacher had did not influence how valuable the teachers perceived PD to be. Teachers of all experience levels found value in almost all PD experiences.
  • “What I think I can use drives what I think I learned.”
  • The job of PD events is to create environments in which teachers can take away practical information. This information is reflected through the teachers and does not directly reflect the topics of PD events.

I think the findings of this study highlight what it means to be a teacher: every day consists of adaptation and practical application of theoretical and planned activities. Just as there is a difference between what a teacher plans to teach and what students learn, there is a difference between what PD events seek to teach educators and what teachers bring back to their classrooms.

 

TESOL 2013: Day 2

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7:30am– Making Room for Fluency Training in Reading Instruction: Fredricka Stoller and William Grabe, Northern Arizona University

I was surprised how energizing reading fluency activities could be so early in the morning. I think this session proved to be the most practical of all the sessions I attended during the convention. Since returning to class, I have implemented regular reading fluency practice activities. I think the activities are sort of a fun warm-up activity, and the students are able to see their reading progress in a short period of time (if they read the text more fluently after the first reading). We’ve had some great conversations about pronunciation and vocabulary through these activities, and while those aren’t the target benefits, they are benefits of the fluency tasks.

 

10am– CALL Academic Session: Gaming and Language Learning

 

  • Deborah Healey, University of Oregon– Overview of immersive game-based language learning research
  • Rick Rosenberg, U.S. Department of State– Introduction to Trace Effects
  • Jeff Kuhn, Ohio University–Elements of gaming and how it can be implemented in the classroom

This CALL interest session was interesting, however, it felt a bit like an ad for Trace Effects. The theory behind gaming in language classrooms was quite interesting, and Jeff Kuhn’s presentation had some good points about how gaming has changed over the years. With more powerful operating systems, game designers are able to create different essential experiences for users, every game does not need to target “the reptilian” part of our brains with explosions and shooting and killing. There are games that create a variety of emotional responses, and these experiences can be harnessed in the (language) classroom. In addition to essential experiences, the possibility space is also important for creating user autonomy and a more personalized experience within a game. For example, one is able to deviate from assigned “missions” in games like The Sims or Grand Theft Auto and simply explore the gaming environment. Overall, games can allow students to make meaningful experiences using the target language.

While the implications for K-12 language teachers seems obvious, would gamification be effective in an adult language classroom as well? My views on this are not based on research or the literature, but I think with my own current adult learners, games could provide an opportunity for them to focus on meaning rather than form and create a collaborative environment within the game. However, in an academic setting, is it appropriate to take class time playing games, even if they are in the target language?

Take-aways from this session:

  • Gaming has the potential to create a collaborative, constructivist environment for learners to create meaning in the target langauge.
  • Not all games are created equal.
  • Specific learners should always be considered when deciding the most effective method to implement gaming.

 

1pm– Re-examining Writing Assessment Rubrics in the Classroom

  • Deborah Crusan, Wright State University– Overview of issues with rubrics
  • Lia Plakans, University of Iowa– Development of rubrics & critiquing rubrics
  • Paul Kei Matsuda, Arizona State University & Jill Jeffery, University of New Mexico– How is the concept of voice expressed in writing rubrics (high school and post secondary levels)
  • Miyuki Sasaki, Nagoya Gakuin University– Rubrics from EFL (Japanese) perspective (student “organizational” skills)

This session was a good refresher regarding the evaluation and creation of rubrics for writing assignments. The panel discussed issues that included how teachers determine the weight given to grading criteria within a rubric. There was also discussion about the demands of grading written assignments. For this aspect of assessment, Deborah Crusan quoted this Atlantic article by John Tierney Why Teachers Secretly Hate Grading Papers. The article does a great job of presenting issues that must be faced by instructors every time they give written assignments to students.

Some of the main take-aways from this session include:

  • rubrics mirror what we value in composition
  • teachers should be accountable to their students
  • rubrics need to measure what needs to be measured, not what can be measured

Some questions to consider when creating or evaluating rubrics include:

  • Does your rubric reflect course curricula, lessons, and assignment?
  • Does your rubric match up with your view of language and the purpose of the assignment?
  • Does your rubric align with the task and the kind of language produced in the task?
  • Does your rubric fit with student ability and range of performance?
  • Can your rubric be easily and consistently used by students and teachers? (inter-rater reliability)

 

3pm– A Professional Reading Group for EAP Instructors, Joanne Millard & Beata Piechocinski, York University, Canada

This session focused on the YUELI (York University English Language Institute). In response to a previous TESOL presentation, the presenters implemented a sort of reading group for instructors at their program as a professional development measure. The reading groups met twice per 16 week term and discussed various academic articles related to relevant topics. The whole group voted on the topic and articles to be examined, and the leader of the discussions (full-time instructors took turns leading) chose two of the articles to be discussed at the meetings. Participation in the reading groups was voluntary, but they could be used to fulfill part of the mandatory professional development hours each instructor needed to complete each year.The discussions started with the articles read by the staff, but according to the presenters, the discussion turned to practice rather quickly.

Take-aways from the session:

  • Leadership is required for the reading group to continue each term.
  • Instructors valued the opportunity to discuss theory and practice with peers.
  • Through these discussions, professional developmental objectives required of the instructors could be fulfilled in an observable way. Teachers were able to express how they had benefitted from the discussions.
  • The discussion sessions acted as a sort of support group for the instructors involved.

I found this session particularly interesting as I have been thinking a lot about professional development opportunities. The whole endeavor (creating a reading group for instructors) seemed like an easy enough process if only someone volunteered to take the lead. I have recently been wondering if there exists any sort of reading group via social media for interested professionals to discuss relevant academic materials within their fields. I am currently unaware of such discussions within the field of ESL or education in general. The only thing that comes close might be the scheduled Tweetchats like #eapchat, #edchat, and #edteach. These sorts of conversations have the same flavor as the reading groups implemented at YUELI, but they typically do not entail pre-reading by the participants.

I would be interested in implementing a similar reading group PD program within my own institution. I think instructors could really benefit in their own practice by being up-to-date on current academic literature within the field, interacting with peers outside of level meetings (that usually entail logistical planning, not theoretical discussion of issues), and the reading group could create an environment of support within the workplace.

 

4pm– Using Corpora in Effectively Treating Lexico-grammatical Errors in ESL Writing, Dilin Liu, University of Alabama

This session focused on using corpora to address lexico-grammatical errors made in ESL writing. The presentation was based on research done by the presenter in which ESL learners were given a questionnaire that contained error correction exercises. Half of the items were to be completed by the participants alone, and the other half of the items were to be completed with the help of COCA (Corpus of Contemporary American English). The participants had been trained to use the corpus in their English courses. They were familiar with the search functions and had practice using COCA to answer questions in their homework. Upon completion of the error correction tasks, participants were asked to self-report whether COCA was useful in helping find and correct errors. The types of errors included: collocations, use of prepositions, word meanings, register information, use of articles, and subject/verb agreement. The participants found COCA most useful for finding and correcting errors in collocations and least useful for dealing with errors related to article usage.

Of the two sections of the measure, the learners performed significantly better on the items in which they were allowed to use COCA. This was true of all the types of errors except for errors related to article usage. The items in which participants were allowed to use COCA had a higher rate of correction as well.

Take-aways from this session:

  • Corpora (like COCA) may be a useful tool to give our learners if we want them to be independent learners.
  • Identification of error types is necessary for successful treatment of errors with corpus.
  • Articles are tricky to deal with, regardless of access to corpora data.

 

Thoughts on: Using an L1 in the ESL classroom

Reflection

I have to admit that I feel inclined towards an English-only classroom, for the most part. My current students come from a variety of countries and first languages, so my own language skills do not allow me to be of much assistance in their L1s. However, today in class I decided to allow the use of my students’ various L1s during a writing assignment. Their assignment was to write imperative sentences describing how to do a task. We had watched various “How-To” videos and practiced making sentences together (in English). However, the variety of possible topics for the “How-To” writing assignment left many of the students lacking the basic vocabulary to express themselves. The basic idea behind assigning their writing in their L1 was that they could focus on meaning for the first draft, and then we could all work together to work out the specific vocabulary in English.

So far, the assignment seems to be going alright. The students had no problem writing their first draft in their first language, but the process of changing their sentences/ideas into English was laborious at best.

What are the benefits of allowing students to use their L1 in the ESL classroom? What are the drawbacks? Would it have been easier and more effective teaching to practice only certain verbs for the imperative sentence practice (most of the students chose to write about making food anyways)?

 

 

Thoughts on: Learning in the digital age

Reflection

The system in which we learn and teach any discipline tends to value originality and “the next big thing.” I have recently begun to wonder if that system has started shifting ever so slightly toward a mentality that values one’s ability to cultivate knowledge and meaning from the plethora of already existing sources of knowledge. In general, a vast knowledge pool is available on any topic via the seemingly infinite online network of information that is the Internet. The knowledge that is static (think concrete events) has been discussed and rediscovered over and over by people via collaboration tools like Wikipedia. Even historical events, information that has been long accepted as static, have been questioned and discussed through new lenses. The book A New Culture of Learning by Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown is something I’ve mentioned before, but I can’t help but think of their vision of our constantly changing world and how we continue to adapt and learn within it after reading a review of the book Uncreative Writing by Kenneth Goldsmith on Brainpickings. Uncreative Writing seems to address the abundance of information (texts) within the literature world and how “genius” is no longer defined by adding to that pool of information, but by effectively navigating through the information and cultivating new literary insights. It might also address how new skills are being used to redefine literature and how people engage in the field of literature.

In my mind, the consequences of this line of thinking with regard to education would at most lead to an overhaul of the entire education system and its values, and at least lead to the consideration of the skills that we teach our learners (in any discipline). It seems that the “traditional” view of the learner is no longer valid in this world of infinite information and collaboration. Ok, then which skills should be imparted to our students in a new vision of education?

With an ever changing blob of constant information being evaluated and reviewed by people around the world with myriad perspectives, is it reasonable to ask students to treat knowledge like a static entity?

Perhaps the skills needed to effectively navigate information in the digital age are very similar to those discussed in Kristen Swanson’s Professional Learning in the Digital Age: curation, reflection, and contribution. Curation is a buzzword that can be defined as the careful collection of relevant sources (relevant to whatever it is you desire to learn). Along with the collection of information, one must evaluate the validity of the sources of information (that’s a whole other blog post). Once information is collected, the learner can engage with it by actively reflecting on how the information applies in their context. Reflection can take on many appearances, but it ultimately means sifting through the information gathered and applying it to your own experiences. After (and perhaps during) the reflection process, the learner is free to contribute to the online discussion and add his or her perspective to the pool of information. This collaboration and user-driven framework is not something that appears predominantly in the current state of education.

Questions to consider:

There are plenty of implications to considering these skills as valuable in education. First, while this framework may provide a place in which learning is facilitated for topics like history, math, and the like, would this system of information exchange and negotiation of meaning benefit language learners? Next, how would this method of learning account for the various learning styles of students? Within this new system of values, what is the role of the teacher? Would taking up this perspective put me out of a job? What impact would this collaborative view have on the strict lines of authenticity and ownership that prevails in the written world (think plagiarism)? Last (for now), what are the benefits and limitations of putting all our eggs in the technology/online information basket?

More thoughts to come, I’m sure.

Thoughts on: A study about novice teachers and their social support networks

Reflection, Teacher Support

I have begun my examination of novice teachers and their personal learning networks by reading a study published in TESOL Quarterly (2012) called Novice ESOL teachers’ perceptions of social support networks. I find it inspiring and informative with regard to my own research related to social support and ESL professionals.

The article (Brannan, D. 2012) describes three main sources of support reported by participants in the study: mentors, coworkers, and family. Of those three sources, only family was viewed as providing the affective support necessary to foster overall well-being and health in the novice teacher participants with relation to their perceived efficacy. That being said, the support from family did not seem to provide adequate pragmatic and technical support for the novice teachers. Both branches of support were deemed necessary for overall effective teacher development and success (perceived efficacy in the study).

With regard to this study, I aim to extend the social support network into the digital realm. Professional teachers and novice teachers currently participate in PLNs (personal/professional learning networks) mediated by online tools like Twitter, RSS feeds, Diigo, and other social media tools. I wonder how participants in the Brannan study would have responded with regard to these sources of social support. It seems that a novice teacher would be able to receive ample pragmatic and technical support via social media and other online tools (whether actively or passively). It also seems probable that a novice teacher might receive affective support via social media and other online tools from both their personal and professional online networks.

I’m excited to explore this topic further as my research continues.

References:

Brannan, D., & Bleistein, T. (2012). Novice ESOL teachers’ perceptions of social support networks. TESOL Quarterly, 46(3), 519-541. doi: 10.1002/tesq.40

Using Pictures to Practice “What’s this?” and “What are these?”

Reflection

It is the end of the third week of my Intro level ESL class, and we have been studying “be” verb for about two weeks now. We have done activities ranging from fill-in-the-blanks to describing videos using the correct forms of the “be” verb. Today we did something a little different.

The Activity: We started class by reviewing the “What’s this?” “It’s a ________.” construction together on the whiteboard. After briefly reviewing, I asked the students to raise their hand if they had a cell phone that could take pictures. All but one student did (my phone is quite old and doesn’t have email capabilities, so I was fine with that), so I asked the class to get into two groups. I then asked the two groups to leave the classroom for about 30 minutes and take pictures (at least 4) of things around campus. I explained the pictures had to be of things so we could talk about them using the “What’s this?” construction when they got back.

The students left the room excitedly and went around campus to take pictures. When they returned, each group had about 5 pictures they emailed to me via their smart phones. I then spent a couple minutes putting the pictures into a Power Point presentation. This part of the class could have been more well thought out as it took a few minutes to complete and it might not have been the best use of class time.

Once the pictures were all in the same place, I gave each group about 2 minutes to write one question and one answer for each picture (there were 10 pictures). I instructed the groups to write the questions according to the “What’s this?” construction, and the answers according to the “It’s a…” construction. We used the “What are these?” and “They’re….” constructions as well.

After we got through all the pictures, the group took turns giving their questions and answers for some of the pictures. The groups got to work together to fill in the vocabulary gaps that they might have had and they ended up creating some really great sentences.

Reflection: I had planned on doing some kind of picture activity about a week ago, but I wasn’t quite sure what shape the activity would take. When I began planning, I just knew I wanted the students to take the pictures and engage with each other to create sentences using the “It’s a…” and “They’re…” constructions. I knew that time was a big consideration, and in retrospect I probably should have given less time to complete the picture-taking portion of the activity.

When the students returned from taking their pictures, they seemed energized and excited to share them with the class. I suppose there should always be a good balance between creating excitement and creating good opportunities for language production in the ESL classroom, but I can’t help but feel like the more excitement the students have for the activity, the more comfortable and willing to use English they will be. This, I’m sure, will not be the case for every activity, but isn’t there something awesome about engaging students in activities that they enjoy? I would bet it varies from class to class, but I have noticed that my students interact in English more (even though many of them speak the first L1) when they are excited about the activities we are doing in class.

While the two groups were writing their questions and answers about each picture, I noticed a lot of interaction that seemed to result in good, grammatical English sentences. I would be interested to hear the interactions that went on more closely and examine them for examples of uptake. There is something pretty great about low-level students being able to work in small groups and use their strengths to interact with other low-level students and create excellent English together. In the small groups, each student has the opportunity to be the teacher and the student.

Overall, I think the activity was fun for the whole class, and it gave the students an opportunity to create language around a digital artifact that they created together (the pictures of things around campus). The activity also allowed us to practice the “What’s this?” “It’s a…” construction in a context that the students chose themselves. Aside from the more formal language production I was trying to elicit, the students were also given the opportunity to communicate less formally to negotiate meaning as they decided which pictures to take and what questions and answers to write about each picture. Some new vocabulary words were looked at, and while time management could have been more thought out, the activity appears to have been a success.