MNWE 2013 Conference: ESOL Supersession/Workshop Overview


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.

If Twitter Is Not PD, What Is It?


If Twitter Is Not PD, What Is It?.

As I explore the role of social media in professional development, the questions raised in this post by Tom Whitby reflect a discussion that needs to be had.

Great read.

TESOL 2013: Day 3


Subconsciously Held Bias: Exposing the Myth of Racial Colorblindness, Aram deKoven, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire

Aram deKoven was one of the invited speakers at the TESOL convention, and his session was held in the convention center arena. The session focused on how the human brain reacts to priming, based on several different studies across various fields. The presenter contended that while explicit racism has become less common in our society, implicit racial bias has become more of a concern. The whole presentation was based on the idea that the “subconscious is a powerful cognitive force and subconsciously-held biases affect how we act.”

The presenter showed the results of various studies where people were primed to react in certain ways in relation to gender, race, and other socialized conventions within our society. For example, deKoven spoke about how within the field of music, men were considered naturally superior to women, and this was proven by the predominantly male population of orchestras. However, in an attempt to take gender bias out of the equation when auditioning musicians, institutions took to auditioning musicians behind a screen where their gender could not be surmised. The result of this practice was that orchestras became almost split down the middle when it comes to gender.

The issue of social responsibility in the classroom is something that I have to admit I haven’t considered all that much. This presentation brought the need for awareness and reflection in teaching to the front of my mind. What implicit biases do I hold, and how are they affecting my actions in the classroom? It seems clear to me that teachers hold a great amount of power and influence over their learners’ educations, especially with young learners. With such power comes great responsibility. I think the  primary take-away from this session was that people, educators in particular, should look at themselves with open minds, reflect on their practice and beliefs, and realize that the human brain works in weird ways. While we may not hold explicit bias toward one group of people or another, we may very well have implicit, socialized biases that we are not always aware of.

Creating Global Citizens: Socially Responsible Educators in ESL Classrooms

  • Kip Cates, Tottori University, Japan– Overview of global language teaching, teaching with global education
  • Shelley Wong, George Mason University– The Dream Act: Global Citizenship for Social Responsibility
  • Kevin J. Martin, Virginia International University, @kevinjmartin_ — Social responsibility in the classroom (and curriculum)
  • Earlene Gentry, Fulbright Commission (retired), Egypt– Social responsibility in Egypt (revolution)
  • Rob Clement, Sohar University, Oman– Social responsibility issues (bullying & classroom violence)

I stumbled into this session when another session I was going to attend was cancelled. I was pleasantly surprised by the session. Perhaps I had been primed to accept issues of social responsibility in education as being of major importance (from the deKoven session earlier in the day) because I felt a particular affinity for the issues discussed in this session. This session was the Social Responsibility Interest Section educational session, and Kip Cates started things off by giving an overview of global education. Being new to the idea of social responsibility in language education, I found this overview particularly interesting. According to Cates, within the realm of global language teaching there are two branches of a dual syllabus: language teaching and global education. Global education includes: world regions, world themes, and world issues. The goal of global education is to bring the world into the language classroom and take students out into the world. By treating our students as global citizens, and educating them as such, both teachers and students are able to gain a broader perspective of themselves within the framework of a global community.

I think the primary take-away from this session was that language teachers have an amazing opportunity to build a community of language teachers around the world. There are issues that people do not want to talk about, but there may be a place for controversial issues within the global language classroom, especially with adult students who wish to be part of a global community. Once again, I think it’s key to remember that our learners are at the center of our pedagogical/andragogical decisions, and we should include topics and materials that will benefit our learners’ experience within their global communities.


Incorporating Peer and Self-Assessment to Enhance Retention, Lisa Leopold, Monterey Institute of International Studies

This session definitely had some practical applications. While it was research-based, Leopold presented her findings in a way that could be useful for teachers. The session focused on using peer and self assessment in a writing class. The presenter focused mainly on peer feedback, although self-assessment was touched on briefly. With regard to peer assessment, benefits and challenges were examined and different modes of feedback were discussed more in depth. The modes discussed included both synchronous and asynchronous written and oral feedback.


  • Certain modes of feedback may be more suitable for different assignments.
  • Students found value in all the modes of peer feedback.
  • A combination of synchronous and asynchronous peer feedback may benefit the most students.
  • Involving students in the feedback process may give them a greater sense of ownership in assignments.

Overall, it may be useful for writing teachers to consider a variety of modes when assigning peer feedback. Each group of students is different, so once again it is imperative for teachers to consider the needs of their unique group when designing tasks.

TESOL 2013: Day 1


I arrived in Dallas this afternoon and made my way to the Hyatt Regency hotel in downtown. Both the hotel and the weather are amazing. We’re staying on the 20th floor, which I think is the highest I’ve ever stayed.

After dropping off my bag, I headed to the convention with my cohort (3 other ladies in my MA program with whom I’m staying during the convention). We checked in, got our fancy name tags, which I put my Twitter handle on, got our complementary convention bags with huge event catalog, and headed to the opening general session speaker.

The speaker was John Hunter, whom I had not heard of, but he is an award-winning teacher who focuses on helping children reach their full potential. His talk was called Solving for X: Critical Thinking and Problem-Solving Essentials, and it focused on his World Peace Game in which students try to solve real-life problems through collaboration.

The main take-aways from the talk include:

  • Learning takes place in the tension between love and fear. As in, students are able to create meaning and knowledge when they are presented with challenging tasks that they are interested in.
  • The purpose of the World Peace Game (according to the students who engaged with the lesson) is to express compassion; everyone has to think of everyone else and then themselves if they want problems to be solved.
  • Students eventually realize that they are not playing the game against each other, but they are playing with each other against the game.
  • Failure is ok. Within the support network of the classroom, students learn to accept the presence of failure and move past it in their problem solving.
  • Every student has the potential to be really awesome. (Those are my words.) If you treat students as such, they are more likely to live up to their potential.

Here’s a video of Hunter’s TED talk.


How mainstream are PLNs anyways?


I have been building my personal learning network over the last couple of years with a more rigorous engagement in the last few months, and I have recently been asking myself a few questions about how widespread the idea of developing a personal learning network may be. I am planning on presenting on how teachers (ESL specifically) can use social media to network and build support networks outside of their immediate networks after graduate school at a local conference in April, and I’m wondering how obvious my ideas will be to those in attendance. Will everyone leave my talk shaking their heads, wishing they had gone to another concurrent session? My own insecurities aside, how mainstream is the idea of PLNs and using social media tools like Twitter and RSS feeds to facilitate continuing education really? I have only touched on the topic with a few other teachers in my program, and none of them seemed familiar with the idea. However, I am constantly receiving notifications via Twitter and Google Reader that new blog posts have been written about building your PLN and using social media for self-driven professional development. I’m inclined to think that the topic feels like a mainstream, paramount topic of discussion in the field because it interests me and I have built my online network around using technology and self-directed professional development. Perhaps it’s time to broaden my personal learning network to include voices that do not make PLNs their primary concern.


Thoughts on: Using an L1 in the ESL classroom


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


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.

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


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.


#EAPchat: Does gaming have a place in the EAP/university curriculum?


I have taken part in a couple Tweetchats since the advent of my Twitter obsession, and I have to admit that I’m quite taken with how easy it is to collaborate with so many people in such an easy medium. I’m so thankful for Tweetchats (like #edchat and #ellchat), but I’ve been disappointed at the lack of discussion within the adult ESL field. Where are the voices of teachers in universities and community centers?

Alas, I have found #eapchat! I have high hopes for the discussion today, and I hope to engage with some people interested in English for academic purposes via Twitter.

I will attempt to summarize the chat this afternoon, but further discussion and a summary can also be found at the #eapchat blog.


Wiki Update


Last week I implemented a wiki into my Intro Level adult ESL class. I pitched the idea to the students the previous week and tried to explain that we can interact on the wiki in a less formal way than we do during class time. I set up profile pages for each student to edit and make their own, and I set up discussion pages where we can post topics of interest and talk about them together. We spent our computer lab day last week exploring the wiki and editing our profiles. So far, only one student has added pictures and finished his sentences on his profile.

I know that some of the students have just arrived from their home countries and they have yet to get their own computers, but I’m sort of surprised at how slow the involvement has been so far.

We will spend our lab day next week working on posting and commenting, but I hope I can convince my students to engage with the wiki outside of class time.