Becoming Mother

A book and a blog for first-time mothers

Tag: ESL

Online Learning for Those Who Just Can't Anymore

So I’m in the unique position of being able to look at the pandemic through the lens of the exhausted higher education faculty member as well as the eLearning professional.

In the past year, I’ve started working as an eLearning professional at a community college. Before that, I taught for 15 years as an ESL instructor with almost all of that teaching done in the face-to-face modality. I have also taught online and used a flipped learning approach frequently over the past few years.

My Lens as a Teacher

Just last week, a new group on Facebook emerged: Pandemic Pedagogy.

In the first few days, as instructors swarmed to the site, it became clear that there were a few currents of sentiment that went like this:

Just… like… how the hell am I supposed to teach online?

I’m utterly exhausted from teaching already, and now I have to do even more work?

I’m an adjunct instructor and I don’t get paid for this extra work. LET’S REVOLT.

Be kind to your students! Their lives are completely disrupted, just like ours, and they may not have reliable internet access! Figure out how to maintain educational equity!

I’m falling apart because the kids are home and I’m creating all this new content and I’m not keeping up with grading and I keep getting desperate emails from students and I’m worried about my health and the federal government is a mess and I can’t find toilet paper anywhere and my spouse says my job is so easy because it can be done online and I CANNOT DO THIS ANYMORE.

My empathy for teachers everywhere right now is real. This flat-out sucks. Teaching online isn’t “easier.” Having done it, I can say that it is definitely more time-consuming, as you are constantly communicating with students, generating or posting content, and trying to keep up with grading.

Then, multiply all those efforts times THREE, FOUR, or FIVE and you start to understand why some teachers are seriously ready to bail out in the middle of semester and work at Kroger or Amazon (They’re hiring!).

What I want to say is that you have every right to be frustrated and stressed about the situation. I hope you take your moment to blow this whole thing off for a period of time. But when that moment passes, and for most of you I think it will, please know that no one (at least reasonable people) is expecting you to perform miracles.

So when the anxiety keeps you up late at night, you are definitely not alone.

My Lens as an eLearning Professional

As an eLearning professional, I’ve been reviewing hundreds of courses over the past week to check whether the course is ready to go live on March 23rd.

At this point, we are not looking for stellar courses. Quality Matters alignment is out the window. We are simply looking at whether students can access an updated schedule and can find the content that they need for the first week or so of class.

So let this be my first reassurance: If you’ve got an easy to find document/post where students can tell what they should do on which date, you are already ahead of the curve.

As for the rest of it, here are some snippets of advice:

On Getting Oriented

Consider prominently posting an introduction to the second half of the course on your LMS course page. Video is best because it establishes visual instructor presence, but even a nicely worded document can do. Reassure your students that you will get through this course together. Practice kindness with your students and ask them to be kind to you. Go over any FAQs that you want to make sure that all students know before you embark on this journey. Make what works for you. Providing this kind of introduction provides reassurance and stability to your students that they desperately crave right now.

On Teaching Synchronously

Please, please don’t feel that you have to generate all new content for every lesson. Don’t feel that you have to record all of the lectures that you would have given face-to-face. And if you’ve been given different advice from administrators, I implore you to do what is best for your students anyway. This is not the time to listen to bad advice.

Here’s the truth: Students do not want to watch you teach synchronously during the same hours that you had been spending together face-to-face. Their lives have been completely disrupted. Their kids are out of school. Maybe they lost their job or are working a new one. Maybe they have limited connectivity at home.

This doesn’t mean that you don’t teach your content. It means that you find accessible ways to do so. If you used to teach for 50 minutes on a topic, extract the key points and boil it down to 10-15 minutes, followed by a series of exercises, problems, or case studies, whatever works for your field. Make sure your students have access to the answers so they can assess themselves and track their understanding. Remember that your students can re-watch the videos. There is an incredible amount of repetition, re-clarification, and reiteration that happens in in-person teaching that is simply not necessary in online teaching. Say what needs to be said and move on. They can re-watch the videos and ask question in the forums that you provide. (And don’t be afraid to embed instructional videos that others have made. If the videos are on YouTube and allows for you to embed it on your course page, the content creator benefits from the additional views.)

My advice is: Offer an optional synchronous office hours time, maybe just 1 hour per week, where students can drop in and ask questions.

Be prepared: It’s likely that the ones who come won’t even want to talk about the class in the first session. They may just need someone to process the disruptions in their lives. This is how you build rapport, community, and more importantly TRUST. If your students trust you, they are more likely to stay engaged over the long haul and struggle through the challenges of learning in an era of disruption. You don’t have to be specially trained to do this. Just BE KIND and listen. Acknowledge what they are going through. If you feel like it, share how this crisis has affected your life.

I also encourage you, with the permission of your students, to record your office hours and share the recording with the class, to build that sense of community for your students who are not able to attend synchronously. Even simply watching an asynchronous recording of you talking with other students can go a long way toward helping all students feel connected to you in this time of uncertainty when everyone is so isolated.

On Organizing for Student-Centeredness

Give students a course schedule, an updated syllabus, or even a basic pinned announcement or post that is your students’ cornerstone for the course. Tell them what to do on a weekly basis so they can keep track. I recommend labeling modules by weeks or dates and organize content inside of those weeks. Students don’t want to go to 8 different modules to pull together all of their content for one week’s work. (Spoken by a teacher who has organized her class like this! Learn from my mistakes!)

Rest assured: No one is expecting you to do a stellar performance this term.

On Online Quizzes

If you’re going to administer a quiz online, please preview the quiz as a student and consider any tweaks that can make it less stressful for students. Do what works for your situation and remember that some of your students are likely to have spotty connectivity, which can make it stressful for them to do an online quiz between a certain time period, especially when it’s timed.

Final Thoughts

So if you just seriously can’t anymore, you are definitely not alone.

Keep your class simple and clear.

Do what you can.

Be kind.

We are all just trying to get through this.

A Farewell to Teaching (for now)

It’s true.

After thirteen years of professional teaching, I’m leaving my career as a full-time ESL teacher in higher education to be an Instructional Media Designer for the eLearning Division at Sinclair Community College. I will be working mostly with faculty who are developing instructional media for their face-to-face classes, from concept to production. 

Fifteen years ago, I walked into the first class that I ever taught.

I was 22 years old. A teaching assistant for the English department at Wright State University. No teaching experience. Just my Bachelor’s degree, as a testament to the fact that I, at least, knew how to write an essay. And presumably, could figure out how to teach someone who was four years younger than me how to write an essay.

I loved it.

Okay, not all of the time.

Not when I was providing feedback on the thirteenth paper in a stack of twenty-five. But overall, it was awesome.

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Graduation, Master’s Degree: June 2006

When I taught my first ESL class in the LEAP Intensive English Program at Wright State, it was even better. I was able to use my love for linguistics to inform my teaching practice. My work was not only rewarding, it was challenging. I found that I was constantly making connections between my Bachelor’s degree in linguistics with my teaching practice. My students genuinely appreciated me. They thanked me after classes and wanted to take pictures together. They actually visited me during office hours. They told me their concerns and their problems.

And I reached out to them. When my parents first moved to Texas (and later, Minnesota), I invited my students to Thanksgiving dinner in our small apartment, several years in a row. My husband and I cooked for them, and they also cooked for us. We talked about families and marriage, children and religion, stories and recipes. And we laughed a lot.

People who aren’t teachers hear over and over again how much a teacher changes the lives of their students.

But teachers know that this relationship is reciprocal.

Students change their teachers.

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2006: One of the first classes that I taught professionally

In 2006, when I first started teaching Saudi women, I quietly wondered if my female Saudi students might feel free enough to take off their hijabs if I were welcoming enough.

Through my monocultural worldview, this was how I saw hijabs: they were impediments, barriers, obstacles to overcome.

At that time, I saw difference as an obstacle. And the best way to deal with it was to pretend it didn’t exist and that everyone was the same. As long as I treated all my students in the exact same way, my teaching would be effective. After all, it’s really all about having the best informed instructional approach, right?

Thirteen years later, I can see now that acknowledging difference is the first step towards working to create an equitable classroom for all students.

I am able to see a hijab as a religious expression for my Muslim women, something that many of them wear out of a love for their faith and a symbol of their devotion to God. It’s neither an obstacle nor an ornament. For many of my Muslim women, it’s grafted into their religious expression.

It wasn’t one person who changed my perspective. It was an ongoing parade of different students, male and female, in and out of my classroom, term after term, year after year. Each of them, an individual thread, weaving together with hundreds of other threads, to create a great tapestry of what has become years of experience with intercultural communication.

When I stand back and look at the last thirteen years of my life…

I see that I am the one who has changed.

I understand now that we are all looking at the world through our own cultural lenses. They revealed to me the invisible threads of American culture, values, and worldview that hold together, and sometimes, entangle me.

And so I say, with so much more humility than I had when I first started teaching, THANK YOU.

Thank you, to my thousands of students.

From Saudi Arabia, China, Kuwait, Libya, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Oman, UAE, India, Lebanon, Jordan, Iran, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan, Chad, Sudan, Rwanda, Burundi, Nigeria, Gabon, Togo, Benin, Kenya, Ethiopia, Cameroon, Congo, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Russia, Ukraine, Switzerland, France, Spain, Italy, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, Costa Rica, Colombia, Argentina, Chile, Venezuela, and Panama.

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2009: Volunteer teaching for Miami Valley Literacy Council

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2012: Teaching high school students from Peru

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2012: English for Engineers, students working on a collaborative group project

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Circa 2013: One of the many Conversation Groups hosted by our program

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End-of-Term Party 2014

Thank you for changing me.

I know I was a serious teacher (who hated late homework), but it is my sincere hope that I left you with the feeling that you were valuable and important to me.

I hope you know that I think you are courageous.

What is courage, after all?

It is the ability to accept that life is full of moments of darkness: from failure, rejection, fear, grief, and uncertainty. And yet, to be courageous is to walk into the dark moments and say, “Even if I fail, even if I’m rejected or afraid or lose people that I love, and don’t know what comes next… I will try.”

Your journeys across oceans and time zones, carrying with you the wishes and dreams of the families that sent you inspired me every day.

You showed me courage, day after day.

I saw many of you in your most vulnerable moments, just days after your planes had landed and your feet first touched U.S. soil.

You were tired and disoriented–and we greeted you with English placement tests and two full days of “orientation.” (Sorry about that. It wasn’t my call.)

I hope I was kind to you.

I hope that when you were hurting, I was there for you.

I hope that if you weren’t passing my class, I was able to have a conversation with you to assure you that I knew you were working hard and that grades should never tell you whether or not you are worthy of love

I hope I made you think critically about something that you had never considered before.

I hope we laughed together.

I hope that when you go home and tell your family about “Americans,” you remember me.

And my favorite saying, “It’s bananas.”

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2019: My students giving poster presentations on our university’s alternate day of learning

It was not an easy decision to leave teaching, but considering the goals that I still want to accomplish in my professional life, it is time.

I’m also thankful for the support that the University of Dayton and UD Publishing have given me for my professional development over the years, all of which was inspired by the work that I do with my students. With their support, I was able to complete a graduate certificate in Technology-Enhanced Learning, which better prepared me for this future line of work. In addition, during my years at UD, I’ve presented on interdepartmental collaborations, intercultural communication, second language listening, learner-centered teaching, and digital technologies for language learning. I’m proud of the work that I’ve accomplished with the help of talented TESOL professionals, both those with whom I’ve collaborated, those who have mentored me, and those whom I have mentored. Although it was not required for my job and I often spent vacations and weekends researching and planning these presentations, I enjoyed these opportunities to grow and learn and keep my eyes open for what’s out on the horizon.

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I won’t say that “I hope I’ll come back to teaching.”

The truth is, I know I will. At some point.

I might come back to teach face-to-face classes, if it works with my plans. I might decide to teach fully on-line (which could be super cool, I think).

We’ll see.

But for right now, it’s time for this next step.

Talking about the hard stuff: Teacher as agent of social change

**Disclaimer: This post is quite off-topic compared to my usual posts about motherhood, but, hey, I happen to think a lot about other things, too.

Every now and then, some topic comes up in my advanced speaking and listening class that causes me to put on my social-justice-superhero cape and tackle an issue head-on. Sometimes, the topic is the death penalty. Sometimes, it’s death with dignity.

This term, it was rape.

First, some background: I teach English to international students in an intensive English program. In other words, I’m teaching adults who want to earn a college degree… but don’t have strong enough English skills to do so yet.

Our students primarily come from two countries, but, trust me, we have all kinds of students. The motivated. The goofballs. The hapless wanderers. The spoiled rich kids. The budding scholars. The “I-here-for-vacation-only-Teacher”s. The lost. The dreamers. The future politicians. The victims of their own self-doubt.

We have them all.

Some days, I leave my job feeling like nothing that I do makes a difference. Some days, I feel that my students don’t care about anything besides this grand illusion that they can just extract the essence of this “academic knowledge” from the university and then infuse themselves with all of it, like a patient hooked up to an IV. (And, hey, there are days when I totally wish that I could simply transfuse all of them with a healthy dose of phonics).

It’s hard for my students to understand that all knowledge is culturally situated. No knowledge is pure of the context and culture in which it is taught, so they can’t simply absorb academic knowledge at an American university without absorbing pieces of American culture along with it.

Hell, it was hard for me to understand this when I was their age (and I was struggling with these ideas in my native language). In my freshmen English class in college, I struggled particularly with an excerpt of Paolo Freire’s Pedadgogy of the Oppressed, for two main reasons:

1) I couldn’t understand the excerpt because–even though I had been an Honors English student in high school–my reading ability wasn’t developed enough to easily parse out academic English

2) I had no personal experience to understand Freire’s “banking concept” of education.

With the help of some in-class discussions, I finally understood Freire’s “banking concept” of education.

Yes! I get it!

But why did he write about this? Everyone knows that this is how people learn. You listen to your teacher, memorize, and repeat.

Well, maybe not in English, but for math and science, that makes perfect sense.

Oh… wait. Freire thought the banking concept was bullshit?

Oops.

And even though I eventually understood that Freire was decrying the widespread belief in the banking concept of education, I still couldn’t quite understand what he meant about critical pedagogy or transformative social justice. What did any of that mean? How did empowering citizens to transform society have anything to do with getting an education?

Wasn’t an education just learning how to do your future job? Wasn’t that why we were all studying in college? To become teachers and doctors and lawyers and business people? That was why were studying, wasn’t it?

Wasn’t it?

This is where I got stuck. And I think this is where my students get stuck, too.

***

As a teacher, now reflecting back on Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, I not only understand Freire’s argument to move education into the realm of social justice, but I also understand how limiting the definition of “education” to “technical skills for a job” keeps a population from making societal change.

It keeps us believing in the American dream, that if we just work hard enough, all of our dreams will come true. Even worse, it keeps us believing that the poor, the uneducated, and the imprisoned are in those positions for the sole reason that they chose to be. That they have earned their lot in life solely because of their lack of enterprise and effort. In this extreme sense of individualism, no other factors are strong enough to influence a person’s life as much as his/her individual ability and effort.

I believe that teachers are especially situated in society to confront these myths.

***

At the same time, I am an agent of this very narrow view of education.

I deliver language lessons.

For the purpose of increasing my student’s English language proficiency.

For the purpose of them preparing for jobs.

My job description does not include any language about the necessity of teaching for social change. Although my particular university does boast about its Marianist values–one of which is social justice–my primary job is to deliver instruction that helps my students improve their English, and (hopefully!) develop their ability to be independent learners.

***

And yet, I found myself in a classroom of international students with a teachable moment ripe in the air. One student had just said that he thought boys and girls should be taught together until they are 10 years old.

Why? Because it would decrease the instances of rape.

I did a double-take. “Did you say rape?”

He nodded.

“So this is a problem in your country?”

He nodded.

I thought for a moment. “How does putting girls and boys together in the same class decrease the number of rapes?”

He shook his head for a moment, as if processing the idea. As if figuring out how to phrase something that was so obvious that it didn’t usually require words.

“It’s just, maybe it happens more when there are a lot of girls together in one room. When there are boys and girls together, I think the rape will be less.”

Oh boy.

This is the moment that language teachers dream of–that moment to engage. That moment when language takes it rightful place as a conveyor of ideas, not this monolithic body of knowledge that my students need to acquire before they can actually communicate.

This is the moment when my students move beyond the in my country, we do this, and in my opinion, it’s very important because...

This is the moment when I have a choice–to confront age-old, culturally embedded stereotypes about gender and violence–or to move on in the language lesson because of my fear of the emotions that the discussion would summon forth.

I chose to engage. Carefully. But to engage nonetheless.

“What causes rape?” I asked.

Silence.

“Anyone?”

Silence.

“Is rape going to happen if a lot of girls or women are gathered in one place and a man is teaching them?” I asked.

Slience, and then a quiet, “…maybe.”

“Okay. Here’s a question: Why do people rape?”

Silence.

“Why do you think people rape?” I repeated.

“…maybe because the woman is dress very… not nice. Maybe too sexy.”

I didn’t laugh or roll my eyes. I just shook my head. “Nope.”

Someone else spoke. “Maybe because she walk alone at night.”

“Nope,” I said.

“But I know a story, Teacher,” one student said. “One woman, she walk alone at night, and this happened to her. It terrible.”

“I agree. It is terrible. But it’s also not her fault.”

Silence.

“Listen, rape is not the woman’s fault.” (I used “woman” because for this group of students, the concept of a woman raping a man is totally impossible–but that’s another topic).

At this point, I could see the fierce agreement in the eyes of my female students.

“People rape because they want power or control over someone else. It’s not because a woman is too sexy. Rape isn’t about sex. It’s about power and control. And rape happens over and over and over again… Why?”

Silence.

“Because we don’t talk about it,” I said. “Because rape is so shameful that we’d rather go to our graves not talking about it then to invite that shame onto our families.”

At this point, the heaviness in the room was palpable.

“Isn’t that right?” I asked.

Around the room, heads nodded. Even those of my male students.

“Rape happens because of power and shame,” I stated emphatically. “And unless we start talking about it, it’s going to continue to happen. Can you imagine if this happened to your daughter? Your sister? Can you imagine how you would feel if you couldn’t do anything about it because you didn’t want people to know about the rape? Can you imagine this?”

And at this point I could see on their faces that they could imagine this horrible reality–because some of them had lived it.

One of my students softly said, “It’s happen in schools sometimes, but also it’s happen a lot in families. Like between cousins.”

Heads nodded.

***

Some days, I leave work feeling like nothing I can do makes a difference.

Some days, I leave work feeling like this is the only thing that I can do that makes a difference.

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