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Experiments I’m trying this semester

the story so far.

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This is part 1 of a series on posts about experiments in teaching and learning writing skills. A quickie ahead of a tweetchat tonight, just to get some thoughts about some experiments together after a couple of weeks of classroom innovation… Could easily be “cool stuff that happened so far” part 2.

Twitter and a Class Blog: Basic Communicative Writing Opportunities

Most semesters I teach a General English class to university students. Lately I’ve been assigned a class called “Express Yourself Through Writing”, and 16-20 low-achieving students. Stated goals include initiating and replying to emails with basic paragraph structure, understandably.  A year ago, despite quite high student evaluations, half the class failed to do this on the University exam.  I blamed the system as much as myself, but did discover a major failing that I wrote about elsewhere on this site —

the students were more concerned with honoring social mores (keeping ME happy) than improving their English skills, not understanding that their improvement is precisely what makes me happy. It was a mess.

I dreaded repeating that assignment, but the system had made some changes (grouping students by proficiency level, and mixing majors to do it, and revising the abysmal and mostly impregnable 1-size-fits-all profit-making textbook), and I had made a lot of strides on the technology front, so I came at it with some fresh ideas. I’d started tweeting during the semester break, and begun design on this website/blog, and was eager to explore their use with students. My gut was telling me that Twitter would be a great way to make sentence construction more meaningful for novice learners.

Experiment #1: Allow all class-related cellphone use.

Embrace the students’ chosen technologies. So far, I’ve only noticed one student using it to sneak-read Korean cartoons. She’s stood out as the most lost, but on Friday I put her in a group of 4 with instructions to them to help each other write a profile based on some interview questions and answers, and she typed it up on her phone for the blog. Also on Friday (our fourth meeting) while students were understanding different interview questions in their TBs, they used a bilingual dictionary (seems to be one very popular app that most of them had). I managed to show someone in each group of four the Google “define x” alternative, just to create an awareness of monolingual dictionary options. I saw a couple try it out on their own later.

I had dreamed for weeks of coming into the class’s opening hour and saying virtually nothing, not even introducing myself – just whatever was necessary to model, with a projector and computer, signing up for twitter and following me and each other, and tweetchatting brief intros for whatever time was left.It felt right to dismiss class by tweeting “after you read this message, please say ‘see you Friday’ to the person sitting on your right, and leave quietly. “Unplanned magic.

Two batteries died and most of the talk in class was in Korean, but in that hour my class produced more communicative written English than the aforementioned class had managed in a whole semester.

At our second meeting, I agreed to bring an extension with three inputs so students can charge their phones. Two ipads appeared. At the fourth meeting I saw four laptops. Wow!

Experiment #2: Paperless, semi-public key-based homework submission

Their Uni exam will be typed, so no extrinsic need to focus on handwriting, and lots to get students the repetitive practice of keying in English. So, cell phone use will help them recognize letters, and polishing stuff begun in class for a blog affords them the chance to practice with a qwerty…

As importantly, my hunch, somewhat supported by research I can’t recall, is that student products that are ‘published’ are more carefully produced. So the second class, when we had two hours, was spent helping each other get signed up as users on the class blog, downloading and familiarizing ourselves with the WP app, posting, categories, a site password, and so on.  Two students showed up with Ipads for the second class.I had written instructions for the class in a post as well, which I asked the students to read, help each other understand, and then follow. I had pre-written a brief introduction of myself in simple sentences, and wanted everyone to use it as a model to post their own before the next class, and to comment on a few that were interesting to them. Yes, slightly artificial communication, but it’s an introduction to English netiquette, and they really seemed to be digging this approach of success-oriented baby steps.

Experiment #3: Any tongue they wish

Officially I’m an “As much L2 as possible” guy. I am also a “Whatever makes you most comfortable, as long as your focus is on the class” guy. Obviously, there is often a conflict between these two positions, and based on that last Writing class, I aimed to change things up a bit this time. I only communicate in English, but I do it very simply and with plenty of visual dual coding. They  are free to communicate how they wish, so long as they write in English. Friday was the first time I needed to run this experiment for an extended time as they worked to write their profile up following a very spirited conversation about ME in which everyone asked and answered questions and even answered follow-ups from me. I was amazed at how they ALL stuck with the interview, AND focused on the writing process afterwards. Further impressing were the attempt by many to combine, rephrase, integrate, and discover new info while writing. This was so telling, and gratifying.

So – so far my experiments are not evolving (hence the name of my website) my teaching practice; they are revolutionizing it, because the results are unexpectedly great so far. This weekend they’ve been tweeting interview questions (ccing me) to each other, needing responses to write up a profile post for a classmate. It’s downright exciting!

What are the other experiments going on here?

Experiments I’m trying this semester
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