Monday, June 11, 2012

How have I grown as a teacher..

  So our final presentation is approaching in which I'll have to give a fifteen minute presentation concerning how I've grown as a teacher;  I'll be discussing the development of my practice resultant from the Methodology, Second Language Acquisition, and Intercultural Communication courses.

  When I first looked at this assignment, I sort of disregarded it in terms of difficulty.  Now, though, as I sit down to plan it out, I'm realizing how difficult it is to reflect on personal development in concrete ways.  So, I've decided to start by blogging my general feelings about how I've developed before actually looking at data (videos, transcripts, materials etc) to back it up.

  Before I started the STG courses, my ideas about what constituted effective teaching were resultant of my experiences as both a learner and an instructor.  I had an unrefined awareness of concepts like the negotiation of meaning and the zone of proximal development.  Still, I didn't have the pedagogic or methodological knowledge to be confident that I was developing or implementing effective lesson plans.

  Now that I've had the opportunity to analyze elements of ESL instruction in minute detail, I've become much more knowledgeable about providing input in a comprehensible way and creating the conditions necessary for that input to be acquired.  I have the confidence to recognize a greater range of learner difficulties before they happen and negotiate them when they arise unexpectedly.

  The example of this which came into mind as I wrote that last sentence was teaching phonetics, or the physical act of producing language.  Before these classes, I sort of thought pronunciation developed naturally over time and did not require active instruction in most cases.. active pronunciation instruction was something I shied away from because, if a student was physically unable to copy a sound I had modeled, I had a limited tool-set with which to try rectifying the problem.  I often skipped words which were slightly mispronounced or, in worse cases, was content to provide a corrective recast, sometimes not even requiring that the student reformulate his/her erroneous utterance.  I wanted to focus on conveying meaning and saw inaccurate pronunciation as more of a distraction than an element of communicative competence needing attention.

  I now have a healthier respect for and command of active pronunciation instruction.  Methodologically, I am now better able to demonstrate the physical act of producing sound in a variety of ways including drawing a quick diagram of the mouth or taking the kids through a quick activity to make the recognition of phonemes more salient and their production more easily possible.

  Pedagogically, I started to consider phonetics more seriously when we learned about interlanguage and took a more objective view of the way teachers and learners communicate in class; just because what a student has uttered makes sense to me doesn't mean that it will make sense to another in an authentic communicative exchange.  What I consider a small mistake in pronunciation could potentially disallow the conveyance of meaning with someone else.  Furthermore, the possibility of fossilization makes the need for a greater emphasis on pronunciation all the more necessary.

  So these courses have altered my approach to some elements of pedagogy, given me a holistic and systemic understanding of concepts for which I already had some rudimentary knowledge, and introduced me to concepts and practices to which I was previously ignorant.

  Now that I've written my general feelings on the matter, I feel a lot better about being able to put a quality presentation together for Saturday.  I'll start looking at transcripts and videos tonight and tomorrow morning, possibly blogging again to see how the points on which I'll focus look laid out together.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Chapter 6 Reflections

Question 4 - Reflect for a moment on your career in ELT.  What have been the major turning points and decisions in your professional life?  How have these related to your personal life?  What values have guided you in choosing your career path?  What conflicts of values have you experienced, and how have you tried to resolve them?

     I think I can answer all of these questions by discussing my experience during my first year teaching ESL!  When I first started teaching here in Korea, I did it to take a year off before beginning my career in financial planning in earnest.  I had been working at a bank for a period of time and had studied quite hard over the preceding year to become a Certified Financial Planner.  Having never lived outside the US, I wanted to take a year to live somewhere new and do something I knew I would enjoy.
     Things didn't go to plan, however, because I really loved teaching and my experiences in Korea :)  I didn't want to come back and start my 'real' life!  That year affected me on a very personal level in both positive and negative ways.  I think, because many of my own deeply-held values are more in-line with teaching than financial planning, I was able to recognize what I really enjoyed about education despite a very difficult work experience.
     So I would say the decision to stick with language instruction as opposed to returning to financial work was definitely my most significant professional decision, but it was also the easiest life-altering decision I have ever made.  I value the act of helping others and have always known that I would only be satisfied with a job in which this value was directly and significantly attended to.  My desire to help others had previously led me to financial planning (and hospitality for many years before that!), but teaching provided me with a totally pure sense of personal and professional satisfaction which I had never experienced before.  After a few months of that feeling, it was hard to envision returning to a morally complicated and less satisfying career in finance.
     Still, that first year at a language academy was extremely difficult.  Coming to terms with education-for-profit was not easy because management's goals so often conflicted with educational goals.  The academic approach set the students up for failure, a situation with which upper-management was perfectly content provided the net student enrollment was maintained and tuition payments continued to roll in.  I made my feelings known on a variety of issues which I felt were creating a poor quality of life in my classrooms and preventing acquisition, but it was soon clear that the systemic changes needed to move into positive territory would never come to be.  Furthermore, the teachers (foreign and Korean) were constantly being marginalized and taken advantage of financially, professionally and personally, leading to very low workplace morale.  Many of the other foreign teachers had simply given up, using the extremely flawed management as an excuse to check-out as educators and drift through the days, collecting paychecks, students-be-damned.
     The negativity of that place affected me, too, but in a different way from some of my colleagues.  Management was upsetting, but teacher apathy was more upsetting by far.  I found myself motivated to do the extra work necessary to create as much good out of a bad situation as possible for the students in my classes, however much or little that might amount to.  Some of the other teachers clearly had the same reaction, and I suspect some others shared my feelings though their actions didn't reflect it.  In their defense, there were many days (like, every day?) when I also wanted to just give up.
     Still, as painful as it was to watch many students fail where they could have easily succeeded under better circumstances, I think all the disadvantages we faced made it that much more exhilarating when students were able to succeed.  I developed a pretty close bond with some of the kids and we still shoot emails back and forth from time to time.  The good that came from that bad place was so good that I stuck with ESL.. and the bad was bad enough to make clear the need to further my own ESL education; I wanted to have the technical competence and the professional clout to bend disadvantageous educational conditions to my will, making them student-centered and successful.
     So here I am and that's why :)

Question 5 - Think about your own teaching situation.  Do you consider that you are marginalized in any way?  If so, what forms does this marginalization take?  What forms of advocacy are or would be useful in your situation?

     Thankfully, my current teaching situation does not suffer from almost any of the circumstances laid out in the previous section!  It is a private elementary school in which English education is taken somewhat more seriously and my approach to ESL is respected, within limits.  I do, however, feel marginalized at work because of the language barrier between the administration and myself.  Really, I don't put much or any of the blame for this marginalization on the administration.  I think it's my responsibility, as a resident-alien in Korea, to learn to communicate with them or to be satisfied with using middle-management as an intermediary for communication (this presents a slew of problems..).
     While I am able to communicate basic conversational utterances in Korean, I am not, for example, able to effectively explain my feelings on more complex issues: the effect of my class meeting times upon language acquisition; my opinion concerning the pace at which we should be covering material.  For these dialogues, I have to wait for an appropriate time to present itself in which I am able to express a complex thought to our middle-manager and hope that she successfully expresses that thought to the administration in the way that I had intended.  The opportunity to do this in person happens about once a semester.
     The kind of advocacy that would be useful in my situation is my own!  I am looking forward to having the time to continue improving my Korean communicative ability for both personal and professional reasons.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

ICC Mini Lesson Reflection

I've posted the slideshow from our mini-lesson in the previous post.. looking back, it would've been great if I had taken some pictures during the class-activity..  oh well.  On to the reflection!

1) Did the lesson plan provide Ss opportunity to meaningfully learn about an aspect of culture by going through Moran’s stages of learning?

     Yes, I think we covered all of Moran's stages of culturally knowing in our presentation.  We focused on the 'knowing how' stage and gave a little less attention to the 'knowing about' and 'knowing why' stages.  However, I think the way in which we covered those stages still would have been enough to encourage a holistic thought-process concerning the cultural practice of gift-giving in China.  We then encouraged the students to consider the 'knowing oneself' stage through the homework questions, to which the answers would be highly personal.

2) Was the cultural content objective and free of over-generalizations and stereotypes?

     It's always dangerous to ascribe cultural practices and norms to large groups of people like "Chinese people", a term which can be used to describe a huge and varied group of individuals.  Our lesson did not take into account the variety of different ethnic and cultural sub-groups which exist in China or Chinese culture.  However, this sample lesson was merely intended to be a first-exposure to the cultural practice of gift-giving; our goal was to provide a sort of cultural survival-strategy or pattern of behavior which would be acceptable in a majority of conceivable encounters in Chinese society.  While information about the variety of Chinese sub-groups and their practices is valuable and important, it was also important to consider the need to avoid overwhelming students or harming rates of retention.  We decided that the presentation of cultural knowings of less prevalent practices and sub-groups would be more appropriate for a more detailed analysis in a later lesson.

3) Was the cultural content objective and free of over-generalizations and stereotypes?

     I certainly hope we didn't overgeneralize the Chinese practice of gift-giving!  There is a wealth of information to be had concerning the significance of the form, timing, and manner of presentation of gifts, much of which is very detailed.  So while we were sure to have the students 'know about' some of these variables, we decided a first lesson should focus on only one of these formats; we wanted the format to be both widely-used in Chinese society and applicable to the students' potential experiences in the short-term as well as the long-term.  So, in the interest of these things, it was necessitated that the target behavior be fairly general.

4) Was the content and language appropriate for the student profile and proficiency level?

     We tried to keep the language quite simple and were able to include some new target-language like "accept" and "refuse".  I think it would have been manageable by intermediate-low learners.  Concerning the content, gift-giving between friends is applicable to all learners, regardless of age.  So, I think the students of the provided student profile would have been well-served by our lesson.

5) Was it student-centered? Did it provide ample opportunities for students to produce language (especially TLC) in meaningful and contextualized ways?

     I think our production activity was much more student-centered than some of our presentation.  While I really liked the bits where we had the students hypothesizing 'knowing why' information, I was less satisfied with the fill-in-the-blank practice sections we mixed into the presentation.  While this was an effective way to make the students notice the target-language form, it was not meaningful production of output.  We probably could have injected meaning to this bit of the lesson by role-playing interactions in which sample gifts were presented by teachers, or in which students were instructed to present a gift to another student.  The downside, however, would be the time that these activities would have required and the fact that, mid-lesson, the students would not have had all the linguistic tools they needed to negotiate a full interaction, necessitating some explanation or assistance by the teacher in order to navigate the interaction.

6) What aspects of the lesson plan and implementation were you pleased with? Why?

     I was most satisfied with our production activity and the bits when we had the students hypothesize possible explanations for the cultural practices, just before our helpful little 'knowing why' dude explained them :)

     I was satisfied with the production activity because it had the students meaningfully practicing the target language and behavior such that, if a mistake was made, students could monitor each other's output to make corrections. It was meaningful because students were given the opportunity to create their own presents and choose the recipients.  Similarly, they received gifts from unexpected givers, necessitating the consideration of an appropriate reciprocal gift.  These are very realistic situations which elicit the same patterns of thought and behavior which would be necessary outside of the classroom.

     I also thought the moments when students were able to formulate and share their own hypotheses about the reasons for why gift-giving is done in the way its done were also useful, because it required the mental negotiation of the 'knowing why' material, making it more interesting and making acquisition more likely.

7) What  aspects could be improved? Why and how?

     I think our fill-in-the-blank practice activities were the weak point of the lesson.  The absence of meaningful production is a major hurdle to acquisition, making these activities less effective than they could have been.  We discussed this issue when we were designing the lesson but decided not to change the activity, given the 15 minute limit.  For a full lesson, this portion of the activity would have been modified to be meaningful, possibly in the way I described in response #5.

Gift Giving in China .pptx Slideshow