Sunday, November 18, 2012

Grading over 100 students... and doing it well?

One of my grad school courses is all about how to assess your students. As this is part of a Master's in TESOL program, the course focuses on how to assess speakers of English as a second language in terms of their reading, listening, speaking, and writing abilities. The course spends a lot of time focusing on the importance of providing quality corrective feedback. One of the things the course stresses is that simply marking answers as correct or incorrect and giving a letter or numerical score doesn't do much to actually help students learn. A good teacher should explain what the student did wrong and how to fix it, in addition to providing positive feedback about the specific things the student has done well. General comments such as 'good job' or 'awkward' don't go far towards helping students know what was done well or what was awkward and why. I'm sure we all agree with this (in theory).

Then reality hits.

I am only grading for one undergrad class, but it has four sections and over a hundred students. I've taught over one hundred students at one time before, but as they've always been in separate classes I could often (although not always) make sure I didn't have a hundred assignments to grade all at once. When you have such a large number of assignments to grade, whether you're a graduate assistant grading for huge undergraduate courses at a large university, a public school teacher teaching five classes of thirty students, or teaching English in a private language institute in Korea teaching ten classes of ten to fifteen students, the reality is that you are going to spend a lot of time grading.

I don't have too much say in how the assignments that I grade are graded; I'm just a lowly grading assistant after all. The grading rubric is established by the course's instructor, and I am responsible for adhering to the established rubric for each assignment. The one thing that is left up to me is what sort of feedback I provide. In theory, I could comment on each student's assignment, providing detailed information on what they've done well and what needs improvement... but I have something like thirty assignments to grade, multiplied by one hundred and eleven students. Even if I weren't also a full-time student myself, I don't think it would be possible for me to leave quality feedback on every assignment and still manage to finish grading everything before the end of the semester.

Because of this, it seems that the students who hear from me the most are the worst ones in the course. They  hear from me the most because whenever students lose points from an assignment, I am required to email them and explain why (although the length and depth of the explanation is up to me). I could totally get away with messages like "I deducted 3 points from your score because your explanation of X was incorrect" - but I don't. I've been trying my best to explain to my students not merely what they lost points for, but why what they did was incorrect as well as what the correct answer should have been and why. As you might imagine, this takes a lot of time. 

Due to the way the grading rubrics have been established for most of the assignments that I grade, doing the bare minimum and going the extra mile earn my students the same number of points. That's an entirely different can of worms that I'm not entirely sure I want to get into here on this semi-public blog. However, I mention it because it is relevant to this topic. It bugs me that a student who does the bare minimum gets the same score as a student who has obviously put a lot of time and effort into his or her work. I've tried to encourage those who have gone the extra mile by giving them extra praise. Unfortunately, for the most part this 'extra praise' tends to consist merely of banal statements like 'Great job!' and 'Excellent work!' instead of  detailed descriptions of what it was that I thought was done well. Sigh.

And those poor students in the middle of the pack? They hardly ever hear from me. I feel somewhat guilty about this, but can't come up with a practical solution. (And to any of those people who think class size doesn't matter, let this be one of an innumerable number of possible examples as to why it most definitely matters!)

Friday, November 16, 2012

Online courses and “discussion”

This semester I am a grading assistant for an online undergrad course. I am also taking one online grad course, as well as one mixed mode grad course (meaning approximately 50% of the coursework is online, and the rest is done in a classroom setting). I have a lot of mixed feelings about this, but I think I’ll try to confine this post to my thoughts on, well, online posts – or as they tend to be called in the online course world, Discussion Postings.

In both the undergrad class for which I grade and the grad courses that I’m taking, we’re supposed to participate in online discussions about the things we read or about videos we watch (etc). These discussion postings are meant to simulate the types of discussions that would normally take place in a real-life classroom. Unfortunately, these “discussions” are so incredibly stilted, awkward, and contrived that I don’t think it serves that function at all. They are also meant to “prove” to the instructor that the assignment (reading, video watching, etc.) has been completed; however, as the postings are relatively short (the undergrad ones are typically a minimum of three to five sentences (!) and the grad level ones are typically a minimum of 500 words), it seems very easy to create a post without having actually done the reading/watching/whatever. I know that online learning is rapidly growing in importance and popularity. I love teaching in an actual classroom – and I love studying in an actual classroom – but I also realize that at some point I will probably find myself teaching an online course. As such, I’ve been viewing my online courses not just as something that I’m taking/grading, but as an example of what works and what doesn’t in online education.

So why is it I feel that these discussion postings are so inauthentic in terms of a substitute for an actual classroom discussion? Well, it has a lot to do with the specific way in which they’re scored. They’re typically graded along the following lines: X points for posting your thoughts on the reading/video/whatever, and Y points for commenting on at least two other people’s posts. This means that instead of engaging in an actual discussion, students quickly look for two posts to comment on, and then they never look back. They very rarely reply to comments on their own posts. (I try to, myself, but I am one of the very few grad students who do this. Even fewer of the undergrads do.) One of my undergrads was docked points because while she did make two comments, they were in response to two comments to her original post (as opposed to comments on other people’s posts). This was sad, because it was the only instance of actual discussion in the entire class for that assignment, and yet the student did not get full credit.

During my undergrad years, I sat through many a class discussion without saying all that much. We were given points for participation in general, but it wasn’t based on the number of times I opened my mouth in class. Sure there were times when I participated, but there were many other times when I either had nothing to say, or was simply more interested in what others (including the professor) had to say about a topic. While I certainly don’t know what motivated my undergrad classmates to speak (or not) during class, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t “I have to open my mouth X times to get a good grade.” This led to some undergrad discussions that were actually discussions. And whether I was talking or not, I was still listening and learning.

I’m not sure how that kind of actual discussion can be fostered online. Part of what makes a real-life classroom discussion work is the fact that it is moderated by the instructor in real-time. The instructor can bring up points that students have missed (or have neglected to bring up), can emphasize which aspects of the reading are more important, and can ask questions to get students to think about what they’ve said, why things happened, etc. This sort of real-time monitoring/direction is impossible to maintain in a discussion board that is open for, say, a week, with participants posting at random times throughout the week.

One of my professors responds to our posts during the discussion period and asks us questions, which at the very least leads to a mini-discussion between the student and the professor, although I have yet to see any actual discussions. My other online professor comments on our posts after the “discussion” period is over. It’s always interesting for me to see what the professor thinks of what I’ve written, but again, a comment after the fact hardly leads to discussion.

Is there any way to turn “discussion postings” for online courses into actual discussions? The only thing I can think of is to set up weekly live chats… although that would almost defeat the one of the main purposes of an online course, which is that you can take it regardless of your schedule.

As ironic as it is to be posting this online (haha), have any of you had any good experiences teaching/taking an online course? What worked? What didn’t? Please share!

Of dead kittens, fall feasts, and crunchy tootsie rolls

Okay, so I haven't been blogging much lately, due to a combination of being busy with schoolwork and my assistantship and running up to Georgia and north Florida just about every other weekend. However, since people continue to read this blog (as mind boggling of a thought as that is) I thought I'd try to catch you up on the things that have been going on in my weird world.

First, alas, I have some very sad news. Poor little Blondie, one of the kittens I found on the side of the road this past summer, was killed over the weekend. She had discovered the cat door, and had started going in and out. However, having grown up with Brin, the kitten-friendly pit bull, she had no fear of large dogs. Apparently she would sit on the front gate and pounce on neighborhood dogs as they walked by. And this weekend she went into the backyard with Viktor and Kali, who are not cat friendly. Poor, poor baby. I'm assuming, however, that it was a quick death, and I expect that she just thought they were playing up until the end. Or at least I really want to think so.

Blondie is the one on the left :(

The rest of my time "up north" wasn't as depressing. The main reason for my trip was to attend an annual "fall feast" held in north Florida at the home of someone I went to high school with waaaaay back in the day. This was the first time I'd ever been, but it was so much fun. Here are some photos :-)


I lift my pinky as I sip my Bud Light. This is something I do subconsciously.

There was hairdressing for a fashion show.

And fancy make-up for some...

...and steampunk cranks for others.

My costume was geek. Haha. I dressed as me.
Besides, everyone was looking at the dominatrix anyway.

There were several bands.

And a lot of scenes that reminded me of high school.
Or possibly Hell. Surely those two are interchangeable?

Also, I was shown how to shuck oysters. And ate a lot of raw oysters.
While drunk. And was not ill.

Amazingly, I was up at 7:30am. I am NEVER up that early. Apparently dawn light makes for cool photos. Who knew?

Back in Orlando... I was in class Tuesday night, and was given a tootsie roll by one of my classmates. As I was eating it, I noticed that it was crunching. Tootsie rolls aren't supposed to crunch. I thought that perhaps this is what tootsie rolls do when they get old, so I swallowed it and pretended nothing was wrong. Then I ran my tongue over my teeth, and discovered that half of that ginormous filling that I got in South Korea last year was missing. I sat through the rest of class trying not to freak out. It didn't hurt (unless I ate and anything went down the hole), although it did develop a dull ache. I was able to get an appointment at a dentist recommended to me by a classmate (Dr. John Russo - not scary at all!) for Thursday. I got all the Korean amalgam removed and replaced with ceramic, and I got a new cavity in the neighboring tooth filled as well. This is all wonderful and great, as I now have a mouthful of teeth that look like teeth, with no amalgam or gaping holes or cavities in sight. Unfortunately it cost $575, which rather left me wishing I'd gotten the gold tooth when it was on offer in Korea. Sigh. The dentist also said he could fix my ailing front tooth bonding (also acquired in Korea), but I'll have to put that off until I rebuild my bank account.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Learning Styles

I am a grading assistant for an undergraduate class that is wholly online. A lot of online courses like this one have assignments that exist purely to prove to the teacher that the students have done the reading or watched the video or what have you. For the assignment that I'm grading today, students were required to write their opinions about one website (containing an article) as well as about two videos. They were instructed to include their thoughts about the website/videos, what they thought about the topic, and which one of the three best fit their learning style. As far as actual assignments go, this one is obviously very easy to complete, as long as you read the article and watch the videos. (Amazingly, there are students who didn't bother doing the assignment. SMH.)

The article in question can be found here, and the two videos are posted below. What I have found the most interesting is that among the students (and there are a little over 100), I'd say they are divided into equal numbers over which of the three items best fits their learning style - and they are very opinionated about which one(s) they like and which one(s) they don't like and why. Even though the goal of this assignment wasn't to make this point, it clearly shows that students have different learning styles, and that even if you prefer one style, you should include other styles in your classroom. (I personally prefer the article, although I enjoyed the first video. What about you?)

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Low-Tech and No-Tech TESOL Solutions

Today I gave a presentation at the Central Florida TESOL fall conference. I know a lot of you who read this blog are also English teachers, so I thought I'd share some of the information from my presentation with you here as well.

As many of you know, I spent 2008 in Kyrgyzstan teaching English. (While the blog that I kept while I was there is no longer online, I am working on getting part of it back online, and I will certainly link to it from here when I do.) In 2008, I taught at The London School, located in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. (If you know me, you might notice a picture of me in my pjs on their website!) Now, since I know when I typically mention Kyrgyzstan, most people look at me in confusion, here are some helpful maps:


That red arrow points to Bishkek.

This is The London School. The classrooms were in the tall grey-blue building, and the teachers lived in the grey building on the right.

This was my classroom as I saw it on my very first day in Bishkek. As you see from this picture, we have electricity. And a TV and a VCR. I also was given a stereo/CD/tape player. I had electric-powered speakers that allowed me to use my ipod in class, and I could use my laptop in class if I needed to as well...

It wasn't the most high-tech classroom in the world, but it wasn't the least high-tech... right? Well, I arrived in January. In about February, things began to change. 

Kyrgyzstan doesn't have much in terms of natural resources. While its neighbors Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan make their money selling oil and natural gas, Kyrgyzstan doesn't have much to offer. The one resource that it does have is water. Due to its location - and its high mountain ranges - Kyrgyzstan has a lot more water than its neighbors. As such, the Kyrgyz government contracted to sell water to both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Additionally, most of their power grid runs off of hydroelectric power. Unfortunately, 2007 was a very dry year for Kyrgyzstan. The water reservoirs became very low, and the country began having rolling blackouts in February 2008. These blackouts continued throughout my stay in Kyrgyzstan.

The first time it happened, we thought it was a fluke. We taught our last class of the day by candlelight, and made the best of it. Soon we learned that the blackouts would be a regular thing. Sometimes they occurred only once or twice a week. Sometimes they happened several days in a row. Sometimes we knew when the power would go out and how long it would be out. Other times it was a surprise. I taught from 2pm to 9pm (roughly). My night classes were often taught by candlelight, and I knew that if I planned a lesson involving tapes, cds, film, ipod (with its electric powered external speakers), or laptop (with its short-lived battery), there was a good chance that things would not work out as planned.

This was how my evening classes looked on many occasions: students studying by candlelight. This was a little problematic with a couple of my younger students, who liked to play with fire...

My headlamp was absolutely the BEST thing I brought with me. Not so useful for teaching (I tried it once, and ended up shining a bright light in my students' faces), but WONDERFUL for planning lessons in the dark... which was how I planned most of them!

There were a lot of things that I wished I'd had with me while I was in Kyrgyzstan, things that would have made working in a no-electricity environment a lot easier. I'm planning to go back this coming summer, assuming everything works out. I know that there are still power outages, even in Bishkek (although I'm not sure if they're still occurring with as much frequency as they did back in 2008) - and I'm actually planning on working in a small, rural village (through a volunteer program set up by The London School), where I imagine regular, reliable electricity will be even less likely than in Bishkek. 

Based on my experiences - and the things I wished I'd had - I've gathered a bunch of items to take with me this summer. These things are small and lightweight and would be very useful for anyone planning to teach in an environment where electricity is unreliable or absent altogether. (And to be perfectly honest, these are also useful things to have on hand in general in case of a natural disaster.)

For starters, get a headlamp! I cannot even begin to express how useful my headlamp was. The one that I brought with me to Kyrgyzstan was battery powered, and while the batteries lasted a pretty long time, they would still go dead periodically. Inevitably, this would occur late at night while I was planning lessons. The solution to this is a wind-up headlamp. I recommend the Mitaki-Japan Wind-Up LED Headlamp. The light from this thing is just as bright, if not brighter, than my battery powered headlamp - and you never have to buy batteries! Crank it for about a minute, and it will run for an hour and a half. This thing is wonderful.


Next up: Get a wind-up lantern or two. These things are small, lightweight, and relatively cheap. They're super bright - and unlike with candles, you don't have to worry about some of your younger teenage boys lighting things on fire in the middle of class if you're using them. I recommend the Wind 'N Go Mini LED Lantern. Just like the wind-up headlamp, it lasts for about an hour and a half off of one minute of cranking.

Remember how I mentioned that I had speakers for my ipod, but they were electric powered? Well, I've found some really great (and surprisingly loud) speakers that are battery powered: the Kinivo ZX220 Portable Twin Speakers. They come with a built in rechargeable battery, and can be charged through your USB cord, or a USB-to-power adapter. I'm not sure how long they last on a full charge, but it's at least two hours. (This also requires an ipod or other MP3 player.)
You can't tell from this photo, but these are very small (although like I said, they're also very loud).

Now, your MP3 player and the above speakers are both powered by rechargeable batteries. This is great if you have a power source available on occasion - but what if you don't? What if you're working somewhere without any access to electricity? Well, there's a solution to that, too. It's the K-TOR Pocket Socket (which is seriously a wonderful name). Using a USB-to-wall-socket adapter (such as this or this) you can charge any rechargeable device with this thing... although it is a long process. Your item has to be plugged into the charger while you're cranking it, and it can take a good five minutes or so of winding to get enough juice to play one song on your ipod - still, if this is the only way you can bring audio into your class, it's definitely going to be worth it. And you can probably get a student to work the hand crank for you :-)
And lastly... how do you make copies without electricity to power a copy machine? Sadly, by hand. However, some good carbon paper is both reusable and it can allow you to get 3-4 copies from one time of writing. If you have a class of nine students, it's much easier to write a test or a worksheet three times (and get 9 copies using carbon paper) than to hand copy the same thing nine times! Roaring Spring Carbon Paper works really well.