Monthly Archives: October 2014

Frustration!

I am about two thirds of the way through reading a writing assignment by my twelfth graders and I can feel the frustration boiling inside me. Sometimes they do well, but this time around it feels like we are back to square one. It’s like everything I taught them about grammar and essay structure (not to mention sentence structure and punctuation) just flew out the window.

And the worst thing is, they have their IB exams in two weeks. All I can think right now is, please don’t let them write so poorly on the exams!

A little background information. I teach Japanese students in Japan who have been in an immersion program, studying in an IB course and taking most of their classes in English, since they were in elementary school. We are in Japan, so they are not immersed when they leave the classroom, but they have studied English in an “immersion” academic setting for a long time. So why do they still refuse to pay attention to grammar, sentence structure, and mechanics? I just read an essay that was one long paragraph without any indention or breaks between ideas! An essay!

Take a deep breath. They have their good days and their bad days. Clearly this was an off day for them.

It is hard getting students to understand that writing is more than putting ideas on paper. Writing in English is like learning a whole other language. It is different from spoken English. They need to think about the rules and the conventions. Not indenting paragraphs is unacceptable, in my book.

But I need to put myself in their shoes. Their first language is Japanese, which is a totally different language with completely different conventions. Even the way they organize an essay is different, not to mention that they use a writing system which is a combination of traditional Chinese characters mixed with two Japanese phonetic alphabets.

However, I still think they should be able to do better. Even though I teach English through content, I make sure to give them language support by teaching them about grammar and sentence structure rules. I don’t spend days and days teaching grammar out of context, but I make sure that we cover the basics and I expect my students to know the basic language for talking about language, such as parts of speech, basic sentence types, clause structure, verb tense, and so on.

Some students get it, and they put effort into monitoring their grammar. The effort they put in is so worth it, because after a while their written language becomes much more fluent than their peers. It is a pleasure to read fluent language. But choppy, riddled-with-errors, sloppy language is like…… torture.

But this is my job. I am an English teacher, specifically an English teacher to ELLs. They all have their struggles. I so rarely get to read fluent English. I accept that. But I think they could do better. They just need to pay attention to the rules of the language and revise! How do I get them to pay attention and revise??

There will always be some students who are great thinkers but who just don’t understand that the way you say something, the way you put your thoughts into words is also important. How can I get my students to understand that they will be judged and criticized and disrespected just because their English doesn’t sound fluent? People can be harsh. If my students go out there into the English speaking world, they will be in for a surprise. I sometimes wonder how universities deal with international students whose written English lacks fluency? I have seen many Japanese and Chinese students go off to university in America or Canada or the UK…. and I always wonder, will they be in for a harsh wake up call when they turn in a paper that has so many language errors?

Maybe I am being too critical. I can’t expect them to write fluently. But I can expect them to use a subject before a verb…..right? They might not ever get third person singular verb agreement down perfectly…. but everyone can indent a paragraph, right?

Well….. back to it……..

How can I get my Japanese students to want to interact more in my classes, and how can I use this interaction to help them develop their English?

I have a lot of introverted students in my eleventh and twelfth grade classes. Part of this may also be a cultural thing, since education in Japan is very teacher-centered and the students are taught to remain quiet and focused on the teacher. The other issue is that Japanese culture discourages people from standing out too much – my students are explicitly taught that it is better to fit in and maintain group harmony. So they tend to not want to speak up and have everyone staring at them while they take that risk to answer a question. Whatever the reason, my high school students are so quiet, and it can be difficult to create the energy I would like to see in my classes.

This term I am really focused on this issue because I am doing a research project for a distance education class I am taking, and I have decided to research class participation and student interaction. I have struggled to get my students more active in my classes, but this term, I am taking direct action by seeking out methods I can use and trying new strategies to get them speaking.

I intend to blog about some of the things I find out and report on how it goes. The class I will be using as my guinea pigs are my eleventh graders – I have been their teacher for the last two and a half years, I know them very well, and they have been my guinea pigs before and they are used to it. And they are also an extremely quiet class, but a class with a lot of great minds and creative thinkers. There really are a lot of introverts in that class – by introverts, I mean people who prefer to think first, act later. They are very thoughtful kids, in the sense that when I teach them, can see the wheels turning and the spark is there, but they keep it inside and muse on things and then their interesting ideas tend to come out in their writing.

So I am going to try to get this class more active by making them more willing to open up and share their ideas. I don’t intend to try and change them into extroverts; I just want to teach them about the positives that can come from working in a group and being willing to share our great ideas with others. And also I want to use interactive activities to help them continue to develop their English, since they are all English language learners.

I plan to read up on some of the fundamental philosophies that are relevant to this type of social education, such as Vygotsky’s “Thought and Language” and Piaget’s constructivism. I am also reading a more current book called “Content-Area Conversations: How to Plan Discussion-Based Lessons for Diverse Language Learners” It focuses on the idea that content classes should include lots of time for student discussion, and that raising the bar and encouraging a higher level of academic conversation in the class is a great strategy for promoting learning, especially for English language learners.

Anyway, I’m thinking about all the ways I can get this class speaking and interacting more, and I am going to try out some new strategies. From time to time, I’ll report here about how it goes.

Why do we feel the need to generalize about education in Eastern cultures versus Western cultures?

I was checking my daily Facebook feed and I came across an interesting article that someone had shared. The article was titled “Struggle Means Learning: Difference in Eastern and Western Cultures.” The article is from 2012, so it is a couple years old and I’m not sure why my Facebook friend chose to share it, but it caught my eye because I teach in Japan and I often find myself comparing education here to education back home in the United States.

Pretty quickly into the article I had a negative reaction. The main premise of the article is that Eastern cultures view “struggle” as a valuable part of the learning process, and cultures such as China and Japan tend to encourage students to face a difficult situation and struggle through it. This might be true. However, I was irritated by the way they chose to present this argument: through a single anecdote about a psychologist who was observing a math class in Japan, and found it interesting that the teacher chose a boy who was struggling with the problem to do it on the board rather than a good student who knew how to do the problem. According to the article, the psychologist Stiegler “knew that in American classrooms, it was usually the best kid in the class who was invited to the board.”

We have a lot of generalizations being made with that anecdote. My first thought as I was reading it was that this choice to have the struggling student come to the board was not based on culture – it was based on the unique teaching style of that particular math teacher. I am sure that many American teachers use strategies such as these to help both the struggling student and the class learn how to accomplish a problem. And I have seen teachers in Japan show preference for the students who already know the answer by asking them to give the answer or write it on the board.

Later in the article, the psychologist offers another generalization about Eastern education:

“Stigler says, in the Japanese classrooms that he’s studied, teachers consciously design tasks that are slightly beyond the capabilities of the students they teach, so the students can actually experience struggling with something just outside their reach. Then, once the task is mastered, the teachers actively point out that the student was able to accomplish it through hard work and struggle.”

Again, this just seems like good teaching practice to me. Most teachers I know are familiar with the concept introduced by Lev Vygostsky called the Zone of Proximal Development, which says that there is a difference between what a learner can do by himself, and what he can do with assistance. Teachers who use this strategy design a task that is just out of the reach of the learner, but then provide scaffolding and other strategies to help the child learn how to achieve the learning goal. Eventually, they will be able to do the task on their own, without the teacher’s assistance. The “struggle” they go through to get to the point where they can do the task on their own is part of the learning process, and it is a very effective teaching strategy, in my opinion.

I guess the article meant to emphasize the fact the the Japanese teacher actively points out that it was the students’ hard work and perseverance that made them able to achieve the goal, rather than their natural intelligence, which Americans tend to place high value on (according to the article). But I’m not convinced that Americans don’t also place great emphasis on hard work and struggle – we believe in the idea of the American dream and we respect, even worship, personalities such as Steve Jobs who dropped out of college but built a supremely influential technology company. Entrepreneurship is a highly valued quality, and most people agree that it is a combination of perseverance and perspiration that brings success.

My point is that the article uses these types of generalizations to make a blanket statement about education in Eastern cultures and Western cultures. While there is probably some truth to this idea that Eastern cultures view struggle differently from Western cultures, I felt that the article was too comfortable making quick assumptions and using anecdotal evidence to try to convince me of this cultural difference between education in the East and West.

I have worked in both Japan and China as a teacher, and I just don’t understand how people can so easily lump the two together and talk about “Eastern” culture. They are very distinct cultures. China places great emphasis on teaching students the virtues of Confucianism; Japan promotes social behaviors which help to maintain group harmony, sometimes to the extent of sacrificing the individual’s needs. I know these also are huge generalizations, but in my experience they are aspects that are unique to China and Japan as individual cultures. We often lump these ideas together and say they are “Eastern.” Then we put ourselves in the category of “Western” and we make these ridiculous comparisons. But by doing so, we do a disservice to ourselves, making it seem like our cultural values are lacking in something, and to Asians, since we are basically stereotyping.

I have seen excellent teachers in Japan and China. I must acknowledge that students in both China and Japan are ahead of American students as a whole when it comes to math (but I don’t necessarily think we would want to put our students through what they put their students through to achieve these high standards in math). But I have seen terrible teachers in both countries, just like I have seen terrible (and excellent) teachers in America.

I think it would be better for both the “East” and the “West” if they stopped comparing themselves to each other by saying one is better at this, while the other is better at that. All this does is provide fodder for politicians to criticize a system and say that teachers in one country are not as effective. Instead we should strive to find the teaching strategies that are proven to work, and then make sure that teachers everywhere are using those strategies. I don’t think these stereotypes are the answer – solid research of what effective teachers do in their classrooms – all over the world – is what we need to look at. Find the great teacher and sit in her classroom – then tell the whole world about her success.

You can read the article and listen to the NPR story it was based on here:
“Struggle Means Learning: Difference in Eastern and Western Cultures” (Mind/Shift)
“Struggle For Smarts? How Eastern And Western Cultures Tackle Learning” (NPR)

Grade inflation in the US is part of the culture….but it doesn’t have to be

One thing that I have realized since I began teaching internationally is that in the United States, grade inflation is such a part of the culture that it has become completely normal.

When I was a high school student, I expected to get all A’s and B’s, without working too hard. Sometimes I had to put in the extra time to make sure I got an A and not a B. But I don’t think I ever got a C in high school. I will admit that I cared about grades probably more than the average student. I was in honors and a couple AP classes. But I don’t think I had to work that hard to pull off all A’s and B’s. I definitely found time to have a social life and my part-time job at KFC.

And the funny thing is, when I applied to colleges with my weighted 4.0 GPA, I didn’t get into several schools that I thought I might get into, including UC Santa Barbara, which has a reputation as a party school. Which tells you that universities are probably very aware that grade inflation is rampant.

It should be stated that my high school was just a regular public school in Southern California with a large population of students and it wasn’t known for having a stellar academic program or anything. It didn’t have a bad reputation either; it was just a normal suburban high school. I know that other schools, some private schools in particular, have much higher standards when it comes to grading. However, I think that on average, most students in America experience a similar situation to what I went through.

A couple years ago when I started teaching in an International Baccalaureate program in a secondary school in Japan, I finally realized that my understanding of grades was based on a system that has all but eliminated D’s and F’s.

In the IB program, we use what are called “assessment criteria” when we assess student work. For example, if I grade a literary analysis essay by a ninth grader, I would use a rubric with three criteria: content, organization, and style and language mechanics. Each criterion goes from a scale of 0-10, with 10 being a very successful performance in that criterion.

Here is the assessment criteria for “content” so that you can see what I mean:

Criterion A: Content (receptive and productive)                                                    Maximum: 10

Achievement level Level descriptor
0 The student does not reach a standard described by any of the descriptors below.
1–2
  • The student demonstrates very little understanding of the text and topic, and little or no awareness of the author’s choices. There is little or no detail, development or support.
  • In creative work, pieces show very limited imagination or sensitivity; the student rarely employs literary features, or employs literary and/or nonliterary features that do not serve the context or intention.
  • The use of terminology is missing, inconsistent and/or incorrect.
3-4
  • The student demonstrates limited understanding of the text and topic, and sometimes shows an awareness of the author’s choices, although detail, development and/or support are insufficient.
  • In creative work, pieces show limited imagination or sensitivity; the student attempts to employ literary and/or non-literary features; these sometimes serve the context and intention.
  • The use of terminology is sometimes accurate and appropriate.
5-6
  • The student demonstrates a sufficient understanding of the text and topic, and an awareness of the author’s choices, using adequate detail, development and support.
  • In creative work, pieces reflect some imagination and sensitivity; the student generally employs literary and/or non-literary features that serve the context and intention.
  • Terminology is usually accurate and appropriate.
7-8
  • The student demonstrates a good understanding of the text, topic and the author’s choices, using substantial detail, development and support.
  • In creative work, pieces reflect imagination and sensitivity; the student employs literary and/or non-literary features that serve the context and intention.
  • Relevant terminology is used accurately and appropriately.
9-10
  • The student demonstrates a perceptive understanding of the text, topic and the author’s choices, consistently using illustrative detail, development and support.
  • In creative work, pieces reflect a lot of imagination and sensitivity; the student employs literary and/or non-literary features effectively that serve the context and intention.
  • The student shows a sophisticated command of relevant terminology, and uses it appropriately.

When I first started using the IB criteria, I would read my students’ work and then use the IB rubric to assign the appropriate grade. But I realized that if I were going to give a true measure of the student work I was assessing, I would be giving scores much lower than an 8 or a 9.

As you can see from the scale above, it would be very common to give a student a score of 5 in the IB Program, since a 5 means the student demonstrates a “sufficient understanding of the text and topic.” If we convert that to a percentage, that is a 50%. But if you give that kind of score in America, you are basically telling the student that they have failed!

This took me some getting used to my first semester teaching in this program. I remember the first piece of writing I graded, I assigned really high scores (all 7’s and up) because I just didn’t feel right about giving students what seemed to me like a failing grade.

I have since realized that my discomfort with giving low scores comes from my experience growing up in an academic system that gives out A’s for making effort, B’s as just satisfactory, and C’s to make a statement about a student’s poor performance. D’s and F’s basically mean the student didn’t turn anything in and/or they just never came to class. Do teachers in America ever give a D based on actual performance?

I think teachers feel a lot of pressure from parents and from administration to give A’s and B’s. The universities are clearly aware that this is going on. But why do we want to keep a system like this? It makes these letter grades basically meaningless and gives a student very little information about their performance. It sends the message that effort is most important, not the actual work they do.

Grade inflation is one of the many things that is wrong with the way schools assess students in the US. I have a whole list of other things that I think could be improved, but I’ll save that for another post.

I’d be curious to know if you, reader, have had a similar experience. Is grade inflation a serious problem in the US?

 

I hate being the center of attention….. but I love teaching because I believe in student-centered learning.

I am a teacher, but I feel very uncomfortable standing in front of a group of people and speaking to them for a long time. I have always had stage fright, and I still feel it a little when I am standing up there and I suddenly become aware that all my students are staring at me. Of course they are – I am the teacher. But it makes me feel weird to be the center of attention all the time.

This probably seems like it would be a deficiency for me as a teacher, since I have to stand up in front of people and speak all the time. However, I think it has actually caused me to be a better teacher. I think it is a good thing if teachers feel that standing in front of our students and speaking for long periods of time is just weird. It is weird. I don’t understand how people can do that. I don’t think that is the way to be a great teacher.

I don’t feel comfortable unless my students are involved in the lesson. I rarely let myself indulge in long monologues. Every once in a while, I can’t resist telling them about something I find interesting; I might stumble onto a topic related to something I can just go on and on about (usually a language-related topic – I am a huge grammar/linguistics nerd), but even though passion for a subject is the key to attracting students’ attention, I know that there will always be a student who begins to zone out after a certain amount of time. So when I find myself going off on that tangent, telling them this really cool story about this really interesting topic, I make sure that I see an end point to it. Otherwise, I am sure I will lose some of them, no matter how interesting I think what I am talking about is.

My natural discomfort with being the center of attention has made me a better teacher – I know it has. Instead of telling students what I think they need to know, I use questions to guide them to the answers they come up with. Sometimes they make their way to the answers I myself have to the questions – sometimes they find their own answers. So often, they come up with ideas that I never considered. I use big questions all the time as the starting point of my units and I always come back to them throughout to find out what new ideas the students have.

I’ll admit it, I love having my students do group work. I know some people hate doing group work. But if you think you don’t like group work, it is probably because you got stuck in a group with people who didn’t really want to do the work, or maybe it was because the teacher was using group work to avoid having to actually do any teaching. For group work to really be effective, the teacher has to do a lot of planning and guiding before and after the students are in groups. I never send my students into groups and then just leave them to it, and stay up at the front doing my own thing. I always walk around and listen in and interact with them as much as I can. But I also keep my distance when I see that they would feel uncomfortable with me butting in. The fact of the matter is, we are a social species. Our progress as a species has been because of our collaboration. No man is an island. We have made it to where we are because we have stood on the shoulders of giants. Students need to practice working in groups because this is how great ideas are born. I believe that much of education should be collaborative. Group-work provides opportunities for greater learning.

Now that I have become more versed in the language of education and theories of learning, I realize that there are many teaching strategies out there that promote the style of teaching that I embrace. For example, I was doing project-based learning units with my students before I had even heard of PBL. But when I found out about it, I realized that there was a whole philosophy for this type of teaching, and teaching strategies like PBL embrace that philosophy.

Of course, I heard about cooperative learning when I was working towards getting my teaching license. It is a common term used for group work. But I think my style of teaching is more than that. It is a fundamental belief that my role is as a facilitator, as a mentor. But I am not a star. I am not a celebrity at the center of attention, with all eyes on me. I want to help promote deeper learning in my students by designing memorable learning experiences through experiential learning, through interaction with peers, through inquiry. This is what I love about teaching. I love watching them in action. When I can walk around the classroom and see learning happening in every direction, I feel satisfied.

It is my personal opinion that if you are standing in front of a class full of students and you suddenly realize that all eyes are on you and that you are talking and they are listening and it just feels weird… well that is the right feeling to have about that situation. Direct instruction has its place in education, of course. But I promise you, if you are speaking for more than ten minutes without stopping, somebody is zoning out…..