Sunday, August 16, 2015


New apps for the classroom are popping up all the time, and for me it's been mostly a case of too many apps, not enough time.  But this past Friday a colleague, the amazing Amber Miller, demonstrated kahoot for classroom quizzes, discussion starters, and surveys.  It works kind of like poll everywhere, but it has a lot more visual appeal and generates more student engagement.  The quizzes are quick and easy to create, and the log-in info is displayed prominently throughout the game to accommodate slower students or latecomers.  Students need a smart phone or tablet, but if someone doesn't have one, they can pair up with a student who does. I'm already planning to use it the first day of class for an entertaining way to review the syllabus, regulations, and options.  At the end of the quiz, the teacher can see everyone's answers to all the questions to determine how much remediation is needed and for which students.  I haven't explored it fully yet, but I thoroughly enjoyed the experience at our fall in-service training, which is saying a lot for in-service scheduled on a Friday morning.  You can get a taste of it with this demo video: If you have used this app, I would love to know about your experience.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

August Angst

About this time every year I am struck with the realization that summer is almost over (at least the work-break part of summer), and I still have a mountain of to-dos to be done before the first day of class on August 24.  Testing students for fall registration (Step 2 of the registration process) has already claimed significant space on my July calendar, and my August calendar is filled with student registrations, syllabus creation, in-service, and a workshop to present.

Every semester, I am torn by the conflict between the the mandate to create a syllabus reflecting departmental requirements and the desire to have a student-driven classroom. The syllabus should be easy. Just take what I had for last fall and change the dates, right? But it's never that simple because I've accumulated more resources and ideas since I wrote last year's syllabus.  How can I accommodate our program's mandates for grammar and process writing while still incorporating technology, process drama, music, listening, more reading…?  The key lies in flexibility.  As I did last year, keep the syllabus general and vague enough that I can bend it to accommodate student needs, interests, and proficiency levels.  I know in my heart of hearts that despite my present August Angst and the mounds of books and papers adorning my home office, it will all fall into place, and I will be ready to greet my new students on August 24, syllabus in hand.    

Monday, July 13, 2015

First Experiment with Process Drama

After attending a TESOL 2015 preconference workshop on process drama last March, I was inspired to try it out with my intermediate-level adult ESL class.  The hard part for me is to come up with a Big Human Question.  Questions like How can we achieve world peace? may be do-able, but I felt like I needed to start smaller.  I had already planned a unit on technology, and serendipitously, the Austin newspaper had an article the day before I returned from TESOL about how smart phones are here to stay, so we might as well get used to them, so I played with the idea of smartphones as the introductory topic for talking about technology in general.  Smart phones may not pose a Big Human Question, but our increasing dependence on them is viewed by many as the path to perdition (thus, a problem) while others see them as an enhancement to quality of life, thus the existing social debate. Furthermore, and I believe this is the key principle of the Big Human question issue, the question has to be of social and/or ethical importance and one to which the teacher does not already have an answer. This question isn't shared with the students, but it is the focal point of all the problem-solving activities carried out in the process drama and the teacher's guiding light through the process. My question was, Is it a good thing for children to have their own smart phones?  The following activities took place over two class periods of about two hours each.

  1. I started with vote with your feet to determine smart phone use among the students and their families.  First I asked everyone to stand up and students who have a smart phone were to go to one side of the room and those who don't were to go to the other side. Surprisingly, everyone went to the designated spot for "have a smartphone." This wouldn't have happened in any of my classes a year ago! Then five out of 16 students went to the location for having a child with a smart phone.  Then two students went to the location for having a parent or grandparent with a smartphone.
  2. After we discussed the results of the first activity, I showed a very short PowerPoint distilled from the aforementioned newspaper article.introducing the prevalence of smartphones in our culture.  The PowerPoint was titled "Smartphones: Good or Bad?" and ended with the question, "What do you think?"  This was the discussion starter for groups of 3–4. When Ss reported back out of groups, I listed their ideas (e.g., not for young children, not at the dinner table, too expensive, ...)
  3. I then had students read an article from The Change Agent written by a father whose teenage daughter wants him to buy a smart phone for her, but he can't afford it.  He asks what he can do and why the phone companies have to keep coming out with newer, more expensive models.
  4. The article reading was followed by another group discussion with 3 groups. Group 1 students brainstormed arguments the daughter in the article could make; Group 2 students brainstormed suggestions for the father; Group 3 students brainstormed suggestions for manufacturers and service providers to make smartphones more affordable.  Again, I recorded the groups' ideas when they reported out to the whole class.
  5. Tableaux/Thought Tracking: I asked students to imagine they are the father who cannot afford a phone, doesn't think his daughter needs one, and is unhappy and worried because his daughter is angry with him.  I instructed Ss to walk around the room as the father thinking about his problem .  My students had difficulty with freeform random pacing.  They wanted to go in a circle, all in the same direction.  I had to interrupt, demonstrate, and redirect several times, but they finally got the idea. ThenI had them stop walking and hold their positions (Tableaux) and tapped three students on the shoulder and asked them what they were thinking (Thought Tracking).  We did two or three cycles of this activity.
  6. Conscience Alley: One student volunteered to be the father and the rest were good/bad angels giving him advice. The "good/bad angels" lined up in parallel facing rows, good one one side and bad on the other, and the "father" walked between them, listening to advice from each one. Even the lowest-level students could say as much as "don't do it" or "buy the phone"; more advanced students offered more elaborate advice ("you can't afford it"; "she's a good student and she deserves to have a smartphone").  As in real life, in the end, after listening to all the conflicting opinions, the father still couldn't decide.
  7. Improvisation: I divided students into four groups of four. One was to take the role of father or mother, one was to take the role of son or daughter, and the other two would be family members or friends of the family.  Each group had two stronger, more vocal, English speakers and at least one who was at a more basic speaking level.  The stronger students took the roles of parent and daughter, and I was pleased to see that they made an effort to bring the beginners into the improv by asking their advice or asking whether they agreed.  The lower-level students' contributions were minimal, but they were involved in the discussion.  After students had worked on the problem for a while, I asked for groups to volunteer to re-enact their improv for the class. All groups volunteered.
  8. Out of Role Discussion: In a whole-class discussion of the improvisation activity, students generally agreed that it was valuable because they had to think in English as they spoke; they weren't able to write out what they were going to say.
  9. Writing in Role: We finished with a writing activity with each student deciding to be a parent or a child and write a letter to the one they were not (daughter/son wrote to parent; parent wrote to daughter or son) explaining their positions on the cell phone dilemma. Those who wanted to shared their letters with the class.
With this experience, I only dipped my toes into the process drama waters. I'm planning to do more with it next school year. For more process drama conventions, you can download a pdf of Susan Hilliard's 2011 slideshow from TESOL's Electronic Village Online.  I would love to hear about your experiences with process drama.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Digital Storytelling

This entry is a travelogue of my journey into bringing my students and myself into digital storytelling. I wanted to do something different from business-as-usual with my summer classes.  I had six four-hour sessions with my level 2 (low intermediate) class and four four-hour sessions with my level 3 (high intermediate) class in which to accomplish something fun and practical. Would that be enough time for them to complete their projects?  In actuality, it was more than enough time.  Both classes finished early and we had time to finish the summer semester with The Red Balloon.  ESL students never cease to amaze me with their willingness to jump into any project I put before them, and as usual, they came through with flying colors with this one.

Why digital storytelling? First, I constantly encourage my students to visualize what they read.  Can you see that in your mind? What does it look like?  With digital storytelling, they have to actually match images with narration. I also wanted to improve their computer literacy, which I'm seeing more and more as an obligation in today's digital world.  Third, the digital story would be their story, on a topic with which they are familiar. Most chose personal stories about family members or events, but one student created a fictional love story and another wrote about Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera.

The digital storytelling project may have been more of a challenge for me than for them.  I had to learn PC! I have been a Mac user since I bought and became enamored with my first Mac in the 1980s.  I do own a PC laptop now, with which I have a tenuous relationship, using it when I have to, but definitely preferring my MacBook Pro.  But in the real world, my community college computer lab is populated with Dell computers, and the laptops available at my other teaching location are IBM Thinkpads.  I knew iMovie, but now I had to learn a PC-available app for my summer project.

I found examples and tutorials for creating digital stories via various free apps for PCs: Photo Story, WeVideo, Windows MovieMaker, and Windows MovieMaker 2012.  I decided to go with MovieMaker 2012.  The available computers for my classes had the requisite System 7 installed, so all I had to do was talk the IT powers-that-be in each location into installing MovieMaker 2012 on the computers. Then I began my homework, made a manual/handout lush with screenshots, prepared storyboard handouts, and launched the project, beginning with paper-and-pencil work:

  1. Write and revise your story.
  2. Mark locations in your story where you will use pictures.
  3. Rewrite your story on a storyboard or story table (from Jason Ohler, 2010), showing exactly which picture will go with each part of the narration.
At this point, I gave students the manual/handout and introduced them to the computers.  Fortunately, each class had at least one student who was computer-savvy and was willing to help the novices.  As students finished their stories, I asked them to help others who were still working on theirs. My level 2 students finished in four days; level 3 in two.

When the stories were finished, I compiled them into a continuous movie (using iMovie), which I gave to students on a DVD, along with their individual story. Digital storytelling is a journey I will take again with my ESL students. The video below comprises the stories of my level 2 students.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The World of Wikis

Well, I have dipped my toes into wiki-world and find the waters not too bad. First, I learned that I could use the services of a "wiki farm" or host the wiki myself on the server for my website. Being a total wiki novice, I opted for a wiki farm — In the week that I've ben building the wiki, I've been very happy with wikis. In addition to an extensive help forum, their response to additional questions is reasonably prompt (within one working day) and helpful. Here's the wiki — — still a work in progress, but I'm pleased with how it's working. Suggestions welcome.

Friday, March 7, 2014

New URL... Same Blog

I decided I wanted to create a wiki to help my students with volunteer options (more on that later), and found myself back here after way too long an absence. Maybe one reason I've been staying away is that I didn't like the original URL — esolteacherhelp. It seemed presumptuous from one who is still struggling to find the best way or ways. A better name would have been helpesolteacher, but I decided to rename it to my name instead. More on the wiki and volunteering to come. 

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Keeping Up

Not. Obviously. I'm embarrassed to see that my last post here was more than three years ago! I started this blog as a class assignment at The University of Texas at Austin and resolved to continue it as a venue for working through my struggles and sometime triumphs as a student and teacher. My re-entry into academia in the summer of 2009 has proved to be a roller coaster ride in every sense of the phrase. Every semester I tense with a combination of dread and anticipation on the slow climb upward toward major project/assignment/exam, thrill to the accelerated rush of research, writing, and presentation, and heave a sigh of relief as the semester comes to an end. Then as I disembark, I'm ready to do it again and register for another semester with the best of intentions to maintain a balance in my various roles and responsibilities. Those intentions, like New Year resolutions, soon fall by the wayside. At this moment, I would love to be outside on my bicycle, but as soon as I sign off here, I have reading to do for today's class assignment. And so it goes.