The Fall conundrum and the international student

As the accidental face–or at least, Zoom avatar–of online learning in my department, I’ve ended up on the ELI’s “reopening committee.” Of course, it’s worth emphasizing that we’re not actually reopening because we never closed. We taught through the spring, we’re teaching in the summer, and we’ll be teaching the fall, come what may. So really it’s just the building reopening committee.

Many voices online are wondering why we’re even bothering talking about (re)opening, arguing that online is the only “moral choice.” Others contend with equal passion that online education is inequitable and unsatisfactory by definition. It’s easy to take the high ground on either side, but clearly there’s an element of magical thinking if you believe that students, or even faculty and staff, will maintain social distance 24/7 even if the quixotic room-use arrangements are followed down to the last decal. Will we make it to Thanksgiving without a major outbreak of Covid? Or Halloween? Or National Online Learning Day (Sep 15)? Can we really test the entire student body every two weeks? Do twice daily temperature checks mean anything at all? I don’t know.

I think it’s too simplistic to reduce the situation to a question of open or closed, Zoom and Canvas or bricks and mortar. Here are three questions we need to ask in my international/ESL corner of the higher ed world:

  1. What will SEVP do next? The Student and Exchange Visa Program is the bit of the US government that sets the rules for international students. Ordinarily, international students cannot take English language classes and only one university course online per semester, rules that were suspended in March. But SEVP hasn’t provided a clear determination for the Fall yet. SEVP could extend the current flexibility, or they could tell international students that they must attend face-to-face classes if they are offered by their institutions. Since my university has promised at least some face-to-face classes, visa students may be forced to come to campus if they are physically present in the US or risk falling out of status, and we have to plan for that possibility. So we can’t just afford to reject on-campus classes out of hand.
  2. How many faculty will be comfortable and willing to teach in person? It’s true that most–but certainly not all–students are at lower risk of contracting a serious case of Covid from the coronavirus, but we faculty are more likely to be, excuse my French, d’un certain age. And that’s even without considering underlying health conditions, caregiver responsibilities, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the constant risk of school closings for those of us with young kids. I believe that my university and department are acting in goodwill, but they’re asking me to say now if I’ll be comfortable teaching in a classroom on Sep 1, and the honest answer is “I don’t know yet.”
  3. Do students actually want to take classes on campus? This to me is the least examined question. I feel that a lot of administrators, parents, and even faculty are assuming that we have to reopen campuses because students overwhelmingly prefer face-to-face classes and that they would rather not study at all than continue for another semester or (don’t shoot the messenger) longer online. But is this actually true?

We just surveyed our students at the end of our first fully online 8-week session. Almost 60% of our student body participated (n = 148), giving us a solid sample. All our students are international and are learning English for academic, business, or personal reasons. Just under half are already taking classes from their home countries, having left the US since March, plus a handful who started online in May. When asked their preference for the fall, about a third requested some form of face-to-face classes. That’s a bit misleading since international students won’t have the choice to return to the US for Fall classes, so I also looked at responses from students who are in this country, and still only 37% said they would prefer on-campus classes. Interestingly 41% want to take classes online from the US, while only 19% (15 students) expressed a desire to return home and take remote classes.

That sounds about right to me: A third or so of students really want an in-person experience (and perhaps will not enroll or defer if they can’t get it), students already in their home countries are still interested in our classes (with no travel and housing costs, they just dropped in price dramatically!), and a significant group want to stay here, study online, and wait until we can safely open a better classroom experience (they probably didn’t read this article about a day in the life of a Fall student, but they can imagine it). Put another way, although a sizeable majority of our particular student body wants to stay online for now, we need to decide soon whether we can offer safe and effective classes for those who don’t.

We also canvased students (all puns intended) on their preference for synchronous vs. asynchronous learning. As I’ve previously explained, we chose to move to a fully synchronous model with all Zoom classes all the time. And inevitably, both students and faculty are exhausted. A large majority of students (74%) supported the strategic blend of synchro/asynch that we are planning, in which about 60-80% of instruction will take place in asynchronous modes. This does leave a quarter of students asking for eight days a week on Zoom (because that’s what it’s going to feel like) but I wonder if this is partly because many students haven’t yet experienced high-quality, well-designed asynchronous learning experiences.

Online learning is far from ideal for everyone, but neither is the socially distant classroom that we will encounter in September if/when we go back to campus. Some students need the structure of fully synchronous classes, while most will probably appreciate the flexibility and educational opportunities of asynch modules. We need to continue to make plans for a wide range of scenarios, including reclosing the campus after reopening it. And both faculty and students should have the right to stay home without any fear of coercion or retribution if they do not feel safe attending in-person classes. But we should at least ask them first.

(As I’ve been doing throughout this period, here are the latest stats in Delaware. In the past week, 3 people died from COVID-19, the lowest death toll since the virus was first reported in the state, and hospitalizations fell to 78. However, the rate of positive tests has gone up as the state has moved into “stage 2.” In a photo in the News Journal, crowds of people can be seen celebrating the end of road construction of Main Street, Newark, on Thursday, right in front of the building where I work! … without wearing masks.)

Synchronized swimming (or drowning)?

When my eldest son was 5, he participated in the North Brandywine Swim League (go Sharks!). This involved the rest of us sitting by the side of local pools for many hours waiting for the highlight of our summer evenings, the under-7 backstroke, or as I called it, synchronized drowning. Twenty yards of tense excitement (for the lifeguards).

Over on Twitter, our British and Canadian #tleap (teaching/learning English for academic purposes) colleagues have shortened synchronous online teaching to synchro, and it’s hard not to think of synchronized swimming. Or possibly drowning.

Synchronous instruction is a mode of online teaching in which students are present “live” at the same time in the same virtual space, usually with the teacher, which for us now means a Zoom class.

Continue reading “Synchronized swimming (or drowning)?”

Books available online

Just a quick note to let you know that many of my books are available in electronic format for online teaching, learning, and study:

Don’t hesitate to contact me if I can help you get access to my materials! Good luck out there.

Remote ESL/IEP Teaching

They said keep a journal  … yeah, that’s not going to happen, but I am happy to share two documents I created as part of training the English Language Institute faculty to move to remote instruction as our campus rapidly shut down in the last few days due to the spread of the novel coronavirus. I presented these as part of hours of in-person and (later) online workshops and demonstrations spread over 3 slightly hectic days.

We decided to limit our technology to platforms licensed and supported by the University which we felt gave the biggest return on the investment of time without making excessive demands on faculty who are less comfortable with technology. So we’re primarily using Zoom for “live” teaching, and Canvas (our LMS) and GoogleApps for those feeling a bit more adventurous.

These Google Docs are licensed with Creative Commons so you can copy, adapt, and share them. Hope they’re useful to other programs living through these challenging times!

Sorry, there are no rules for good writing

There’s something about the phrase good writing that bothers me. Don’t get me wrong, I love good writing, I try to produce good writing, and I really want my students to get better at writing.

But when I see generic lists of tips or, worse, rules for good writing, I always want to ask “writing what?” As I said in Changing Practices in the L2 Writing Classroom: Moving Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay: “We don’t just write. We write something to someone for some purpose.” What makes good writing in one situation would be out of place in another. That’s why a lot of Onion and McSweeney’s parodies work so well (this list of “top millennial injuries reported in urgent-care facilities” detours into a rant against the stereotyping of millennials, while using the word existential correctly, unlike some newspapers of record).

So I was rather concerned by a piece that circulated back in January with Steven Pinker’s “13 rules for writing better.” Oh good. Only 13.* Now, to be clear, I am a fan of Pinker: he signed my copy of The Language Instinct when he came to speak at the Cambridge Union in about 1998. He was also the first person I ever saw using a PowerPoint presentation, which looked pretty funny against the ornate wood paneling. I think he’s a great writer about linguistics**, and judging by the number of books he sells, so do many others. Continue reading “Sorry, there are no rules for good writing”

The anti-5PE Campaign Hits the Big Time!

[Changing Practices for the L2 Writing Classroom: Moving Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay] is a thorough look at the research and practices surrounding the use of the five-paragraph essay, particularly as it has been employed in second language writing instruction, though I believe it speaks to all writing classrooms.

John Warner, Inside Higher Education, 5/21/19

John Warner (author of Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities) interviewed Ann Johns and me last week about our new co-edited volume Changing Practices for the L2 Classroom: Moving Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay (available from the University of Michigan Press or as a Kindle e-book). You can read the full interview over on his blog on Inside Higher Education. We had a lot of fun jointly composing our answers to his questions by email (thanks, Google Docs!), and I think we’ve set out many of the arguments we and our contributing authors make throughout the book. Our goal in Changing Practices is:

Available now from the University of Michigan Press or as a Kindle e-book

dispelling the myths of universality (everyone writes five-paragraph essays and has always written them), transfer (the training-wheel syndrome), scaffolding (it will help them later), and generalization (all students write essays in all their classes).

John takes a slightly different approach to the the five-paragraph essay in his book, viewing it as a symptom of many other problems in the US education system. I definitely recommend reading the book: he has an interesting background as a composition teacher, and he makes important points about the larger picture of writing in schools and, particularly, universities. In our volume, we’re not really trying to kill the five-paragraph essay (which I jokingly called graphicide on Twitter recently!) but rather to encourage teachers and curriculum designers to change their practices, even if that means starting by revising just one assignment from an “essay” to a genre.

Take a look at the interview and let me know what you think!

Moving Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay

It’s here! After two years of hard work, our ultimate collection of arguments against the five-paragraph essay hit the physical and digital shelves this week. Changing Practices for the L2 Writing Classroom: Beyond the Five Paragraph Essay (University of Michigan Press) is an edited volume that makes the case for moving away from the five-paragraph essay by suggesting classroom practices that lead to purposeful, meaningful writing instruction from elementary to graduate school.

The book started out as a popular panel at TESOL 2017, but it was a much more complex process than just writing up the papers we presented. We expanded the scope, both in terms of authors and topics, and really focused on the changes we recommend in practice. We wanted to write this book not only for the anti-5PE choir (in which we all sing loudly) but also for teachers and administrators who are hesitant about or resistant to these practices or who sense that the five-paragraph essay is inadequate but aren’t sure what to do instead.

As Ann Johns and I wrote in the conclusion, we don’t expect this one book to be the death knell of the five-paragraph essay. We need new textbooks and teacher handbooks (we’re working on both – watch this space!). But Changing Practices is an important step forwards, and I’m really proud of the work we’ve done here and thankful for the amazing authors who contributed to the volume.

You can read more about the book, including the table of contents on my website, and purchase the book directly from the publisher or as a Kindle ebook.

What do you think? Write a comment or contact me to follow up!

Hearing voices in the Barr report

I’ve unexpectedly spent a good chunk of my sabbatical semester thinking about heteroglossia. This might sound as if I’ve had just too much time on my hands, but I’ve become convinced that it’s one of the key concerns in academic writing. (Tl;dr version: skip to the bottom for the teaching implications!) Continue reading “Hearing voices in the Barr report”

Genre Makeover: The Compare/Contrast Essay

So, I sat down at my computer just now and thought to myself, “I really should write an essay comparing me and my brother” … no, wait, “comparing watching a DVD with going to the movies”, … or, even better, “comparing large cars to small cars” … said no-one, ever.

Throughout this genre makeover series, I’ve attempted to show how boring and meaningless writing assignments become when rhetorical modes are confused for genres. One way to understand a mode is as a pattern of development. For example, there are writing tasks that call for you to compare stuff, but you rarely do it just for the sake of the comparison: there has to be a purpose to the comparison. That’s where genre comes in. Continue reading “Genre Makeover: The Compare/Contrast Essay”

Genre Makeover: The Descriptive “Essay”

One of the staples of ESL textbooks and writing courses is the descriptive essay. I’m not honestly sure what one of this is: description is definitely an important mode of writing, but when would we describe anything in the form of an essay? Even worse, this assignment is often used as an excuse to drill features that are inappropriate for this type of writing (a description can’t have a thesis because it’s not making an argument!). Continue reading “Genre Makeover: The Descriptive “Essay””