Language-learning activities: synchro/asynch, individual/group

The Fall semester kicked off today as we started our first teaching session of the 20/21 academic year almost fully online (a handful of classes meet once a week to satisfy immigration requirements for new international students). In my new role as Online Program Manager, my motto for the coming months–shamelessly cribbed from a certain fellow Delawarean–is Build a Bit Better. One way we can do that is by exploiting the potential of blended synchronous/asynchronous instruction more fully.

One of the myths about asynchronous learning is that it’s a-teacher-ous:

Exactly. In fact asynchronous also doesn’t have to mean individual activity: it can also involve group work and lots of interaction among students and between students and the instructor. I think I’ve seen a nice diagram of online activities along two axes: individual/group and synchro/asynch, but I can’t find it, so I made my own on Padlet. Hope you find it useful:

What have I missed? Or does anyone know the diagram I’m looking for?!

In coronavirus news, there have been nearly 17,500 positive cases in Delaware, and numbers continue to rise, although deaths from COVID-19 have become very rare in the past few weeks. Most schools and universities will start the fall semester online, with limited in-person classes in some districts, parochial, and private K-12 schools.

It’s not too late to plan for an online Fall!

Slowly but surely, universities in the US are ceding to the inevitable, reversing their rose-tinted reopening plans, and committing to fully or almost fully online Fall semesters. My own institution made its announcement on Wednesday of this week, although the writing had been on the virtual wall for several days.

To be clear, it’s the right decision, and I applaud the university for its courage and support for the faculty. Given the country’s abysmal failure to contain the coronavirus and the overwhelming evidence of the personal and public health risks of Covid-19, it would be a catastrophe to allow hundreds of thousands of students to travel or commute to colleges, live in dorms (or take the virus home with them), and spend hours a day in poorly ventilated classrooms, not to mention gymnasiums, dining halls, fraternity houses, bars, libraries, or wherever students spend their free time. No, thanks.

So, we have five weeks until Sep 1, the first day of our Fall classes. That’s not a long time, but it’s enough to make the semester better than spring and summer. In many ways, we’ve been working towards high-quality online classes every day since mid-March, but it’s clear that students have a right to expect effective, planned, and coherent courses, not “Zoom University.” We can’t pretend that we’re still in “crisis mode” next semester.

Continue reading “It’s not too late to plan for an online Fall!”

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”