What Jonathan Larson teaches us about writing

I’ve been haunted by Tick, Tick … Boom, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s movie adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s autobiographical musical, since I saw it (twice) the weekend it was released on Netflix. It helps that my eldest son immediately decided to learn the stunning opening number, 30/90, on the piano. But beyond the background soundtrack to my afternoons, I can’t stop thinking about the lessons the film offers for academic writing. (Err, spoilers follow, but seriously, watch the film!)

Continue reading “What Jonathan Larson teaches us about writing”

It’s not passive voice you hate: it’s intransitive verbs

Was there ever a grammatical form more maligned than the poor passive voice? Read that sentence again — see what I did? Look, I get it. Strunk and White told you not to use it (while writing several verbs in the passive on the very same page); Word’s grammar checker assaulted you with wiggly green lines; even Orwell warned you against it (and I’m a fan of everything else he wrote).

The problem is that the passive voice is only one way of disguising agency, and I don’t think it’s always the most insidious. When I see rants on Twitter about the alleged use of passive voice in news articles, the examples that are highlighted are almost never actually in the passive voice.* That’s not to excuse disingenuous writing, but it’s important to name the culprit.

Continue reading “It’s not passive voice you hate: it’s intransitive verbs”

How remote learning changed online learning

I really don’t want to write one of those “One year ago today was the last time I …” posts I’m seeing on social media. Mourning what and who we have lost is important. But instead, I want to think about ways in which teaching and learning in higher education have changed in those 12 months, and what these developments mean for us now.

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Improving the student experience in an LMS

In the online pedagogy reading group (or online-pedagogy reading group) I facilitate, we have been talking a lot about our learning management system (LMS), Canvas. This is a topic that gets EduTwitter quite impassioned. Here’s one I saw just now:

We are somewhat more sanguine, and I personally am much less tidy.

We established early in the shift to remote learning that every course would have a Canvas site and that we would use two main organizational tools: Modules to collate pages, links, activities, and assessments, with roughly one module per week; and daily Announcements with the upcoming class- and homework. By using templates, including a standard home page, we have created a consistent look and feel for both students and teachers alike.

It’s not “brutal.” It’s clear and predictable, which is good because we teach English learners of all levels who are not only learning language but also new kinds of digital literacy. We use consistency to make sure students don’t get lost, confused, frustrated, and disengaged. And frankly we need it for our own sanity: We teach 8-week sessions, so we’re finishing up our 5th fully online teaching session now, and some teachers have cycled through several different courses in that time. But every class has a “coursepack” we’ve created to import into the new Canvas site so we don’t reinvent the ball every two months.

In my role as Online Program Manager, I work with colleagues on their Canvas sites for both new and revised courses as we try to figure out how and why to use the affordances of the LMS in our teaching. Tressie McMillan Cottom’s words resonate with me:

It doesn’t matter whether or not a tool can do something; it matters whether or not students can make sense of what the tool is doing.

Rethinking the context of Ed Tech

Here are some of the issues we look at to help us make sites that students can make sense of:

  1. Modules can be repositories as well as learning pathways. Canvas was originally designed for asynchronous or blended courses; it works differently for synchronous courses. For example, we wouldn’t recommend adding files and links directly to an asynchronous module; instead, the link or file should be linked from a page, discussion board, or assignment that clearly explains the purpose and directions of the task. However, if the link or handout is just waiting to be used in a synchronous class, then it could just be dropped into the module.
  2. We have generally followed the advice of our ed-tech colleagues at the university to create one module per week. However, our classes meet 10 hours a week, so that can create very long and unwieldy modules. Perhaps modules could instead be organized as resources, with separate modules for synchro and asynchro learning (I discussed our strategic approach to blending instructional modes earlier on the blog)? Or maybe modules could be separated by theme, skill area, or assignment? There’s plenty of flexibility within the template.
  3. Why do we even use Canvas for fully synchronous courses? That’s question we need to ask! Well, for a start, it means students always look in the same place for their teacher’s contact info, Zoom room, textbook links, syllabi, and grades. But if the course is fully synchronous, maybe we don’t always need modules. For example, in one course at the beginner level, the teacher uses Pages and Announcements to send students the agenda, links, and handouts they need for each class and the homework for the next class. The modules are still there to organize the materials for teachers, but they’re hidden from the students.

As we approach the anniversary of the Great Shift Online, I am very aware of the limitations of Canvas. We should be concerned about the ways that our LMS, like any platform, shapes the way we teach. But I also believe–because I’ve seen it–that we can make the technology conform to the ways we want to teach. Those are not always the default settings, and we should certainly question what the defaults are pushing us towards. But with a bit of creativity, a lot of support, and some frantic Googling, we can take back control.

Singular “they” in ESL/EFL/EAP teaching

Here’s a short article I wrote for the Cambridge Grammar Newsletter arguing for teaching singular they in ESL classes. I look at two contexts: indefinite reference and respecting nonbinary people’s identified pronouns. The downloadable activity has some ideas for explicitly teaching these important uses in class. Hope you find it useful

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.

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Broadway metaphors for online teaching

The usual dumpster fire of news was quenched slightly this week by this announcement: CBS Will Replace This Year’s Tony Awards With a Grease Sing-Along.

(Fun fact: I stage managed St Catharine’s College’s one-day only May Week production of Grease in 1997 at the West Road Concert Hall in Cambridge, in which we used a motorbike as “Greased Lightening.” I had to bring a fire extinguisher on stage and try not to make it too conspicuous because fire regulations.)

Anyway, it struck me that the substitution of a Grease sing-along for the Tony Awards is an apt metaphor for online ESL teaching. You have questions? I thought so. In the remainder of this post, Grease Sing-Along will mean new online ESL classes, while the Tony Awards refers to traditional face-to-face ESL classes. Continue reading “Broadway metaphors for online teaching”

Remote Learning: What students told us

Soon after we started teaching remotely at the UD English Language Institute, we learned that we wouldn’t be going back into the classroom this summer, and many students will continue to take our courses online for longer than that because we don’t know when international students will be admitted to the US, nor when they will feel safe enough to try. So we wanted to know more about the students’ experience of our remote classes.

We conducted an online survey in our intensive English program with three simple open-ended questions: Continue reading “Remote Learning: What students told us”