Monday, May 31, 2004

Blogging Interest by Geography
Scott notes in an email:
I think the attitudes toward English and the role English plays (or doesn't play) as a language of wider communication play a large role here. In Japan, where people are fascinated by English and American culture, but don't really seem terribly interested in being able to communicate in English, it would perhaps be a pointless exercise. In Europe, esp within the EU, where there might be a very pressing need to communicate in English soon after the class is over, students may be much more interested in blogs. Commonwealth and former commonwealth countries would bring a whole new set of issues to the table -- think of India, Nigeria, Kenya -- where one might be dealing with English as a genuine lingua franca, perhaps along with a creole English. And attitudes and experiences students have had viz technology are important here too -- would students be willing to do it if it were in their L1? Similar issues surround the use of AIM and IMs in TESOL, but there one needs to be much more concerned about cranking out the message quickly.

I think this once again reinforces the point that every learning and teaching situation is different, and teachers will always have to make changes in their approach to an assignment with each new class they teach. There are just bigger differences apparent when a teacher is teaching in a very different geographic area. There are no doubt some techniques that will work very well in Europe, but not in Asia, or really well with Asian students in the US, but not when they're in Asia, etc., etc.

I'm looking forward to seeing how I end up changing my own assignment next semester, once I find out what level I will be teaching. Oooh, and if I get a class with a wider variety of cultural backgrounds, it would be interesting to see how the various students respond to the assignment. There's a lot of interest to be explored here.

Additionally, Blinger brings up a good point in this post responding to my previous entry, when he says:
At this point I am thinking that learners may not be as motivated to blog if they do not know how to customize the look of thier blog. It seems that most teachers are sending their students to Blogger or other free blog hosts where the software is in English. While this is natural for us to do, it may not be the best for our students particularly low level ones as the purpose of blogging in English is to get students to use and communicate in English outside of the classroom. However if the medium in which that is to be accomplished is far beyond thier language ability it will be demotivating and frustrating leading to a minimum effort.

While I did write simpler instructions for my students on how to edit and change their blogs, it still took them a long time to really get it, and I think the comp sci majors in the class showed others outside of class how to do a lot of it. They seemed to get a lot more interested once they could change the sidebar links, add pictures, etc. It would be great if more services would write instructions in many languages. Maybe Blogger, in its new and improved format, should take that up.

Saturday, May 29, 2004

ESL Blogging Follow-up
In the past weeks, I've gotten some questions about how I used blogs with my class, so I thought I'd take a few minutes to revisit this topic. In addition to thinking about how I implemented blogs with my class this past semester, I've been considering changes I might make in upcoming semesters.

To review, this past semester, my students' blog assignment was very basic. All the students had to do was write, in English, 3 times a week. Because these were low-intermediate students who had not had much experience expressing themselves on a regular basis in English before, it was my hope that this assignment would allow them to explore their own writing abilities via subjects of personal interest and in a form which they had complete individual control over. I did not correct their grammar, and stressed that this assignment was for their own benefit. I also tried to encourage them to continue updating their blogs after the semester was over, so they could stay in touch with their friends who were going back to Korea and Japan.

Unfortunately, it doesn't look like any of them are going to keep it up. None have updated since the end of the semester, not even Hans, who was in the middle of a 6-part installment. I'd like to think that they're all just too busy with vacations right now, but my inner realist/pessimist doesn't really buy that argument. Oh, well.

Part of the problem, I think, might have to do with a complaint many of them had: they often had a hard time thinking of anything to write about. This might be solved by making the blog a bigger in-class focus at the beginning of the semester, involving the students in an exploration and comparison of various kinds of blogs, especially themed blogs, which would give each student a greater focus in thinking of things to write about. Some themes I have thought of as suggestions include Life in the US, sports, idioms, current events, a reading journal, music/movie reviews, a focused TV log, a serial story, a guide to X country's culture.

What I don't want to do is tie the blogs into exactly what we are doing in class for the whole semester. I view blogging as an independent out-of-class project. For beginning students, they may benefit from the teacher assigning a topic designed to draw on previously learned vocabulary. For intermediate and high level students, though, I think an important part of the learning process is giving them the tools to continue learning on their own, especially after they graduate from college and are no longer in a classroom learning environment. If I can get some of them interested enough in blogging to sustain it, they will have an invaluable tool encouraging them to write long after they leave my class. This is especially important for the students who go back to their home countries, where they will have to make their own English practice opportunities. Reading and writing may become their best resources.

This may seem at odds with what I said to Scott in the comments from May 13th, when he asked if I would use blogs with students in an EFL setting, should I ever teach abroad again. I said I probably wouldn't, because it would be much harder to inspire the students to blog. I can see both sides to this argument now, though. If I could get the students to be inspired by more thematic blogs, rather than by the idea that they can use the blogs for long-distance communication, then it might actually be quite effective in the EFL setting. It would probably be harder to get the students to do, since they are not surrounded by English all the time, helping them think of things to say. Then again, that might be a stronger recommendation for them to keep blogs, because they need more encouragement to think in English outside of class.

I think I was biased in my original statement that I would not use them in an EFL setting by my previous teaching post in Japan. The students in my high schools there were very much beginners, and blogging would have been a very, very ambitious project to try to implement. At the college level, or with any higher level students of any age, and given the access to technology, it would be worth a try. Really, blogs are just a new way of looking at the same old journaling assignments foreign language teachers have been giving forever. They simply have the added glamor of being online, as reflective of an individual's personality as one wishes to make them, and with the capability of attracting a far-reaching audience for new communication.

From a practical teaching standpoint, I might also add that it makes a good standing homework assignment that the teacher doesn't have to correct, just check for effort. I am all in favor of assignments that make grading take less time, how about you?

Thursday, May 27, 2004

An Utter Logistical Failure and a Wedding
Mark declared our vacation, upon arrival in North Carolina, an utter logistical failure. We had forgotten to bring the tape adapter for the CD and MD players, toothbrushes, I had left behind the books I had gotten my mother for Mother's Day and her birthday, and Mark, well, he forgot his entire suit to wear to Melanie's wedding, even after taking out extraneous items left in the suit bag last time and watching me pack two different possible outfits. Whoops.

For all that, we managed to have a very good time during our vacation, and Mark got to debut an entirely new fashion statement at Melanie's wedding on Saturday. Will already has his pictures up, but Mark has deemed his not yet ready for public view, so I'll just have to use my words.

It is, I have noted, the wedding season amongst my acquaintances now. So far this year, I've been to Ellie's and Melanie's weddings, and next month Heidi is getting married. It's interesting to see the different approaches to weddings. Ellie and Matt, as good Grinnellians, had an original wedding, with a male "Maid" of Honor, a red wedding dress, and an iPod as the DJ. Melanie and PJ, however, went for a far more traditional, Baptist ceremony. Melanie's dress was very simple, but had a long enough train that her sister, acting as Matron of Honor, was kept busy arranging it every time Melanie had to move during the ceremony. The bridesmaids all had purple (yay!) dresses, the men all had peach rosebuds, and one of Melanie's (and my) friends sang the solos. The only short moment of confusion came at the end when they had to figure out which aisle, bride's or groom's, to leave from, since the church's sanctuary had no center aisle.

Then it was off to the Woman's Club for the reception, which went on for four hours. There were, unfortunately, no chairs for people not in the wedding party or who hadn't had the foresight to rush over from the church and stake their claim, but we managed to solve that by occasionally retreating to the lobby to sit on the couches out there, where Mark became the traffic director for people looking for the poorly labeled Ladies' room. He is such a helpful boy. Amusingly, people didn't really start dancing until the DJ played the Electric Slide, and suddenly everyone remembered their elementary school gym class days. I suppose it's good that we all learned something useful back then.

Towards the end of the evening, Will, Erin, Daniel, and I managed to catch Melanie for pictures with the high school crew. Steven, Neil, and Sarah couldn't make it, so our ranks were somewhat depleted, but we still managed to represent ourselves well, I think. Don't we make a good looking group?

Congratulations, Melanie!

(I promise to have the pictures up soon, for people who couldn't be there, and anyone else who might care.)

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

The Whalehead Club
The reason I managed to count all the way up to 30 horses at the beach is because we actually did drive all the way up to Duck, which is about an hour away. We had been debating which lighthouse to go see, since Hatteras is also a long drive and my aunt and uncle had already been there before we got there. We decided on Duck because there is both Currituck Lighthouse and the Whalehead Club to see.

The Whalehead Club was really the main draw for me. I have a weakness for historically restored buildings. This one is an impressive mansion from the 1920s, built by a wealthy couple, the Knights, as their winter home. The whole house is done in Art Nouveau style, which was quite unusual in the United States. All of the light fixtures were Tiffany glass, and it must have been a truly gorgeous sight. It's been through a lot since then, though, from a boys' summer school, to Coast Guard post, to rocket fuel testing site, until Currituck County bought it in 1992 and had it added to the National Register of Historic Places.

A few years ago when we were at the beach, we drove up and looked at it in the middle of restoration. They had just replaced the copper roof tiles, and the inside was pretty much torn apart in the massive cleaning and restoration efforts. They had managed to discover the original layer of paint in all the rooms and were repainting the master suites. Our tour guide was one of the paint crew, and she gave us a very colorful tour, with stories about how eccentric everyone had thought Mrs. Knight for never wearing skirts and carrying a flask of whisky everywhere with her, and the speculation about exactly why Mr. Knight's personal phsyician lodged in the Lilac Room with a direct connecting door to Mr. Knight's suite.

This time, the tour was far more tame, as if the restoration has now reached a point where there is enough paint on the walls to cover up the more gossip-worthy parts of the Knights' lives. Alas. What we did get to see this time, though, was all of the cork flooring restored, the grand piano refurbished, the cook Miss Rose's extremely pink kitchen (think Pepto Bismal glazed tiles), and all of the bedrooms completely painted. Mrs. Knight's bathroom had running hot and cold fresh and salt water. She was truly ahead of her time. Some of the Tiffany light fixtures had miraculously been saved and recovered, and when those are put up, they will be extraordinary. Most of the furniture, though, is having to be reproduced, and the organizers refuse to include anything that they cannot confirm was actually in the house while the Knights lived there.

I figure I'll give it another 5 years at least before I go back, to give them a chance to really restore it even further before I see it again, but for anyone who hasn't seen it yet, you should.

Monday, May 24, 2004

Wingaling Things
Ah, back from a week in North Carolina, where weather is weather and barbecue is barbecue. The fact that I just spent a week in a place where May is actually spring verging on summer is emphasized by the fact that I am now back in a place where I have to wear a sweatshirt outside and there is no sun. Stupid freakish tornado warnings.

Anyway, from Monday through Friday afternoon, I was at the beach. I love Nags Head. My family has had a beach cottage there since just after WWII. The land was an acre bought cheap amongst my great-grandfather's friends, a fourth or fifth of which was given to him, and the cottage was suplus prefabricated officer's quarters, which he had trucked out and reassembled for about $500. It has undergone some changes and improvements, but it's still basically the same. It is right next to Jockey's Ridge State Park, so all the neighbors are park rangers. My mom has been there every summer of her life, I think, and I've been almost every summer.

This year, there was something new, though! Besides all the gigantic rental houses, I mean. To celebrate the First Flight Centennial, there are now 100 individually decorated winged horses from the Winged Horse Extravaganza* along the highway between Manteo and Duck. I only counted 30 of them, but they're all really neat. I think my favorites were the golden horse with butterfly wings and the mirrored horse, but there was also the horse completely decorated in lots of different butterfly wings, and the half pegasus/half mer-horse. (There are pictures of some of the horses here.) Oh, and there was also the zebra wearing a French beret with little black wings too far down its back, so they looked like they were sprouting from its butt. I'm not sure if it was meant to be a fashion statement or not.

I want to go back! I want to find more horses! I want to take my own pictures! No fair, only spending four days there. I hope they're still there next year. Maybe I'll have to find some way to go back this summer.

*A few years ago, Raleigh had the Red Wolf Ramble, which was also really neat. There have also been lots of cow parades in various cities, which have now branched out into various other animals, besides wolves and winged horses.

Friday, May 14, 2004

Headed South
That's it! Tomorrow, I am off back to where I belong. Yay, back to the East Coast, where we have both ocean and mountains and people talk normal. Back to North Carolina, to see my family and make the annual pilgrimage to the beach. The beach, after all, is where I must go to know I am on vacation. I plan to revel in weather the way it is meant to be in May, read lots of books, perhaps revisit some old allergies (but hopefully not,) and continue the ongoing project of convincing Mark that vacations to other places, especially Nags Head, are good things. I will also get to eat my grandmother's Sunday dinner the day after we get there, and see my friend Melanie get married the day before we leave. Yay, vacation time!

(This is by way of saying that blogging will be light, and I will not be sorry. See y'all, whoever you may be, in a week.)

Thursday, May 13, 2004

Writing on the Internet: Neither, Nor
In spending all this time thinking about the differences between written and spoken English, I also went back to my original pondering of the quality of writing on the internet, and it occurred to me that its main problem is that it is not precisely written English, but certainly it is not spoken. It straddles the gap of interactivity, the bastard child of "proper" written language and the desire to communicate.

I have never found writing on the internet to be particularly hard, but then, I actually like writing. It used to be the only way I could actually say everything that I wanted to without being interrupted or talked over. I used to write to myself, just because I could. I was also trained in the fine art of letter writing by my grandmother, who unfailingly wrote me one letter every week while I was in college, in Chile, and in Japan. Letters are an interesting communicative form. You don't have to be formal, there is no need for odd conventions such as "one" for the third person or avoidance of "they" for the general singular, and you are very rarely having to make a convincing and supported argument of the 5-paragraph style or anything of the sort. It is instead an opportunity to write as you would speak, only more fully, because you still have to provide background knowledge for your narrative to a person who is not there, and therefore cannot ask you any questions. It was an opportunity for me to find my own voice, and I admit to being flabbergasted when other people don't think the same. People often flabbergast me.

The (sad) truth of the matter is that most people don't seem to want to sit down and be able to think a thought all the way to the end before someone else comes along and interrupts them. Other people find their thought processes aided by the communal act of interactive conversational communication. The advent of email meant that letters could contain less and less carefully, (not to mention lovingly, and wittily,) constructed background information, because the reader, in the end, can ask, "What do you mean by this?" and recieve a reply in far less time than it would take to send another letter. Then, of course, came IM services, which encourage people to type as fast as possible, so as to mimic actual spoken conversations as closely as possible, along with all kinds of cute/irritating facial expressions. This does not encourage spelling, punctuation, capitalization, or actual sentence formation.

Now the latest rage is blogging. I began blogging in Japan to save myself from having to write the same email 18 times in a row, or send out obnoxious mass-mailings. I wrote my blog entries like letters. I assumed that all of my audience was far away, and I reported on the things that I noticed that amused or interested me, which I also thought might be interesting to them. It was not truly interactional, though, because my audience was still remote; I had no commenting system, no posted contact information, and would only get email related to the blog from my relatives. I had no idea how many people were reading it, and I still don't. Because of my own intellectual and literary bent, this is the style of blog I like to read: that of the other fellow erstwhile letter writer, book reader, and sentence crafter. Others do not share my opinions, because their goals in blogging are different.

There are those out there who simply crave an audience for their thoughts. They want everything to be interactional. If they have many friends who read their blog, their entries can be quite elliptical and telegraphic to those not in that in-group, much like a strange overheard conversation. These people are not reporting, they're talking. They are converting the written form into a "spoken" form, and it offends those of us who are quite used to and comfortable with our dear written conventions.

It is almost as if language is being moved backwards through time to the point where the written form was just becoming widespread, and no conventions had been put in place yet. Back then, people had no choice but to write the way they spoke; they knew no other language. Now, people know the written forms, but deem them insufficient for easy communication. I think the important point may be to remind these people that these are all distinct forms of language, and each has its place and use. This is no argument for teachers to give in to seeing 1337 speak in academic writing assignments, but instead an argument that teachers should point out the strengths and weaknesses of each form, and explain why one form of writing is appropriate for one setting, and another is not.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Written vs. Spoken English
I spend a lot of time talking about the importance of teaching students the difference between written and spoken English. This first comes into play when ESL/EFL teachers notice that their students are quite prone to writing "wanna" and "gonna" in academic writing. Students are taught these two sound reduction forms (and others) so they might understand what is being said when a native speaker talks to them at anything approaching normal speed. They are not, however, taught that these forms are not for use in writing.

That, though, is only the tip of the iceberg in considering the ways in which written and spoken English differ, I realized. One might also classify it, as my students tend to do, as the difference between English according to prescriptivist rules and English in actual use. This is, of course, an extremely overly simplified distinction. Yes, written English does pay far more attention to grammatical rules. Yes, English you hear spoken on the street is much more likely to contain "mistakes" contrary to all the rules you learn in class. But there is a reason.

The real difference, I have decided, lies in whether English is being used interactively or not. Spoken English contains all kinds of elliptical statements, fragments, dependent clauses all by their lonesome, sound reductions, and basically everything your English composition teacher told you not to do. Spoken English, and any kind of spoken language in the world, can get away with this because it is interactive. When we are involved in a conversation, we don't have to worry about presenting all the background information before getting to the main point, because we are free to assume far more knowledge on the part of our audience, and if it turns out we have assumed too much, the audience is free to question us, and, in essence, rewind the conversation. The conversation in itself is a collaborative effort of communication, built collectively of all the statements, questions, and fragments from all of the participants.

Written language is not like this. Writing demands that the writer consider his or her audience in a hypothetical manner, and present all of the necessary information at once. When writing, we only have one chance to provide background, present our opinion, and support the opinion adequately. If we fail to do any of these things, we leave the reader confused, misinformed, or at least unconvinced. There is no chance for the reader to ask, "What do you really mean here? Am I understanding you correctly?" because the reader is left all alone with his or her own opinions and interpretations. If the writer fails to include all of the necessary information, or fails to present the information in a logical and convincing manner, then the writer has failed to communicate at all. There is no collaborative effort; there is only one person, flinging his ideas out into the wild to fend for themselves against the criticism of the masses.

Because writing is so unforgiving, teachers spend a lot of time making students practice it. I think students would be benefited by having the differences in written and spoken language pointed out to them more often, so they might begin to see the areas where the two productive skills intersect (expression of ideas) and where they diverge (modes of expression.) The two skills are so often taught as separate entities that it is hard for students to see how they can support each other. Speaking, instead of being seen as the intimidating, insurmountable task, should be seen as the forgiving communicative activity that can help a person organize his or her thoughts and opinions before embarking on the task of expressing those thoughts and opinions definitively and singly.

Coming next... Why writing on the internet is so confused

Monday, May 10, 2004

Internet Writing: The Downfall of Civilization?
I recently got into a discussion about the affect the widespread use of the internet appears to be having on writing. English teachers all over the United States have been reporting the growing use of Internet spelling and abbreviations in academic papers, (ex: c u l8er, lol, afaik.) People no longer seem to care about presenting their thoughts logically and coherently. Internet blogs, journals, and diaries allow people to post to the world whatever unformed thought manages to percolate its way to the top of their heads or the tips of their fingers, and they do so. The Internet allows anyone and everyone to publish! Whoo-hoo! Freedom! I can say whatever I want to now, and no one can judge me, because it's my opinion.

Then there are other people, like me and many others, who view writing on the Internet like any other kind of writing, who think that proofreading is not a dead art, that spelling and punctuation are not optional, and ellipses are not meant to end every sentence. I would argue that being able to put your writing in such wide public view should make a person more inclined to be sure of its clarity and form. There appears to be a deep schism between these two sides.

One person proposed that poor Internet writing irritates me so much because I am now an English teacher, and I have become overly picky because I spend so much time grading. I must counter that theory, though, with a confession: I have always been the kind of person who wanted to fix printing errors in fiction books that I was reading purely for pleasure, from as far back as I can remember. I have actually been hired before to proofread websites for people smart enough to realize that gross grammatical errors and misspellings do actually make a person/business appear stupid, and that was years before I became a teacher.

The thing that does annoy me as a teacher is the fact that poor Internet writing by native speakers of English gives my students thousands upon thousands of bad examples. Just because you see a native speaker write with dependent clauses serving as whole sentences does not mean that it is okay. While I would very much like to continue using blogs as tools to encourage my students to write, I can see that I am going to have to spend a lot more time making my students focus on what constitutes good writing, even on the Internet.

I have a lot more to say on this subject, but since it expands itself into at least three different directions, I'll expound more later in the week.

Change Hurts My Brain
This is what I get for not updating for four days. I leave the computer alone, read a book, watch a movie, visit with real people, and when I come back, Blogger has changed everything. I'm used to them making little changes as they have fiddled over time with the posting screen, but now it's totally, utterly, completely different, at least from the user perspective. It's all big, rounded edges and obnoxiously "friendly" names of things, such as the main screen after you log in now being the "dashboard." I'm sure I'll get used to it, but right now my immediate reaction is Blech!

Maybe I should cut them some slack though, as they did at least finally make the permalinks start working on this blog. Of course, in my current uncharitable mood, I might also feel inclined to point out that the template should have been properly proofread before, so it wouldn't have been a problem in the first place.

Thursday, May 06, 2004

Fun Facts
Did you know that your dishwasher has a sensor in it that tells it when to shut off the water because the water level in the bottom of the washer is high enough?

No, I did not know that. How fascinating.

Do you know what happens if that sensor becomes covered in suds and cannot tell how much water there is?

Not a clue. Do tell.

It keeps putting water into the dishwasher until the water reaches the level of the hinge-y part of the door, and then the water races out to freedom, making a nice waterfall down the baseboard. This then makes a very nice little lake all over the kitchen floor. Maybe it will even go into the pantry! Or under the stove! Perhaps it will make it all the way to the edge of the carpet, where it will get absorbed and make nice ever-so-slightly discolored patches! Isn't that exciting?

Quite. I wish I lived your adventurous life.

The added benefit is that our kitchen floor is now cleaner than it has been since we moved in. And I know all about dishwashers now. My life has been enriched immensely.

The first step...
...is admitting you have a problem. *deep breath*

Hello, my name is Dana, and I am addicted to buying books. I can't help it! *sob* They're just so useful, so full of information! Every time I want to learn about something new, I just find myself going to Amazon and buying new books. I want to stop, for the sake of my bank account, but I just can't. I blame it on my parents. I was raised in an intellectual household. Nobody told me it was wrong. From now on, I'm going to try, every day, in some small way, to stop my craving for books. I feel it may be a losing battle, but I have to try. For a little while at least.


-PS - In case you were curious, the latest books were purchased to read up on teaching English in China, to prepare for the summer. Oh, and another one as a reference for my ESL curriculum. I know it's justification, but I really think they were necessary purchases. Maybe I don't need to give up my addiction, maybe I just need a better-paying job...

-PPS - To my parents: Thank you for raising me on books, encouraging my curiosity, and enabling to find all the information I need on my own, even if I do occasionally run the risk of overrunning my available bookshelf space.

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

Can I Get a Little Respect?
Thank you, Geoffrey Pullum.

"We are so lucky that such an enormous number of the people in the world have taken the trouble to become bilingual or multilingual. And more to the point (since knowing Abkhaz and Zulu wouldn't help much) we are lucky that such a huge number of those can use one of the languages of the great colonizing powers of the past few centuries: English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Dutch, and Russian. God bless the multilinguals, the people who have put in the effort to become fluent in a foreign language so that some of us don't have to."

-from Language Log, of course.

Show a little love to your nearest polyglot. Feel free to send me books, chocolate, and lucrative job offers.

Commencement Controversy at MSU
For this year's undergraduate graduation at MSU, a very high profile person has accepted the invitation to be the commencement speaker. This person is Dr. Condoleezza Rice. She was invited personally by the president of the university, without consultation with the Board of Trustees or even a token few of the student leadership. It is an election year. Michigan is projected to be one of the most key swing states in the nation. Coincidence?

The Board of Trustees is rather upset. Many of the students are outraged. In a panel debate this evening on The Impact about the appropriateness of Dr. Rice as the speaker, it was pointed out that Dr. Rice will be speaking to what is basically a captive audience, made up of all the seniors and their families who actually care about formally witnessing the milestone of college graduation. Several students have in fact written to The State News to say that they find this choice so offensive, they will not be attending. An independent fund has been set up to support an alternative graduation celebration for all of the protesting students who feel they cannot attend the ceremony. A formal protest has also been organized, though the organizers hope it will not be too disruptive to the ceremony.

Politics aside, this choice strikes me as terribly inappropriate, just for the controversy it would inevitably cause. The point of graduation is not the speaker, it's the students. To so incredibly politicize the event is wrong, unless the student body is incredibly cohesive in its opinions, which is hardly likely in a graduating class of over 8,000. Several other political figures were suggested as alternatives in the panel debate tonight, and I noticed a telling difference between all of them and Dr. Rice. All of the alternatives were past political figures. History has already judged their actions. The repercussions of their actions have already been incorporated into the flow of current life. Dr. Rice and the administration she represents, however, are at the height of their power, and it was utterly inevitable that her scheduled appearance would cause major uproar. Her beliefs, ideas, and actions are still incredibly capable of shaping the future of the nation, not to mention the rest of the world. Whether or not she says anything overtly political in her speech, her very presence is politically charged to the point where it eclipses the event that is meant to be the central focus.

I'm glad I'm not an undergraduate right now. It would be very sad to have to make the decision to boycott my own graduation. This just reinforces to me how wonderful it was to have Robert Reich at my graduation from Grinnell. I think I'll go re-read his speech, rather than continue to think about how much this whole issue irritates me.

Sunday, May 02, 2004

Oooh, aaah
My MSU space is new and improved, in that it now has an actually interesting and organized front page. You may now all go and admire. The picture is from Japan, at the campground we stayed at in Marumori. It was taken by Dayle.

CALL: Telling Usefulness from Faddism
Blinger's post about CALL reminded me that I have some thoughts stored up on this subject. First, however, let's clarify a few terms here. CALL, for those who are not up on their language teaching acronyms, is Computer Assisted Language Learning. As you undoubtedly notice, this is a very general term. It refers to basically any way a teacher feels like using the computer to enhance his/her students' language learning, in or out of the classroom. If the teacher uses a physical computer in class to enhance a lecture, this is CALL. If the teacher takes the whole class to the computer lab to have the students do some sort of computer-interactive activity, this is CALL. If the teacher assigns the class an internet search for homework, or has a homework page, or makes the students write their own blogs, these are all examples of CALL.

The sheer breadth of this term has its disadvantages, of course. Like CLT (Communicative Language Teaching), it is a movement that is very "in" at the moment. Everyone wants to do CALL. It's progressive, it's cutting edge, it's what everyone should do! Let's all use CALL! Let's turn it into a buzzword and put it in all the literature about how our program teaches language! Let's make all our teachers use it so we can show how with it we are! Yay, CALL, rah, rah, rah! Wait, what do you mean, you don't know how to use it in your class? What do you mean, you can't integrate it into your teaching style? Of course you can! It's a computer! Computers are the future of teaching! Right?

Not really. Let's all just step back for a moment and take a deep breath. Now let's look at the acronym. It stands for Computer Assisted Language Learning. The "A" isn't just there to make it into a nice word that's easy to say. CALL won't teach our classes for us, and it doesn't have to be used everywhere. Just like using any other kind of learning material in class, teachers have to make choices about what actually enhances the lesson, and what is irrelevant.

Let's look at an example. In computer-equipped classrooms with data projectors, many teachers are now fond of presenting their lecture outlines with PowerPoint. For some teachers, this is a huge boon, be it because it helps them stay organized in class, because they can't spell when writing on the board, because their handwriting is illegible, whatever. In my undergraduate General Psychology class, the professor who taught the segment on neuropsych was a genius for picking out illustrations, comics, and in one memorable case, an entire animated segment that very much enhanced his lectures. I'm sure there are many of us who still only remember various parts of the brain because we saw that Pinky and the Brain animated song. This is an example of CALL being used wisely. Other teachers have no need for PowerPoint presentations, and therefore should not use them, because at that point, they're simply distracting to both the instructor and the students.

In my own class, I use the computer very rarely. Despite having my students keep blogs and posting their homework assignments on the web, I only used a computer in the classroom 3 times during the whole semester. In each case, it was to help the students build schema (background knowledge) about an unfamiliar subject in a way I felt would be more understandable than me standing in front of the room lecturing or giving them a long article to read. Here were the three instances: the Underground Railroad journey, which we went through as a class to prepare for MLK, Jr. Day; the Brown Eyes, Blue Eyes video, to follow up on the discrimination activity done with all the students in the ELC; and the Go West with Lewis & Clark journey, for our exploration unit, since they had no conception of this part of US history. That was all I felt the need to do, and the only times when I felt the computer enhanced my classroom activities. Anything else would have been intrusive, taken away from the class, and reduced the students' chances to practice their own language use, which is, after all, the point of language class.

The current emphasis placed on CALL will eventually fade, as CALL becomes more truly integrated into normal teaching practices and less of a fad. In the meantime, teachers who are being told to use CALL all the time will have to consciously consider whether or not the implementation of a CALL activity will actually enhance their lessons. If the answer is no, they shouldn't be afraid to say so, and then back up that assertion with carefully considered reasons as to why not. The more people actually carefully consider such things, the sooner CALL will become less of a giant, mysterious, all-encompassing buzzword and more of a teaching tool, to be used only in situations where it is appropriate.

Saturday, May 01, 2004

I am finished with teaching for the semester! No more MSU students until late August. I helped proctor the MSUELT (English placement test thingy) yesterday morning, and then sat in my office for 3 hours in case my students wanted to pick up their finals and actual final grades. A grand total of three of them did.

The good thing about telling the students that they could come get their grades on Friday afternoon was that I actually had all of their final exams graded and their official grades tabulated. This means that I was able to turn in my official semester grade sheet, even though it wasn't technically due until Monday at 9am. Whoo-hoo! I did have one student call the office while I was sitting there waiting to tell me that he had updated his blog, so could I check it and update his grade accordingly? I was nice and added in the extra credit, but it didn't help his grade much. The unfortunate fact is that if you simply do not turn in a major paper, you will not get a good grade in the class. On the other hand, most of the students did well, so I stick by my rule that if you just show up to my class and try to do the work, you will pass. I was also pleased that my final exam for them this semester was actually a good test of the *skills* we had been working on in class, rather than the content of the various reading assignments. It is a reading and writing skills class, after all.

The strange thing about doing all this grading is that I suddenly realized I am a college teacher. I give students grades that will affect whether or not some of them are able to graduate from their home institutions. It all seems so weird now. How did this happen? I mean, yeah, I've taught before, but I never really had to give grades to anyone; that was the real teacher's job. It's like the first time I did my laundry at college, which is what really triggered the realization that I was grown up and away from home, or that time I was walking around the grounds of the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo and thought, "This is so beautiful. I wish I lived in Japan. Oh, wait! I do!" Somehow, my life changes a lot, and it all seems perfectly normal, except for those occasional instances where suddenly, it's not.

So anyway, now I'm all finished with that. I wonder what I'll be teaching next fall, and how many of my students I will see again. I don't wonder too much, though, because right now I have the whole summer stretching in front of me. I think grading must make me tired, because I napped for three hours yesterday afternoon, and then slept for 10 hours during the night. I obviously need time to recover.

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