Op/Ed: Modern foreign language programs don’t prepare students for the work force – The University of Alberta example

August 19, 2013

Warning: This post may offend literary scholars and literary theorists.

One of Canada’s most reputable institutions of higher learning, the University of Alberta, announced today that it is cutting 20 arts programs. Languages and culture programs are taking the brunt of the cuts. Included in the cuts are undergraduate major programs in classic languages, Italian, Russian and Ukrainian. A full list of the cut programs can be found here.

For years I’ve said to my colleagues that languages programs that focus mainly on literature and culture are doomed. I agree that there is immense value in learning literature and culture, but the reality is that it won’t get you a job — unless you want to become a literature professor.

Employers looks at people with literature degrees and ask themselves, “What can you do for us?”

I remember sitting in a department meeting 15 years ago asking if we could incorporate courses in foreign languages for business and commerce?

My colleagues who were literature experts hissed at me. I became an instant heretic. The suggestion was tantamount to treason in a department where the senior professors were literary scholars.

I was proposing specifically that we incorporate language and culture courses of a more practical nature that students could use as viable and marketable professional skills to position themselves for success in the global job market.

Consider the difference between these two scenarios:

Scenario #1:

Prospective Employer: So, I see you did a major in Italian. Tell me more about that.

Italian major graduate: I learned about Dante, Petrarch and major Italian literature, along with grammar, structure and syntax.

Prospective Employer: How would you use what you learned on the job?

Italian major graduate: I’m not really sure…

This is the reality of most modern language majors today. They learn about literature, culture, art and history, but without concrete skills that are easily transferred to the work place. Employers can’t make those links either. The value that languages major brings to an organization have never been made explicit.

(In case you  think I’m exaggerating about the kinds of topics Italian majors learn about, I took my example from the current University of Alberta web page on Italian studies course offerings, though I suspect the web page will be defunct before too long…)

Scenario #2:

Prospective Employer: So, I see you did a major in Italian. Tell me more about that.

Italian major graduate: Unlike traditional programs in modern languages, the one I took was modernized to include courses in Italian business language and professional culture. The courses I took introduced me to fundamental business language in Italian so I can converse more easily with clients, as well as understand how business is conducted in Italy, including cultural norms and social expectations in the Italian workplace. I also took courses in current issues that included a survey of key political and economic factors that allows me to understand the situation in Italy today, as well as where it is headed tomorrow.

The value that this graduate would bring to an organization is much greater. It is difficult to internalize the nuances of foreign business practices. It goes beyond knowing how to dress or greet one another. The subtleties are vast and almost impossible to learn without guidance — for any foreign culture.

I say this as someone with two degrees — a bachelor’s and a Master’s — in literature. I loved studying literature. It goes without saying that we need to teach students critical thinking skills and that learning about culture is important to understand the human race. I learned first hand what it meant to live under the poverty line for a number of years in my adult life. My degrees in literature did not prepare me for the work force. I had to learn to market my skills in other ways. Only then was I able to pull myself ahead of the low-income cut-off (LICO) line. It was a long road and one that my colleagues with full-time tenured positions as literature professors are unlikely to understand.

The days of the self-indulgent scholar are quickly coming to an end. The romanticized version of a scholar puzzling over pile of ancient texts is quickly fading. I’m not suggesting there is no value in learning ancient texts and literature. I’m saying that surrounding yourself with ancient texts is not a viable career option for most language and culture students of the 21st century.

For years literary theorists in institutions of higher learning have stubbornly refused to entertain the idea of expanding modern language and culture programs beyond literature. We could call it professional hubris. The repercussions are that modern foreign language programs are now being cut. It makes me feel sad, but I can’t help wondering if international language programs that focus solely on literature and art aren’t doing a disservice to their graduates?

Imagine what would happen if we taught our students how to navigate cultural differences in the workplace, adapt to global professional environments and learn basic workplace vocabulary, rather than literary terminology. Imagine how we could help our students understand clearly and explicitly the value their foreign language and cultural skills bring to an employer, regardless of whether that employer is corporate, government or non-profit.

It’s not about selling out to corporate consumerism. It’s about giving our students professional opportunities outside the literary realm. There are more jobs outside the literary realm than inside it. Why wouldn’t we want to create opportunities for our students to be successful in other sectors, too?

What’s your take on all this? Should foreign language programs that focus on literature, art and culture be saved? What needs to be done to revitalize and revamp foreign language programs to make them more viable?

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If you are interested in booking me (Sarah Eaton) for a presentation, keynote or workshop (either live or via webinar) contact me at sarahelaineeaton (at) gmail.com. Please visit my speaking page, too.


Learning to Talk Like Jesus: How TV shows in Sweden support the Aramaic revival in the Middle East

May 29, 2012

Sarah Elaine Eaton blog - Languages, Literacy and Leadership

Sweden is providing a new twist on learning an old language, for  young learners of Aramaic in the two villages in the Holy Land’s small Christian community, in Beit Jala, Palestine and Jish, Israel.

In the Beit Jala Mar Afram school, run by the Syrian Orthodox church, priests have taught over 320 students Aramaic over the past five years.

In Jish approximately 80 elementary school children are taking Aramaic as a voluntary option in school.

The elementary school children who take part in the Aramaic language learning program learn to speak, listen, write Aramaic script and read the language.

Dia Hadid of the Associated Press reports that:

“The dialect taught in Jish and Beit Jala is “Syriac,” which was spoken by their Christian forefathers and resembles the Galilean dialect that Jesus would have used, according to Steven Fassberg, an Aramaic expert at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.”

The language classes have been met with criticisms from some parents and community members, some of whom are worried that having students learn Aramaic may be an attempt to convert them to Christianity or may be a threat to their Arabic identity.

According to the Associated Press, some members of the Christian community in the region still chant their liturgy in Aramaic, but few people understand the prayers.

Enter Sweden. Swedish officials estimate that anywhere from 30,000 to 80,000 Aramaic speakers reside in that country. The Aramaic community is strong there and includes an Aramaic soccer team, “Syrianska FC” in the Swedish top division from the town of Sodertalje.

Aramaic speakers in Sweden publish a newspaper called “Bahro Suryoyo”, as well as pamphlets and children’s books, including The Little Prince. But what really helps the students learn the language is Soryoyosat, a satellite television station maintained by the Swedish Aramaic community. For some members of these two villages in the holy land, watching Aramaic programming from Swedish TV station provided the first opportunity in decades for them to hear the language spoken outside church. The Associated Press reports that “Hearing it in a modern context inspired them to try revive the language among their communities.”

This is one case, where technology and television are benefitting language learners both in terms of making learning more accessible and in increasing their motivation. These kids are “kickin’ it old school”, using new technology. Aramaic may be saved, yet.

Related post:

Can TV can help you learn another language?

http://drsaraheaton.wordpress.com/2012/05/24/can-t-help-you-learn-another-language/

References

Associated Press. (2012, May 28). Pair of villages in Holy Land teaching Aramaic in effort to revive language that Jesus spoke: New focus comes with help from modern technology. NYDailyNews.com. Retrieved from http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/pair-villages-holy-land-teaching-aramaic-effort-revive-language-jesus-spoke-article-1.1085728

Hadid, D. (2012, May 28). Aramaic: Efforts To Revive Jesus’ Language In Christian Villages Beit Jala, Jish In Holy Land, Sweden. Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/28/aramaic-holy-land-jesus_n_1550507.html

Hadid, D. (2012, May 29). Revival of Jesus’ language attempted in two Holy Land villages. Southeast Missourian. Retrieved from http://www.semissourian.com/story/1854012.html

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If you are interested in booking me (Sarah Eaton) for a presentation, keynote or workshop (either live or via webinar) contact me at sarahelaineeaton (at) gmail.com. Please visit my speaking page, too.


A language teacher’s legacy (A year of inspired insights #8)

March 24, 2012

The phone rang in the Halifax apartment that I shared with my university roommate. I answered it and heard the voice of my favorite, cousin, Brian. He was calling to wish me a happy 22nd birthday.

Brian was not only my cousin, he was a lifelong mentor and personal hero. He was the first person in my entire extended family to have ever earned a bachelor’s degree. He had a degree in French. Not only did he have a degree, he had a degree in a foreign language. He also spoke Spanish and had travelled throughout Latin America and other parts of the world.

After getting his degree in French, Brian went on to teach English as a Second Language teacher at a CEGEP (college) in the small community of Rouyn-Noranda, Québec, Canada. As a language teacher, Brian was my first professional mentor. He knew that from an early age I wanted to be a teacher too and he encouraged me to pursue that dream.

A taste for adventure

Brian was a much-loved character in our family because of his adventurous nature, his playful sense of humour, an insatiable curiosity about the world around him and most of all, his willingness to try new things.

My mother once told me the story about a time she and might Dad had an argument. My Dad went out to clear his head. Brian happened to call and my Mom told him about the fight. He said, “I know what will make you feel better! I’ll bring over a pizza!”

Brian arrived some time later, with a fresh, hot pizza. As they sat down to eat it, Mom said, “It tastes funny. What’s on it.”

Brian grinned and said, “Octopus!”

Without thinking, she gagged and spit it out. Even though it was the 1970s and my parents did their fair share of experimenting, the idea of eating an octopus was too far out of her comfort zone.

Offended at what he perceived to her ingratitude for the delicacy, and lack of willingness to try new foods, Brian stood up, slammed the pizza box shut and then tucked it sideways under his arm as if it were a book and said, “There’s more to the world than pepperoni!” He too, then took his leave.

But he was easily forgivable and won others over easily. I often wonder if there is a gene in us that predisposes us to be willing to try new things. Like Brian, I have tried my fair share of exotic foods… everything from deep-fried Guatemalan ants to Alberta “prairie oysters” (bull testicles) and cajun alligator. I don’t mind octopus either, if it’s cooked properly.

A deadly secret revealed

Something in his voice on the phone that day didn’t sound right. He was serious, and Brian was almost never serious. “I know it’s your birthday,” he said. “And I am calling to wish you happy birthday, but I have to talk to you about something.”

“O.K.,” I said, sitting down.

“I am HIV positive.”

“What?” I asked, stunned.

Even though Brian had never officially “come out”, he had also never had a girlfriend or a wife. His private life was never a topic of conversation. His numerous trips around the world provided more than enough fodder for entertaining stories. His most recent trip, however, combined with his overly free spirit were to be his demise.

“Are you sure?” I asked, trying to process what I had just heard.

“Yes, I wouldn’t be calling you if I wasn’t sure. The test results are certain. I got it when I was in Thailand. I was stupid. I had unprotected sex.”

The conversation went on from there. It was the early 1990s… We knew about condoms, but their use was not as widespread as they are today. I had never met anyone before who was HIV positive or had AIDS. We cried together on the phone that day and promised to stay in more frequent contact.

Brian’s legacy

Our phone calls increased in frequency from a few times a year to once a month. There were no “phone plans” then. Every long distance call cost money. Brian knew I was a student, so he often initiated the calls. Nevertheless, I did not want to abuse his good nature and spent a fair amount of money on long distance calls, too.

A year later, I started teaching Spanish. I had no formal training as a teacher. I was a Master’s student and had been awarded a “Graduate Teaching Assistantship”. In the department where I studied, that meant I was given a textbook and a list of my students and told, “Go teach”.

In the first year of my teaching career I struggled to plan my lessons and engage my students. I often found myself at a loss for teaching activities that were interesting and purposeful. The textbook we used was not bad, but it contained only one or two activities for key concepts. My students needed more practice.

During one of our regular phone calls, I lamented, “This textbook we are using just doesn’t have enough activities. Do you have any ideas on how I can teach these basic language concepts?”

Brian replied with, “Sure I do! Don’t worry, textbooks often lack either activities or explanation. You get to fill in what the textbook lacks. That’s the fun part! I’ll send you a few ideas…”

The next week, a package arrived in the mail. Brian’s version of “a few ideas” was 75 or so exercises that he had created himself throughout his teaching career. Every activity included annotations about how what parts of speech it focussed on, how to set it up, how to lead the activity, how to evaluate it and how to connect the activity back to the language concept it addressed and how much time to allow for the activity in class.

He also included hand-written file cards as examples to use with the students. The activities included personal annotations such as, “This activity is good when students are low on energy.” or “Don’t use this one unless they already understand verbs in the preset tense.”

It was a treasure trove of knowledge, practical activities, insights and wisdom.

When the package arrived in the mail I called him and said, “Wow! This is incredible!”

Brian replied with, “Good, now try them and let me know how they work.”

“I do have one question though…” It seemed like an obvious question to me, but I needed to ask it. “You teach ESL. I teach Spanish. How are these going to work for me?”

He chuckled and said, “Some of them apply only to English, but most of them will work for any language. I learned some of them from my French professor in university. Try them. You’ll see…”

I put the activities to use immediately. Brian was right. The students responded well and the activities provided solid learning in an entertaining manner. I was thrilled.

Eventually the envelope that the activities had arrived in became tattered. I took the individual activity sheets, 3-hole punched them and put them into a binder. I still have that binder. Over the past 18 years of my teaching career, I have used every single activity at least once. I have used some of them so many times that I no longer have to refer back to the activity sheets. I just “know” them.

Brian passed away in 1995 from AIDS-related causes. His language learning activities became a staple resource for my professional teaching practice. As a young 20-something, it did not occur to me that he was leaving me his legacy. I was trying to navigate a new professional landscape. Brian not only gave me a map, he bestowed upon me a whole survival toolkit.

Inspired insights

Sarah Eaton speaker presenter keynote education literacyThe older I get the more I understand the importance of sharing what we have learned with those who are new to the profession. I have learned that excellent learning activities can often transcend individual languages. What works in ESL worked just as easily in Spanish (and apparently in French).

Too often, we divide ourselves professionally by the languages we teach. I have often wondered if this is due to language teachers’ own comfort speaking in the language they teach. Let’s face it, it is easier for native Japanese teachers to get together and do professional development in Japanese than it is for a number of people with a variety of languages to get together and share ideas in a common language (which is often English).

While I absolutely think it is important for language teachers to develop professionally and socialize in the languages they teach, I see no value in doing so at the expense of learning from other professionals who might teach a different language.

It is foolhardy to dismiss the validity or discount the wisdom of other teachers simply because they do not teach the same language as us. We have much to learn from one another as language teachers across the entire profession.

5 strategies to leave your own professional legacy

Ask yourself this: What legacy am I leaving? What have you learned over your career that could help others? Here are some simple strategies to capture those ideas, insights and activities.

1. Share your activities with other teachers.

The format is less important than the act of sharing. Whether they are hand-written notes, computer-printed worksheets you have created or digital activities, they are valuable and worth sharing.

2. Relate the activity to learning concepts.

An activity may be fun and engaging, but unless it relates in a functional way to a particular concept or language function, it has little pedagogical value. Help new teachers understand the “method behind the madness” by  making links between your activities and the language functions they support. Activities need to make sense and have clear links to content.

3. Add personal notes.

Have you ever seen a recipe book that is full-handwritten notes from the cooks who have actually tried the recipes? Maybe you have one of those cookbooks yourself. These notes add to the overall value of the actual step-by-step instructions because they share “insider’s tips” and knowledge that is only gained by actually going through the process yourself. Adding the notes personalizes the experience and helps others learn from what you yourself have lived.

4. Include ideas for evaluation or reflection.

In addition to knowing how an activity relates to a learning concept, it is also helpful to share ideas for evaluating it. Not every activity needs to be evaluated with a formal test or quiz. You can still increase a learner’s self-awareness of their learning with a simple reflection at the end of the activity. Sharing your ideas on how to effectively assess or reflect on a particular activity can be very helpful to others who are less familiar with the activity.

5. Share the best of your tried-and-true experience.

How many times have you tried an activity from a textbook and asked yourself, “Did the authors of this book even test this activity before they put it in their book?”

Leaving a legacy isn’t about sharing what you think would work. It is about sharing what has worked — and passing on the wisdom of what you learned from it. If you haven’t personally tested it, leave it out. Let someone else who has tried it share it. Your legacy is about sharing your authentic, lived experience and wisdom.

What are you leaving to the next professional generation?

 Related posts:

A year of inspired insights #7: What to do when a student hates technology

A year of inspired insights #6: You can raise me up: The lasting impact of a teacher’s words

A year of inspired insights #5: When reason falls on deaf ears

A year of inspired insights #3: Servant leadership in the scullery

A year of inspired insights #2: Conversations change everything

A year of inspired insights #1: There’s a silver lining in every ambulance

My 2012 resolution project: A year of inspired insights

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Share or Tweet this post: A language teacher’s legacy (A year of inspired insights #8) http://wp.me/pNAh3-1jZ

If you are interested in booking me (Sarah Eaton) for a presentation, keynote or workshop (either live or via webinar) contact me at sarahelaineeaton (at) gmail.com. Please visit my speaking page, too.


What to do when a student hates technology (A year of inspired insights #7)

March 6, 2012

Gabriel sat there with his arms crossed on the first day of class. A third-year undergraduate student, he had not enrolled in my Effective Learning course by choice. The course was mandatory for students on academic probation. Enrolling and passing the course were among the conditions students had to meet in order to be allowed to stay at the university for one more semester.

Every student had their own story and their own reasons for being on academic probation. While their stories were unique, they shared a common sense of resentment and distain at the idea of being forced to take a class on effective learning. My job was show them strategies and tools they could use to improve their success at university and ultimately, to help them get off probation.

Rather than starting with the idea that the students were somehow deficient and needed “fixing”, I used a strength-based approach to learning and study skills. I started with the assumption that they were all talented, smart and capable. We were going to uncover their strengths and then leverage them to help them succeed.

A rebel without a cell phone

Like his classmates, Gabriel did not particularly want to be there. Unlike his classmates, he was reluctant to explore the idea that he had strengths. He was quietly rebellious. He had hobbies outside school that inspired and energized him, but he could not make the mental connection between the skills he used in his hobbies and the skills he would need to succeed in school and in life. Though his outward appearance did not scream anarchy, it was clear that part of him rejected mainstream culture. He secretly enjoyed the idea of not being part of the status quo.

As part of his desire to express his individualism, he renounced technology. In fact, he started the semester by declaring, “I hate technology. I hate computers. I don’t own a cell phone. I don’t text. I barely check my e-mail. And I especially hate social media! We should learn with books and pens and pencils!”

Being the techno-geek that I am, his words were like fingernails down a chalkboard for me.  I thought to myself, “Great. Just great… I have the only 19-year old Luddite on the entire university campus in my class.”

A strength-based approach to learning

I challenged him, but not on technology. I challenged him to re-examine himself and his skills not in terms of what he didn’t like or felt he was not good at, but rather in terms of his strengths. “So, tell me what you’re good at,” I said.

“What I’m good at?” He looked perplexed.

“Yes. You’ve just said that you’re not a fan of technology. So what are you a fan of? What are you good at?”

“Well…” He thought for a few seconds. “I’m good at public speaking. The art of rhetoric and oratory dates back to the Ancient Greeks. That, to me, education. The Greeks had it right. I think we need more face-to-face communication, not more technology. We need more contact with each other as human beings.”

Gabriel couldn’t help but turn his thinking back to what he didn’t like.

“OK, so forget about technology for a minute,” I said. “Tell me more about public speaking. What makes you good at it?”

He went on to talk about how he loved to stand in front of a crowd and give a speech. Gabe certainly did have “the gift of gab”. He could pontificate on any subject with no preparation. He rambled in a stream-of-consciousness manner and his speech craft needed work, but he was articulate and not at all nervous about speaking up.

I challenged him to explore the art and science of persuasive speaking and to refine his presentation skills. He seemed pleased that I had not pushed the technology issue. He agreed to explore the idea of deepening his public speaking skills.

Assignments using technology and social media: a pedagogical rationale

Throughout the semester, students had a number of assignments that involved technology including learning how to post to a class discussion board and an assignment that involved them using Twitter. This meant opening a social media account, learning how to post, use hashtags and interact with their peers in a meaningful manner.

Gabriel was not happy about these assignments. “Why do we have to use social media?” He growled. “It’s evil.”

“Hhhmm, I’m not sure evil is a word I’d use, but I get that you are not a fan of it. We are using it in a short assignment because learning how to interact effectively with others is an important skill that will serve you both inside and outside the classroom. When you are looking for a job after university, having a sense of what effective digital citizenship is may be helpful.”

He still didn’t like it, but since the assignment was required, he did it.

A strength-based approach to assessment – With digital and analog options

Instead of a final exam, I arranged for the students to do a strength-based assessment of their learning. Their learning portfolio was carefully explained and students were given a grading rubric so that they would clearly understand what constituted a highly successful – or not-so-successful – learning portfolio.

Students were given the option of choosing their own format for their portfolio. A traditional binder with pages inside divided into sections was one option. An e-portfolio was another option.

The archangel of surprises

To my amazement, only one student developed an e-portfolio: Gabriel.

While the other students were keen to use technology to text their friends or check in on Facebook, when it came to using technology for learning, they opted not to.

It was Gabriel who chose to develop his own website using Google sites, and add pages and entries to create a digital learning portfolio. He also used his digital camera to document the entire process of the creation and wrote reflective journal posts about the process of constructing his e-portfolio.

In his reflective online journal posts, he discussed the method he used to create his site, the process he went through to conceptualize what his e-portfolio should look like and how it should be organized and how he went about curating and including entries.

As a tech geek, it thrilled me to bits that my self-proclaimed technology hater was the only student in the class to choose the digital option for his final assignment.

As a teacher, what impressed me the most was the depth of his metacognitive and self-reflective process as a learner that he invested into the project. It was evident that he did not do it as a slap in the face or some kind of bizarre act of defiance. It was not a case of, “See? Any idiot can do tech!” Instead, he demonstrated a sincere willingness to step out of his comfort zone and try something new.

He engaged deeply with the assignment and used self-reflection and analytical thinking to drive his learning process.

I reflected for some time on why Gabriel may have chosen a digital option for his final assignment. While it was true that over the course of the semester we’d had some good conversations and he was doing much better in his studies, I was not convinced that alone was enough of a reason to make him to a technology-based project. He was not just using technology to consume information — searching web sites and reference articles on line, he was using technology to create something that was entirely his own.

I was so happy I wanted to cry, precisely because I knew that this was a really, really big deal for him. He was willing to go out on a limb and try something that three months earlier he had been dead-set against.

Here’s what I learned:

7 Tips to deal with a student who is resistant to technology

1. Allow critics the right to their opinion

This creates a mental and social space for dialogue to occur. Aristotle said, “It is the mark of an educated mind to entertain a thought without accepting it.” If you are a tech supporter, are you really ready to entertain the thought that technology is a turn off for some people?

2. Be an advocate, not an antagonist

If someone really, really hates technology then you saying, “You MUST do it this way!” does little to inspire them. Instead, try engaging the learner in an open dialogue about why they feel that the way they do. The point is not to try and change their mind (antagonistic), but to allow the other person to be heard, and ensure that you are heard, too (advocate).

3. Provide logical reasons for what you are doing

If you incorporate technology into your classes, be very clear about you are doing do. Do not go high tech simply because it is fashionable. Ensure there are sound pedagogical (or at least logical) reasons for doing so. Be able to articulate those reasons to your learners. Even if they do not agree, they are more likely to respect you as a professional for being able to explain why you are using technology in a particular way.

4. Focus on learners’ strengths

Just because a learner may not like technology does not mean that they lack talents, skills and abilities. If tech is not their strength, find out what is. Help them identify and cultivate what they are really, really good at. Make it about them and their learning journey, not about prescriptive course content or worse, about using technology simply because you say they have to. Students do not have to be “fixed” and they will not suddenly become complete and whole human beings as soon as we stuff them with the right knowledge. Start with the idea that they are strong, capably and perfectly OK they way they are. Build on what they are already good at.

5. Earn, then develop learners’ trust

When you help learners shine in a way that makes them feel comfortable and safe, they are more likely to trust you. When students trust you, they are more likely to allow themselves to be vulnerable when they are around you. When they allow themselves to be vulnerable, the are more likely to engage in new acivities or tasks in which they have lower levels of confidence or engagement.

6. Let learners adopt technology at their own pace

Sarah Elaine Eaton, speaker, presenter, keynote, technology, social media, Calgary, Canada, educator, education, professional developmentNot everyone is an innovator or an early adopter. That is not only OK, it is a scientifically proven phenomenon, as evidenced by Everett Rogers in his 1962 Diffusion of Innovation theory. People adopt new innovations at a variety of rates. Some people lag behind others. There is nothing wrong with that. Let them be a little reluctant. It’s who they are. Gentle guidance is more effective than pushy insistence.

7. Give learners options

Acknowledge that while technology is an important aspect of twenty-first century learning, it is not the only way. As human beings, we were perfectly capable of learning before the the personal computer was popularized in the 1980s. We can train our brain to be curious even if there is no technology around. We can also develop critical and analytical thinking skills without sitting in front of a computer. By giving learners options in terms of how high-tech they want to go, we keep the learning focussed on the student and their lifelong journey as learners.

Inspired insight: As an educator, I have biases too

Every now and then, a student with a completely different way of thinking and looking at the world may open themselves up to try something new. We lead by example when we  as teachers, allow ourselves to look at the world differently, too — even when it makes us uncomfortable to do so.

While I remain a huge advocate of technology and a techno-geek, I also realize that this  is a bias in my own personality and teaching. As teachers, we all have biases. I am openly biased in favour of using technology for learning. There are those who are biased against it.

There is value in recognizing and questioning our own biases as educators and as human beings. When it is helpful for our students, being able to set aside our biases and focus on what helps them learn in a way that makes sense for them is one of the most difficult — and most productive — skills we can learn as teachers.

Related posts:

A year of inspired insights #6: You can raise me up: The lasting impact of a teacher’s words

A year of inspired insights #5: When reason falls on deaf ears

A year of inspired insights #3: Servant leadership in the scullery

A year of inspired insights #2: Conversations change everything

A year of inspired insights #1: There’s a silver lining in every ambulance

My 2012 resolution project: A year of inspired insights

_____________

Share or Tweet this post: What to do when a student hates technology http://wp.me/pNAh3-1it

If you are interested in booking me (Sarah Eaton) for a presentation, keynote or workshop (either live or via webinar) contact me at sarahelaineeaton (at) gmail.com. Please visit my speaking page, too.


Skype for Literacy and Language Learning: “How To” Tips and Best Practices for Teachers

February 21, 2012

Sarah Eaton, literacy, languages, language, ESL, EAL, keynote, speaker, presenter, Canada, Alberta, English, educationAfter doing a number of workshops and research on how to use Skype for literacy and international languages, I’ve put together a free, downloadable guide for teachers and tutors.

Here’s what is in the guide:

  • Introduction
    • Technical requirements
    • Thinking about a computer-to-computer call
    • Skype versus other technologies
    • Skype-enabled handsets
  • Set up your Skype account
  • Add Contacts
  • Make a Skype call
  • Advanced features
    • Conference calls
    • Instant messaging or chat
    • File sharing
    • Screen Sharing
  • Ideas on how you can use Skype
    • Personal use
    • Organizational use
    • Marketing your programs
    • Teaching
    • Tutoring
  • Conclusions
  • Bibliography (includes 22 citations)

Check out the guide and download it from Scribd:

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Share or Tweet this post: Skype for Literacy and Language Learning: “How To” Tips and Best Practices for Teachers http://wp.me/pNAh3-1gl

If you are interested in booking me (Sarah Eaton) for a presentation, keynote or workshop (either live or via webinar) contact me at sarahelaineeaton (at) gmail.com. Please visit my speaking page, too.


You can raise me up: The lasting impact of a teacher’s words (A year of inspired insights #6)

February 20, 2012

I had been teaching for about three years when Bob came into my class. A retired engineer with a gentle personality, Bob had been to Mexico several times and wanted to learn Spanish.

As language teachers I think we are sometimes drawn to those students who show a natural affinity for the language. We praise them to their faces and quietly marvel at their skills in the staff room when we are talking with our colleagues.

Bob was most definitely not that student. Bob was highly intelligent. Before retirement, he had been a successful engineer for several decades. When it came to Spanish though, it was like his brain functioned in slow motion.

When it came to speaking, I wondered how a Canadian could seemingly gain a southern American twang when pronouncing Spanish. It was like fingernails down a chalkboard.

Sarah Eaton speaker presenter keynote education literacyWhat Bob lacked in natural talent, he made up for in tenacity and enthusiasm. Like Kyle, he won my professional heart with “do or die” attitude. His homework was done every day. He made up his own flash cards. He practiced the dialogues. He got extra tutoring. Bob decided that this his thing and there was no stopping him.

He’d come into class and tell me about the move he watched in Spanish over the weekend or the audio book in Spanish he had found at the library. He found the stores in town that carried Latin American products and not only did he become a frequent customer, he got to know the staff. His passion for the language and Latin American culture was effervescent and contagious.

Bob passed his first course and his second, and then a third. He spent the summers in Mexico taking immersion programs. He progressed but very slowly. The twang and choppiness of his spoken language always sounded a bit like fingernails down a chalkboard.

After Bob had made it through his basic level classes, he had a choice of what classes to take. He came to me for advice. Part of me wanted to say, “Look, amigo, you are wasting your time and your money. Seriously, you just don’t have any talent for this stuff…” but something stopped me.

I dreamed a dream

Sarah Eaton, Sarah Elaine Eaton, speaker, keynote, presenter, language, education, literacy, Calgary, CanadaMy mind went back to my high school years. I had a full slate of courses, was actively involved in student activities and had a part-time job. Some students worked so they could buy more fashionable clothes than their parents could afford. Some of the boys wanted to buy a car. Most of us socked away a few dollars to be able to go to the movies. But the thing I really saved my money for was singing lessons.

I loved to sing. I never had much confidence when it came to singing, so I never tried out for the school musical. Instead, I worked behind the scenes on the set so I could still soak up the experience. I really, really wanted to be on stage, but it would be a cold day in hell before you would ever get me up there, singing in front of people.

I knew that if I took private voice lessons and worked hard, I could do it. My plan was to take singing lessons in grade ten and eleven and try out for the school musical in grade twelve. Even back then I was a long-term planner.

I started with one lesson a week and then moved up to two lessons. I would go over to my singing teacher’s apartment, where she would sit down at her electric piano and proceed to engage me in my favorite learning experience of the week.

I was especially thrilled because she taught me songs in Italian and German. I adored learning to pronounce words in other languages. I learned how to form different sounds in my mouth, to breathe from my belly and project my voice. Those two hours were the highlight of every week.

I would go home and practice in between lessons and my confidence slowly increased.

Every year, Wanda held a recital for her students. The first year we agreed that I was not ready to participate. I still had stage fright and though you’d never know it today, the thought of being in front of an audience caused me so much stress I almost vomited.

By the second year though, I was bouncing off the walls with effervescence. I was ready. I was going to do the recital and that would help me to get ready for the auditions for the school musical. When it came to singing, a child-like delight not only filled my soul, it ran through my veins.

Sarah Eaton, Sarah Elaine Eaton, speaker, keynote, presenter, language, literacy, education, Canada, AlbertaThe day of the recital came. I had rehearsed and felt nervous, but ready. I got up in front of the audience I channeled Giordani’s “Caro Mio Ben” in such an inspired way, you would have thought I was lip synching to an archangel. It was brilliant. I was so happy I cried.

At the beginning of my next voice lesson, Wanda said we could do whatever song I wanted. Filled with confidence, I was already thinking about the school musical. I chose “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” since I thought I might be able to use it for my audition.

She ended the lesson a few minutes early in order to debrief the recital, “So, how do you feel about how it went?” she asked.

“The practice paid off,” I said. “I wasn’t perfect, but man, it was really the best I have ever done.”

She looked me square in the eye and, “Sarah, it has been two years… I know you really want to do this…” She then said words I have never forgotten, bullets that ripped through my heart in an instant, “I think your energies are best directed elsewhere. You’ll never be a singer.”

Stunned, I asked, “What do you mean? I thought I did OK…”

Wanda replied, “I don’t really know how to say this kindly. This is our last lesson. You will never learn to sing. It’s time for you to go. I have another student coming.”

Shell shocked, I left. In that instant, my confidence vaporized. My enthusiasm for singing would never be the same, knowing that the teacher whom I idolized had banished me. I never tried out f the school musical. Never went back to church choir. For many years, I wouldn’t even sing the national anthem at public events. I was ashamed to open my mouth. The effects of that one day lasted for decades.

The circle of life … and learning

I looked at Bob and said, “Amigo, what class inspires you the most?”

He looked at the calendar and said, “I think this course on Mexican poetry…”

“Then take it,” I said.

Bob went on to take exactly that course, followed by many other courses. He told me once that he spent four hours a day learning Spanish. He travelled throughout Latin America, taking great pleasure in planning out each trip down to the last detail.

He lived and breathed Spanish. Spanish was to Bob what singing had been for me. Even though I had been tempted to tell him that he really didn’t have any natural talent for the language, I didn’t. I knew that what mattered most to him was the joy he got out of learning what he loved.

There can be miracles when you believe

Bob and I have kept in touch over the years. Several years after he had been a student in my class, I was walking down the hallway of our department and I heard Bob in another professor’s office, talking about an upcoming trip to Mexico.

I stopped and listened. He spoke in simple, but grammatically flawless sentences. The words flowed into sentences and the twanginess had all but disappeared from his speech. You could tell that he was not a native speaker, but it was no longer painful to listen to him. “Bob,” I thought to myself, “Happy retirement, amigo. Way to go. You’re living the dream.”

As teachers we are influenced by the idea that those with “natural talent” deserve most of our attention and admiration. We focus a little more on those people who somehow inspire us by their facility to pick concepts up easily and master new skills effortlessly.

Every now and again, you will get a student whose passion for the subject matter fuels their discipline and dedication, as they put in endless hours of practice. We can forget that as teachers, the influence we can have over our students can impact them in ways we can never imagine.

I am quite sure that my signing teacher barely remembers me. If she does, she may just roll her eyes and think, “Remember the girl with that awful voice… poor thing…” I am sure she has no idea that I sobbed for weeks and that despite a secret desire to take more singing lessons again, I have never tried. That day, I was quite literally, shamed into silence.

If I could reach higher (as a teacher)

Our job as teachers is a complex one. At the beginning of our careers we think it is about the subject matter and getting the students to learn the content. As we progress through our careers, we begin to really understand the complexity of what we are doing.   No matter what subject we are teaching, every single one of our students comes to us with hopes and fears, as well as different levels of interest and engagement.

I admit that I my own experiences influence what I say when I assert that an important aspect of our job, is to help students tap into that part of themselves that fuels their drive  and to never, ever tell them they are not good enough. Not every student is going to be a phenomenal prodigy but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be an exemplar of enthusiasm combined with disciplined practice. Being a lifelong learner is not about being sensational at everything we do. It is, in part, about having the belief that what we are learning is worthwhile and that we ourselves are worthwhile.

Sarah Eaton, keynote, speaker, presenter, education, languages, literacyIn one sentence, we as teachers can either raise our students up, or beat them down. The impact and influence we have on our students can be greater than we ever imagine. What about you? What words have teachers said to you that have stayed with you for years to come? Were they encouraging or devastating? What have you said to your own students that you think may have influenced them years after they left your class?

Henry David Thoreau wrote, “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” As teachers, part of our job includes giving students the tools they need to build their own dreams.

And just for the record… Today when I am driving alone in my car with the windows up and the radio on, I don’t sing songs, I own them. In my little blue Mini Cooper, I am a rock star. I can almost see it, that dream I’m dreaming...”

Related posts:

A year of inspired insights #5: When reason falls on deaf ears

A year of inspired insights #3: Servant leadership in the scullery

A year of inspired insights #2: Conversations change everything

A year of inspired insights #1: There’s a silver lining in every ambulance

My 2012 resolution project: A year of inspired insights

_____________

Share or Tweet this post: You can raise me up: The lasting impact of a teacher’s words http://wp.me/pNAh3-1fK

If you are interested in booking me (Sarah Eaton) for a presentation, keynote or workshop (either live or via webinar) contact me at sarahelaineeaton (at) gmail.com. Please visit my speaking page, too.


A year of inspired insights #5: When reason falls on deaf ears

February 11, 2012

There comes a point in every teacher’s career where he or she is faced with a decision that could alter a student’s future.

Last week I shared a story about Zaina, the first deaf student I taught. A few years later, another deaf student showed up in my course. Kyle was a business student. Like Zaina, Kyle was focussed and determined, with exceptional people skills. Unlike Zaina, he was not multilingual. In fact, he did not know American Sign Language.

Kyle had been sent to an oral/aural school for the deaf. He explained to me that the type of education he had received had focussed on lip-reading, using contextual clues to understand spoken language, capitalizing on any residual hearing abilities and integrating students into mainstream education. Sign language is not used in this approach.

A fourth year business student, Kyle was not excited about the prospect of taking Spanish. It was a requirement of his program and he needed the course in order to graduate. This was not uncommon for students enrolled in certain programs outside the humanities. The difference was, of course, that Kyle was deaf.

He openly confessed that his English grammar knowledge was minimal and that he struggled with concepts around language such as grammar and syntax. He was also open about the fact that he didn’t spell well.

But you could tell, Kyle was sharp. He arrived to class every day dressed like a business student. He lived and breathed business. He had excellent interpersonal skills and a keen sense of how to manage his time and his priorities. He sat at the front of the class and despite his trepidation, he was determined to succeed.

Standing by as a student sinks

Every week he would visit my office during my posted office hours to review his homework and ask questions. He stayed after class to ask for clarification on points he did not understand. He arrived at class early every day, having made an honest, sincere attempt at his homework. Kyle was the epitome of an engaged, interested student. The reality was, he struggled. He struggled so desperately, it was pitiful to watch…

He found it almost impossible to form the sounds of Spanish words. His lack of knowledge about grammar made it hard for him to figure out the mechanics of language. His spelling was worse in Spanish than it was in English. His self-confidence plummeted. Yet, he persevered.

Kyle was a straight-A student whose performance on the first Spanish test of the semester was an undeniable failure. I asked him if he had an advisor in his program who might be able to make an exception for him in terms of the second language requirement of his program.

He shook his head, “I tried,” he said. “They said no. Every student has to meet all the requirements. I even asked if I could take sign language instead, because I thought it would be really useful to me to know it. But they refused that, too. Sign language is a continuing education course, not a credit course. They said that I could take it, but it would not count towards my degree. I still had to take another language that was part of the undergraduate program.”

I sighed and nodded my head. The university was strict about its rigorous program requirements. I thought to myself, “This is lunacy.” Here was a brilliant, engaged, focussed student who, despite his most sincere and eager efforts, was unlikely to pass my course.

If that happened, he would not graduate that year. He would need to repeat the course or try a new language in order to make the language requirement of his program. If that did not work, he would need to transfer into a program with no second language requirement.

It reminded me of the helpless feeling I had as I watched my mother die a few years earlier. Then, there was nothing I could do to prevent her passing. But Kyle was still struggling and still hanging on, if only barely. He still had a chance. I felt compelled to help.

I picked up the phone and made an appointment to speak with the head of program that Kyle was registered in.

When reason falls on deaf ears

Sarah Eaton literacy education keynote speaker Canada Calgary AlbertaAfter shaking hands with the program head, I said, “I’m here about Kyle Smith”.

“He’s one of our best students,” she replied. “… A shining example of what we wish every student would be.”

“I know,” I replied. “But this second language requirement is killing him.”

She nodded. “Yes, I remember that he came to us asking if he could take sign language instead, but there is no credit course in sign language.”

I advocated on his behalf. “It is not like he isn’t trying. This kid comes to class better prepared than any other student in the class. He does all his homework. He even pre-reads the entire chapter before we start it. It is not that he is incapable of learning. He’s smart. It is that the amount of time it would take him to get all this stuff is probably ten times longer than we have in our course. Is there anything we can do about this?”

She shook her head, “I am sorry. The program requirements are very strict. We can not make exceptions for a student just because he or she is disabled. This is a business program and it is our job to prepare students for the real world. The real world does not pander to people who can’t keep up. If he wants to graduate with a business degree, he needs a minimum of a C- in this course. End of story.”

The real world does not pander to people who can’t keep up?” I asked myself. Forcing a deaf student to take a second language when he has no background in languages and questionable affinity for the subject area is hardly a reliable benchmark for his overall success in life.

I thanked the program head for her time and left, angry. I realized that this was more about the program directors choosing to stick to their bureaucratic guns than it was about ensuring the success of their students. If there had been no other indicators of success, I might have agreed with her. But here was a straight-A student, with experience working in business, with great people skills, and that keen sense of determination and focus that is hard to actually teach anyone.

By that point, I had taught over 1000 students in my career. For me, there was no question in my mind that Kyle was going to be a success in life.

Paying it forward

I returned to my office and sat down to process what had just happened.

My mind was taken back a few years to my last semester of my undergraduate program, when I had been hit by a car. I missed the first month of the semester as I recovered from the accident. I returned to classes, determined to do whatever was necessary to graduate.

The words of my Spanish professor rang in my head, “You will get through this. I’ll do what I can to help you. Don’t worry about the grades. Just work hard,” she said.

She believed in me and my abilities at a time when my self-confidence was failing and my future was still uncertain. Her confidence in me lowered my anxiety and propelled me to work harder than I had worked before. At a time in my life when I needed it most, a teacher believed in me.

In that moment, I understood what she was really saying. The sub-text was, “You are safe here. Trust me. I am not leaving your side. You will succeed. I won’t let you fail.”

I sat back in my chair. Almost fifteen years had gone by since that conversation. I had never forgotten it. I knew that it was time to pay it forward.

Doing the right thing

I understood that the situation with Kyle was different from the situation when I was a student. This time would involve a bigger risk on my part. I did something that I had never done before, and have never done since. I adjusted the rules, in order to do the right thing.

Leadership and business guru, Peter F. Drucker said, “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” Assigning grades is one of the management or leadership functions of a teacher. We assess, evaluate and ultimately assign a number or letter grade to each student that goes on his or her permanent record as an indicator of performance.

I already had permission from my own department head to make Kyle exempt from the listening exams. I had permission to re-organize the percentage of marks for the remainder of his work so that they would add up to 100% for his final mark. We reconfigured the percentage so that writing counted towards his final grade.

Since I already had permission to adjust the distribution of marks for the work he did, I made one other adjustment that I knew would ensure his success.

This was a subjective element of grading that allowed us as instructors to award marks based on class participation. It was our way of preventing students who were not really engaged from getting an A if they never came to class. If a student never showed up to class and only came to write the tests, got 100% on all the tests, but got a zero for participation in the course, the best grade he or she could end up with would be a B+.

The saying goes that 80% of success is showing up in life. So, if a student never showed up, it was impossible to get 100% in the course. It may seem sneaky, but that’s how it was.

Kyle demonstrated evidence of “showing up” in every possible manner. He had perfect attendance at class. He showed up having made a sincere stab at completing his homework. He stayed after class to ask intelligent clarifying questions. He came my office hours every week religious for extra help. At one point, he had hired a tutor to help him, but the tutor had no idea of how to help a deaf person learn a language and it didn’t work out.

Kyle did everything within his power to “show up”.

Since there were no grades awarded for discipline, focus or homework completion, I made a strategic decision to increase the percentage of his participation mark.

Risky business

There are rules and regulations in institutions for a reason. They set the standards that guide our professional behaviour. We are obliged to act in ethical ways that demonstrate an understanding and respect for the traditions and honour of our profession. Individual faculty members are required to abide by the rules established by the institution.

But what happens when the rules do not fit the situation? We have a choice. We can play by the rules or we can break them. (Yes, re-writing the rules can count as breaking them.) If you break the rules, you can be fired. That is part of “the real world” that my colleague in the business program was talking about.

Was I willing to risk it all for one student, whom I had known for a semester? The thought of it left a big knot in my stomach. I wanted to vomit. I could lose my career over this. It was like playing Russian roulette with my own future.

Inspired insight: Use deep reflection and analytical thinking to drive a tough decision

I reflected more deeply. Would I want to look myself in the mirror every day, knowing that I had upheld the bureaucratic rules, knowing that Kyle was all but doomed to fail my course and that was very likely to change the trajectory of his career? (Do things right, according to the rules).

Or did I want to take a chance on a student who was almost guaranteed to succeed in business and in life, but possibly risk my own career to do it? (Do the right thing).

I had a deep sense of not wanting to look in the mirror years later and ask “What if?”

I firmly believe that when we are faced with the impossible choice between doing things right, and doing the right thing that ultimately, it is more honorable to do the right thing. The price you might pay for doing so is ultimately less than the price you pay, in terms of your self-respect, ethics and integrity, for not doing so.

I had significant evidence that Kyle was going to make it. He had a solid track record of stellar grades, he showed up in every possible way and he had those intangible qualities such as people skills and determination, that never officially get factored into students’ grades. My own deep reflection, coupled with the evidence of success that this student had already demonstrated, ultimately led me to analyze the risk and decide that it was worth it.

Kyle received a passing grade in Spanish. And he worked harder than any other student in the class for what would turn out to be the only C- on his transcript. The grade broke his straight-A record, but we both knew how much it was really worth. He graduated from his program and has gone on to work for major multi-national companies.

Looking back, I could say that it wasn’t just Kyle who was deaf, it was also the institutional bureaucracy…. a system that did not care to listen to or take into account all the possible factors that contributes to a student’s success.

Peter F. Drucker also said, “The best way to predict your future is to create it”. As teachers, we have the opportunity to help our or hinder our students in the creation of their own futures. There are times though, when doing so is risky business.

When have you been faced with the choice between “doing things right” and “doing the right thing”? What struggles did you face? What did you ultimately decide, and more importantly, why?

Related posts:

A year of inspired insights #4: How teaching Spanish to a deaf multilingual student opened my eyes

A year of inspired insights #3: Servant leadership in the scullery

A year of inspired insights #2: Conversations change everything

A year of inspired insights #1: There’s a silver lining in every ambulance

My 2012 resolution project: A year of inspired insights

_____________

Share or Tweet this post: A year of inspired insights #5: When reason falls on deaf ears http://wp.me/pNAh3-1ei

If you are interested in booking me (Sarah Eaton) for a presentation, keynote or workshop (either live or via webinar) contact me at sarahelaineeaton (at) gmail.com. Please visit my speaking page, too.


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