Why APA formatting matters

January 15, 2014

Imagine you are buying a new home. You tour around a number of properties. You see one that is messy, distasteful and uninviting. The sales agent says, “Oh, don’t worry, the foundation is strong!” The trained eye may be able to see past the bad presentation, but it takes a lot of mental energy to get past it.

Now imagine you are taken into a home that is clean, neat and perfectly staged. You immediately feel welcome. You are instantly engaged psychologically and emotionally. You want to see more.

APA formatting is to research papers what presenting a clean, neat and well presented home is to selling a property.

Your prof may be able to look past a messy presentation, but it takes more mental energy. You want to be able to say, “Oh, but the foundation of the work is just fine!”  and you want that be enough.

Well, it’s not enough. It sends a message that you don’t care about presentation. You send a message that you don’t give a flying leap that your work is less appealing to read. You may be brilliant, but if the essence of what you show to others messy and disorganized,  it’s less inviting to enter your world and spend time there. Sometimes, students insist that APA formatting inhibits their creativity or individuality. My reply to that is, fine, go be as bizarre and unique as you like in your own writing space — your blog, your journal or whatever.

There’s an element of persuasion involved in writing a research paper. I won’t say sales, because that will undoubtedly offend some of you. But let’s face it. You are trying to “pitch” your ideas. Follow standard practices for presentation and your work is likely to be accepted a whole lot faster than if you insist on doing it your own way. When you are writing a research paper you are trying to persuade someone to read it, like it and possibly judge its value (e.g. accept it for publication or award a grade for it). 

Sometimes I find that drawing comparisons between reality TV and academia helps students make sense the expectations of life in higher education. Over the past few months, I’ve been watching Income Property. I don’t own any income properties and I probably never will, but I find the show fascinating. I see patterns in how projects are completed so they consistently meet the objectives.

Host Scott McGillivray helps home owners turn unfinished or unacceptable suites into beautiful rental properties. He and his crew completely renovate the space. They focus on doing excellent quality construction, electrical and plumbing work that is up to code. The work is inspected and they get feedback from city officials and inspectors before they start working on the finishes.

To me, that’s the the content of research. It needs to be solid, high quality and done well. Getting feedback along the way is important, too.

Once they get the necessary approvals that the job has been done right, they move on to the finishes. They pay attention to the details and ensure the look of the place is consistent with sound design principles that are timeless and impressive. After watching a few episodes of Income Property I noticed that they use very similar approaches for each project.

http://www.sxc.hu/photo/670220That’s the presentation of the work. The design principles are outlined by APA, MLA or whatever style guide you use. The format is timeless and paying attention to the details makes it impressive. They follow presentation design principles systematically. Each project is unique, yet they follow standards in a consistent way. It’s almost like there’s a template and yet, every project is individual.

McGillivray consistently points out that doing the construction work properly is non-negotiable. Just like doing good quality research is non-negotiable.

But what gets people to say, “Wow, this is impressive!” are the finishes. Following accepted practices for presentation (which might be interior design for a house, or formatting for a paper) and paying attention to the details are what makes you stand out and be impressive.

For an exemplary end product you need both: quality construction and beautiful finishes. If you have only done only one or the other, you are being sloppy. To do the job right, you need solid construction and a beautiful presentation.

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“Math Wrath”: Are parents pushing for a return to tradition?

January 13, 2014

Recently, Canada’s national newspaper, the Globe and Mail, published, “Math wrath: Parents and teachers demanding a return to basic skills.” The article talks about a movement by some Canadian educators and parents to put greater emphasis on developing concrete math skills such as addition, subtraction, multiplication and division and less focus on discovery and creative strategies.

I find myself fascinated by this debate. I have long wondered about “creative strategies” in education. At the very beginning of my teaching career I took the Gregorc learning styles test. I came out perfectly balanced between all four quadrants: concrete, abstract, random and sequential. Apparently, that’s not particularly common. What it means though is that I can see and appreciate a variety of different learning styles.

Over the past 20 years or so (about the length of my teaching career), I have noted a distinct shift away from concrete sequential learning. Order, logic, learning to follow directions and getting facts seem to have diminished in value, while experimentation, risk taking, using intuition, problem-solving, learning to work in teams and focusing on this issues at hand all seem to fit with the creative learning strategies that have become popular in recent decades.

There has been a notable shift away from valuing sequential learning, structure, learning to follow precise directions and memorizing. In decades past, educational structures and systems may have favoured the concrete sequential learner. Today’s educational systems favour a more random or exploratory approach.

The debate has become almost vicious in some educational circles. Those who favor teaching methods that are concrete and sequential have been poo-poo’ed or dismissed by colleagues who insist vehemently on the random nouveau. I have known colleagues who have been quietly yet unapologetically exited from their teaching jobs because they continue to insist that their students follow directions, do activities in a particular order or memorize.

I worry a bit about the defiant horror expressed by some educational experts and parents at the idea of memorizing. While I agree that rote learning may not employ the highest levels of our cognition, memorization has its place. Learning to say, “Please” and “Thank you” are largely memorized behaviours. Learning to stop at a red light and drive on a green light is also a memorized response. Memorizing how to do CPR could save someone’s life.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I believe that we need to go back to the days of corporal punishment for an incorrect answer based on memorization. What has always puzzled me though, is how quickly methodological fashions change in education. When a new way of learning or teaching is introduced, old ways seem to be immediately, unequivocally and vehemently dismissed. Really good teachers whose background are more traditional than fashionable are thrown out along with their teaching methods.

Do we need to take a step back and look at models that integrate and value a variety of approaches? Would it be wise to hesitate… just a little bit… before we denounce traditional methods as being heinous and abhorrent, with only newer and more fashionable ones as being worthy?

I wonder if the obsessive focus on creativity, exploration and problem-solving might be doing some harm that we can not yet predict? Perhaps a small dose of memorization, learning to follow specific directions and learning systematically might be helpful?

Personally, I give both children and adults more credit than some educators or policy makers who insist on a singular approach to learning, regardless of whether it is systematic memorization or exploratory problem-solving. Being the utterly complex and capable creatures humans are, surely we can cope with both memorization and developing creativity simultaneously?

It’s the drastic swings of the policy pendulum that should worry us. The unflinching insistence that exploratory methods are the only legitimate or credible ways of learning should make us nervous. Polarized and uncompromising opinions on the singular “best” way to learn should be considered suspect.

There is almost always more than one “right” way to learn.

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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.


Understanding apathy

January 9, 2014

Students stop attending classes. Staff members will do anything to avoid a departmental meeting. Voters don’t go to the polls.

Apathy and disengagement abound. For leaders and change agents, figuring out the root causes can morph into an obsession, but “why?” is the wrong question to ask. Chances are, you’ll never find out why. If you ask, you may get an answer that you know is not really true.

Why did you stop attending class? May result in a head hung low and a sheepish, “I dunno…”

Why did you stop attending meetings? May result in a superficial smile and a politically correct, “I’m so sorry… I’m just so busy right now…”

Why don’t you vote? May result in a shrug of the shoulders and a deflated counter-question, “What difference does one vote make anyway?”

Asking people why they have become disengaged or disenchanted rarely results in a useful answer. It takes too much mental energy to think through the answer. Or if the person already knows the answer, it takes too much emotional energy to share it. The probability of confrontation is high. It’s too risky.

To avoid confrontation, those who have abandoned a project, process or commitment may share a polite answer that allows them to sidestep the real issue, or they may shrug it off entirely.

If you really want to understand the reasons someone has become disenchanted, sit down with them, face-to-face, and ask a different question: How do we make it better?

Surveys and e-mails are not an effective way to ask this question. They are impersonal. Quick. Efficient. And ultimately, they send a message that you want something (information), but you’re not willing to invest anything (effort).

If you want insight, you need to be willing to invest effort. If you want depth of insight, be wiling to add a personal touch that is genuine and sincere. Book a lunch (and then pay for it). Invite the person over for coffee (without asking the invitee to bring anything).

Show that you are willing to give in order to get… and do so without expectation. The disenchanted may be guarded, unwilling to take risks or afraid of consequences if they are honest. If you want their input, you need to extend the offer first. Be generous and establish an environment of personal trust and social (or professional) safety. There should be no punishment for sharing viewpoints, opinions or feelings.

When you ask “How do we make it better?” you allow the other to share without the risk of punishment or confrontation. You may never get that person back, but you can figure out what happened so you can improve for those who follow in their footsteps.

Ask, “How do we improve?” Then, shut up and listen.

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Resources for learning and teaching Arabic

January 7, 2014

https://i2.wp.com/img.ehowcdn.com/article-new-thumbnail/ehow/images/a05/6m/ih/learn-arabic-writing-800x800.jpgThis semester I am involved in a Calgary Board of Education (CBE) pilot project to teach Arabic in a blended learning course at the high school level. I’ve been working with a fantastic team of educators comprised of an instructional designer, a curriculum development specialist and a native speaker of Arabic who will take on the challenge of helping the students learn. Here are some resources for others who are interested in teaching or learning Arabic online.

20 Free online resources for teaching and learning Arabic

Professional Resources for K-12 Arabic Educators (Harvard University) – http://cmes.hmdc.harvard.edu/files/NEAAT15Oct2011Materials.pdf

Arabic K-12 Teachers Network – http://www.arabick12.org/materials/websites/teacher_sites.html

American Association of Teachers of Arabic (Resources page) – http://aataweb.org/arabic_resources

Center for Open Educational Resources and Language Learning (Arabic) – http://www.coerll.utexas.edu/coerll/projects/arabic

Becker’s Arabic page – http://www.uni.edu/becker/arabic.html

National Middle East Language Resource Center – http://nmelrc.org/Arabic

E-Arabic Learning – http://www.dur.ac.uk/daniel.newman/elearn.html

Arabic Voices (Listening comprehension) – University of Texas at Austin – http://www.laits.utexas.edu/aswaat/index.php

Arabic Online – http://www.arabiconline.eu/resources/

University of London Language Centre – Arabic Resources – http://www.soas.ac.uk/languagecentre/teachers/resources/arabic/

UCLA Language Materials Project (Various entries for Arabic Resources) – http://www.lmp.ucla.edu/Default.aspx

National Capital Language Resource Center (Arabic) – http://www.nclrc.org/teaching_materials/materials_by_language/arabic.html

Comprehensive list of resources from Mohamed Esa, McDaniel College – http://www2.mcdaniel.edu/german/startalk-arabic/ArabicLanguageCultureResources..pdf

National Foreign Language Center – Online Reading Skills Lessons in Arabic – http://readarabic.nflc.org/?page=to_the_learner

Arabic Language Resource website – http://www.azifoon.com/arabic-learners/online.htm

Institute for Innovation in Second Language Education (IISLE) – Arabic resources – https://sites.google.com/a/share.epsb.ca/languages-epsb-ca/arabic/opportunities-for-parents

Language Acquisition Resource Center – Arabic – http://larc.sdsu.edu/arabic/

Teachers of Critical Languages (Arabic) – http://www.tclprogram.org/TCLP/lessonPlansBrowse.php?cat=233&programCat=1

Arabic Without Walls (UC Davis) – http://arabicwithoutwalls.ucdavis.edu/aww/

We Love Arabic (blog) – http://welovearabic.wordpress.com/

Bonus resources (books)

Ryding, K. C. (2013). Teaching and learning Arabic as a foreign language. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press. Find out more at: http://press.georgetown.edu/book/languages/teaching-and-learning-arabic-foreign-language

Wahba, K. M., Taha, Z. A., & England, L. (2006). Handbook for Arabic language teaching professionals in the 21st century. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

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How to love your job as a contract teacher

January 2, 2014

2014 marks my 20th year teaching at post-secondary institutions. I have spent the past two decades of my teaching career as a part-time contract instructor, also known as a “sessional” in Canada, or an “adjunct” in the United States.

Here are some things I’ve learned over the past twenty years:

1. Know your “why”.

hands hope sunI have friends and colleagues who have been contract teachers for a long time. Some become bitter and jaded because they do not get hired into full-time and permanent positions. If you want a full-time position, then you need to be prepared to do whatever it takes to get one. That may mean moving to a new city, region or even a different country to get it. If you aren’t willing to do that, then don’t get grumpy about being a part-time teacher. Understand that you are putting staying in your current location above getting a permanent job. If you are very lucky, eventually you may get hired on full-time, but there are no guarantees. It comes with the territory.

Like a potted plant, each of us has an ideal set of conditions in which we blossom. For me, the idea of going into an office at the same time every day for the rest of my life makes my heart wilt. I have learned that I serve my institutions, my clients and my students better when I honour that part of my character that thrives in an environment of flexibility, independence and variety.

Knowing why you accept part-time contract teaching jobs helps you stay positive. Once you know your why, you can stand in your truth about what is important to you and what you need to thrive.

2. Have more than one gig at all times.

As much as you may love the department or institution you work for, there may be semesters when there are no classes for you to teach. The reasons for this may vary. For me, these have included lower departmental enrolments, insufficient enrollment in a particular course, departmental commitments to give jobs to visiting professors or scholars, or jobs going to other contract teachers with more years of service.

For me, a combination of teaching, consulting, researching, and freelance work has proven successful. I don’t do as much freelance work as I did in the early years. My career has evolved to the point where I do organizational consulting. The difference is that in freelance work you have a clear set of deliverables due by a particular date. In consulting, the work is often more iterative, strategic and adaptive. The deliverables are not always clear, but the results can be documented or measured.

Whether the work involves a clear set of deliverables (freelancing) or the ability to work iteratively with a client to change processes or systems (consulting) or teaching a group of students, I have learned that having more than one gig ensures I can pay the bills every month.

When you aim to always have more than one gig, you build your own safety net. This builds your confidence and assertiveness as a professional. If there’s a semester when there are no teaching opportunities, you can redirect your energy to another element of your career for a while.

3. Don’t take it personally if there is no course for you to teach.

If you look at the list above, you’ll see that all the examples I shared had nothing to do with me personally or my job performance. They are all factors outside my control. Having a semester when there are zero courses for me to teach has been rare. But there have been times when I have been offered only one course. Either way, I don’t take it personally.

It is naive to assume that just because you had three courses last semester that you will have the same number of classes next term. I have found that having high expectations around the number or type of my teaching assignments causes unnecessary stress. In the early years, I became frustrated or angry when I received fewer teaching opportunities than I had the semester before. I have learned that there are many variables, most of which are outside my control. There are no guarantees… and that’s not your fault.

4. Unofficial seniority is a reality.

In some teaching environments, seniority is a reality among full-time or tenured staff. Those with the most seniority can cherry pick their assignments.

In most of the part-time, sessional or contract teaching contexts I have worked in, seniority does not exist. At least, not on paper. In reality though, department heads and managers often use an informal or unofficial system of seniority that is not written down anywhere. Those who have been teaching the longest are often first in line for contract teaching assignments.

Such “unofficial” systems come with the territory. Understand that these undocumented systems do not exist only at your institution. They exist everywhere. Being resentful of them doesn’t change them. You can spend your time protesting unofficial seniority or other undocumented systems that make up the culture of educational institutions, or you can understand that it is an unspoken reality of the profession and go about creating your career anyway. Learn to live with the informal or implicit culture of your school or organization.

5. Develop a tolerance for uncertainty.

Contract teachers never know from one semester to the next what their teaching assignments will be, or even if there will be a job next term. If you can’t cope with that, you may want to think hard about whether this professional situation is really for you.

I have learned that I have a fairly high tolerance for uncertainty in my work life. Because I aim to have at least three gigs at any given time, that adds stability to my life, and I have learned that a contract teacher needs to develop resilience and a tolerance for professional uncertainty. If you need a steady pay cheque to stay sane, contract teaching may not be for you.

6. Your finances are your responsibility.

Contract teachers are more like entrepreneurs than employees. Entrepreneurs learn not to depend on a boss, a company or an organization for a regular pay cheque. I have often heard new entrepreneurs told, “If you are not making money, you don’t have a business. You have a hobby.”

Part-time teaching can be one element of a successful career in education. It may not be the only element and if it doesn’t pay all your bills, it probably should not be the only element. Entrepreneurs, freelancers and contract teachers all need to have a firm grasp of reality when it comes to finances. If teaching does not pay the bills, then find something to supplement your income that will. It may be editing, writing or whatever. You may love teaching, but passion does not pay the mortgage. Learn to think like an entrepreneur and hunt out new contracts, new clients and whatever it takes for you to have a career, not a hobby.

It’s not up to your school or your department head to ensure you can pay your bills. It’s up to you. In fact, if you choose a career as a contract teacher (and it is important to recognize that you have indeed made a choice on some level) then not only do you need enough income to cover your expenses every month, you also need to put a little bit away every month for those times when you may not have a teaching assignment.

7. Courses do not equal a career.

If you spend your years as a contract teacher whining about not having job security or a pension, you can end up marinating in self-created misery that can mutate into lifelong jaded bitterness.

I love the work I do. I deeply enjoy working with my students. I am surrounded by brilliant colleagues who care deeply about learning. I eagerly embrace the chance to do consulting work with organizations focused on education, training or social development. Every contract provides an unparalleled opportunity to work with new people, each of whom is committed in some way or another to lifelong learning.

My work has spanned a variety of sectors including education, non-profit and government. Some of my full-time colleagues see that as haphazard or unfocused. But not me. I am crystal clear on what my purpose is. What drives me has a singular focus: To improve the human condition.

While I may work independently, I relish the thought that I am not alone in what I do. There are hundreds of thousands of us — maybe even millions of us — around the globe who teach part time, on contract, without job security, pensions or a regular pay cheque because when we get right down to it, we love teaching and we believe in education. The bottom line for any social entrepreneur or contract teacher is simple: The work we do matters. The work we do individually —  our daily practice of teaching, researching, consulting, freelancing and all our other educational work — contributes to a collective global commitment to improve the human condition.

As harsh as it may seem, when you are a contract teacher, you are not in control of the courses you are offered to teach. But you are still in control of your career. How you use your skills, talents and expertise is ultimately up to you. Whether it’s teaching, researching, consulting or freelancing, understand what drives you, what matters deeply to you and what you need not just to survive, but to thrive as a professional.

When you look back in twenty years (or more) what will matter more, the courses you have taught or the career you have cultivated?

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If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Share or Tweet this: How to love your job as a contract teacher http://wp.me/pNAh3-1Gq

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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