Fostering Persistence

In the short life of this blog, I’ve noted several times that I have a lot of opportunity for trying new things in my classes.  Here’s one experience from my first year (October 2009 through September 2010) .

When I began teaching, I struggled mightily with the walk-in aspect of our classes.  Such a class is convenient for students, but the administrative load is huge.  If you can’t predict how many students will be in class, you must produce materials for all of them.  Each lesson plan must be written with full upward and downward expansion options because you don’t know which  students will be present.  Lessons can’t build on previous material because students can’t be counted on to be present from class to class.  If a new student drops in, you must be prepared with intake paperwork and pretest materials.  Students disappear and you have no idea if they will be back — so you end up  taking extra time outside of class to do a missing persons survey by phone and your pretest to post-test ratios get nailed.

The administrative solution is managed enrollment  (this link is an example of what I mean by that phrase).   Since I’m not an administrator, that wasn’t my call.  I needed to know how to deal with the situation I was in (while pressing for administrative change in the meantime).  Sometime in 2010, I decided to focus on “persistence”.  There was always a core group of students who showed up faithfully to every class.  If I could expand that group, not only would several of the above issues be improved or resolved but my class would eventually become “full”. I would only need to accept new students when a seat opened up.  In a way, this would create a managed enrollment situation.

My organization hosts a regular in-house event where all staff is encouraged to present on a topic that will be useful to others.  I offered to share about “persistence”, which gave me motivation and a deadline.  My intention was to try smaller steps that a teacher can take in the classroom immediately and to share my experience in my report.  In addition to many other resources, this list from Jefferson Community College in Kentucky was full of good ideas.

I tried the following in my classes:

  • Learn student names quickly and facilitate their use by other students.  I’m not the best at remembering names; with a swirl of students from many countries, I was not doing well!  I had a classroom activity where students made United Nations-style name plates (paper, folded in a triangle and taped) with their name as they prefer to be addressed and their home country on it.  Each student gave the class a tiny pronunciation lesson on his or her name and invited questions and comments about his or her home country. I included myself, listing my place of birth.  I asked students to keep and reuse their name plates every day.  When a new student joined, others helped him or her with making a name plate.  This became a symbol of initiating a new person into the group (fostering a sense of membership).  This activity alone was remarkably successful.  Students tend to focus on the teacher and getting their own needs met.  This caused them to turn to each other, literally. Personally, I also began a habit of saying student names aloud when working on my data reports.
  • Give out certificates.  Students who attended 50 hours and completed their post-test received a nice certificate, to the applause of their classmates.  In one of my classes, I had quite a few students who did not have a lot of formal education in their home country.  For them, this certificate was a powerful motivator.
  • Orientation.  In 2010, my PM took a step toward managed enrollment by limiting student walk-ins to the first class day of each month.  (This had unintended effects, but that’s another post!)  We still didn’t have a formal orientation process, but I didn’t see why I couldn’t create one in my class.  The first day of each month was a good day for our name-plate activity as well as a review of attendance and classroom expectations.  I simplified our organization’s  policy documents as much as I could and gave copies to all new students.  I kept orientation to the first hour of class and gave a shortened lesson for the remaining 90 minutes.  (I would like to have our policy documents translated, actually.  Expectations must be clear to all students; many students don’t know English — that’s why they’re enrolling!)
  • Have visitor sessions.  If a potential new student showed up on some day other than the first day, I invited him or her to sit in 0n the class as a visitor (if a seat was available).  I gave the student our class policies and wrote the date of the next “orientation” day on it.  The intention was to give the student a chance to check me and the class out and decide if what I offered would meet their needs.  I hoped that this would improve the number of committed students who showed up on orientation day.
  • Have social events.  I began a habit of having a class party every three months.  I chose the change of seasons as a nice, consistent, non-denominational excuse.   Those dates (3/21, 6/21, 9/21 and 12/21) also tend to be near holidays in many cultures, so it works on several levels.  This, too, was effective in strengthening student connections to each other and to the class.
  • Promote setting short-term goals.  This initiative did not contribute toward my own short-term goal of managing enrollment by filling my classes with persistent students.  It turns out that this is no small project.  I decided that this could be an entirely separate multi-stage initiative.

Classes have different personalities and I’ve seen that these steps vary in their effectiveness from class to class.  But I did achieve my goal.  My classes are now “full” and I take a limited number of new students in.  Ever pushing toward managed enrollment, a fellow teacher and I have just decided (with PM approval) to only take new students in every 3 months and to require that continuing students complete a post-test and commit to the next 3 months.


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Maybe Facilitator is a Better Title

My purpose is not to teach grammar.  It’s not to give information about American ways or to instruct on civics topics.  It’s not to model American English pronunciation or to be an American English conversation partner.  It’s certainly not to make sure students do better on their post-test assessments!

My purpose is to support students in using English to communicate.  If I can introduce our monthly themes in an open-ended and exploratory way, students will indicate what’s relevant to them and I can create communication situations based on that feedback.   If I present them with the right level of challenge, the grammar and vocabulary they need should become apparent.  If students expand their ability to communicate in English on the themes in our framework, their post-tests should reflect the improvement.

Well, that’s the idealism.  Pragmatically speaking, it doesn’t always go that way.  OK, it rarely goes that way.  But I think it’s important to push in that direction whenever possible.   I sometimes find myself losing this focus.   If I’m talking with another teacher about  “Fitness and Nutrition”, we may end up talking in terms of teaching nutrition.  Not only am I not a nutritionist, but some of my students are doctors.  I’m not in a position to teach them about nutrition.  I am in a position to help them read, write, listen and speak about nutrition in English!  If there are students who what to know more about nutrition, perhaps the experts in our class can share what they know.  If there are no experts, perhaps students can explore in different directions and report back to each other.  I’ll facilitate the communication  process.

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Teacher as Learner

When I completed my TEFL certificate, the biggest thing I walked away with was an understanding of how much I didn’t know.  Every session of that four weeks of training included observed time in front of students that was later critiqued in words and writing.  I did not successfully “meet my terminal goal” until my very last session.  It was humbling … and an excellent way to begin this career.

Every day, my trainers would explain and demonstrate concepts and techniques.  I would prepare (collaborating with a team of fellow-trainees) and then try it in the classroom.  Time after time, I flopped in front of the easiest audience: willing, interested and intelligent adults.  I saw the many ways that their faces, their bodies, their silence would tell me “I don’t get it”.  When I finally did have a success, it was like the sun breaking through the clouds!   I learned that a student will always tell me what he or she needs, if I’m willing to hear the message.  And the most accurate message is in actions and choices, not words.

Of course, even when the message gets through, I don’t always know right away how to respond.  With persistence and experience, I hope to improve with that too.


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The Situation

I want to describe my teaching environment before I get into questions and reflections on teaching.

I teach two free ESL classes to adults.  Each group meets for three hours twice a week in the basement of a library.  The afternoon group consists of higher level adults (CASAS 206 – 235). The evening class ranges from beginners who are literate in their first language and who can write letters and numbers to CASAS 205.  There is a large Russian-speaking community in this part of the city, so a good percentage of my students speak Russian.

My employer is a non-profit organization and its headquarters are 15-20 urban miles away from the library (depending on the route).  My home is 26 miles away in a different direction, so it saves a lot of driving time to teach both groups on the same days.  Another half-day a week is often devoted to a trip to HQ.  I meet with my program manager and/or fellow teachers, turn in paperwork, pick up supplies and make photocopies.  I don’t have a desk at HQ but I have a very nice office at home, so I do as much lesson preparation as possible there.  I’m a part-timer (50%) but I would say that I work full-time.  The extra time, spent at my discretion, usually goes into lesson planning.

When I first started teaching, about two years ago, classes were open to all levels on a walk-in basis.  We didn’t have a curriculum and we didn’t (and don’t) use specific textbooks.  This was quite challenging for someone new to the classroom.  On the positive side, I’ve had much freedom to experiment and have learned a lot from what succeeded and what didn’t.  These days, classes are divided into two levels and new students are limited to available openings (if any) at the beginning of each month.   We don’t have a curriculum, but we have moved to a civics-based thematic framework.  Every month of the year is loosely based on a theme such as “Consumer Economics”.  I think these changes are for the better, though I would like to push a little more toward managed enrollment.

Regarding the lack of textbooks: I’m not so sure that this is a deficit.  The right textbook can serve a particular class, but every class (and every individual) is unique.  We’re not allowed to require a textbook.  But if that were not the case, I would want to be very familiar with a variety of texts.  I would then want to assess a class’s needs and “prescribe” a text. Or more than one text.  Or none.  I was starting to come to this conclusion when I stumbled onto Internet blogs about “dogme”.  I’m very interested in the unplugged approach — looking at textbooks as just one of many tools at one’s disposal.

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Why the Bee?

In case you’re wondering …

I just looked through some old photos and found something pretty.  This was taken in Thomas Jefferson’s backyard (in the gardens at Monticello).  There is no particular symbolic significance, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make something up right now!   How about this:  both the bee and the flowers need to give and get from each other in order to thrive.

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Hello world!

I teach free English classes to adults in Philadelphia.  This assignment is highly dynamic (hence the title of this blog).  That has both positive and negative aspects!  On the positive side, I have a lot of leeway to experiment in class.  I’m learning to be flexible and creative when things don’t go as I expect (which is very often).  On the negative side, a constantly-shifting environment makes it difficult for students to persist and develop.

I reflect formally, if briefly, on my lesson plans and I do quite a bit of informal thinking and reading.  Maybe this blog can be a central location for that.  The perspective I intend to take here is that of “inquisitive learner”.    Let me shape up the blog’s appearance and I’ll get to posting!

PS: my categories (see below) hint at topics to come …

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