Friday, April 19, 2013

Leverett, T. (2013, Apr. 4). Remembering the Ghosts of TESOL Past and Renewing Friendships at TESOL 2013. TESOL Convention Blog.

It turns out my blog post was a little different from the others, reminiscing about conventions, rather than giving practical advice, or telling more about what TESOL is. One challenge would be to study this situation, write truly helpful blogposts, become a regular contributor, and use it to link back to my sleepy outpost. It might not happen, though; I'm pretty busy. I wish them well though. I have the sneaking suspicion that blog posts are about as well and carefully read as, say, IS newsletters used to be. Maybe I should just rephrase that as "as carefully read by me".

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Sunday, April 14, 2013

Grammar technology: For better or worse 2013

Leverett, T. (2013, Mar.). Grammar technology: For better or worse. Internet Fair Classics, invited presentation. TESOL Convention, Dallas, TX, USA.

This one was a little harder for me logistically, because I'd been in Illinois beforehand and had to come back to Texas in order to do it. Nearby my friend Vance was doing a webcast from that same Classics presentation. Dallas was a nice city; I enjoyed it, unexpectedly.

Reactions from teachers were interesting. One that stuck with me was a woman who wrote off use of grammar technology by students as plagiarism. I didn't want to dispute with her the subtle difference between simply copying someone else's paragraph and calling it yours, and taking some paragraph in native language, yours or someone else's, and crunching it through a machine. In this sense "plagiarism" is redefined as "getting one's English paragraph without actually constructing it in English," but it can be seen as a related form of laziness, unwillingness or inability to do the work.

It is clear to me, though, that it's not always motivated by these things, which are so familiar to teachers especially in places where students don't want to learn so much as to survive, pass or move on to a better place. I look at it more this way: The technology is there; it's free; why would you not use it, or at least try it, until you were told loudly and clearly that it was prohibited?

My friend told the story of how students did in fact use both kinds (electronic dictionary, one word at a time, and Google Translate, one sentence at a time), and eventually settled on one-word-at-a-time systems because of their teacher's extreme reaction to GT's garbled variants. Teachers do in fact respond negatively to big vocabulary words that you couldn't possibly have known already, put into complex native-language grammatical patterns that are difficult to decode. If the students slog through and construct sentences in their own English, they'll have better luck with this kind of teacher, though. And this is what would happen, according to her.

I spent a long time talking to a guy who saw it somewhat like I did. You have to keep your eye on this software, and learn what is available to students. You have to know what they can do with it the minute you turn your back. You have to assume that they are going to use it at every possible chance and that they are genuinely interested in learning the language. You might as well be honest with them about the fact that it's there, that they can use it, that it will affect what they write, and that it will affect their learning, and for example that it will cause their high vocabulary to belie their true ability, and rub some teachers the wrong way. Students, incredibly enough, come away from it all with a sense of what they still need to become fluent, and are even able to talk about this and pass it along to other students.

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Friday, April 05, 2013

Worst possible skill to lose

The problem has been around forever, said a friend, explaining how eidetic memory was the first to go; people used to be able to memorize entire books, or thousands of pages of them, like The Odyssey, for example, but they lost those abilities when writing systems came around, then, when the printing press came around, it was curtains for that kind of skills. The phone and the calculator brought similar downfalls; the pattern is that people accept a new technological innovation, and the collective skills of the human race take a dive.

There are those who argue that it doesn't matter, because we don't need those skills anymore. So, for example, people used to remember the capital of every state, but now you can google it in minutes, and everyone has google on their phone, so people don't need to carry that information around with them now. People shrug and forget about it as if it doesn't amount to much.

The most alarming thing I saw in the pattern was that people invariably fail to question the wisdom of letting the human race lose these skills. The pattern goes like this: the innovation appears to be great; everyone adopts it; you feel ridiculous if you don't adopt it; you lose skills without thinking about it; sometimes people question what's happening but people ignore them; the human race goes on, slightly dumber, but able to use the extra space in our heads. The skills I was most interested in, of course, were the ability to spell, and the ability to remember grammatical things, but there are more: ability to drive a stick shift, ability to grow a vegetable or bake a pie, ability to perform various mathematical calculations. People have lost a lot of things.

But this, to me, is the most alarming. I said to my class the other day, you should know how to explain how to get somewhere around town, how to get to the bus station, for example, or how to get to the rec center. No, we don't need to, they said. You have to know how to get out your phone and type the place into it, you don't have to know directions. People don't use directions. They don't know how to tell about them, or how to follow them. Only Siri knows that, Siri takes care of it. She of course tells us, while we're in our car, how to get to the restaurant.

It took me a while to realize how profound that was. Of course, I was always big on orientation in space; it was always important to me to know where I was and how to get back home, for example. I couldn't live with myself if I lost track of that kind of information. I guess that makes me an old-schooler, because young people apparently will do fine without this kind of skill. As long as you have your phone, who will need to know where they are, or how to get somewhere?

I have this picture in my mind of someone who lost his or her phone, or was unable to recharge it, and therefore became utterly, completely lost. This would be quite tragic. No sense worrying about it, though.