Monday, December 28, 2015

My classes try the concordance

I had a graduate assistant this semester who was inspired by the concordance. I opened it up and showed her how it could be a tool for high-level, international writers who I was teaching, and I showed her how. I had to play with it a while because I personally am not all that good with it; for example, I have trouble finding that fine column of sentences that use any given structure - how do you find that? Eventually we found it. Off she went; she was fascinated.

The one we liked best was the BYU concordance, and we showed it to both classes. She had better luck showing it to the class she taught in, while I showed it to the other class alone, though later I brought her in as a guest speaker, and she showed it to that class too. She did her best to show them how useful it could be in the process of writing. I'm not sure to what degree they bought it, or tried it. We kept pressing them all semester.

It's my belief, and I told my classes repeatedly, that as a tool, nothing could be more useful than a machine that delivers the facts about what people do in academic English. You have your dictionary and your thesaurus, I have these online, right? (it's my guess that not all had heard of, or actively used, the thesaurus - but these are graduate students - most had) was like pulling teeth to get them to talk about what they actually did when they wrote.

And that's my focus; it continues to be my focus today. My working philosophy comes down to the following:
-Everything that is written is a product of what a student can create, and what technology does to it; it includes the ways the student negotiates with the technology to find compromise forms and structures that appear to be ok.
-Students are reluctant to talk about the technology they use, since they are conditioned to be afraid of their copying anything from online sources; in general, they expect their teacher to have a negative view of online "help"
-Students are protective of the system that they use at home; they will occasionally beg to be allowed to write something at home (as opposed to an on-campus site, with a different computer/different tech) for reasons related to technical support, but they will rarely even admit this;
-This system we refer to (depending on Word grammar-check, spell-check, or whatever paid or free grammar programs they use; or, in some cases, dependence on wife, friend, neighbor) is well-established, a habit. Asking them to change it is really asking them to experiment with changing it and adapt what works well. It will be a slow and painful process to even get to the first part. It may have to wait until break.

We asked them, when it was all over, to write about their systems, and to write about learning. What follows (soon) will be a general analysis of what they said.

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Friday, December 25, 2015

Friday, December 18, 2015

2015 report

OK, I'll be the first to admit it. I got one foot into retirement (I am now teaching 3/4 time, writing 1/4 time), and I realized how tired I was, after about thirty years of teaching. I still have lots of ideas. I do lots of things in my class. But a lot of times, I come home from teaching, and all I want to do is rest.

Part of the problem is that, having ten children, I never get that rest, whether I do extra ESL stuff or not. In fact, the ESL tends to be kind of a break from the children, an enjoyable, academic kind of break, like having conversations with interesting people I know, but I don't have time for it. I'm taking kids to their sports practices, or to the dentist, or getting groceries, etc. But another part of it is that I really love writing, and I also love music, and these are sides of me that went undeveloped for many years. So, when I apologize for failing a little at this end, just consider me as backing off a little. I can't possibly keep up the pace I kept for many years.

Nonetheless, here are some interesting things I've been doing in 2015.

First, I became almost entirely a writing teacher, so I had two advanced writing classes. My students are very high level graduate students who are trying to maintain and improve what they consider their weak point. The stronger ones take the class on their own, knowing that there's always a lot to learn. The weaker ones are pressured to take it by their departments, where they really don't want to teach graduate students writing, but just want them to crank out good useful dissertations and articles regularly. It's high-level; the students are bright. I had one do a blog on gay marriage (their choice) and the other campus carry (gun control, also their choice). We published everything we wrote, and it was good, and interesting. I helped teach them formatting things online, as well as the usual writing things - citation, reference, etc. I had the usual run-ins with plagiarism. I taught a lot of students a lot of things.

One of my graduate students became interested in the concordance movement, so I became reacquainted with it. The first step was learning more about it as a tool, how to use it, whether it really works. I am genuinely interested in the process of learning how students integrate tools into their writing process - how, why, how easily, etc. They are not especially forthcoming about the tools they use, being convinced, I guess, that so many of them are illegal. Nevertheless, as a class (both of them, really), we discussed opening up the concordance, seeing what it can do, applying the simplest of grammar problems to it, etc. It was interesting. My Graduate Assistant was fascinated. And, interestingly, even the students found one aspect of it interesting: they are stats people. They like to run the numbers. To be able to run the numbers on the words you use, that's an interesting concept. They are still shaking their heads.

We have a conference in the spring; there is some doubt about whether we'll do it this spring, with its main organizer gone now. Last spring, I was caught unprepared, and didn't even present. There are many things I could present, but I presented zip, I didn't even go. I believe I was out of town, but I don't even remember where; perhaps New Mexico. But I did present at TESOL, the usual, and I could have presented on various subjects of interest, if I could keep from being drawn into the world of personal fiction publishing.

The first would be on cultural flexibility as a requirement of good language learning. I feel that the characteristic of cultural flexibility, being able to unhinge your self-image from its cultural trappings, is measurable, and crucial in the process. I'd like to define it better, and work toward writing about what I mean. I gave a presentation at our 2014 spring conference, and very easily could have given another. But I was interrupted, and, I'm sorry to say, I dropped the ball.

In the course of doing that one, I became interested in Order of Acquisition as a given construct in Language Learning. Actually, I'm more interested in proving that there isn't one; it's part of my constructivist belief that each learner decides for himself/herself what order to acquire anything in, and each learner has his/her own idea of what is crucial, or what should go first. And, it would be possible to manipulate the system. For example, one could convince a learner to learn all the religious words first (salvation, heaven, savior, etc.) and skip the ones having to do with cooking, if that learner were proselytizing ten hours a day, and never cooking. One's viewpoint determines what one acquires, not an innate natural order. But I'd like to prove that, if I had time.

My TESOL presentation is basically about how grammar programs have messed with people's heads. That's putting it lightly. But something has come up that is tangentially related to this. The War on Passive is something we researched, and wrote a little about, and learned how to teach. In essence some departments, specifically social sciences, dislike the passive intensely; others, namely the hard sciences, still cling to it. There is a wide variety. Read about it on this blog. I could easily ride this one to another TESOL, but I haven't...why not?

Finally, there is the language-as-a-self-organizing-system project; this has been dormant for a while now, and is beginning to fossilize in its dormant phase. I have written voluminously about it. I haven't given up on it. It needs to be published before I give up altogether. Hello?

Meanwhile I help out at the office. My classes are full. I enjoy teaching, and I also teach American students these days; I like that too. Texas Tech is benevolent and enjoyable to me. I avoid politics. This year, due to wife's surgery, mother's near-death health experiences, and family issues, I avoided all office parties, poetry readings, etc. as well. I am in demand at the poetry reading, as people like haiku, and believe it or not, one can write bilingual haiku that pulls on both language universes in seventeen short syllables; I am one who could do it as I've been literally immersed in poetry for months now. However as I said, I was busy. Life is full here, the nights are beautiful, and there are lots of stars out, even in the city. And the mountains are even better; the 9000 feet woods beckon. I am, in the end, partially retired.

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Monday, December 14, 2015

short stories

Available at Amazon and soon on Kindle

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