Sunday, March 30, 2008

PCLinuxOS 2008 Gnome

I downloaded the new PCLinuxOS 2008 Gnome the other day. So far I have only run it as a live CD on my Acer laptop, but I really like the looks of it. It found my Atheros wireless card immediately but was having trouble with my printer. When I finish a project I am currently wrapping up, I think I will install it and see how it goes installed.

More on my use of worksheets

Both Angie and Gabriela responded to my last post about eliminating worksheets. And I owe them a response, so here it is.

Gabriela, I really appreciate your comments. I have changed a little what I want them to do, so there will be lots of sharing before the end. And as soon as I read your comments about the grammar, that all came together for me, too. I still have some work to do, but it is nearly finished. Thanks for your encouragement.

As to why we use worksheets in the program I teach in... I am not sure. But it is easy for the people who buy into it. I know that there was no money in the beginning, and I think they were doing the best they could, but it is not at all in keeping with any kind of current thought about ESL teaching that I am aware of. We had a meeting about the curriculum last week, and there was a lot of discontent when the director said we were going to choose a textbook series and use it next year. Change is difficult for a lot of us.

Angie, you raise some great points. There is so little time and so much to do that worksheets are a big help. But most workshets don't require students to think or to really make much effort at all. They don't promote skills that extend beyond the worksheet. They don't, really, promote learning.

This is where I struggle with the concept of worksheets, though. Students need practice. Worksheets have traditionally provided that practice. If I want students to practice using a particular verb tense, for example, it would be easy to have them complete worksheets where they fill in the correct form of the verb. If I don't do that, are they getting enough practice? I am not sure. But I know that no matter how many worksheets I give them to complete, they aren't going to be able to use the correct verb in free speech or writing. So the practice doesn't guarantee they will be able to produce the form in real life.

I try to give my students a lot of practice with whatever we are learning. We talk a lot in class and they have to write fairly regularly. It isn't as much practice as they could get from a worksheet, but I think it is higher quality practice. It has more carryover to real life, I think. I hope.

One thing I need to make clear is that I am not trying to judge anyone here. We all do what seems best to us at a particular time. Have I used worksheets? Sure! Will I use them again? Probably.

What this is about for me is reflective practice. The worksheets I was using weren't ones I had invested in at all; they were given to me to use. In an attempt to make these classes my own, I have moved away from those worksheets. In an attempt to make the class more meaningful for my students and more cohesive, I have moved away from them. But if there comes a time when I think my students need a quick review of something or if there seems to be some other reason to use worksheets, I will most likely use them on a limited basis. But they will be reintroduced to my classes after reflection. That makes all the difference, I think.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Harder than it ought to be

Last week I wrote about my decision to eliminate worksheets from 2 of the courses I teach. One of them, my Intermediate class, will be pretty easy. The other instructor of that level and I have been modifying the stated curriculum to make it more meaningful for our students, and I don't use many worksheets with them anyway. The other class, though, is proving to be a little harder.

I am the only teacher of the Beginning II class. As a result, I have a lot of autonomy, but I miss having someone to discuss the changes with. I need to stick pretty much to the curriculum, I think, until we make changes this summer. I teach two classes of this level, and each will have 24 hours of instruction before the term ends. I am supposed to cover workplace safety, finding a job, future tenses with "going to" and "will" and prepositions. The worksheets that have been prepared for this term are a hodge podge of things, with no apparent attempt to connect the topical content and the grammar content. We have no textbook for the course; those worksheets are all I have to build the course on.

That is, of course, a blessing. It opens the door for me to do basically whatever I want -- as long as it touches on those topics. I have decided that I am going to modify the test I give students at the end of the term to reflect the more communicative nature of my class, so I am not strictly bound to the test. I do, however, feel I need to cover those topics.

I think what I want to do is have students work in groups of three. They will choose a job that interests them. I want that to be the basis of the work they do all six weeks. I want the culminating project to be a sharing of what they have learned about that job. If I had access to technology, I would have students do this on a wiki. Since I don't, they will have to work on paper and then make an oral presentation, too.

I have to include grammar instruction in here somewhere and somehow. I think that the topics we have to cover are going to be familiar enough to them that it won't require instruction as much as reminding them of what they already know.

Anyway, I am working on this. Today is Tuesday. I have to be pretty much ready to go with it on Monday evening. Fortunately, I love this kind of work. I am looking forward to seeing what I can do with it.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Prepare to be inspired

Bee posted a link to a great talk by David Eggers as he accepted his TED prize. He talks of becoming personally involved in a local school, being present for young people. He calls on the audience -- and on all of us, really -- to take up the challenge and find our own ways to help, not with our money or our good wishes but with our physical presence. That is his wish.

To learn more about Eggers' own project, 826 Valencia, and its national partners, go to 826 National. Another website, Once Upon a School, is filled with ideas and stories of people who have pledged to make Eggers' wish come true.

Saturday, March 22, 2008


Thanks to a post on Mashable, I have discovered Lefora, a free forum-hosting site. As I continue to think about how the program I teach in could begin to handle distance ed, this seems like it might really be a big help. If you have tried it, please let me know what you think.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Not on the test

Tim Chapin has a great song about high stakes testing. Watch the video here.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

I have to do it!

I have been frustrated with my job for a while now. I wrote about it earlier, when I commented on Woody's decision not to use worksheets anymore. But yesterday in class things really seemed t come to a head for me. I have students who come to class and do their homework as class is starting. The better students are very quick to respond with the answers when we go over the worksheets, and I feel like others are being left behind. I could try to blame it on our "curriculum", which is nothing more than a series of worksheets, but I really have to accept more responsibility myself.

So, I want to take a stand here and now. I will eliminate worksheets from two of the three levels I teach. I have a week of spring break to figure out how I can adapt the "curriculum" to something other than a series of worksheets. It is way past time.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Do we want to be that safe?

I got an email from Graham today telling me that he was going to have to hold off on his Blog Coach plan. If you have been reading about Al Upton's blog closure, you can probably understand why.

I won't pretend to have read everything about Al's problem, but what I have read allows me to see what a shame this is. And when you add to it the fact that other people, like Graham, are now having to wait to see what they will and won't be allowed to do, it becomes an even bigger shame.

I understand the need to try to keep our kids safe. But I don't know if it is really possible to keep anyone as safe as we seem to think our children should be. We do not and cannot, for instance, protect children from many dangers that are much more likely to occur. We are very selective about the dangers we protect them from. We let them go to schools and colleges where they may be shot. We let them play sports where they may end up being paralyzed. We let them ride school buses and vans, which may be involved in serious accidents. We don't stop them from dating, which opens the door for physical and sexual abuse.

And what do we lose in the process of trying to keep them that safe? We lose all the much more likely positive benefits of whatever it is we make off-limits to our kids. In this case, they cannot interact with adults from around the world who might be able to teach them something valuable or encourage them in a way that no one else has before. They lose the opportunity to develop their own voice online. They lose the opportunity to learn in a safe setting how to conduct themselves online. They also lose their openness to new experiences.

I agree with what Meg Ryan's character said in "French Kiss":
I realized that I've spent most of my adult life trying to protect
myself from exactly this situation. And you can't do it.
There's no home safe enough, no relationship secure enough.
You're setting yourself up for an even bigger fall and having
an incredibly boring time in the process.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

FTP Clients

Miguel has a post about FTP clients and, while it veers a little from the kind of posts I make here, I wanted to chime in. One of the clients Miguel talks about is FireFTP, an Firefox add-on. I have been using it for about a year now on a regular basis, and I have to say that I absolutely love it. I tried some Linux options, including gFTP, but nothing beat FireFTP for ease of use.

When you download it, a screen comes up one time to ask you to donate through PayPal if you feel so inclined and are able. As you can read here, the developer isn't using this money to buy new toys. Half the money goes to help orphans in Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina. He keeps the other half to help his family, which includes an orphan from that area that they have adopted. So if you are in need of an FTP client, check FireFTP out. And once you do, please consider donating what you can. It is a good cause, and FireFTP is worth at least whatever you feel inclined to give!

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Needed change

Woody has, again, written a post that got me thinking. He is talking about being proactive in our efforts to get kids interested in math, science, and engineering. He discusses a project at his school that was designed to address the issue but isn't, in his view, really working. He says:
Bringing in an Engineer to talk to the students is not going to get them interested in becoming an engineer. Most of these students cannot see this in their future. It is not real to them.
His notion of what needs to be done is this:
I believe we need to change the methods of our teaching first. We need to give the students a way to express how they feel. We need to listen to them. We need to talk with them, and not at them. We need to present ourselves as learners also. We need to let them know that their voice is just as powerful as ours. We need a collection of voices to make learning more powerful to everyone. We need to invite schools to be more proactive instead of reactive. Until this changes, I don't see the students changing.
I couldn't agree with Woody more. Even though I teach adults, my program is set up the same way Woody's is. We talk to the students. We decide what they need to learn. We do not really feel a need to give them a voice in anything that goes on.

I wonder what would happen if I were to throw the "curriculum" out the window and teach students, not some material that they may or may not need or want. I try to adapt what I do to make it more meaningful to them, but my students still have to take the same tests as everyone else. If I don't cover the same material, they are at a real disadvantage. If I try to cover it in a different way, they may have a real understanding of the material but be unprepared to answer the fill-in-the-blank questions on the test.

I would love to teach in an environment that valued learners more. It would be messy, and it might be more difficult to prove to funders that learning had taken place. But I think, given time, we could develop a really excellent program that met students where they were and took them to where they wanted to go. That is a program I would be proud to be associated with.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008


Ewan's post today has me thinking about influence. He talks about the small group of

... good teachers sharing new ideas about how we can do our jobs better.

We all know who they are. Ewan himself is one of them. But then he goes on to discuss two other ideas. The first is:

It's not how influential you are...

Ewan says that us regular people can also become influential by being passionate about an idea to our friends and colleagues. So it seems to be as much about passion as influence. He says:

Get some regular folk together and you have a chance that your idea hits the mainstream.

I think that is what is happening with the use of social media in schools. I wonder how many of us really blog or use wikis because Will Richardson says its a good thing to do. A lot of us, I'm sure. But I know more examples of people who have been influenced to blog by watching their colleagues do it. Because that is where the support comes on a daily basis.

I have noticed in my own life that I read fewer and fewer of the most important bloggers and more of the regular people bloggers. Some of the "influential" bloggers that I read are ones I have been reading since before they were so influential. But more often than not, I get really great ideas from regular people who are passionate about what they do.

Ewan also says:

If being influential isn't important, wherefore professional organisations?
Does this stand up in an age where anyone with ideas that society can grasp can take on an influence of their own?

This is also an interesting idea to me. I find myself not very interested in what my large professional organizations can do for me. Because I don't see that they can do much for me. On a more local level, yes, professional organizations can help me, but an international or national level organization seems too far removed from me to be of much benefit. The influence of large groups comes from sheer numbers. And that makes it hard to create a sense of passion about anything but increasing the size and influence of the organization.

Influence is a tricky thing. It is probably true that we need "influential" people and organizations. But I don't believe we should abdicate responsibility to be influential in our own spheres -- however small they might be. In the long run, the most influential people are those who just go about their lives doing what they can to make the world a better place.