Category: Reflections

Letter to the me of November 1st

Dear Mr. Mike, 

I hope this finds you well. Yes, it’s me, writing to you from the future. Again! Today is December 1st, 2020 and I am writing to the you (me) of November 1st, so I am just a month older (but frankly speaking much wiser) than you.

You asked students to do this letter writing activity so it’s only fair that you do the same. You might already suspect what I am writing about. Yes, your one month teaching Academic English to (pre?) uni students here in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.  

You sort of knew what you were getting into when you agreed to teach this class. It was actually much more intense than you expected. I know you have/had a lot going on and it will feel insurmountable at first but it will become manageable by Thanksgiving (just as the course ends, I know).

You might have noticed how I addressed you above. “Mr. Mike” might sound unusual to you but that is what most students called you. Some went with (what you’d consider more typical) “Mr. Griffin” and some went with your preference of “Mike” but you got used to “Mr. Mike” and in fact found it endearing in the end. 

It was an amazing experience and I think it would work out fine for you without any additional help but I still feel quite qualified and indeed compelled to offer you some advice to make things even smoother and better. Hindsight being 20:20 and all. This is not a pun on 2020. Honestly. 

This was, as you know as well as anybody, your first time teaching in Vietnam. It was also your first time teaching face-to-face in 16 months. It was your first time teaching this sort of course.

You went around 10 years teaching only courses that you designed so it was another learning steep curve to teach a course where the specifics were chosen by others. Just roll with it. Do your best. Make changes if you feel strongly enough. As is usually the case, it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.

As you know by now the schedule is intense and perhaps not 100% aligned to your concepts of what might be fair or most beneficial to students in the time allowed. Be flexible and try to help students do what they can in the time allotted.

There is actually a lot to learn about the course. Please be sure you read what students need to read well in advance because it will help you make connections from the reading to their work. Familiarize yourself with the final assignment students need to do and take it from there.

I should also tell you about the students. They are incredibly smart. They tend to be hard workers. If you give them a concrete task (try to avoid giving discussion questions!) they will do it and they will mostly do their best. They will learn from it and keep striving to do better. They will learn from their mistakes. They will shine when given chances to do so. Of course, like most students, they need lots of scaffolding and practice to get there. 

With that said, don’t be fooled by their great English and intelligence, and thus assume or expect too much. Most of them were in high school a mere 5 months ago. They are mostly between 18-20 years old. While some are very mature please remember they are so young. They might forget to bring in an assignment or a pen. They might be easily distracted by their phones or computers. They might forget to charge their phone or computer. They might be distracted by romantic (or similar) interest in classmates. All this academic stuff is new to them and it can be hard for them to maintain attention for a long period of time. Be accepting and forgiving but do keep in mind that part of your job (as you see it, at least) is to help prepare them for university life (in an English medium university). If students have a hard time listening to a 15 minute presentation a 3 hour lecture might be a tough task.

You might think that some students are shy or nervous to speak. Many will tell you that’s the case. I know you don’t like calling on random people to answer questions in front of the class but they will answer if called upon. Giving students time to think and prepare is of course a good strategy. What I am saying is that the more confident students will be the only ones to answer your questions to the whole class so if you want a wider variety of students speaking out you need to think about how to address this. 

You will be very impressed at the end of the course when students do poster presentations. Those you thought were shy are in fact super confident when they are talking about something they’ve researched and prepared. It will be great but be sure to encourage everyone to participate actively in those poster presentations so that classmates can benefit from the interactions. Interestingly, many students will point to the poster presentations as a highlight of their experience.

Try to find ways for these less confident students to shine earlier and throughout the course. This is so important.

What else? In their letters to themselves many students remarked that you were so kind. You will actually feel a bit guilty about this because you know that you could have been more kind and patient.

Students will be overwhelmed the first day. Try to help them see how things will in fact be manageable. Don’t talk so much in that first session! Keep that telling to a minimum in the first session. It’s a lot. The whole thing is overwhelming. You know lots of ways to get students to think about and find out what is coming.

Students are eager to make friends and talk to others. Make sure you give them plenty of chances for this. Quick discussions with rotating partners will be a great idea. 3-2-1 worked wonders. Do this as much as time allows. Students will appreciate the chances to meet others.

Some additional quick points:

  • Don’t allow yourself to get frustrated if some people don’t listen with complete attention. Did I mention many students are 18? 
  • To state the obvious, it’s actually not a big deal if a student who is not quite officially matriculated to university tunes you out for a few minutes. There are bigger problems in the world. 
  • It’s been quite a while since you taught 45 students at a time. Think this through and try to have systems and techniques in place. Remember and employ ways to gather attention while you are at it. 
  • Don’t feel pressured to wear long-sleeved shirts. The air-conditioning does not always work. Free yourself and wear those short-sleeved collared shorts (the “substitute teacher shirts” as you call them). 
  • Taking a Grab Bike to class is pretty fun. 
  • In this reality you shaved your beard about halfway through the course, to much fanfare, confusion and discussion.  
  • You know that thing to have a quiz at the start of class to ensure everyone comes on time? This works pretty well but if you have a day without a quiz you might be disappointed with the amount of tardy students. 
  • Resist the temptation to attempt to go paperless for the whole course. While admirable, this might lead to some inefficient moments. (To be specific, when you ask students to go over the “syllabus” instead of having questions on the screen it might be beneficial to have them fill out the answers with a pen on a worksheet that you provide.) 
  • It might not seem exactly related to the course but please keep in mind that lots of people voted in the US election by mail in Atlanta, Detroit and Philadelphia. Lots. Don’t forget this. It will help your general mood and disposition. 
  • Don’t insist on having 4 sessions on Zoom before you know exactly what you are insisting on. The idea is to have some sessions on Zoom but the rest face-to-face. Be sure that you’ve thoroughly considered if that 2nd to last class needs to be on Zoom or not. 
  • Don’t assume that students are all familiar with learning on Zoom. Be understanding about technical issues but also be clear on what your expectations are. Spending some time on this early on will be helpful. 
  • Students are going to be terrified of APA. Highlight examples slowly and consistently and give them chances to notice before having any expectations about actually using this.
    (Note: some students might think, even at the end, that APA is a type of essay or a genre of writing rather than a way of formatting a piece of writing).
  • Maybe sometimes students will make a request about changing a policy or procedure. Don’t take it personally. It’s just a request. You can feel very free to reject it.
  • I am sure you remember that sort of “quiz” where the last line is “Only follow instructions 1-4” and the first line is “Read all the instructions before you do anything.” You have been tempted to do this for ages. I finally did it and I think it worked well. We’ve always been apprehensive about this because it seems like it could be rude or some sort of power play or something. Well, I did it near the end of the course and gave a somewhat impassioned (and honest) speech about my concerns about students not following instructions going forward in their college careers.  I was worried they’d think of it as me complaining but I got the sense they could feel my sincere concern. You can probably make the speech shorter though! 
  • You really need to learn how to say students’ names properly. Get help from outside sources as needed.  
  • Try on all your clothes the night before you plan on wearing them. The mythconception that you didn’t gain weight this year might need some critical examination.
  • Spoiler: You will be very touched and impressed with students’ final video reflections and their letters to themselves. 
  • Don’t beat yourself up about small mistakes. It doesn’t help anything and only in made up letters like this can you actually go back in time. 
  • Be yourself.  

I think that’s all from here. I am sort of jealous that you get to experience it anew. It’s a very bittersweet feeling to be finished with the course. At least I have 45 final essays to look forward to!

Warm regards,

Mike in December 2020

An Expe[r]iential  Activity (and additional thoughts)

Hello there. Let’s try something different. Okay. I am going to ask you to write something but first I want to give you a chance to think about the topic.

Assuming you are involved with teaching (if not thanks for reading and sorry you ended up here or, Hi mom). I’d like you to tell me about your plans for professional development for the rest of the summer (with the additional assumption that such things as seasons are still relevant). What are your plans for your development as a teacher? If you don’t have any (which is completely fine), why not?

Ready? There is just one catch. I’d like you to write your response without using the letter “R”. Please give yourself a maximum of 10 minutes to answer and try to write a paragraph or two about your summer plans, especially as related to professional development. Again you cannot use any words that contain the letter “R” which means you might need to find some other ways to say things. I know it’s not so easy. Good luck! Go!

How was it? How did you feel? How did you handle this arduous task?

I borrowed/adapted this activity from a course that I have been working on for around two years. The course, Content-Based Instruction, is offered to teachers around the world and funded by the US State Department as part of the OPEN program.

On the CBI course this task comes in Module 1 and participants are asked to write (without the letter R) about their personal goals for the course. It’s intended to give a meaningful experience and a reminder of or introduction to cognitive load. Participants are then asked to reflect on the experience. They are asked how the awareness gained from the experience can help us be better CBI instructors. They then are also asked to share their personal goals with the group without “the” R restriction.

Many participants report that they felt frustrated and stressed while doing the activity. Some suggest that more scaffolding would make the task easier. Some mention that it gave them powerful insights on how to change the assignments they give students. Some participants say the task gave them empathy for students.

The general consensus from course participants tends to be that the task is awesome and memorable. I also like this activity very much. I do. I think it’s a nice chance for participants (who are generally very strong in English writing) to experience a challenge like this and to be given a nice example of cognitive load. I also think the activity can serve as notice that this course might be a bit different than previous courses (with the emphasis on learning from experience and reflection on that experience).

Somehow, sadly, this activity reminds me of a workshop when the presenter asked us (mostly L1 users of English) to fill our mouths full of candy before delivering a self-introduction in order to replicate the challenges our students might face. Aside from being a choking hazard something felt very off about this activity and I am sure I didn’t gain the intended insights.

As above, I like the “No ‘R’ quiz.” But, at the same time, sometimes participants’ response to it gives me a tinge of discomfort. Let me try to explain why.

Sometimes participants will highlight the quiz as one of the most important and eye-opening experiences on the course (fine so far) and will then say something like, “I cannot wait to do this with my false beginner middle school students studying general English!” I think the quiz is great for teachers who are already good at English and might forget what it’s like to be faced with such high cognitive load requirements. I think it’s not so great for the majority of students who know all too well that it can be a struggle to write in English.

I find it a bit challenging at times to try to dampen the enthusiasm for this particular quiz with its particular rules because I want participants to value the experience and keep it in mind for their own teaching. What I truly want is for participants to think about what sort of experiences they could embed in their courses and classes that are tailored to their own students’ levels and needs.

When participants seem very (or indeed in my eyes overly) attached to this quiz I try to help them consider why it was noteworthy to them and how it might just be another hard task in a long line of hard tasks for students. I try to highlight how the intention behind the quiz was to give a clear example of cognitive load and to provide fodder for reflection. I argue that while their students might not know the term cognitive load they are likely intimately familiar with the concept. I sometimes mention that the early placement of this activity early on in the course and the fact it was quite novel add to it’s perceived importance. I suggest this is something they can keep in mind for their own classes.

Even though I’d prefer that participants not over-generalize the value of this activity I feel a bit like a wet blanket when I try to help them see my perspective that while it was a useful activity in this context it might not be so in others. How might you handle this?

Thanks for eading!

My workspace “practicalenglish” is inactive, and is scheduled to be reclaimed

Do you even PBworks, bro?

Apparently, I’ve been in the PBworks game for about 13 years to varying degrees of success. I thought such wikis had great potential and I was quite sure they’d be a big part educators’ toolkits for a while. It seems like that didn’t really happen or at least didn’t happen as widely as I expected.

I think PBworks seems a bit ancient by now, in internet terms. In the interest of full disclosure I will say I had an active Pbworks page from 2010-2019 so there is that. I started it in 2010 and just kept adding to it because it was easier than moving it. Okay, it was two pages to 2019 but that was all, I swear. This is how to go from “a man ahead of his time” to a “dinosaur” in just 11 quick years.

Not a lot of people know that my first ever rejected conference proposal was about using wikis with students.

Now that all the background info is out of the way we can get to the main point of this post. About 28 days ago, I got the following message from the good people at PBworks:


We noticed that you haven’t used your workspace named: practicalenglish for over 11 months.
As you may have heard, we reclaim workspaces that have fallen into disuse (PBworks Spring Cleaning).

Reclaiming these idle workspaces frees up thousands of potentially useful URLs for people who will actually put them to use. We’re planning to reclaim your workspace in 30 days.

If you want to keep your workspace, click here. If you’re not currently
logged into your PBworks account, you’ll be asked to log in. You’ll know that your workspace has been removed from the deletion list once the warning message disappears.

If you’re truly no longer using your workspace, simply do nothing, and in 30 days, we’ll delete the unused workspace and reclaim its URL.

The PBworks Team

While I might say that July is not really spring by my definition (but this year who knows) I appreciated the message PBworks. Frankly speaking, the last time I thought about that page/space was last year when faced with the same question. At that time I mindlessly clicked to keep my workspace even though I suspected it was rarely visited and I had no real intention of doing anything with it. This year, on the other hand, I decided to milk it for some sweet sweet blog #content. This year, on the other hand, I thought I would take a look and really see if it is worth keeping.

Looking at the space with fresh eyes was an interesting experience. The first thing I noticed was how hideous old-fashioned it looks. I guess a lot has changed in 12 years. Nice to know that my lack of ability with layout and design has continued on.

Poking around the space, a few things caught my eye. The first is the title of course, “Practical English” which I was always a bit unsure about. I guess it was supposed to be the sort of English you’d need if you were in an English speaking country, something like “Survival English” at a more advanced level. I feel like many of the instructors, myself included, sort of invented their idea of what practical English could and should mean at the higher levels (at the lower levels as I recall there was some sort of general English textbook that seemed far from practical to me at the time).

It looks like there was info or input on 4 different topics. They were job interviews, health, travel, and directions. It feels like that was not a whole lot of topics for 10 weeks. Maybe we dove into them in great depth. The input for each section was mostly just examples of language. Not bad I guess.

I feel like there was more (or could/*should have been more) of a wiki feel with students making edits and creating pages and such but perhaps that was a different wikispace. Maybe I am misremembering or imagining I was more of a 21st century educator than I truly was.

When I take a close look at the mundanely titled page, “sentence meanings” I can see that the last edit was made by a user named “Beststudent ever” so there was some editing from students going on. I also found examples of students asking questions and clarifying grammar points and such.

Looking back through the space something I appreciated was my attempted bribe of students to find and fix typos. Bravo, 2008-2009, Mike.

Something else that piqued my interest was what seems to be follow-up notes I gave based on a commencement address I gave at the end of an intensive English program. I can’t believe my penchant for giving goodbye speeches goes back that far (here is a link to a goodbye speech I gave in 2013 in a completely different context but also in Korea). I don’t have vivid memories of giving the 2009 speech but damn there was some trite stuff in there. Einstein and insanity? C’mon! At the same time, I say good on me for mentioning podcasts as a learning tool 11 years ago. Graded readers too? Not bad. I am really not sure what I think anymore about this “think in English” business. Actually, I am not really sure what it means for everyone. (I blogged about the advice in the 2009 speech here back in 2016 and you can click through to see my 2016 annotations on the 2008 speech.) Lots of time travel in this post, I know.

I do distinctly remember that the “Now is the best time to be happy” thing mentioned or used in the speech was something I heard and borrowed/stole from Tim Murphey. It’s funny how an idea can take root in your practice and later just fall by the wayside. (The basic idea as remember from Murphey was that anytime anyone asks “What time is it?” everyone has to answer, “Now is the best time to be happy?”) I found it really fun and I think students did too. I also found it to be a nice way to switch gears and find a moment to pause and think.

Back to the wikispace. The sidebar looks pretty sad. Not at lot of great stuff there. I am not sure if those links were really the crème de la crème of sites for students in 2009 or I just shared whatever was handy. I will, however, give 2008-2009 Mike some credit for sharing corpus links with students.

I like the section where I answered (to the best of my ability) the grammar or usage questions that came up. I especially like this because I think a few students probably had similar questions so it was nice to address them there. I think it was also interesting that I said (for some reason) who the questions came from. I like the idea that students could feel (and see) that their questions can and will be answered.

As I scan through the commonly confused words section I can see words that I heard Korean students confuse for ages after writing this. I wonder if I was primed to hear such confusions. I also wonder if I felt the need to hammer home such distinctions because the students were already at such a high level.

I am honestly not sure what such a page would look like if I made it today but I keep coming back to the thought that the space was mostly (from what I can see now) just a way for me to deliver info and not really so much of a space for collaboration.

When considering the decision to keep or set the site free, I don’t really feel bad about hogging the name “Practical English” on PbWorks. I don’t imagine there are groups of students who will be deprived of the name because of my selfishness. I am leaning towards keeping the page active because I don’t see any harm in doing so. It’s not exactly an internet hot spot but maybe some student somewhere will get some benefit from me leaving it up. I have a few more days before I need to click to ensure the site’s survival for another 11 months. Any thoughts or votes?