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More White House Support for Community Colleges

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If you’re in the USA, you’ve probably heard about the various disasters befalling the California college and university systems. In light of that, it’s particularly nice to hear about more support for the community college system coming from the White House. Previously, I wrote that Dr. Jill Biden, wife of the vice president, is a community college English teacher. Recently, she spoke about the importance of community colleges in her keynote address at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) 2009 World Conference on Higher Education in Paris (read more at the White House blog). Even better, however, is the just-announced American Graduation Initiative. It’s supposed to lead to more funding and additional community college graduates. I hope this leads to real action and genuine support, not just verbal support. Here’s where you can get more information:

Among the highlights in the latter:

  • “A new national goal: by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world”
  • “An additional 5 million community college degrees and certificates by 2020”
  • “A new research center with a mission to develop and implement new measures of community colleges’ success so prospective students and businesses could get a clear sense of how effective schools are in helping students — including the most disadvantaged — learn, graduate, and secure good jobs”
  • “Create a New Online Skills Laboratory … The Departments of Defense, Education, and Labor will work together to make the courses freely available through one or more community colleges and the Defense Department’s distributed learning network, explore ways to award academic credit based upon achievement rather than class hours, and rigorously evaluate the results”
  • Various financial reforms including expanding Pell grants, reforming student loan programs, simplifying the FAFSA, expanding the Perkins loan program, improving 529 savings plans, etc.
  • Much more–go read it, and let me know what you think, community college instructors and administrators!

I Before E, Except in the UK?

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Something called “Support for Spelling,” described as “official guidance distributed to schools” in this article from the Telegraph, now contains the recommendation that UK schools not teach the familiar rule “I before E, except after C.” The reasoning is that there are just so many exceptions that the rule ceases to be much of a rule anymore, and only causes confusion. Naturally, this has stirred up a hornet’s nest…

I wonder. Honestly, this rule always struck me as a kind of useless rule, anyway, because of how may exceptions have to be memorized (although it’s not so bad if you’re a reader).

Useful, or more trouble than it’s worth?

(EDIT: Here is much more background on the rule, as well as the teaching context, from the excellent World Wide Words.)

Bad Words?

$#!%

If you’re teaching ESL to adults, can discussion of language get you fired?

Maybe.

According to this article, a Northern California ESL teacher was fired because he explained some common swear words to his adult students, including contexts in which you shouldn’t use them, and why it’s important to carefully pronounce the vowel sounds in words like “sheet.”

He was teaching an adult school class, which in this area is part of the K-12 (public school) system, which may have something to do with it. And it’s possible that we haven’t heard the whole story, or what he’s saying happened isn’t accurate.

It certainly sounds like it was badly handled, at best. Any trained ESL teacher is an applied linguist of sorts. Linguists are supposed to be able to talk about language. There is a significant and (usually) clear difference between talking about taboo language and using taboo language, as occasionally pointed out at Language Log. If the instructor’s story is accurate, it should have been clear to the administration that he was talking about taboo language, not using it. (And either way, the students in question are all adults!)

This is not something that most instructors want to build into their curricula, but I think it’s the kind of thing we have an obligation to address, if possible, when students have questions. I think it’s crippling to send language learners out into the world with no understanding of any topic that makes language instructors uncomfortable. Sometimes I have to keep talking even though my face is turning red, but it’s better than causing my students humiliation later!

Snowbound at TESOL?

Uh-oh, it looks like my friend Tora was right! She’s an English teacher who grew up in Colorado, and she predicted that having the big international TESOL conference in Denver in March might prove to be too early in the spring to avoid snowstorms. And sure enough, I heard on the radio that there’s a blizzard in progress! By now they’ve downgraded it to a “significant spring snowstorm,” but still, a lot of flights have been cancelled (and apparently it’s really cold: 19 F, -7 C!). I hope everyone who is trying to get to TESOL, especially from overseas, makes it safely and on time, and is able to go home again on schedule as well. (I hope everyone brought warm coats, too!) I wish I could have gone, but it just wasn’t in the cards this year. TESOL is an outstanding experience but it’s so expensive. It’s a real barrier to participation by the countless ELT professionals who aren’t in traditional teaching situations where departments pay their way, or whose departments can no longer afford to pay for this kind of travel. (I think that we need to be thinking about new ways to approach professional development without such economic burdens, actually.) In addition, I seem to have a habit of getting sick around TESOL-time, too, and I’d really hate to be sick in that weather. It was bad enough in Seattle! Anyway, if you’re there, have a great time, and stay warm.

Kindle 2: Caveat lector!

Well, I’m going to give Amazon a little tough love here. I do use Amazon Affiliate links here and at Readable Blog, but if you’re an EFL teacher who is interested in the Kindle 2, Amazon’s brand new e-book reader, watch out.

The Kindle 2 is a very appealing piece of technology for overseas English teachers. It’s thin and lightweight and can hold a ton of books, so you can keep up on your English-language reading during your commute on Taipei’s MRT or wherever. And just think of all the space you’ll save in your luggage, and all the postage you’ll save mailing books to yourself! (Even in the US, I struggle with how many books to pack in my carry-on, because I finish them quickly and they take up a lot of space.) For that matter, at the prices English-language novels sell for in many countries, the high price of the Kindle 2 may start to seem worth it.

I got to play with the one my friend just bought in anticipation of her new teaching job in Asia, and it’s rather nice. I wasn’t interested before, but I found myself wanting one after I tried it. The “electronic ink” makes reading feel different from an old-fashioned monitor or a laptop screen. It’s more comfortable, although you’ll have to use a booklight at night. One of my initial objections to the Kindle was that I could already download countless works of classic literature that are out of copyright for free through Project Gutenberg. As it turns out, a lot of these have been formatted for the Kindle and can be downloaded free through Amazon, and I had to admit that I would prefer to read them on a Kindle screen than on my MacBook Pro’s screen.

However, there’s a big problem with the Kindle 2 that I haven’t seen getting much or any press.

What’s the catch? Well, it’s a pretty big catch: The USB connection appears to be faulty on many Kindle 2s. Do not buy the Kindle 2 unless you have enough time to experiment before you go overseas, because one of the Kindle 2’s biggest selling points (wireless downloads) does not work overseas, and the backup method (USB) seems to be horribly glitchy. Amazon provides free wireless access to these Kindles (including a kind of rudimentary websurfing) that lets you shop Amazon and download Kindle titles quickly, which is the preferred and primary way to buy books. This access is through Amazon’s own network, “Whispernet,” not through your house’s wifi, etc. The backup method is to shop online with your computer and then transfer items by USB cable, which is also how the Kindle 2 charges. Whispernet is only available in the USA. If Whispernet is down, or if you’re not in the United States, you must use USB. As far as I understand it, there’s no other way to download items, transfer files, or retrieve your previously purchased items if the Kindle 2 crashes.

Unfortunately, many laptops don’t seem to recognize the Kindle 2 via USB. Despite a ton of theories on Amazon’s discussion boards, no one seems to have figured out why. For every plausible theory, there’s a disproof of the theory. My friend returned her original Kindle 2, received the first day they were available, and got a replacement, which worked on one computer but not another. She’s keeping it because it works just well enough and she’s still really excited about having 150 books in something the size of a memo pad. Still, it shows that you shouldn’t buy this unless you have time to establish that it works on your computer and aren’t going to change computers any time in the future. Best case scenario, of course, this is something they can fix via a firmware update. In that case I’ll try to post about it again, because I think the Kindle 2 (despite its high price) is going to be an excellent solution for some EFL professionals. Remember, if you do get one, you have to maintain a US-based credit card to buy things from Amazon.com. I hope they open this up eventually; the national restrictions are really irritating. In the meantime, check out Sony’s E-Reader, which I’ve heard is less restricted. I haven’t tried one myself so I can’t write about it.

(Amazon does have some TESOL books available for Kindle, by the way; the discounts are sometimes not substantial–though you can get From Corpus to Classroom for $18.70 instead of $89 hardback or $34 paperback. Of course, those TESOL books are sometimes heavy! The categories are a bit odd: here are some; here are some; and here are some more.)

P. S. Best wishes to my friend in her new job, and I hope she enjoys those Temaraire books and the other random things I recommended at the last minute! (And I hope she’ll write a guest post at some point.)

A Voice for ESL and Community Colleges in the White House?

I confess that during the election, I didn’t read anything about the Democratic vice-presidential candidate’s spouse. However, I would have been happy if I had, because Vice President Joe Biden’s wife, Dr. Jill Biden, is an ESL teacher! She seems to be serious about her job, too: she has two master’s degrees (English and education) and a PhD in educational leadership (with a dissertation on community college student retention, 2007). In fact, this Washington Post article reports that she has just accepted an adjunct position teaching ESL and developmental English at Northern Virginia Community College. Of course, I don’t know if she has any real training in TESOL (many English teachers don’t, but teach ESL courses anyway). Still, just the fact that she’s hoping to be an advocate for community colleges is a good thing for ESL teachers, many of whom work in community colleges. While the Bidens won’t actually be living in the White House, Dr. Biden should at least be able to communicate with President Obama through Vice President Biden.

Of course, it’s not as though having Laura Bush (a librarian and former teacher) in the White House did anything for the cause of literacy or education in the United States, so there’s no guarantee of anything. Still, I’m choosing to be hopeful at this point.

US Citizenship

Like most US Americans, I’ve always had opinions about the citizenship process without really knowing the details. It’s complicated stuff! Now that I have clients who are curious about the process, I’m trying to become better informed–and really, I should have done this ages ago.

First off, let’s start with Reason magazine’s flowchart showing the tortuous paths to legal immigration (PDF). If anything, this probably makes the process looks streamlined. Ouch.

Now, if you make it to the final level, you have a test to pass. There’s a new citizenship/naturalization test as of October 1, 2008, which looks to be more complex than the old ones. CNN reported on it and included a quiz with 5 old-style and 5 new-style questions. (Of course, this test is easier than the real thing, which is oral and not multiple-choice.)

There’s also an English reading and writing test, which isn’t described in detail on the above page. From the PDF linked for the rubric, I guess it’s something like this:

For reading, you’re given three written sentences. You have to choose one sentence (your choice, I think) and read it out loud. Accent doesn’t matter. Some pauses are OK, but they shouldn’t be long pauses. Content words should all be included, but it’s OK if a few short words are missed without affecting meaning. Pronunciation or intonation mistakes are OK if they don’t affect meaning or comprehensibility. My friends who took this a few years ago say the sentences were fairly simple.

For writing: The tester reads a sentence out loud and you have to write it down. Spelling, capitalization, and punctuation mistakes are OK unless they interfere with meaning. The written sentence needs to be about the same as the spoken sentence, but a few missed words are OK if they don’t interfere with meaning.

At least, that’s how I understand it. Since this test is new (other than the English portion), there’s not a lot of first-hand information online. If you have corrections or if you’ve read a personal account online of the current test–October 2008 onward–, please let me know.

(I apologize again for the erratic nature of my posts–medical issues continue to come up with my friends, family, and me, so there’s been a lot going on.)

Comparisons and Politics

Sorry I’m still not blogging much. Some family health issues have popped up and I’m very short on time and energy. In a couple of weeks, things should clear up.

Briefly, though, if you have students who are interested in American politics or if you’re teaching compare-contrast writing, now’s a great time! I’ve had a couple of Japanese clients ask me for some insight on the current elections. Our system and our political reality is very different from theirs. One client remarked that he finally understands why Americans get so worked up about politics: because our presidential election is likely to result in direct effects on our lives. He doesn’t feel that the Japanese elections do much of anything, and for that matter, their prime ministers aren’t elected by the people. They’re appointed by the party in control–not to mention that the last two have resigned after only a year in office! Right now Japan doesn’t have a prime minister at all.

Because of these big differences, I guess, some of my clients are pretty interested in the process. One asked me to explain Obama’s and McCain’s positions simply. That’s a tall order! I directed him to the Summary Chart at procon.org, but many of the questions are hard to explain. Some I don’t quite understand myself. Today’s USA Today had a nice comparison of the candidates’ energy positions, though. Each subtopic is written in a classic mini-essay style, complete with a thesis statement. I rarely recommend journalistic writing to students–for some reason, many teachers use newspaper articles as models for students who are learning to write academic essays. I think this is a terrible idea because most newspaper articles are written in a style that simply does not match up to the style of essay that students are expected to produce. (Students should get to see expert student essays as models, but that’s a rant for another time.) This article is also not a perfect model for student essays; for example, one introductory paragraph includes the sentence “But Obama’s plan is more aggressive.” Most academic writing instructors wouldn’t allow this kind of sentence.

Anyway, “To Win The Race, It Takes Energy” is available online. The comparison part really starts under the subheading “Oil Drilling.” I hope the other topics are online and are as useful! I’ve underlined the thesis statements and paragraph topic sentences, so we’ll be talking about that today.

Since I have my own tutoring business and am not in a classroom, I’m totally free to talk about my own politics. I try not to emphasize that, and I don’t try to convince students that I’m right. However, my clients know that I have political opinions and that I will share them if asked, since they’re sometimes curious. I make sure to preface my statements with phrases such as “In my opinion…” and “I think…” and “It seems to me…” I also remind them that many other Americans have totally different opinions.

I agree with critical pedagogy theorists who feel there is no such thing as a politics-free classroom. Even if you try to avoid all explicit mention of politics, your politics and the surrounding politics will manifest one way or the other. (For example, teachers who spend a lot of time unquestioningly teaching pure test preparation are endorsing a certain political attitude. Other teachers subconsciously choose readings that only reflect their own worldview.) Although the discussion on this topic got very heated and angry in my MA course, I feel that politics are unavoidable to some degree, and thus are better if they’re somewhat out in the open. This lets students know you’re human; that these are real issues; and that it’s normal to be informed and have an opinion. It’s also easier for students to reject a position if the teacher acknowledges that she has that position, rather than trying to conceal it–does that make sense?

Of course, this assumes that a teacher can make herself be fair, and won’t really push her own views or punish students for expressing different views. It’s a delicate subject, but when handled carefully, I think it’s fine for politics to come in one way or the other. You can always leave it up to the students to decide, such as when my husband gave a word problem to his math students in which they examined the initial cost and possible future savings in buying a hybrid car. He encouraged students to take into account all possible factors, not just purely numeric ones–would they need to then buy a second car because they need more cargo space? Would it be different if they mostly drive in town as opposed to their classmates who commute long distances over the highway? What if the cost of gas goes up to $5/gallon next year? This semester he’s also assigned a graphing problem in which students look at when women’s wages for equal work will be exactly the same as men’s if past trends continue. This lets students look at information themselves. If they ask him what he thinks about these topics, I expect that he’ll tell them. But I don’t think they’ll be intimidated into changing their positions because of his answers, because he has established an open and safe classroom environment (unlike a couple of my undergrad professors, who were definitely doing the politics thing the wrong way!).

Okay, back to preparation for me! Feel free to leave your thoughts on this thorny issue in the comments.

Afraid of Other Languages?

Ruben Navarrette, Jr., is a columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune; today I read one of his columns printed in the San Jose Mercury News. It’s an excellent column addressing the ridiculous “controversy” over two Vietnamese-American valedictorians in Louisiana who included snippets of Vietnamese in their speeches thanking their parents. Their speeches were almost entirely in English, mind you; they just included a single line or so each in Vietnamese. School officials hit the ceiling, apparently, and are considering banning anything other than English in future speeches. (If this school has a Latin motto, like many schools do, then this consideration becomes even more hilariously wrongheaded, on top of already being racist and xenophobic.) As far as I’m concerned, the two young women demonstrated their commendable virtues of intelligence, multilingualism, good judgment, and respect for their parents.

Anyway, Navarrette’s column does an excellent job of responding to the controversy. He quotes a Louisiana school official who said “I don’t like them addressing in [a] foreign language,” and responds eloquently and forcefully:

Here’s what I don’t like. I don’t like it when busybody officials think that because they don’t like something, they have to outlaw it. I don’t like that language has become a proxy for the immigration debate and the anxiety that some people feel over a changing cultural landscape.

I don’t like it that some American teenagers barely speak proper English, much less a foreign language, and that they will eventually be outmatched in the global job market if they come up against someone from Europe, Asia or Latin America who speaks two or three languages. I don’t like it that some of these same American kids resent the very notion of competition, and that English-only policies enable them by making everyone the same so that no one has a leg up because he knows more than one language.

Well, I think Navarrette may be engaging in some misplaced value judgments of his own in the last paragraph quoted–I presume he’s referring to the slang and “txt” speak of teenagers, or something along those lines. Many teens are fully capable of expressing themselves in more than one mode, so they shouldn’t be scolded for that. Other teens have been raised in text-poor environments with drastically underfunded schools and few opportunities to cultivate a love of reading and self-expression. Adult voters and politicians are to blame for that. If, however, he is referring to those teens who have plenty of opportunities but simply ignore them, then I can agree with him. And I definitely feel that English-only policies reflect a stunning belittling and devaluing of the notions of communication, cosmopolitanism, and genuine literacy, as well as a peculiar kind of entitlement-based blindness about the rest of the world and the future.

Despite my nitpick above, I was moved by Navarrette’s column and I feel that it’s worth reading and sharing. You can read the rest of the piece, “Afraid of Anything but English?”, at the newspaper’s website.

TESOL-related news

Where do you get your TESOL-related news? An easy way to keep up with big and small stories is to check TESall.com’s Headline News Ticker for Teachers. This “news ticker” collects links to all kinds of English-language online news articles and blog posts. Although they generally link only to English articles, the coverage is truly international. In fact, if you’re an ESL teacher working in an English-dominant country, TESALL is a good way to get the big picture about the English-teaching and English-learning situations in other parts of the world. I think it’s important for us to be connected to the larger English education world, since it can help us understand our students and better understand our colleagues. (Okay, some of the stories are funny, too, or just downright strange.)

You can subscribe via RSS or check the website, and catch up on everything from crime to language policy. Note that the articles linked are from a variety of sources, so you may need to look for other sources to verify a particular news item. Ads are also mixed in. But where else can you get headlines about the Portland celebration of the birthday of the first foreigner to teach English in Japan, the move to teach English to first graders in Bahrain, and teaching English and Taekwondo together–all on one page?