Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Well, how did I get here?

As I was scrambling to prepare to teach my first classes at the college level (having gotten the offer only two weeks prior to the start of fall), I obtained the official course outlines and then I started collecting syllabi from colleagues and off the Internet. I was surprised by a couple of things. First, there was a tremendous amount of graded work -- from quizzes to homework to in-class essays to take-home essays to class participation to oral presentations to journals to tests, midterms, and finals. Deciding what to grade, how much to grade, and the weighting of assignments was completely new to me. Most surprising, however, were the extremely detailed instructions on how missed work would be handled. In almost every syllbus I found statements such as, "There are no make-ups for missed quizzes or graded assignments." Or, "Essays are due on the due date. Late essays will be lowered by one letter grade (10%). No essay may be turned in more than one week late and only one late essay will be accepted in the semester." Regarding attendance, "If you are absent three times, you may be dropped from the class. Two tardies count as an absence. Leaving early or coming back late from break counts as a tardy." These syllabi attempted to ward off -- or have an answer for -- any possible excuse, justification, or life event that students could imagine. Fearful of flaky college students trying to manipulate me, I dutifully included such policies.

Toto, we're not in adult ed. any more.

Now that the first semester is winding down, I believe that most syllabi's bark is worse than their bite. We are, after all, human -- students and teachers alike. However, I also believe that having some policies in place is essential for one's sanity. I just need to decide for myself what I'm truly comfortable with -- and what I can realistically enforce. It will evolve.

So, do I think that adult ed. needs to model this sort of rigor (rigidity)? No, I don't. I do think that it would be a good idea for adult ed. students, who are considering college, to read some college syllabi -- that would be a good reading task. They should have an idea of what college is and how it is different. I had two young brothers from Chechnya in my writing class this semester. Because of the demands of their jobs, they had to drop. They really wanted the challenge that college offered, but they were not prepared for the reality of its demands. They told me that they will be back next semester, having made the necessary arrangements in their complicated lives. I hope they return. If not, adult ed. should be there for them.

Friday, November 17, 2006

What they really need . . .

I recently attended my first ESOL grading session. Faculty teaching the same level of ESOL meet to read and evaluate student mid-term essays, which were written based on the same prompt. Essays are then "scored" on a High Pass/Pass/Low Pass/No Pass basis. I was, at first, a little taken aback by the emphasis on essay form in the scoring, i.e. Is there a clear thesis statement? Do they have two body paragraphs with topic sentences? The level I teach is intermediate (ESOL 20); they have two levels of ESOL and a developmental English composition course (ENGL 51) to pass before they can move on to English 101. In other words, they will be learning how to write a five-paragraph essay for the next year to year and a half, minimum.

The question I had been mulling over about the focus on essay form sharpened after I had a conversation with one of my colleagues. He affirmed, "Our ESOL students, by the time they exit ESOL 40, know how to write an essay. They've got that down. However, they struggle in ENGL 51 because of their sentence structure, grammar, and vocabulary. Many of them have to repeat the course." I reflected on the developmental reading class I am teaching (ENGL 56). Many of the former ESOL students in my class were having a terrible time restating main ideas in their own words (the focus on our current chapter). An impoverished vocabulary, reading difficulties, and limited understanding of sentence structure contribute significantly to their struggles.

So, my question is . . . what should our focus be in the lower levels of ESOL? Do we need to re-think our curriculum?

Monday, November 06, 2006

Conversing with Continuing Ed. ESOL Teachers

A few weeks ago, I attended the San Diego Regional CATESOL conference. I was caught off guard when a former colleague said, "I heard that you think we aren't preparing students for college." By "we" she was referring to Continuing Education, the adult ed. division of the SDCCD. I let her know that the rumor mill hadn't quite maintained the integrity of my comments. True, I had remarked to a couple of Continuing Ed. buddies that the credit ESOL courses were substantially more demanding than the CE classes (in general) and that CE students at the high intermediate to advanced level were placing into the lower levels of college ESOL, primarily because of their academic reading and writing skills. The stakes are just much, much higher, and the pressure is intense -- timed in-class essays, take-home essays, midterms, finals, GRADES.

A little later that day, I spoke with two advanced level CE teachers and shared some of my perceptions. They agreed that there was a large gap between the two programs. The difficulty in Continuing Ed. is that not all students have academic goals. Even those that do may not attend regularly because of work or family commitments. For me, one of the beauties of adult ed. is its focus on the here and now, the eternal present of that three hour block of time. At the same time, many adult students desire the content and the rigor that will enable them to move on to college, job training, or a promotion. If adult ed. prepares those students so that they place into higher levels of ESOL, students will be on a faster track to realize their goals. There may be an issue, however, of compensating instructors who take on such a job -- grading significant numbers of essays would definitely impact workload.