Thursday, May 28, 2015

Days in a teacher's life

I've had an odd few days teaching. Over the years, I have had some bad and/or hard lessons and bad days, some my own fault, some external forces. Exactly two years ago, teaching the day my father died comes to mind as one of my hardest days. I've had problem students, even problem parents. I remember years ago one mother telling me I should hit her kid (who was only about 5) when he wasn't doing what he was supposed to in the lesson. I declined to do so, but I did once grab his arm and hold it rather firmly while I scolded him after he very intentionally punched me in the private parts and laughed. He didn't repeat that, or punch me at all after that, but I didn't need to hit him to get my point across. When I left that job he insisted his mother buy me a teddy bear as a goodbye gift, which I still have on my shelf.

Anyway, I have recently had a problematic student in two of my classes. My untrained assessment is he has problems with something along the lines of ADHD. Has had trouble following my lessons at all, even though they are rather basic and clearly laid out, trouble even staying in the room for the lesson. Has been repeatedly late or not shown up at all, and left the room suddenly on several occasions. Slept or played with his phone, didn't buy a textbook for either class. I talked with him about it at the end of last month, warned him he needed to change or wouldn't be able to pass the classes. Also offered to go talk with his advisor with him to be sure he understood. He declined, said he was fine, would be fine. After that we had a major quiz in one class and he couldn't answer a single question. The next week (last week) he was absent from both classes, and I thought he had given up.

This week he showed up, and finally had a textbook. I honestly didn't really have much patience left for him and wasn't happy to see him (class goes smoothly when he isn't there, not when he is), and I'm pretty sure in retrospect that he could tell. We did a review activity to start, which he had trouble with but which the other guys were helping him with. Then I did some stuff on the whiteboard, followed by a listening activity. While the listening was playing I turned my back and started erasing the whiteboard. Next thing I know, there is a loud crash and as I turn around I see his table is flipped over, he's violently thrown his pen case towards another student on the other side of them room (and it has shattered against the wall) and jumped up and gone after this other kid threateningly. He's accusing him of laughing at him and saying he should hit him, and as I try to get him to go back and sit down he starts yelling at me saying I never intended to give him credit for the class, that he should hit me, etc. In the process of then getting him to the student affairs office as that seems the fastest way to make the situation safe (but involves going several floors down and over to another building), we have more kicked-over furniture, him taking stuff from random people and throwing it either at me or towards me (not sure of his intent/aim), and then trying to restrain me from going into the office somewhat physically. Never actually punched or slapped anyone, but was very threatening and scary and did put his hand on me repeatedly. I was afraid for both my own safety and that of the other students.

It took some time (until the next day for me to hear the results), but the school ended up having his parents come (most 1st and 2nd year university students are minors under Japanese law and parents are their legal guardians), and there was agreement that there was a problem and that they wouldn't let him come to school any more. The school also agreed to change our classroom (at my request) and let the other students know by phone (not public notice) just in case he should decide to come back anyway. As I say, it was the next day before I heard the results, and that evening went home both traumatized by the event and concerned that they were not going to take him out of my classes. Spent a couple hours with my wife writing up all my notes on him into Japanese (I had basically had at least one problem with him every class that he had been there and had taken to making notes on it after the first week) as at that point I think I may have to go in and defend my stance that he should no longer be allowed in my class (as if the violent outburst alone shouldn't be enough).

Also, my wife was sympathetic on one hand, and saying she'd support me deciding not to teach there anymore if it came to that. On the other hand, she was kind of trying to make sense of it and talking about how maybe this was a way of him crying out for help and that he did it in my class because he sensed I was someone who would help, that I seemed like that kind of person. (She is a fan of this long-running TV show in which a high school teacher helps out his students who have all sorts of problems, but then that is a teacher who sees a small group of students every day and also has an expected duty of care compared to someone in my shoes who sees hundreds of students a week and usually for only 90 or 180 minutes.) So she ends up making me doubt myself and question if I could/should have handled him differently, been more sensitive and figured out what was going on with him, and start feeling guilty. As I write this it strikes me as just like domestic violence victims blaming!

Next morning I get up and shower, start getting dressed, and manage to throw out my back putting on my socks. It was sharp, brief pain, but I re-aggravated it a couple times in getting ready. However, I then was able to be careful and get through the day without setting it off again. But then yesterday morning it resurfaced, and much worse, and wasn't sure I was even going to be able to make it to school. I searched around and eventually found my back brace, which I haven't used in a couple years even when I have had issues, strapped that on, and took a couple pills in hopes that would get me though my morning of teaching. Well, it worked pretty well. The pills worked a little too well. Before my first period class I started getting a little loopy, and had to lay down for a bit.

Then I went to class, which is a really low-level conversation class. They had a conversation test, which involved them being called randomly in pairs up to the front of the room and then having to have a 3-minute conversation in English in front of their 30 other classmates touching on several topics we had practiced to this point. I was worried about probably a third of the class being able to complete it satisfactorily or not. As it turned out, only one or two stumbled significantly, most of them did it beyond my expectations (up to the standards I had told them I expected, though I internally doubted many would reach them), and a few were well beyond my expectations. I was so pleased with it that as I was telling them after they all finished that I was very pleased, I started tearing up. Not sure how much was the medicine, but anyway... My next class was a really high level class, where I gave them back grades from the previous presentation, which I wasn't as pleased with and had graded a little strictly. They were disappointed but also understood and accepted it. We had a good class, but I was a bit unfocused, and then had to rush out at the end for some lunchtime work. I later met one of the students who said they we're all wondering where I was going after that because I left quickly (I usually wait until they all leave the room first) and seemed really happy about something. Those meds were better than I expected, too...

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

My Passion and Curiosity Quotients

Thomas L. Friedman, in an article titled, It’s P.Q. and C.Q. as Much as I.Q. (2013),
says that we now live in a hyperconnected and increasingly automated world which has had a significant negative impact on the labor force. These trends require people to continue learning new skills throughout life,  “skills that are complementary to technology”. He also says that what he calls “P.Q, (passion quotient)” and “C.Q. (curiosity quotient)” will be required to succeed in this new labor market. He doesn’t define these terms at all, but appears to be saying that we need to be both passionate and curious enough about the work we do that we persist with learning more and more about it and strive to continually create new ways of doing things.

So I asked myself, as an educator, what am I passionate about and what am I curious about? In other words, what do I hope to accomplish and what do I need and want to know to do this? Both lists continually evolve and could probably go on and on, but here are a few that came to mind.

I am passionate about:
  •  Getting my students to express themselves.
  •  Getting my students to read.
  • Getting my students to all see English as a tool for communication, not an academic subject to be “passed”.
  • Getting my students to be comfortable with themselves and to realize their potential.

I am curious about:
  • How to motivate my students.
  • How to facilitate communication.
  • How to reduce affective barriers to using English.
  • How to inspire my students to care and to act. 
  • How to use digital tools to help me do these things.

I was also asked in my CEP 812 class to reflect on the following questions: How do I use technologies in ways that demonstrate my passion and curiosity? How do I use technologies to inspire passion and curiosity in my students? For the former, one thing I do is read online. I also view video for information gathering, professional development, and pleasure. I use project management software in professional development activities and I study online. For the latter, I use authentic videos, STAIRs and WebQuests, I ask students to teach each other about presentation software and the pros and cons of using a variety of technology, and I ask students to record themselves with digital audio and digital video for self, peer, and instructor assessment.

Additionally, I was asked to “create something using something” (CEP 812 course instructions). I reflected on how to express these aspects of my P.Q and C.Q. in a creative way. I still believe in the power of text, the importance of writing ideas down so that others can read and reflect on them, and that writing is a creative exercise. However, I also wanted to challenge myself to expand out of my comfort zone and I wanted to use and consolidate some new skills to enhance my self-expression. So, I created a Google Presentation to show some of the ways I use technology to support and inspire passion and curiosity. Please have a look at it here.


Friedman, T. L. (2013, January 29). It’s P.Q. and C.Q. as Much as I.Q.. The New York Times. Retrieved on March 3, 2014 from

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Project-based learning and teaching to reinvent education

I recently had some reflective time as I sat, stood and walked around a classroom for several hours proctoring an entrance exam. I was not allowed to do anything else because I was there to stop any potential cheating. As I reflected on my own boredom and what a waste of my time this felt like, I noticed the tension, frustration and sometimes boredom among the examinees was also palpable. I found myself thinking this is exactly the kind of education gone wrong that my wicked problem project team (Megan Hess, Meagan Provines, Brittany Schroeder and myself) was considering how to change, and I spent some time reflecting on our discussions and goals.

We had talked about promoting project-based learning, particularly things that are or could be tied, and applied, to the “real world” both during and outside formal education. We had also pondered some issues related to assessing these skills. During my reflective time during this standardized test, I concluded that assessing based on project completion is closer to what learners will face throughout life than standardized aptitude or achievement tests. Once out of school, most people don’t encounter many, if any, of these kinds of tests. However, most people do find themselves judged on the things they accomplish, how well they work with others, things they are able to produce. Even for those who stay in academia, it is the quality of one’s inquiry and of the presentation of one’s processes and results that they are judged on, not taking standardized tests. The reflective, collaborative project is a model that applies to people in many different fields and endeavors and deserves greater attention in education. See the embed below or click the link to see our Reimagining Education Project regarding promoting greater inclusion of project-based learning and teaching.

As I wandered around the examination room I also reflected on what skills people need to accomplish these kinds of projects, skills that educators should strive to develop in learners. I came up with this list off the top of my head: working with others (both leading and contributing to a team), self-expression (multi-modal), persuasion, negotiation, critical thinking (including rational evaluation, critical reflection on outcomes), working to deadlines, and life-long learning. It dawned on me that this is exactly what the CEP courses have been doing!

Click to be taken to our project presentation.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Survey of technology integration among colleagues

This week I was asked to consider my community of practice and the culture of technology integration in our teaching. My community of practice has a couple of distinct circles. One is the English Education Center in which I work with nine other full-time language instructors, then there is the university as a whole, next there is the wider community of language teaching professionals in Japan, and so on. I conducted a short survey of the other teachers in the closest circle, and this report discusses the results from the seven responses. Embedded below are infographic teasers of some of the results.

How the instructors currently use technology.

How the instructors ask students to use technology.

How comfortable the instructors report being with using technology in their teaching, how much they would like to further integrate technology, and how satisfied they are with available technology and support.

Excerpts of answers to open ended questions.
(Questions are on the darker circles, in royal blue text. Differing colors of text within a question's responses represent different instructor responses. The same response color in different questions is not indicative of being the same particular individual.)

Voicesofteacherstechusesurvey title=

The full report is available at this link.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Pinpricks through the bubble

This week we started from the assumption that digital tools and information can help us engage in meaningful inquiry and action, such as described by John Paul Gee and Henry Jenkins. You can watch this video of Henry Jenkins discussing his own thoughts and see my previous post, (or even better, Gee’s book, The Anti-Education Era) for more details about Gee's ideas. We also were informed that the Internet, while providing us potential access to a huge variety of information, is actually being mediated and filtered by algorithms that, coupled with our affinity for information that confirms our world view (see Gee, 2013 for more on this “myside bias”), is creating personalized information bubbles, our own “web of one” as described by Eli Pariser (in this TED talk). We were asked to examine and expand our digital information diet related to our profession, and reflect on how the changes influenced our perspectives. I faced three major challenges in this:
1. identifying what kind of information challenges my perspectives,
2. identifying sources that provide this information,
3. noticing any meaningful impact within a few days.

Figuring out what kind of information challenges my professional assumptions was my first task. In political terms, it would be easy, and I can quickly identify some regular posters in my Facebook and Twitter networks who challenge my perspectives. However, in professional terms it is a bit harder to sort out what my personal biases are since I tend to be surrounded by a lot of practitioners who share the same perspectives. Upon reflection I did come up with a short list of perspectives I don’t agree with; that the grammar-translation method of language education is good, that “no child left behind” policies improve educational outcomes and accountability, and just generally the policies of the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT).

The next challenge was finding sources of information that I could add to my information feed. My regular digital information diet related to my professional life tends to be from mail lists and groups, individual mail, and, in the last few months, Facebook. So, I stepped outside the assignment a bit and choose Facebook as I use that more consistently than Twitter and I don’t use an RSS feed. MEXT has an offical page in Japanese, which I added to my feed. However, my reading in Japanese is limited. I did also look at some of their reports in English, such as this one on directions in English education. For No Child Left Behind, I found this page, which, while displaying a government logo, seems to actually be individuals dedicated to discussing these issues. I doubted it would challenge my perspectives, but did connect to it because it has the potential to inform them. I found a number of pages clearly in opposition to NCLB, but in terms of official government information I was left looking at reports on a web page. For grammar-translation method, I found an interest page, but no active support page.

Sadly, I don’t feel like the third challenge has really been met. The document on the future of English education has led me to think a bit less negatively about all MEXT directives and think they might actually be heading in a good direction with it. I have been inspired to try to get more information about it moving forward. Nothing has popped up in Facebook yet related to NCLB, but I am looking forward to getting more informed about how those policies actually are shaping education in the USA.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Exploring reading and assistive technology.

This week I was given an assignment to explore a special learning need. I have found this assignment somewhat frustrating on two fronts.
First of all, I was expected to research a need that I feel has relevance to my teaching context. However, in my situation I do not encounter students with identified special needs. My impression is that this is largely because these students are either identified but streamed away from university or not identified and therefore don’t receive support. In the latter case it is probably common that they underachieve at earlier stages of education and subsequently don’t try to attend university. However, given the severe demographic pressures on enrollment at Japanese universities, I do think that some students with learning disorders are being admitted. However, they seem to be unidentified, and not provided with any specific institutional support. I did think that my research could possibly help me be at least aware of who those learners might be, and since I teach a lot of reading I decided to focus on reading disorders.
Secondly, an element of this assignment is to experiment with assistive technology to help with this special need. While I was able to identify through web searching quite a number of possibilities, and was already familiar with some text-to-speech applications as well as audio-books, getting hands on experience with some of the more promising technologies was not possible because they are commercial products which I don’t have the funds to purchase.
With an understanding of those frustrations, please have a look at this short paper for more information on this topic.

Below you can also see a short presentation of what happened when I was looking for technology to experiment with.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Anti-Education Era (Part 1) response

I have been told I am pretty intelligent, I have had a fair bit of formal education, and I know I have gathered some wisdom from experiences over the years. However, I am also stupid. I have made, and continue to make, stupid decisions in my life. Decisions related to every-day mundane things, to relationships, in the workplace, even that decision to finally use the right lane to zoom past that car that had been slowing me and irritating me. I instantly knew that last one was stupid because I had been warned state troopers often waited in that area for speeders and as I went by one popped out and pulled me over. Maybe you are shaking your head in agreement, or saying, “So what, we’re all stupid.” Well, in a sense, that is what this James Paul Gee book I am reading, The Anti-Education Era, is all about. He discusses how and why humans are often stupid when it comes to dealing with complex issues. In this short reaction paper for my CEP 812 class I discuss some of what he has to say in the first part of his book. Next time around we’ll look at how he thinks we can be smarter, so don’t let it get you too down!