Research interests:
educational responses to linguistic diversity; linguistic identity; bilingualism; second language teaching

Formative assessment in online graduate classes

Posted: June 2nd, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: research, teaching | No Comments »

In my teaching practice, I instruct a number of online graduate classes a year. With the first course I instructed, I began in the way of most beginner teachers: “teach as you were taught”. After the first course, I reflected upon what worked well and what I felt could be improved. One aspect of online graduate courses that appeared to be missing was formative assessment. In subsequent classes, I looked at how to build formative assessment into the course.

1. I began by requiring students to provide drafts of final reports by a given deadline. This proved popular. Without the deadline, students rarely took up the general offer to have me read over anything they had written and if they did it was usually a small snippet of their writing or very focused questions. What was missing was a chance to read how the student wrote a longer piece. Once I integrated drafts on a deadline, I was able to see how the student wrote: the line of argumentation, use of citations and practical issues such as formatting and APA style. I commented and gave suggested and expected to see a progression from the draft to the final paper.

2. At the same time, I implemented peer editing. Students in online courses are often asked to comment on other student’s posts and there is a danger of “cheerleading” (e.g., “I really liked what you wrote about. . . “) In the Canadian context, this seems to be heightened by our reluctance to criticize. In the first course I implemented peer feedback on writing, all students posted their work and were asked to choose two other pieces of posted work to comment on. This turned out to be problematic. Students didn’t know how far to go in their editing and the results were superficial for the most part.

3. What appeared to be missing was a relationship among the students that would facilitate closer reading of one another’s work, so in the next course I instituted peer editing groups. Groups of three to five students were assigned to work with one another throughout the whole course, beginning with brainstorming, researching and outlining and culminating with reading and commenting on each other’s drafts. Creating these groups allowed the students to focus only on reading and editing a small number of pieces and since they were working together over the duration of the course, they built up relationships of trust. The resulting final papers, compared to the drafts, were outstanding and the improvement was clearly based on more than my comments on their drafts.

4. An added benefit of formative assessment was the privilege of reading each paper twice. Some colleagues have asked me if it isn’t so much extra work for me to read a draft that goes ungraded and then have all of the grading at the end of the course. I always answer that the grading is made so much more manageable by the fact that I am acquainted with the topic. In addition, I feel that the comments that I make on the final paper are more valuable. I no longer feel compelled to comment on minutiae that would only help the student if s/he were intending to work up the paper for publishing, since s/he would never be writing (or possibly even looking at) this paper again. Instead I can give feedback on the work that was done in light of my students’ learning goals and the degree to which they were able to improve the paper over time.

5. My latest challenge has been to improve the feedback I give in the form of comments. I recently read “Embedded Formative Assessment” by Dylan Wiliam  and have taken to hear the research on “feedback that moves learning forward”. I have altered the way I include comments and grades, by separating them physically so that the students read the comments first and then look up their grade in a different part of the online platform. I do not know if this will have the desired effect or just annoy students, but I will be asked the students at the end of this semester if it was effective. I am also trying to limit my comments to the scoring rubric only or, if I do comment on something outside of the rubric, to label it as such and only include it if it is part of the upcoming assignment’s rubric.

Improving formative assessment in online graduate classes will continue to be a goal of mine for improving my teaching practice. Fortunately, successes are almost immediately perceived and as such, the motivation to continue this work remains high.


Learning through stations: It isn’t just for Kindergarten

Posted: April 26th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: teaching | 1 Comment »

Adults teaching adults can benefit from strong teaching practices in other contexts. Today I led a workshop for adults who teach ESL to new Canadians in volunteer community settings, usually housed and sponsored by churches. The event was the Spring Training for ESL Cooperative Ministries http://eslcooperative.ca/. I presented a session with the above title, based on a class I had prepared for university pre-service teachers. The room was set up with five stations and each participant was given the instructions to choose whichever station they wished to start at and move at will around the room, in no particular order and with no requirement to complete all five stations. The participant traveled with a two column worksheet on which they were asked to reflect after each station: what did I learn at this station? How could I incorporate this in my ESL classroom?

Here is a list of the five stations and some of the insights the participants gained.

*Artistic expression: Using the small square of watercolor paper provided, participants would use watercolor crayons to paint a picture to describe how they were feeling. Afterward, they were to share their painting, their choices of colors and images, with another person at the station.

Here the participant gets to experiment with a mode of expression that is very kinesthetic and artistic. There is choice in color and image as well what aspects of the painting one chooses to describe. Watercolor crayons are user-friendly, but they also provide blurrier lines than drawing, which takes away the element of precision and encourages students to take risks.

*Props: On the table lay an assortment of interesting objects: a fur hat, an Ikea catalogue, an hour glass and a die. Participants were asked to write a short paragraph story based on one of the props.

This activity once again provides choice in which object to choose. The students’ imagination and language level determines the direction the story will take, but there is no prescribed direction. There is room for creativity, humor, cultural knowledge and risk taking. The stories can be shared through read alouds.

*Poetry reading: Participants were asked to choose a poem from the book Eenie Meenie Manitoba by Robert Heidbreder. This book of short, humorous poems on Canadian themes lends itself well to this activity. Another student uses a stopwatch app on a smart phone to record the length of time it takes to read the poem once. Then the reader rereads the poem, attempting to beat his/her previous time.

This activity is set up with choice and engagement in mind. The student is motivated to increase read aloud fluency through the use of the stop watch and a humorous poem, yet the participants may need to discuss how fast is too fast?

*Twitter: Participants at this station are asked to create a tweet about the workshop. Those that don’t have Twitter accounts are given a 14×10 grid to plan out their 140 character tweet.

This station usually attracts a healthy mix of Twitter users and the curious. The latter group learns what hashtags and mentions are and has the chance to find out how others use Twitter. The 140 character limit encourages precision and creativity and the grid takes away the fear factor for those who don’t have a smart phone in their pocket.

*Signs and Symbols: Participants at this station find a Bingo with pictures rather than numbers. Their task is to explore the meeting space to find these signs and symbols, sharing with others the meaning or location of those which are more difficult.

This activity encourages collaboration and getting to know the meeting space. Each culture has specific signs and symbols and some are universal. The resulting discussion draws upon the personal and cultural knowledge of each participant as experiences with signs and symbols are shared.

As evidenced by the engagement with the various stations, this workshop effectively demonstrated how adults can interact in activities at stations. The resulting discussions are a welcome addition to ESL classrooms where newcomers are sometimes shy to talk.


The long road to publication

Posted: April 1st, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: academia, multilingualism, writing | No Comments »

Today I had the pleasure of opening an email that read “We are delighted to say that we would like to accept your revised paper”. Music to my ears. As many academics experienced and emerging can attest, rejection in publishing is something to get used to and perseverance is the key. I would also add humility. This article, on the linguistic landscape of a bilingual school,  looks at data that I gathered during my Ph.D. research and decided not to include in my dissertation. It was great data, but I had too much for one dissertation and I am glad I didn’t try to make it all fit. Right after I finished my dissertation I worked in earnest to get it written up. I read Wendy Belcher’s “Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks” and followed it pretty closely. I tried to make my writing a social endeavor, but few people around me are doing similar work. My first reader was a friend who is a strong writer. Springboarding from her comments, I revised and sent my article to the external examiner for my dissertation. His strong theoretical background helped me strengthen my argument and pointed me to additional literature in environmental print in elementary schools. These steps delayed my initial submission, but saved me from outright rejection. The first review took just over a month, but the revisions were plentiful, so they took me three months. Most of the time was spent putting myself in the shoes of the reviewer who objected to my methodology. Once I could see exactly where my lack of clarity had led him/her astray, I knew how to respond to his/her comments. The second review did not take long and this time the review was split. I still hadn’t satisfied the one reviewer, but the new one liked the article. At this point I was very discouraged. Do I continue with this journal and face this reviewer or take my article to another journal with the hopes of encountering someone more open to what I had done? After all, my article is improved. I consulted with two academics I admire and the advice that was most helpful was “look, they could have rejected it outright, so they must see merit in the article”. So, I took some time to get back into the mindset of the first reviewer and then, in my first break in teaching, I did a concentrated period of writing daily until I was able to submit a second revised article complete with snappier title! (The second reviewer wanted a snappier title, so I held a contest in one of my classes for students to come up with a snappy title based on the abstract. The winners got books to help them as future teachers and I had a blast reading the submissions). So, today, just a month and a half later, I got an acceptance. Now I enter a new world. While I have had peer reviewed articles accepted before, this is my first international journal so I suspect I have a lot more learning ahead of me.


Too busy to blog

Posted: December 29th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: general | No Comments »

I enjoy reading blogs. I follow certain blogs of personal or professional interest and read them regularly. Yet, when it comes to blogging on this website, I face a few challenges.

1. Time: Sure, we all feel we are busy, but during the semester when I am teaching a lot there comes a time of panic when my writing schedule gets taken over by marking that must get done and meetings that must be attended. At that point it is hard to remember to blog and even harder to set aside the time.

2. Priorities: Linked with the above concern about time is the thought that if I do have time, I should be devoting it to my other writing projects. Realistically, blogs don’t take as long to write as they don’t require as much formal editing, yet there is the added challenge of remembering my login and navigating this supposedly user-friendly website platform.

3. Ideas: Keeping a personal website is a little like talking to oneself if you haven’t met your audience or don’t actually know if anyone reads it. Those who know me, know I never run out of things to talk about, but a website/blog, despite its informality, has a purpose and the blogs should contribute to that purpose. I am beginning to expand what I consider to be blog-worthy.

Looking back over the history of this website, I can see that my impression that I have fallen off in my posting is just that: an impression. I have posted 4-6 times each year for the past three years and this post makes # 6 for 2013. I think what I am sensing is the evolution of this website from a static online CV (really Web 1.0 thinking) to a more dynamic chronicle of my journey into and through academia. So, while I was content with the origins of this website as it was, I now tweet when I blog to encourage readership. The next step will be authentic participation. So if you read this blog or check this website, please leave me a comment and join in the conversation.


New research opportunity

Posted: October 5th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: academia, research | No Comments »

This summer I had a fortuitous reunion with a former colleague. In my first year of teaching, the educational consultant seconded to Alberta Education from the German government was Rainer Wicke. In the two decades since he encouraged me to write an article about a student letter writing project, both of us have received our Ph.Ds. Now he and a research collaborator are embarking upon a research project in which they would like to include research about the German Bilingual Program in Canada. We met again at the International German Teacher Conference and shared our mutual research interests, only to discover that we might be able to work together on our overlapping interests in the German Bilingual Program. So, he introduced me to his research collaborator, Dr. Kim Haataja, from Tampere, Finnland, who was able to tell me more about their project: Content & Language Integrated Instruction in German. I look forward to working with them and take inspiration in their interest in my work.


Working in three languages

Posted: June 4th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: multilingualism | No Comments »

I was musing the other day on the difficulties of working in three languages. That morning I was answering emails in English to my graduate students, in German to the organizers of a session at the conference in South Tirol this summer and in French to the professor organizing the teacher preparation courses for the French cohort. Someone entered my office and I had to ask them to wait while I concentrated on the right wording of the email in French. Those of you who live and work in three languages know the challenges. Researchers recognize that multilingual people use their languages for different purposes and therefore have areas (domains to quote Fishman) in which they work in one language and not another. However, some of us, for a variety of natural or artificial reasons, do the same work in more than one language. I facilitate teacher workshops on drama pedagogy in either English or German. I teach language classes in German or French and undergraduate teacher preparation classes in English or French. So, in one domain, I need to have the same vocabulary in all three languages (or at least in two of three). This can be really challenging as one is always stronger in one than the other and sometimes you don’t realize your shortfalls until you are in the middle of a sentence! Take, for example, an undergraduate class in French that I taught in January. I took great pains to prepare the classes, but during a spontaneous reference to something the students may have been exposed to in the lecture from another class, I started saying “Dans votre. . . ” then I got stuck. I wanted to say “lecture” (in French), but that word in French means “reading”, like reading a book. Immediately I thought of the German word “Vorlesung”, but that actually does mean “reading” because, I surmise, it came from the days when professors sat at the front of the lecture hall and read to their students from a paper or prepared notes. So the German word was no help. I asked the students. They (also mostly advanced  second language learners of French) said they didn’t really ever use that word and so nothing came to mind. So I did a circumlocution and said “classe de x” and moved on. Working in three languages keeps me humble and always adding to my knowledge, but there are times I wish people could see a sign on my head that read “she really is trying”. (Oh, by the way, the word I was looking for is apparently “cours magistral” – very impressive sounding word – I have connotations of the king presiding).


Teacher conferences

Posted: April 24th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: service | No Comments »

Updating my CV to include my latest teacher workshop at a teacher conference (the Canadian Association of Second Language Teachers) reminded me that in 2012 I hadn’t done many teacher workshops. Looking back, I can see the lack of workshops is correlated with the need to finish my dissertation and my eagerness to spread the knowledge generated from my Ph.D. research at academic conferences. However, now that I am settling back into a more normal rhythm, I look forward to teacher conferences. There I meet practitioners who are active in the field of second language teaching, my fellow Multiplikotaren (facilitators) from the Goethe network and other researchers. I attended sessions of serious interest (Katy Arnett on differentiation) and ones of pure curiosity (Ron Cook on Cree). I believe some academics underestimate the value of teacher conferences, but I for one, have found several I highly recommend: Canadian Association of Second Language Teachers, Canadian Association of Teachers of German, American Association of Teachers of Foreign Languages to name three.


Lifelong learning

Posted: February 23rd, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: academia | No Comments »

Some people consider the phrase trite and overused, but I enjoy the concept of lifelong learning. When I struggle with writing and enlist the mentorship of a more successful writer, I continue to improve upon my own understanding of what is involved in effective writing. When I check my twitter account and read up on the current issues in Alberta Education or recent blogs about the problems with Ph.D.s seeking alt-ac (alternative to academia) careers, I realize how much can be gained by keeping up on ‘current events’ in my field. I consider the presentations I attend on campus and at conferences to be my continuing education program. I challenge myself to explore the learning management software (LMS) our university uses for online courses, recognizing that if I can imagine an application, there is a good chance someone else had previously and it might be embedded into the software. For example, I wanted to show my online course participants how to do  a research database search and was able to do so using the application sharing function in the LMS. This is so much a part of my life that I assume it is a part of everyone else’s; however, I occasionally encounter resistance to learning that surprises me. “Oh, I could never learn another language” “I passed Math in high school, I don’t need to look at it again”. What I learn from hearing those remarks is how different attitudes toward learning are, especially among those who don’t carry successful learning experiences with them. It also reminds me of my former negative attitude toward art and physical education (and hence certain sports). I appears that we gravitate toward lifelong learning in areas we love, but still might have mental blocks about those we love less.


Attending the International German Teacher Conference

Posted: January 19th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: academia | No Comments »

Four years ago I discovered the International German Teacher Conference (Internationale Deutchlehrertagung http://www.idt-2013.it/de/home/default.html). Fellow teachers had attended and presented in IDT Jena 2009 and came back raving about the experience. I kept it on my radar as it is only held once every and when the Call for Papers opened up, I applied. Meanwhile, I also applied for funding from the Goethe Institute in Toronto to attend. As someone who teaches German and regularly provides workshops to teachers as a part of the German teacher-facilitator network (Multiplikatorennetzwerk), I was eligible to apply. I was ecstatic this week to discover I received the funding, so even if my presentation is not accepted, I can attend! This year the conference will be held in the south Tirol area of Italy which has German as a minority language. The conference itself will be held in the small center of Bolzana (Bozen in German). I am very excited to start planning the trip. It will be a wonderful opportunity to meet German teachers from around the world and share the latest in second language teaching.


Balancing teaching and writing

Posted: November 2nd, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: academia | No Comments »

One of the main challenges of academia is balancing the demands of teaching and research/writing. This year I have undertaken a great deal of teaching to enhance my CV. Despite my previous experience as a school teaching, it is necessary to build up experience teaching at the university level. For that reason I am teaching two undergraduate courses for the German department, a course in the undergraduate teacher preparation program and a graduate level online course. In addition, I will be supervising the French cohort of student teachers who begin their practicum in just over a week.

In addition, I am working on articles that are coming out of my dissertation research. This requires a perseverance and discipline that is hard to muster after having just written my dissertation. Sure, the writing is still fresh in my mind and I am enthusiastic about the topic, but the long-awaited break between writing my dissertation and starting up the new academic year didn’t materialize, so forging ahead with writing is indeed challenging. I have been aided by the encouragement of key mentors and a book outlining a systematic writing plan. It remains to be seen if this is successful,  but I am nearing the completion of my first article since the dissertation and look forward to submitting it after in the near future.