Sunday, February 11, 2018

Teaching and Practicing Growth Mindset and Political Correctness

Since 2015, I've been starting my Advanced ESOL Reading and Writing class with some readings about mindset and a TED video by Carol Dweck.  Why?  I have been frustrated with students who arrive in my class from their previous classes believing that they are "A" students, so everything that they do should have an "A" grade attached to it. First, where does this fixation on grades come from? While adult immigrant students earn credits for their ESOL community college classes, the grades do not impact their college transcripts. In other words, if they do well enough in their ESOL classes to move up to Basic Skills Writing courses, a grade of "C" or better in ESOL will not affect their chances of getting into a four-year degree-granting institution. Second, when there is nothing to lose by earning a passing level grade of "C," why is there still an obsession with grades? Third, if students are supposed to complete certain skills by the time they arrive at the highest level, why are a third of them arriving in the last "advanced" level course without what I expect are the requisite skills? Why do we ESOL professors feel pressured and compelled to move students on to the next level - to pass them because they're immigrants and can't be expected to be as skilled in English as a native speaker? Interestingly, in a class discussion about language and literacy across the world, one of my students said that she thought a big difference between her country (Colombia) and the USA is that in Colombia if a student doesn't reach the required level of skill in Spanish, for example, (s)he will have to repeat the class. No ifs, ands, or buts. They might even have to repeat it twice; it is the same for mathematics and science classes at the middle school level. In that way, it actually means something when students complete middle school. If they don't pass, then they can't go on to high school.

This is a point I need to explore further. There are 'triage' or two-tier apprenticeship vs. academic-track systems in Europe where students who don't have high enough scores on level tests get filtered out as pre-teens or teenagers into so-called apprentice programs (where the focus is on learning blue-collar skills and office/clerical skills for service-oriented professions) rather than academic or science-oriented careers.

When I got exposed to Brainology and the work of Carol Dweck in 2015, I had little idea how well it would work to help my students focus on learning and growing their minds. The concept of the fixed and growth mindsets was revolutionary to me and to my non-native Englsh-speaking adult population. In addition, it was empowering for me and for some of my students.  Since January 2015, I've had a handful of ESOL students who knew they were not going to pass my class who stayed in my course beyond the withdraw deadline (10 weeks of 16 week semester) because they decided that they could improve their essay writing, do advanced-level readings, participate in reading circle discussions or debates, build their knowledge of more advanced grammar structures, and be better prepared to repeat the class the next semester. One student who did this wrote in her portfolio reflection that it was one of the best experiences she had had in ESOL because she wasn't worried about her grade. Instead, she was focused on learning. Wow!

I have continued to use the growth mindset and find that it has worked for me and transformed my way of communicating to my students. This approach to teaching doesn't protect students from getting "D's" in my classes; it means, in my view, that they're not yet ready for the next level. (See Dweck above). I also share my own educational flops in my long journey through a four-year degree at UCLA and two master's degree programs (anthropology and TESOL). I let them know that I don't equate grades with intelligence because when I suffered from "D" grades, I know that I didn't suddenly get dumber. I was over-extended (working, commuting by bus over two hours per day, and emotionally stressed and depressed over a broken relationship). These were not excuses; other factors overpowered my ability to focus on classwork.

Praising effort over grades does not mean that a student should pass a class because they worked hard. Many of my students were hard workers, but they knew that they had not achieved the learning outcomes. Their English "muscles" were not strong enough to perform at the level of a college freshman.

Is it easy not to pass a hard-working ESOL student? No, of course not. However, I wish the previous professor had conveyed the same message to his/her students so that I wouldn't have had to deflate egos and overcome the bad attitudes of students who came with fixed mindsets - and saw anything as difficult as an attempt on the instructor's part to show/prove that they were not very smart. Some students told me that they "knew" all the grammar and passed at an "A" level in the previous course, yet they didn't know basic irregular verb forms (e.g., teach -> "teached") or how to use present perfect or simple past nor did they know that modal verbs are not followed by past tense verb forms (e.g., should "went"). On top of that, several of these same students complained that I should spend more time on basic grammar even though "grammar" was supposedly what "they already knew."

This is not a rant, but a suggestion that adult-level ESOL instructors use concepts from elementary school curricula to enhance their approach to teaching, in general. The Brainology reading for 5th graders in the public school was not too simple for advanced-level ESOL students.  A side benefit one semester was the revelation that one of my students connected to her son because he had studied the same reading. My adult ESOL student was fearful of going back to school, but as her children were out of kindergarten, her husband encouraged her to go to college and to seek a career outside the home. Learning to write in academic English was her first big step.

Just as the debate still sizzles in public schools, I have found that some of my colleagues teaching college-level ESOL courses are caught in a battle over what our purpose is. Is it to help students reach a level of English fluency and accuracy that will allow them to communicate well in a work or business context to colleagues and employees, or is it to equip our students with enough language to be functional, comprehensible, and "good enough" - assuming that they will improve over time with exposure to native English-language speakers?

I am torn between treating my students as I would want to be treated in a foreign country, studying in an academic setting, alongside native-born students.  Would I want to be passed along because it was viewed as not PC (politically correct) to fail me and force me to repeat a course until I had reached a more functional level in the target language in which I needed to express myself? If I continued on in a foreign environment and obtained a degree there, would my degree be worth the same as the native-born student's?  Are we cheapening the value of a UCSD degree by taking on so many non-natives who don't command the language into our degree programs?  Was the professor forced to pass me along because I was foreign-born and working hard to acculturate and learn the local language? Does it degrade the value of a degree from UCLA or UCSD if a non-native speaker receives a degree from one of these prestigious universities and is incomprehensible in English outside of a classroom context? When we discovered that President George W. Bush graduated from Yale University, did we not pause to wonder whether the standards of Yale were as high as we once thought them to be?

Now, in February 2018, I am still puzzled and asking many of the same questions.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Reading Circles - Part Deux

Now that I am in the midst of a new semester, I am doing some reflection on how the advanced level reading and writing course went in the spring. In particular, this reflection is tied to the Reading Circle experiment (see earlier posts 1 , 2). I plan to continue using the reading or literature circles based on several positive reflections from student portfolios last semester.

Here are a few examples of some of the comments. Several students did not mention the reading circles specifically, so these comments represent a biased sample where "circles" were specifically mentioned. Those that referred to the reading circles in their reflections said they were "an excellent idea" (MGA, 2015), "the best experience" (NT, 2015), and "a useful method." Some of the reasons they thought the circles were a positive experience is that they had specific roles to play which varied every two or three weeks. They had to learn how to think about the reading and hear alternative views and understandings of the work. According to one student, activities affected other reading experiences: "it helped me a lot in understanding the bottom line of the book that I am reading..." (JQN, 2015).

One huge benefit of the reading circle was that it helped to build a community in the classroom, a sense of responsibility for playing a role in their small groups. What made it work successfully in this classroom was the participation by 99% of the students. Without preparation, when a student was called on to contribute to their circle, they knew that they were failing their classmates - not the instructor. Each role counted since a "circle" was made up of five students, each playing a different role. In addition, a few students commented that they learned about different cultures through these discussions since one of the roles was "Connector." Often, students used this role to comment about how their experience growing up in another culture was very different from what was being described in an American context.

Another theme from the students who liked the reading circles was the feeling of empowerment that they gained from having others listen to their interpretation of a reading as a summarizer, discussion leader, or connector. Students didn't feel overwhelmed by trying to learn every new or unknown word and started learning how to infer meanings from context. They could count on one member of the circle explaining at least five new words from the article, and students could always discuss difficult vocabulary amongst themselves.

A final advantage and positive outcome of using Reading Circles was the opportunity to conduct formative assessments. When the students are involved in student-led discussions on the same readings, they face each other. This leaves the instructor free to move around the room and observe whether students are doing some critical thinking and learning to discuss ideas in English. At the end of the group activity, the instructor can merge vocabulary that came from the reading - put it on the board in its various forms (noun, verb, adverb, adjective). In this way, the whole class developed a common vocabulary list.