Possible to Make Assessment Culturally Inclusive?

A dear friend and colleague of mine, Amy Puett, posed a very interesting question about culturally inclusive language assessments a while back. Unfortunately, I wasn’t very helpful in answering. What I could offer, however, was a space to share this question with the larger world of ELT. If you have any insight into what Amy offers below, we’d be very grateful.  

 

I’m currently working on an MA in TESOL, and I’m doing a research project on biases in spoken assessments. In my experience, there hasn’t been a lot to account for in differences in cultures, ages or purpose when it comes to assessing students in their level of spoken English. The standard guidelines for assessing one’s level of spoken English are generally the CEFR and ACTFL guidelines; however, these don’t account for shy, uncommunicative Korean students who might be under a lot of pressure with their studies or a socially astute Pakistani student who knows when and where to pull out stock phrases to impress others with their English skills. Also, there is little room in these guidelines to accurately describe young learners. I’ve taught many Korean elementary students who are at a B1 level of reading, and I can’t see the students acknowledging their level by saying “I can deal with most situations likely to arise whilst travelling in an area where the language is spoken. I can enter unprepared into conversation on topics that are familiar, of personal interest or pertinent to everyday life (e.g. family, hobbies, work, travel and current events).”

Even the guide to using the CEFR guidelines states in the introduction that ‘The Framework aims to be not only comprehensive, transparent and coherent, but also open, dynamic and non-dogmatic. -Council of Europe (2001a:18)’[1] It also mentions that it’s not expansive in describing young learners. [2] However, I have still witnessed that many students are nonetheless labeled with these terms, which I feel can affect how some teachers teach them. The ACTFL has similar issues. For example, the following is said about a student with ‘low intermediate’ speaking skills:

“At the Intermediate Low sublevel, speakers are primarily reactive and struggle to answer direct questions or requests for information. They are also able to ask a few appropriate questions. Intermediate Low speakers manage to sustain the functions of the Intermediate level, although just barely.”[3]

It would be beyond many people’s conscience to behave in such a manner in some of the countries I’ve taught in, and they would learn how to fake responses or gloss over any gaps in their understanding. I also know language students of higher speaking levels who would act in the same manner due to their naturally shy nature in dealing with foreigners.

I feel there must be more TESOL instructors can do to incorporate a more inclusive set of terminology that would allow either more room for interpretation or include a more sets of guidelines to adequately assess students and describe their levels of spoken English language skills.

My question is can any share their experiences with this issue or recommend relevant research? Any help would be appreciated.

 

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grammar was #onething that happened

A teacher-trainee asked me this question :

“I imagined him winning the game” vs. “I imagined his winning the game”
Which is more common or makes sense?
In the first sentence, is ‘him” an object for the verb or a subject for the gerund? In the second sentence, is ‘his’ a subject for the gerund?
As you know, Korean students tend to analyze a sentence, and some asked me the questions above. My answer was just ‘”Both may be grammatically correct.'” Was I right or wrong?

This was my answer:
I think you were correct in saying that both are grammatically correct. Of course we know that “him” is an object pronoun http://www.esldesk.com/grammar/pronouns and that “his” is a possessive adjective http://www.esldesk.com/grammar/pronouns#possessive_adjectives This means that they become the object complement. http://www.grammar-monster.com/glossary/object_complement.htm
 
However, it also seems that both of these can also act as the subject of the gerund.http://english.stackexchange.com/questions/2625/when-is-a-gerund-supposed-to-be-preceded-by-a-possessive-pronoun However, it did take a lot of research for me to be able to tell you this. According to the link I shared, this can be found in Cambridge Grammar of the English Language.
 
I hope this gives you some peace of mind! :) Let me know what you think.
That was the best answer I could give, and it took me a while to formulate it. I share this with you as my response to Anne Hendler’s #OneThing blog challenge because these are the types of questions I get from Korean high school teachers of English, and I struggle to answer them. I struggle because they ask me to go to linguistic depths that I don’t usually dive into. I know my strengths as an English teacher lie more on the sociolinguistics side. However, these questions are very important reminders of the reality of my teacher-trainees. They keep me aware of the types of challenges they face.
Like the teacher, there is still a little doubt in my mind as to whether or not my answer is satisfactory. But that’s another reason why I’m posting this: it’s time to air out the doubt, and face my grammar demons. If you have any thoughts to add to this grammar question and my attempt at an answer, I’d love to hear them.

Questioning Teaching: An Attempt to Balance Paradox

The more I teach, the more I realize that a teacher’s job is to balance paradox. A teacher has to be comfortable with a degree of mystery and unanswered questions. At any given moment, one student might connect to what is happening in class, and another might be diametrically opposed. When this happens, what are we supposed to do? This is something I’m thinking a lot about these days.

Below are the paradoxical questions that are on my mind. I’d love to hear your thoughts if you feel inclined to tackle them. Although they are written separately, I also acknowledge the web they weave.

  • What happens when the teacher’s concept of what is fair clashes with a student’s concept of what is fair? When the concept of fairness does not relate to the outcome of one’s learning, does fairness have a position in the argument?
  • What is the teacher’s role when 80% of the class is on board with your methodology and 20% has a distinct aversion to it?
  • How can we address different degrees of ambiguity tolerance between students?
  • As a language skills teacher of in-service English teachers, I try to lead by example, but what is my role or approach when there seems to be incongruence between the teacher-trainees’ training experience, and the experience they are going to meet when they go back to class? How can I give them autonomy over their language learning, when they don’t feel they are in a position to do the same for their students?
  • How do we truly know what students need praise from the teacher, and who is motivated by their own effort?
  • What is my role when students have grown up in a culture of comparison and competition, and this clashes with my beliefs about learning? Where do I look for clarity when the answers evade me? What questions do I ask? When do I ask them?

If you have your own paradoxical questions, feel free to add them in the comment section. Maybe together we can help each other embrace the paradox.

Teaching Teachers to Write from the Heart

I’m stepping out of my comfort zone. This is the theme of this post, and it is inspired by The 30 Goals Challenge for Educators or #30GoalsEdu, which was created by Shelly Sanchez Terrell. Over 10,000 teachers have joined the challenge since it started and I am grateful to now be among them.

What convinced me to take part in this challenge was this excerpt from the 2013 30 Goals cycle:

“Each goal will focus on getting educators to believe their plans of action now will lead to positive change in their environments and inspire their learners to be the kind of people who try to make every moment of their lives meaningful and inspirational. Too many individuals are not seizing the moments in their lives to inspire or live their passions. (…) As educators, we have the ability to influence students and we start by being the example of individuals who make meaningful moments.”

The teachers I met on the 30 Goals Facebook page were right: this has me written all over it.

And so I begin my adventure with this challenge:

There comes a time when each of us has an idea or opportunity that challenges our comfort zone and differs so much from the rituals we develop. We need to be able to seize those opportunities and go forth with new ideas. We need to be able to take risks so we grow as educators and also help our learners grow.

Here is my risk: I am going to ask the teachers in our program to write for at least 10 minutes once a week without any structure. The aim is to help them enjoy the writing process and also to help them connect to their inner lives. I want them to express themselves without a sense of consequence.

In order for you to understand how I’m stepping out of my comfort zone, I need to admit something: I have been a rigid writing teacher. I rely on structured composition patterns (paragraph, essays), and common codes of conduct (formal letters, informal emails…) as the content of my classroom. I teach the rules and help the teacher-trainees stick to them. Sure once in a while I introduce simple poetry (diamantes, acrostic poems), or creative writing (storybooks for kids, writing based on images). But most of the time writing was about topic sentences, thesis statements, and creating cohesion.  Of course there is a creative element here as well, but there just wasn’t the free flow writing that I personally enjoy on almost a daily basis.

I wanted to bring the same joy of writing to my teacher-trainees, and see what changes might occur in their approach to writing. Most of these teachers have never taken a writing class and feel very apprehensive about their writing abilities. They come to the course feeling nervous, but also eager to see what they can do. Although my approach has yielded positive results, I have often felt I was letting them down in a way. I found my solution to this when I started reading Natalie Goldberg’s, The True Secret of Writing: Connecting Life with Language (a must read for all people curious about the power of writing).

To begin this journey, I asked the teachers to think of one or two words that came to mind when they thought about the word Writing. The answers within the heart are some of these words.

Beginning Writer's Heart
Beginning Writers’ Heart

Then I asked them to respond to the quote below. I asked them why they thought Natalie had written this. The answers outside the heart are some of their answers.

Natalie Goldberg

With all this in mind, the following day, I introduced Natalie’s writing practice.

Natalie Goldberg's Writing Practice

We discussed these ideas and once everyone felt satisfied and had their pen and paper ready, I set up my timer (see i-Qi app) for 10 minutes.

I wrote along with them. I wrote about how worried I was about how they might react to this. I wrote about how I thought they thought this might be silly. I watched the timer and was worried the time was too long. I had a hard time keeping my pen on the paper. How could ask them to do the same?

And then the chimes rang.

A few teachers looked up and said, “Already?”

A little sigh of relief went off in my head.

We talked about how they felt. They said they liked it. Some were amazed at how much they had written. They couldn’t believe they could do it, and there it was.

And so we did it again the next week. This time some of the teachers said they would like to do the writing practice everyday. I am going to try my best to provide that space. But since I am stepping out of my comfort zone, I’ll aim for at least once a week.

Some of the teachers have started doing this practice during their own time. I am so thrilled that this risk is turning out to be the type of change that I was hoping for. Now my goal is to stick with it.

 

Why do Korean university students look like zombies?

This was the question that was on my colleague’s mind. Bradley Smock (check out his blog Bradley’s English Blog) teaches English composition to 3rd and 4th year English Literature students at Keimyung University. As the semester went on, he started noticing that his students were coming to class looking lethargic and lifeless: like zombies. In an attempt to understand them, he posed the question:

What is causing the low motivation of many students at Keimyung?

As part of their next essay assignment, his students wrote responses, and I will be posting* their responses here. I hope this offers insight into what life is like for many Korean students.

Today’s theme revolves around student competition, and not having personal goals and dreams.

Essay 1 

When professor asking how are you, usually students say tired. Despite there was nothing happen last night, they always feel tired and gloomy. To foreign students or teachers maybe do not understand this normal happen in Korea. Also this happen arise to most of Koreans. Most students are zombie at the class because they are not doing exercise, they just follow Korea’s competitive atmosphere and they do not know what they want to be or like it.

Most students are not doing exercise. Few of students are exercise themselves but exercise is not familiar to Korean students. when they were young about elementary school students they started to go to academy(Hakwon) after school. So exercise was second to them. Even they learned exercise at the hakwon such as Teakgundo or Judo. Maybe people understand these exercise should learn at the hakwon however they have less time to hang out with other friends. Most highschool do not have PE class because of study. Even if students have a PE class, it was time for sleep not a exercise to students. Therefore all Korean students need exercise for their physical strength.

Most Koreans are just follow and attend on Korean’s education system. This is kind of psychological problem. Korea society make a competitive atmosphere which means playing is wasting time and not studying is considered becoming loser. I always feel, Korea society said “you must be a winner at the competition to live comfortable. There is no friend in this society.” I’m sure every Koreans are feeling this. This kind of feeling make them anxious even when they are hanging out with their friends. Thus, Korea’s society make a competitive atmosphere and people are tired to following this.

Last reason is related above paragraph. Most Koreans ,age 17 to 24, do not know what they want to be, what they like it. This is happened because of blind education system. Every highschool teachers or parents said “Do it whatever you want when you become University student. But now is for study.” I also listen this sentence when I was middle and highschool student. Theoretically, middle school and high school age is looking for their interesting and what they are good at. In Korea, it’s opposite. Most students study with short knowledge about them and just attend on university with their highschool score and Korea SAP score. Shortly most students attend on university do not have exactly what they want to be and like it.

Do not excercise, competitive atmosphere in Korea and Do not know what they like or want to be, make spiritless to students in the class. It’s kind of sad thing in Korea. This reason, happiness index is the lowest in the world. Although Korea education system make Koreans smarter than other countries, they have less happiness and creativity.

Essay 2

The students at Keimyung are being zombies in class these days. They seem to have no enthusiasm for what they learn and what the teachers say in class. They also have no emotion on their faces and do not respond to the teacher. Due to this fact, teachers are having really hard time teaching in most of their classes. The reasons that many students at Keimyung are low motivated are because of the pressure on the grade, getting no immediate benefit, and not knowing what they like or want.

Most students are under pressure to have good grades. Since the beginning of the semester, they start to fight with assignments and exams. It is likely to be released from the pressure when the midterm is over, but assignments go on and on. They consider the grades very important because they believe that the grades affect their future when they try to have a job. That is why they are so stressed on assignments and exams to get good grades in class, but they do not, so that makes students less motivated.

Since students study to prepare for their future, they do not see immediate benefit ahead of them, so they are low motivated in class. What they study in class seems useless in daily life, so they might think that these studies are useless overall. They, however, do not know what they study in class now will be used when or where in the future. Not knowing all of this, students do not see a point of studying in class and keeps complaining that they do not want to study. They lose interest in studying while they do not see the future.

Whether they think the study now will be helpful in the future or not, the worst problem they have is that they do not know what they really like or what they really want.

In my case, I am majoring in English language and literature and taking classes to complete a course in teaching training. I like English, but frankly, I do not know exactly why I am trying to complete a course in teaching training. I am not even sure if I want to be a teacher. I actually more interested in planning performances or exhibitions. This is the problem. Like me, most students do not know what they like and want, and they keep studying what they are not interested in.

Students at Keimyung are not much enthusiasm in class, and the teachers know and have difficulties in getting the students’ attention and the class going smoothly. What are being the problems in this situation are that they are so pressured, that they do not see what is ahead of them, and they do not find their own interest. The most important thing among what they can do now is to find what’s their interests are sooner rather than later. Finding it, it will give them more motivation in studying and help them to be more active in class.

*My intention was to post more essays and create a series, but I decided against it. I think this post was enough to create a valuable discussion.

Unpacking Parker J. Palmer: Fear and Education

This is the first of what I hope becomes a series of reflections on Parker Palmer’s, book The Courage to Teach. His book really speaks to my thoughts and feelings on what it means to teach. By “unpacking” what I read, I hope to get more insight into the often unchartered territories he deals with. They aren’t easy places to navigate, but I trust that the arrival will be worth it. I hope these explorations feed your curiosity as much as they feed mine.

————————-

Ten minutes before class. What am I supposed to teach today? Damn, I’m not ready! Who has taught this class before. Matthieu. Right. I’ll give him a call.

Damn, he isn’t answering. Oh man. Eight minutes left now.

Jon!

“Jon, can you help me out? What am I supposed to teach today?”, panicking on the phone as I scramble to find something more professional to wear. I’m still in my jeans and old t-shirt!

“No worries. It’s the end of the semester and they just need to cover this and this…”, said in the smooth, calm voice Jon always seems to have.

“Oh wow, you’re right! They only have a few classes left! Thanks Jon. I think I can handle it.”, gasping — not sighing in relief like I should be — as I think to myself, ‘How did I let this happen? Two more classes in the semester? They are going to think I’m so incompetent. I am! And man, I’m late now….’

At this point I woke up. I didn’t get a chance to see the faces of my course participants. I suppose my subconsciousness couldn’t bear seeing them.

Fear. This is what I felt when I opened my eyes. In this case, the fear of failure. At that moment, Parker Palmer’s chapter Culture of Fear I had just read a few days before, made much more sense. Even in my dreams I didn’t want to face the fear I sometimes feel. One of the points Parker Palmer makes in this chapter is how fear disconnects us from our students. Fear labels them as the lazy kid, the problem boy, the girl who can’t pay attention. When we see students like this, of course it’s hard to trust what’s inside their minds.

Fear causes this to happen:

… our assumption that students are brain-dead leads to pedagogies that deaden their brains. When we teach by dripping information into their passive forms, students who arrive in the classroom alive and well become passive consumers of knowledge and are dead on departure when they graduate. But the power of this self-fulfilling prophecy seems to elude us: we rarely consider that our students may die in the classroom because we use methods that assume they are dead.

– Parker Palmer, p.42, “The Courage to Teach

*cartoon by Yoo Ha-na (유하나)

When I first read this quote, I was inspired to write a rant blaming the Korean education system for perpetuating apathy, violence, and yes, death. This is what I first wrote:

Fear. It has a grip on us. It is all around us and so it permeates our senses and our way of being. It has become such a societal norm that we don’t even realize it’s there.

To notice fear would mean we would need to face it. To admit that fear exists would be to admit that we are doing it wrong.

And this is what I believe. I believe we are doing it wrong. When fear rules our education system, we need to set aside our pride, and look into its face. Administrators aren’t ready for this. To face their fears would also mean losing face.

That’s as far as I got. I was just about to go into tirade (Yes, trust me, it is possible.) against Korea’s old boys’ club when I started thinking of the English teachers in this system. I imagined the fear some of them have told me about: the dread of going to class and meeting students that talk back to them; the anxiety they have about the kid who is “better” at speaking English than they are; or the administrative stress of paperwork and the need to follow the demands of the system they’re in (ie: teaching the same lesson as all the other English teachers, not leaving any room for creative lesson planning; listening to parents who aren’t satisfied with the way they are teaching their kid.)

I realized I couldn’t point fingers. Not many of us want to meet fear: not administrators, not teachers… not me. Looking into fear would mean that we’d have to admit our vulnerability. And let’s face it, not many education systems out there create a safety net for vulnerability.

But here’s the twist: it’s only by facing our fears that real change is able to happen. This relates as much to a fear of heights as it does to a “fear of diversity”, “fear of conflict”, or a “fear of losing identity”: the diversity of our students’ experiences, interests and motivations; the conflict that could happen by paying attention to this diversity; and the loss of our ways of being, our ideas, and our traditions in the face of all this (The Courage to Teach, p. 38). If we want students who are happy to come to class, we will need to look at what we are doing that prevents this from happening. If teachers want to be happy when they come to class, they will need to take some time with fear. According to relationship expert, Robert Augustus Masters, PhD, this is the only way that fear will loosen its grip:

When we remain outside our fear, we remain trapped within it.

When we, however, consciously get inside our fear, it’s as if it turns inside out. Getting inside our fear with wakeful attention and compassion actually expands our fear beyond itself. Once the contractedness at the center of fear ceases to be fueled, fear unravels, dissipates, and terminates its occupancy of us.

In entering our fear, we end our fear of it.

Through attending closely, caringly, and carefully to the particulars of our fear, we decentralize it, so that its intentions and viewpoint can no longer govern us. When the light goes on in the grottos of dread, then fear is little more than our case of mistaken identity having a bad day.

Robert Augustus Masters, Transformation Through Intimacy

As I ponder my own fears, I wonder if teachers and administrators will ever find a safe, communal space to attend to theirs. The idea of “decentralizing” fear in order to make room for real connections with each other is one I find incredibly appealing.

When I consider the magnitude of this healing, sitting with my own fears sounds a little less scary.

*A big thank you to Yoo Ha-na (유하나) for drawing this cartoon, and to Michael Free for asking her. And thanks to Tim Thompson, Joseph Bengivenni, James Taylor, and Arjana Blazic for helping me locate the cartoon Ha-na’s cartoon was inspired by.

Related links:

The difference between love and a stick

Each semester, I get to know our course participants via dialogue journals. I’ve written about my apprehension in giving this assignment in past (The Bittersweetness of Dialogue Journals – Take 2), but this journal entry, written by Mr. Go Jong-hyun, is another wonderful reminder of why I keep doing it.

Mr. Go was kind enough to let me share his entry with all of you. This is especially meaningful considering the topic of my last post, The love stick that motivates (I highly recommend reading the heart-wrenching, yet enlightening, comments).

In response to the question, Who was your favorite teacher? Why was he or she your favorite teacher? How would you like to be like him/her?, Mr. Go writes:

I was asked those questions in the test to become an English teacher several times. Whenever I think about it, I cannot help remembering my old home room teacher whose name was Kyoung-hwa Kim in the middle school. I was second to last in the elementary. I even had to have the supplementary classes for the students of underachievement in the elementary school. I was beaten with sticks, even slapped in my face by some of my home room teachers because I couldn’t do my homework. No teachers complimented me because I was poor at studying. However, I took the head in cleaning up the classroom. When I was a first grader in the middle school, most students shirked their duty during the clean-up time, but I steadily cleaned up my area. One morning, Ms. Kim spoke high of me because I cleaned the classroom diligently in front of the all classmates. She also said I would excel in study. I was panicked for a while, but very happy to hear that. Her compliment changed me. Her positive reinforcement and trust in me got me not to let her down. I studied and tried to be the best student to rise to her compliment. Finally, my score improved very much, and I became a class leader. I can’t forget her, and am in debt forever to her. Kyoung-hwa Kim was and is my favorite teacher always because she was the best example of the teacher.

The compliment and belief of a teacher have wonderful and compelling power to change and motivate students. I teach where there are many naughty and low-level students comparing with the other academic high schools. However, I always try to look on the bright side of them, and believe them. I always made zealous effort to have trust in my students; they can be changed. I believe the power of optimism and trust. I will compliment my students on every efforts, unique talents and strong points as well as good scores like my great teacher, and then students will rise to my expectations.

Thank you so much Mr. Go.