Part 1: Setting up assignments

On several occasions on this blog, I’ve been discussing the nature, execution, and impact of collaboration between people in the ELT environment. In the next three posts (Parts A, B, C), I’ll be focusing on the benefits and results of an ongoing collaboration of assignments between two courses in my program at the University of Toronto that all my EAP students take:

Description Course 1 Course 2
Course IFP100Y1Y – Themes in World History IFP020Y1Y – Critical Reading & Writing
Description a first-year credit course a non-credit EAP course
Curriculum designer Dr. Alexandra Guerson moi

In a true sense of collaboration, Alexandra and I will both be writing three linked posts on the different aspects of this collaboration: foundational, collaborative, and results. Aside from having worked together over the last seven years, this series derives from a talk we gave at BALEAP last April entitled “Interactivity between a first-year content course and EAP course assignment for skill transferability“. In today’s post, we situate the collaboration in terms of the foundational aspects of our program and how our two courses align with each other, with an example assignment in my course that scaffolds skills in hers. You can skip over to her post here if you like.

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I’ve wanted to use Serial in class since I first listened to it. But first.

A little background first

Every year, one curriculum assignment is a quasi-extensive reading book club with students (I say ‘quasi’ because of a few items I’ll get to in a minute). For reading, students typically have stuck to required content only (i.e. for their credit course and those we selected for their ARCs and research projects). The purpose of this assignment originated because of this: we value reading a lot to improve vocabulary, notice grammatical patterns, highlight differences in genre AND that reading shouldn’t always be a chore.

With little time –inside– the curriculum and classroom instruction to cover more reading in detail, we collectively decided to create a book club conducted solely through Facebook groups with a 5% overall mark attached. Since each instructor has a defined group of students (one or two sections of around 15 students each; we have 300+ students in total in this course), opportunity to select a book of their choice wouldn’t  be possible if each instructor forced only one book onto just their group of students. Increasing interaction between different groups of students and instructors was a factor, while not significantly increasing instructor workload.

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Image sourced online

As much as I love and value collaboration (it’s one of the 4Cs I picked out as major components to my profession after all), I have some challenge with getting students to value it quite as much. My colleague often tells me her stories of true collaborative writing when pairing up with her research partner to write a paper like this.

It may be worthwhile at this point to define “collaborative writing” as I see it: beyond individual writing, it’s more than one person working together on a piece of writing in order to produce a cohesive whole where every contributor takes ownership over the whole. Beyond this, definitions can be a bit murky.

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http://www.robcottingham.ca/cartoon/archives/cartoons-about-love/

Are there unintended consequences to blogging?

It seems the target reader for ELT blogs like this one is on our minds lately (see Joanna Malefaki or Sandy Millin‘s posts). I have to admit that I’m a bit across the board on writing for a target reader depending on my topic at hand (ahh, the struggle with having your hand in several  honey pots, so to speak). Some questions do arise: Do we simply hurl our thoughts about classroom experiences, pedagogical principles, and language teaching debates into the vastness of the ELT social media sphere? Or do we tailor what we say to a particular reader? Generally, I’d like as many interested people read as possible and include their ideas, so I share posts on a number of social media sites with varying taglines or hashtags (e.g. #tleap, #cdnelt, #eltchat, #tdsig, etc.) across several days. But recently, I’ve begun considering what the implications are on perhaps my most unexpected reader: students themselves. 

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In a new term with a new group of EAP students eager to get things going, I’ve always found it a little jarring to jump right into course content (my course is Critical Reading & Writing) even though time is of the essence. Also, I understand the value of community-building activities early on, so I could do the usual type of warmer activity–like Find Someone Who (sidenote: I feel a guttural shudder at the thought)–to have new students get to know each other, but no thanks. While rapport is important, I’m not a fan of activities that don’t connect pretty clearly to EAP reading and writing. I also bore myself to tears when going over a syllabus on the first day. Instead, this year I tried to combine a first-day warmer with a preview of skills that will be introduced and practiced throughout the course.

My main consideration was to simplify a variety of academic reading and writing tasks that students new to academia may not really have been exposed to so that without too many barriers, they could complete them, take a peak at what the course is about, all while getting to know each other. I settled on an identity task in a series of interdependent steps.

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Photo via The Varsity, 2015

With a new academic year upon us and the campus buzzing with tons of first-year students (i.e. “frosh”), it’s making me think of my own induction into first year at university, way back in 1993: all the emotions involved with leaving home for the first time, the anticipation of new courses at a higher level than at high school, and the anxiety I felt with socialising with an entirely different set of people than I had known for the previous five years (yes, at the time in Ontario, high school was that long!). Plus, Frosh Week is infamous for its chaotic set of activities for first-year students. I wasn’t prepared. I didn’t realise who I was and how I’d react. And so a little trip down memory lane ensues…

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Did you know that Chicago was the most dangerous city in the US in 2014? I didn’t. I would have thought it was some bigger city, but according to this set of FBI statistics of total murders, I was wrong. But actually, was I? It’s very easy to look at this graph at face value without digging much further into the narrative it presents. As readers, we absorb this information, particularly when it comes from a perceived authority, but do we question it appropriately? I hope so, but I’m not sure that’s always the case, especially when it comes to our learners who are being inundated with new information in a new environment in a language other than their L1. If you and they are critical readers, however, you may have questioned the population of these cities and therefore the related ratio, which would provide a more contextualised definition of ‘most dangerous’.

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I suppose from some perspectives, I have been a bit bah-humbug this year. It partly stems from wanting to remove myself as much as possible from the commercial traditions placed upon us. That just doesn’t seem to mean anything to me, particularly given 2016. Professionally, I tried to come up with a list of ten groups promoting social justice in our profession in some way that benefit those in our profession. That actually wasn’t so easy, so I added a few links that go down different tangents. I think we have work to do…

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brain-and-identity-1440x810

Looking into teacher identity

Who are you? Tyson Seburn. Scorpio? Tiger? Philosophy major? I used to think so. TESL Toronto President? Conference organiser? Writer? Grad student? I was once. Canadian? Author? EAP instructor? TDSIG peep? Yes, this guy exists.

What is your teaching philosophy? Ugggh. That one’s the worst.

I’ve questioned my identity a lot, but here let’s focus on career. We all probably do when push comes to shove. I often garble out something about EAP and guided discovery and teacher development, but do I make sense? I often stare at the wording of my bio when submitting one for a conference proposal. What do I focus on? What description most accurately portrays how I see myself? How do I want others to see me? In 50 words or less. See my LinkedIn profile for one version; my about me page here for another; even the little bits of my email signature. I’m never fully satisfied with them, however.

Teacher identity is an ever-present interest insofar as it’s difficult to concretise and continues to shift. Once you feel you’ve figured it out, it gets called into question again. In a way, I like that.

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I’ve rewritten a love letter of sorts to TESL Toronto (a teacher association committee I’m leaving after 6 years) three times from three different angles and voices. There’s much I want to say to different groups involved, but no one focus conveys my intentions vividly enough. I think it’s because no matter what words I use or perspective I take, it doesn’t capture that magnitude of its impact. It’s been a love/hate relationship with the stakeholders of TESL Toronto, mostly love for my colleagues, the membership itself, and the work I’ve been involved in. The effect of being its president and chairing TOSCON for 3 years that it has had cannot be understated–roles, or the likes of which, I’d highly recommend any teacher eventually seek in some capacity during their careers.

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