Saturday, December 13, 2014

Notes from the Mayul School, 2014

Part of the reason for my temporarily silence within the ELT community on Twitter and on the blogs was due to a temporary return to paper-and-pen notebook reporting during my return to Tibet (you can find a description of my first trip here). What follows is a summary of my experience, as I am just beginning to sort through books of notes and organize my thoughts. I have so many ideas about what this signifies, both for the Mayul school as well as larger implications for the application of this model in different contexts.

Having traveled to Golok once before (I was the English teacher at the Mayul school in the summer of 2011), I felt much more confident traveling there for the second time knowing what to expect. That being said, the goals of this visit were completely different. Rather than teaching students in the school, I would be setting up a computer lab the school, as well as installing and implementing a program using language learning software. Because so much of the project will depend on situations and outcomes once we are on the ground in Golok, there was not too much I could do to prepare beforehand. I focused for the most part on familiarizing myself as much as possible with the computers and with the Mythware program

As I only had a total of three weeks including travel, time was limited. We planned to order the software and computers in plenty of time for delivery in China, which I would then pick up and bring to Golok with me. I would set up the computers in a newly designated computer lab at the school, and install Mythware on each student computer, as well as two teacher computers. I would then train both teachers and students in how to use the program.

Of course, things in Golok move at a different pace than they do in the West, and nothing turned out exactly the way we expected it to. Language and cultural differences meant that each task involved extra consideration and often challenges.
The computers arrived later than we expected, and once they arrived it turned out that all of the instructions and content on the computers was in Chinese. Additionally, there were a lot of concerns about security and proper usage that needed to be addressed before we could move forward.

When the computers arrived in Golok, I immediately got to work setting them up. Once I charged and plugged in the first one, I discovered that not only were the instructions and packaging in Chinese, but the computer itself. All text, icons, and content were in Chinese characters. I don’t speak Chinese, and unfortunately no one at the school was familiar enough with written Chinese to translate the technical language on the Intel computers.
Having a degree of familiarity with basic Windows computer interface was hugely beneficial, as I was able to guess and predict with some certainty which buttons should be clicked and options should be selected, and after about 5 hours of troubleshooting I was able to log in and set up the first computer. Two days later, all 40 computers were set up with usernames and passwords, and were set up and ready to go.

We worked for some time leading up to the trip, considering and discussing different possibilities to maximize the effectiveness of computers for language learning at the Mayul school. We had decided on Mythware, which had been designed specifically for the Intel computers we would be using, and came highly recommended for use in similar contexts.
Mythware came highly recommended and proved to be perfect for use in a setting in which technology of this kind was being introduced to most of the users for the first time. Additionally, Mythware proved to be a valuable tool for classroom management, one that will be useful to instructors looking to regulate or manage use among a large group of students. The software has a very simple and easy-to-use interface. Support for the software included tons of user manuals and online instructional videos. For all of these reasons, Mythware seemed to be an excellent choice for use at the Mayul school. Use and implementation, however, do require and assume a certain degree of experience with computers, which not all teachers, and certainly not all students, had.
During my three weeks at the Mayul school I was able to install Mythware on all 40 computers, set up usernames and passwords, and link the student and teacher computers to work together cohesively. I downloaded all user guides and instructional videos, and left detailed and translated instructions with the two teachers who received the most training in use and implementation of the software.

In addition to our primary goals of setting up the computers and installing the software, several other issues came up once I was in Golok that demonstrated the need for additional tasks to support the project.
Once I saw just how little most of the teachers knew about computers, it became clear that additional language training would be needed to support their learning. For this reason, we developed several resources with essential vocabulary, translated in both English and Tibetan, to support both teachers and students in basic tasks when learning how to use the computers. We did the same thing with a user guide and instructions for these essential tasks, both using the computers and the software. We also compiled a list of useful websites that we thought would be useful to those learning and working with computers for the first time.
An additional concern was with security and appropriate use of the computers. Bringing technology, and especially internet access, to a place where there previously was none bring a host of other issues, and we wanted to make sure that appropriate and educational use was not only promoted but enforced. To do this, I worked closely with the teachers and administration at the school to compile a list of rules and guidelines to support appropriate computer lab use. We made copies of the computer lab “Code of Conduct” that came out of those discussions, and made it clearly visible at all computer desks in the lab. Additionally, we went over these guidelines with all teachers, encouraging them to do the same with students.

Despite all of the challenges that came up during the project, I was incredibly proud to have accomplished those three primary goals: the setup of the computers, the installation of the software, and the development of guidelines for their most effective use.  Having set up all necessary accounts for computer and Mythware use, and trained the primary teachers to the best of my ability gave me confidence that we had made an excellent start in the development of this program. 

Friday, December 12, 2014

Thank you for the discussion

Yesterday I stayed late at work. Classes were finished, students and teachers had gone home. I sat up front at the reception desk to keep an eye on things while I wrapped up a couple of end-of-day tasks. 

One of our students came in, he was waiting for a friend of his. He went to sit down on a bench in the reception area, and we made some small talk, until we reached that moment in the conversation when the pleasantries had come and gone. There is always that turning point, when you can smile sheepishly and turn back to whatever you were doing, making the obvious indication that the conversation was just small talk and nothing more, or you can continue, not knowing where it will go. Even though it was late and just about time to lock up, I leaned back in my chair and blew right past that tedious moment. 

I asked the student about his upcoming transfer to another language school, and we talked about what he hoped to gain there. From there we discussed a certain skill area which is especially challenging for students from his language background, and I opened up a website on a topic that I thought would be useful and interesting for him. He told me how much he was looking forward to going home for the holidays, and told me about his siblings and their experience learning English. He expressed shock and interest when I told him about my experience as an only child, and we agreed happily that it is just as important to choose the family you surround yourself with, rather than to be born into it. He told me that even though he was transferring, he considered our school to be home, and us to be part of that family. 

Shortly, his friend arrived and as he stood to leave he turned back to say "Ava, thank you for the discussion." I thanked him in return, and we said our goodbyes. I drove home with a happy heart.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Notes from the Mayul School, 2011

In honor of Throwback Thursday (#tbt), and my upcoming adventure, I wanted to share some notes that I originally wrote for the website of the Blue Valley Foundation, following a three-month stint in 2011 teaching English at the Mayul School in Gande County. More will follow soon about the reason behind the reminiscing, in this moment I am simply basking in the joyful memories of this exciting experience from a time before Twitter, before this blog, and when the joy of teaching was just beginning to blossom in my heart. 

The BeginningHaving just returned from an incredible three months teaching at the Mayul school, my heart is full of love and inspiration for this incredible institution, its students, and those who work tirelessly to keep it alive. I met Hungkar Dorje Rinpoche at a teaching event in San Jose, California, where he invited me to come and teach English at the Mayul School during the summer of 2011. Despite previous teaching and travel experience I had little idea of what these three months would hold for me, as a result my time there exceeded anything I could have imagined or dreamed of.

Arrival In GolokI arrived in Gande County in June of 2011, only a couple of days before the new school session was scheduled to begin. Over those first few days I watched students trickle into the village, returning from summer vacation spent in the countryside with their families. The students seemed joyful and excited about returning to school; seeing their smiling faces inspired me every day to match their motivation and excitement in the classroom.

Classroom and Community Following an opening assembly of students and teachers I moved into my room at the school, establishing my place in a community that, over time, would begin to feel more like a family than an educational institution. Classes began immediately, and I took on a schedule of ten classes a week taught to three different levels of students. It seemed that both teacher and students were nervous on the first day; I was anxious to see how my teachings would be received in a Tibetan classroom while my students seemed unsure of what to expect with a young American woman as their teacher. As soon as classes began, however, lessons felt natural and comfortable. I quickly found that the vast majority of my students were interested in learning and succeeding in the English language, and students responded with open hearts and minds to a new and different experience in the language classroom.

Going into this experience my primary goal was to develop student’s comfort level with the English language, ultimately mastering elementary conversation skills that they could use in the real world with other English speakers. In working toward this goal I created lesson plans that focused on basic and relevant topics that the students could relate to on a personal level and that included practice in speaking, listening, reading, and writing skills. My hope was to give the students tools with which to express themselves, and to open their minds to the many opportunities and doors which are opened with the acquisition of a new language.

A Rural Tibetan Introduction to English Language – clearing a path to greater economic self sufficiency and cultural integrity
Over the course of two and a half months we covered multiple subjects, from basic conversational introductions to grammar and vocabulary related to food, family, and daily schedules. The students responded most strongly to lessons which gave them language with which to express themselves. For example, they absolutely lit up during a lesson on the use of the verb “to be.” Every students loved learning how to say “I am happy,” or “I am tired,” or even “I am sick,” because for the first time they were able to express these feelings to me and be understood. I loved that personal side of the classroom experience, the students were learning to communicate and I was a real-life guinea pig for them to practice on. I became close with the students during this time, and it was so special to watch them blossom and gain confidence in expressing themselves using brand new language.
Students were tested in the first week of classes, periodically over the course of the session, and in a cumulative final examination. These tests allowed me to gauge student’s prior knowledge and exposure to the language, progress over time, and, most importantly, overall performance and improvement over the 2.5 month period. Some students struggled with very basic reading and writing skills, while others were a bit more advanced. However, by the time the session ended all students had one thing in common and that was vast improvement. On the final exam the majority of students were able to read and understand questions covering previous course material and respond with full sentence answers. This demonstrated a vast improvement that made me proud and spoke volumes to the hard work and dedication of these amazing students.

From The Heart 
I’d also like to speak to the tireless hard work of the teachers at the Mayul School. I was only there for a few months, and despite the richness of the experience it is not an easy place to live and teach; these other teachers do it year in and year out, demonstrating an incredible dedication to their students and the belief in the great importance of education. These teachers deserve a huge amount of recognition and support for their never-ending compassion, effort, and ongoing commitment to the school and its students. They were a true inspiration that I will never forget; I can only hope that I can be as strong and effective in the classroom and in life as these individuals are.
Following final exams during my last week in Tibet we hosted a graduation ceremony for the Mayul School’s very first graduating class. During this week teachers, students, friends and family came together to celebrate the huge accomplishment of these students, a group that I had the pleasure of teaching. Formal schooling in this setting is not a traditional part of Tibetan culture, so this school and its students are truly paving the way for the development of education in this region, especially for those who have previously not had access to it. Watching these students being awarded diplomas in recognition of their monumental accomplishment as their friends, family, teachers and peers cheered them on was a truly magical moment.

Saying goodbye the day I left the Mayul School was sad; despite the language barrier I formed many incredible and meaningful relationships during my time teaching, so it was hard to leave not knowing when I would return and see these people again. However, of the many gifts of this experience my wonderful memories and an inspired, open heart are the ones for which I will be forever grateful. I hold the students and teachers of the Mayul School in the highest regard in my mind and in my heart and can only hope to return soon to continue supporting the school, its English program, and my new friends.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Observations and Takeaways from the 2014 LA Regional CATESOL Conference

As I get more and more excited about the upcoming TESOL14 International Conference, I realized I had yet to share and reflect on my most recent conference experience. The experience of presenting was pretty spectacular, and one I will save for another post. Here I would like to share a few things I learned as an attendee, and hopefully gain some insight which may allow me to have an even deeper and more useful experience at the next conference.
I thought that the conference was planned, organized, and executed impeccably. From check-in to plenary speaker and throughout the day, everything went smoothly and was easy to find. The committee did an excellent job.
I also really appreciated the variety of presentations. Though I was not able to attend as many sessions as I would have liked to,  due to a later arrival and a presentation of my own, I was really impressed by the range of topics that were covered. Presenters ranged from students to local teachers to textbook writers, though all demonstrated the same passion that characterizes the conference-attending crowd.
Last but certainly not least, I was pretty surprised to see the relatively low level of technological engagement at the conference. Though several presenters broached the topic of technology in the classroom in one way or another, there were very few people who appeared to actually be making use of technology in the conference setting. A couple of other people tweeted throughout the day, but for the most part the #CATESOLLA hashtag was eerily silent. And though the participants in the lunchtime technology rap session seemed to have an honest interest in integrating technology in the classroom, the discussion died around a discussion of “cool websites” to use and did not go much further. It definitely made me feel grateful for my PLN and all of the opportunities in online professional development I have found. I hope that more people will take advantage of these resources in the future!
All in all, it was a wonderful experience. The day was sunny and beautiful, the sessions were interesting, and the air was full of the kind of fired-up energy that I love about ELT conferences.

Takeaways for the next conference:
1. Take a page out of the conference committee’s book and get organized. Stay on top of the schedule, know what is happening where, and squeeze in as much as possible.
2. Cover all the bases. Though it might be tempting to only go to sessions which directly relate to your specific field, try to spread it out and participate in a variety of sessions and workshops.
3. Use all of the resources available to you, especially tech! Conference apps, blogs, and social media will all allow you have a more connected and effective conference experience, so don’t hold back.

A week from today I will be in Portland. Can’t wait for #TESOL14!

Friday, February 7, 2014

My second conference proposal

My second conference proposal has been accepted! I will be presenting at the LA Regional CATESOL Conference on March 8, 2014. My proposal was inspired by an ongoing project we have been working on at our center, in which we have reconstructed our self-study program in order to empower students in self-directed learning. I am pretty fired up about it, and looking forward to writing about and sharing our experience. You can find my proposal below, and I will continue to update here leading up to the conference. I hope to see you at the LA Regional CATESOL Conference!

In Support of Self-Directed Student Learning

Program Abstract 
Our greatest goal as educators should be to inspire, empower, and support students in self-directed learning.  This session  will present a model for the development of a self-study environment in Intensive English Programs, and provide participants with the tools they need to implement a similar approach with their students.

Presentation Outline/Summary
Our greatest goal as educators should be to inspire, empower, and support students in self-directed learning. The effectiveness of the traditional teacher-led classroom has been disputed at length, however most institutions continue to recreate learning environments centered around this outdated model. As long as students  and teachers are placed in these traditional classroom environments, they will continue to perpetuate the traditional dynamic; as long as  teachers lead the classroom and control learning outcomes, students will be unable to direct and take responsibility for their own language learning. Educators must create new and dynamic educational spaces which support and empower students in self-directed language learning in order to enhance the experience of their students and maximize language learning potential. This session will present a model for the development of a self-study environment in Intensive English Programs, and provide participants with the tools they need to implement a similar approach with their students.