My Last Class – Reflections on the MAT@USC

My Last Class - Reflections on the MAT@USC

“Please hold while I confirm your passcode. Thank you. Your passcode is confirmed.” That’s the automated message to the virtual classroom I’ve attended every week for 6 semesters in the past two years. As I attend my last class today, I know I will miss that familiar buzz through my headphones which welcomed me to a community of learners from various continents including North America, Europe and Asia.

I started the Master of Arts in Teaching (TESOL) with the University of Southern California in May 2011. It is a wholly online course and like many others, I was skeptical of how learning could take place. But as I examined the course program, comparing it to other education-related Master programs I could take in Singapore, I was attracted to the subjects it offered, fieldwork requirements, and the convenience that comes with online learning. I could access the classroom from any computer with camera and mic and for me, that meant not having to travel to and from classes, and being able to go home for dinner, attend to my kids, and settle them down to sleep before I stepped into my study.

Master of Arts in Teaching (TESOL) at USC

The most important part of the program was that it was interactive – real time video conferencing lessons and study group sessions was something that other distance education programs did not offer. (Read more about the Adobe Connect platform that the program used.) While other programs had intensive weekend lessons, the MAT program was paced like a regular program with weekly classes. Like most distance programs, students were required to submit forum postings and term papers, but the MAT program  (as opposed to Master of Education programs) also required students to be involved in fieldwork, observing and video recording classes.

Adobe Connect Meeting Room

Adobe Connect Meeting Room

As I started virtual classes, there were technical glitches now and then but overall, the learning experience was the best I’ve experienced. Most of my schooling experience in Singapore followed what Paulo Freire calls the banking concept where the teacher deposits information into us to be remembered and regurgitated. In the MAT program, on the other hand, true to the impression many have of American education, learning depended on peer discussion and in the process, respecting and embracing the diversity of opinions and ideas. It was liberating for me and I valued and enjoyed every opportunity I had to engage in discussion with professors and classmates alike.

Apart from attending classes, pouring over readings and honing my teaching skills, I spent time with 3 or 4 classmates in study group sessions. In our cozy groups, we clarified our understanding of the readings and concepts, worked on our group presentations, and had fun bonding with one another. Study group was key in connecting me to fellow classmates on a more personal level. I have made friends with kindred spirits and while it is difficult to maintain long distance friendships, I have great hope that we will all meet one another at some point in the future.

As I complete my MAT journey in the Spring of 2013, I have already begun another journey to be a reflective educator and researcher. (Read about my Teacher Leadership Project.) To my professors and classmates, thank you for these two precious years. No goodbyes, just good memories.

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Hearing Bonny Norton: Identity, Investment, and Multilingual Literacy (in a digital world)

Hearing Bonny Norton - Identity, Investment, and Multilingual Literacy (in a digital world)

UPDATED: May 1, 2014
Watch archived video
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fapiB6zgZUQ

Identity, Investment, and Multilingual Literacy (in a digital world)

Organised by Global Conversations in Literacy Research (GCLR)

bonnynorton_webinar

It was a rare opportunity to encounter Dr. Bonny Norton from the comfort and convenience of my study, while I was in Singapore, and she in Vancouver. Thanks to the web seminar organised by Global Conversations in Literacy Research (GCLR), I had the privilege to listen first hand to the pioneer of identity and language learning theory. Dr. Norton has researched and written extensively on how individuals have multiple and changing identities across time and space and how these identities influence their language learning.

I didn’t realize Dr Norton herself was an example of multiple identities. As I was hearing her speak, I couldn’t quite place her accent until she introduced herself as a scholar, a white woman in Canada, with a South African accent. The awareness and acceptance of how we have multiple roles and identities feature prominently in her writing. As she explained in the seminar, having multiple identities empowers learners, instead of restricting them to choosing one identity over the other. For Dr. Norton, that meant that she didn’t have to choose being Canadian over South African.

In the seminar, Dr. Norton focused on her work in Uganda where she and her colleagues  introduced digital literacies to teachers and students. The two technological tools they used were the camera and eGranary, literally, the internet in a box filled with millions of digital resources (e.g. wikipedia, educational websites, multimedia documents). With limited infrastructure and access to the Internet and even electricity, students and teachers seized the opportunities to use these newly discovered tools to become better learners, become more respected, and have more power over their learning.

Nonetheless, the limitation of having few cameras and a single computer in a classroom of over a hundred students continue to present obstacles to empowering each and every student. The challenge to overcome poverty and (im)possibilities continues.

Apart from sharing her work in Uganda, Dr. Norton also responded to a few questions from the audience. I asked about how we can create classroom conditions to foster greater investment among students. While much depends on the classroom context including culture and class size, Dr. Norton suggested two strategies:

#1 Students become ethnographers in their communities.

Students write in journals about their experiences in their day-to-day lives in their communities, and share with fellow classmates in the classroom. Through peer sharing, students may find that their experiences are not unique and teachers find out more about their students’ lives. The key is to create a sense of community in the classroom, making the classroom a vibrant place where the teacher helps to develop meaningful relationships among students.

#2 Students speak from positions of strength.

For quiet students who do not participate, teachers can identify their strengths in other areas such as sports or music, and structure classroom activities so their talents come to the fore. By doing so, the student’s identity shifts from being the quiet student to becoming the music virtuoso, for example. Other students begin to relate to that student in a different way and the student is able to speak from a position of strength, rather than weakness.

As Dr. Norton explained at the beginning of the seminar, both the student and community (of teacher and classmates) are responsible for the student’s learning. Thus literacy is a social practice, and the teacher is responsible for creating conditions for positive learner identity and greater investment in learning.

After hearing

After reading numerous research articles by Dr. Norton, as well as others who have based their research on her theories, the personal encounter with Dr. Norton herself  (albeit mediated by one-way video conferencing) has helped me connect the dots. The theory comes alive when the author articulates it and I look forward to many more of these web seminars which build bridges across continents and time zones.

Not just another App: 4pics1word for English Learners

Not just another app - 4pics1word for English Learners

Apart from making your waiting (or waking) time less monotonous, 4pics1word is also a great vocabulary game.

4pics1word – Four pictures with one word in common

People around me are hooked on this game – the office lady on the train, someone in the checkout line, my colleague, my boss. The addictive word game available on both iPhone and Android appears simple but forces you to think out of the box (or the four boxes for that matter) to figure out the answer. Apart from making your waiting (or waking) time less monotonous, 4pics1word, I have discovered, is also a great vocabulary game.

The basic form of the puzzle is identifying a common word that each of the four pictures (or part thereof) depict. It could be a noun, adjective or adverb, plain words most of the time, but trickier to guess as you move up the levels. The word association exercise teases your mind, making you wonder whether you’ve lost all common sense, but is also a vocabulary builder in disguise, whether you admit it or not.

For English language learners, this game teaches collocation, synonyms, antonyms, word parts, and lots of brainstorming on the go. Here are some suggestions of how to use the game in a teaching context.

#1 Just play it

Learners can be introduced to the app and they can figure out the mechanism of the puzzles on their own. More likely, however, they will grab friends (and very soon, innocent bystanders) to ask them to help them solve the puzzle. The nature of the game cultivates a competitive (or self-improvement) spirit and the desire to outwit a bunch of pictures will soon have players unconsciously devouring dozens of word associations and patterns.

#2 Break the ice

Teachers can use the game as a warm-up activity and use the puzzle as a teaching point. Some puzzles may  have word associations that are too obscure or challenging for learners so explaining the reasoning behind the answer will not only help your students learn, but will also help them to be able to play the game more successfully on their own.

#3 Plan the lesson around it

Teachers can use the game as part of the lesson itself, getting students to explain how they arrived at the puzzles, asking them to keep a journal on new words and their explanations, and perhaps even getting them to compile a list of their favorite puzzles or the hardest ones to crack. Better yet, students could create their own 4pics1word puzzles for both classmates and teacher to solve.

#4 Make it an incentive

If students are already very keen to play the game, teachers could use it as an incentive and reward individuals or groups who solve the most number of puzzles and/or are able to explain their answers. So instead of just receiving virtual old coins, students can be rewarded with something more tangible.

4pics1word is a great example of turning a popular app into a teaching tool where students take to naturally and enthusiastically. While students can easily learn on their own (consciously or subconsciously) through playing the game, bringing their attention to word meanings and clarifying their doubts will help extend and improve their vocabulary.

If you have used the game in class, or if you’re an English learner and have benefitted from the game, please share your experience in the comments.

In the meantime, if you find yourself turning into an addict – skipping meals, losing sleep and ignoring crying children – do what I did – delete the app.