prairie wetland

Image courtesy of USFWSmidwest

It’s amazing what I can learn on my drive to work. This semester, I am working on two campuses which are about a thirty-minute drive from each other. During my daily commute, I listen to CBC Radio and I am always surprised how interesting some of these topics are. The other day they were interviewing a professor from the University of Saskatchewan regarding the flooding that was occurring in central Canada. He mentioned a study they had undertaken regarding the draining of prairie wetlands for farming and the effect this has had on spring and summer flooding. This study shows that this natural prairie watershed system was instrumental in dramatically reducing the flooding downstream. By allowing farmers to drain these small and seemingly insignificant ponds and marshes to provide more space for growing crops, water had no natural barrier and would eventually accumulate and overflow the natural banks, flooding farmland and municipalities downstream.

This got me thinking about teaching and how we are much like those individual farmers working on our small plots of land. Our actions, no matter how well intentioned, have an affect on our students and can cause problems further ‘downstream’. By now I am sure you are used to getting students who are fixated on marks, grades, and levels. They desperately want to know if they are ‘good enough’ to move on, or if they are doing well enough for themselves, their parents, or anyone else they are trying to live up to or are competing against. In reality, language education is so much more complicated than what the traditional educational system can contain. Language is not something to be obtained like a product or a set of things to know, it is a complex process that is ever evolving, changing. I was reading an article yesterday shared by Li-Shih Huang that discusses the language students use in digital writing. Five years ago, that language would have looked and sounded quite different than it does today, and I suspect will be again in about five years time. To nail that down and to say, “You’ve got it” is to do a disservice to our students. Yes, there are things that will remain static for much longer, but with the advent of the internet and English being used by more L2 than L1 speakers, things are probably going to change even more.

Levels, badges, marks, degrees, and other forms of designation that you have ‘completed’ something has always bothered me, even as a kid. I never strove for top marks, much to the chagrin of my parents (although, it was mostly due to the fact I didn’t in put my best effort in school). Even now when students come up to ask me how they are ‘doing’ in class, I tell them what I feel, only to be asked what their mark is. Yes, there is often a correlation, but even with the best designed marking system, there are those who will find ‘loopholes’ and will manage to pull of a high mark without being the ‘best’ in the class. There is also the problem with inheriting students who moved up to your level who never should have been, only to find them frustrated and struggling to hang on while the rest of the class passes them by. I feel sorry for them. I feel the education system is failing them, instead they end up with the failing grade.

Then there is the system of language education we employ in our classrooms. Often it is a one-size-fits-all type of system where each student comes to us with varying needs, personalities, interests, and pressures. Notice I didn’t say anything about ‘learning styles’. I will leave that one well alone, although I would suggest reading this post from Russ Mayne on pseudo-science in ELT. When we teach people, there are always going to be differences. Some learn quickly, some take time. Some are quieter and more reflective than those who openly speak their minds. Some try to position themselves to be better than the rest of the class so the teacher will like them and give them a better mark (this mostly backfires and the student is often seen as annoying and disruptive). Some enjoy science, others dance. Some want to please their parents, others want to be left alone. It doesn’t matter what it is, the class is always going to be different and it could just be because it’s Monday!

I am not trying to advocate that we shouldn’t come to class as prepared as possible to help our students grow in their language ability, but that preparation may look different than what we are used to. By preparing ourselves to help students meet certain established objectives (which should be in consultation with the students), we can adapt and change to whatever comes our way. If it falls outside of what has been agreed upon, we may or may not choose to go that way, but if it falls within the bounds we have set, we should be ready to ‘go with the flow’. In order to do that, we need to remain students ourselves, constantly adding to our understanding of language education and deeper issues such as cognition and motivation.

Well, where does that leave us? I would suggest reading through my post on growing as a professional and start implementing at least some of those things into your regular routine. Also. evaluate what you teach and think about even the smallest things you do and if they are really helping the students grow. I did a guest post recently for Garnet Education on this topic which you can find here .

The steps we take (or don’t take) now will have an affect on what happens to your students for some time to come. Some will become discouraged and give up; others will push on and be successful. Why did I use that worksheet when I could have had them working on producing something themselves? Why did I choose to continue using this reading exercise when my students don’t appear to be interested in the subject matter? What are my students really thinking and feeling about their language learning progress? Questions, so many questions that need to be asked and answered.

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