Situation: Rob, an ESL student, had developed a reputation. During the past two terms, he tended to come to his classes late every day and turn in assignment late or didn’t do them. The quality of his work was so poor that he failed his Level 3 Writing course twice and was about to start his third time in it. It was the beginning of a new term, and as a program coordinator, I was asked for advice by Rob’s new Writing teacher about how to work with him.
In their book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, Chip and Dan Heath discussed an interesting approach that could help teachers redirect their ESL students like Rob. The approach is called Solutions-Focused Therapy (SFT).
I decided to try this approach with Rob when I met with him after his class. In SFT, there is an assumption that there is an exception to every problem. In Rob’s case, we assume that there was an exception to his coming to class late and doing poor work. The exception would be a class in which he had come on time and performed well. Once we can identify that class (the exception to the present problem pattern), we can analyze it like a game film of a sporting event. We can replay it to see where things were working well. What was happening? How did he behave? How did he feel?
In my meeting with Rob, we had a conversation something like this:
Me: Tell me about a class that you’ve had when you usually came on time. Rob: I always went to Ms. Sandy’s class on time. Me: What do you think was different about Ms. Sandy’s class? Rob: She’s nice. Me (Trying to get more specifics.):What did she do that was nice? Rob: She always said hi to me when I came to class. Other teachers kind of ignored me when I arrived. Me: That is nice. Did she do anything else that you liked? Rob: After she told us our assignments, she often came to my desk and asked me if I understood it and if I needed any help. Me: Did you tell her if you were confused? Rob: Yes. And sometimes she gave me a different assignment to help me. I liked that. Me: What did you do differently in her class from your other classes recently? Rob: I always came to class on time. And I think I understood the assignments better and did them. Me: How did you do in her class? Rob: I think I did well. I passed it. Me: Do you think that you could do the same thing that you did in Ms. Sandy’s class in your Level 3 class this term? Rob: I think maybe I can come on time. And I can ask for help if I don’t understand.
(This posting includes a handout which you are welcome to use with your students.)
These days when I go for a run with my mask on, I find myself falling out of a habit that I had had pre-pandemic: smiling at other runners and walkers on the trails. With the mask covering my mouth, a smile seemed silly.
However, neuroscience researchers say–No, it’s not silly. In fact, a smile, even if it is unseen, can have a positive effect on our emotions and on those people whom we are smiling at.
As our campuses slowly open up to more face-to-face contact with colleagues, students and others we come across while still wearing masks, we’ll have opportunities to increase a feeling of connectedness and well-being with just a little effort behind our masks.
I could see from my roster for the upcoming term that the infamous Eddie would soon be attending my Advanced ESL Writing class. Eddie was slowly making his way through our academic ESL program and was well-known for his sense of humor and for continually arriving late to class. Having heard from his previous teachers about the unsuccessful strategies they had tried to use to get him to come on time, I decided to try a different approach.
Coincidentally, around this time, I was preparing to make a proposal to our program director and instructors and was trying to decide how best to present it. To get our Writing Course students to read more, I decide to recommend that we assign them to read for an hour a week and write a brief reading journal. And in order to not add more work for the teachers, I was hoping we could hire a person or two be a “Reading Journal Reader” who would read and write comments on the journals. (For more details about using a “Reading Journal Reader,” see One of Best Uses of an ESL Program’s Funds—And a Giant Help to Teachers. )
Fortunately, I had recently listened to Psychologist Adam Grant’s podcast “Worklife” in which he tells about a skill we can use when we’re trying to initiate a request. It’s counter-intuitive, but I’ve found, it’s quite effective.
One day, a colleague, Sarah, who was relatively new to the ESL teaching field, told me about two grammar questions that one of her students had presented to her. (*If you are curious, you can see the questions and my explanation at the end of this posting.) She said that after class, she had spent quite a bit of time searching for answers on the internet but to no avail. Finally, she decided to ask me.
It turned out to be a fun interaction and a kind of puzzle for me to solve. On my drive home after classes that day, I realized that I was feeling great, but I didn’t think that there was any specific reason for it. A while later, I happened to come across some research that perhaps explained my exuberant emotion. And it had nothing to do with it being a Friday.