Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Summer Camp (School)

This summer, for the first time in a long time, I took a summer job.  The job manifested itself at the end of teh school year in the form of teaching an English summer camp at a local university working with high school students.  Like everything in the UAE, the summer camp was divided along gender lines.  I was one of two males working at the girls' camp.  I further lucked out by being assigned as the activities teacher.  The way the camp functioned was that there were two teachers, one for activities and one for English assigned to two groups of students.  Halfway through the day, the groups would alternate which teacher they were working with.  I got a great teaching partner, and can't say enough good things about her.

This was my first intensive interaction with Emiratis.  Other than seeing Emiratis in the store or on the roads, it is rare that living in my diplomatic bubble, have occasion to interact very much with the local population.  I have to admit, going into this these covered girls were a complete mystery to me.  Had I bee assigned to the boys camp, I know that football (soccer) and cars would have gone a long way.  These covered girls though I had no idea what interested and motivated them.  It turns out that mystery cut both ways.  they didn't know quite what to make of me either, white Western male and all.  I don't think many of them had ever had a male teacher before. I was surprised by how unwordly these girls were.  Few had any idea of who Benazair Bhutto was, or even Roger Federer. I was struck by how little these girls had travelled.  Mistakenly, I thought that all Emiratis were extremely well off and well travelled.  Most of the girls had been to Saudi Arabi for a non-Eid pilgramage to Mecca called an Umrah. The thing that was most shocking was that about a third of the girls were already engaged.  One of teh girls when discussing future career plans didn't even attempt to envisage a career.  She just pinted to her ring finger and said "married."

As the activities teacher, I had no job description.  It became quite clear early on that these students need help developing oral fluency.  I started each class with a song.  Fortunately I found a great web site that helped refresh my memory for camp songs from my time at Opemikon as a camper, lifeguard and leader.  The curriculum documents provided by the University were not very useful.  From the beginning I found that I had to dig a lot deeper.  This site was a great resource, as was this one. The problem was that my classes jumped around a fair bit.  I was up the night before struggling to find activities to fill my five hours the next day.  It all was a little disjointed.  If I do this again next year, I'll try and lay these out thematically better, but such is life when you're hired the week before to fill a slot.

The "camp" (really an ESL summer school) did not make good use of the feedback from and assessments of the students.  Right away in the first day of camp, they gave the students a placement test.  These results were never shared with the teachers.  We had no way of knowing what strengths and weaknesses these students possessed. Day 4 had the students writing another assessment.  the was to be a pre and post test to show value added by the camp.  Again these results were not shared with the instructors.  At the ends of weeks 2 and 3, student surveys were given out about how well the instructors were addressing the students' needs.  Again these results were not shared with the instructors.  At the beginning of the third week , I was observed.  I have still not yet seen the write-up of that observation.  All of these feedback loops had the potential to help make my teaching and the way I related to the students better, yet none were used. I find that to be a great pity.  On the whole though, working at the summer camp was a great experience, that I hope to repeat again next year.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Improving presentations

I just finished Garr Reynold's book: Presentation Zen.  It's a short read, but it was a good reinforcement of what I believe presentations need to be about. Having read the book, it is obvious that Dean Shareski drew heavily on material from this book for his video:

PowerPoint Extreme Makeover

What were the takeaways from reading the book?  I liked the emphasis on the fact that a presentation should be about storytelling.  Facts and figures are readily available on the Internet.  Where a presentation can make a great deal of difference is when it answers the question of "So what?"  In order to answer this question, the presenter needs to be able to understand what it is exactly they are trying to say and why it is important. This requires planning.  Garr recommends that this planning take place offline, with paper and pencil.  When you move into slideware like Keynote or PowerPoint, you set up three anchors and then use the slideware to build blank slides to follow these anchors.

Some other concepts that Garr explores in the book include signal to noise ratios.  By this he means simplifying slides to their essential elements, and doing away with distracting borders, and clutter.  Although he does not state this explicitly, many of his graphs and charts, in the improved slide have a summary headline.  Instead of "Number of bikes sold 2002-2007", the caption reads "Over 5,000 bikes sold in 2007."  This relates to Dean Shareski's point that if everything has the same emphasis, it is hard to tell what is important. 

Having worked this past year to improve student presentations, one of the questions that came up was what would a scope and sequence for teaching students to do better presentations look like?  For one thing we need to start with presentations taht teh students find meaningful.  For most students especially those at an international school, a presentation on 19th century American reformers has little meaning, and they are not going to be very passionate about it.  It will be interesting to see if I can work with teachers this year on improving presentations.  I like Garr' 4 step process of brainstorming away from a computer, grouping ideas together and identifying the core, and storyboarding (off the computer initially and then in the slide sorter).

Another takeaway was the idea investigating Merlin Mann as a speaker for one of our NESA conferences.