Monday, January 3, 2011

Script: Integrating chat into a writing class (NJHE, Oct. 2009)

(the following originally appeared at but was moved here in 2011. It is part of an Oct. 2009 presentation at the New Jersey Higher Education Conference, which in turn resulted from a TESOL 2009 presentation: Uncharted but breathtaking: Chat in writing class. This can be accessed here.)

Hello and welcome to the New Jersey Higher Education ESL conference; I'm going to introduce myself and tell what we do, and meanwhile if this overhead stuff works I'll see if I can show it to you; feel free to ask any questions. My name is Thomas Leverett and I'm a Lecturer at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale; Illinois by the way is the home of Obama. Most of the time I'm a high level writing teacher, which means I live in a world of citation, reference, thesis statements, topic sentences, etc. though I should also mention that our students put most of their work online also, so that any given version of an essay or research paper has a paper version: stapled, double-space, paragraphs indented, pretty; and a weblog post, with comments, their name, blockish single-space paragraphs with no indentation, linked references, etc. That was last year's TESOL presentation, by the way, but it's all on the web if you're interested; suffice it to say that you can read not only everything they do, but also everything I've ever said about it, if you really want. And that goes for this presentation too: most of what I'm saying is on the web, even this script; what few references I make, you'll find them there; help yourself to those handouts, and feel free to partake in the backchannel, if you're so inclined; I'll try to get involved up here. As I understand the backchannel, if you have or get Twitter, you can type #njhe, or come follow me (tlev) and I will make a point to follow you if I have time.

When I gave the talk at Denver I got excited as we were coming through things like Twitter and Facebook that were new, and when I was over I realized that I hadn't carefully defined them, and it's important to define them, so don't let me get past this without understanding what I'm talking about.

Historically at least, there was a difference between texting and chatting, and between chatting and Twitter, which is also known as microblogging, and which has taken the world by storm, but simultaneously raised a lot of hackles; it's now at what, a billion, slowing down in its growth maybe, but being found by a number more people. There's also Edmodo, by the way, which is like Twitter, but private, and Facebook, which is considered a "must have" on a college campus, like an e-mail id. So really all of these have "conversational writing," and I'd like to point out that there is a small but devoted following for each in terms of using them for educational purposes or for developing writing skills, or just for getting online and seeing each other and seeing what we've done. Chatting is synchronous; we expect that everyone is at the computer now and can answer you now, whereas with texting you can let a message go for a while, let it sit there, and same with Twitter. Chatting requires a full qwerty set of letters, whereas traditional texting was done by a phone with much fewer, and needed the extreme abbreviation and the symbols it's famous for as an adaptation to not having full capabilities. I don't deny that there is some convergence; texting and chatting are getting more similar; most all phones have all qwerties; more people can chat more of the time from more places, including gmail, but most importantly the whole thing is becoming more integrated into the fabric of our daily lives. I'll mention in passing that cell phones are used more for text messages than for calls these days; one thing I read recently said, of course we like the internet better, the phone is so boorish, how did we ever live with that?

The first few times I encountered chat I was amazed, and I would expect any true first-timer to feel the same way about it. You can sometimes tell when someone has a glazed look of amazement that they have never even imagined anything like chat, but today as I look across the room most of you have probably tried it, on your facebook if not somewhere else. When I made a hotel reservation for TESOL the motel opened up a chat window with me, immediately after I paid, but it turned out to be some kind of a scam, where they wanted me to get flustered and buy insurance for the room I just bought. Maybe they're counting on the fact that people feel awkward about walking away from a chat, especially knowing that you don't have the permission of the party on the other side to just close the window, and especially knowing that they are someone you have just given your credit card numbers to. First reason to teach our students chat: so they don't buy unnecessary hotel insurance, or get caught in similar scams. Seriously, I started teaching with chat about a year ago and since then have started calling it "conversational writing:" it is clearly moving into the mainstream of western culture and is the kind of thing our students as writers and empowered citizens of the new digital democracy are going to have to master. I don't have proof of this, but I don't feel like I need it. Look around. Do you think chat is going to go away?

I also have an observation about Second Life; if the world is truly moving toward 3d, so that you will someday jump into an avatar and go to a business conference as you would come here today, then what people are doing on SL is probably important pioneering. But there, where both text and voice are available, text is winning out. Why is writing the medium of choice? Lots of reasons. But it's sharper, clearer, and easier to deal with online. So it's going to win, and that's important.

So the main reason I teach conversational writing is that it is the primary medium our students will use when they graduate. It has a unique subset of skills to master which they cannot learn without trying it, and it is absolutely essential for their future. Putting aside how difficult it is, how it takes up class time; it's harder for me; it requires some new learning on my part and more time; still, I feel like I've helped them, and taught them something invaluable. My ultimate goal is that when they e-mail me to tell me they are sick, it's reasonably grammatical. But you can't have everything.

I'm going to go back to being a writing teacher here and say that I'm aware of the counter arguments, some of which come from students themselves, so I'm going to present them, a few at a time, in order to refute them; this in our argument essays we call a CAR, counter-argument and refutation, and we say that sometimes a CAR is required, sometimes you can make your whole essay into a car.

So the first one would be, why would you fire up all that technology in order to say hello how are you, here's my paper, online, when we're in the same room and you can say all that stuff face-to-face? To which I reply, and why not teach our conversation class entirely in writing, to spare us the difficulty of actually having to speak? We who learned to teach in the communicative era learned that communication was meaningless when separated from the medium or environment that it is in; therefore, people who knew lots of vocabulary but couldn't say 'fine thank you' had basically nothing, because they had no oral fluency in the conversational realm. But we had a bias toward the oral, conversational realm; and we were wrong about one thing: not all communication goes through the oral realm; speaking is not necessarily the center and the trunk of the communicating tree. To teach conversational writing we have to do conversational writing, and start with that. And, as it turns out, reading and writing is only part of the problem; the practical strategies, coming, going, saying hello, and telling what you're throwing on the table, are the biggest issues for students.

Speaking of the communicative era, I remember well making clear functional objectives for students: we often joked that if we could drop them off somewhere in the middle of Illinois, and if they found their way home they passed the lowest level. In other words basic English is functional: it allows you to get the basic things that you want and need to accomplish. So in integrating chat I concentrated on getting things done. You wrote an essay; you put it on the blog; now, find the post-URL of the blog, and bring it to the chat window, and drop it in the chat. Careful! Tell who you are, what you're doing, what you've got. Say, here's my essay. How are you today? That kind of stuff. So basically our chats have a lot of compliments for succeeding in finishing an assignment. And sometimes, directions on how to go back, open up another window, and get the post-URL instead of just the blog-URL. We sometimes have technical problems; there was a time when on Safari-Mac, keyboard copy-paste worked, but menu copy-paste didn't; now, on Firefox, the whole process is kind of murky, and the problem is that our students have come to rely on Firefox so much that they aren't used to just getting out of it and trying something else. So we teach a kind of browser fluency, and hope to keep our own browser skills updated.

I use Tapped in, an educational place made possible by a grant; they're very nice people, and when my students get lost, they show them the way. By the way here I'd like to thank TI, and also the webheads who showed me TI, and who introduced me to the idea that communities get together via chat and stop worrying about physical locations. This might be the place to mention that you have lots of choices; I'll mention Blackboard or Moodle, Facebook, Second Life, Dave's, gmail, and Meebo as a few but it really depends on whether you want two or many, and whether you want transcripts, which I do. TI has shaped what I like and what I want, but there are many ways to go with this, and I don't pretend to have the right or only one.

The technology is a big issue for everyone, first for students who feel they might be at a disadvantage if their tech skills lag behind those of their classmates. Or, who are likely to blame on technology any bad experience or inability to finish an assignment. For the teachers it's an issue because we're short of time and we need to master something before we can turn around and teach it. And, it's not easy to master. Look at me; I'm 55 and could never program the 12:00 out of a vcr; in addition, our lab has always had problems and at various times, I couldn't find a good working computer for everyone.

But for chat the crucial question is whether they have the internet, and either Safari or Firefox. And, for chat, they don't have to actually be in the room. So we start out in the same room, show each other how to get into the chat space, see what it is, and how to copy a URL, and we set up an ethic of helping each other with the technology, so that everyone gets it before a couple of days are over. I think it's important to remember, we don't test the technology or the use of it; we help each other with the medium, and test the use of English in it. I feel the same way about typing.

One more counter-argument revolves around the insidious nature of chat as a time-suck for students who should be studying more productively, but who, instead, are doing any number of more nefarious activities: do you really think we ought to encourage this? Do you think excessive chatting is bad for a student's English? Should a student be encouraged to chat more, go find people, say at Dave's ESL cafe, and chat a lot in English? Here I'll say that to the best of my knowledge research shows it doesn't hurt them, except in the pure time sense, the sense in which if they are chatting 12 hours a day they obviously aren't doing their homework, or doing it as well.

But maybe the best way to reframe the question is this: they've already found this stuff; if they liked it, they went back. In some cases, we're competing with hours and hours of alternate language, and let me mention a few: MUD-world chat (World of Warcraft), ASCII Arabic, bilingual chats, etc. As teachers we should know what these are and where our students are coming from; we should have some idea what to tell them if they ask. It's clear to me that students chat a lot and are afraid that it's hurting them; they're much more comfortable with a teacher who says absolutely not, no way, you shouldn't (as their parents have told them at home, no doubt), than one like me who says, it's just another language, it's not necessarily bad. Sure you have to be careful; there is hard prejudice against people who don't use punctuation, who use "c" and "u" and L8r, especially in the native English classrooms. On the good side, conversational writing helps your writing in the same way conversational speaking helps your formal speaking. It increases your confidence. It helps you think on your feet, so to speak. It's good for your awareness of what works and what doesn't work. It teaches you basic politeness and conversational skills.

One more thing, then I'll quit and show you what we do: and that is that we've become better friends; we know each other better. It might be because when it was all speaking, it was still quite formal, and it was always focused on writing, because it was writing class. Now, it's in writing, but it's less formal, and it's a better balance to the rest of the class, which is still all topic SN, thesis statement, support, family name of author, etc. It's always been important to me to teach about names: what to call authors in a sentence, in a reference, and in other places; I'm one teacher who doesn't like being called Mr. Tom or Leverett, and I generally correct it every time, but I'm glad they do this to me and not the next person, and, I'm generally grateful for the opportunity to straighten it out, for it's the sooner the better for this one. In general I'd rather this happen in this class than the next one, though I know that both is a distinct possibility.

We've discovered many ways that conversational writing is different from conversational speaking, because it's missing visual clues to show when we're ready to leave (looking at the watch, averting eyes)- or to show when we are addressing a comment to a single person. We adjust to that in chat; it's natural. We learn politeness which you must learn in every medium and every culture. And, if you make mistakes, better to make them with those who will forgive them, namely you, their teacher.

Finally, if the only chat, or conversational writing, that your students do is what they already do, then they really aren't prepared for a world in which they must do business, be polite, use semi-formal English, and think all at the same time. And you- you call yourself a communicative teacher, yet you don't touch the medium that they will use their English in? Maybe they've never seen semi-formal English in a chat window, or coming from a teacher; maybe they've never dropped a URL in a chat, a twitter or an edmodo. But, they should. There's always a first time.

Leverett, T. (2008a, Sept.) Chat assignment: most students blast chat (6-2008). where u at w/chat weblog.

___ (2008b, April). brb: Using chat in an esl/efl writing class. From Teaching writing in online and paper worlds, Demonstration, Writing IS, TESOL 2008, New York City.

___ (2008c, April). Digital fluency as goal and objective. From Teaching writing in online and paper worlds, Demonstration, Writing IS, TESOL 2008, New York City.

___ (2007a, Mar.). Fluency first: Fluency as a construct. From Student weblogging for fluency, skills and integration, Demonstration, Writing IS, TESOL 2007, Seattle WA.

___ (2007b, May). Dialects in a changing language. Global Study Magazine 4, 3. London. pp. 56-57. Available online at:

Rusbridger, A. (2009, Oct. 14). The Trifigura fiasco tears up the textbook. Guardian trafigura-fiasco-tears-up-textbook. Accessed 10-09.

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