The Six-Week Personal Essay Challenge: Week One - Free-Writing

Usually, Matt writes our blog posts. Today, you’ll hear from Nhung.

Dear Reader,

Once upon a time, I started an essay with the intention of applying to grad school. These kinds of personal essays have a way of grabbing me by the throat and breathing down my neck: Who do you think you are? You think you’ll be able to condense your story into 500 words and convince someone to let you into their grad program? And grant you a scholarship? Are you out of your mind?

It won’t surprise you to learn, then, that the essay I started all those months ago still lies dormant on my Google Drive. Until now…

Over the next six weeks, this essay is getting written. Matt will be my coach from start to finish, (we’re hoping this doesn’t wreck our marriage) and I will write my application essay to a graduate program in education.

The focus here will be on presenting clear ideas. (We’ll have another challenge soon, in which Matt will coach me through my frequent grammatical errors and word choice mistakes.)

The Challenge: I will write a personal essay in response to this question: “Why do you hope to attend a graduate program in Learning, Design and Technology at an American school of education?

The Rules: Each week, I will produce a version of my personal essay, and Matt will provide comments. We will go through this process for six weeks, at which point I will have a completed essay. (Then, I’ll decide whether to submit my application. The point of the Personal Essay Challenge isn’t to apply - it’s to finish an application essay that I can feel proud of.)

The Format: We will post my drafts and Matt’s comments each week until the essay is finished. You’ll see everything that we say to each other - every thought, concern, and edit.

Week One: Free-Writing Can Help You Land on Ideas You Care About

Matt suggested that I start by doing some free-writing. The idea is to pick a time period - say, 15 minutes - and just write down whatever comes to mind. There’s no editing, erasing, or worrying about punctuation; instead, you let your pen (or keyboard) record whatever your mind or heart wants to say.

These are my free-writing pieces written from July 2016 to February 2017. This challenge allows me to dust off these fragments. Scroll down for Matt’s feedback.

I’ve probably worked with 500 students now and I guess the moments of connection occur when I talk about their future travels and life’s possible trajectories. It’s a good reminder of how we share the same dream, that is to see more and do more and while doing that, work on understanding ourselves a little better.

My love for teaching also derives from my love for learning the English language. I majored in English in highschool and it’s quite fun to practice something and get better at it everyday. Just like a marathon, you complete the race by putting one foot in front of the other. Yes, there are certain strategies in learning that “helped” me compete in different contests, but what is important is that whatever I learned stays with me, and that the love of learning a language still stays.

After a while though, it’s not enough anymore to love a language, be good at it and inspire students to do the same. Working with students challenges me everyday in figuring out what makes it stick. What makes it stick for some students does not mean it will stick for other students. It’s like going off on a tangent about something for some students but to the core for some others. We talk a lot, as teachers, about diversification, and other stuffs to cater to the needs of different students in our classroom. How do we do it? With limited number of time in class and with certain variety in student body and a fixed curriculum at that.

This question got asked a lot at [the company I used to work with, let's call it NPE (Nhung's Previous Employer)]. How do make learning adaptive for each students? I am a part of the movement at this initiative. And my project under this umbrella comes in the form of a blended learning classroom. Right now the approach is to encourage self-study through a series of videos I have made about the joy and the discomfort of self-study.

The thing about my classrooms both in Vietnam and here is that there is a certain glass ceiling incurred, I would risk saying, by my own cultural background. It feels like I and students, both Thai and Vietnamese, enter a certain dance with each other. The dance is that of the teacher as a sage, not inviting disagreement, but distilling wisdom top down. Students better follow my advice or they will risk disobedience, a misbehavior in our shared culture.

It’s quite different from my husband’s class, whose class works to elicit students’ what is the word for where they stand and then build up from there. In my classroom, I ask for reverence. In his, he asks for sharing. In mine, obedience, control, and impressionability. In his, building up from what you already know, and you already know a lot. The difference between is probably  healthy, it reflects our teaching styles as disparate and us as disparate individuals with our unique dynamics with our students. And students probably benefits from this diversity.

However, sometimes I am gripped with certain questions: Am I doing enough for to empower my students? Am I acquitting them of their belief in their own ability to improve by recognizing their habits of thoughts rather than imposing some other people’s supposedly more efficient habits of thoughts? Am I responding to fear more than responding to a deeper, much more needed sense of hope from within? That’s important to me. Because of my specific background, growing up and going to schools that imposed a sense that yes, your parents know better than you do, yes, your teachers and your government know better than you do. And it feels oppressive now. It has cost me emotionally. Being in Australia and albeit paying a lot for the system to get a degree, I was always afraid of the “local” students. I felt like an impostor, that “they know better than I do.” Despite evidences on the contrary, I happily granted “local”, white students a sense of authority that they haven’t earned, that I think for myself I need to repeatedly prove to myself that I am enough. And who knows what else, financially or professionally, this veneration for the person in power has cost me over the years.

It feels like what I am doing here at NPE is to enhance the way students self-study at home. I don’t know whether I see technology as part of that really. I don’t know. But there is so much about the English language that is about self-study. And how do we assist that so that what the students are motivated to do at home will translate into higher performance in class? Somehow, these activities lose a bit of meaning. It’s a bit lacklustred. How do we fix this? Article club? Is it something to be fixed even?

I have come back to these questions for a long time and it still bugs me because I don’t know where to start. I feel like a bit intruding with all this tech-wish! I feel shy, anxious, reluctant. I feel like I’m imposing. It feels like I haven’t justified the need for it. It being one more project students have to do under the name of self-study.  But maybe it’s about the need to find out what motivates my students.

NPE’s partner said: We will move half of our classroom contents using the Flipped classroom. Instructors will only need to be there for an hour, for the first hour students will either watch the pre-recorded content at home using their laptop or borrowing the school’s desktop should the student not have internet access.

My heart sank. A lot has been said about the merits of technology in education (“the Internet is their mother tongue, after all!”). And it’s convenient for schools and educational companies developing educational products to cut cost based on this merit, too. Yet, there seems to be a gap between the promise technology-aided classrooms seem to make and the reality of students.

Yet checking into students’ reality requires that we are so very specific about what makes each tick. My students already have found out channels to dig deeper into their fields of interest, whether into super advanced college lecture sites for more physics lectures or applications to learn more vocabulary. Here I can sense my fear of imposing on them ‘yet another lecture’ to cut into their pastimes again. And then, I have a fear, as a curriculum developer, to develop audio-visual materials against what is already out there on Youtube. How do I motivate my students to watch my powerpoint and screenomatic vid where they can watch someone else with a budget and expertise to produce much more exciting stuffs.

Re-reading my free-writing the past few days, I want to focus on how about this as the main theme of my personal essay: How can technology aid in students’ motivation to get better at a language?

Matt’s Comments

Great, sweetheart! Next steps: read through your free-write and underline any phrases or sentences that jump out. What surprises you? What feels important? Are there any questions that you now find yourself asking?

Next, take these underlined phrases and paste them at the top of a new document. Use them as the starting point for a second free-write.