Nicholas Walker is a fellow Canadian who has successfully used his experience as an ESL teacher to write books and design and develop a website to help students improve their writing. Find out how Nicholas reduced his marking time significantly by developing a website called the Virtual Writing Tutor.
Could you start off by telling us where you teach?
I teach English as a Second Language at Ahuntsic College in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. It is the largest publically funded French language CEGEP in Montreal. We have a student population of about 10, 000 students in a range of pre-university and vocational programs.
Could explain a little about the CEGEP system for our readers?
Sure. Quebec does things a little differently from the other provinces in Canada. Students graduate high school at the end of grade eleven here. After that, they have a choice of going to either an English or French junior college, called CEGEPs. Most are publically funded and offer a range of two-year pre-university programs that comprise grade 12 and grade 13, or three-year vocational programs that provide certification in a variety of fields. In either option, students must take two 15-week English Second Language courses at one of four levels. Our courses are competency-based, meaning that to pass students must be able to perform a complex task set by the teacher by the end of the course. Teachers in our department are largely free to design the tasks ourselves.
The first course is a general four-skill course at either the false-beginner, low-intermediate, high-intermediate, or advanced level. Students are placed in each of the four levels based on their results on an online placement test given before classes begin and then an interview with a writing sample done on the first day of classes.
The second course—also a four-skill course—picks up where the last course left off but trains students to use English linked to their field of study. As you can imagine, having over 80 programs at our college makes this field-related requirement a considerable challenge to teachers in our department, especially since each class can have students from up to a dozen different programs.
How long have you been teaching?
I have been teaching ESL since I was 18, when I tutored a Japanese exchange student twice a week, but I strayed into other things for a while. I really started teaching English full-time ten years later in 1997, when my twin brother Simon called me from South Korea to offer me a job teaching at Han Mi Foreign Language Institute in Taejon. I had just graduated with a B.A. in English Literature, and I was barely scraping by painting apartments. At the time, I was keen on Chinese poetry (in translation) and thought that Korea would satisfy my curiosity about all things Asian. My parents loaned me enough for the airfare, and I moved to Korea. I hated it at first—so smoggy and congested with little resemblance to the Chinese landscape paintings I had admired with a bent little old man crouched over a fishing pole with the pine trees and misty mountains towering above. But I enjoyed classroom teaching once I got the hang of it. I eventually discovered the idyllic scenes I had craved, but by then I was hooked on city living and teaching EFL.
I taught in Taejon for two years, travelled (literally) around the world, settled in British Columbia, went broke, moved back to Montreal, sold insurance, got a TESL Certificate from Concordia University, got married, moved back to Korea, taught another three years in Kwangju and Chunchon, and then returned again to Montreal to do a Master’s in Applied Linguistics, with a thesis in focused on Computer Assisted Language Learning and Healthcare communication.
In 2008, while I was still working on my thesis, I started teaching part-time at Ahuntsic College. After eight years of teaching night courses and partial day-time teaching loads, this September I was granted tenure. It took 18 years to get to this point, but I am happy I stuck it out. I love teaching ESL to college students.
Can you describe a typical teaching day?
My classes are pretty full, so in order for me to stay under the maximum threshold for full-time teachers, the department could only give me four classes this semester, instead of the usual five. Mondays and Fridays are what we call non-teaching days, on which I can stay home and grade or prepare or work on department and personal projects. On Tuesdays, I start at 8 a.m. and teach a 3-hour low-intermediate course with two hours in the classroom and one hour in a computer lab. I get an hour break, and then I teach a field-related false beginner group for three hours, again two hours in the classroom and one hour in the lab. On Wednesdays and Thursdays, I teach the same false-beginner course to two other groups. I teach twelve hours a week, and offer four office hours for students who might want to drop by. The rest of my time is spent preparing lessons and providing corrective feedback.
My colleagues sometimes complain about how much correction work they have to do. I used to, but now I don’t. I do things a little differently than they do. In the past, I used to hunch over a pile of tests and writing assignments developing a correction hump and a foul mood. Now, I have my students do reading, listening and grammar test on my Moodle website www.Labodanglais.com. I also get them to submit 100-300 words a week on www.Labodanglais.com, but rather than printing them out and marking them up with a red pen, I ask them to use my www.VirtualWritingTutor.com website to check their texts for errors, and I respond with a simple rubric indicating whether they have eliminated their errors and used that week’s target structure correctly or not.
While my colleagues are circling and correcting students’ errors by hand, I look at my students’ submitted texts to see which errors the Virtual Writing Tutor has not caught, and then I write new error detection rules for the Virtual Writing Tutor. There are two advantages to my method:
With traditional red-pen correction, it takes about 10 minutes per student. Times that by 150 student essays and that is about 25 hours. Teacher can’t sustain that amount of correction every week, so they take two weeks to return essays and only assign two or three essays per semester. In many cases, students ignore the corrections, look straight at the grade and toss the paper aside. For those students, all of that correction time was wasted. There are ways to get students to attend to corrections, like offering additional points for final drafts, but that adds even more time to teachers’ correction load, a negative incentive to teachers who want students to get more writing practice.
What I do, instead, is I devote a minimum of 10 hours each week to writing new error detection rules for the Virtual Writing Tutor. Since the Virtual Writing Tutor never forgets an error detection rule, each week, the system is able to catch more and more common errors in my students’ writing. My approach snowballs.
The second advantage is that my students are hopefully familiar enough with www.VirtualWritingTutor.com by the end of my course that when it comes time in the future to write in English, they will have a free spelling and grammar checker that they can turn to for help with their writing. In contrast, my colleagues’ students will not be able to email their English writing to the teacher at the desk next to me to correct. He is simply too busy with his current correction load to offer the same correction service to all of his past students.
What do you do in your spare time to relax?
My wife and I have a ten-year-old and a four-year-old. All of our free time is given to them. After they have gone to bed, I watch a bit of Netflix and then listen to The History of English Podcast or CBC’s Quirks and Quarks.
What are your plans for the Virtual Writing Tutor?
Currently, I am working with a very talented programmer in Kolkota, India. He is working on an extensive overhaul of the Virtual Writing Tutor, using the Backbone.js framework. The goal is to make it more beautiful and more powerful than ever. I am hoping to launch Phase One by Christmas.
We have some exciting new tools in the works. I’ll quickly run through them so your readers get an advanced peek at what’s coming. In addition to the contextual spelling checker and grammar checker buttons, the system will have additional buttons for the following cool tools:
As usual, the website will remain free to use.
All of these new features sound expensive to develop. Will the new version rely on advertisements to pay for these upgrades?
No. There is very little money to be made in running ads on a website like mine. I started showing ads in the spring for Grammarly, a competing grammar checker service. I get $0.20 each time someone clicks the ad, and I have made less than $10 in 6 months. If you notice, I also invite users to try a different grammar checker with a link to an embedded version of the Grammarly service. When users see the feedback generated by that grammar checker they are invited to buy a subscription. It pays $20 per sale. I make about $50 a month from those referrals. That may sound good to some, but considering I pay nearly $4000 a year to maintain the server that hosts www.Labodanglais.com and www.VirtualWritingTutor.com, the extra $600 year of income is not very much.
I intend on displaying a few ads for some hand-picked online courses and other products that will truly help learners develop their English skills. I am a teacher, and my mission is to help people learn English. So, if you know teacherpreneurs who would like to run a tasteful affiliate advertisements on the Virtual Writing Tutor, ask them to contact me at [email protected]
Eventually, we will offer an ad-free version with extra perks for users who want to subscribe for a couple of dollars each month, but I don’t expect to make much money from that. The www.VirtualWritingTutor.com is really a free extension to my textbooks. If it generates interest in my textbooks, I’ll be happy. If it helps to pay its own way with a few affiliate sales and pro-version subscriptions, I’ll be happy also.
Could you talk a little about your books?
I would be delighted to. I currently sell three college level textbooks: Actively Engaged at College, Actively Engaged on the Job, and Actively Engaged Online. They target the first course at the low-intermediate level, the field-related false-beginner course and the field-related low-intermediate course, respectively.
I got into publishing my own books because of my frustration with the ESL course books that were on offer at the time by the big publishers here in Quebec. What frustrated me most was that there was a heavy focus on teaching grammar, but the listening, reading, writing and speaking tasks had little or nothing to do with grammar lessons. Any connection between the skills and the grammar was superficial at best. Instead, the listenings and readings were all news-type articles on a range of human interest or current affairs issues. I found them to be unstructured rambling pieces full of journalese. More troubling was that they did not serve as a model for any of the writing tasks. I got the sense that publishers believed languages are best learned by studying grammar, reading and listening to news items and then answering comprehension questions, talking about controversial topics and writing essays. That’s a terrible way to learn English, in my opinion.
The courses I ended up teaching with these textbooks lacked all cohesion and seemed like very inefficient ways to teach English. I became very disillusioned and depressed about college-level ESL. One day, while I was riding the bus home from work, I asked myself, “Why am I teaching non-fluent students how to debate and write persuasive essays?” It was a simple question. At the time, I thought the government objectives required debates and essays but they didn’t. I checked. The objectives merely called for structured, college-level tasks. This innocent question started a long process of reflection.
To begin with, Applied Linguistics teaches us that a second language is best learned through the repeated exchange of meaningful messages with a focus on target structures. Business communication research has found that middle managers in American corporations always used narratives to persuade their colleagues, not arguments. Other research shows how non-fluent learners lose integrative motivation in classrooms where the teacher over-emphasize formal registers. I have read that the least motivating topics in a conversation class have been found to be those that pushed students to take opposing points of view, making them feel cut-off and isolated from the group when they have to defend their opinions from others. However, topics involving interpersonal drama and personal growth have been found to be the most motivating.
Furthermore, specific narrative functions can elicit specific grammar structures. Asking students to describe a routine elicits adverbs of frequency and the Present Simple. Asking students to describe a bad day elicits the Simple Past and sentences with while and when. Complaints, advice, physical description could all elicit specific target structures.
The real breakthrough for me was realizing that threading them together into a fictional narrative framework in which students worked together to decide the details of a story each week with me providing just-in-time instruction would make it possible to structure a very cohesive grammar course in which all of the grammar, vocabulary, practice conversations, listenings and reading could be woven together into a satisfying whole. The solution to my problem of incoherent ESL courses, I realized, was to get students to work in groups to develop a narrative loaded with drama.
Of course, there was no textbook for that. I had to create one. I hired an illustrator, a ghost writer, and got into Moodle hosting. Four years later with lots of hard work and learning, I have three books that make teaching college-level ESL a joy. My books sell at four colleges in Quebec, and a loyal gang of teachers keep ordering them for their students. The income generated by the sale of these books has funded the development of the Virtual Writing Tutor.
Can you talk a bit about the content?
Sure. Actively Engaged Online is a little different from the other two, so I’ll describe it after. I’ll start instead by describing Actively Engaged on the Job. It is designed to facilitate thirteen weeks of instruction with two weeks of testing at the end, to make a fifteen week semester. There is a companion website preloaded with activities, tests, assignments, and PowerPoint lessons. The teacher is free to modify the PowerPoints as he or she pleases. Each lesson in the textbook comes with a card game and other speaking activities that provide highly repetitive meaningful practice with a target structures. The first three lessons get the students used to group work and a cooperative routine, but the main project in the book begins in lesson four. That’s when things get really interesting.
It is in lesson four that students get into groups and imagine a shared workplace. Each student then invents an unusual character, and each character is given a job in that imagined workplace. That’s section one of the story. For homework, each student goes home and writes the story from the perspective of their character. They then use the Virtual Writing Tutor to correct all of their errors before submitting it to www.Labodanglais.com, the companion website to the course. In class the next week, each student in the group reads his or her text to the group aloud before they get to work on the next section of the story. This pattern repeats for all seven sections of the story. In section two, the students describe their character’s physical appearance and background. In section three, each character describes his or her daily routine. In section four, each character has a dream in which he or she dreams about is or her greatest fear or desire. In section five, each character has a disastrous day in which an office rival announce a rumour of an impending lay-off. In section six, each character has a performance review interview with the boss, in which the boss asks for advice on who to fire and why. In section seven, the boss calls a general meeting in the conference room and announces who will be laid-off. In the ensuing chaos, someone is punched and someone is kissed. The final competency evaluation asks the students to recall the events of the story orally and in writing as a statement given at the police station.
Actively Engaged at College follows the same pattern but instead of characters in a shared workplace, the students invent a story about roommates living together in a shared house. Being a low-intermediate level course, the sections are longer and focus on more advanced grammar difficulties.
Actively Engaged Online follows a different pattern. Students set up their own blogs online. Instead of sections of a story, they create blogposts, video tutorials, and a hypertext narrative.
Where can teachers and students purchase your book?
You can buy copies online from http://www.bokomarupublications.com
So, please let your readers know that if anyone is interested in learning more about my textbooks, they should contact me via the Virtual Writing Tutor or BokomaruPublicatons.com. I would be very happy to send them an evaluation copy and explain how they can get the same results.
Do you have any plans for a second book or other resource?
Not yet. I am thinking about a book for beginners, but I haven’t started it yet.
What skills did you gain from classroom teaching that have allowed you to excel as a teacherpreneur?
Teaching in South Korea, working night and day to create engaging activities for my courses gave me the discipline to churn out activities here. Everything I have learned has been in reaction to a dissatisfaction with my courses. It is the itch that produces the pearl in oysters.
What advice would you give to teachers who are considering writing a book or resource?
I strongly recommend creating an account on Freelancer.com. There you can hire programmers, desktop publishing experts, illustrators, writer and researchers to help you with the tasks that you need help with. Be unreasonable with yourself. Set big goals and go for it. Beware of partnerships. If you insist on having a partner, tell yourself from the beginning that the partnership is temporary. It will remind you to put safeguards in place in case your partner tries to do less and take more than you. If the partnership works out, great. If not, you were warned.
Thank you so much Nicholas. I hope to meet you at TESL Canada in June 2017.
Interested in learning more about transitioning from a teacher to teacherpreneur but don’t know how to get started? Here are some ways:
1. Read more teacherpreneur interviews at www.teacherpreneur.ca/blog
2. Check out my Teacher to Teacherpreneur Toolkit at http://www.teacherpreneur.ca
3. If you are a TESL Ontario member, watch my free webinar at https://tutela.ca/GroupFiles?organicgroup=8594&cat=518
4. Sign up for my 4 week online course with iTDi.pro - Teacher to Teacherpreneur http://itdi.pro/itdihome/teacherpreneur.php
5. Download 10 Tips to Transition from Teacher to Teacherpreneur https://www.teacherpreneur.ca/p/10-tips-to-transition-from-teacher-to-teachepreneur
6. Connect with other teacherpreneurs by joining my LinkedIn group https://www.linkedin.com/groups/7060976
7. Set up a private coaching call with me https://www.teacherpreneur.ca/pages/book-a-coaching-session-with-me
Connect with me on social media. Teacherpreneurs must be on social media!
Who am I?
My name is Patrice Palmer, M.Ed., M.A., TESL and I reside in Canada. I have 20 years’ experience as an ESL Teacher, TESL Trainer, and Writer including 7 amazing years in Hong Kong. I have taught students from 8 to 80 years in a variety of programs such as ESP, EAP, Business English, and language programs for new immigrants in Canada. I'm now a teacherpreneur doing the things that I love such as writing courses, blogging, sharing teaching materials, instructional coaching for new teachers and coaching teacherpreneurs. Having a flexible schedule allows me to conduct short-term training around the world at any time of the year.
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