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Focus On Basics

Volume 5, Issue D ::: June 2002

Teachable Moments: Videos of Adult ESOL Classrooms

A Two-Way Model of Professional Development

by Reuel Kurzet
Have you ever attended a professional development session or read a research report and wondered if the presenter or author had ever even been in a real adult education classroom? Consistent with NCSALL's mission to build collaborative partnerships between researchers and practitioners, the English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) Lab School, based at Portland State University and working in partnership with Portland Community College, is developing and testing a two-way model of research dissemination and professional development. The goal is not only to disseminate research findings but also to create feedback mechanisms in the design of our professional development activities, so that ESOL practitioners and researchers in the field have input into the ESOL Lab School's research and professional development processes. Over time, the feedback loop should improve the quality and usefulness to practitioners of our research dissemination and professional development activities.

A Participatory Structure

We began by using a participatory model within the Lab School itself, creating teams for project management, research, and professional development. Our staff development team consists of Kathryn Harris, a research associate; Dominique Brillanceau and Sandra Banke, the practitioner research associates at the Lab School; and I am dissemination associate. We describe our dissemination efforts through the image of ripples radiating outward from a small pebble tossed into a pond. With our goals, internal structure, and direction set, the ESOL Lab School's professional development team began to formulate a professional development model by preparing a presentation for the annual conference of Oregon Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (ORTESOL) on October 26, 2001. In other words, our first "audience" for professional development was ourselves.

Using Audio-Video Technology

The Lab School's professional development activities are designed to be informed by and connected to the teaching and research of the Lab School. As part of its research, all the adult ESOL classes are audio- and videotaped. Half of the classes that are recorded have their classroom interactions categorized; half of these (25 percent of the total) are transcribed. In particular, student pair work, group work, and brief student-to-student interactions (such as in a "Find someone who...." activity) are targeted for transcription; in the future, other portions of classes will be selected for transcription, as determined by various research questions. This creates an ever-growing corpus of authentic material for research and professional development. For ORTESOL, we decided to explore how the data collected for Lab School research purposes and the technology used to collect that data also could be incorporated into a delivery strategy for professional development in ESOL. Thus, the first professional development project undertaken by and for those of us on the professional development team was to play with the audio and video technology and the collected data to understand the unique contributions to professional development that could be gained from the audio and video corpus of "real," as opposed to scripted, adult ESOL classes.

As the instructors whose classes were audio- and videotaped, our practitioner research associates lead the way. First they viewed videos of several classes that they had taught. Even that small step brought new insights about how different the classes looked when viewed on video from how they had seemed while being taught. The multiple cameras allowed close-up views of how individual students responded to an activity at a level of detail not possible when one is teaching an entire class of students in "real time."

Next, the practitioner research associates looked for a clip that would illustrate one of several broad research interest areas of the Lab School, such as the development of community among learners within the classroom. The Lab School had only been running for a month at that point; connecting research findings to professional development would have to wait. The focus returned to whether and how we could use the audio and video media and the data collected to date for worthwhile professional development.

Looking Closely at Teaching

While continuing to view classes, one of the practitioner research associates noticed a portion of a class illustrating a "teachable moment." The teacher had set up a paired language activity to practice talking about daily activities, but one student was completely off-task. He was telling his partner about getting his car towed. The teacher overheard the digression and decided to take this incident and make it into a brief mini-lesson. The video clip lasts only a little over three minutes, but shows the entire progression of events involving the digression as a "teachable moment." Coincidentally, a similar "teachable moment" occurred in the paired class, which was the other same-level class taught concurrently. This incident was about a student getting a parking ticket and was about seven minutes long. The two practitioner-researchers looked at the two clips together and realized that they provided useful case study material for an exploration of digressions as potential "teachable moments."

Classroom Practices

The Lab School will investigate adult ESOL instructional practices believed by practitioners to be effective but that have not been empirically tested. Areas of particular interest include the most effective type of curriculum, the best role for grammar instruction, the effectiveness of various grouping strategies, the most appropriate uses of technology in the classroom, and the validity and utility of various kinds of assessment activities.

Second Language Acquisition

The Lab School provides an opportunity to address the great need for longitudinal research in second language acquisition. Research areas include the relationship between first-language literacy and second-language acquisition; the role of student interaction in language development; the roles that age, experience, and learning style play in second-language acquisition; and the predictable stages of language development in learners.

ESOL Program Retention

Typical research in adult education programs involves only those adults able to persist in their studies. Missing is the study of adults who are unable to persist. The Lab School research will address the issues involved in ESOL program retention including the reasons that some students persist while others do not, aspects of the ESOL programs that promote retention, life events that influence attendance, and life events that promote second-language acquisition.

Contact Information

The Adult ESOL Lab School is based at Portland State University, in the Department of Applied Linguistics. For more information, visit http://www.labschool.pdx.edu

Adapted from "A National Labsite for Adult ESOL" by Steve Reder, Principal Investigator, and Kathy Harris, Research Associate, Portland State University, Department of Applied Linguistics.

Now the effort turned to seeing how all members of the professional development team saw the two video clips. We were preparing for our presentation at the ORTESOL Conference as we were still learning a great deal both from the audio and video media as well as from the content of the two clips selected. At the next professional development team meeting, the two practitioner research associates, the principal research associate, and I viewed the two clips together and discussed what we saw. It took us some time to learn how best to view the video segments of the classes. Eventually we realized that we needed to develop the habit of viewing the classes descriptively rather than judgmentally. The descriptive perspective was simply more effective for personal professional development purposes: not to critique the teachers but rather to understand the instructional choices they made, the strategies they employed, and how they might be similar to and different from what we ourselves might do in similar circumstances. To learn deeply from the media, we needed to avoid making judgments about what the teacher was doing and learn to look - and look again. This new way of looking at language classes became a focus for our presentation.

Next we viewed the video clips again and began to develop some questions to guide discussion of the video clips at the ORTESOL Conference. Another surprise: although all of us are very experienced ESOL teachers and/or teacher educators, we discovered that we each saw different things when viewing the video clips. Not only did we notice different elements from each other, but we also saw different things ourselves when we viewed the same video clips a second and third time. One viewer noticed how students were interacting with each other. Another focused on how the teacher framed the "teachable moment" within the larger lesson. In a second viewing, someone's attention was drawn to what students who appeared not to be listening were doing. These different perceptions lead us to the realization that the video clips were powerful tools for professional development. The diverse observations allowed us to explore a wide range of possibilities for teaching a single lesson as well as the considerations that might go into the process of deciding about what to do as a teacher at any given moment. We also realized that the discovery of the different perceptions and discussions about those different perceptions were in themselves powerful professional development experiences. Sharing different perceptions of the same video clips became another focus for our presentation.

Getting feedback from ESOL practitioners and researchers outside of the Lab School - the development of a two-way dissemination system - had been an established goal of the project since its initial planning stages. Providing for audience input and response was our third focus. We came up with some questions to elicit other ways participants thought we could use the video clips and what kinds of research questions the clips might answer. At this point, we had not only learned a great deal from the video clips ourselves, but were also ready to initiate some "ripples" out to the community of adult ESOL practitioners in the state. Our own learning unfolded in an organic, developmental manner and had thus created the agenda for our presentation.

The First Professional Development Activity

In our first public professional development activity, we showed the two brief video clips of "teachable moments" in the Lab School classes to ORTESOL conference participants, both graduate student pre-service teachers as well as in-service faculty, from newly hired to veteran. We used these clips to provide not only a case study but also what we had found to be a shared experience of the classes. We then led several discussions to address our multifaceted agenda. First, we introduced the participants to the new way of looking at ESOL classrooms, so that they could experience firsthand the power of the Lab School's audio˝video corpus of actual adult ESOL classes. Second, we helped participants begin to describe - rather than evaluate - what they saw happening in the brief clips. From there, we lead them to reflect upon and discuss both the instructional practices they saw illustrated in the clips and their own teaching practices in similar classes. Finally, as part of our goal to develop a feedback loop for the Lab School, we asked participants how they thought the media and technology of the Lab School could be used to deepen their understanding of second language acquisition and to enhance their professional development.

Learning about Teachable Moments

The participants responded to the media much as we had. They realized that the video allowed them to see a class in ways that they could not while they were engaged in teaching. Most of the participants did not report great difficulty in looking at the clips descriptively and could see the value in that perspective. Little did we know that we were to be further engaged with our own professional development. When the professional development team had viewed the two video clips of "teachable moments," we had listed various criteria that we thought teachers considered, consciously and unconsciously, in deciding whether or not a digression was valuable as a potential teachable moment. At the ORTESOL workshop, participants identified some, but not all, of the criteria we had and came up with significant criteria that the four of us had not considered. The discussion then continued in a new direction as the participants also developed a list of criteria that teachers consider while they are exploiting a teachable moment. The participants seemed to be as amazed as we had been at how much they saw in two very brief video clips. They commented on how they could not see nearly as much when they were teaching their own classes.

What we learned about 
"teachable moments"

Through our viewing of the two video clips showing "teachable moments," and especially through our rich discussion with our colleagues about those video clips, we created a list of criteria that teachers consider, consciously and unconsciously, when deciding whether to exploit a digression for a "teachable moment." Later, I consolidated the lists into a series of questions teachers ask themselves to determine the potential value and use of the digression.


How well does the topic of the digression fit with 

  • the curriculum of the program?

  • the goals of the course?

  • the interests of the students?

  • the needs of the students?

How many of the students will have need for or interest in this topic?

  • If it's only useful for a few, would this be better covered during office hours?

Does the digression lead to an opportunity to teach important information about

  • US culture?

  • Civics?

  • English?

  • Resources in the local community?

Is there anything extremely controversial about the topic of the digression?

  • Will it offend any of the students?

  • If so, is it still worth doing because of some strong link with the curriculum? 

  • Do I have enough information to cover the controversial topic(s) fully, openly, and in an unbiased manner?

Can I link this potential teachable moment to the day's/week's/term's

  • Grammar point(s)?

  • With other course content?

  • In what ways?

Future Directions

Our next planned professional development activity is to initiate a modified study circle in which a small group of adult ESOL practitioners will meet four times to explore a single topic in depth. The meetings will be set up following the model of NCSALL's study circles (see Tom Smith's article for information). In addition to reading materials independently prior to group discussion, however, the participants will view relevant video clips at the meeting and discuss them immediately afterwards, as was done at the ORTESOL workshop.

The Lab School professional development team has also begun to search for literature on the impact of the immediacy of a shared experience through video as a professional development tool. We will be experimenting to find out what kinds of professional development delivery strategies not only exploit the unique opportunities provided by the Lab School's audio and video corpus and technology but also have the capacity to provide sustained professional development experiences.

The ESOL Lab School and its professional development activities are still in their initial stages of development. The success of the fall ORTESOL workshop, as judged by the breath and depth of participants new understandings of "teachable moments," has convinced us that the Lab School's media and technology are potentially powerful professional development tools. Gradually, we will gain increased understanding of the most effective ways to use these tools to provide state-of-the-art professional development opportunities in adult ESOL.

About the Author

Reuel Kurzet is professional development associate for the ESOL Lab School at Portland State University. She also teaches adult ESOL and chairs the English as a Second Language Department at the Sylvania Campus of Portland Community College in Portland, OR.

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL