Monday, July 11, 2011

Inviting Outside Speakers to Writing Courses

by Gilda Haber, PhD

Gilda Haber, PhD
Professor of Sociology, University of Maryland, College Park. Professor of English and ESOL at Montgomery College. Teaches sociology, social psychology, criminology, assists PhD foreign students with English composition and writing. Research includes human spatial position and behavior to profile individual attitudes to the group. Writes and publishes scholarly articles, creative non-fiction, fiction and memoir. Writing awards from Ferguson, Scorched Earth, and other contests.

Students in English 101, an introductory English course at MC, are required to write at least four essays: a Narrative, Compare and Contrast, Cause and Effect and a Research Essay.  My students besides taking a full load also work. EN101 is a required course; students do not necessarily come inspired to learn English writing and rhetoric especially in a Friday late afternoon, 160 minute class. Consequently students, many of whom are not native speakers, need a variety of teaching strategies to keep them engaged.

The strategies I have used often included ten minutes of free-writing, critical readings, awareness of outside audience attitudes, peer group review of essays, reporting possible improvements on peer writing (names removed) revisions, and voluntary verbal and board presentation of work to the class. We also view film documentaries relevant to the goals of the class, critique bias in films, and I have invited several outside speakers.

My purpose in inviting speakers was to provide the class with eye-witnesses accounts of major world events or with experts to increase exposure to a wide range of topics, to hone skills in listening, encourage feedback, ask questions, critique, observe bias, encourage independent thinking, develop research and writing skills besides formatting techniques used to thank our speakers. (One student wrote me a thank you letter for an enjoyable semester.)  These skills were all required both in written form and or in class discussion. After all speakers were heard, questions asked and answered, I asked students to free-write their reaction to speakers, engage in class discussion and practice critiquing skills. Over the semester, in-class and assigned writing at home with revisions achieved a marked improvement in student writing.  Speakers added another strategy to student writing. How were speakers selected?

I did not randomly select speakers, but selected them on the basis of four criteria. First, the speaker before the Narrative Essay had to have been an eye-witness to a major event that would be a good basis for a narrative.  Second, the speaker needed to frame his or her talk toward requirements of the upcoming essay. Each speaker was given the same written outline given students as a guide. Speakers always came to class prepared to follow the outline given them. Speakers thus provided a training ground for students’ essays of their own choice.  Third, speakers had to have experience in public speaking and fourth, speakers were asked to bring documents and graphics and or statistical or research material related to their talk. This last request was used to acquaint students with documentation and research methods.

For the Narrative Essay, I invited Ness Godin, honorary MC Degree recipient. Ms. Godin is a Holocaust survivor, whose eye-witness experience fitted in well with requirements for the Narrative Essay. Also, since Holocaust survivors are mostly in their eighties, it is important to hear their eye-witness testimony before they disappear.  Ms. Godin is an internationally acclaimed survivor who speaks world-wide for the Holocaust Museum and who has been invited to speak at the United Nations.  She vividly narrated her Holocaust experience: character, tension with change from normal to Nazi concentration camp day-to-day survival, a death march, and the encouragement of other women survivors. Her final message: “Do not stand by apathetically when any group of people is targeted for genocide. Help victims.”  Students in free-write wrote that they were “touched” “impressed” “horrified” “amazed,” “honored” and “privileged” to hear her speak.  They had heard and read about the Holocaust in high school but had never seen nor heard a live Holocaust speaker: a “totally different experience.”  “I will from now on aid others I see attacked like those in Darfur, as Ms. Godin asked us to do.” Ms. Godin also showed photographs of herself as a child, and of her murdered family, photos acquired from distant relatives long after the war.  Students went up to Ms. Godin after her talk, and hugged her. After this inspiring speaker students wrote feedback on Ms. Godin’s speech and then they began drafting their own Narrative essay.  Students learned a new social and writing skill as they were required to write thank-you letters to each speaker.  Many had never heard of a thank-you letter!  Speakers loved receiving these student letters.

Our second essay was Compare and Contrast. Since we had studied and heard a renowned speaker on the Holocaust, I showed a documentary on Hiroshima, and we compared and contrasted the Holocaust with Hiroshima. I was able to find a speaker on Nagasaki, Ms. Alice Stephens, who is writing a historical novel, and who has lived in and taught English in Nagasaki. Since we had compared and contrasted the Holocaust with Hiroshima, Ms. Stephens further broadened our horizons by addressing the class on the cause and effect of bombing Nagasaki. Her research included surprising information on prejudice against Nagasaki victims or their descendants.  Residents fear that the offspring or grandchildren of such victims might be born with physical disabilities due to their forebears’ exposure to radiation. Here, we looked back on our comparison of the Holocaust with the bombings of Japan. Population- and long-term-wise, the global Jewish population has decreased, while that of Nagasaki has increased and become normal. The physical and emotional effects of the Holocaust have affected second generation, i.e. the children of Holocaust survivors. No findings were presented on the emotional effect, if any, of second generation Nagasaki victims.

These topics and their presenters, according to student written feedback, have deeply enriched student experience in thinking and writing essays. The ethical implications surrounding each of the topics prepare EN101 students for the next class EN102: Argument.
For a more concrete and modern researched topic in preparation for the Cause and Effect essay, I chose a speaker skilled and experienced in medicine. Here, there is much research and statistical information.  I asked Dr. John Melmed to speak to the class on the cause and effect of any illness or condition of his choice. I gave Dr. Melmed the outline of our Cause and Effect essay and asked him to also provide the class with handouts that included graphics and statistics.  Dr. Melmed chose to speak on and provided handouts including statistics on the causes and effects of osteoporosis and of teenage abortion. These two topics engaged the students in current conditions that also concern them personally. It appears that osteoporosis can begin at a very young age, and most teenagers or young students like ours are aware of the risks of pregnancy and abortion.  They were less aware of the dangers of birth control pills that Dr. Melmed documented with figures and charts. The class enjoyed Dr. Melmed’s talk, asked him many questions and also wrote him a thank-you letter.

Research methods were introduced with the Compare and Contrast Essay so that students learned early to include MLA documentation, statistics, graphics and a bibliography. 

Having several speakers during a semester greatly widens student exposure to independent thinking. Writing about their experience with each speaker immediately after hearing the speaker hones student thinking and critique writing skillsRevision of all submitted written work improves basic writing skills.  Using all of these strategies for a practice essay prior to the student’s own essay provides students with the opportunity to practice a dry- run before writing their own drafted and final essays.

Writing a final essay causes many students stress. A warm-up with a speaker, a written critique and class discussion helps students tackle each new essay with less tension, more insight, enthusiasm and expertise.  These varied strategies also provide material for students’ Reflective Essay at the end of the semester.

In listening to other speakers, students also felt encouraged to present the class with their own drafts and final essays, and to engage class response to their essays. These experiences will stand them in good stead in their future working and social lives.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Social Psychology and ELT – The HALO Effect

by Nick Michelioudakis

(This article was originally published in the TESOL Greek Newsletter.)

Nick Michelioudakis (B. Econ., Dip. RSA, MSc [TEFL]) is an Academic Consultant with EDEXCEL.  He has worked in the field of ELT for many years as a teacher, examiner and trainer. He has written more than 50 articles and regularly gives talks to both private and state school teachers.  He likes to think of himself as a ‘front-line teacher’ and is particularly interested in one-to-one teaching and student motivation. He also has a keen interest in Social and Evolutionary Psychology.  When he is not struggling with students, he likes to spend his time in a swimming pool or playing chess.  For any questions, comments or feedback, you can contact him at To see more of his published articles you can visit his site at

How important is one’s handwriting?  Hardly at all you might say, especially today when most people use a computer.  Yet research shows otherwise.  In a revealing experiment, a number of exam scripts were copied twice – once in good handwriting and once in bad handwriting.  They were then passed on to two groups of examiners who were told to mark them and were specifically instructed to mark for content.  Amazingly, the neatly-written scripts got significantly higher marks than the others (Sutherland 1992).  Why did such a thing happen?  The answer is that very often when we have to assess someone (or something) and this person has a salient, positive feature, the latter colours our judgment, so we tend to make all kind of positive attributions about this person, judgments which are at best only marginally related to the quality which stands out.  This is called the ‘Halo Effect’.

An experiment: One would expect the scientific world to be less susceptible to such an effect.  Not so.  In 1982, two psychologists decided to try out an interesting experiment.  They selected 12 well-known journals of psychology and to each one they sent an article to be considered for publication.  These articles are routinely checked by two authorities on the particular field as well as the editor.  The results: in 8 out of the 12 cases the articles were deemed unworthy of publication.  Out of 16 ‘evaluators’ and 8 editors who (presumably) read them, not a single one had a different view.  Well, one might say, not all articles submitted are up to par.  This is true, only in this case these particular articles had been published by the very same journals, under the same title only a few months previously!!  The only thing the two psychologists had changed were the names of the authors (eminent university professors) to imaginary ones and their affiliations (originally such prestigious universities as Harvard or Princenton) to non-existent (and by definition obscure) ones!  Well, you might think, at least 4 of the articles were thought to be good.  Not quite.  In 3 out of the 4 cases someone simply realised that they had published this material before… (Sutherland 1992)
Why did such a thing happen?  The answer is probably that journals like the above are probably inundated by submissions from academics on the make who are anxious to add yet another entry to their CV.  It is equally likely that many of these articles are run-of-the-mill, with little to recommend them.  This being so, it makes sense for the ‘evaluators’ to resort to ‘shortcuts’ (Cialdini 2001) – rather than scrutinize each script, they look at the name of the writer first.  If s/he is a famous professor from an Ivy-League University, then the article is more likely to be worthy of publication.  But if we start thinking like this, then an amazing change happens: as Sutherland (1992) points out, when faced with a piece of work by an established writer, we tend to look for its positive aspects, while if the writer’s name rings no bells then we start looking for flaws!
Still not convinced?  Here is another example.  In the mid-70s, someone sent a book to no less than 27 different publishers and literary agents.  No marks for guessing what happened.  All 27 rejected it.  Yet this book (‘Steps’ by Kosinsky) had actually been published in 1969 and had won the American National Book Award!  All that had been changed was the title and the name of the writer.  What is more remarkable is that one of the publishers who rejected the ‘new book’ was ‘Random House’ – the ones who had published the original one!! (ibid.)
Lest you should think that this phenomenon is restricted to the world of books and publishing, here are some more examples to show you just how widespread it is:  Good-looking people are universally thought to be friendlier, more intelligent and more humorous, tall people are thought to have all kind of leadership qualities, they are clearly favoured in job interviews and make more money than people like me who are slightly challenged in the vertical dimension, and, of course, men of a high social status are judged as more attractive by women…(Brehm, Kassin & Fein 2002).

Applications in the field of teaching:  If we can create for ourselves this ‘aura’ of the competent/charismatic/special teacher, then we are halfway towards winning the battle for the ‘hearts and minds’ of our students.  Here are some ideas:
Friendliness:  When I ask my students to describe the best teacher they know, they almost invariably mention someone possessing this quality.  When I try to probe deeper to see what it is about their method that is so special, my students are often stumped.  It is because attitude is such a salient feature that it colours the students’ perception of the teacher both as an individual and as a professional (for research on this very theme, see Alberson, Frey & Gregg 2004, p. 8)
First impressions:  Teachers often ‘save’ their best techniques for later – a big mistake in my view.  By using your favourite materials/techniques early on, you create a positive impression in the students’ minds which will pre-dispose them favourably towards all your subsequent lessons.  The tendency of first impressions to ‘stick’ has been demonstrated again and again (Fine 2005)
Professionalism:  Little details like being prepared, giving an outline of your lesson in advance, revising what you did the previous time, showing students that there is a continuity in your sessions – all these create an impression of ‘professionalism’ and they are more observable than, say, a profound activity sequence (Lewis & Hill 1992). The point is that once you have acquired a reputation as a ‘true professional’, this reputation precedes you and everything you do will then be seen in this light!
Success:  Unfortunately perhaps, teachers too are judged by results.  This is particularly true in the case of 1-1 lessons.  Consequently, there is a lot to be said for ‘blowing your own trumpet’.  This will create an expectation of success which boosts the students’ confidence and acts like a self-fulfilling prophecy (Dornyei 2001).
Titles:  As I have said in other articles and as the above experiment clearly demonstrates, titles like ‘MSc’, ‘PhD’ etc. never fail to impress people about your competence – so if you have them, flaunt them!  (On how effective this ‘aura’ can be, see also Goldstein, Martin & Cialdini 2007).  Similarly, if you happen to work for a prestigious institution, then mention it to your students.  I remember how people’s faces used to light up when I told them I was an Oral Examiner for the British Council!
Looks:  At the cost of repeating myself, the importance of being good-looking can hardly be exaggerated.  Not only does this quality affect the ‘marks’ one gets in virtually all other fields, but there is evidence that this positive pre-disposition of others actually elicits all kind of positive behaviours from them (Aronson 1999).  The moral is clear: it pays to work on your appearance!

What about ELT?  So, what about our field?  Are there any elements which can create a ‘Halo Effect’?  Yes, there are - two of them: a) Your passport and b) your accent.  Let me explain.  I believe that if would-be employers receive 2 identical CVs, one from a native speaker and another from a Greek teacher, there are many cases when only the former will be short-listed.  I believe that if two Greek EFL teachers go through an interview and one of them has a native-like accent while the other one does not, then the former is far more likely to be hired, even if the latter has better qualifications/more experience.  And I am certain that (ceteris paribus) native speakers are on average better paid when it comes to private lessons.  Now, I do not have any hard evidence for all this, but I am prepared to bet good money that all 3 hypotheses are true.  Anyone for research?


1.  Abelson, R., Frey, K. & Gregg, A. “Experiments With People” Lawrence Erlbaum Associates 2004
2.  Aronson, E. “The Social Animal”  Worth – Freeman, 1999
3.  Brehm, S., Kassin, S. & Fein S. “Social Psychology” Houghton Mifflin, 2002
4.  Cialdini, R. “Influence – Science and Practice”, Allyn & Bacon 2001
5.  Dornyei, Z. “Motivational Strategies in the Language Classroom” CUP, 2001
6.  Fine, C. “A Mind of its Own”  Icon Books 2005
7. Goldstein, N., Martin, S. & Cialdini, R. “Yes! 50 secrets from the science of persuasion” Profile Books 2007
8.  Lewis, M. & Hill, J. “Practical Techniques for Language Teaching”  LTP 1992
9.  Sutherland, S. “Irrationality” Constable and Company, 1992