As I mentioned last week, since joining my new school, I’ve created a new buxiban program. There are quite a few non-teaching responsibilities involved. One is entrance tests, and explaining my system to parents of prospective students. While those duties are extremely important from a sales perspective, I spend the vast majority of my time and effort on curriculum development.

My Overall Approach- Ready, FIRE, Aim

I’m almost obsessive about finding optimal points… for all kinds of things. Whether I’m trying to maximize the enjoyment I get from the money I spend, trying to figure out what amount of exercising gives me the most rewards per minute I put into it, or if I’m trying to tweak an programming algorithm for more performance, I love optimization problems. Maybe that’s a side effect of seeing all of those maxima/minima problems of one form or another in calculus classes I’ve taken in years past.

There are quite a few issues to consider in how to spend my working time, but I’ve identified curriculum work as the priority worth the most time. It’s absolutely vital for my classes. Without a curriculum, I couldn’t teach. Sales would be virtually impossible, and any students who did sign up would get an inferior education. Without sales or marketing, on the other hand, I’d have no students, but I could still make progress on the curriculum (which would free up time for sales later). Outside of my class hours, I put the curriculum ahead of everything else. Still there are trade-offs to consider, even within the curriculum work. This has been my line of reasoning:

  1. What I can do is limited- I’m only one person. I’m not even an exceptionally disciplined person at that.
  2. There is an amount of work that can be put into any piece of the curriculum, past which the returns for further work diminish
  3. There is a lower boundary on how much work I can put into any given project before it has any value at all to my students.
  4. Different students have different weaknesses and benefit most from different parts of the curriculum.
  5. Therefore, I should implement as many projects as possible, given the constraints of in #1 and #3.

Perfecting any one component is something I just don’t have time for. Once it’s out there, I continually fix errors and improve it. Each part of the curriculum’s a bit rough right now, but this is the most reasonable way to spend my time. Each iteration will get better.

Current Projects

The pieces of the curriculum I’m developing can be divided into three categories- the textbook, the CDs, and portions I keep on my computer until the class in which they are to be used. Each portion has quite a bit of overlap with the others. I’m creating all of it from my own computer and things that can be purchased inexpensively in local stores.

The textbook

I write the textbook on my computer at home (using Open Office). It has three major sections- new words, structures, and examples; spelling rules and phonics practice; and listening comprehension phrases. Most lessons also include a written homework assignment at the end. Some lessons have a “big homework“.

I select vocabulary to introduce in each new lesson based on four criteria- frequency of use, phonics, ease of use with the new sentence pattern in the lesson, and relevancy to the students’ lives. Obviously, the more frequently a word is used, the sooner I want to put it in my curriculum. Conversely, I delay adding words with difficult sounds, such as “ng”. Naturally, if the lesson introduces the use of “to be” with adjectives, the students will need to know some adjectives.

For new grammatical structures, I have a similar approach. The vast majority of beginner level English classes in Taiwan spend a great deal of time using only the simple present tense, after which they spend a great deal of time on a second tense, and so on. I break with the majority on this issue. Beyond my personal feeling of disgust towards a system in which a student can study a language for two years and be unable to answer simple questions such as, “What will you do tomorrow?”, or “Where did you go yesterday?”, such single minded devotion to one tense at a time has other costs as well. Especially for Chinese speaking students, getting to accustomed to using the simple present tense is a dangerous habit. Since Chinese has no tenses, it’s all to easy to fall into a pattern of using the simple present tense for all verbs, instead of only in appropriate situations (such as when describing habits).

I prefer to teach the past, present and future tenses simultaneously, as I did when I was teaching at First Step. There is some time savings, in that new grammar patterns, such as the comparative of adjectives, or before and after, don’t need to be taught separately for each tense. An even larger benefit is that the students I’ve seen learn this way have far fewer problems with haphazardly using the present tense wherever they see fit. Best of all, they can understand a larger set of natural texts, such as children’s books, at an earlier time.

The textbook includes Chinese translations for all of the new vocabulary words, all of the listening comprehension phrases, and some of the remainder of the text. Most of the errors I’ve made have been related to mistyped characters, or mismatched translations. Since my partners and the secretary all check the text, there aren’t too many typos. I give points to students who find them and ask about them in class.

The CDs

I record the CDs with a microphone on my home computer, and burn them with iTunes. The quality isn’t studio recording quality, but it’s not bad. It’s far better than making students tape my voice in class and then try to learn from a bunch of scratchy tapes. It beats out recording me in class with a nice MP3 recorder, too. Seeing as how more than half of the schools in which I’ve worked in Taiwan have lacked CDs completely, and that those that do have them have spent a fortune on them, I don’t feel too self-conscious about mine.

I speak slowly and clearly to the point of being a little bit unnatural at the beginning, and even over-emphasize sounds in the phonics sections. After the first CD, I speak more naturally and more quickly. All of the English parts of the textbook go on the CDs.

Stuff that lives on my computer

There are quite a few curriculum related things that I need to make for class, but don’t want to include in the textbook- spelling word lists, spelling quiz word lists, translation homework assignments, translation tests, Q&A tests, and semester exams. I also have a few handouts that I give the students at various points in the curriculum.

It’s pretty self-explanitory why I don’t put the quizzes or tests in the textbooks, and what they’re used for. The other thing I keep on my computer is a set of prepared lists of words to use for spelling drills. Each drill consists of asking the class to spell a few dozen words that they haven’t learned before. At any given level, I have to prepare words based on the spelling words they’ve learned so far. I also use word lists for remedial classes (補課) for spelling strugglers.

Future Projects

One thing that I’ve already put quite a bit of time into is getting vocabulary lists and pre-reading questions designed for extensive readers. I’ve also worked some Dr. Seuss books into the curriculum in my first and second grade program. Everything I’ve described in this piece is related to my buxiban program for third to tenth grade students. The first and second program is a completely different beast, but the Dr. Seuss books tie in well with my phonics system and I’m definitely incorporating them into my program for older students.

I fully intend to share the vast majority of my curriculum online. The tricky part is how to make it useful for my students. I’ve had some thoughts of annotations to make the books my students read more useful. I’ve also had great success with asking past students to review and rate the books they read. Maybe I could make some sort of Reddit-style ranking system in which students could vote books up and down and comment on them. I’m working hard to make the best program I can for my students, and I’ll take any suggestions I can get.