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Prepping for the Harvard Classroom

Posted Thursday, 15 December 2011

An innovative workshop aims to help international TFs improve English speaking skills, master American slang, and gain confidence in the Harvard classroom

Yi Xie, a first-year PhD student in mathematics, took the Bok Center's workshop on oral communication skills this fall.

















When Bambo Sosina, a PhD student in the Statistics Department, came to the United States for the first time, he soon noticed that people had trouble understanding him. “Being originally from Nigeria, an English speaking country, this naturally felt devastating, and I sought to correct things quickly,” Sosina recalls.

One opportunity in particular caught his attention: a course on classroom communication skills for international teaching fellows, offered by the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, in partnership with GSAS.

The course, taught by Pamela Pollock, was piloted in the fall of 2009 with a single section, but it proved so popular that the Bok Center started offering two sections each term, so that more students could benefit from the program. (Students interested in applying for the course for the spring term should contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. by January 23.)

Pollock explains that the course is designed to help students who need to build both comprehensibility and accuracy with oral English. “These students have done a lot of reading and writing, but perhaps have not been in an English speaking environment. And the way we speak English is very different than how we write it.” For many of the students, it’s a question of becoming comfortable with the rapid speed of discourse, as well as with pronunciation, intonation, contractions, and slang words.

Sophia Shao, a PhD student in Computer Science, recalls that over the course of the semester she learned to focus not just on her pronunciation, but also on eye contact, speech organization, and emphasizing the appropriate words and syllables. “The course also helped me develop good habits like keeping a vocabulary list of words I learn from reading books and articles, and thinking of organizational markers when I prepare a talk. All of this has made me more confident using English in my daily life.”

With only six to eight students, the class encourages participation, Sosina says. “It was easy to ask questions without feeling judged, and this brought back some of my confidence in speaking up in my classes.”


Pamela PollockLearning by Doing

On any given week, Pollock spends part of the class discussing a particular characteristic of the English language such as stress placement or linking consonants. As one would expect, the course is speaking-intensive; students often engage in impromptu presentations, or practice explaining an article that they read. Students also practice answering questions and learn strategies for how to handle unexpected or difficult questions.

But the centerpiece of the course is “microteaching,” in which students deliver a ten-minute lesson, afterwards receiving vital feedback from their peers. Each microteaching session is videotaped, so students get a clear sense of what they’re doing well or what needs improvement. “By the last microteaching activity, the students are excited because they can see how much they’ve improved since the beginning,” Pollock says.

In addition to the time spent in class, Pollock meets with students individually on a weekly basis to give them focused feedback on specific areas they need to work on. Both Sosina and Shao cite the individual attention they received as a key benefit of the course. “Those sessions were more illuminating than any introspection I attempted,” explains Sosina. During these one-on-one meetings, Pollock often goes over the “audio journals” that students are asked to record as part of their homework. These recordings, which provide additional opportunities to craft a longer narrative or explanation, allow students to reflect on how they’re presenting themselves to an audience.

Through course activities, Pollock aims to combine language practice with more general skills that are integral to the students’ professional development. “We do an activity where students have to give a four-minute summary of something they read, then a two-minute summary, and finally a one-minute summary.” At every interval, students receive suggestions on how to be more concise and clear. Pollock notes that these sorts of activities help students with many aspects of academic life. “When you have your dissertation you might need to prepare an hour-long presentation, but you’ll need a ten-minute overview too.”


Preparing for the Harvard classroom

Some international teaching fellows do not necessarily know what to expect in a Harvard undergraduate section. “They tend to be surprised by how interactive the discussion is and by how many questions the students ask,” Pollock says.

And it can be difficult for international TFs to know what background their students have in the material. “One of the common issues is that they pitch the class a bit too high,” she says. To that end, Pollock spends time explaining how the US secondary education system is different than that of many other countries. “In many other countries there’s a standard curriculum across the board no matter what high school a student attends. I have Harvard undergraduates who work with me in the class and they describe their different high school experiences. Some went to private schools, other attended big public schools and still others were home-schooled. It helps the international students to see how different it is.”

These College students, who serve as undergraduate consultants, assist with class discussions. Their main role is to provide language feedback during group activities, but the graduate students can also meet with undergraduate consultants outside of class in a more informal setting, where they can get an undergraduate’s perspective on life at Harvard and practice whatever they wish. “In three of our meetings, I focused on reading poems, which helped me identify problems I had with intonation and stress,” Sosina says.

Pollock emphasizes that the students who enroll in the course come away with a skill set that provides a solid foundation in pedagogical strategies for communicating with a range of audiences. “Even though the students need to improve some of their English skills, they’re learning a lot of the same material that we discuss in other Bok Center seminars about how to be an effective teacher.” she says. To that end, “Classroom Communication Skills for International TFs” counts towards the Bok Center’s recently launched Teaching Certificate Program.


Story credit: Joanna Grossman