Activity Corner: Birthday Buddies

(I thought it might be helpful to readers and myself if I described some of my favorite activities from time to time. See all my ESL Activity Corner posts here.)

This one is directly poached from another teacher. She pulled this one out of the hat while she was substitute teaching for one of the lead teachers that I was substitute assisting (got that?).

It’s a great activity to get people moving a bit, increase energy levels with a little directed conversation, and buy the teacher a bit of thinking time, all while grouping the students for the next activity.



First, bring students to a space where they can congregate. Ideally, this would be right in the classroom, but many of my school’s computer labs just don’t have that kind of extra space. We used a nearby hallway intersection.


  • Ask the students to line themselves up in birthday order (month and day, not year), beginning in January and ending in December.
  • Set a timer – or don’t, depending on what your needs are.
  • When students are in order, have them say their birthdays out loud in order. If there are any errors, have people switch around to be in the correct order.
  • Use this order to make groups: partners, triads – whatever the next activity requires. This teacher had people work with the person next to them in line and jokingly called them “Birthday Buddies.”

That’s it!


  • Time limitations make this more challenging.
  • If you have students with mobility issues, it may be possible for them to participate. If they can move in comfort to the bigger space, they can set up a chair in roughly the right position first, and then everyone else can organize around them.
  • Students with mobility issues might instead check for accuracy when everyone is done lining up. This is more important if there was a strict time limit. If the lining up has to be done away from the classroom, the mobile students could walk in order back to the classroom for the others to check their work.
  • More complicated but possibly interesting: try organizing by town they currently live in from north to south, or number of miles from the school, or number of siblings, etc. I would personally avoid anything clearly connected to status or wealth (i.e. newest smartphone).
  • Some students might not actually know their birthday – in some cultures at some times, the exact date hasn’t always been significant. Ask the student what s/he does know – time of year, month, what’s on their passport, etc. Three ideas for having them pick a day: a) the first, b) offer to share your own day of the month with the student, c) have them pick whatever they want!


Photo Credit: Paul Downey on Flickr

You’re reading Activity Corner: Birthday Buddies, originally posted at


Semester Report: Breaking My Silos

This semester I’ve been assistant teaching both an intermediate and an advanced academic writing class, back to back.

I also had the opportunity to sub twice for the assistant teacher of both an intermediate and an advanced academic reading class, also back to back.

I’m not going to lie and say it was easy for me or my family to have me at work three nights a week these past couple of weeks. It was a bit of a circus. But I’d been building a neat little silo around myself, and the bigger picture I got from subbing was fascinating.


First, the four teachers each have really different styles. Their personalities are completely different, which I think pretty directly informs their different ways of spending class time and going over assignments. Sometimes when I’m teaching, or even just assisting, I get this feeling like I’d be better at it if I were someone else. But all of these teachers are definitely themselves, and they all definitely make it work. It gives me more confidence to be me.

Also, my role in intermediate vs. advanced writing classes is a bit different, just with the level of grammar and writing advice needed. But the role in writing vs. reading classes is totally different. The reading classes gave me more opportunity to work with small groups to discuss vocabulary, the readings, etc. It makes me wonder if there are more opportunities for ad-hoc circulating the room in reading classes, and leading small groups in writing classes.

And finally, many of my writing students were also enrolled in the reading classes I subbed for. I got to work with many of the same people but in a different capacity and with different subject matter. It was super fun to see a couple of students who don’t seem particularly into writing in class articulately and vehemently explaining their points of view regarding the novel they’re reading.

Assisting in the same advanced academic writing class several semesters in a row gave me strong familiarity with that course, but at the cost of narrowing my horizons a bit. Branching out this semester has helped me see the silo I’d been in and break free.

Photo CreditNapafloma-Photographe on Flickr

You’re reading Semester Report: Breaking My Silos, originally posted at


Activity Corner: Fourth Week Survey


One of my departments has all of its teachers do a really, really smart thing.

About a third of the way into the semester, teachers hand out an anonymous survey to their students. The results are for the teachers’ eyes only, for the sole purpose of getting the lay of the land and seeing if any changes can be made to improve the semester.

The types of questions the department suggests:

  • Do students feel they can succeed in this course? What support do they need?
  • How is class time going? How could the teacher make it more effective?
  • How is homework going? How are the assignments, directions, and deadlines?
  • How are major assignments going? Are students prepared in class to complete them? What could be improved?
  • Are students getting feedback? Is it understandable? Is it helpful? How could it be improved?

Remember to ask for specifics and for suggestions. They might not all be workable, but at very least they help you see the students’ point of view. Point out that general statements like “this class is too hard” are not useful, especially coming from anonymous sources, because you have no idea what is too hard about it.

Now, with a survey like this comes the fear of negative feedback. What if everyone hates my class? And since this is during the semester, you’d still have to work with a group of people who may have told you you’re not doing as well as you thought.

My advice is: handle it. You’re an ESOL teacher – you’ve handled awkward in the past, and you can handle awkward this semester, too. It’s just not that big a deal.

And the rewards are significant: free professional development, very possibly a topic to present on at the next local ESOL conference, and most importantly, the potential to make a comeback and teach an epic class that really reaches your students.

Even if your department doesn’t nudge you in this direction, give it a try! Don’t wait till next semester to make positive changes!


Photo CreditAshley Van Haeften on Flickr

You’re reading Activity Corner: Fourth Week Survey, originally posted at

Connecting Syllabus and Student


How do you teach the syllabus and teach the students, when they might be pulling you in two different directions?

I don’t have a comprehensive answer to this question, and to be honest, I’m not confident that anyone else really does either.

But here are two elements that I think work together to connect the students and the course objectives.


Feedback has been on my mind a lot lately (formative assessmentstudent panel, exit tickets, being tuned into student stress levels, and coming up: surveys on Week 4). I think that it’s often given lip service, but not as often treated in practice as the lifeblood of an effective classroom.

If we think of teaching a class with a syllabus as building a bridge between the students and the content, we can most effectively bridge that gap if we know the landscape of both sides as well as possible. The teacher is ideally already a mater of the content, but I think especially in a community college setting, this isn’t enough. We have to build the bridge out to where the students are, not to where we imagine them to be.

The way to do this is to check again and again on where they are, how they’re doing, what their strengths are, and what they’re struggling with.

It comes down to asking, and to listening.

To be clear, “listening” doesn’t mean making the classes ridiculously easy. Listening means knowing what student needs are and taking some sort of action on them, be it simply reporting back to the department that the course is universally overwhelming, or referring struggling students to the tutoring center as early in the semester as possible, or conducting more activities that reach kinesthetic learners, or clarifying assignment instructions.


Examples of Desired End Products

I’ve noticed that a lot of language instruction, not just ESOL but also my own experience with Russian, is very bottom-up.

The idea with bottom-up instruction is that the pieces of language (nouns, prepositions, grammatical patterns) are learned and then assembled. It’s a bit like building a book shelf: acquire your boards, cut them to size, pre-drill holes for the screws you’ve gathered, and then all of those pieces get put together into a book shelf. (You can tell I’m not much of a woodworker, eh?)

But the thing is, you know what a bookshelf is, and that knowledge is top-down. You know what it looks like, what it does, and have some idea that if the shelves are not parallel to the floor or strongly supported, there are going to be major functional issues. You’ve used bookshelves before – you’re just building another iteration.

The students are bridging themselves to the assigned material, and top-down support helps them see what they’re aiming for.

When top-down processes are missing, it’s a bit like telling students they’re going to be building a snyrfhute. So when you start leading them through the process of collecting the necessary materials, they don’t really have a framework for understanding what all the bits are for or what the finished snyrfhute will look like or be used for. They can still build a snyrfhute with your guidance, but most are not going to have the same success that they’d have with a known end-product.

Top-down learning is not enough by itself either – just knowing what a bookshelf looks like does not give me the skills to make one.

We really need both.

Consider that we teach students how to use Present Perfect in speech and writing, but many ELLs are unable to hear Present Perfect as it’s used in everyday speech… so they don’t hear it in real use. Without help hearing Present Perfect in real speech, the top-down is typically missing and they’re just blindly conjugating for reasons unknown.

Consider that we typically teach students about MLA formatting when they have literally never read a journal article before. We get extremely specific and high-stakes about in-text citations while most of our students cannot relate to the conditions that in-text citations arose from: a pre-hyperlink world. Without examples of journal articles or successful assignments from previous semesters, we aren’t supporting their top-down process.


Meeting In The Middle

Feedback informs the direction of our teaching. It makes sure that our bridge-building connects our content to where our students actually are.

Using examples of end-products keeps students informed on the direction of their learning. They know where they’re aiming for and can use that knowledge to think critically, self-correct, and seek assistance. If they make a mistake, they’ll know their bookshelf doesn’t look right, but how could they know that about their snyrfhute?


Do you agree that there’s a great potential for synergy of purpose when a course has both adequate feedback and adequate top-down support?

What else do you see as crucial toward striking a balance in a syllabus-led course?


Photo Credit: sagesolar on Flickr

You’re reading Balancing Syllabus And Student, originally posted at






Activity Corner: Exit Tickets

(I thought it might be helpful to readers and myself if I described some of my favorite activities from time to time. See all my ESL Activity Corner posts here.)


Did your students learn what you think they learned today? Ask them a brief question at the end of class, and have them hand it in on a post-it on their way out the door.

Checking for Understanding

You can use exit tickets to check for understanding. For example, if one of the session’s main objectives was working on thesis statements, exit ticket questions might be,

What is a thesis statement?

Write one example of a thesis statement.

If you’re working on the grammatical form of Present Continuous, you might say,

Write a sentence in Present Continuous.


Supporting Metacognition

Alternatively, the exit questions can be metacognitive:

What was the point of today’s lesson? might elicit interesting and/or sassy responses.

What was the most difficult part of today’s lesson? might also be illuminating.

Another useful one might be, Do you need to improve any technology skills to be more comfortable in this class? Which ones?

After handing back a major assignment, something like this might help a few people find time to head to the tutoring center: Are you satisfied with your essay grade? If not, what is your plan to get additional help to improve your results?


Some teachers use this activity at the end of every class session, and others just sometimes. Give it a try and see what you find out!


Photo Credit: Dean Hochman on Flickr

You’re reading Activity Corner: Exit Tickets, originally posted at

Frequent, Low-Stakes Quizzing

5533236567_6f29870f4b_zStill thinking a lot about student feedback around here, and one great way to get a feel for how students are doing and what they are learning is to frequently ask them to show you: quiz them at least once a week.

Depending on your style and level, that might sound like a lot. But the quizzes are routine (i.e. not surprises), generally not long, and have point-values more on par with homework than with exams. And they can be incredibly informative about students’ progress.

Quizzes can take many forms, but just frequently quizzing isn’t enough. Quizzes don’t just generate grades to record: teachers and students need to respond to the results.

Formative Assessment

Did a lot of the class completely bomb the quiz? Take a moment to listen to what their errors tell you about how you taught the material!

What patterns do you see in who did poorly on the quiz? Did your teaching reach mostly your book-learners but notsomuch your auditory learners? Did only your star pupil (who should’ve placed into the next class up) pass?

How many opportunities did your students have to practice the material and check for accuracy during the lesson?

Do you know that the students understood the material immediately after the lesson, via exit tickets or somesuch?

Did students know to study this material?

How did the homework support retention or distract from that particular topic?

How new and/or advanced and/or complicated is the material? Do the students just need a bit more time and exposure?

Most importantly, the purpose of asking these questions is to move forward more effectively, not to feel guilty about a less-than-perfect lesson. We don’t get re-dos, but we do get tomorrows.


Helping Students Adjust

Low quiz grades do not always trigger a constructive response in our students. They may conclude that the teacher is mean and/or terrible, that the course is too difficult, or that they themselves are somehow inherently inadequate.

It doesn’t occur to everyone in the thick of the stress of the semester that poor quiz grades might be helpful indicators pointing toward specific actions they can take to improve their mastery of the material.

The call to action needs to come from the teacher.

Explicit Call to Study – include studying and/or correcting quiz errors as an ongoing homework assignment. Consider offering back a percentage of points for corrections.

Early Warning – remind students that the quiz material will also be on major exams and/or assignments. This was just a first warning that they don’t understand it well enough yet. There is still time to master the information/skill.

Study Skills? – use multiple poor quiz grades as a trigger to speak to students privately about their strategies for taking notes and studying. You can gently point out that what they’re doing isn’t working. You can refer them to various college services, internet and YouTube resources that will help them beef up their skills.

I think especially in ESOL, it can be very surprising to teachers to find out what the students learned well and what they missed.

Quizzing a lot might sound harsh, but if you keep the grades low-stakes and the feedback front-and-center, the results can be eye-opening!


Photo Credit: Paige Powers on Flickr

You’re reading Frequent Low-Stakes Quizzing, originally posted at

Student Feedback: Stress-O-Meter

Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

Steven Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People


Stress matters, whether you call it stress, pressure, anxiety, or the affective filter.

How stressed your students are will definitely impact their attendance, participation, and their performance on assignments.

Do you know how your students are doing in this regard? How do you know – are you guessing? Or are you finding out too late, during an outburst in class?

Try this: create a very simple online form (I like using Google Forms) that you can send out to all your students on a regular basis – at least weekly. Ask no more than three questions, targeting their stress levels.

Stress Report Sample


What would this data show you about your course, your assignment instructions, your deadlines, and your students’ lives outside of your course?

What might it mean to a student who’s overwhelmed in his personal life, to be able to click that first 5 and know that he’ll get a kind word from you in class?

How would you change these questions to suit your own classroom?