Thanks to “Impolite” Students

This is a post I drafted in the last few years. It’s just three examples of students taking the time to set me straight, and of me taking the time to listen. I didn’t post it right away because I was concerned that it might be taken out of context and misunderstood as an indictment of me as a terrible teacher, or of my students as aggressive jerks. Neither is the case. My concern has not gone away, but what I wrote still rings true to me. In the spirit of stepping up like my students did, here’s the post.

Working for years in Minnesota, followed by years in super-supportive ESOL departments in Maryland, all with mature and gracious adult ESOL students, I am blessed with a whole lot of positive feedback in my professional life.

I don’t know if it’s that I’m originally from near New York City or if it’s just a personality quirk, but at some point, a lot of positive feedback rings a bit hollow to me. I know I’m not perfect, so receiving criticism matches my world-view way better than praise does.

Too much positive feedback can actually make me uneasy. What aren’t they saying, and why? Is everyone just being polite? What are they hoping I’ll figure out? 

But here’s one thing: speaking a reasonable and relevant truth is not necessarily impolite.

And here’s another thing: it’s okay to be impolite sometimes. We don’t intentionally step on people’s toes in our day to day lives because that would be rude and cause pain. But if we’re walking along and a motorcycle is suddenly hurtling toward us, we leap out of the way even if we land on someone’s toes. That’s an extreme case, but the point is that some things are more important than manners.



I owe a lot to the few students who have stepped up and told me some of the “impolite” things that I suspect many other students were thinking. Their willingness to risk stepping on my toes has helped me see class from students’ point of view and adjust my teaching accordingly.

Circulating from Student to Student

Early in my assistant teaching days, in addition to gauging how pushy I should be in helping my students, I was also figuring out the balancing act of helping everybody in a limited amount of time.

One lesson, I wound up addressing quite a few of one student’s questions with her. It took a long time. When I finally moved on to the next person, she told me frankly that I shouldn’t have spent so much time with the first woman. She pointed out that many students were waiting for my help and that it wasn’t fair to give too much time to one individual. She said I should have addressed one or two of the first woman’s questions, then checked to see if anyone else needed me. Then if not, I could work more with the first woman. Talk about specific feedback! No arguments from me then or now.

Before this conversation, I had seen this circulation balancing act as my own internal struggle. But the student’s comments made it clear to me that my class is paying more attention to that kind of thing than I’d thought. And I wasn’t giving them enough credit for understanding our need to work with everyone even when they still have more questions.

Overwhelming Written Comments

Back when I was lead teaching an academic writing class, I spent what felt like an eternity writing comments on my students’ diagnostic essays. We had a relatively small class and I’d decided to use that as an opportunity to start everyone off with a generous amount of personalized guidance.

Unfortunately, to one student, my comments somehow came across as sarcastic. I’m not 100% sure how it happened, because I remember being genuinely impressed with the essay and saying so. I was surprised that I had caused offense, but I accepted that I had and made amends accordingly.

I think that the problem was in how I’d made my comments: they were intended to be plentiful, but instead they were long-winded, which made them arduous to read and left too much room for incorrect interpretation. My takeaway there was to make sure future comments were short, plain, and focused.

Another takeaway I gleaned from that situation was that students don’t see our comments as a gift, no matter how generously they’re intended or how valuable they are. They’re overwhelming, they hurt, and students often don’t know how to implement them. I needed to be more judicious and practical with my comments.

Confusing Speech

When assistant teaching, I was having a writing conference with a pretty fluent student. After asking for clarification of something I’d said a couple of times, she exclaimed in exasperation, “Why can’t you just talk normally?!”

As I’m sure you can guess, the problem was that I was talking normally. Conversationally, even: many words, lots of linking, natural speed, meandering point.

It’s questionable whether I should alter my normal talking speed or prosody in the very last level of EAP before direct enrollment in mainstream college courses. But I think the cognitive burden of listening to my natural speech would have been manageable if I had just made sure to be direct and terse rather than chatty.

How many other students were too polite or too overwhelmed to get me to rein it in?

Overall: Focus

I feel like all three of these “sidekick slaps” came down to my losing focus in the moment. I wasn’t meeting my students where they were. I wasn’t respecting that more is not necessarily better. I wasn’t as direct and organized as I needed to be.

This doesn’t mean I’m never focused; it means that when I’m not focused, it shows.

I know where to go from there, and that’s a good feeling.


Real feedback is not always positive. Criticism is not always sandwiched neatly between two positives. But insight is always valuable, and who better to give us insight into what our students need than our students themselves?

May I keep listening and keep learning.


I’m pretty sure none of the students I referred to in this post are aware of this blog, but just in case: guys, thank you for making me a better teacher.


Photo Credit: cmjolley on Flickr

You’re reading Thanks to “Impolite” Students, originally posted at


How I Described Rubrics

Substitute teaching last month was such a rich experience!

At one point, I found myself suddenly needing to explain what a rubric was to an advanced EAP reading class.


I think that overall, rubrics are intimidating and ugly. I have yet to see a warm, fuzzy grading rubric, and if one ever did come into existence, I doubt that it would manage to be warm, fuzzy, and useful.

Coming from my experience of needing to talk students down from the edge of panic after receiving rubrics in other classes, I decided I needed to try to sell rubrics.


These were the two points I made on the fly:

Teachers want to grade fairly.

We want to be consistent from student to student and hold everyone to the same standards.

We also want to be clear to students what those standards are. This way they don’t need to guess what will earn them a good grade.

The rubric is your friend.

Use the rubric. It is a guide that tells you how to get a good grade.

Read it.

Compare your work to what the rubric asks for. Do you have all the requirements? Make sure they match.


What would you add?


Photo Credit: microbiologybytes on Flickr

You’re reading How I Described Rubrics, originally posted at

PowerPointing Better

Just last week, I wrote a post about improving my classroom communication by limiting my public speaking.

I was put to the test sooner than I expected.

As my substitute teaching gig continued, one of the provided lesson plans called for presenting two already-made PowerPoints on two different topics in one hour of one class session (the other hour was spent on an in-class quiz).

The thing is, subs really need to stick to the syllabus and provided lesson plan. My job was as much to provide stability as it was to reach the students. This was really not the moment to radically change the content delivery or otherwise deviate far from normal.

But putting everyone to sleep while I droned on wasn’t going to be particularly helpful, either.


So here’s what I did:

  1. Set expectations.
    I always put an agenda on the board and cross out what we’ve finished. When we got to this last chunk of the class, I explained that we would do a PowerPoint and then practice it… then another PowerPoint with a practice activity. So we had a lot to do in the last hour of class, and we all knew it.
  2. Kept it short.
    Neither was one of those egregiously long PowerPoints, thank goodness. I did make an effort to keep it snappy without rushing.
  3. Kept it interactive.
    I used Think/Pair/Shares and asked for lots of responses during the presentations. The first one was clearly designed with an interactive class experience in mind, so this was easy for me. The second one was more of an information-dump and it was more of a challenge to keep it from being a soliloquy.
  4. Used the whiteboard.
    I wrote down my oral instructions (i.e. “think of two more examples with your partner”). This saved a lot of time and kept people focused. I also used the board to highlight or explain key points from the slides, e.g. the most important signal word, examples of prefixes, etc.
  5. Built in change.
    The plan was that after each PowerPoint, I’d immediately have students move their seats to practice the material in the context of the textbook article they’d read for homework. This was not going to be a solid hour of PowerPoint!
  6. Went meta.
    My assistant teacher knows this course extremely well, and told me that the students’ final project involves making a PowerPoint. She suggested that I point out good and bad attributes of the PowerPoints I was using today. I pointed out some, particularly on slides that were too wordy.
  7. Split into smaller groups.
    Though I presented to the whole class due to prep, space, and tech restraints, I split them up as soon as I could. I numbered them off (1, 2, 1, 2) so that the assistant teacher and I could explain the practice activity to the smaller groups instead of to the whole class. Those small groups then split into pairs and triads to carry out the activity.

I don’t want to come across like I think I taught the perfect lesson. I felt like I was spinning too many plates to be fully present with the class. Despite my PowerPoint vigilance, I did lapse into teacher talk at least once. I also gave my assistant teacher some vague directions and blanked on a couple ways I could have helped several students with general academic issues. Nothing disastrous, but enough that I couldn’t let this post be only about how focused and awesome I am.

That said, I did manage to focus on making the most of the PowerPoints, and I think it made a difference. In the all-class presentations, the students were engaged and answering questions, not passively reading slides. And the practice time made use of small and tiny group interactions to make the content more meaningful and help people stay alert at the end of a night class. I’m really glad it was in the forefront of my mind.

Photo CreditMelissa on Flickr

You’re reading PowerPointing Better, originally posted at

Formative Assessment in Action

I’m still subbing for an advanced academic reading course and really enjoying it. I still don’t love following someone else’s lesson plan or having only one class session in mind while I teach, but it’s worth it to be back in the classroom for a bit.

They’re reading the novel A Man Called Ove, and there was a quiz ready on Canvas for the students to take last week. It was just four short-answer questions that would quickly show if anyone hadn’t done the reading.


I warned them about it first session last week, and then second session I handed it out and gave them about 15 minutes to complete it. I intended to quick grade them as they were handed in.

That “quick grade them” plan went out the window almost immediately when I made several discoveries:

  1. Some students were flagrantly borrowing their neighbors’ work. I did the usual to get them to stop, including rather ostentatiously watching them take the quiz and not doing anything else. Is it just me, or is a short-answer quiz really not the ideal format for the stealthy copying of answers?
  2. There were many “gray area” answers, which are very subjective to grade. I didn’t think that as a substitute it was my place to make judgment calls about the specifics of scoring.
  3. There were enough wrong incomplete answers, and enough people sneaking answers from the folks next to them, that it was clear that many students did not have stellar comprehension of these 23 pages.

So instead of grading, I reigned in and closely monitored the “quiz by committee” proponents while planning in my head how to adjust the lesson plan. I changed it to address the evident confusion about what happened in the novel’s first three chapters.

A pretty classic case of formative assessment providing feedback that allows the lesson to meet the students where they actually are.


Photo Credit: mer chau on Flickr

You’re reading Formative Assessment in Action, originally posted at


Public Speaking vs. Effective Communication

I love public speaking.

I actually had a dream about it last night. It had all the hallmarks of an anxiety dream: late to class in high school, not sure which class to go to, arrive in class and discover I have to give an impromptu speech. But I woke up from that dream feeling awesome, and kinda wanted to go back and finish my speech. That’s how much I like public speaking.

Unfortunately for me, I’m coming to the conclusion that I need to public speak much less (or not at all) when I go back to lead teaching.

Where I’m coming from with these thoughts are the night EAP classes I teach or assistant teach at a community college in Maryland. My classes typically have 15-20 students in them, and we’re typically in computer labs arranged in rows.

Efficient? Effective?

It feels so efficient to just explain once to everyone, doesn’t it?


As far as I can tell, it’s really ineffective.

As the assistant, I was surprised again and again at how many students asked me questions one-on-one that showed they did not grasp what the teacher had just communicated from the front of the room. From the sidelines, I also saw how much they asked each other for clarification. I saw this across different teachers and students, at different levels in different classroom environments, with varying content and activities.

I assume that this was the case in classes I lead taught also, but that I was much less aware of it because 1) I was standing in front and not among the students, and 2) my mind was on leading. I also suspect that 3) students hesitate to ask the lead teacher to clarify what s/he just said as much as they need because (this is conjecture based on experience) they don’t want to hold up the class, insult the teacher, look stupid, or find that they still can’t understand.

So… what to do with this observation?

Exploring Three Types of Responses

1. “Keep Public Speaking Regardless”

One possible response could be that this is good practice for students in “real” academic classes, which are generally lecture-based.

I do think there is a place for targeted practice listening to lectures and/or oral instructions.

However, we do not teach typical academic classes; we teach language classes for a language they need to use immediately.

In my opinion, the struggle isn’t good for them when it blocks them from learning the stated objectives of our class and understanding class activities.

2. “Improve Your Public Speaking”Another possible response could be that we teachers need to get better at public speaking: present more clearly, briefly, and engagingly.

I’m open to this! Here are a few ideas:

  • Break It Up
    Deliver eight-minute lectures interspersed with discussions and comprehension activities.
  • Use Written Support
    Make sure that any important points are written down on the board, PowerPoint (ugh), or in some other way. Please don’t do Death By PowerPoint though.
  • Move
    Sometimes, speak from the back instead of the front, or the side. Especially nice if your room has swivel chairs. Will you just have a different clueless back row? Or will your former front row pay more attention out of habit?
  • Gather in a circle or a standing crowd.
    This could be particularly helpful for giving instructions. It might eliminate “The Clueless Back Row Phenomenon” if everyone is closer together. People also get tired from too much sitting, and standing might physically help them be more alert. (Teachers of huge classes – have you ever tried anything like this?)

3. “Stop Relying on Public Speaking”

One final response to mention here is that, at least in smallish classes like the ones I teach, we could drastically reduce how much we even attempt to address the whole room, particularly when explaining activities, assignments, etc.

A few ideas for communicating differently in this kind of a setting:

  • Explain to smaller groups instead. (e.g. the same thing four times)
    Seriously. From what I’ve experienced both as lead and assistant teacher, it might actually save time and repetition, not to mention half-panicked confusion and task errors. If you have an assistant teacher, you can explain in parallel even more efficiently.
  • Give different tasks to different smaller groups.
    They could differ by level, need, modality, or interest, or be step one of a jigsaw.
  • Delegate the explaining to students.
    Explain to team captains, and provide written support. Then, each captain goes to explain to his/her group. The teacher and assistant follow up with each group soon after. This could be gamified into something like a dictation relay or a game of telephone. Over the semester, try to be fair about how often each individual is captain.
  • Have waiting time activities for modest bonus points.
    In a writing/grammar class, have editing practice sheets available for students who get explained to last or finish early. For reading, some short pieces with comprehension questions. For vocabulary, some worksheets. For speaking/listening, short assignments for students to record and submit via their smartphones.


Has anyone else been frustrated by the limitations of public speaking? What alternatives work for you?


Photo Credit: Oleg Brovko on Flickr

You’re reading Public Speaking vs. Effective Communication, originally posted at


Prepping a Sub

I fell off my posting schedule, and then I got called in to substitute teach!

As a last-minute sub, the lesson was prepared for me (thanks, department!). And I do want to clarify, this was very last-minute – they called me while I was making lunch. I said that I’d be happy to do it, but that I already had an engagement with my kids scheduled for the whole afternoon. I wasn’t available to actually look at anything pertaining to class until dinner time. They said no problem, and they’d email me a lesson plan and materials.

Here’s what was great:

  • No Decisions
    I didn’t have to make any decisions about what to “cover” (sorry, I dislike that verb when it comes to teaching – I’m sure I don’t have to explain why).
  • Clear Priorities
    She was clear about what the top priorities were and that the other activities were low-priority suggestions so we’d always have something to do.
  • Clear Future
    I knew exactly what the students needed to know for the next class session: what their assignments should be, what quizzes they should study for, etc.


I don’t know if this is an Emily thing or a more universal thing, but I usually find other people’s lesson plans hard to use. Today was no exception.

So in case this helps anyone write notes to their substitute teachers, especially Future Emily, here’s what would make them more user-friendly for me:

  • A quick sense of the big picture.
    What are the big priorities? What are the big things we’re building up to in the next few sessions and in the whole semester? (e.g. “this week and next, we’re really focusing on citations.”) Yes, I’d get a sense of this from reading the syllabus, but there was seriously not time to read it before walking into this class.
  • A quick overview of the texts.
    Again, a last-minute sub doesn’t have time to read the whole syllabus. A summary sentence or two about what the scope of the course is (e.g. writing and grammar) and which coursebook ties to which one (e.g. Focus is our vocabulary book and The Other Wes Moore is our novel) would have helped me get my bearings more quickly.
  • Crystal clarity about past vs. present.
    I found ambiguity in the notes I received about whether “the homework assignment” meant the one that was due today or the one that I was assigning today. I also mistook the purpose of one of the readings she’d sent me: I thought it was an optional activity, but during class I realized that it was a reading they had already completed.
  • Suggestions of how to make use of my assistant teacher.
    The lesson plan kind of ignored that I’d have an assistant teacher coming in for the last hour of class. I made a hasty decision to have her lead half the class in a discussion while I lead the other half. It worked out great, but I didn’t really have time to consider any other options I might have tried in addition to or instead of the discussions.


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I realize I’m late to the “it’s 2018 now!” blog post parade.

Several voices I respect have suggested taking January to get back into a routine and let the dust of the holidays settle. They have found that February is a more sensible time to make changes and set intentions in a deliberate, level-headed manner.

So I did that, and now here I am in February, writing about the New Year.


Plan for the Year

Looking ahead to the year, I’ve got a significant amount of volunteering coming up for a project I’m involved in that’s not related to ESOL.

My family also has some significant travel on the calendar, particularly this semester. Actually, it’s significant enough that I’m not available to take on a regular schedule this coming semester.

So, it’s up-in-the-air how ESOL will fit in with everything else this year.


Word of the Year

I’m pretty into the trend of replacing New Year’s resolutions with a theme summed up in one word for the year. I’ll be sad when it becomes old news like no-knead bread and bullet journaling, because I think it’s really valuable.

My word connects nicely to how I want to approach the coming year with its known challenges and opportunities, plus the inevitable surprises I can’t even imagine.

My word of the year is “grow.”

It may sound obvious, or even trite. But the more I consider it, the more it’s a jam-packed word and I love it.

The grammar geek in me loves that it can be both transitive and intransitive.

The gardener in me is aware that not everything that grows is desirable. She also notes that dandelions, our most famous weed, are nutritious edibles.

I won’t keep going on about it, but I will encourage you to pick out a word for the year (you can pick one out that’s way more badass than mine) and see if you like it too.

How ESOL Will Fit In

In short, I don’t know.

Also, making grand public promises is not my style. I’m one of those people who wonders if she’s acting too rashly when RSVPing “yes” two weeks in advance to a friend’s 5th birthday party because she can’t guarantee her kids won’t be sick then.

This year is particularly difficult to commit to, though, because whatever professional growth I accomplish will be both unsupported and unhampered by the normal flow of the academic year.

Nearly limitless possibilities!

Nearly zero accountability, structure, or community! Yikes.


I’m making no public promises and setting no public goals!

However, I’m comfortable declaring several wants:

  1. I want to grow as a teacher: expertise, connections, knowledge, empathy, skills, and experience.
  2. I want to deliberately keep my eyes open for opportunities to grow as a teacher in all of those ways, and
  3. I want to be bold enough to say “yes” to many of those opportunities even if it’s two weeks in advance and I can’t guarantee my kids won’t be sick then.

I’ve also created my own simple, gentle structure: I’ve set up a monthly calendar reminder that will email me the above list of wants every month in 2018.

We’ll see what 2018 brings!


Photo Credit: DaPuglet on Flickr

You’re reading 2018, originally posted at