Considering Time


During a recent class, I volunteered to convert a Works Cited page from circa 2010 to MLA 8. To me it was clearly something I should do as assistant teacher, freeing up the lead teacher to do more “teacherly” things. My idea was that I’d complete this task while the students were on their break.

The Task

Five citations (two websites, a book, and a magazine). 10 minutes.

Citation generator or the Purdue OWL guides by hand? With so little time, I went with Purdue rather than trusting the first citation-maker I tried to work.

Probably a bad choice.

One tiny screen. Three windows to juggle, plus tabs. I swear I spent more time trying to find the right window with the right information than actually updating the citations. At no point was I able to fully concentrate. It was unpleasant.

I got it done in about 15 rushed minutes. And by “done,” I mean that I improved them all but made many small errors in the process.

On Screwing Up

We went over it in class, the students pointed out my errors and the teacher updated the document further.

It was fine. The students got value out of correcting my work and we ended up with a correct document to reference.


  • It was embarrassing. I’m one of the instructors and I got their exercise wrong.
  • I tell my students all the time that their mistakes are valuable and encourage them to move past being embarrassed.
  • This would have all been avoided if I hadn’t been rushing.
  • When I’m lead teaching, I rush my students through in-class assignments all the time. Often on clunky school computers, often on software they’re not familiar with, always in a distracting classroom, always in their L2.

So I now have some more empathy for my students when they dislike screwing up in class.

And I have more empathy for my students when they’re trying to produce zero-error work in an impossible amount of time.


A New York Times cooking article referred to heat as The Invisible Ingredient in Every Kitchen.

I’m now wondering if time is the invisible element in every lesson plan.

The parallels are there: each is something we inherently rely on, that we don’t necessarily plan around and sometimes fudge, and in a way only notice when it’s not available.

Rushing is just not conducive to the detail work required in accuracy practice. Rushing creates stress, and stress is a great way to activate your affective filter / lizard brain.

And while I do consider time to some extent in my lesson planning, it’s been sort of an arbitrary measure on the side.

What would change if I upgraded it to a primary lens when I’m planning?

How could this be compatible with working with a syllabus?

What do you think?


Photo Credit: Jean L on Flickr

You’re reading Considering Time, originally posted at





Three Links About Seeing

So much important reading this past week.

Please check out these three short pieces. Each one is worth much more than the 30 seconds it takes to read it.


“Five years ago, in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, I wanted to dye Easter eggs with my kids.”

 – Seeing Things from Another Angle by Alanna


“The whole ESL class walked to the library yesterday. Young children, too. When we emerged, it was raining. Then this happened.”

 – Something Right In The World by Marilyn

“Emotional connection is our default. We only added words and symbolic logic much later.”

 – With The Sound Off or On? by Seth

Spring Break!

In honor of Spring Break, a few questions for our teacherly metacognition:

  1. What does Spring Break typically look like for you: a break, or catching up on work?
  2. In an ideal world, what would your Spring Break look like?
  3. What is one thing you can do to bridge any gap between the ideal and the real world?



21005120690_b95b2196b3What role do controversial topics have in the classroom?

In a great recent post, Steve Brown brings up issues of control, safety, training, and authenticity in ESL lesson planning. He concludes that topics that “open up a can of worms” should not be avoided to the extent that we typically avoid them.

In a follow-up post, he gets more into the ramifications for students if English classrooms around the world (continue to) consistently leave out potentially offensive topics.

To his discussion, I add a few questions and comments:

  • How do we reconcile maintaining the “safe” environment of the classroom with embracing issues that may have students shouting across the room at each other?
  • What if we lose students due to the contentious nature of our content? (Corollary: do we currently lose students due to the predictably bland nature of our curriculum?)  It’s not just a for-profit thing – in grant-funded programs, attendance is key.
  • How does the question of a controversial curriculum relate to the overall climate in (at least the USA’s) academia? Brown’s posts put me in mind of an event from 2015 in which Yale lecturer Erika Christakis felt the need to step down from her position after student backlash against an email she wrote. In this email, she questioned whether it was appropriate for the administration to intervene in managing students’ insensitive Halloween costumes.
  • What would “can of worms” training look like? Mediation skills? Self defense? Would it look different for women than for men? Would it replace part of the current battery of training, or be added on? To what extent does this training already exist?
  • In terms of culture in the USA, my perspective is that controversy was much more avoidable a couple years ago than it is today.
  • Are teachers, programs, and schools that embrace hot-button topics in the classroom more susceptible to litigation than those who steer clear of those issues? If not litigation, is other censure around the corner for leading controversial classes?

Plus one anecdote: in the conversation class I led last year, I shied away from controversial topics until about the last quarter of the semester. Mid-semester surveys showed that students and volunteers felt they were just mostly talking about themselves and finding it dull.

Then one day I warned them that the next week, we’d be discussing politics and the upcoming election. Half the class was deliberately absent for that election discussion.

The week after that, I had my full roster of students back… and we continued the election discussion. On one hand, they were a mix of annoyed and apprehensive when I unveiled the repeat topic. But on the other hand, we had incredible conversation that day and the rest of the semester. And at the end of the semester, I felt that the class had really become a group.

So from that I would add that if we’re going to embrace cans of worms in the classroom, what we need to embrace first is our students getting to know each other as people.

Please add your thoughts in the comments!


PS – Do you like how I eschewed pictures of sex, inequality, political figures, same-sex couples, drunk people, violence against people and animals and the environment, for a post about controversy? Have you ever seen a more innocuous picture of drug use than the one I chose? Smart business decision, habit, or cowardice?


Photo Credit: Martin Alonso on Flickr

You’re reading Controversy, originally posted at


Activity Corner: Quizzing Styles

33272595691_0d0b0037cdQuizzing students is a pretty common classroom activity that deserves at least one slot in the activity corner.

It doesn’t really fit my usual template though.

Instead, here are the primary ways that four different teachers I know use quizzes in their own classrooms. I’ve changed a few minor details to make these folks anonymous. Over the years they’ve shared with me what they do, but I did not ask them for permission to star in my blog.

I’m sharing these four styles of quizzing because I think they’re all very strong. I hope you find them useful too!

Four Quiz Methods

Low-Beginning Content and Test Prep

One teacher I know gives very short quizzes (2-3 questions) every day at the end of her community ESL classes. She uses it as a formal formative assessment – to make sure they learned what she thinks they learned. She deliberately formats them in the same style as the standardized tests her students need to take from time to time. When someone commented that this all sounded pretty intense for low-beginning ESL, she replied mildly, “If you set the expectation, they learn to meet it.”

Take-Home Review

Another teacher I know gives take-home quizzes after every session of his ESL classes, no matter what level he is teaching. They tend to be 5 – 10 questions. He uses these quizzes to review the main points from class and from the homework. He deliberately makes them as straightforward as possible. They count as a small percentage of the students’ grades, so they’re not high-stakes, but they’re not a joke. He asks students to try to complete them closed book. Whatever they can’t remember, they can then do open book. And they can come to class early to collaborate on the questions they struggled with right before handing it in. It’s due first thing the next class session.

Dictations, Modified

Yet another teacher gives dictation quizzes at the beginning of every grammar session, usually 5 or 6 questions. She uses these as both review and formative assessment. Plus if students are late or absent, they miss the quiz. The questions are always connected to the previous class session and/or homework. Sometimes they questions are straight dictations, and sometimes the students must transform/correct what she says (i.e. she reads a statement, the students write that statement as a question).

Traditional, With Corrections

A fourth teacher I know only gives periodic quizzes. She deliberately makes them difficult and on the long side (at least 12 questions). She uses them to encourage her students to study hard and really learn the material in order to pass the quizzes. She makes sure to allocate class time for going over answers, and allows students to earn back a small number of additional points if they submit corrections with explanations. In this way her quizzes are also great review.


How do you use quizzing?


Photo Credit: Animated Heaven on Flickr

You’re reading Activity Corner: Quizzing Styles, originally posted at

Examples of Pronunciation Fundamentals

17239167032_0810e4c0dcOn Monday, I wrote about how I’m viewing pronunciation these days. In this post, I’m going to give two examples of my view in practice with two wonderful students.

Example 1: Me and Russian

The first wonderful student is me!

I’ve been told that my Russian pronunciation is quite good. (Too bad my grammar is a nightmare and most of the vocabulary slides right out of my mind when I need it!)

In my studies in college, I kept coming across a word in context that I really had trouble saying: “Vzryv” – explosion.

It’s a very short word by Russian standards, but it has several features that made it challenging for me:

  • “Vz” doesn’t really happen at the beginning of English words
  • Russian “r” is different from English “r”
  • Russian “y” is a vowel that English doesn’t have

Highlighting exactly what was happening with this word helped me be patient with myself as I practiced it – it was a very uncomfortable word!

It also helped me to realize that a few English words end with “/vz/”, like saves. Applying what I could already pronounce to this word that was driving me bonkers helped.

With practice and patience, I can now pronounce explosion and its related verbs, which is nice even though I usually pick the wrong aspect and then conjugate it incorrectly.
N.B. the link describes what verbal aspect is and includes a section called, “Why Must I Endure This?” 

Example 2: Sierra Leonean Student and Thirty

A student of mine from Sierra Leone with very advanced English and pleasant accent asked me how to pronounce a word. I couldn’t understand which word she was asking about! We had to write it down, and it turned out to be “thirty.”

We had very little time to address this question, and it happened too recently for follow-up. She kindly said it several times for me, sometimes alone and sometimes in sentences, and I came away with this:

  • she learned British English (or at least not US pronunciation)
  • she is uncomfortable with /th/
  • she is uncomfortable with /ir/

This is my proposed plan for her, which I haven’t had the chance to communicate to her yet!

  1. Explain. Of people look confused after she says 30 as usual, she should add “the number, three zero, thirty.” This is not a long-term solution! Just a quick fix to get her 30-related communication on track ASAP.
  2. British. Next, she should aim for British pronunciation – /θəti/. This involves the uncomfortable /th/ sound but not the uncomfortable US /ir/ sound. It caters to her more British-sounding accent, making use of skills she already has. Americans often understand British pronunciation, so it will hopefully serve her well.
  3. US English. If she is planning to stay in the USA long-term and/or her British pronunciation is not getting the results she wants, she should work on her US /ir/ sound to get closer to how Americans are used to hearing it.


Photo Credit: Kelly Burkhart on Flickr

You’re reading Examples of Three Pronunciation Fundamentals, originally posted at