As an ESOL teacher in Maryland, I was pleased to attend the annual Maryland TESOL conference a couple days ago.

As always, it was a nice experience.

I’d say that the theme of my conference experience was a dearth of presentations that were applicable to higher education.

And the uncomfortable corollary: if I want something to be there, I need to consider providing it myself, even though I’m just me.


The keynote was about students with limited/interrupted formal education. It was well-considered and well-presented, and I thought she made several good points about literacy- and school-related cultural differences between many of our students’ home countries and the USA. But overall, her topic was not new to me and I don’t know that she added a whole lot to my schema. I also don’t know how relevant it was to higher education students and classes. I mean, we have SLIFE students, but I didn’t leave the presentation with ideas for how to work with them more effectively within the confines of the syllabus-led courses we teach. I was hoping for more than this from a keynote.

There were three breakout sessions, and I only attended one specifically relevant to higher education. This session dealt with a very specific study of a very specific group of international students, and though it was interesting, I didn’t feel like I walked out of that session with any insights that were actionable.

The other two sessions I attended were both interesting as well. The first session was about public schools. It was a stellar presentation – easily the best of the day. But since the public schools are peripheral to my professional life, the likelihood of my ever using information from this presentation is low. The second session was about corpus linguistics. The speaker’s energy for her topic was contagious and would have sparked anybody’s interest. However, I was already interested, and I was disappointed with how much time she spent on the mechanics of using the search functions on the corpus websites. She did give a couple of activity ideas which I might be able to adapt to my future classes, but I wished for many more ideas and much less of the assumption that my students had the time and/or inclination to play with the corpus tools in or out of class.

Though I had a great time and feel that it was a pleasant use of my personal money for my professional development, I was a little disappointed to walk out of the conference with nothing that was clearly actionable in my current work setting.

Feeling Disappointed? Get Busy!

Again, none of this is intended to be a complaint. I think it’s more just a long-winded justification for wondering if it’s time for me to step up and present. Not because I think I know more than the people around me (I’m pretty sure I don’t!), but because this is the kind of gap we ourselves need to step up and fill. And I think it was a gap. I can’t be the only person who was looking for more higher-education-related sessions – I’m just not that special!

So I’m trying to think through what I wish had been there. What would I have loved to have attended?

  • grammar anything (I’m a grammar geek), maybe particularly re: academic writing
  • advanced grammar review for teachers – clause types, non/restrictive commas, etc.
  • the color vowel chart (I’m a pronunciation geek, too)
  • tips on teaching/tutoring essay writing
  • academic activities based on corpus linguistics… that could fit into a syllabus class
  • cultural presentations (i.e. Cultures of West Africa 101)
  • how to run a small-scale study
  • how to run a large-scale study
  • grading essays efficiently
  • working with your college’s librarians
  • working with your college’s tutoring center

Many of these are enticing to me because they represent gaps in my knowledge and experience. I could not present on many of these topics, at least right now.

But several on my list are my interests/hobbies. I’d like to attend sessions on them in hopes of going deeper. Perhaps those would be subjects to consider presenting on next time, in case anyone else is interested too. And if nobody else is interested, that’s OK! I’ll go attend someone else’s and learn something new!

How do you figure out what to present on? And when you’re “good enough” to present?

You’re reading MD TESOL 2017, originally posted at


Assisting the Teacher: Actively Circulating

I’ve decided to write a series of posts in a new category: ESL Assistant Teaching Tips. I’m writing from the point of view of an assistant ESOL instructor in academic English classes at a community college. For background, here’s why I love assistant teaching, and here is what the basics of the set-up look like. I hope that other assistants will find this useful, and that this wonderful classroom model will spread!


On Monday, I talked about the interruption conundrum: to interrupt, or not to interrupt?

Spoiler: interrupt!

In this post, I’ll break down how this not-very-extroverted person goes about circulating so actively so much that she thinks of it as “crowd surfing.”

The short version is: I don’t stand by and wait for more than a minute or so at a time. If I’m not being flagged down, I’m either quietly walking or verbally checking in.

Step 1: Greet Everyone and Check In

When I walk in in the second hour of class, everybody is usually working. In one classroom, I enter from the front, and I find this very uncomfortable. In the other classroom, the door is in the back, so people don’t know I’m there unless they turn around or I greet them.

Most days, I circulate around the room quietly and interrupt students individually or in pairs in order to greet them by name. It’s a quick hello and social question, asking about their weekend or something like that. I listen to their answers. If they’d been absent the class before, I ask if everything’s OK. They seem to respond well to that. I then remind them that I’m here to answer any questions or help however I can.

It’s important to me that we have this little connection. Honestly, I sometimes skip this step in the class with the door in the front. And it shows – I feel more connected to the other class. No more skipping the greeting, Emily!

Step 2: Walk Around Quietly

If nobody has any questions for me right away or they’ve just started working on something, I just walk around quietly. I look at their work, and I’m not shy about stopping to read and telling them that they’re on track… or making a suggestion to get them back on track.

I’ll sometimes ask how it’s going, especially if someone seems to have less done than the other students. Usually people nod or say “fine,” but occasionally I get a panicked “bad!” and then I talk that person through tackling the longest assignment they’ve ever written in English.

Step 3: Ask If I Can Check Anything

Once students have some work down, be it textbook work, an outline, or a draft essay, I ask each person if there’s anything I can check for them.

If it’s a small amount, I read and check it all. If there are errors, I point them out but I don’t give the answers.

If it’s a large amount, I ask if they have any specific questions.

If they seem to want me to spend 20 minutes checking all their work, I’m up front that I can’t. I encourage them to ask me only the most important couple of questions so I can check in with the other students, too.

I cycle between Step 2 and Step 3 for much of class, and I also get flagged down a lot.

Step 4: Build Up, Chat, Farewell

As class comes to a close, I make sure to point out to students what they’re doing well, to build up their confidence and their positive associations with writing.

I always stay a few minutes late in case people want to chat a bit – sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. I don’t chat a lot about my personal life, though I share a few bits about my family and other interests. I mostly just want everyone to finish class feeling  hopeful… and enthusiastically encouraged to utilize the college’s writing center!

I also make an effort to say good night to everyone and wish them a nice evening or weekend as appropriate. If they have a big assignment or exam coming up, I wish them luck. It’s a little thing, but like with the greeting, I think it just helps us feel connected.


It’s not rocket science!

But it is a lot of interrupting and a lot of initiating, both of which I’ve been a bit ambivalent about, especially as the mere assistant.

Over the last few semesters, I’ve decided that the interrupting is worth it and the initiating is definitely part of my role even though I’m not in charge.

Does crowd surfing come naturally to you?


You’re reading Assisting the Teacher: Actively Circulating, originally posted at




The Interruption Conundrum

I love assistant teaching (and lead teaching for that matter), but in some ways, Emily as a teacher looks like a mismatch. For one, I’m not the most extroverted person in the world. For another, I dislike trying to get others to do what they don’t want to do. And lastly, I usually aim to avoid interruptions as much as possible.

Constant interruptions drive me a bit bonkers during the day with my young children, so I am loath to interrupt others in turn. Also, I’m quite aware of the cognitive burden of language learning and how unhelpful it is to have insufficient time and/or concentration to apply to related tasks.

The way second hour of class is usually run, my most common task as the assistant is to circulate and help as needed as the students work individually or in pairs.

But what does “as needed” mean? When they wave me over? When they make a confused face? When I look over their shoulder and see they’re having trouble? Or when I ask?

Where do I draw the line between taking the initiative and being a pest?

To interrupt, or not to interrupt?


I’ve come to a conclusion that works for me, but it’s not indisputable and wouldn’t work in every setting.

My conclusion is to go ahead and interrupt.

This is partly because when I tried out patiently waiting by the wall for someone to call me over, I did a whole lot more waiting than was probably ideal, especially at first. And when someone finally did ask me something, it was kind of awkward because they didn’t want to ask for help and it wasn’t really clear to them who I was or if I could help. Building rapport took a really long time.

When I felt strongly enough that the Wall Waiting method wasn’t working, I tried a different approach: I dove in. Down each row, interrupting each person to ask how I could help, multiple times each session.

Remember how I’m not the world’s most extroverted? I think of this in my head as “crowd surfing,” because every time, it feels like a big leap of faith.


It’s worth it. The results are that my students know and trust me, and that I catch problems before a lot of time is wasted. And because of that rapport and work experience together, they are willing to flag me down.

Philosophy of Interruption

Even though my practice of interrupting is working well in my current setting (in Maryland community college in night classes focused on academic writing), to me it’s very important to have a philosophical guideline to go by as well.

On the surface, it doesn’t make sense for an introverted person who values deep work and dislikes being interrupted to interrupt her students with zeal for hours every week.

But there’s more going on. Ages ago I wrote about the benefits of college writing courses, and I think I was right. Also, students are supposed to do a significant amount of work outside of class. I shouldn’t fall prey to the fallacy that just because that work is invisible to me, it doesn’t exist.

The fact is that class time is just one facet of their learning time, and it’s much better suited for interaction than for uninterrupted concentration regardless of me.

My current philosophy of interruption:

Working with each other and with teachers is one of the major benefits of face-to-face in-class time.

It’s more important for students to make the most of their limited time to interact with us during class than to concentrate deeply during class.

Students can and should work at home or at the library for uninterrupted study time.

It’s been a cycle of philosophy leading practice leading philosophy, and this is where I’ve ended up for now. Crowd surfing. There is some method to my madness – coming up on Thursday.

Photo Credit: musicisentropy on Flickr

You’re reading The Interruption Conundrum, originally posted at

ESL Assistant Teaching Tips

I’ve decided to write a few posts in a new category: ESL Assistant Teaching Tips.


This is partly in hopes of sharing what I’ve learned in my last few semesters of assistant teaching.

It’s also partly in hopes of encouraging more programs to hire assistants for ESL writing and reading classes. Not all of my community colleges do this, but I wish they would. I think it would also be helpful in settings beyond EAP, though admittedly I’ve been pretty firmly embedded in adult EAP the past while.

The Basics

The way assistant teaching works at at least one community college I work for is as follows: academic reading and writing courses with a minimum number of students have an assigned lead teacher and an assigned assistant teacher. Classes meet for about two hours, twice a week.

Second hour of class only, the assistant teacher comes in.

The intention is for the first hour to be more about instruction, review, etc., and second hour to be reading and writing practice in class with two instructors available to lead small groups, circulate, check work, conference, etc.

Assistants are not hired to do preparation at home, including lesson planning or grading. They do not necessarily reduce the lead teacher’s workload; rather, they allow more to be accomplished during class, particularly in terms of interactions with students.


I will be periodically posting tips and ideas about how assistant teachers can support the classroom. I hope it’s helpful!



Well, I’m pleased to say that my week randomly away from the blog had directly to do with some substitute lead teaching!

One of my lead teachers suddenly and unexpectedly needed to miss a week of class, and I was happy to step in to support her and our students.

I’m still a stay-at-home-mom to my very young children, and planning while parenting (and parenting while planning) just doesn’t produce quality results for me, my students, or my kids. Luckily, between my teacher’s routine planning ahead and support from our head of department who’s teaching the same course this semester, my prep duties were minimal.

I have to say that even when so well-supported and even with knowing the class well from assisting, taking the reins of the class stressed me out! I’m confident in my ability to teach well, but I’m not confident in my ability to lead the class in the exact way the real teacher wanted it led. Lack of mind-reading skills and all.

That said, it was cool to be back up in front of the class again. From that vantage point, I wondered:

  • How many of my students are too near-sighted to read the board? There was a lot of squinting, and not a lot of evidence that they had read the agenda I’d written there first thing.
  • What are students’ expectations of themselves and their instructors when they (the students) miss a class?
  • What support systems do they have as they juggle work, family, and classes?

It was a great week, but I’m very happy to be back on the sidelines and back on the blog again!

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