Assisting the Teacher: Writing Conferences

This is part of a series of posts called 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!


One way I have assisted my lead teachers is by conducting writing conferences with students.

With two different teachers meeting with students, but only one of them grading the students, this needs to be done with intention and good communication. What follows is what worked for us.

Clear Conferencing Goals

We had conferencing days for the express purpose of previewing students’ drafts of specific major writing assignments.

The lead teacher and I established before this class session that we would first check for topic and organization, and then move on to mechanics. We agreed on 15-minute conferences.

Time Slots

Students signed up for a time slot that worked for them. Students signed up to work with either her or me.

Full disclosure: I was last picked! I truly did not take this personally. Our students knew who would be grading them, and of course it seemed best to get advice from the grader herself.

Set a Timer (and expectations)

At the beginning of each conference, I welcomed the student and then used my cell phone’s voice commands to set a timer for 15 minutes.

Then I efficiently explained that I was going to skim their essay for structure. Then if there was time, we’d go back for details.

Start with Basics of Organization

I read their whole intro, identified their thesis out loud, then visibly checked that it matched up with topic sentences at the beginning of each paragraph. I then read their conclusion to make sure it restated the thesis and didn’t contain any surprises.

In their argument essay, the lead teacher and I also agreed that we should examine their 4th body paragraph pretty carefully. The counter-argument/concession/rebuttal can be tricky.

For a couple of students, we didn’t get much past this. Other students had this level of organization down no problem and we moved on to details.

Don’t Ignore What They’ve Done Well

It’s tempting, when you’re looking at a strict 15 minutes of one-to-one time, to pile all the advice you can onto each student.

However, having one’s writing critiqued feels personal. If the instructor speaks of literally only negatives, at best it becomes teacher talk and at worst it breaks hearts.

On the flip side, if the instructor is too timid to say what needs to change because s/he is afraid to hurt anyone’s feelings, that’s not really instruction.

Yes, address the problems. But also acknowledge some successes.

Touch Base After Conferences

After class, I quickly spoke to the lead teacher about the conferences: overall impression, overall organization, if they had a lot of major revision to do or just detail work, and if I practically begged them to go to the writing center for more help.

In the hour I was there, I could only meet with four students, so this was not an overwhelming amount of information.

However, in the future I think I should also quickly fill out a pre-made form with these basic comments so she could refer back to my notes. I do like notes!

Provide Input on Final Paper

When the final papers were completed and handed in, the lead teacher found class time where I could read through my four students’ final drafts and use the rubrics to share my thoughts about grading.

To be clear, I did not grade them. The assistant teacher is not in charge of grading. It was just input in case she was on the fence between one grade and another.


We just did these formal conferences a couple of times in the semester, but it made a big impact! It’s hard to beat one-to-one communication.

How do you do writing conferences?


Photo Credit: ASU Department of English on Flickr

You’re reading Assisting the Teacher: Writing Conferences, originally posted at


Writing Class Round-Up


Some posts most relevant to teaching writing:

The Writing Course

Highlighting the Value of a Writing Course

Shaping a Writing Course

Reading in a Writing Class


Process Writing

The Point of Writing


A Small Victory


Editing and Peer Review

Seven Editing Challenges

Scaffolding Editing

Scaffolding Peer Review


Citations and Plagiarism

Plagiarism vs. Real Life

Communicating About Plagiarism

On Teaching Citations


Photo Credit: Chris Gladis on Flickr

You’re reading Writing Class Round-Up, originally posted at


Activity Corner: Six Word Story

(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 is a nice little activity you can use as a warm-up, a mini-quiz, summary practice, or even grammar exercise, about basically any content.


We have that famous so-called six word novel:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

What else can our students convey in just six words?

In Six Words Or Less…

  • Introduce yourself to the class
  • Summarize the article/chapter you just read
  • Share your goals for the semester
  • Write down what you learned today
  • Describe someone important to you
  • Propose a topic for the next writing assignment

The possibilities are pretty much endless! Give it a try!


Idea Credit and further reading: Students Write Life Stories in Six Words or Less

Photo Credit: Rachel Torgerson on Flickr

You’re reading Activity Corner: Six Word Story, originally posted at

First Day Round-Up

A round-up of posts relevant to the first day of class!


Getting Ready

Beginning with the End In Mind – Thinking beyond the syllabus, log-ins, and diagnostic tests of the first day, to the larger question of how the semester should go.

Student Panel – Authentic introductions and warm-ups are important, according to a student panel at one of my colleges.

Student Questions – How will you be handling student questions this semester? Think about it, and set the expectation on Day 1.

Connecting Student and Syllabus – Best to start out with a plan for this!



Syllabus Activities – Ideas for going over the syllabus on the first day, plus more ideas for integrating it into class throughout the semester.

Conversation Jenga – A particularly great activity for Day 1 conversations.

Warm-Ups – All of my posts tagged “warm-up”



Awkward First Day – Classic journal post from my earliest days teaching EBS.

Comfortable First Day – Classic journal post from my days teaching EBS.

A Fresh, New Semester – My first day last semester – assistant teaching in for-credit EAP.


Photo CreditJeanne Menjoulet on Flickr

You’re reading First Day Round-Up, originally posted at

Assisting the Teacher: Getting Started

This is part of a series of posts called 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!

My first semester assistant teaching was a fantastic experience, and one of the highlights was getting to know, observe, and collaborate with my lead teacher. But I have to admit, we got off to a slow start.


Neither of us had ever been an assistant teacher, and neither of us had ever worked with one, either. To complicate things, she had graciously taken on teaching the class at the last minute when the need came to her attention, and I wasn’t assigned to the class until the second week. This meant we not only felt like we started out by playing catch-up, but we had both missed the training for working with/as assistants. So we had a bit of a learning curve.

Even though the following semesters had less confusion and scurrying, there was (and is!) still plenty to learn while navigating different courses, lead teachers, students, and semester events.

Based on all of that, these are my top five suggestions for getting started:

  1. Introduce yourself to the teacher. Not just your name and contact info, but a really short summary of your qualifications, experience, and what you have to offer. At least at our school, assistant teachers only need a BA or significant writing experience. One semester when I wasn’t proactive about introducing myself, it turned out that one of my lead teachers got most of the way through the semester before learning that I was an experienced ESL instructor with an MA TESOL! Where did I think she would learn this about me, if not from me? Oops!
  2. Introduce yourself to the class.  Sometimes I’ve been given the opportunity to introduce myself, and sometimes not. I drastically prefer introducing myself – I think it makes a huge difference with how students see me. My spiel to classes is similar to what I tell the teacher, mentioning that I’m a qualified teacher but not in charge of this class. I also emphasize that my job is to answer their questions, and that I really like this job!
  3. Attend the entire first class if possible. My assistant teaching gig starts the second hour of a two-hour class session, but ever since I began late in my first semester of assisting, I have asked to attend the entire first session of every class I could. I like that students see me there from the beginning, so I’m not extra. It also gives me some additional time to get a feel for my new lead teacher’s style.
  4. Find out if your lead teacher is accustomed to the assistant teacher model. The easiest way is to ask the lead teacher, though I think it would also be reasonable to ask the person who hired/assigned you. If your lead teacher is new to having an assistant teacher, be reasonably proactive with suggesting what you can do for him/her during class time. And when in doubt, circulate.
  5. Know your job description. At my college, assistants are specifically placed in classes to be an extra set of hands during class time. They are not to do subjective grading (e.g. major essays), preparation at home, etc. Particularly if your teacher is new to your department or new to having an assistant, be prepared for the possibility that you may have to decline tasks that are not within your job description. It does not feel good to say no, but I’m living proof that you can say it and still have a great relationship with your teacher. Focus on what you can do for them. If you find you’re saying “no” with any frequency, encourage them to speak to a head of your department if they have questions about your role.

It’s hard to believe that a few years ago, I’d only vaguely heard of assistant teaching at the college level, and I’m now it’s such an important part of my career and teaching perspective.

Here’s to a wonderful semester, everyone!


Photo CreditChris Conway, Hilleary Osheroff on Flickr

You’re reading Assisting the Teacher: Getting Started, originally posted at

Five Strategies for Learning Names

Happy January!

What’s your strategy for learning names?


Learning your students’ names quickly helps set a great tone for the semester.

Here are five ways to get it done:

Set a goal

I was born good at names. It’s a little eerie sometimes. Also, most classes I’ve taught are relatively small. In that kind of situation, I’ll usually know people’s names within the first two sessions without trying particularly hard.

But my goal is always to know my students’ names by the end of the first class session. I expect them to work hard – I can push myself, too.

You should set a goal that works for you, but make it as soon as humanly possible.

Feeling like you need some external motivation? Schedule a Name Test for yourself, and make it as public as you dare!

Use Two-Sided Name Placards

Yes, do some typical introductions and warm-ups. But don’t stop there.

On the first day, hand out card stock and dark markers. Ask students to write down the name they wish to be called on both sides. This helps the entire class learn names, including the students who sit in the back, and including the teacher.

Collect the placards at the end of each session so they’re always available in class. Plan to use them for at least the first five weeks of the semester.


Quiz yourself in both directions: face-to-name and name-to-face. Read down the roster, picturing each individual’s face. When you work with students’ assignments, attendance, grading, etc., deliberately picture each student. In class, look systematically around the room, recalling each individual’s name. At home, picture where each student was sitting and recall their names.

None of this takes a designated block of time, just a minute or two of your attention.

During your practice, make sure you don’t rely on identifying students by their hair, makeup, jacket, or other features of style they may choose to change at any time. You also can’t assume they’ll always be in the same seat – you need to know them wherever they’re standing or sitting.

If coming up with any particular name gives you trouble, practice repetition in multiple modalities: say it, write it, think it, spell it out loud, trace it on your palm with your finger, place it into a short tune or rhyme – play to your strengths!

Know Your Error Style

What types of name errors do you tend toward? And how does it manifest: blanking? garbling? slow recall? mixing up faces?

I’m a garbler, so mnemonics are my friend. My classic name problem is to mix up and/or reverse syllables in new-to-me names.

Since I know this is my error style, I recognize names that will give me trouble right away and immediately start building mental structures to keep me on track.

It’s often simple things, like “me in the middle” or remembering that this friendly person ironically has a syllable that sounds like mean in her name (not neam, but mean). 

If you mix up faces, ask permission to take photos, perhaps of rows of students at a time. Use the photos to study.

If you panic and blank, just going through the motions of studying may help you feel more confident, which may in turn help you blank less. You should also experiment with practicing in other modalities (see above) – maybe one clicks more readily for you than others do.

Double-Check Your Pronunciation

Names are important to people, even if they don’t say so. Take an extra few minutes to check your pronunciation. It’s really not awkward because the only reason anyone would check is because s/he cares. Even if it’s already halfway through the semester – just check.

How do you check? First, listen. How do the students and other teachers pronounce the students’ names? Do any differ from how you say them?

Then, can directly ask individuals. You just quietly ask. Here are a couple of examples:

“I hear different people say your name differently. How do you say your name? What do you prefer?”


“This is how I say your name. Is that right? How can I say it better?”

You can be less direct too, perhaps asking everyone to re-introduce themselves to build classroom community, or by making a public “test the teacher” activity.

If you can just feel the pronunciations sliding through your head, ask again. Simply say that you’re having trouble with this name, but that it’s important to you to get it right. Try saying a name two or three different ways and asking which is best. Write your understanding of the pronunciation and ask, “Like this?” Write it down for yourself in IPA. You can even ask if you can make an audio recording of the student saying his or her name properly.


Names matter. They’re worth the work it takes to memorize them. My best semesters have been ones where there’s a sense of community in the classroom, and it’s incredibly hard to have that when you’re not fluent in their names.

Get them quickly, and get them right!

Have a great semester!


Photo Credit: k4dordy on Flickr

You’re reading Five Strategies for Learning Names, originally posted at


End of Semester

The semester is over!

I got to assistant teach two classes back to back: intermediate academic writing, and advanced academic writing. Two different lead teachers, two classes in the same sequence, two different sets of learners – it was a really rich, edifying experience.

I met my goal of sharing my energy and joy straight through finals, though I admit that one class as a whole seemed more receptive to it than the other. (And who knows what each individual was thinking? Certainly not me. So interesting!)

Next semester, my family has some plans that make it so that I can’t commit to assistant teaching. I’m going to miss being in the classroom. On the flip side, I’m interested to see how the next few months unfold, and I’m hopeful that I’ll be available whenever an assistant teacher needs a sub.

Signing off for the holidays! I’ll check back in in the new year about my blog plans.