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

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Activity Corner: Two Truths and a Lie

(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.)

1471150324_a52068a957_zI don’t usually choose to use this one in my own classroom. I mean, first of all, it’s a drinking game. Second of all, do we really want to get to know each other by lying? And third of all, since we’re all lying about something, it can lead to confusion, especially in a language-learning setting.

I should’ve gone into marketing – I can really sell these activities.

I’m including it because as an assistant teacher, I’ve seen this activity used multiple times to great effect. Nobody cares (or knows?) that it’s a drinking game, most people seem to have fun making up a lie to innocently trick everyone, and I’ve been impressed at how little confusion results from this game.

Plus there’s no prep, it requires no materials, and is general enough to be used in many levels and situations.


  • Write the name of the game on the board.
  • Model: tell two truths and one lie about yourself. It’s helpful to write them on the board at all but the highest levels. Have students guess which is the lie. When they identify the lie, go ahead and draw a line through it to show that it is indeed not true.
  • Give students time (around five minutes) to think of two truths and one lie about themselves.
  • Call on students randomly to share their two truths and their lie. Encourage the other students to guess which is the lie: the first, second, or third sentence.

It’s really simple, it doesn’t take much time, and people seem to get a kick out of it.

Note: there’s usually someone in all but the highest classes who doesn’t quite get that they are supposed to tell one untrue “fact” about themselves. When that happens, remember that it’s inevitable and be prepared to joke, “You’re just too truthful!” or “You’re so honest!” No big deal.

Give it a try!

Photo Credit: Carmella Fernando on Flickr

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Activity Corner: Who Are You?

(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 warm-up activity that helps students get to know each other a bit better as we share how we see ourselves.


You split students into small groups of about four each, and each group has a group of “personality” cards. Students have quiet time to think about which personality card(s) best describe(s) them, and then share what and why with their small group. This can be as simple as outgoing vs. shy, to pictures of various animals, to Jung’s 12 architypes.


  • Decide on a set of personality cards.
  • Print out enough that you have one set for every four students in your class.
  • Students work in groups of about 4. Give each group a set of cards.
  • Students look together at the different cards. Each picks one to represent him/her.
  • Students take turns holding up the card that best describes themselves and telling their group why.


In an intermediate class, the teacher should separate the class into groups and hand out five cards per group: lion, sheep, chameleon, robin, and goat.

Go through the cards as a class. What does a lion do? What about sheep? What kind of lizard is this, and what does it do? What kind of bird is this, and what does it do? What do goats do?

Their answers might differ – things like this are open to interpretation, and different cultures and individuals likely interpret them differently. This is part of what makes it an interesting conversation activity.

Model the activity. “I am looking at the cards. Which card is like me? Which card is similar to me? Here is the goat. Goats get into trouble. They jump over fences. They eat crazy things. They are always active. I am like the goat, in my mind. My brain jumps around like a goat. I think too much and I get in trouble like a goat.”

Give instructions. “Now, it’s your turn. Which animal are you? First, think. Then, tell your group. Tell them why. You have ten minutes.”

Circulate to make sure everyone understands and everyone participates.


  • use different sets of cards depending on the level and interests of your students, and the content of your unit of study.
    • personality vocabulary (outgoing, shy, thoughtful, etc.)
    • colors (red, blue, gray, etc.)
    • musical instruments (trumpet, erhu, bass drum, etc.)
    • plants (cactus, rose, oak tree, etc.)
    • animals from an area of the world being studied currently
    • characters from a story you’re reading or a movie you watched as a class
    • Jung’s 12 archetypes
  • after students share within their own small groups, ask all students to re-group with others who chose the same card. For example, all the goats form one group. Students can compare why they chose that card – was it for the same reason or different reasons?
  • reflective writing can either precede or follow this activity.
  • follow this activity with a grid activity, in which students ask each other which card they chose and for one reason why. This in turn can be used for students to practice using reported speech.

Photo Credit: svklimkin on Flickr

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Activity Corner: Quick-Switch Conversations

Callanish Stone Circle(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 activity works best with at least ten participants. It’s a great communicative activity, and makes use of a lot of speaking and listening.

Its logistics are inspired by speed dating, but it’s classroom-appropriate.

In this set-up, students are organized in such a way that with very efficient movement, students can switch conversation partners quickly. If you have enough space, students will form two concentric circles. If you have limited space,  they’ll form two lines instead.

It really lends itself well to fluency practice, because it’s very high-energy, fast, and noisy – not conducive to careful concentration!

Since partners are switched so quickly, it also lends itself to repetitious practice.


  1. Decide what you want the students to practice. See below for ideas. This is a flexible exercise – make it work for you!
  2. Write prompts on cards if needed. For repetitious practice, just write the one prompt on the board.
  3. In class, describe what students will be practicing. “We are going to do an activity to practice ____.” Maybe even write the purpose on the board.
  4. Explain that in this activity, you will have many fast conversations with many people. When you hear the signal, you will get a new conversation partner.
  5. Model, especially less advanced classrooms. (see below)
  6. Help students get into formation! This will be two concentric circles or two lines. Either way, the students in one circle/line will face the students in the other circle/line.
  7. Remind them of the purpose. Remind them of the signal sound. Remind them which circle/line moves.
  8. Sound the signal and have everyone start!
  9. Stay nearby to watch, listen, and prompt.
  10. Keep signaling the partners to switch as appropriate.


Click for an example where we practiced a verb tense and adverbs of frequency. We had 23 students in Intermediate community English and we used prompt cards.

Below is an example of how to use this for repetitious practice, plus how to model the activity.

In a beginner class, I wanted students to practice introducing themselves again and again. We had already practiced dialogs and vocabulary from the textbook – we just needed to get more comfortable now.

For this class, I definitely had to model the activity. After I explained the purpose and what we’d be doing, I brought four volunteer students to the front of the room and had them stand along the board. I wrote “Hello! My name is ____” on the board and then introduced myself to the first student until my signal went off (I set my cell phone alarm for 15 seconds for this example). As soon as it went off, I stepped sideways to the next person and began again with the prompt. I repeated this with each of the four students up front.

Next, we needed the students to be in formation. I helped six form the inner circle. Then I asked the other six students one by one to stand in facing a specific student. I told them specifically, “Ahmed is your first partner,” “Amal is your first partner,” to try to make the abstract concrete.

Since this was a beginner class, I also had them practice changing partners. We were in a smallish space so I had only the inner circle move. I had my signal go off and the inner circle students all stepped to their left. I had the signal go again and the inner students stepped to the left again.

Then I reminded them that we were practicing introducing ourselves. The outer students would begin. “Hello, my name is ___. What’s your name? Nice to meet you!”

“One, two, three, talk!”

When they went all the way around, we switched to having the inner students initiate the conversation.

This was a lot of set-up time! It was also a lot of repeating the same thing, but the interesting format made it pretty fun and less like a drill.

Content Possibilities:

  • a grammar form
  • general get-to-know-you conversation
  • a specific piece of conversation (i.e. introduce yourself, ask where mens’ shoes are at the store, etc.)
  • vocabulary words
  • prompts can be pictures or objects (or words, of course)

Photo Credit: Andrew Bennett on Flickr

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Students’ Notes

312697129_94967f6b1bWhat do you do when you notice that your students take “disorganized” notes?

The “Disorganization”

I put “disorganized” in quotes because their notes appear disorganized to me… but they’re not my notes. Maybe they make perfect sense to the students?

Some of the examples I’ve seen over the years:

  • students open to a random notebook page and begin writing
  • no meta information at all added to the page
    • no date
    • no sub-headings to group what they’re working on
    • just a list of answers – not the questions, and no page or unit number
  • guides pre-printed on the page (i.e. a graphic organizer, a 2×2 grid, etc.) are utterly ignored like they’re watermarks

I don’t mean this to sound critical – in adult ESL, we’ve got folks from many cultures and all sorts of educational backgrounds. Of course their note-taking styles vary, too. Most of my students are highly motivated and earnestly respectful. It’s my pleasure to meet them where they’re at.

My question is, how best to meet their note-taking? Narrowing a broad question a bit more, how much of this should be my focus in an academic ESL setting?

Ideas and Activities

Right now, I’m leaning away from methodically making them take notes the way I do, or making it a rule that every piece of paper be dated. The way I see it, taking notes is personal. It’s private and ungraded. The student is generally the only person who sees or uses most of his/her notes. External, enforced change is unlikely to stick.

I think I’d use a metacognitive approach. In the second class session, we’d discuss the purposes of notes. The two purposes I see are 1) reinforce learning as it happens, and 2) create study materials for ourselves. I’m genuinely curious to see what the class would come up with!

Then we’d have think-pair-share time about how we can take notes that support those purposes. Students would generate and share ideas about how to improve their notes. It would be up to students to adopt any new habits – or not.

Right after the first graded assessment – when they’re fresh from studying – I’d follow up with another metacognitive notes activity. I’d probably run the Snowballs activity with each student writing one way their notes were useful and one way their notes could be improved for studying. Then they’d scramble their answers snowball-style and write a short reflection on the random answers they received: would either of these improve their own notes? What is one more strategy they’d like to try?

Actually, in a writing class, that could make for a nice little in-class writing assignment and be useful for practicing transition and organization words.


How do you support your students’ note taking? Or how would you?


Photo Credit: Jonathan Lin on Flickr

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Activity Corner: Put It In Order

(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.)

My lead teacher used one of these activities to introduce essay structure in our Advanced Academic Writing class last week. She gave each student an element of an academic essay (i.e. “thesis statement,” “topic sentence 2,” etc.), and as a class they had to tape them to the board in the correct order.

I’ve used it in the past to teach sequence signal words (first, then, etc.) and to review several different verb tenses all at once. I’ve also used a variation where students put words in an appropriate order to form a sentence.

One of my Russian teachers used it on us to teach… well, I’m not sure what she was trying to teach. It was the first week of class and she gave us two stanzas worth of separate lines of a Russian poem. We had to put them in order. It was waaaay over my head.

This is a great activity for students to do in small groups or as one big group. They’ll be negotiating meaning together and the conversations will be authentic because of that. It can be individually done as well, but there’s less conversation and lots more cutting out that way.


  1. Decide what you want your students to put in order. Some kind of chronological or other objective sequence (i.e. introduction, body, conclusion) is the most clear-cut way to do this.
  2. Decide how many students to a group, and how many groups.
  3. Decide where the students will be working – at their tables, on the board, etc.
  4. Cut out the pieces onto separate strips of paper.
  5. In class, introduce the activity. Explain that you’ll be putting the papers in order. Explain what the students will be looking for to determine the order.
  6. Give the students time to figure it out.
  7. Go over the students’ results. Highlight the clues that pointed us to the right answer (i.e. “last” would go at the end; a thesis statement always goes at the end of the intro). Go over what is correct and be sure to answer questions about it.


Other prep ideas:

  • Bring several pairs of scissors and have students help you cut strips.
  • Write on index cards or sentence strip card stock.
  • Assign students to each write on each card, then they can put the cards in order. Example: ask each student to write one sentence that told one activity they did last week and when they did it. (This element can be practice of Simple Past.) Then they can put all their sentences in order on the board.

Levels of focus:

  • word building (i.e. prefix, root, suffixes)
  • sentence building (each strip is just one word)
  • paragraph building
  • narrative building / timeline

Other uses:

  • Conversation starter – have students put things in a more subjective order, such as importance, preference, fairness, etc. This sets up the class for meaningful conversations: students can discuss why they put things where they did, ask each other questions, and practice politely disagreeing. Examples: best food, most important belongings, spouse traits, etc.
  • Syllabus study – the first day of class, when going over the syllabus, have students put their major assignments in order so they for sure know what’s coming up in the semester.
  • Grammar study – include sentences in various past, present, and future tenses and aspects that the students are familiar with.
  • Content – put a step in a process on each strip, then have the students put those in order. Examples: photosynthesis, blood transfusions, rebuilding a carburetor, etc.

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Throwback Draft: Life With Limited English

[I have a modest collection of unpublished drafts in various states of completion from at least five years ago, and I thought I’d publish some from time to time.]

427338446_4b1e18bef7From conversation time in Level 2:

“I’m sad… because… I want to discuss…. with neighbors… but…. can not.”

“My daughter, she sees the children playing outside, and she want to go with them.  But I don’t let her. Because I can’t speak to them.  I don’t have English.”

Worth remembering as teachers and as neighbors, I think.


Photo Credit: Nisha A on Flickr

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