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


Student Questions Matrix, Part 3

This is Part 3 of a series on Student Questions. See Part 1 (intro) and Part 2 (the axes)

In this post, I’m going to look in more detail at the three action steps I outlined for handling student questions.

The Graphic (click to enlarge)


Answer Now… And You Might Still Get Derailed

It’s possible that an important and relevant question can still take over your whole lesson. In my opinion that’s OK, assuming the question is indeed both important and relevant.

I was recently talking to an EAP teacher much more experienced than I am, and she had just come from teaching a class session in which she’d had to chuck her entire lesson plan. What happened was simple: the students didn’t have the prerequisite skills she’d thought they had.

You can’t teach adjective clauses if they don’t know what an adjective is, or what a clause is. You can’t have them evaluate and edit thesis statements if they don’t know what a thesis statement is. I don’t know what topic her class was on that day, but she realized she had to back up, and she did so.

Adhering to your lesson plan in the face of students being utterly unprepared to succeed at it is not a badge of honor. It’s a waste of time. Let the important and relevant questions inform and guide you.

On the other hand, tossing aside a well-considered lesson plan because one student decided to ask a series of inconsequential questions important only to his/herself is not being a responsive teacher. It’s letting the whims of the boldest determine what everyone else experiences.

I like that this matrix helps me quickly evaluate when it’s legitimately time to set aside my lesson plan, and when it’s best to set aside the question of the moment.

The Parking Lot

I’m a big fan of having a Parking Lot in the classroom. It’s just a place to write down “not today” questions so you can process them when you’re not on the spot. I feel that an important part of lesson planning is checking on Parking Lot questions to make sure I address whichever ones are within the scope of my class.

That said, there is no rule that every question that finds its way to the Parking Lot has to end up as part of a future lesson. Especially when there’s an academic syllabus and predetermined course objectives involved, some questions are just not going to be a part of any lesson that semester. 

I do think it’s important to acknowledge the Parking Lot questions specifically in class. Parking Lot should not become “the place for stupid questions.” If you’re now addressing a question of Yasmine’s from last month’s Parking Lot, say so! If you’ve decided not to address Ranya’s question during class because that very topic will be introduced in the next level next semester, say so! 

Also, if the Parking Lot in your syllabus-based class keeps getting filled up with questions that are important but not relevant to the pre-defined course objectives, or important and relevant questions that you don’t have time to address, that’s concrete data for course planning. If the course is mostly in your hands, you can get to work planning what comes next and how to change the current unit next time around. If it’s an EAP class, you can bring the data back to your department. It might bring about adjusting the scope of that particular class, offering additional department-supported tutoring, etc.

After Class

Since not every question is germane or even appropriate for every class, it’s kind to offer to discuss with students outside of class. Personally, I offer students limited time after class to ask me questions. Keep in mind I’m an adjunct, I teach night classes, and am a bit of a night owl by nature. Here are three big reasons talking after class works well for me:

  1. traffic for the full two hours before my night classes start is miserable and students and I just can’t predict how early we’ll arrive;
  2. my children are quite young, and it’s easier for my family if I’m out more when they’re in bed than when they’re awake, and
  3. since night classes end so late, the only in-person questions I receive are genuinely important to the students, and the students are generally as efficient as possible so they can go home and get some sleep.

And there’s always email and the phone if they can’t stay late.

Next Week

Part 4 is coming up next week, with a discussion of using this little matrix in your direct instruction to promote metacognition, and also some strategies for fielding the Green Zone questions.


You’re reading Student Questions, Part 3, originally posted at

Thoughts on Writing Conferences

I am an assistant teacher this semester, assigned to help in the last hour of an academic writing class. It’s pretty awesome.

We’re deep into the semester right now, and I’ve had the pleasure of conferencing with the same group of students over the course of a couple of months.

A few thoughts about it:


Their writing has improved. They are writing within the structure of a five-paragraph essay much more consistently, the way they explain arguments is becoming clearer, and they are beginning to internalize exactly how to cite references.

Do they know that their writing has improved? When the teacher and I tell them, do they believe us?

Organization and Grammar

There is tension between the two. They’re very different writing skills, but you can’t really excel at one while having serious issues with the other. They must both be addressed.

It’s really hard to find time for both. When I’m teaching, I find it hard to do justice to both in my lesson plans. When I’m assistant teaching, I find it difficult to really address both in my conferences with the students. Seeing how my lead teacher handles the balance has been particularly great professional development for me.


Most of our students use the technology (the internet, the learning management system, the printer, etc.) with ease. The tech facilitates learning, makes information available, and enhances communication. But for a couple of them, the links, the log-ins, the scrolling, and other basics are just hurdle after hurdle in addition to the content.

That means that most of our conferences are about writing, but with one or two students, the teacher and I spend a chunk of their conferencing time helping them find (or re-find) the article that everyone else has been scouring for claims and quotes for ten minutes already. We’re all working together to make it work, but the digital divide is real!


I am so glad to be assistant teaching this semester!


Photo Credit: CollegeDegrees360 onFlickr

You’re reading Thoughts On Writing Conferences, originally posted at