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 LearningToTeachEnglish.com.

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 LearningToTeachEnglish.com.




Three-Phase Lesson Planning

8543315720_4c4676260bOne elegantly simple way to lesson plan is to go through these three phases:

  1. I do it
  2. We do it
  3. You do it

In other words, first you introduce what the students will be learning. Then you all practice it together. Lastly, students have the opportunity to practice it more independently.

I want to be clear that I did not invent this. I learned about it in several conversations and trainings. It’s not the only way to lesson plan – just a really helpful tool to have at your disposal.

Five things I love about this lesson planning lens:

  1. “Do.” In a language classroom, we are using the language to do things. We should not just be learning about the language.
  2. Teacher Talk (or TTT) is in its place. It serves phases two and three. It introduces and then steps aside. It is not the point.
  3. Metacognition. Students need to have ownership of their own learning. One way we can support this, even within the confines of a syllabus-led class, is to be up front about the strategies we use. This lesson plan is an easy one to communicate.
  4. Buy-in. Some students might not think that group work or fluency activities are “serious.” Particularly adults accustomed to a non-communicative way of language learning. Showing that this is an intentional part of a methodical plan can help them try it out with an open mind.
  5. Over-thinker support. I am a classic over-thinker. There are lots of detailed lesson planning suggestions out there, and they rightly point out the bazillion factors you should consider in your lesson plan. This one helps me take a step back and see in broad strokes if I have a pretty good plan or if I’ve been rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Does anyone out there use this lesson planning method?

Photo Credit: Tim Green on Flickr

You’re reading Three Phase Lesson Planning, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.

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 LearningToTeachEnglish.com.

Journal: Planning Extensively Paid Off

One thing that went well:  Conversation time at the end.  We only had about 15 minutes for it, but I asked them something to the effect of, “If you could choose only one, youth or money, which would you pick?  Why?”  They seemed to find it interesting, it made for a really fun mood with which to end class.  Yay!  Also, it wasn’t the only part of the lesson that went well.  Double yay!

One thing to improve:  Explaining and modeling the warm-up could have gone better.  Specifically, we were practicing quick, formulaic small-talk you might have with your neighbor if you both happened to be walking to your cars at the same time.  However, I didn’t make this clear enough and some students took the opportunity to have a longer chat.  This wasn’t catastrophic, but it also wasn’t the purpose of the activity. 

One surprise:  My (perhaps obsessive) planning from yesterday actually resulted in a laid-back pre-class morning, well-paced and in-depth English practice, exactly the right amount of material for our three-hour class, and overall good feeling as everyone filed out the door at noon.  I’m not sure that all of that has ever happened before in one class period as a result of my good planning.  Maybe I’m getting better at it!  Confession: I didn’t pick out the conversation starter itself until it was time to write it on the board.  But I’m still Captain Planny for the day, ok?

Journal: On Planning Ahead

Yay Planning

I’ve done a great job this semester of planning the week’s lessons the weekend before.  It’s a necessity with my busy schedule this fall.  I also did a great job of planning ahead for this week two weekends ago because of last weekend’s vacation.  Go me!

The Lessons Could Be Better

The problem is that I’ve been feeling kind of disconnected from what I planned even though I’m the one who planned it and I review it the morning before class. Today, for example, it was an OK lesson with a nice balance of interaction, accuracy practice, and fluency practice.  We even had a discussion about our neighborhood that involved us making a huge map of the school’s neighborhood together.  But it was all somehow uninspired, and I think uninspiring as well.

I’m not trying to be hyper-critical of myself here, just honest.  I’m doing it (or at least most of it) right, but something feels a little off.  This is kind of concerning to me and I think it’s important that I look into it before I go numb to it.

Potential Answers

I saw a really interesting article in the New Yorker that I think sheds an interesting light on this.  The topic is really about procrastination, but it discusses research that suggests that individuals actually have differing identities within them all negotiating for and against different decisions we make.  Here’s a quote from the New Yorker’s article (emphasis mine):

But some of the philosophers in “The Thief of Time” have a more radical explanation for the gap between what we want to do and what we end up doing: the person who makes plans and the person who fails to carry them out are not really the same person: they’re different parts of what the game theorist Thomas Schelling called “the divided self.”

So I feel a little less silly now about confessing that I feel less like I’m teaching when I follow Last-Weekend-Emily’s lesson plan instead of Last-Night-Emily’s lesson plan.  It generally feels much more like I’m using a lesson plan out of a textbook, like I’m following a script, even though I wrote the “script.”  Why does that feel so separate from actively observing, supporting, guiding, and teaching?

Maybe it is this idea of the “divided self,” that “someone else” really did write the lesson.  Maybe it’s tied to my style of interacting and my deep enjoyment of well-informed improvisation.  Maybe I’ve been planning mediocre lessons.  Or maybe I’m being too hard on myself.

Moving Ahead

Regardless of the philosophical or psychological causes of my conundrum, I’d like to move toward being happier with my lessons.

It’s tempting to try going back to planning the night before.  I just think it would be a horrible idea given my other scheduling commitments and the other obvious issues with relying on last-minute planning.

One workable next step is to ask my students for feedback even though 1) it’s difficult to ask abstract questions to beginners and 2) it’s going to be hard to get honest criticism from such kind, respectful people.

Another way to shake things up could be to review my lessons the night before (instead of the morning of) to try to get back into my original mindset more thoroughly.

Rest assured that as I tweak my process, I’ll try to not be too hard on myself.

Journal: A Larger Class than I’d Expected

Yesterday continued to be “meh.” I had 7 students, and I felt kind of lost in this big computer lab with them.  We had to do paperwork and yet another test, so I hardly got to interact with them at all.  What interaction there was was all about boring and/or abstract concepts, so I felt that they had no reason to actually come back today.

Well, they all came back.  Plus a few more.  And class was good.

Students: 17
(but some of the new folks will likely move to Level 2 next week)

Countries of Origin: El Salvador, South Korea, Puerto Rico, China, Vietnam, Mexico, Peru, Iraq

What surprised me:

  • New students kept on coming in to register.  I was hoping we’d hit 20, but 17 was still fun.  🙂
  • The dictation relay went off without a hitch.
  • Just how much fun I had juggling a class of 7, 10 new registrants, and then a class of 17.

Today’s Objectives:

  1. SWBAT name, hear, and ID the vowels + y correctly and quickly
  2. SWBAT ask and answer “What’s your name?” and “How do you spell that?”
  3. SWBAT use and understand specific language relating to dates: today, tomorrow, yesterday, days of the week, date, and two ways to say 2010.

What went well:

I watched my teacher talk pretty carefully, especially at first, and I really cut back on unnecessary and confusing narration.  I backed up my words with physical demonstrations.

The flyswatter game went well even though I forgot my flyswatters in the car.  I liked that I backed out of the activity so quickly, making being the Teacher a student job after just one round.

I had them do a mingle just as the number of new registrants in the room was getting ridiculous.  The timing was good, the questions were a good level, and it was a great activity for the new registrants to join in the middle of.

What I’d like to improve upon:


  • I wrote the dialog we studied for the last hour of class in the last few minutes of the second break.  I’m happy with its relevance and quality, just not with when I wrote it.
  • I still don’t know where the photocopier is.

Thoughts for tomorrow:

I’m looking forward to having them work on an introduction project (basically, to write profiles of themselves including first and last name, country, and job).  We also need some real fly-swatters to practice letter names.

Lesson Planning Note: Considerations

One hallmark of adult ESL (in not-for-college-credit settings especially, to my knowledge) is that all of the students are at remarkably different levels.  For example, some of my students have been in America for decades, while some arrived about a month ago.  Some of them have had 24 years of formal education in their lives (not necessarily in English, of course).  Some have had no formal education at all before taking ESL.

The next unit we’ll be studying in the text hits on the following grammar points: can, have to, simple present, simple continuous, and adverbs of frequency, and expressing time. That’s a lot.

For a few of my students, all of the grammar listed above would be a great review. To other students, some of the grammar would be review, and some will be new. And to a few, it would be basically all new structures to learn.

So my planning first of all consists of deciding which points to focus on so that everyone actually learns something usable.  And whatever material that turns out to be, my job is not just to introduce it in small, logically-sequenced bits with plenty of opportunities for practice, but also to keep the more advanced students interested and learning while the others catch up, or at least make progress.


Bonus note from 5:30 AM:

SWBAT means “students will be able to.” It’s how I learned to frame my objectives in TEFL.

It’s a good way to plan lessons because it focuses on what students will be doing and what they’ll be getting out of it.

A string of favorite activities does not make a great lesson if those activities are not to the purpose. And the purpose revolves around what students will be able to do.

Even an inspired explanation of a point in an ESL class is just teacher talk if the lesson never moves on to students using that point.

SWBAT keeps lessons and units and semesters on track.

That is all.