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.

Observations and the Unknown

I kicked off my first round of teacher observations ever this week with just one, and it seriously blew me away.

Grammar Class by durian on Flickr
Grammar Class by durian on Flickr

I hadn’t done it before for multiple reasons, many of which now sound like excuses. To be fair, I found it genuinely difficult to make the major time investment required based only on the promise of future, possibly intangible returns. There are a good many concrete, measurable, predictable things I need to accomplish at the learning center, and the amorphous notion that I “should” conduct teacher observations just couldn’t compete.

What finally made it happen? My volunteers asked to be observed.

Well, ok, it’s not just that I’m a pushover. I’ve gotten better and better at my job, and more importantly, I’ve gotten better at receiving help. I managed to free up some time I used to spend on the day-to-day admin grunt work so I can now do non-survival things like laminate our previously pathetic classroom signs, clear junk out of our office, and observe my teachers.

The volunteer I watched this week is quite new to teaching.  He used to assistant teach with an experienced teacher; this evening was his first solo class.  It was a resounding success. Watching the learning happen, seeing how his preparation was paying off, and taking note of his natural talent for leading a classroom was simply a joy. I jotted specific notes for him throughout, and it was fun to give him the feedback and debrief. We discussed his challenge for next week: at least 20 minutes of small group work for the students. He seems really excited about it, and I am too!

I really didn’t know what to expect when I walked into his classroom.  What I found there was a beautiful success filled with potential for even more.  Being right there to watch and encourage it was just fantastic.

Observations are officially my favorite.

“The Art of Teaching Adults” – Chapters 1 – 5


The Art of Teaching Adults from Amazon.com
"The Art of Teaching Adults" from Amazon.com

Chapter one was basically a detailed and engaging annotated bibliography. It made me really want to read Robert Mager for objectives and Jerrold Kemp for course design.  Those topics might end up being in a different course though.  Renner’s description convinced me to read Grow’s article about stages of self-directed learning in this course.

Lesson Plans:  The lesson plan chapter was extremely short and I was underwhelmed.  One nice take-away was that he listed a separate column for instructor’s activities and learners’ activities.  That makes it really easy to see at a glance if you’re sharing the work (and therefore the learning) with your students.

Regarding Objectives:  Renner keeps citing* Mager’s “motto” and I’m just not 100% on board with it.

If you don’t know where you are going, how will you know how to get there?
If you don’t know where you want to go, how will you know that you have arrived?

There’s certainly logic to it, and it’s a valuable way to think.  My problem is that it leaves no room for serendipity. Plans are all well and good; goals and targets are nice.  I just don’t agree that we necessarily have to be aiming for a given outcome in order to achieve it or recognize that we achieved it.  To me such orderly thinking should be used sometimes, but not at the expense of embracing reality.  As I mentioned earlier in this post, I’m very interested in reading some Mager.

Room Set-Up: I didn’t realize how cleverly multi-purpose the U-shaped chair set-up is till I saw his diagram.  All students can see each other, all students can see the teacher in the front, and the teacher can easily move up the center of the U.

Broken Ice on a Lake by MelvinSchlumbman on Flickr
"Broken Ice on a Lake" by MelvinSchlumbman on Flickr

Ice-Breakers:  I kind of rolled my eyes but read them anyway, and I’m glad I did.  One activity he suggests for starting a new course is “Press Conference.” I like how relevant it is to students’ need to meet other students and their need to start actual class business. Have students form groups of four or five.  Give them one minute to quick introduce themselves to each other and then five minutes to pool questions about the course they’re about to begin.  Then the teacher calls on groups, who ask her a question about the class round-robin until all questions are answered.

Some other elements of icebreakers that appeal to me:

  • Awkward first conversations eliminated! Have students write something informative on a piece of paper, and then have silent mingling time in which people can read each other’s papers.  
  • I also like collecting common expectations, concerns, and learning needs first individually, then in small groups, and then up on the paper… and then actually responding to the lists and even changing your plans to better fit them.
  • He even suggests that some groups can decide what the daily agenda should look like, and I’m a little surprised that I really like the idea of asking the group “What has to happen for this course to be a success?” and posting their answers.

Overall Impressions So Far

I’m inclined to like any book on teaching that encourages the teacher to get off his or her pedestal and facilitate the learning the students are looking for.  I pretty much love being told that plans have to change and that all students’ needs are different.

So I’m hoping that this book gets into a bit more of how to make a reasonable starting plan and frameworks for understanding where students are at, or else it won’t be telling me anything I actually need to hear.  Based on the table of contents, I do think it’ll get a little more pithy.  And if not, I’ll move to a different source.

*EDIT: Thanks to MJ for pointing out that I mixed up “cite” and “site.”  For the record, I do know the difference.  It just doesn’t always stop me from typing the wrong one.

On Teaching Advanced

I’ve taken over the Tuesday evening Advanced ESL class, and I have to say, I’m really enjoying teaching on a regular, planned basis (as opposed to frequently being an emergency sub).

Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman (from Amazon.com)
Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman (from Amazon.com)

We’re taking three weeks of classes to read Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman. It’s a story about the different people in a community garden in wrong-side-of-the-tracks Cleveland, and so far it’s well-written and compelling. It comes with audio (very well-acted, each character with a different accent) so we’ve been doing a lot of much-needed listening. One of our volunteers (who also happens to be an experienced and certified ESL teacher) wrote a pronunciation curriculum to go with the book, so all in all classes are feeling structured, interesting, and useful.

Notes to self: I need to write on the board more. And I need to be more intentional about getting everyone in the class to talk – the students who need conversation practice the most are the least likely to participate.

Hurray for good books, great curriculum, and fun lessons!

On Victories

I am a strong believer in the idea that if you never fail, you’re not branching out enough.  I am therefore theoretically ok with the idea that sometimes I will fail.  When the failure actually happens though, it looks a lot less like a step and a lot more like a black hole.

NGC 4649 by Smithsonian Institution on Flickr
"NGC 4649" by Smithsonian Institution on Flickr

The short version of the story was that I wrote a day of curriculum for the Intermediate ESL class because through a complicated and uninteresting chain of events, we were short a day of curriculum.  Well, I thought that my experienced teacher would be the one teaching, and I thought it was clear what to skim over and what to go farther in-depth on, but neither of those items were the case.  The volunteer just ran into a wall with it and about a week later she actually quit.  Ouch.

So yes, there are a lot of things about the situation that I will most definitely be doing differently.  It’s a small comfort, though, to assure myself that I will squeak some lessons learned out of the wreckage.

I found that what actually made me feel better was a couple of recent victories.  Not just planning to do better, but actually doing better.

Winner at the Delta County Fair, Colorodo by LOC on Flickr
"Winner at the Delta County Fair, Colorodo" by LOC on Flickr

Victory #1

Through another complicated and uninteresting chain of events, we were short a week of curriculum in the advanced class.  And the curriculum that I with the help of a couple of my more experienced volunteers came up with was focused, well-paced, highly teachable, and overall successful.  Apparently I am capable of doing a good job on it.  Good to know.

Victory #2

I did not have a sub for the teacher gap in the Intermediate class, so I got to teach it.  Even without a lot of prep time, my lesson was focused, useful to the students, and engaged them for the whole class.  There were actually two writing activities, conversation, reading, student-generated vocab lists, review of the lesson during the lesson, getting up and moving around the room, and real-life objects pertinent to the lesson.  Earth-shattering?  Of course not.  I just now have confirmation that I do in fact know how to teach a good session.

So, while I am not yet the ultimate teacher or an expert curriculum writer, because of these victories I know for sure I have what it takes to continue to eke every scrap of learning there is out of my little volunteer support catastrophe and make sure it doesn’t happen again.  Confidence restored.