Learning to Meddle

As I mention basically every post nowadays, I’ve been assistant teaching for a couple semesters, and it’s completely awesome.

I think I did a fine job in my first semester. The class was pretty small and pretty quiet, and everyone kept to themselves. I mostly worked with the same few students, though I did try to touch base with everyone each session. Sometime near the end of that semester, one of the students I helped all the time said something funny. When I smiled, she remarked that it was so nice to see me smile sometimes because I was always so serious. I really enjoyed that semester, and I was chagrined to find out that I was hiding it so well!

So this semester my number one goal was to come across as less grave and more friendly.

At first, this took the form of just making sure to smile even if I felt awkward.

And I’ll be honest, I was feeling very awkward about offering help. I mean, I’ve always been more than happy to help anyone who asks, but I figured that not everybody wanted my help. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted the assistant’s help when I was a student. And did it make sense to interrupt people’s trains of thought to see if they had any questions? I personally dislike being interrupted.

So I walked around remembering to smile, and helped out the few people who flagged me down.

But one thing I could do a lot as an assistant was observe. And as I observed this class, I realized that the students in this group were interacting with each other all the time, and that this was deeply connected to the very positive, energetic feel of the class. When I first described it to my husband, I exclaimed in disbelief, “They meddle with each other! And they like it!”

I realized that there was a significant divide between our cultures and expectations. And I figured that if they liked being meddled with, my respectful restraint probably came across instead as standoffish, even when I smiled.

The only way toward my goal was to join in the meddling.

This was definitely outside of my comfort zone. I’m kind of shy, and I fear being annoying. And it was extra unnerving to treat people in a way I was pretty sure I wouldn’t want to be treated. But I did it anyway.

It went so well.  It was an absolute joy.

The response was immediately 99% glowingly positive. I had to work a little bit on one person, but we got there in the end.

And I learned so much.

I learned to check that people understood the task’s instructions right away. (This is less obvious during class when I understand the teacher’s directions perfectly.)

I learned that talking face to face with one person or a very small group had much more impact than speaking from the front of the room.

I learned to go ahead and interrupt.

I learned to gently joke that if I did their writing for them, I’d be getting the grade.

I learned to have them remind me that they were next in line to work with me.

I relearned some basics for about the 600th time: to always start from what they know, to use examples, that they won’t remember what’s not written down, and to speak reasonably simply to reduce their cognitive burden.

I learned to help without leading. And I learned that leading is very distracting.

I learned to reach out in a way that I’d somehow missed before.

I’m grateful. And I’m looking forward to learning from my next class in the fall.


You’re reading Learning to Meddle, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.


Ending with the Beginning In Mind

3526550845_d4e3d14c85As class starts to wrap up, here are some of the end-of-semester thoughts that are on my mind:

  • what are their lasting take-aways (content and impressions)?
  • are they prepared for their next courses? How do I know?
  • am I proud of myself? Why?
  • what did I learn?
  • am I prepared to teach/assist better next time? How?
  • feeling sad that an enjoyable routine is coming to an end
  • feeling inspired to fill that time in great ways this summer
  • feeling excited to assistant teach again in September

So looking back, looking at now, and looking ahead. Thinking, feeling, wondering.

The funny thing is, right now I can’t actually imagine what it’s like to be at the beginning of a semester. I’ve been there, you know, a lot. It just feels a universe away from right now.

I’m guessing that as the summer comes to a close, I’ll be wondering what it feels like to be at semester’s end as I start to face an unknown new one.  So here’s where I’m at right now, Future Emily!

Looking forward to the last few sessions of a great semester, and looking forward to writing Beginning with the End in Mind in a few months!


Photo Credit: Nicholas Canup on Flickr

You’re reading Ending with the Beginning In Mind, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.


Three Links About Seeing

So much important reading this past week.

Please check out these three short pieces. Each one is worth much more than the 30 seconds it takes to read it.


“Five years ago, in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, I wanted to dye Easter eggs with my kids.”

 – Seeing Things from Another Angle by Alanna


“The whole ESL class walked to the library yesterday. Young children, too. When we emerged, it was raining. Then this happened.”

 – Something Right In The World by Marilyn

“Emotional connection is our default. We only added words and symbolic logic much later.”

 – With The Sound Off or On? by Seth

Accidentally Networking as an Introvert

In preparation for the next semester, I recently attended a training held by my department.

The training started at 11AM. At 10:59AM, I knew precisely two people in the room: the person who hired me, and the person I had met at 10:45AM when we were the only two people in the room.

By lunch time, I had listened a lot and learned a lot, but I hadn’t actually met anyone else. And there were at least 50 people in the room – assuming I managed to feel un-awkward enough to introduce myself to someone, where would I even start?

Luckily, I wound up next to the woman who hired me at the lunch buffet. We chatted about a couple of things, and then I had the miraculous presence of mind to ask her:

“Who here should I particularly meet?”

Three minutes later, I had met the mentor for the particular class I’m assistant teaching, plus an assistant teacher experienced in that class.

Two minutes after that, she had pulled up up a chair at her table and I was having lunch with them, plus one of the teachers from the expert panel presentation and another experienced ESL teacher.

Did I just… did I just network?


I’m an introvert who really likes people. Or maybe I’m a shy extrovert? Or perhaps I’m just in the middle, with a muddle of characteristics of both?

In any case, certain things that are second-nature to some are elusive revelations to me.

“Networking” doesn’t have to be slimy. It doesn’t have to be about trying to sell something or get something. It’s really not always about using people.

It’s super fun to meet people you share interests with and who you can learn from person-to-person. And it makes sense to ask someone who knows you and knows the network to point you in the right direction.

I overlook that a lot.

I also overlook that to a some extent, I can help connect my students with each other, with resources, with other teachers, with the department, etc.

My role isn’t just managing the classroom. I’m embedded in a network that can be useful to them, and sharing it might have even more of an impact than my obsessively planned-out lesson.

Photo Credit: Sean MacEntee on Flickr

You’re reading Accidentally Networking as an Introvert, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.


Growth Mindset for Teachers

I recently came across a great article by Deborah Farmer Kris called Never Too Late: Creating a Climate for Adults to Learn New Skills.

3828790504_97bf89b607We’ve all (hopefully) heard about the amazing advantages that having a growth mindset can afford us.

As a teacher of adults, her article was interesting because it’s geared at the K-12 setting, in which students = children and adults = teachers and administrators. For me, the categories are not so neat, but her points hold true regardless.

What I really enjoyed about this article was that she discusses a workshop that Australian business professor Peter Heslin runs for business leaders that focuses on mindset. It appears to be based on a peer-reviewed article by Heslin and Lauren Keating. She shares four reflection activities from Heslin’s workshop that sound really useful:

  1. Reflect on the real-world ramifications of your mindset.
  2. Reflect on how a former weakness turned into a strength, and perhaps even more importantly, consider what made this happen.
  3. Reflect on mindset by writing a letter of advice to an employee whose skills need improvement.
  4. Reflect on a time someone exceeded your expectations of them. Did your low expectations hold them back?

I’m putting it on my calendar to go through these reflections myself. I’m completely confident that the exercise will be worth my time. I’m not completely confident that what I write will be blog-worthy, so I’m not sure how/when/if I’ll follow up in this space. Do let me know if you decide to tackle these reflections too!

Photo Credit: Katelyn Fay on Flickr

You’re reading Growth Mindset for Teachers, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.

Two Deep Pronunciation Resources

15186400768_446484e376The past year or so, I’ve been getting much more into pronunciation than I ever was before.

By personality, I’m very bookish and very drawn to the written word (if you couldn’t tell from this blog). I also enjoy analyzing how things work, so I get a kick out of grammar. Pronunciation kind of went under my radar.

But then two things happened thanks to really amazing colleagues:

  1. In conversation, one colleague name-dropped a few ESOL big-wigs she’d met at the big TESOL conference over the years. I only recognized one of the names. I unabashedly wrote down the other names (she kindly repeated them for me) and looked them up. One of those names was Judy Gilbert.
  2. Another colleague is running a special program focused on giving one-on-one pronunciation help to students. She told me all about why she started it and what it means to the students who attend, and then I couldn’t help but invite myself over to observe. It’s fascinating and has a huge impact.

Now I’m hooked on pronunciation.

So the following resources are for deep learning. They are not the ones that will be useful to you ten minutes before class starts. But I found them really eye-opening.

  • Teaching Pronunciation Using the Prosody Pyramid by Judy B Gilbert. This is a 50-page book, and it’s worth every single page. It completely convinced me that pronunciation is more closely tied to the other skills than I had realized and gave me a ton of activity ideas. It is posted in the TESOL resource center with no pay wall, so I assume it’s legitimately online for free.
  • The Color Vowel Chart by Karen Taylor and Shirley Thompson. This is a visual system of dealing with the 15 English vowel sounds. It’s a really powerful way to sort, communicate, and systematically teach and compare our vowel sounds. It is posted in the US State Department’s resource section, so I assume what I’m linking to is legitimately online for free.

Any similarly awesome resources to share with me? Please let me know in the comments, even if this post is already years old!

Photo Credit: Suzanne Nilsson on Flickr

You’re reading Two Deep Pronunciation Resources, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.

Student Questions Matrix, Part 2

This is Part 2 of a series on Student Questions. See Part 1 here.

Today I’m going to look more deeply into the questions of what (to me) makes a student’s question important and/or relevant.

The Graphic (click to enlarge)


The Axes

As you can see, the two axes I use are importance and relevancy. But let’s unpack what I meant by those.

Firstly, I liked both categories because I see them as flexible and subjective. What’s “relevant” in a syllabus-based EAP class might be much more narrow than in a community education life-skills class. What’s “important” in a free basic life-skills class in an English-speaking country differs greatly from advanced academic speaking taught as a foreign language.

Importance to me is about significance in the context of the topic and the students. Is it crucial to the content? Is it vital to the people studying it? It’s two measures disguised as just one.

Looking at importance re: content, if students in an intermediate grammar class are having trouble even recognizing Present Perfect, that’s very important. Recognizing a specific two-word verb tense is crucial for mastering Present Perfect and most of the English verb tenses. By contrast, if those students are trying to figure out the difference between “I already ate” and “I’ve eaten already,” I wouldn’t categorize it as particularly important because there is no functional difference in that example. It’s a rather insignificant detail, not the crux of the matter. I might advise them to focus on something where there is a functional difference, like “I was there” vs. “I’ve been there.”

The other side of importance is how important something is to the students. The sounds /r/ vs. /l/ might be very important to your Mandarin speakers but not at all to your Spanish and Arabic speakers. English-language traffic signs would be vital for the very safety of beginners in the USA, but not particularly crucial for beginners in a classroom in South Korea.

Relevance to me is a question’s connection to the material at hand. If you’re teaching Present Continuous in the context of household chores and then a student asks a question about the three present forms of “to be,” that’s extremely relevant, as it’s a building block of the verb tense. However, if in that same lesson a student asks about the passive voice in past tense from the US Constitution, you’re looking at a legitimate and potentially important question that’s still really outside the scope of where the class was headed that day. Relevancy is generally separate from importance.


One other point to mention is that some extreme outliers in these categories warrant different treatment.

Looking back at the traffic signs example for learners new to the USA, if you realize your students can’t interpret a WALK/DON’T WALK signal, this is not just important; it’s potentially life-and-death. To me it seems worth risking a tangent to make sure none of your students get flattened on their way home. (Teachers of new beginners, have you been in this type of situation, where a real safety concern comes up? What do you recommend for handling it?)

Another extreme can happen when a question is only important to one person in the room. At a really fantastic Microsoft Access training I attended at the Science Museum of Minnesota, one of my classmates kept asking detailed questions specific to her organization’s database needs. It was like she was trying use our class time as her own personal one-to-one consultation with the teacher. The instructor (I think rightly) did not address these questions at all during class time.


Imagine a high-intermediate ESL course on the first day of a unit focusing on Present Continuous in the context of leisure activities.

Here are four example questions based in that imaginary context. I see each of these as a different category of question. What do you think?

  1. Can you explain gerunds?
  2. It’s “-ing” so it’s Present Continuous, right?
  3. Why is “stop” followed by a gerund or infinitive?
  4. “What are the -ing spelling rules?

You might disagree with me, but this is how I see it:

  1. Can you explain gerunds? – Reasonably important for high-intermediate students to know, but not relevant to today’s lesson on Present Continuous
  2. It’s “-ing” so it’s Present Continuous, right? – Important to know and highly relevant to today’s lesson. Those helping verbs aren’t just there for fun!
  3. Why is “stop” followed by a gerund or infinitive? – Not important for this level and “why” isn’t a constructive question here. English is often arbitrary! It’s not at all relevant to today’s lesson.
  4. What are the -ing spelling rules? – I might get myself in trouble here, but to me spelling is of lower importance than structure and usage. The spelling rules are certainly relevant, though. Hopefully this one can come out of the Parking Lot within the next couple of class sessions!

Next Week

Next week I’ll be posting Part 3, which will go into more detail about the action steps from the graphic.

You’re reading Student Questions, Part 2, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.