Activity Corner: Fourth Week Survey


One of my departments has all of its teachers do a really, really smart thing.

About a third of the way into the semester, teachers hand out an anonymous survey to their students. The results are for the teachers’ eyes only, for the sole purpose of getting the lay of the land and seeing if any changes can be made to improve the semester.

The types of questions the department suggests:

  • Do students feel they can succeed in this course? What support do they need?
  • How is class time going? How could the teacher make it more effective?
  • How is homework going? How are the assignments, directions, and deadlines?
  • How are major assignments going? Are students prepared in class to complete them? What could be improved?
  • Are students getting feedback? Is it understandable? Is it helpful? How could it be improved?

Remember to ask for specifics and for suggestions. They might not all be workable, but at very least they help you see the students’ point of view. Point out that general statements like “this class is too hard” are not useful, especially coming from anonymous sources, because you have no idea what is too hard about it.

Now, with a survey like this comes the fear of negative feedback. What if everyone hates my class? And since this is during the semester, you’d still have to work with a group of people who may have told you you’re not doing as well as you thought.

My advice is: handle it. You’re an ESOL teacher – you’ve handled awkward in the past, and you can handle awkward this semester, too. It’s just not that big a deal.

And the rewards are significant: free professional development, very possibly a topic to present on at the next local ESOL conference, and most importantly, the potential to make a comeback and teach an epic class that really reaches your students.

Even if your department doesn’t nudge you in this direction, give it a try! Don’t wait till next semester to make positive changes!


Photo CreditAshley Van Haeften on Flickr

You’re reading Activity Corner: Fourth Week Survey, originally posted at

Student Questions Matrix, Part 4

This is Part 4 of a series on Student Questions. See Part 1 (intro), Part 2 (the axes), and Part 3 (action steps).

In this post, I’m going to explore ways to use this matrix in direct instruction and ways to use Green Zone questions.

The Graphic (click to enlarge)


It’s Also a Learning Tool (Metacognition)

When I jotted down this little matrix, I was thinking of it as a mental model for teachers. But I think it could also be an interesting tool to use in the classroom.

It would take about 30 seconds to draw one of these on the board, perhaps even instead of a stand-alone Parking Lot. You could tell your classes, particularly Intermediate and above, that this is how you are thinking about their questions and deciding which to answer immediately.

I think this could be particularly helpful if you have a student or two who tend to take the class off on their own tangents. I’m all about student-centered learning, but in my opinion having the whole class follow the loudest students’ whims is only student-centered for one student!  

A step past just up-front description of your mental model would be to ask students to use it to categorize their own and/or each other’s questions. Since the categories are subjective, there may be disagreement, which causes discussion, which requires English for an authentic purpose (what’s more important than convincing everyone you’re right?). Count that as a win!

A further step yet would be to ask students how class goes when one student asks a lot of questions that are only relevant to him/her. How is it when students ask many important and relevant questions? Have they thought about this in their other classes? Has thinking about this changed how they ask questions in their other classes?

Questions, Answers, and Activities

In all this talk about student questions, I wanted to be sure that we also did some cool things with them.

Firstly, there’s no rule that the teacher has to be the one to provide the answers.

One nice practice that would easily fit into however you usually do things is to pause before answering a question and ask if any of the students would like to answer first. Be sure that everyone can hear their answer, and that you confirm if it is indeed correct.

Another tactic could be to ask students to find the answer in their textbook.This way everyone is engaged, both students who know the answer and those who don’t. It also gives them practice scanning for information and getting to know a great English resource.

You can also turn answers into activities that students participate in. Rather than simply explaining at length (again) about a certain grammar point, you could briefly review and then do a quick chain drill, perhaps followed by more communicative practice. (Yes, it’s off the cuff, but if you guys are accustomed to chain drills anyway and you keep some spare blank grids in your bag, you can do a lot!) You could also collect up to several answers at a time anonymously from all students with a low-tech snowball activity.

You can also consider having students “be the teacher” in the sense of taking on categorizing each other’s questions, finding answers for each other, and even teaching lessons and/or leading activities. Depending on the course you’re teaching and where you’re teaching it, this could be the primary way that class is conducted, or a particularly rich 45-minute review activity to use a couple times per semester. This allows the teacher to step back, and more importantly, allows the students to step up. 

End of Series!

Thanks for reading! It’s a really big topic and I certainly haven’t thought of everything. I hope you’ll chime in in the comments!


You’re reading Student Questions, Part 4, 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

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


Student Questions Matrix, Part 1

I’ve been thinking a lot about student questions lately. How do we balance questions with the syllabus? One student’s needs with the rest of the class’s? And once we figure all of that out, what are some great ways to use student questions?

It turned into an infographic and a four-part series. Welcome to Part 1!

My Old De-Facto Mental Model

I vividly remember several instances of student questions hugely derailing my class sessions when I was first teaching.

Questions during class used to feel a bit like being in a batting cage. Questions were fired at me and I remember feeling like was my job to swing at each one and hit as many as I could. A good teacher would be able to answer all of those questions, right? So I should try to do that, right?

Would a good teacher answer all those questions right there on the spot regardless of what they were, what unit the class was in, and who was in her class?

Probably not.

I think that a big part of my mental model was unconsciously seeing questions on a spectrum between “I cannot even begin to answer this” and “I can easily answer this.” Notice how each side started with “I.” In the name of helping my students, I was pretty preoccupied with myself.

A New Mental Model

Thanks to a lot of great teacher education and lots more opportunities to teach, I’ve been using a more intentional and constructive way to view questions as they come at me.

The x-axis is relevancy: how relevant is this question to the current lesson?

My y-axis is importance: how important is this to how many of the students in the room?

(See Part 2 for more details on the axes)

Also, having a Parking Lot in place that is part of my lesson planning and in-class routine is essential.

Without further ado, here’s my little graphic laying out the matrix and three action steps:


The setting where I use this has been in my English for Academic Purposes classes. It helps me navigate my two-fold responsibilities: I’m beholden to a syllabus and to my students. But I think that in a less academic or even a much more student-led context, the same basics can be used. The two axes are fairly subjective and adaptable.

More in this Series, Coming Up!

See Part 2 (the axes), Part 3 (action steps), and Part 4 (metacognition and activities) here in the next few weeks. [I will update these links when I post the new articles.]

Also, thanks for reading! I’d love to hear in the comments how you handle student questions in your own classrooms. I’m especially curious how it goes in classrooms that are more student-led than my academic classes have been.

You’re reading Student Questions, Part 1, originally posted at

Journal: Grammar was driving us crazy!

Students: 13

One thing that went well:  I busted out a grid activity at a good time in our really exhausting grammar lesson.

One thing to improve:  There were so many incredibly picky questions, and most of them were not actually on the topic of our grammar lesson, which was Past Continuous (i.e. Grammar was driving us crazy.).  Transitive and intransitive verbs came up in one of our examples and there went 20 minutes (The chicken was roasting. vs. I was roasting the chicken.).  I did manage to avoid slipping into an impromptu lesson on Active and Passive Voice (I prepared the chicken. vs. The chicken was prepared by me.), but only because I’ve been revving up to dive into it in our next unit.  But anyway… grammar basically engulfed the whole class period.  And this was after I refused to answer half their questions (the Passive Voice ones).  How harshly should I reign things in?

One surprise:  How easy Past Continuous (you know, our official grammar point of the day) was compared to all the questions they were asking.

Conference Thoughts

Rewired State Presentations by Ben Dodson on Flickr
Rewired State Presentations by Ben Dodson on Flickr

(At the end of this post I ask a specific question about my tone.  Please tell me how I come across!)

I recently attended a small conference (maybe 80 or so participants) for half a day.  There was some good information and valuable context, very little of which I absorbed.  In short, here’s why:

  • I was not on board with the theme.
  • I could not see the speakers or Power Points properly.
  • The answers we needed were not there during our small group discussions.

A bit more on these points:

Not On Board

The conference was about distance learning, mostly about how we’ll be doing a lot more of it.

Well, ok.  Yes, there are many benefits, and yes, there is potential for us to reach more students.

But what about the fact that most teachers teach because they love the in-person interaction?  What about the fact that many of our students attend class as much for the social connections as the content?  What about the interesting combination of emphasizing things like additional trainings and “designating a distance learning staff member” while talking about looming budget problems?

These were issues on the minds of everyone I talked to, and the conference did not address them.  They were talking, and the participants were thinking, and they were not necessarily about the same things. I think they really missed an opportunity here by not meeting the skeptics where they were at.

I Couldn’t See

saving lives in church basements by smussyolay on Flickr
saving lives in church basements by smussyolay on Flickr

Ok, full disclosure: I arrived five minutes after the program started.  Sitting in the back was my fault.

That being said, lots of people had to sit in the back – there wasn’t room for everyone in the front.  All of us sitting in the back trying to see the Power Points and speakers had to contend not only with the people sitting in front of us, but with floor-to-ceiling support poles.  Not the greatest space.  In the future, no poles.

And now let’s talk about the PowerPoints.  They had a ton of tiny text, often in colors that didn’t have much contrast.  The presenters appeared (from what I could tell) to use them as notes.  Where does the nonprofit obsession with Best Practices go when it’s time to bust out a PowerPoint? Seriously, we can do better.  Seth Godin has some great pointers.

The Answers Weren’t There

Thankfully, the organizers did not plan an all-PowerPoint program.  For the second half they broke us into small groups with facilitators and well-thought-out questions to discuss.

The discussions were very “Collective Intelligence,” intended to have us share our knowledge.  We discussed some common fears too:  What if my job changes in a direction I find utterly mind-numbing (i.e. computer/internet troubleshooting)?  How is administration going to support the additional trainings I’ll need?  What assurances do I have that my other work will be reduced when I start taking on this new distance learning work?

My group actually did a great job of not focusing on the negatives or the potential negatives.  Still, it would have really helped us to be listened to and have some of those fears assuaged (or at least noted).

We took notes, and the organizers collected them at the end to type up and email out to our groups.  I really liked that.  They never said whether they plan to read them for content and respond to them though.  I very much hope that our notes are taken as an opportunity to listen and reply – the higher-ups and our students both need us folks in the middle to be on board.

So… on the spectrum of whiny vitriol (0) through groundbreaking problem-solving (10), where does this post land?

Thoughts and a Question

A few things I’ve been thinking about lately:

  • how to not overwhelm others with my ideas and/or suggestions, but welcome them into a discussion
  • Susan WB’s blog post about studies on intrinsic/extrinsic motivation
  • why is getting started on projects so difficult even though it feels so great to finally be started?
  • it’s getting to be time for another 5-week Course
  • I don’t do very much to foster conversation on this blog.

I wrote the list thinking the points would be random and different, but they’ve turned out to be interestingly related.  Hm.

Anyway, I’d like to take a moment to ask the readers:

Time and commitment barriers aside, what would you do a 5-Week Course in?

General Observations

View from the Observation Tower by ehpien on Flickr
View from the Observation Tower by ehpien on Flickr

About the project:

  • I noticed that when I read something I disagree with, I want to look at it more closely.  It’s a knee-jerk reaction, and I don’t think it’s a bad one.
  • Having my syllabus and using it as a living resource document (not a display piece) helps keep me on track.
  • David Chioni Moore’s “How to Read” piece is the voice in my head that asks questions (and meta-questions) when I read.  I wish I had used it when I was his student.  You can find it on his faculty page.

About the blog:

  • I have doubts that these posts are interesting to readers.
    • People who are into the topic are better off reading the books directly.
    • People who are not into the topic will not be into my posts or the books.
  • I keep on posting.
    • Posting my notes holds me accountable.
    • People I talk to seem interested in pursuing their own 5-week courses, and seeing mine in this much detail might help them with theirs.
  • I need to go back and re-think some of my post tagging.  I’m ok with my categorizations for now.

So, if you’re still out there and reading, I’m curious – what are you interested in seeing here regarding the 5WCs?

“The Art of Teaching Adults” – Asking Beautiful Questions

Notes and My Opinions All In One Section

Steps: In Both Directions by Harry Harris on Flickr
Steps: In Both Directions by Harry Harris on Flickr

Renner says that the point of asking questions is to make students think, not just recite facts.  He cites the 6-category hierarchy of questions published by B Bloom in 1956:

  1. Knowledge (remember facts)
  2. Comprehension (get the meaning)
  3. Application (use in concrete situations)
  4. Analysis (break down material)
  5. Synthesis (put pieces together)
  6. Evaluation (judge value for a purpose)

You probably won’t be surprised to hear that I have a problem with these categories and their order.  I have a problem with separating the processes of analyzing and synthesizing, I take issue with placing judgment at the top and don’t see why it should be separate from application, and I don’t see “emotion” tied into this anywhere.  I suppose this means I should read me some Bloom.  I’ll put him on the syllabus (for either this course or a future one) before I start the next paragraph.

The rest of the chapter didn’t particularly resonate with me or tell me anything I don’t know.  It was basically advice about Q&A sessions after a lecture.  I couldn’t tell where the speaker (it wasn’t Renner, but some other guy I don’t know) was coming from.  I had trouble discerning whether the discussion and tips were about classes, ongoing training courses, or one-day speaking gigs.  On one hand it’s nice to not impose false categories on adult learning, but on the other hand it was vague advice that reminded me a little of reading a daily horoscope.