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.


Journal: AmTrak… right?

Just a quick anecdote from Monday:

We were studying different options of public transportation.  The students brainstormed everything from cars to planes to walking to taking the bus to riding a horse.

short train by Bright Meadow on Flickr.com
Train, photo by Bright Meadow on Flickr.com

We all live between Baltimore and DC, so we have an alarming number of train options: the light rail, the metro, the MARC train, and AmTrak. 

They’re all trains, but they’re all different.  The light rail serves Baltimore and its suburbs.  The metro serves DC and its suburbs.  The MARC train serves the corrodior between DC and Baltimore… but only on weekdays.  AmTrak serves major cities nationally, but it’s much more expensive than the other options.

They seemed really interested in AmTrak and asked a lot of questions. 

Where does it go?  Does it go to Canada?  Is it the terrorists?


After September 11th.  Terrorists.  AmTrak.  Envelope.

I was slow to catch on.  I was wondering if there was some sort of train attack I didn’t remember.  Can you tell what they meant, readers?

One of the students finally looked it up on his iPod.  No, is antracks.

Ah.  Anthrax.  Got it.  No, AmTrak is different.

Journal: Goodbye, Cave!

Goodbye, Cave!

As I mentioned yesterday, our classroom was inexplicably moved from our bright, sunny medium-sized room to a small interior room I think of as The Cave.  Last week, the students dictated a letter to me explaining why The Cave was an inferior classroom and asking to return to our previous (and unused!) classroom.

Today, the woman in charge of scheduling in the building popped in and whispered to me that we could go back.  Grinning uncontrollably, I asked her to come in and tell everyone.  The class cheered and thanked her!  One student zipped down the hall to make sure the room was open.  It was, so everybody grabbed their stuff, my stuff, and trooped down the hall to bask in the sunshine.

When we resumed, I emphasized to them that the letter we’d written together was very important.  I’m the teacher, but I’m only one person.  Together, we were 20 people, so we were stronger.  Together, we got our room back.

Journal: Week In Review

This week went pretty well!

Interesting tidbits from this week:

  • I discovered that having groups of six or seven students seems to be perfect for conversation time.
  • My two youngest students, a woman and a man, speak the same native language and are good friends.  The woman struggles more with spoken communication than the man does, so she usually gets him to translate for her, particularly when she wants to talk to me.  On Tuesday, I thanked them very much for helping me understand, and thanked him for translating so much… and I told them that this was the last week I would listen to his translations.  Starting next week, she’ll have to talk to me herself.  It won’t be easy, but having him speak for her is not a viable long-term plan.
  • I started giving them weekly quizzes, and here at the end of Week 2, they still seem to love them.
  • They complete said quizzes at wildly different rates, and I need to have something for the quick test-takers to study while the slower test-takers finish.  Vocab-of-the-week word searches anyone?
  • They really like working on spelling, and we should work on it more often.
  • It’s OK to repeat an accuracy-focused chain drill two days in a row.  Actually, sometimes it’s more than OK, but the absolute right thing to do.
  • My numbers had dipped to the high teens over the last couple of weeks, but today there were 20 students.
  • My true story of broken umbrellas on such a grey, rainy day was well-received, and umbrella shopping made a great example dialog topic.  Yay context!
  • The class complimented my outfit today.  I liked it too.  🙂

I think that’s it for now!

Journal: End of the Week

Yesterday’s class stood out to me because I felt that I had confused my students, and I was worried that they were frustrated.  I know that they’re adults and that they can handle being frustrated… but I still didn’t like it.

I actually stand by the difficult work we did.  The activities helped me gauge their comprehension and made them think very hard about what they’d been learning the past couple of weeks.  I wish I’d done a better job of highlighting what they already knew before they began.  I also wish I’d followed it up with something more fun and manageable. 

My goal for today was review, but even more importantly, I wanted them to feel good about their English.  I know that could easily become BS-y or condescending or a total waste of time if the content was weak.  I owe them more respect and professionalism than to assume they want easy fluff and then pandering to said assumption.  So I thought of it as a day to be sure to set them up for success.

I think it worked out well.  First we had a contest to remember exercise vocabulary.  It was fun and different and not too difficult.  And it will be on the test.

Then they separated into small groups to make posters of the two verb tenses.  I was very happy with the process and the results.  Firstly, they had to speak English because the groups all included people with different first languages.  Secondly, they had to read and interperet the instructions that were projected on the screen.  Thirdly, they had to think hard about what they already knew about the verb tenses.  It was a matter of remembering, organizing, and applying.  At least one student per group knew it cold, and this allowed everyone to practice, contribute, ask questions, and/or make corrections.  Fourthly, we now have great review materials I can use next week.

Next, we rehearsed the play again, but today Group 1 rehearsed while Group 2 watched and vice versa.  We staged it so that nobody’s back was to the audience, and worked on adding a bit of drama: inflection, pointing, and in once case having a character bolt out of the room.  It was a good time, and I hope that it helped with comprehension for the one or two students who still needed it.  The culmination of all of their practicing this week was performing for the ESL class next door!  The audience seemed to get a kick out of it, and my students finished off smiling and seeming energized. 

For the last activity I let them choose between a dictation and watching anther Mr. Bean episode.  Dictation won, as it always does.  🙂  Different students read each sentence, and other students wrote their final answers on the board where we identified once again which were Simple Present and which were Present Continuous.

I think they worked really hard today, and I also think they both demonstrated and felt success.  It’s a nice way to finish the week!

Journal: Pictures, A Play, and An Impressed Teacher

Happy Valentine’s Day!  Today I had 23 students.  One of the women who was also in my class last semester brought me a beautiful pink rose!  🙂

We tried a new warm-up activity today: conversations about pictures.  I put a few questions on the board (Who is in the picture?  What are they doing?  What else do you see?  When was the photo taken?) and then projected a photo onto the screen for five minutes.  I had the partners discuss their answers.  I used a picture from the last day of last semester, a picture of my husband and I cutting our wedding cake, and a picture of my friends dancing at my wedding.  The pair conversations were surprisingly thin even though the large-group discussion that followed was pretty rich.  Maybe the pairs felt awkward? Maybe it was that I’d never given this type of assignment before?  I think it’s worth repeating in a couple of weeks, maybe with small groups instead of pairs.

We’ve been studying Simple Present vs. Present Continuous.  I modified a short play out of a book – I really liked the punch-line.  The way I tweaked it, it now deals nicely with both tenses.  We did a read-through as a class.  The goals were to see what a play was, that there were characters and roles, and that there was a second page on the back.   I didn’t really push comprehension at all; that’s for a different day.

There are 12 characters in the play, so I split the class in half.  Two groups received their roles and began practicing today.  They seem engaged: they know what to do, they remind each other when it’s time to say a line, and they seem open to practicing their lines for a few minutes everyday.  The plan is to practice for a little while everyday this week, culminating in a final performance.  I’m hoping that they’ll be willing to perform for the class next door; right now, they’re a bit to shy to do that.  Still, I’m glad it’s off to a promising start!

We did a little grammar work based on a student error on the homework blog: Present Continuous vs. the type of Future that uses “going to.”  When I checked for comprehension, I saw that a few people were still confused, and I was able to talk to them individually between normal class and computer time.  One student who’s pretty quiet in class had a lot of questions for me, so I told her we could talk more during computer time.  At computer time, we sat down, she opened her book, and proceeded to methodically write several example sentences and check with me which tense each was in.  I was completely floored at how organized she was in honing in on her problem and creating a solid framework of examples with which to improve her understanding.  Six well-chosen examples and boom, she got it.  I wasn’t her teacher then, just her super-impressed English resource.  After, we had a nice conversation in which she told me a bit more about herself.  It was so nice to get a moment with a typically quiet student and to watch her mind piece this crazy language together!

Journal: Speed Dating?

Today we had 23 students.  I finally used Google Voice to get a local phone number, and today I repeated my Day 1 speech about good attendnace, wait lists, and how important it is to contact me when you’re absent.  Now the students have a local number that will call my non-local cell phone, and they also have my work Gmail address in case tehy’d prefer to email me.

We’ve been doing grid activities every Tuesday morning for warm-ups.  They really had the hang of it last week, so today I made it more difficult by having students fill in the questions at the top of their columns.  It was an extra step in the directions, and the variety of questions confusion about who was writing down what answers where.  We got through it slowly with everyone on board, and when we do it again next week, it will be much smoother.  And once it’s smooth… I have a new warm-up tool that I can weild as I see fit.  Mwahahaha.

We hammered in the form and function of simple present today, and as a final fluency activity I borrowed what I’m told is a speed-dating set-up: two concentric circles of students, the inner circle facing the outer circle.  Students were “partners” with the student directly facing them from the other circle.

I gave every student a verb card, which they held in front of themselves.  Students were to make up a true sentence using an adverb of frequency for their partner’s verb.  For example, if my partner’s card was “go running,” I would say, “I go running sometimes” while one of the elderly ladies in the class might say, “I never go running.”  Then my partner would make up a true sentence based on my card.  Then, the middle circle rotated one person to the right and we all had new partners.  Since there were 23 students and 1 teacher, we each went through 11 partners, so there was a lot of practice!

I think it worked well because it was the second day of a pretty familiar grammar point and because I modeled the process with student volunteers.

I have never seen this class, or perhaps any other, be so enthusiastic after an activity ended.  When I asked them how they felt about the English and about the activity, there was a huge, loud, resounding positive reponse.  Woah.  I guess we should do that one again!

Before signing off and racing to my volunteer gig, just a quick note to check out the homework blog.  Since I had more students than computers, I had a couple of volunteers go computerless and write about their typical day using the target grammar.  Then, I recorded their voices reading their stories on my phone (thanks for the Christmas present, honey!  It’s so shiny and useful!), uploaded the audio files to Dropbox, and put links in the homework blog along with comprehension questions.  Very fun!

Journal: Very Pleased!

Today there were 21 students.

For a warm-up, I gave out piles of four scrambled sentences.  Students worked on making four proper can / have to sentences out of them in groups of 3 or 4.  It was part grammar, part riddle: even if they created two grammatically perfect sentences, they might have to switch words in and out of them to be able to make all four correct sentences simultaneously.  And the thing is… they did it!  It was really challenging, but they were ready and willing and they did it.  I was really happy with their work, and I hope they could tell!

We then did some work with personal calendars.  I showed them the three-day view of my Google Calendar on the screen and we did some calendar reading comprehension.  I then had them write lists of what’s on their schedules today, tomorrow, and Saturday.  Next, they drew and filled in their own calendar grids modeled after mine on the board.

That’s when our fluency activity kicked in.  Everybody had to have a minimum of five conversations with other students based on their real life calendars.  It was more or less to this effect:

A.  Can you go ice skating tomorrow at 3?
B.  Sorry, I can’t.  I have to cook dinner for my family.
A.  How about at 1?
B.  Sure!  That sounds good.

I was pleased that they were grammatically ready enough and that we worked with their real lives.  I asked them how it felt to use this language, comfortable, so-so, or uncomfortable.  Nobody said they were uncomfortable, and they seemed in good spirits.

Now we’re about to work on the most recent post from the homework blog together – my very first homemade audio post!

Journal: Moving to Fluency Practice

Today I had a total of 23 students attend class, though we were a class of 20 as class ended at noon.

One interesting challenge that’s come up is that my enrollment cap is thirty, but there are only 21 computers in a computer lab.  So far I’ve never had more than 21 students at computer time…

Anyway, we were very grammar-heavy in yesterday’s class, focusing in on the structural similarities and differences in using “can” and “have to.”  I really wanted to get beyond the form, meaning, and even pronunciation fo  of the words and into usage.  To do this, I needed to design a fluency activity.  This means I had to set the stage, step aside, and let them use the language. 

To set the stage, they needed a quick vocabulary review of different activities.  I tend to struggle with vocabulary, but I was pleased with how this one turned out.  By the end of this activity, they had gotten up out of their seats, reviewed the vocabulary, demonstrated some level of understanding by putting it on a spectrum, and put a huge word bank on the wall to prepare for the upcoming writing activity.

Here’s what we did:

  1. At home, I wrote 22 activities on 22 notecards in dark ink.
  2. I wrote on the board, “Shh!  Do not read the cards out loud!”  I drew a picture of a card and wrote “secret” on it.  I explained verbally too.
  3. I asked a student in the front to tape a card to my back.  Naturally, someone read it out loud.  🙂  We repeated the directions and laughed.  I demonstrated that I could not see it, but everyone else could.
  4. I taped a card to each student’s back.
  5. First, students walked around silently, reading each other’s backs.  I demonstrated first, and gave them 5 minutes.
  6. Second, each student had to figure out what was on his/her back, still with no talking.  I demonstrated the charades game and told them they had to act.  I gave them about 7 minutes.
  7. After they’d figured out their cards, I had them tape them to the top of the blackboard, organized from great exercise through no exercise (for example, play basketball and talk on the phone were on opposite ends of the board). 

I was very happy that it was quick, interesting, and a nice transition piece.

The writing activity was to write three invitations using “can.”  For example, Can you play golf on Saturday morning? 

We then used these invitations to begin the part of lessons that tends to make me nervous: fluency practice.  For fluency practice, the teacher sets the stage and then backs away to let the students actually use their English.

Students paired off.  Using their written work either as a script or as inspiration, they invited each other to do things.  The invitee made up an excuse using “have to” (i.e.  Sorry, I have to teach class then.).  Then we changed the rules so that the invitee had to accept (i.e. yes, sure, good idea). 

Tomorrow, we’ll do a small amount of accuracy practice, probably sentence scrambles.  We’ll spend much more time making calendars and having some real conversations about them with even less of a script than we had today.  We’ll see what happens!

Journal: Snow Day Victories

Well, it turns out that a scant inch of snow is enough to delay my place of work from opening until noon.  Since I have a morning class, that means a snow day!

I was of course uneasy about the possibility of my students coming to class to find nobody there, so I called everybody.  I also told every single person and voicemail I spoke to that in the future I would not be calling. See the homework blog for more details.  I’ll have even more options for them in person tomorrow, but I’m not posting them because they highlight where exactly I work.

Victory #1:

I spent the morning registering for a class for my own professional development as an ESOL teacher.  Yay!  It starts Monday and will meet weekly all the way through mid-May.

Victory #2:

high five? by StephVee on Flickr
high five? by StephVee on Flickr

I also spent time getting my work email to run through Gmail instead.  Success!  My mistake from Monday was trying to accomplish what I wanted through the college email system instead of through Gmail.  Maybe tech support could have pointed me in that direction instead of just saying that my request was “impossible,” but I got there eventually.  🙂

I’m so excited about this change for these reasons:

  • General annoyance: Gmail’s interface is just better from log-in to reading to sending.
  • Gmail has a SPAM filter.  I see no evidence of one in my work email.
  • Personal boundaries maintained: I set up a new work Gmail separate from my personal account.
  • Inbox overflow issue solved: messages will only stay in my work email for a moment before flying to my new, huge work Gmail.
  • My replies will be faster: I’ve set up filters in my work Gmail that will forward important messages straight to my personal account.
  • More flexibility for me: I can now email my colleagues from my personal account but have it look like it’s from my work account.

In other words, I’m in charge now, not the email system. It’s a good feeling!

I’m not going to do a complete email victory dance until I’ve seen my set-up in action for a week or two, but I’m very happy with my progress!

Happy snow day to all!

PS – Yesterday: 20 students, engaging grid activity warm-up about the students’ exercise habits, beginning of the Getting In Shape unit, reading charts, talking about the calories that various activities burn.  Very fun!