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!

Journal: A Good Week

This was a good week!

We began a new unit on Monday: Time and Events.  I’ve been really happy with our work.

Monday we began with some reading from the old unit, then congratulated ourselves on finishing the family unit and moved on to the time unit.  We reviewed clock-reading basics and made sure we were all talking about the same thing: hour hand, minute hand, etc.  Everyone already knew (at least roughly) how to read clocks, so that really helped the vocabulary stick!  We also moved into our more complicated English time phrases: some people say 5:15… and others say quarter after 5.  We began filling out times on worksheets for a jigsaw activity (in which Group A has answers 1-5 and Group B has answers 6-10, so the groups can communicate the answers to each other), but ran out of time.

Tuesday we got about as far as basic time review before Standardized Test Day kicked in.

Wednesday we resumed and completed the jigsaw.  It was really fun to watch students try the complicated time phrases, see their partner’s interpretation of what they said, and the negotiation of meaning until it was correct.  Those kinds of interactions are what help the language stick – when a phrase has real and distinct meaning.

We also happened upon a surprisingly rich conversation topic: “What time to you get up in the morning? Why?”  People’s schedules and breakfasts had a lot of very interesting variety!

Today I filled in a learning gap that I didn’t realize was there until I watched yesterday’s jigsaw activity: students didn’t really get what a “quarter” meant – many people said “quarter after 5” was 5:25, I think because the coin is worth $.25.  We did a little math lesson on “half” and “quarter.”  The concepts weren’t new to anyone, but for some it was good review and I think for all it was an important vocabulary clarifier.

For half, I told a story about two students (including our resident Subway enthusiast) splitting a five-dollar foot-long.  I projected a picture of one onto the white board so we all knew what we were talking about.  The students told me how much each would pay ($2.50), and we established that it was half.  Then I went to cut the sandwich by drawing a dry-erase line through it.  I drew it way off to one side and asked if that was half.  They knew it was not, that the sides had to be the same.  I wrote this information on the board: half = 2 parts the same size.

For quarter, I told a story about four students (the four closest to the front) splitting a pizza for $12.00.  I drew a circle on the board and made an arrow pointing to it that said “pizza.”  So much for art.  🙂  After a slightly hilarious interlude from a student who works at Sbarro telling us with pride that their pizzas are only $9.99, the class split the pizza bill into quarters, or $3 each.  At that point, I busted out four quarter-dollar-coins and a dollar bill to clear up the idea that a quarter only meant $.25.  No, it means four equal parts.  We then divided the pizza into quarters in the standard way, one vertical half and one horizontal half.

Then… I said, “Oh wow, that pizza looks like a clock!”  I changed the label from “pizza” to “clock.”  I filled in the clock numbers.  I pointed to the upper right quadrant and asked, How many minutes are in this quarter?  They got the answer right: 15.

I was pretty sure they understood but I wanted them to show me.  I separated them into four groups (we had 13 students, so I couldn’t do quarters!) and gave each group a different number of different objects. Group 1 had tea bags, Group 2 had chocolates, Group 3 had square buttons, and Group 4 had stars.  I had each group answer 3 questions: how many things, what number is half of your things, and what number is a quarter of your things.  I wish I’d done a better job of having them share their information with each other, but we were pressed for time.  Still, they showed me the right answers, so I could see some evidence of understanding.

It was a good week!  Looking forward to next week’s review of it and to our Thanksgiving lesson!


Journal: A Highly Specific Success Regarding Directions

I’m following up yesterday’s general, philosophical post with one about a highly specific success.

In one activity this morning, I wanted the students to write down how to get from their house to a place in their neighborhood.

Now, I have a history of introducing this type of writing activity in such a way that half the class has no idea what I want them to write about, but the other half knows exactly what to write about.  Today, I really wanted to make sure that everyone knew what to write about.

I realized that in the past, I haven’t treated the “think of a place in your neighborhood” piece as its own, separate step.  I should though.  “Think of something” is an abstract thing for students to do and there’s no embedded feedback if they’re just thinking alone.  How do they know if they’re on the right track?  It also doesn’t always make much sense without the accompanying assignment.  However, when I immediately pair it with the assignment, everybody misses something because it’s too much all at once.

Today, I modeled first by talking about my neighborhood.  I listed three places in my neighborhood near my home: a grocery store and two restaurants.  Then I asked students to tell me a place in their neighborhood.  After some difficulties regarding the exact definition of “neighborhood” (one student seemed to want a quantified radius) and something like ten minutes of discussion, we had heard at least eight students list a few places near their houses.

Block Tower by starbuck powersurge on Flickr
Block Tower by starbuck powersurge on Flickr

At that point, I asked students to pick one place each and write directions from their house to there.  I gave concrete examples (Student A will write how to get from her house to the 7-11 in her neighborhood.  Student B will write how to get from her house to the mall.) so everyone knew what they should write about.



And you know what?  Every single student knew that they should put something on paper about getting from their home to a place in their neighborhood.  They had varied degrees and methods of success, in part because my writing instructions were not as clear and well-modeled as could be.  But by gosh did everyone know the topic.

It’s a small success, but I can build on it.

Journal: Tech-Teaching Improvements

The computer-based lessons went much, much more smoothly yesterday and today. 

I talked with students after computer time both days, and they like it.  We decided together that we’ll do 30 minutes of computer time everyday.  I plan to keep checking in about it at least once a week, so it might change.

Now, a bit more about the journey that has been computer time:

First “Lesson:” Oops

In my first computer “lesson” I made a lot of mistakes.  They stemmed from my own experience (I’m in many ways a “digital native“) and from my lack of experience (my training is in running a communicative classroom, not in preparing a computer-based activity). 

I would like to add that the surprise technical difficulties I had were not in any way helpful. 

It was a painful hour of my life, but the learning curve was quick and eye-opening.

What I Improved:

  • I decided to log everyone into the computers myself during the break.  Typing in the nonsense logins and passwords with 100% accuracy was really too much for many students the first day.
  • Most students already had email addresses after the first day – phew!
  • I created a simple website, Teacher Emily’s Computer Class.  Students go to it ( and select their activities. 
  • I quick talked to individual students about their computer skills.  “Are you good with computers?”  Everyone was able to catch my meaning and tell me bood, bad, or so-so.  It was enough to figure out who I had to watch like a hawk, and was therefore super helpful.
  • Thanks to my website, I could quickly send students who struggle to even use a mouse over to a mouse practice program.

How I Want to Keep Improving:

  • seat all of the beginning computer users together (obvious, but hard to remember at the time!)
  • methodically help everyone be more self-sufficient on computers.  A maybe-logical sequence off the top of my head:
    1. learn to mouse
    2. learn to open the internet browser (Internet Explorer- gr…)
    3. learn to type in the address to my website
    4. learn to select an activity from the website and maximize the window
    5. learn to log in to the computer
    6. learn to type quickly
  • tweak my website in two ways:
    1. improve the organization and clarity, particularly for lower-level English readers
    2. add more resources, particularly for higher-level computer users

Why It’s Worth the Headache

It’s multilevel.  That’s my first and final answer.  The most important priority I have is to help students move forward from wherever they’re at with their learning. 

My multilevel class includes students at many, many levels.  Here are quick sketches of five actual students in my class today:

Student A: low-intermediate English skills and zero computer skills. 
Student B: beginning English skills and zero computer skills. 
Student C: high-beginning English skills and near-expert computer skills. 
Student D: high-beginning English skills, wants to learn how to type faster.  
Student E: new; will certainly test into Level 3 and leave our class by next week.  

There were also ten other individuals I didn’t mention.  All of them can learn at their level simultaneously during computer time. It’s amazing.

In my opinion, the resources we’re using during computer time are not adequate substitutes for classroom interactions.  They are, however, awesome suplements that let students take the lead in their education and function at exactly their own level.  A solid way to spend 30 minutes.

Journal: Context for Communication

(Sorry to have missed posting yesterday.  I’ll write a separate post soon about my weekly routine teaching split-shift classes.)

We’ve been working on grammar all week in the morning L1 multilevel class.   Asking questions with the right word order and using possessives properly were pretty major points.  I needed them to practice doing these things and I needed to take myself out of the middle, but they are often confused when working in small groups with dialogs.  I think this is because dialogs are so artificial that they’re actually quite abstract.

I Set the Context

Right Arm Cast by jeffreylcohen on Flickr
Right Arm Cast by jeffreylcohen on Flickr

I brought in a white dish towel.  In front of the whole class, I wrapped it around my right hand and wrist like a cast or ace bandage.  I told them that I hurt my hand.  “Where should I go?”  They told me to go to the hospital, doctor, clinic, etc.  I said OK.

I walked in place to the clinic.  I opened the invisible door to the clinic and told the invisible receptionist that I had hurt my hand and needed a doctor.  I walked in place to the invisible waiting room.  “Before you see the doctor, what do you always have to do?”  Blank stares.  I held up some forms.  They understood – paperwork.

“But I have a problem!” I told them.  “I hurt my hand.  I cannot write.”  I tried to hold a pen in my wrapped-up hand and dropped it.  “I need somebody to help me.  The secretary will help me.  She [yes, I said “she” for secretary…] will write my information.  I am the patient.”

Their Tasks

I then split students into pairs, one as the secretary and one with the hurt hand.  I gave the secretaries basic forms with lines for personal information (name, address, etc.).  They had to ask their patients “What is your [name/address/telephone]?” and write down the patients’ answers.

Benefits of Context

Every single student understood their role. I know this because I walked around and checked; not even one student was floundering in left field.  This was huge; I normally confuse at least one student.  🙂  The context seemed to work for everyone.  Many of the “patients” even got into the acting, cradling one hand in the other as though they were hurt.

It also made “enforcement” of the roles a game.  Instead of saying, “No, don’t write your own information!” I could say, “Remember, you hurt your hand!  He has to write for you!”

Having the students swap roles in order to keep practicing was also fun and clear.  I presented the new secretary with a form and congratulated him or her on his new secretary job.  Then I told the other student that they needed to be careful with their hands next time, no more accidents.  They understood that their roles had switched, and they were able to understand and chuckle at a bit of humor in English.

Having the context really made all the difference. No abstract explanations, no vaguely wondering if they were completing the task correctly.

Also, my only activity-specific prep was having enough copies of the forms (they were re-used from our last unit on personal information) and bringing in a dish towel.  Not bad.  🙂