Comment on “Why do we take it so personally” by Cecilia Lemos

Cecilia Lemos’s latest blog post “Why do we take it so personally?” really resonates with me.

Photo by Gil Epshtein
Photo by Gil Epshtein

She writes about how we are aware of the fact that we only play a part in a student’s success yet we feel WE are to blame when the student does not succeed. Cecilia says: “ Why do we take it so personally – and only on a negative side for us??”

I wish I had the answer to that question!

Over the years I have discussed it countless times with a colleague who has been teaching the same pupils I do for just as long (but does not teach English).

Here are a few insights that have come up over the years. Sometimes they make me feel better, sometimes they don’t.

You pay a price either way. Obviously “beating yourself over the head” is bad for your teaching, for your health and for your family. You are human and there is only so much one person can do, no matter how good the intentions are. If you only look at the things that have gone wrong you won’t have the strength for all the things you do so well that help so many students.

On the other hand, if your attitude is: “I know I have worked hard preparing the lessons. If someone still fails, it isn’t related to me”, then you risk being frozen into certain patterns of teaching that you stick to. You miss out on the intense reflection that can come out of true frustration. That’s when you may decide to try something radically different in class or start calling the student’s parents often. Or who knows what else. Sometimes that does the trick.

And sometimes, nothing does the trick. In fact, the real trick is to know how long to agonize about what you haven’t tried before flipping the TURN OFF switch and moving to “I’VE DONE MY BEST” mode. I wish I could say I control this switch well because I have some students whom, despite my sincere efforts, are not going to get a passing grade on the finals they just took. I tried to skim over, to bridge the abyss between what they know to what they need to know for the exam but the abyss is too big.

The best way to activate this “switch” is to hash out your feelings with someone who knows the pupils. They can remind you of the reality of the issues outside of your control which are influencing this pupil and help you regain perspective.

Just like we tell our pupils, when you feel distressed – talk about it!

Has the DOG Run Away with My Ticket?

I was inspired by Magpie Moments “Using Tickets – an Unplugged Approach” lesson to try and adapt this lesson using authentic tickets. The idea for using tickets came from Sandy Millin’s very inspiring (Almost) Infinite ELT ideas blog.

I thought this would be suitable for a beginning of the year activity, when the students are making the switch from the freedom of what is known here as “The BIG Vacation” to the demands of the school year.

However, as I changed the original lesson more and more, I began to wonder if I have lost the “unplugged” aspect of the lesson and it is no longer “Dogme” – hence my question: Has the dog run away with my ticket?

I’ll describe the lesson I’m planning according to Anna’s framework.

Think about it

Anna says “… a topic like transport, journeys or events why not take a bit of time to find out what your learners’ experiences have been. Do they have any stories to tell? Or can they imagine some?”

While some of my teenage students are very active and are experiencing life just like other teenagers, others have an extremely limited life experience. I don’t want students to feel bad that some of their peers went to Europe over the summer vacation while they have nothing “cool” to tell. So I’m going to emphasize imagination. But in order to imagine things, you need to have some knowledge. I’m sure that if I asked those kids what types of tickets they could think of they would be able to think of only one type – either “cinema tickets” or “bus tickets” depending if the child ever rode on the bus alone. So there has to be a section of the lesson that precedes having them imagine things.

Get it ready

It’s great to plan this lesson now – it will be easy to collect a wide variety of tickets over the summer holidays – will ask my friends to help! Unlike Anna, I will not bring in blank colored papers – these are teenagers! A third of them will be new 10th graders, just beginning high-school. At the beginning of the year teenagers are especially concerned about their image – that would seem babyish to them!

Set it up & Let it run

As I teach in the format of a learning center, students will be working on this in pairs or groups of three. In order to be creative later, the students must first see how many different kinds of tickets there are. I plan to scatter a bunch of different kinds of tickets on the table, have the students choose tickets (each one numbered) and fill in a chart on a worksheet looking something like this:

Ticket Number

What is it for?

Which country is it from?

How much does it cost? Would you like to go there?

We did not have an oral discussion before the activity as we speak Hebrew and Israeli Sign Language in class and it wouldn’t serve as a language preparation. Yet we will be discussing background information as they work on filling the chart (unfamiliar names of countries & currencies, unfamiliar concepts such as “a fair”. etc.)

Round it off & Follow up

Now I go back to Anna’s lesson and turn to the WEG style table for the MAGIC TICKET. This will be with Velcro on the back so that it can hang on the wall. Actually there will be more than one sheet as this will be for all the kids, to be filled in over the first week. Each student fills out what he /she would do with a magic ticket to anywhere. The table will look like this:

Type of Ticket Where to? Why?

As the students are from wildly different levels and I basically want them all to do the activity, some students will need more help than others. But that’s the beauty of having it as a beginning of the year activity. In regards to the new 10th graders whose level I’m trying to asses – seeing how much help they need with this activity will give me a great deal of information about their level of English and general world knowledge. In addition, the students will be working in pairs or groups of three so they can help each other too.

Of course, there may be one or two who won’t cooperate at all…. Sigh!

There’s the lesson.

Have I lost the “Dogme” part by adapting it so much? I knew I was teaching “unplugged” that day the students came in wet and we worked on that on the spur of the moment. However, I can’t begin the school year, with a third of the students whom I haven’t met, in such a manner!

So, has the dog run away with my ticket?

My Post for the “Disabled Access-Friendly World” Blog Challenge

I was very impressed by Marissa Constantinides’s initatiative to gather lesson plans for raising awareness of the members of our society with special needs, but I wasn’t sure what I could contribute. After reading Vicky Loras’s post on this topic which was based on a poem, I thought perhaps this lesson I have taught may be of use. It presents a poem by a deaf poet.

Since I teach deaf and hard of hearing students the motivation for teaching this poem was not to raise awareness but rather to show them that there are deaf poets writing about things these students can relate to. Perhaps for a class of hearing students it will serve the purpose Marissa intended. Here is the lesson plan in three parts. The full poem can be found at the end.

Part One

I began the lesson by writing the following on the board:

Solo Dining While Growing Up

A poem by Curtis Robbins*

Line 1: When my whole family sat down at the dinner table:

The students and I translated the title of the poem, emphasizing the meaning of the word “solo”. The vocabulary of the first line of the poem is quite simple so most of the students went on to read it themselves. I then asked them if they found any contradiction between the title and the first line. Some students saw it, some didn’t – why is he saying he ate alone when it clearly says that he sat with his whole family?

I then pointed to the asterisk after the name of the poet and wrote on the board:

* Curtis Robbins is a deaf poet.

Immediately, ALMOST the students (THAT was amazing!) got it – the poet felt he was dining alone even though his family was there because they were hearing people and he was deaf. The poet couldn’t follow the conversation over dinner. Some students pointed out that his family probably didn’t know sign language. Interesting to note that about a fourth of my students have deaf parents and did not grow up being left out at the dinner table, yet they immediately recognized the situation. Many students who do have hearing parents said they didn’t feel like that with their immediate family but have had this experience.

Part Two

On the board we brainstormed as many nouns as we could think of related to dining, such as forks, napkins and plates.  Now the students were able to read the following version of the poem (with missing words) which I handed out:

Solo Dining While Growing Up

When my whole family sat down at the dinner table:

There was always

a lot to eat from corner to corner

There was always _____________

between forks and spoons

There was always _____________

between glasses and cups

There was always ________________

between napkins

There were always

empty plates and empty bowls

But the knife that laid between them all-

from mouth to ear-

from mouth to eye –

_____  _______  ______.

Part Three

After making sure that everyone understood all the vocabulary items I told the students that the same word was missing in the first three blanks. As a collaborative effort we brainstormed what that word could be and then filled in the word “conversation”.

Then we discussed what the last three words could be. I pointed out that it is related to a knife, so they were able to come up with “cut” but did not know “cut off” (which I explained). They easily understood that the poet was the one feeling cut off so we quickly identified the word “me”. Then I wrote the missing three words which they copied in: “cut me off” .

I left time for students to express their feelings about the poem and to share any related stories, feelings or thoughts but this part was important for emotional / psychological reasons only – it was all done in Hebrew!

Here is the complete poem.

Solo Dining While Growing Up

I Have Been Interviewed!

Photo by Gil Epshtein
Photo by Gil Epshtein

I know I may sound like someone who is touting her own horn here, but I had a really fun video chat with Sandy Millin (in the Czech Republic!).

She’s been helping me into the world of twitter and online collaborative tools, patiently explaining all these unfamiliar acronyms used by teachers from language schools AND offering practical advice when commenting on my blog!

So, when after all that she insisted that she wanted to interview me, I thought I should let you know that it is here!

Measuring Progress – Angle 3 of the Coursebook Conundrum

Before continuing my exploration of how “doing away with the coursebook” would influence teaching special needs children such as the ones I teach, just a quick look at the status of the previous two angles explored:

* Readers’ comments have made me feel much better about recycling vocabulary in a class without a coursebook (“Angle 2”)

* I remain as concerned as ever about the mainstreamed special-needs children and their tutors (“Angle 1”).

And now for “Angle 3” !

Statue27 Photo by Gil Epshtein

I teach a lot of reading & writing skills by having students answer questions about pictures.

I work on reading & writing skills by doing “Reverse Reading” activities on the board.

Students participate in the Y.A.L.P vocabulary project.

Sometimes we play games.

These are all activities done without the coursebook.

Then along comes the pupil who flips through his coursebook and says :”Look how many exercises we’ve skipped! We haven’t learned anything this year!”

The more ambitious the students, the more they are concerned about comparing their progress to something clear and unambiguous. They can look at their grammar book and see which tenses /structures they’ve drilled. They can see which pages they have filled in their coursebook. The Y.A.L.P vocabulary project has its own tracking page which shows progress.

Progress in reading and writing activities cannot be measured in such a manner.

This morning I was explaining to a group of tenth graders about the different levels of the national exams in English they would be taking next year. In the easier exams the students can copy a sentence from the text as an answer but the harder ones require the students to actually form the answer on their own. This prompted one very ambitious, smart and tense girl (profoundly deaf, too) with a “horribly low” level of vocabulary,to accuse me of not teaching them how to write this year…

The Second Question related to “The Coursebook Conundrum”: Recycling Vocabulary

Unlike the situation described in my previous post, I have unequivocally found that teaching “unplugged” in the self-contained classroom has major advantages for the special-needs learner.

In fact, in my classes I have found that the pupils whose hearing loss is just one of a myriad of problems (such as an additional handicap, problematic home life, etc.) respond to it the best.

Let’s take, for example, the “rainy day” lesson I previously posted about. This group of very weak deaf 12th graders, ages ranging from 18-20, have difficulty focusing on the  best of days. I would never have gotten them to work from the coursebook after they got wet on their way to class from an unexpected rainfall. Yet by creating together, on the whiteboard, a 5 sentence story describing one of the girl’s experiences on the way to school that morning (why she had no umbrella and how she got wet…) I had the girls’ attention. They stayed focused when we finished writing the “story”, had 3 rounds of “disappearing text” ( I erased words from the story and they came to the board to fill them back in. Each time I erased more words) and then answered WH questions which I wrote on the board.

They practiced reading comprehension skills and grammar. I was thrilled!

But there’s always a “but”.

These 12th grade girls have a TERRIBLY small vocabulary.

In our vocabulary project I have a set of 50 irregular verbs that I wanted them to master and they spent months on it. One of the four still can’t remember them all.

I supplied the vocabulary needed to complete this “Rainy Day” story (for example, “wet”, “rain”, “umbrella” and “socks”). On one hand I was completely justified in doing so because the benefits were enormous and the girls learned a lot. The story HAD to be about what was on their minds at that moment and I supplied the vocabulary needed to make it happen.

But we haven’t used these words since. And if the lessons are not related to a coursebook at all, how do I make sure these pupils are exposed to the vocabulary items “recycled” in many ways, as they are in a coursebook?

The Coursebook Conundrum and the Special-Needs Learner in the Regular Classroom

To teach “ unplugged” or according to a coursebook, how closely to follow the coursebook and in what manner are topics I find discussed a great deal recently.  For example, I recommend reading Lizzie Pinard’s beautifully written summary of this week’s ELTCHAT: How to avoid death by coursebook

Perhaps I take particular note because these topics are very much on my mind! I’m very enthusiastic about teaching unplugged but am besieged by the countless aspects to this conundrum. I thought it best to examine them one by one. So this post is devoted to the special needs learner in the regular classroom.

Here’s a true story and a couple of facts.

website * Photo by Gil Epshtein

For three consecutive summers I worked with a bright boy we’ll call Joel (note: Joel does not have a hearing loss!). Joel’s intelligence and good language skills helped him compensate well for his learning disability in all subjects at school except English. Joel began learning English in third grade and was in trouble from the word “go”. This is not an uncommon scenario in Israel, in classes of both Hebrew and Arabic speakers, because English requires learning a new alphabet which is written in a different direction. In addition, English is not a Semitic language!

Joel completed his first year of English at school failing to learn the letters and basic phonics. His oral vocabulary was dismally small, despite having a rich vocabulary in his mother tongue. By the end of fourth grade, studying with a private tutor, he had mastered the alphabet and was making progress. But he was way behind his classmates at school and hated English lessons. He did not participate in the lessons.

After fifth grade Joel came to me for three consecutive summers (he continued with his wonderful tutor during the school year) and we prepared for the upcoming school year.

Our summer program’s main goal – build up Joe’s self confidence and enable him to experience success in class. Success breeds success and we had to break out of the vicious circle.


I pre-taught the first unit and half of the coursebook every summer.

I didn’t work with Joel on the book itself. I retyped the texts from the unit on the computer in dark blue letter with a  pale yellow background (slightly enlarged)with no pictures or additional colors. we read them several times in different ways.

I took the grammar topics (present simple, present progressive, past simple, etc.) but rewrote the exercises using either the vocabulary items in the unit or sentences related to Joel.

I closely followed the word lists given in the units in the coursebook and we worked on them intensively.

Joel wasn’t memorizing the answers to exercises in his book – we didn’t do them as they were. He didn’t see most of them. But we made sure he was ready for them.

Although we never got farther than a unit and a half (he needed LOTS of practice!) that made a world of difference. He started off each year surprising his teachers by participating and understanding the material. Since he was more confident he focused more during the lessons and took in more of what his classroom teacher was teaching.

In 8th grade “the penny dropped” and he began doing very well in class! He stopped coming for his summer program…

The fact that we knew the topics that would be covered in the reading passages, main vocabulary items and grammar topics that would be taught (because we had the coursebook) was very beneficial!

Now for the facts:

* In Israel there is a strong push towards mainstreaming special-needs children. Approximately 80% of the children with a hearing loss in this country study in a regular class.

* These children are entitled to a certain amount of hours with an individual tutor. Till about 8th grade these tutors often teach every subject taught in school. It is their job to sit with the classroom teacher, study the coursebooks used in class and support the children.

* Some parents of special-needs children are extremely involved in their children’s schoolwork (in some cases too much so, but that’s a whole different topic!)These parents rely heavily on the coursebook for information and examples of what the child needs to know as often the notebook is so unorganized or incomplete that it is of very little use for reviewing anything.

What happens to these children and their tutors in an “unplugged” classroom?