Tag Archives: Notes from the classroom

Sometimes Being a Teacher is the BEST Job in the World!

highres wild

                                                                                                              drawing by Alice Axelbank

Some days are simply amazing – everything seems to fall into place. Friday was such a day.

It isn’t quite something that can be explained – I strive to “push the right buttons” every day yet the outcome varies.

I’ll take the fifth period as an example, though the highlight of the day happened before that (yeah, wait for it!).

I had the two weak 10th graders, who are particularly fond of punching each other on the shoulder, working up by the white board. I wrote two sentences on the board, a sentence with each of their names (using vocabulary they need for their test) and left them to figure them out. Every five minutes or so they called me to see what they had done and give them two more sentences. They weren’t exactly quiet (and they did punch each other on the shoulder) but that didn’t bother anyone and they were working!

Meanwhile,two students were practicing their vocabulary at the Y.A.L.P word station. We discovered a new “tutor” star – seems this student is very creative at giving helpful tips to remember words! Two more students were working at the computer on their literature log (we’re learning “An Introduction to Poetry” by Billy Collins). The remaining three students were doing review sheets for their upcoming exam and I was moving from one to another. Kids talked and laughed but everyone was working and we got a lot done! The atmosphere was so relaxed and productive!

The highlight  of the day was when one of the ‘”problematic” 10th graders sought me out during the break. She wanted to discuss her homework, or rather lack of homework. She hasn’t done homework once since the beginning of the year even though she got several demonstrations of what to do. I even let her begin one of the tasks in class so as to get her going. Nothing.

However, I think peer pressure began to influence her. She sought ME out to discuss homework on her break! Since the class computer was hooked up to the Internet, the students can easily get as much help with their online homework as they need (either extra explanations before handing in the task or quick feedback on their work afterwards) the number of students who do homework regularly has improved dramatically. Only 5 pupils out of 59 don’t do homework!

She told me that she doesn’t have WORD on her home computer and that she can’t seem to do it at school I suggested a solution (have done this with another student and it worked really well) – I paste the task into the content space of an email and  she replies there. Still, this student has to take action first – she must send me an email!

Miracles don’t happen over night (haven’t received an email from her yet) but I feel the classroom culture has changed in regards to homework and it is such a good feeling!

Using a “Homework Video” for Homework


I discovered this short video on Sandy Millin’s blog as part of her excellent summary of the #ELTCHAT on the topic of homework.

I always check out a video without sound to see if it is suitable for use with my students. In this case I actually recommend using this one without sound for hearing pupils – I think it is more amusing (and less stuffy) this way.

I liked the idea of discussing homework habits at the beginning of the new school year. I prepared two simple tasks, the “blue” version and the “red” version. As always, there is more L1 in the  “red” version and the task is even easier.

You can find the tasks under the Downloadable Goodies tab on this blog, included in the category “reading videos”.

I’d love to hear what you did with this video, if you decide to use it!

Amazing! He Knows My “back-to-school” Dreams!

I was really amazed to read Scott Thornbury’s post “D is for Dreams” – he seems to have looked into my dreams!

Although I am about to begin my 26th year as a teacher, I have bad dreams during the second half of every August, like clockwork, every single year.

I wasn’t aware that other teacher do too. Although I teach in a very large high-school with many teachers, the subject has never come up. When we meet during “preparation days” before school starts one either talks about the fun one had on holiday or gripes about the new timetable or changes that have just been intoduced  for the upcoming school year.

My dreams would fall into the “loss of control” category.

Nightmare on the road

The odd thing is I don’t dream about the REAL “loss of control” issues I am worried about when I’m awake. Such as the 12th grader that goes from being sweet and working nicely to saloon-type fighting in about 30 seconds if someone sets him off.  Or the two 11th graders who kept all levels of the school administration on their feet dealing with their disregard of anything their teachers tell them (for instance – you cannot enter a class that isn’t your own in the middle of the lesson!). And what about all those unknown 10th graders?

Instead I dream that I can’t seem to be able to get to the classroom. The car won’t start, the bus won’t come, there is trouble on the road, people keep obstructing my path and forcing me to stop, etc.

There are also the dreams when I DO make it to the classroom but the pupils keep coming in, more and more and more and they don’t seem to stop. I can’t manage to talk to any of them as the door keeps opening…

So, thank you Scott Thornbury! I found your post on dreams very encouraging!

Notes from a Short Summer Course

between a rock and a hard place

* Photo by Gil Epshtein

I just finished teaching a short summer course for ninth graders who will be my new 10th graders this September. Only five children (out of 8 that the course was intended for) attended the course. I will have 17 new students but the others come from mainstreaming and were not included in the course.

I’ve been teaching such summer courses for many years. We always devote a lot of time to activities related to the “ABOUT ME” topic as it is a good opportunity for me to get to know the pupils, their learning styles and interests, while learning about their level and abilities. I’m very flexible about stopping to talk about anything that comes up. As Fiona Mauchline writes in her terrific post   “A place of Greater Safety” , I think that such discussions, even though they are in Hebrew, contribute to building a good relationship with these pupils. Many of my pupils have a lot of emotional issues. If they don’t feel “secure” in a class that deals with a very frustrating subject (for children who don’t hear well!) then we get stuck at first base.

However, do these discussions, for some of the children, really have that effect? Brad Peterson’s interesting post “Do you share your values in the classroom?” made me feel proud to know teachers like Brad and sad about the discussions I had this past week in comparison, particularly with one of the girls.

This girl hears comparatively well but comes from a linguistically (and otherwise) impoverished background. That was clear from this story she related the first day. The girl told me she knows how to ride a horse. I was duly impressed and asked her where she rides as I know she live in a city. She explained that she has relatives in a village and she goes there almost every holiday and rides horses. When I asked this 15 year old the name of the village she goes to so regularly, she didn’t know! We were using fun worksheets from abroad that have Monday as the first day of the week and write the date differently from the way we do. I explained about that but her attitude was that she does things her way and the rest of the world better copy her because she’s certainly not interested in the way they do things!

This is not new to me. Like the students who insisted that zebras come from the Safari Wild Animal Park and not Africa or the one who refused to accept that it rains in the summer in other parts of the world. I call these pupils the “don’t confuse me with the facts” pupils. Sigh. Brad is discussing values with his pupils and these pupil argue about where  zebras come from!

Important to note that there are others. Not only are some of them bright and curious, some come from backgrounds where everything seems to be “against” them (profoundly deaf, poverty, immigrants etc.) and they are still amazing.

Does the fact that I’m constantly trying to expose these kids to the wider world that exists out there just intimidate those from the ‘don’t confuse me with the facts” group”? Am I shaking their teenage world by confronting them with facts such as people don’t work on Sundays in many places in the world? Because members of this group (thankfully, NOT A HUGE GROUP ) fight me every step of the way with such information.

Part Two of Comment on Scott Thornbury’s “Open Spaces” – Getting Sidetracked!

Have you ever seen a bicycle for five?!! My husband just did! I immediately wanted to use the photo for this post for the following two reasons:DSCF0331 Part one of this post was about my experiences as a pupil (Comment on Scott Thornbury’s “Open Spaces” – My Experiences Both as a Pupil and as a Teacher).

I fully intended to write the continuation of the post in the same manner. But I’ve been sidetracked by thought-provoking questions raised by fellow bloggers. What have been the influences on the way I teach (Tyson Seburnt’s “Influential ideas on my approach to ELT”)? Has my own autobiography as a learner shaped my teaching (Willy Cardoso’s “Off-track existentialist young-being” )?

Like the bicycle in the photo I’ve been going off in different directions. So…

No! here’s the short version!

Now I teach in the format of a learning center with 10thto 12th graders (and a sprinkling of kids up to the age of 21 or so) all mixed together in one open space. Levels ranging from ABC to top levels. All have hearing problems, some have additional problems, many have emotional issues.

Sometimes the open space format is wonderful!! Kids form different “coalitions”, its non threatening, the kid “jumping around” who needs to get up every 10 minutes doesn’t stop the others from learning, the kids are progressing at their own pace and much more. I’ve been posting about this a lot.

But sometimes, (especially when there are too many pupils and no teacher-aids) like the bicycle in the photo, it seems that everyone is pulling in a different direction and needs something else and I am frustrated! Some things are easier to teach frontally to groups that are tracked by level. Although I HAVE taught a few frontal lessons that included EVERYONE, the sad fact is that’s good for special events. Those bright high-level children who are writing essays in English and those that need to be shown why “at three o’clock” cannot be the answer to the question: “Where does Tom live?” cannot be taught frontally together.

But that bicycle in the photo DOES move forward, and we do too!

Am I Just Blowing in the Wind?

Photo by Gil Epshtein
Photo by Gil Epshtein

Willy Cardoso, in his post “A teacher and his bedrock” asked about having basic principles or beliefs that ground one’s teaching.

I hadn’t thought about this question.

There’s a quote that occured to me in this context but I’m not sure who said it (can’t find it on Google, must be getting it wrong!):

“Once I had 7 principles and no children. Now I have 7 children and no principles”.

I’ve taught a large number of students over the years and my response adhered to that quote – I probably don’t have any! I’m willing to use anything that works for a certain pupil! In my comments  to Willy’s post I gave an example of one of the most exreme teaching situations I’ve experienced with a pupil.

Willy has been patiently exploring that with me and has ignited a fascinating chain of thought! Perhaps principles aren’t what I thought they were…

I urge you to follow the link above, read his post and see where YOU stand.  Perhaps his comments will lead you to a different kind of reflection process, as they have done for me!

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?

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…