Category Archives: Learning

A story is a picture in words

It’s the end of the year and a few of my classes have finished their books and won’t start anything new until January. So I’ve had a few lessons to play with and I decided to share one of my favorite short stories with my students.

This is a story by Kevin Stein that is titled “For One Picture.” It is the story of a girl who, in spite of her mother’s misgivings, sets off on a motorcycle with her camera promising to come back when has has found a perfect picture. Throughout the story, the girl sends her mother pictures she has taken and her mother begins to understand her daughter’s vocation, hoping, in the end, that the world really is full of beauty and feeling amazed that her own daughter is a person who can find it and capture it.

I hope you will read the story yourself because, even though I’ve already summarized it, the beauty really is in the way it is told.

I wanted to share a few things I have done with this story this week.

For my 13 year olds, I read the story to them. While they listened, they drew pictures that illustrated the story.

by Emily

by Emily


I read it again for them to fill in the gaps. They took their pictures home and rewrote the story based on their pictures.

by Lorraine

by Lorraine

A few of them chose to retell the story orally, and actually those were the most complete tellings. They ended by writing letters to the author. (And so that the author need not panic, I will say now that I have told them not to expect answers.)

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For my 15 year olds, I gave them the story first and let them read on their own. They were most interested in the photographs described in the story and we discussed the beauty that can be found in unexpected places. They took the paper home and chose a picture to write about. They invented short scenarios about the picture they chose. These led to further interesting discussions, especially where they told different stories about the same pictures.

by Alfred

by Alfred

by Chris

by Chris

by George

by George

by Nina

by Nina

by Dian

by Dian

All work shown here is shared with the permission of the respective students. 

A topsy-turvy day #livebloggingparty

Last summer during the iTDi summer school MOOC, I watched a lot of fantastic presentations. One of the ones that made a big impression on me was from Aysegul Liman Kaban. She introduced the idea of topsy-turvy teaching – doing things a little different from usual. In her view, topsy-turvy teaching made it more about the students and was a way of compassionately connecting with them. Her ‘ten commandments of topsy-turvy teaching’ included 1) build a PLN, 2) use the power of emotions, 3) don’t fear mistakes, 4) talk about mystery, 5) have a question wall, 6) give feedback, 7) surprise them, 8) use brain teasers, 9) use projects, and 10) use social media in class. I already do a lot of this in my own classes, but I decided to shake things up in my own way.

I decided to try something topsy-turvy in my own classes as a way to shake routine and find out how my students want to connect. So I turned my routine on its head for three classes one day.

My students know our normal classroom routine so well that they sometimes write the progression on the board for me before I enter the room. It goes something like this:

  1. Hello
  2. How are you?
  3. Check homework.
  4. Student book
  5. Maybe game
  6. New homework
  7. Line up
  8. Goodbye

2014-06-19 17.37.35In the first class (a basic beginner level class of 8 year olds), I started with a game. It was meant to review what they had learned the previous class and it was a hit. Then we tackled newer language in the textbook and practiced it. Then I checked their homework and gave them new homework. Finally the students asked each other how they were doing (the answers were quite similar to their usual answers) and lined up to say goodbye. I don’t know if they noticed that the routine had changed. They didn’t have any comments on it. For my part, I found that my time management was better in that class with the topsy-turvy routine, and the game at the start got them talking sooner than they usually do.

On to the second class. This is one of my challenging classes, so I recorded it. I started their class by putting the topsy-turvy progression on the board. I gave them their new homework first and they immediately started trying to complete it. Badly, since they hadn’t practiced the material yet. I stopped them and got them playing a game. All through the game, a few students interrupted periodically to ask why we haven’t done “how are you?” yet. Later, I kept saying. Look at the board. The interruptions became louder and louder and when the game was finished they took matters into their own hands and started asking each other “how are you?” My topsy-turvy plan turned topsy-turvy on me and I realized it might be because this is the only part of the class that the students feel they have control over and they were afraid it would be taken from them. I have been much gentler about changing routines with that class ever since.

The third class has learners who are a little older and of a higher level. Learning from previous mistakes, I explained to them first what I was planning to do. They were willing to try it, so I wrote the progression on the board. Before I told them the new homework, I asked them to simply write it down and not try it until I was checking their previous homework. They agreed. Then they asked if they could line up and go home first. Smart alecs. They were happy to start class with a game that reviewed the language they worked with the previous class. Then we used the book to work on new language and they practiced diligently with their partners and as a whole class. This time I found that my time management was less good with this topsy-turvy routine and there was barely time to check homework at the end of the class and no time at all to get their feedback on the upside down class.

What I learned:

  • Starting the class with a game is a great warm-up.
  • Time management is tricky even when I’m paying attention to it.
  • Some classes need warning when I’m planning on changing up the routine.
  • Learner buy-in is important.
  • Leave time for feedback.

Special thanks to my blogging buddy for her excellent suggestion to blog together in my chilly but beautiful seaside town. This post is part of a #livebloggingparty with @annloseva, the famous right-hand typist. We met on the beach in Gangneung to compose our blog posts side by side.

Beach Blogging with A-chan

Beach Blogging with A-chan

The choose-your-own-projects Project


At the end of each unit of their book, my students do a group project. I find that projects are a great way for them to collaborate, create, and show off what they have learned from the unit. Their unit 2 project was a bit of a disaster. They focused on one topic and copied a lot of information for their posters straight from the book without more than a sentence or two of their own analysis. Furthermore, they did most of their planning in Korean and didn’t present anything in English. I think the instructions were not very clear to the students and the purpose of the project was also unclear. They might not have had enough time to work on it as well. Also, I assigned the groups rather than letting them choose and that might have affected group dynamics (a dangerous thing to mess with when your students are 13). So for unit 3 I we made some tweaks.

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MY ideas

I wrote down the names of the lessons in the unit to refresh their memories and matched them to suggestions I had for projects that might suit them – role plays, comics, an acrostic, stuff like that. I set out some rules, too – planning has to be done mostly in English. They have to use the vocabulary from their book but they can’t lift whole sentences. They have to work as a group as well as individually and each student has to create something. They have to present their projects as a group and they can’t just read what they have written on their papers.

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THEIR ideas

Students divided into two groups. The groups divided naturally because the first day of the project only five students were present. The rest (all from the same school) were on a field trip. On the second day of the project I asked the first group to explain the project to the second group and write the ideas and rules on the board. And then something unexpected happened: the members of the second group put their heads together and decided to come up with their own projects rather than use what I had suggested.

And they proved to me yet again the value of giving students room to be creative.

"Anne, can I say it like this?" Language feedback request.

“Anne, can I say it like this?” Language feedback request.

The project lasted four sessions, including the presentations. Much of their art work they did at home. I helped by giving language feedback and pointing out errors when they asked me to look at their writing. They helped each other by choosing roles and responsibilities. One a student in group two was lagging behind, her whole group came together to help her finish up. When a boy in group one couldn’t figure out the last line of his acrostic, his group scoured the book for ideas and helped him finish it. During the presentations, group members helped each other by taking on roles to role play and applauding after each member did their bit.

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Helping each other

Helping each other

I think our tweaks to the group project idea worked well. I am really proud of my kids and happy with how this turned out, so I wanted to share it with you.

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Final products

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Final products

If you would like to see the presentations, you can find them here and here.


Something that happened today (#OneThing blog challenge post)

It seems like I come home from work nearly every day and shrug and say, nothing much happened today. Of course that’s pretty silly. Lots of things are always happening and I am just not attaching importance to them. So the purpose of this blog challenge (for myself) is to pay attention to what happens in a day, reflect on it, and share it. I invite you to join me.

butterfly closeup

Image by Josh Kellogg used under Creative Commons license


Something that happened today:

H came to class, sat down, and said, “Anne, I didn’t do any of my homework.”
H’s class is one-on-one. His homework was to prepare a presentation about a film or book that he wants to share. Mondays are Presentation Day.
I sighed. “Okay,” I said.
“Let’s work on essay writing more today,” he said.
“Did you write the thesis statement for your compare/contrast essay?”
“Did you finish outlining the part about imagery?”
“Okay. Did you print the story that you lost?”
“Okay, let’s try to find specific examples of imagery.”

And that’s what we did for the rest of the class. He re-read parts of the stories in depth, asked questions about words he didn’t know for sure, and underlined examples of imagery. He wrote the examples in his notebook and finally, as the class was ending, I asked him to look at what he’d written for each story. And he had an a-ha moment. I watched his eyes light up as he saw that the examples he had found and written on his own were going to be relevant to his essay – there was clear contrast.

And I had an a-ha moment, too. I realized that while it’s important to read carefully and deeply, it’s also important to pull back sometimes and see the bigger picture. So the class didn’t go the way I thought it would, but learning appears to have happened and I’m content with that.

Image by Didier Descouens used under Creative Commons license

Image by Didier Descouens used under Creative Commons license

reappropriating resources

I hijacked the “Go Fish” game cards for a class of ten year olds. I’d had them out intending to use the alphabet letters to help the phonics class review (they just finished their first alphabet book), but they’d wanted to play animal memory instead. So “Go Fish” was sitting on my desk untouched.

Actually it’s not a bad little game. There are 50 cards – 25 matches. They’re labeled with a letter of the alphabet and a corresponding animal. And it qualifies as educational in two ways: the matching alphabet letters are upper case and lower case (perfect for my phonics class who have just finished their first go at learning the alphabet) and the matching animals are adult and young (and the upper case letter is always on the adult animal while the lower case letter is reserved for the baby animals). The game even goes so far as to avoid animals whose young are commonly called something different from their adult term (e.g. bunny, kitten, puppy…). But it wasn’t the game I needed.

Where DOES a yak live?

Where DOES a yak live?

You see, my students are learning about animal habitats and behaviours (with the aim to be able to describe an animal without needing to know its name). It is also very important for them to be able to ask questions, so this unit introduces “where” questions as well. They came to class with their homework (singular and plural “where” questions) so full of mistakes that I knew they needed more practice. So I elicited the questions on the board:

Where do (animals) live?

Where does (an animal) live?

And I started a drill. After a painful two minutes of correcting mistakes and trying again, I glanced over at my desk and saw the “Go Fish” cards still sitting there.

I divided the class into pairs and divided the go fish cards evenly between each team (10 cards each) in random order. Player 1 fanned out the cards and player 2 chose one. If it was an upper case letter, player 2 would ask a singular question about the animal on the card (e.g. Where does a goat live?). If it was a lower case letter, the question would be plural (Where do goats live?). Player 1 had to answer the question correctly to take the card. If the answer was wrong the card went back to the deck. Then the players swapped. This continued until all the cards were used.

It took about 15 minutes and they asked a lot of questions, argued some about usage, and helped each other out. When I did a comprehension check at the end of the game, the percentage of correct answers had doubled. And instead of bored or frustrated, they were smiling and confident – raising their hands and speaking louder than before.

One of those lucky moments when a spur-of-the-moment idea born from materials intended for another use just works.

A colorful lesson

This post is in part inspired by the Rhyme and Rhythm in ELT course with Jason Levine going on at iTDi right now. Jase, also known as Fluency MC, has a theory that acquisition of language has less to do with learning and use and more to do with repetition and relaxation.

I have a class of young learners who are learning colors this week. This is a review unit for them and they already know most of the basic colors. Their textbook introduces brown, black, and white and uses a chant to review the colors.

First the students listened and repeated the chant very slowly. Then I handed them each a colored marker. I asked them to stand up when their color came up in the chant. It took some ironing out, but they were good sports.

What I expected to happen was the whole class would chant while individual colors would stand and sit.

What actually happened was the students said only their own color and only repeated me. I figured enough repeating had happened, so I crossed my fingers and said, “one, two, three, go!” and held my breath. And they went: “purple, yellow, green and blue. Green and blue.” and then they stopped. And then they negotiated whether “and” went with green or with blue.

With that sorted out, they looked to me, and so I repeated, “One, two, three, go!”

Purple, Yellow, Green and Blue. Green and Blue.
Purple, Yellow, Green and Blue. Green and Blue.
Black, White, Brown, Red, Orange, too.
Purple, Yellow, Green and Blue. Green and Blue.

At the end they burst into applause and asked to do it again. So I collected the markers and redistributed them so that everyone had a different color (and different people had the four main colors) and we did it again. This time they re-negotiated “green and blue” during the chant and tried it a different way. And again at the end they applauded themselves.

We did it one more time (“green and” beat out “and blue“) before I let them use the markers to color. I think the activity was successful because each student got to be an integral part of the whole. It was an activity where every student could be involved in a positive way and I saw them supporting each other and paying attention and engaged in a way that other activities don’t usually inspire.

I also think using a chant and having a color to hold in their hand helped them speak without worrying about remembering the words or where their part is.

The students then provided more language as we moved on to “What’s your favorite color?” and they reported on their partners.

Next week  we can follow up by making a new chant that involves their favorite colors and test this “relax, repeat, remember” theory in my own class.

Traveling with teenagers

Last night I returned from a school trip. We took a small group of (17) students to London and Paris for a week. These students were between 14 and 17 years old. They were divided into two sections, and then within those sections into smaller groups of two, three, or four. 

Messing up

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The four youngest girls are a group. They were asked to lead the way on the second excursion. Two are bent over the subway map trying to determine the lines, directions and transfers. The other two are synching that information with what they see inside the station. After a few minutes of debate they proceed – in exactly the wrong direction. We all follow and take the subway one stop. By then they’ve noticed and tell everyone to get off. They lead us to the other side of the tracks and we start again. This time one of them asks someone waiting for a train whether this is the right train. It is. We get to our destination without further incident. Skimming, scanning and asking for information skills turned out to be very important. And messing up is an important part of learning.



Knowing the script

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At first most of the kids ate their meals at fast food restaurants like McDonalds. Then the kids (and the Korean teachers as well) mostly chose cafes to eat their meals. In part because these were cheaper than restaurants, but I think it mostly had to do with knowing what to do. Three of our students entered a Chinese take-out ahead of us and looked at the food laid out behind the glass. They chose the items they wanted by pointing and reading the labels and stood around waiting for their order until the staff told them to sit down three times. They got their food on trays, shared and ate it up, and left. It wasn’t until later in the trip that many of the students were comfortable enough to try restaurants. I, on the other hand, am way more familiar with the script in restaurants and that’s where I chose to go when I was on my own.



Communication where it matters

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When we arrived in Paris, the kids quickly discovered that we couldn’t log onto wifi without a password. I shrugged and resigned myself to use my phone as a camera. The kids were not so easily satisfied. Coming back from an outing with the other adults, we found TG (incidentally, the weakest English speaker of the group) at the front desk talking to the receptionist. When we asked what was going on, he told us he was getting a wifi password. I didn’t hear the conversation, but he did get his password. And after he did it, the other kids were braver to go and ask as well.





On the last day in Paris, I decided to wander around by myself. I didn’t realize until that morning when my coworker told me how nervous she was to take the metro without me that I had been a leader. They got around and survived the day, even riding a double decker train. Even adults need the freedom to find out that we can do it by ourselves. 

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Headliners, the activity

This is an activity I shared on the #flashmobELT lino board.

(For more information about #flashmobELT, check out this, this, or this.)

Screen shot 2013-12-03 at 오후 2.54.42


So here’s how this works:

My 6th grade (13 years old) students had been reading an article about fish farming and we were just wrapping up the unit. I asked them to form teams and choose a scribe for each team. The scribes went to the board and the teams called out all the words they remembered from the unit while the scribes wrote them down – pausing at times to ask for spelling. The result was a board full of words.

2013-11-29 18.19.19

Then the teams went to work together and formed headlines or titles from the words on the board. The rules: they cannot use words that are not on the board, but they can change the part of speech or form of the word. I wrote an example for them.

They wrote their headlines in their notebooks, checking with their groups for ideas and clarification. I checked all the headlines and made some suggestions.

The next step was writing a story to accompany the headline or title. They could, I told them, write any kind of story they want and did not need to stick to the topic or vocabulary from the unit. They attacked the task with determination and some of their resulting stories blew me away.

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The final step was creating a picture to go along with their stories. They could either find a picture they wanted to use or draw their own picture. I gave them paper to re-write their stories and add their pictures and asked them to bring them back the next class.

My original plan had been to post them up on the walls so that the students could walk around and read the stories, but they were a jump ahead of me. As soon as they were seated they started passing their stories around with pride and reading them anyway. Now the stories are all posted on the walls for other classes to read.

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I’m proud of the way my students approached this task, using all the resources at their disposal to help them work with the language and turn input into their very own output.

Responding to student feedback, an experiment

I’ve been experimenting with feedback a bit lately, though that’s material for another post. Today I want to talk specifically about one class. They are all in the third grade of middle school and mostly an intermediate level. We study genre writing together twice a week. I enjoy teaching and learning with them. Today’s small change was in how I responded to their feedback.

Last week at the end of a unit (formal letter writing), I asked them for feedback in the form of three sentences: “I liked ______.” “I didn’t like _____.” and “Please change _____.” I borrowed this feedback format from Mr. Michael Griffin’s blog post, “Orange is the new please consider stopping.”

Unsurprisingly, their feedback was quite a mixed bag. Some of it was specific; the rest very general. Some of them liked using the book, others hated it. Some of them enjoyed free-writing at the beginning of each class. For others, it was the worst part of each class. Some of them submitted anonymous feedback to complain about difficulties with other students. Others used it to express their personal challenges with English (and kindly signed their feedback slips). Some added helpful suggestions (“more group work, please!”) as well.

I noticed a lot of the feedback was similar to the previous months’ and I realized that I needed to address this more directly. Previously, I read the feedback and made changes to the things I could and tried to explain the things I couldn’t change – but I didn’t link it directly to their feedback.

This time I compiled all the feedback in a chart for everyone to see and today I went through it with the class, point by point. They listened attentively, adding additional thoughts that came up, and were interested in what I planned to do about the discrepancies. Some things I told them we couldn’t change (like the books). Some things I needed to ask how many people agreed about (like the group work). Some things I needed to explain why I was doing them in spite of similar feedback last unit (like the free writing).

The end result was a happy class who appreciated that I am listening to them, and showed me with their smiles, thanks, and hard work. The next round of feedback will hopefully reveal whether they felt answered this time.

BG KOTESOL mini-conference

Last weekend I attended the Busan-Gyeongnam KOTESOL mini-conference.

Not once did I regret the long drive from the top of the country to the bottom. The atmosphere was very friendly and welcoming and I got a chance to see a lot of people, some who were new to me and others whom I rarely see offline…. er, face-to-face.


The conference began with a keynote talk from Tim Thompson called “Close Your Books”. Tim began by confessing his teaching sins (during which time, I checked each one off in my head: teaching the book not the students – done that; not preparing for class “hey guys what page are we on” – yep, and more recently than I’d like to admit; Facebooking while the students “do” the book – yep, Tweeting too….), reinforcing the point that being tethered to a course book can have some negative consequences that are really worth considering.

Tim touched a topic that has given me much thought recently as well. What are we teaching? What do we say to the student who asks, “Why do I need to learn English?” Maybe she doesn’t need to learn it.* Tim’s approach is straightforward: we need to teach skills through English, where English is the medium rather than the content.

What skills will our students need in life? Tim offered some suggestions: public speaking, small-group discussion, academic writing, time management, leadership, teamwork, problem-solving, how to set and meet goals. These skills can easily transfer to real life situations in any language and help students start to take responsibility for their own learning.

My take-away was reflective: I need to think about and also talk to my students about what they want to learn and how to achieve my, their, and the academy’s (= their parents’) immediate and future goals. I’m grateful for all the suggestions and ideas I took away from the talk and look forward to helping my students find ways to improve their life skills through English.

Memorable quotes from the talk:

“If we don’t have goals for developing skills, then we need to start asking, “What are we doing in the classroom?” 

“EHP – English for Hypothetical Purposes. Let’s stop teaching this.”


The second session I attended was given by Chris Miller, “Journaling for Professional Development.” The session was mis-named in my opinion, as Chris actually presented a framework for reflection and helped participants consider how they reflect on their own classes. He also presented research by Hatton and Smith (1995) which added to my understanding of reflective practice.

The jargon-heavy framework Chris presented included descriptive writing (which meant defining the moment), descriptive reflection (which meant evaluating the situation), dialogic reflection (which meant exchanging reflective journals with someone), critical reflection (which meant considering the larger context, including factors beyond your control), technical rationality (which meant making small changes in your teaching), reflection-on-action (which meant reflecting to understand your teaching after the class has ended) and reflection-in-action (which meant reflecting before reacting during a teaching moment).

The presentation was rather complex, but the explanations were pretty clear and through Chris’s guidance we talked about our strongest points (for me, descriptive reflection) and weakest points (reflection-in-action). I also decided after learning about it that dialogic reflection is something I would love to try. Any takers? ^^

My take-away from this session is that there is a lot about reflection that I don’t know and that Chris is really passionate about improving his teaching practice. 

Memorable quotes: 

“Reflection is a work in progress.” 

“Asking more questions [is important] – even if you don’t know the answers.” (following Farrell (1998))


The third and final session I attended was by Jackie Bolen, “Teaching Public Speaking and Presentations 101.” I don’t know if I’ll ever be teaching public speaking or presentations, but I figured I could probably learn something for myself at least. 🙂 Anyone who has ever seen me in front of an audience knows that I need a teacher like Jackie (and perhaps a book like “Speaking of Speech”).

And I definitely learned a lot. First of all, I noticed Jackie’s presentation skills:

  • she showed the book first before beginning;
  • she introduced herself and gave some of her background;
  • she got the participants’ ideas before giving her own;
  • she kept it simple and told stories to support her arguments;
  • her speaking pace was natural and she used hand gestures and eye contact;
  • her volume was appropriate to the size of the room.

I noticed these things because she was talking about teaching them to students and also because they contrasted sharply with some other presentations I’d seen.

I learned that speech has a physical message, a visual message, and a story message. I could pick and choose and adapt to the ages and levels of my own students. One thing I thought was a bit of a shame is that all the “example” speeches on the resource cd were perfect, native-speaker examples. However, Jackie also suggested TED, YouTube (a place for bad examples!), and the website Presentation Expressions as additional input.

What I took away from the presentation is a keen desire to teaching speech and presentation skills in my class – especially since it ties into what Tim said in the beginning about teaching something meaningful. 

Memorable quote: “If you teach them the skills, even shy students can do it.”


As always, the most difficult part of a conference is deciding which presentations to attend, knowing I have to miss other great ones. I’m happy with my choices, but of course wish I could have seen everything. I am very glad I attended this mini-conference and kudos to all the speakers (many first-time presenters) for their courage and willingness to share their thoughts and ideas on a variety of topics.



*I approached my boss with this question a few weeks ago and she answered, “You never know where life will take you and English keeps a lot of doors open.”

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