Tag Archives: writing

Stories from #EdYOUfest 2016

In the midst of my year off, and through a rather unexpected turn of events, I found myself in Italy in the middle of August 2016, on the hottest days of summer. One of the reasons I was there was to attend #EdYOUfest in Sicily. I had heard about EdYOUfest online and also from Chuck Sandy while I was in Japan, and after a great deal of thought, I decided to change my travel plans and take a leap of faith. I booked a flight to Europe.

There are many, many good things about EdYOUfest – many, many things that I truly enjoyed. I tried to sample everything. I woke up early and went to yoga every morning. Dora was a patient yoga instructor, and I was a complete newbie who kept falling over, and it was totally worth giving up an hour of sleep for. One of the sessions I learned the most from was Julie’s “zero resource” classroom. I learned how much you can make from nothing, and how to look at nothing and see resources galore. I learned how to turn any space into a learning space. Sasha’s session on brains and memory left me thoughtful, and I am still thinking of it to this day. Philip’s NVC sessions awakened a part of me that I was soon to need. In short, everything was amazing.

But what was most valuable for me were the friends I met and the discussions we had outside the classrooms. In the company of these other teachers from all over the world, everything seemed possible. Ideas came to life and creativity flowed. And I needed to write. So I began asking for story prompts. Here are a few of the stories that resulted. I wrote them just for fun.


Writing my stories at EdYOUfest. (Photo by Jayne de Sesa)


Dying from Eating Cannoli (Roberta’s prompt)

Micky sat at the table, in the same seat he sat in every meal, every day, every year for the past 73 years. Today was special. He felt his toes tingle with excitement. His butler came in with a covered platter.

As you requested, sir.

Thank you. Please take the night off.

Yes, sir.

The butler disappeared.

Micky uncovered the silver platter to reveal three perfect cannoli. Each side was overflowing with sweet ricotta, one with chocolate pieces, one with orange rind, one plain. Micky took a small jar from his inside jacket pocket. Removing the lid, he sprinkled the contents on the plain cannolo. Replacing the jar, he straightened his tie. He brushed off his cuffs.

It’s time, he said to the empty room.

Slowly he ate the cannoli one by one, saving the special one for last. Then he closed his eyes and smiled and waited.

And waited.

His butler peered through the keyhole smiling as Micky fell asleep. He had replaced his boss’s “secret” jar with cinnamon the day before, dumping the original contents out the garden window. The only one who’d be dying from eating cannoli today was the chicken.


The Suitcase was Full and Heavy (Dora’s Prompt – original story)

I’m bored and hungry, said Fili. He was standing in the corner in his usual place. In the closet around him were a variety of forgotten things: coats with pockets filled with tissue, worn-out hats, umbrellas with missing spines. Fili was old, too, but at least he was whole – he had wheels that rolled smoothly, a hard shell, and a cavernous belly. Now that belly was empty, and it had been for far too long – but the seed of thought had been planted and a new trip was in store.The closet door opened.

That old suitcase should be in the corner, Sasha instructed. Hands grabbed Fili and tugged him out of the closet. Excitement made his wheels tingle.

What’s the combination, Mom? Asked Mike.

Your birthday, Sasha smiled.

Fili lay open, exposed to the warm sunlight filling the room.

We’ll need these clothes and your sneakers, Sasha began. And sunblock and toothpaste.

Slowly Fili was filled with things to begin a trip. He wondered where they were going. To the beach? Camping? A resort by the lake? Maybe a 5-star hotel in Prague! Fili dreamed about new places until his lid was slammed shut. Mike sat on him until the latch caught and then snapped the buckles in place and twisted the numbers on the metal lock.

All ready! Sasha said and Mike lifted Fili upright. Let’s go to the airport. Our flight to Greece leaves at 4:30. Greece! Fili was so excited. He was full and heavy, and as happy as he had ever been.


The Happiest Goldfish (I don’t remember where this prompt came from)

Valerie was the happiest goldfish in the world. She lived in a small pond behind the Baker house. Tommy Baker had filled the pond with brightly colored stones, and Marie Baker came out every morning to drop food in. Valerie loved her colorful home.

One day, Marie did not come. Valerie didn’t mind. She wasn’t that hungry. Marie missed the next day as well. Valerie ate moss from the rocks. The following day, Valerie began to worry. She ate moss and bugs, but she missed her fish flakes. What would happen when the moss was gone? But Marie still did not come.

Valerie grew tired of bugs. The moss grew back, but Valerie was tired of that, too. She swam more and more slowly, noticing how dull her colorful stones had become. She found she didn’t care. Letting herself go, she turned onto her back and floated to the top of the pond. The dark clouds gathering above her were the last things she saw.


“Life is a strange thing; just when you think you’ve learned how to use it, it’s gone.” (Sasha’s prompt)

I’ve attempted to write this story four or five times already. I don’t know what it means to “use life”. Some of the themes I have tried for this are:

  • The old man who has finally turned his life around only to discover he has some fast-acting disease and about a week to live.
  • An elderly couple at the end of their lives who reminisce about the things they’ve learned.
  • A young drug addict who is trying to get clean, but gets caught up in a gang fight.
  • A mom in an underground shelter who is struggling to let go of the anger and hatred she feels toward the fighters when the bombs begin to fall.
  • A middle-aged repressed woman who has finally decided to step out of her shell, say to hell with everything, and travel the world. The first flight crashes. No survivors.

The trouble is, I don’t know enough about these people to write their stories.


That’s all for now, but if you have a story prompt for me, please leave a comment. Other comments are also welcome, of course.

And to be a future EdYOUfester, you can sign up here: http://edyoufest.com/

Writer’s World: How I learned to use AntWordProfiler

Last year I was very lucky to be invited to try out ELT writing. I was extremely grateful for the opportunity, and for the people who believed in me enough to give me the chance. I marvel at how lucky I am (and what amazing friends I have!).


So anyway, I joined a project writing reading texts for a middle school book. I started learning immediately.


I was given an excel file with a vocabulary list. Words in white were level 1. Words in green were level zero. Words in yellow were level two. I was asked to use 70% of the headwords from the white list. I was also given a grammar point to include, and specified a format, topic, and word count.


Now I’m a bit of a tech-dunce, but not a technophobe, and I saw a couple problems.


Dunce cap flickr kmakice

Image by kmakice on flickr (CC)


1) The words were all mixed together (arranged alphabetically and not separated by color). How on earth was I going to compare a 200 word text with the vocabulary list without painfully going through it word by word? Particularly since words like ‘I’, ‘a/an’, and ‘the’ are on the green list!


2) They weren’t all lemmas! Multiple forms of some words were on the list, but not others. But ‘headwords’, they said, so I assumed inflection would be okay.


What I needed was a way to compare the texts with the word lists. And before I could do that, I needed distinct word lists.

Did you know Excel can sort by color? That’s the first thing I learned. This website explains how to do it very well. But because of the way the excel file was set up, I had to do it column by column. Each column was a letter of the alphabet, so that meant 26 times of sorting and then grabbing words from each level and putting them into new pages.

I already knew about some vocabulary tools. Lextutor, for instance, can compare a passage with the general service list and tell you how difficult it is (by telling you which words appear in the first 1000 or 2000 high frequency words). I needed something that work a little differently. I needed to compare against the lists I’d been given and not the GSL. Was there something that could do that?

To find the answer, I took to Twitter. Costas Gabrielatos came to my aid right away. He is a corpus linguistics expert and really helpful person. He introduced me to AntConc and showed me how to make a corpus out of the texts I have and compare the texts to the excel file to find out how many times the words appeared in which text.


I may have mentioned that I’m a bit of a tech dunce. Even with the screenshots of how this would look and what it could do, I couldn’t really understand how it would solve my problem. Reading his suggestions again, I see now that he was solving my problem very neatly. But at the time, I didn’t get it.


Luckily, there was a simpler way. Mura Nava came to my rescue with a patient, dunce level explanation. have you tried antwordprofiler? that’s exactly what it does. So off I went to the antwordprofiler website to watch the helpful video tutorials. This was exactly what I needed.


Now, antwordprofiler comes with GSL 1 and 2 and AWL already installed. I had my own word lists to compare against, though, and needed to replace them. Fortunately, Mura solved that problem for me, too. He directed me to his Google+ Community on Corpus Linguistics, and to a post about how to deal with specialized or technical vocabulary. His post showed how to extract the off-list words into an excel file and from there use them to make a txt file to add to the GSL files. I already had excel files, so I just used the latter part of the process. Once my wordlists were uploaded, I deleted the GSL files.



Finally, I put my reading passages into txt files and ran the program. It worked.



I made adjustments to make my texts closer to 70% on the second list, and felt very techy indeed. Problem solved. I proudly sent in my first five passages and waited for feedback.


And anyone who has worked in this field can probably predict what happened next.


Please consider the difficulty of the passages. I was told. They should be easier than level 2.

I wish I could say that that’s when I figured out that ‘headwords’ to them meant the 7~10 vocabulary items they will highlight and pull out of the text, but I actually only just figured that out now reflecting back 8 months later. So they meant 70% of those 7~10 words, not 70% of the whole text. The antwordprofiler tool would still be useful, but maybe I should have stuck with the GSL.


On the plus side, now I know how to sort in Excel by color, how to use antwordprofiler, and I can start to learn antconc. And I think that’s pretty cool. 🙂

Playful writing 4: painting a word picture

This is the fourth blog post in the playful writing series stolen from inspired by Chuck Sandy’s iTDi blog post.

Today’s topic is: ‘Paint a word picture of an elementary school teacher you had. Use this person’s name. Start with “I remember” as in “I remember that Mr. Denz smelled like a campfire and I yet I never understood why until …”’

I can already see a few potential issues in introducing this to my classes who free-write. First of all, I’ll need to explain what is meant by a word-picture. They may not have the skills to do this. Secondly, they are all still very close to elementary school and some could actually use their current teachers. I wonder how the nearness of the memory will affect the writing. Then again, who knows (yet) whether I can do it either with elementary school being so far back in the past.

So here goes nothing: 10 minutes of writing about an elementary school teacher from a time in my memory that is mostly blank.

I remember Ms. Kranz was all small. Short with short black hair, short arms, short legs, short hands and short fingers. She taught us using little sayings like “when two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking.” I never forgot them.

She was adamant about us calling her Ms. Kranz. Not Mrs., not miss. It had to be miz. I never understood why. And then when we did call her, she invariably responded with PeeWee Herman’s classic line: “That’s my name. Don’t wear it out!”

We used to have nap time in class. She would have us put our heads down for ten minutes in the middle of the day. I never slept, but some students did. Back then I sucked my thumb. It was the only way I could relax. But it was hard to put my head down on the desk in a way that I could still suck my thumb.

Ms. Kranz used to give us manila paper to do our art projects. I used to think it was called ‘vanilla paper’ because I didn’t know the word Manila and I thought the color was supposed to be like vanilla ice cream (which I hated). I wondered if the paper got discolored the longer it was lying around. Maybe fresh vanilla paper was closer to white.

One day Ms. Kranz asked us to draw a nature picture. I don’t know why. I have never been a good artist (or particularly good at observation). I drew a line of blue for the sky and a line of green for the grass and I put in some flowers and trees. She looked at me with her face tight with frustration (I realize now that I’m a teacher that it must have been because I finished much too quickly and had done a shoddy job) and said ‘Anne, get up. Come here.’ She guided me to the window and waved her hand towards the landscape outside. ‘What do you see?’ I didn’t answer her. She was more specific: ‘Is there any space between the sky and the ground? Does the sky just stop?’ And that was the moment I realized that I had never cared to notice. Of course there wasn’t. I didn’t want to change my picture, though.

I also remember lining up on the day before Christmas vacation. She asked people who had already put up their Christmas trees to line up first. Then people who were going to put their trees up that weekend. Then people who put up their trees on Christmas eve. I was still sitting. My family had never had a Christmas tree. For my father, Christmas wasn’t about trees. It was about Jesus.

Ms. Kranz also arranged us in reading groups, pairing stronger readers with weaker ones. My partner was a girl named Carrie. I don’t know how much of this memory is real and how much is dream, but I remember sitting on a hill outside the school with Carrie and helping her read. The grass was green and the sky went all the way down to the fields. It was that kind of day.

We only did that once.

Ms. Kranz made a big impression on me in a lot of ways.


Well gosh. Ten minutes, 543 words, and I don’t know how much any of this counts as a word picture. A critical look back doesn’t show enough depth of description to let a stranger picture anything, I guess. I got caught up in the ‘I remember’ part – Ms. Kranz was my first grade teacher at St. Paul’s Lutheran school. I must remember when my students do this to be lenient on the topic because if I can’t stick to the topic, I can hardly expect them to either. I wonder if I should let them read a bit of mine as an example, but I hesitate now because I don’t want to prejudice their writing and if some of them can write on-topic I’d rather they do that.


If you’re still reading, thanks. Have a wonderful week.

The Goat Baby

I asked Sarah to tell a story based on the picture below. She told this story, while I recorded it. I transcribed it for the next lesson and helped her edit it. This is the final product, shared with her permission.


Once upon a time, there was a couple who lived in the countryside. They didn’t have a baby, even though they married a long time ago. They worried about it, and then they heard about the fact that if they go to holy place with the goat and pray then they will get a baby.


There was one qualification that they have to treat a goat like a baby on the way to the holy place.


If they go there with the goat, like a baby, they heard that they will come together with a baby’s ghost on the way back home.


So they decided to go there. Before they left, they discussed how to treat the goat like a baby. He thought about the easiest way to carry the goat while he rides a bike. He reminded of his childhood and he remembered that if he was on the back of his mom, he felt comfortable. So he decided to carry a goat on his back.


On the way, he met a lot of people who were treating goat like a baby.


After they arrived there, they prayed for a new baby like they heard. They came back and they indeed had a baby. But the truth is, the baby resembled a goat.


By Sarah Hwang

Goat Baby

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.

…and then I gave them all three hours worth of homework

It’s been a while since I’ve written about my own teaching. Regular readers (all three of you) will remember that I recently moved to a private academy. I’ve spent the last 5 weeks settling in and getting used to the challenges of a new position.

The settling in period is far from over and life has been confusing and challenging as well as interesting and rewarding. I will put aside time in another post to try and unravel all the confusing threads. Today I want to talk about a lesson that I’m dissatisfied with.

My boss and I are working together to design a writing curriculum focusing on a combination of genre writing and process writing. We created a syllabus for a two month course, with the aim to teach our middle school students to write within four different genres: informal letters, formal letters, newspaper articles and reviews. Today was the first day of that and it didn’t go so well.

Photo taken from http://flickr.com/eltpics by @acliltoclimb, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/

Photo taken from http://flickr.com/eltpics by @acliltoclimb, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/

First of all, today was the first day back after a two week break for the middle school students, who just finished their midterm exams. Thus a 50 minute lesson turned into a 40 minute one while they chatted and got caught up with each other and reestablished the class dynamic. All three classes spent at least 10 minutes getting caught up and settled in.

Then we spent a few minutes free-writing. In the first two classes, I selected the topic and set a time limit. In the third class, I told them my selected topic was optional if they didn’t think of anything they wanted to write about on their own. This seemed to work well. After the time was up, I told them to read their writing again and use their dictionaries to fill in words they didn’t know. A few students also asked about structures they were uncertain of. I got to glance at their notebooks, but since they needed them for their next tasks, I couldn’t take them up. I realised that the students will need notebooks dedicated to writing class.

The next thing we did was look at example letters. I gave the students three example letters to read and told them that I wanted them to compare the letters and figure out the format of an informal letter. We put the results on the board and they wrote down the vocabulary they didn’t know. Then they drew diagrams to show where each part of the letter goes.

And that’s as far as I got, in every class. I had a collaborative vocabulary activity planned that there wasn’t time for. We were meant to complete five units’ worth of “useful expressions” and so I gave them those five units as homework. The first class didn’t buy it. I had failed to explain the purpose of the homework and the target we were reaching towards. The second class bought it because we looked through the topics of each unit and they immediately saw for themselves why it’s so useful. The third class grumbled, but they bought it, too. I had to sell them the usefulness of the vocabulary in those five units, though.

Photo taken from http://flickr.com/eltpics by Ellen de Preter, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/

Photo taken from http://flickr.com/eltpics by Ellen de Preter, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/

In every class, I was left with the impression that it could definitely have gone better. I think what went wrong was my expectations of what could be done in a single class. I forgot that the students would need some time to get used to being in the class again. I forgot that I’d have to sell this new idea of learning genre writing to them. I forgot that many of them had never studied writing before. I forgot that five units of vocabulary can’t possibly be learned in a day. The first class greeted me with blank stares and silence. They’re the lowest level and I was the first teacher who saw them today. I had to threaten motivate them with a test to get them to participate at all.

On Friday, I will teach this lesson again. I still have no idea how to help the students manage the amount of vocabulary they need. I have to find a way to shift the focus away from the vocabulary and onto the writing process, using the vocabulary as a resource instead.

Questions, suggestions, ideas and advice are all quite welcome.

The ESL Learners Output Library

“Individually, we are one drop. Together, we are an ocean.” – Ryunosuke Satoro

“The beauty of collaboration is that you get pushed and stretched to go where you’d never go otherwise.” – attributed to Licia Perea


I am very excited for the launch of the new ESL Learners Output Library, put together by the awesome collaboration of @JohnPfordresher and @AlexSWalsh.

This website is a database for teachers to share examples of their students’ work (output), whether it is written or spoken. It’s not a lesson plan database, but a library aimed at collecting the work of English language learners from all over the world.

One of the reasons I am so excited is the potential this website has. It can be used in so many ways. The first thing that springs to mind is the chance to compare learner output on similar tasks from different countries. It can also be used to demonstrate to learners (and teachers) how English is used in other parts of the world. It can provide inspiration for lessons, tasks, action research and so much more.

Student work has long been an important part of my teaching toolkit. I display it around the classroom and around the school both for information (as in my environmental awareness activity) and motivation (students who see their work in public strive to give their best output). It’s a confidence boost for students to know that their work isn’t just being thrown away when it is finished.

I don’t throw away anything my students have produced. Some of it I keep for my own reference: as part of my portfolio of activities that worked. Some of it I keep even if it didn’t work, to learn from it and improve on it and go back to it many months later to compare not just how my teaching method has changed (I can see that in the lesson plan), but how the result has changed. Most often, though, I put student work on the walls for everyone to see. I was absolutely delighted last summer when a group of students brought an observer outside to their poster and (without being asked) explained it to her. They were clearly proud of their work. I was proud of their initiative. Using their own work to present their ideas to a stranger (who was also a L2 user) was a better use of learner output than I had imagined.

For those reasons I’m excited by the potential of the ESL Learner Output Library and collaboration with other teachers internationally. I can’t wait for resources to come in from a variety of countries so that I can use it to show my learners real communication from around the world.

“If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange these apples then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.” – George Bernard Shaw

Working with other teachers will be helpful in many ways. The tasks they use in their classrooms can potentially be adapted for mine and vice versa. The output their learners produce can be compared to output my learners produce on a similar task. By working together through the Learner Output Library, we can build a database of ideas.

Output from the library can also be used for awareness-raising activities. I want to use the spoken output for listening activities to get them used to other accents and speech patterns. Right now, they understand their own accent and mine, and that’s about it. To tell you the truth, I’m not a whole lot better. There are quite a few accents I am unused to hearing and need time to decipher.

I don’t want my students to think that other L2 users of English are doing it wrong. They need to be aware that there is no such thing as Standard English.

I want to use the written output for reading and writing activities. The main reason is that not all writing students are going to come across will be “textbook perfect”. My students do most of their reading online – through blogs, emails, and chats. The vast majority of their reading material is unpublished. Right now they’re doing this in their L1, but some day they will begin to do it in English. They need to be prepared not just for imperfection – and imperfection that’s different from their own imperfection, but for usage they haven’t seen before and ways to structure arguments that are different from what they have learned.

“We’re in this together, and if we united and we inter-culturally cooperated, then that might be the key to humanity’s survival.” —Jeremy Gilley, TEDTalks lecture

Finally, the advent of the ESL Learner Output Library has reminded me that language is a reflection of culture. My students are very knowledgeable about their own culture, and some of them are curious about other cultures. Awareness and education can combat racism and xenophobia. I will use output from the library to raise intercultural awareness in my students. One way I can do this is by having students identify in written and spoken texts aspects of culture in L2 output that are similar or different from their own.

I am very happy to add the ESL Learner Output Library to my teaching toolkit and invite comments from readers about how they can use it in their own classes.

“Individual commitment to a group effort—that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.” —Vince Lombardi

See also these posts from John Pfordresher: “Why Create the ESL Learner Output Library?”
and from Alex Walsh: “Using Students Output in Preparation for Lingua and Cultura Franca”
and this forum post by Darryl Bautista: “Why This Forum?”

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