Sharing yourself with students – reflections on teaching my first ever ESL classes

It was the first week of class at Sunduck Middle School in Seoul and the students were giddy and excited to see me: their new American English teacher. I looked the part: I was wearing a tie and was standing in front of a very professional-looking (or so I thought) PowerPoint with a question and answer game. I was beaming a confident smile that hid how completely terrified I was. It was my first time in front of a classroom ever.

The “Me” Game

The question and answer game was all about me. When I asked my co-teachers what I should do for the first day of class, they told me to do something fun and introduce myself. I talked to a few other new teachers from Canada and America who were teaching at different schools around Seoul and they gave me some ideas. So I slapped together one of the most narcissistic and yet boring PowerPoints I’ve ever created: questions about which state I’m from, what my mother’s name is, my favorite food, etc. Students worked in teams to answer these boilerplate questions about me. After each group said their answer, in a complete sentence shouted in unison, I awarded points to the teams that got the correct answer.

And that was it – I just moved on to the next question. I didn’t go on to talk about what my mother is really like, how she can bake great apple pies, or about the best places in my hometown to get pizza, my favorite food. I just gave a point if they answered “a) Joan” or “b) pizza” and moved on.

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In defense of pop quizzes + an example

“Surprise! Today we have a pop quiz.”

The word “pop” is usually associated with things that make us happy – bubbles, soda, popcorn, Michael Jackson.

But when it’s put before “quiz”, “pop” suddenly turns sinister.

Pop quizzes get a bad rap from students, and even some teachers say they would never use them. The idea of being surprised by an assessment is unsavory if not downright scary. But if they’re used in the right way, pop quizzes can be very useful for both the student and the teacher.

There are definitely right ways and wrong ways to use pop quizzes. Let’s look at some of the bad ways to use pop quizzes first.

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Talking about your day in English to improve fluency + a funny video

I’m a learner of three languages: Spanish, Korean, and German. In each of these languages, I can verbally put some sentences together and describe my day. And sometimes I do just that – to no one in particular. Either when I’m in the car alone or lying in my bed just before falling asleep, I’ll start rambling on…

Heute habe ich etwas spannendes getan…

Mañana voy a ver mi amigo…

오늘 재미있었어요…

I’ve talked to a few other people who are at similar phases of learning languages, and some of them say they do the same thing.

I really think it helps keep the language fresh in my mind. It keeps me fluent. And it’s just fun to see how long I can go.

I made the connection with this kind of practice (what should we call it? is there an academic name for it yet? how about “unrestrained solipsistic L2 vocalizations”?) when I recently re-watched a favorite YouTube video of mine.

Meet Marko…

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Teaching “th” sounds (theta and eth) + a card game

When I start my pronunciation unit on the “th” sounds, half of my class sounds like snakes and bees.

That’s because many languages don’t have theta (/θ/) or eth (/ð/) sounds, so those sounds come out as /s/ and /z/ respectively. If you do a speaking exercise with a lot of words with “th”, you’re going to hear “sssss” and “zzzzz” until you start helping certain students improve their pronunciation.

Since both of these sounds are represented with a “th” in English writing, you can teach your students the symbols – θ for unvoiced, and ð for voiced (these are real letters, just not in English. You’ll find θ in modern Greek and ð in modern Icelandic – pretty cool!)

For Arabic speakers learning English, this will make sense to them since they have two different letters for these two sounds:

 ث  = θ (unvoiced) and ذ = ð (voiced)

Arabic speakers will have no problem pronouncing these sounds since they have them in their language. But they might have trouble choosing which sound to use when they see a “th” in writing, so they can still get something out of a lesson on these two sounds.

Let’s consider a few more things when you’re teaching the “th” sounds.

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Writing rubrics: save time and grade effectively

As language teachers, we want our students to produce unscripted language. It’s great if students can fill in the blanks on a grammar test or match definitions to vocabulary words. Those kinds of assessments show clearly whether or not students are acquiring certain bits of language. But in the real world, those bits of language have to come together to form something meaningful, whether that’s in the form of a conversation, a speech, a report, an essay, etc.

So we should assess those “real” things. OK – how? The common answer is the rubric.

Many teachers hate these dang things. They take a little while to make and they’re never as accurate as you think. Or you spend too much time trying to be accurate and you waste half an hour trying to decide if your student should get an 8 or an 8.5 out of 10 for their second body paragraph (here’s a hint – it all evens out in the long run. Just pick one)

This post will talk specifically about ESL writing rubrics – I’ll write about speaking rubrics later. I’ve got two kinds of writing rubrics I use in my classes, and I’ll explain when and why to use each.

Let’s get started.

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Don’t take anything home: how to beat procrastination, manage your time effectively, and save your sanity

Many teachers complain about how much time they have to put in to their profession. It’s almost a ritual to take a bunch of grading home to do while watching TV and drinking wine.

I’ve had other teachers tell me that “it’s a lifestyle, not a profession.”

While there is something to be admired about people who dedicate a lot of their time to classes, teachers don’t need to sacrifice their lives to keep things running.

This past semester, I only took about an hour of work home. Total. For the whole semester.

And I don’t think I did a disservice to my students. In fact, I think my classes went better than the previous semester, when I was taking hours of work home every week.

In this post, I’ll share some of my tips about how I did it.

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How to Teach ESL Presentations

Giving presentations is a useful skill for ESL students to master, especially if they’re going to be attending an English-speaking university or giving presentations in English professionally.

However, teaching presentations can get messy. There’s the issue of choosing topics and structure for the presentation, and then dealing with how to grade them. Also, depending on your class, keeping the non-presenting students busy (or at least respectful) while a presentation is going on is a challenge. For these annoying reasons, some ESL teachers relegate presentations to a minor role, or do away with them altogether.

But you shouldn’t – giving presentations is such a good thing for students to practice and perform. Here are some tips so you can teach them how to do it successfully.

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