Month: February 2014

Classroom management and the happy class

Children test their boundaries. It’s their job, it’s how they learn. I, on the other hand, get the inglorious task of pointing out those boundaries while keeping the lesson going at a productive clip. How do I do this in L2 (the target language), when the children are used to being taught in L1 (their mother tongue)? This is a challenge I’ve been faced with time and again. Armed with years of experience under my belt, I can now tell you how to be just as successful as I am (cough).

Let me correct myself: let me give you a few tips that work for me, and who knows? Maybe they’ll work for you, too.

Tip #1: rapport with the classroom teacher

The classroom teacher is the boss. Very often, the children will work very nicely and quietly for the classroom teacher, only to prove quite disruptive the minute another teacher (like me) shows up. It’s important for the class to understand that we teachers are always on the same page, especially when it comes to the rules. So when I enter the classroom, we greet each other and have a short, simple conversation the children can follow. How are you, what a nice shirt you have on today, how are the children today, is there anything special going on, that sort of thing. At the start of the lesson, the teacher may even take one or two children aside and give them special instructions on how to behave, especially if they have proven repetitively disruptive.  At the end of the lesson, we have another short conversation:  what did we learn, how did we work, who gets a special compliment.  The classroom teacher compliments the class for a job well done and I thank the teacher for having such a clever, wonderful class.

This may sound like too much sunshine and compliments. The point is, however, what the children are taking away from these short conversations. First of all, they see that we are in agreement as to what is considered acceptable behavior. They also see that we communicate about them and expect good behavior, no matter who the teacher is at that moment.

Tip #2: keep it simple

For any of my lessons, I have three rules.  No more than that. I have found that three rules cover pretty much whatever I need the children to do.  In all other cases, I refer to the classroom rules, which are often posted somewhere in the class.  Not that I read it aloud, but I can point to it and ask someone to explain what that rule is.

For instance, for my pre-schoolers:

  1. sit and listen quietly
  2. raise your hand
  3. no copy-catting

For an older class, the rules are different:

  1. speak English
  2. raise your hand
  3. have fun!

I have these rules illustrated on laminated card, and when I find children are having a hard time following a rule, I simply hold up the card and state “we’re forgetting rule number …” No need for long discussions that disrupt the pace of the lesson. On very rare occassion, I will actually pull out three blocks and put them next to the picture.  Every time the rule is forgotten, I simply snap my fingers, point at the child, then the rule, and take away a block. I don’t say a word, there’s no need to. When there is still a block left at the end of the lesson, I praise the child for learning to remember that particular rule. A simple “I know you were having a hard time (sitting on your chair/keeping your hands to yourself/etc), but you remembered later on. Well done,” is sufficient.

Tip #3: keep it positive

Children love compliments. When an entire class is being noisy, I point to the picture of a child sitting quietly (yes, I have this on the whiteboard), and when I notice one other child sitting just like that, I give him or her a thumbs-up. And then the next child, and the next. Until entire rows or tables full of children are sitting quietly, ready for the lesson.  A simple “Wow, look at Johnny, he’s sitting nicely” works wonders among kindergarteners. They may not understand what I’m saying, but they do get the fact that I’m quite pleased with Johnny and now they all want to be just like him and get compliments.

Children like to be noticed.  When I notice a child catching himself and correcting his behavior, I say so. “I saw how you stopped laughing at your neighbor and helped him, instead. Very good.” Compliments inform them of what I want to see.

Remember, “don’t do that, darling” is not concrete. Tell children what you do want to see. “Oh, Julie is sitting quietly. Can you sit quietly, too?”

That’s enough of my soapbox for today. Do you have any methods that work for you? Let me know! 


Walk-n-talk: co-operative learning

Let's talk!

Let’s talk!

Overheard during an English lesson:

– Good morning, how are you?

– I’m fine, thank you.  What do you want to do today?

– I want to go skating.  And you?

– I want to read a book.

– Let’s skate, then read.

– Good idea!

How does one build up to these short dialogues with young ESL learners?  The answer is simple: start with easy pieces, and build up from there.  Give the children small chunks of language that they can deal with.  Once that bit has been automated, expand the circle of language and experience a piece at a time.

One of my favorite ways of doing this is what I call the “walk-n-talk” game.  I can’t claim to have invented this one – but it’s one of those games that work, every single time.  This game can be done with any age group, for any grammar or vocabulary you may be covering.  I work in several steps, which I’ll explain below.

  1. prepare the vocabulary: for the whole-group instruction, either large cards or a power point, and for the exercise, smaller versions of the same.  Make enough copies so that each child can have a card.  (for instance, if you have 30 children in the class and you’re learning 6 words, make 5 copies in total.)  For new vocabulary, keep the list of words short – no more than 4 or 6 words.  For review, this list can be a bit longer.
  2. introduce the vocabulary: keep this straighforward and short!  Show the picture, say the word, and the children repeat it.  If they don’t understand the word, give a brief explanation.
  3. embed the vocabulary in a chunk: practice the question and answer of the day, once for each word.  (for instance: “What is this?” “It’s a horse.”)  Again, the idea is to keep this short and sweet.  Listen and repeat.
  4. practice the dialogue as a group: split the group in half.  One half asks the question (“What is this?”), while the other half answers (“It’s a horse.”).  Practice again, switching roles for the two halves.  Only do this two or three times.
  5. demontrate the dialogue with a helper: using the word cards, demonstrate the entire dialogue.  With very young learners, demonstrate the dialogue at least three times.  Remember that while the children are listening to the dialogue, they are mentally practicing their parts before heading into the real thing.
  6. walk-n-talk:  hand out the cards, one to each child.  Now, the children walk quietly and freely through the classroom, using the dialogue they have been practicing.  After each dialogue, the speakers switch cards with each other*.  When they are finished, the children sit down.  Sometimes, I just let the children practice for 3 minutes, other times, I give them a number limit (3 times and then sit down).

* By switching word cards with each other, the children practice a variety of vocabulary words.

After the walk-n-talk, I have a quick go-round: which new words do you remember?  Which ones were easy?  Which ones were harder?

I like this exercise because it is easy to do, and once the children have figured out how it works, they can easily build on it to make longer and more interesting dialogues.  I never worry about whether or not the children learned all of the new words the first time around as the game can be played again and again, removing cards as the words are learned and adding others (surprise!).

This game is an easy way to activate all of the learners – even the shyest of children – and allow everyone a chance to practice the new vocabulary one-on-one without worrying about making mistakes in front of the class.  During the game, I walk around and listen.  I hear new learners joining in with simple answers, while more advanced children aid them in their learning, modelling correct answers for their partners.

With this game, everyone wins!

The quiet class

I stood at the door, surveying the classroom and the circle of children inside.  The classroom teacher had just finished snacktime, and now 16 pairs of eyes turned towards me, the English teacher.

For weeks, I had been teaching these children English, reading them stories, singing songs, playing peek-a-boo with the puppet.  And all this time, the children sat.  And stared.  And said nothing.  It was unnerving, teaching this group of silent children who never even cracked a smile.  This was it, I decided.  Time for some vocalization.

“Good morning, boys and girls,” I greeted them, grabbing some plastic farm animals from a table as I passed.  “It’s time for English.”  The eyes blinked, the children said nothing.  The classroom teacher smiled wanly, hoping against hope that maybe, just maybe, the children would join in a bit more actively today.  I knew better.  These kids were joining in, like it or not.  I silently and happily declared war on the silence, and willed them to speak.

After the Good Morning song, I put the animals on the table, one at a time, counting as I went.  Then I picked up the sheep.  “This is a sheep,” I said.  “Sheep.  The sheep says… meow.  Meow, meow, meow!”  A few snickers, then a voice: “nee, juf, het zegt meeeeh!”  (no, Miss, it says baaa!) “What?” I asked, not understanding only the one child.  More children chimed in:  “Meeh!”

My inner voice started cheering.  Hurrah!  A response!  “Aha!”  I replied, “Baaaaa!  A sheep says baaa!  Well done!”

Now other children joined in.  “Baa!  Baa!”

Then I picked up the horse.  “This is a horse.  A horse says… woof!  Woof!”

This time, the children knew what to do.  “Nee, juf!  Dat zegt hiiii!”  We continued, the class correcting my mistakes as I showed them the cat, the cow, and the pig.  Then it was time for the magic.  First, we counted the animals.  The children joined in.  One… two… three… four… five.  I lay a cloth over the animals, and pulled out my magic wand.  (yes, I have a real wand, it works wonders)

“Abracadabra, hocus pocus, make an animal disappear!” and palming the cow in the cloth, I lifted it.  “Uh-oh,” I wondered.  “How many animals now?”  We counted four.  Fingers flew into the air, and children practically shouted “de koe!  De koe!”  (the cow, the cow!)  “What?”  I asked, “The cow?”  Heads nodded.  “Uh-oh, time for some more magic!” I said, carefully laying the cloth back over the animals.  This time, the cow returned, but the horse disappeared.  Then the cat.  And the pig.

Thirty minutes later, I knew we had won.  That was the end of the quiet class… and the start of many noisy, speech-filled lessons.

Teaching is like a quilt


Looking at the strips of cloth on the makeshift table, planning which ones to use for the next piece of sky, I was reminded of the work I had been doing the years before. It occurred to me that setting up an early ESL program from scratch was simply another form of quilting – other material, but the same process of planning, thinking, and creating a unified work of art.

I recalled the first months of the program, when I first started designing plans and writing lessons, entirely in my element as a pioneer in the Dutch education system. There was no curriculum yet, no means of assessment, and no way of telling if I was even going the right direction. I had only my inner sense of direction and general plan of action. 

For months, I made materials to fit the needs of this new program, procuring material “by hook or by crook”, judging its fit to the need based on color, texture, and pattern. Cutting where needed, pinning and sewing, fitting line to line, watching the picture grow under the needle of my sewing machine, just as the ESL program developed in my hands, step by step.

Curricula developed as time went on, as did assessments, records and reports.  The development of child portfolios was an ongoing process that took years to refine, along with the means to record each child’s progress.  Group plans and cycles of action grew before me, and now I look back and realize that the quilt of early ESL at my school is nearing its completion.

Of course, it wasn’t always easy!  Many are the days I felt alone, lost in the fog of the unknown.  Others, I was inspired in inventing the wheel of early ESL at this Dutch grade school.  And other times I sat on the couch at the end of the day, uncertain of my work and wondering if what I was doing was ever going to be good enough.

Sewing down the edges of the quilt and spreading it out for the world to see, I note details in texture that are unique to the program I built.  I see how it fits seamlessly into the school’s Dalton vision and extra-curricular program, and I am pleased.  I also see where I learned the hard way, and feel the years of experience flowing through my veins.  In the blogs to follow, I look forward to sharing this process with other teachers, in the hope that they will be able to profit from my work and find inspiration for their own.

Take time to share

The last ten years I’ve been working as an ESL teacher at a grade school in Rotterdam.  It’s a good time now to make up the balance: what have I learned?  What have I developed?  What can I teach others?  These and other questions will be the focus of this blog.  Happy reading!  And for me: happy sharing!