Month: April 2014

Mission Impossible

It was quite some time ago – about 5 years, to be more exact – but I remember the class like it was yesterday: the class that really, honestly, didn’t want to co-operate.  It wasn’t the easiest class, of course: at least three of the children had ADHD, another four had Dyslexia, quite a few of them had emotional disorders, there was an autistic child, and those who remained kept their heads down, out of the melee of insults and retorts constantly thrown behind the teacher’s back.  This class had worn down three teachers already, and here I stood, again, in a mad attempt to teach these children to communicate in English.

The crisis = the turning point

Nobody listened; they were too busy paying attention to each other. “Eyes on me,” I’d try, while comforting a girl who clearly had just been teased by one of her tormentors.  “Ears this way, please, no more throwing notes.”  Nothing worked.  I even raised my voice.  “Listen here, now, it’s time for English,” while setting a smart-mouthed child in the hallway.  I was getting desperate.

That night, it came to me.  These children were too busy with each other to pay attention to me, and I wasn’t going to fight for their attention any more.  From now on, they would pay attention to each other whether they liked it or not.  It was time for some group work.  Every lesson, every day.

Making the groups

I started by asking the children to write down the names of three other children in the class with whom they would like to work.  The results were astounding.  I’d made sociograms before, and found that most classes have one child that no one else wants to work with.  We all know about these children – the stinky boy, the class reject, or the bully.  The picture that emerged of this class was harsher: there wasn’t one class reject – there were four children that no one else wanted to work with.  I  was shocked.

These four children, I decided, were going to be group captains.  I made groups of four, and in each group I placed at least one of the children that the captains wanted to work with.  Further, I balanced the groups as hetergeneously as possible, with strong and weak children in each group.  That done, I turned to the book.

The children are playing a game of Lotto together.  The orange booklet is the "group booklet".

The children are playing a game of Lotto together. The orange booklet is the “group booklet”.

Structuring the assignments

It was time to create assignments that the children could do with their group.  I looked through the book and the workbook, and searched the internet for activities that met my requirements for learning activities.  For me, real learning activities must meet at least these basic requirements:

  1. contribute towards attaining the language objectives for the unit
  2. be language- and age-appropriate
  3. can be completed independently, in pairs, or in a small group
  4. must be self-checking
  5. must be varied, appealing to the children’s intelligences

After that, I set about making checklists for the class, so we could see which groups had already done which activities, and made a “group booklet”.  This booklet contained a checklist of the assignments, plus all of the worksheets and materials they would need to complete each assignment.  In short, all of the material we would need for the next four to six weeks was ready before the new unit started.

Ready, steady, go!

I decided to start each lesson with a short, classical instruction ten to fifteen minutes long.  After that,  I briefly explained what the assignments were and noted which assignment they decided to do, and the children got into their groups.  The group was allowed to check off an assignment once they proved they had completed it successfully.  Each lesson ended with a short evaluation of how everyone worked.

While the children were working, I had my hands free to monitor the processes.

While the children were working, I had my hands free to monitor the processes taking place.

Was it an immediate success?  Most certainly not!  The first lesson went horribly!  The children were noisy, the room was a mess, and I had serious doubts about this new manner of teaching.

The rule of three

But, as with any new process, I kept to the rule of three.

According to the rule of three:

the first time is a mess,

the second time is for fine-tuning,

and the third time is the charm.  

And so it was with this class.  After the first lesson, we discussed the problems, and I explained the process again.  After the second lesson, we remembered what went better and discussed how to improve the way we worked.  After the third lesson, the children understood the process and the groups were learning to get along, whether they liked it or not.  They were learning, and I was happy.

Success factors

Structure:  the overall structure of the lesson was simple and clear.  The children knew what to expect in terms of lesson order, even though the contents would vary.

Groups:  the children didn’t always get along well in their groups, but while the groups were busy working, we were able to take time to talk out their differences and help them to get along with each other.

Activities:  these were structured so that everyone was able to experience success.  They fit into the Dalton method of working, which they were used to in their other subject areas, and were interesting and varied.

Two children check if they completed their work correctly.

Two children check if they completed their work correctly.

For the units that followed, I created new groups, and was pleased to see that the new groups got along better than the ones before, as children learned to work together in positive ways.

This means of working was born of necessity, but evolved into a way of teaching that I continued to use in the years that followed.  It allowed me to use the book freely, while pulling other, more contemporary, material into the classroom as I deemed fit.

In the end, we all began to enjoy the lessons, and the children started to focus more on their learning.  Mission Impossible?  Mission accomplished!


The cardboard curriculum

On the very first day with my new ESL kindergarten class, we had 9 tables, 9 chairs, and a cardboard box.  Not just any old box, mind you, but a refrigerator box.  A child or two could easily fit inside.  I put the box in the middle of the circle, and the children stared, wondering.  What were we going to do?

I took a marker out of the holder, and drew a large rectangle on one side, and smaller squares on the three other sides.  I left the top and bottom as they were.

I pulled out a knife, and carefully cut out each of the squares.  I proceeded to the rectangle, and cut it so that it could swing open.  I stood the box upright, holding open the rectangle.  Suddenly, the rectangle became a door.  “Hajime, look!  Sit here!” I said, pointing inside.  Hajime sat in the box.  “Look!  A house!” I said.  Hajime was delighted.  Eight other fingers pricked into the air, held aloft by arms stiff with excitement.  Everyone wanted a turn in the house.  They soon found out the magic words: “I want house!”  Any child who said these magic words got a turn.  In the end, everyone got a turn.

Soon we were exploring other words: door, wall, window, floor, roof, in, and out.  The rest of the day, we made curtains, wallpaper, flowers, bricks, a chimney, and a beautiful floor.  We found that two children could fit in the house, and in the days that followed, we also found that four could also fit, walls bulging as children giggled, waiting to see when Miss Amy would discover the children in the house so they could be counted yet again.

A fellow teacher passed by, and one of the boys shouted to her excitedly, “Look!  Two children are in the house!”  She was quite impressed with this child, as no-one had ever heard him speak before.

When the house finally gave in, the children discovered the wonders of duct tape, and we repaired the house again and again.  Until one day, when it finally collapsed for the very last time.  It was time to learn a new word: recycling.  The entire class carried our precious house down the hallway to the caretaker, who brought us to the big blue paper bin outside.  We stomped on our house and smashed it up before carefully tipping it into the bin.  Saying our good-byes to the house, I promised to bring in a new box.  Tomorrow.

Periscope up!


The next day, a new box appeared in the classroom.  And this time, we built a submarine, complete with periscope.

In the submarine

ESL material: puppets

puppetAll my life, puppets have played an important role in my life.  From Sesame Street as a young person, to puppets during my German 101 class at the university, they helped express ideas that “real” people couldn’t do as well.  I suppose that’s because – in my humble opinion – children identify with puppets better than with adults, no matter what shape, color, or size they may be.  And for me, as an adult, my puppets are allowed to do things that I as an adult would never be allowed to say or do.  Puppets break down barriers for shy children, and help channel speaking activities for for the more gregarious ones.

In this blog, I will describe some of the ways pupppets have assisted me in teaching ESL during my  years as a teacher.

Pass the puppet

This is a circle activity.  During the lesson, we practice various answers to a certain question, such as “what is your favourite fruit?” or “what is your name?”  The puppet goes from hand to hand, and the children say their answer to the question.  Shy children, of course, may simply pass the puppet on to the next child.  There’s no need to pressure them into speaking before they are ready; they’ll be rattling away soon enough.  The advantage to practicing in this manner, is that the children are mentally preparing their own answer as the puppet makes its way over to them, and they are listening to the answers other children give as well.  In a circle of 21 children, this means that each child has mentally prepared his own answer 20 times, while comparing his own answer with that of the others 20 times as well.  That’s a lot of practice!

Sometimes the puppet must also do an activity.  If, for instance, we are learning prepositions, they children will say whether monkey is going over, under, or behind the chair, while making monkey go over, under, or behind the chair.  Other times, they will say what he is doing.  For instance, “Monkey is sleeping.”  Then he lies down and starts snoring, to everyone’s delight.

The very shy hermit crab

The very shy hermit crab

I use a large variety of puppets: the hermit crab, too shy for introductions; the very hungry caterpillar, based on Eric Carle’s book; the kangaroo mom and her baby for simple questions; monkey for action-related vocabulary; grumpy monster for talking about feelings, and many, many more.

Finger puppets

The easiest model of finger puppet, I have found, is to take toilet paper rolls and cut them into 3 or 4 rings.  The children draw a figure on thick card, cut it out, and then staple it to a ring.  They put 2 or three fingers through the ring and there it is, the instant finger puppet.

These puppets are easily kept in a small box for use in our storyscapes, where it jumps, sits, dances, and plays hide-and-seek.  Even though much of the speech used during free play is in Dutch, I encourage the use of the vocabulary we’ve been learning and regularly hear sentences employing both languages.  Free play is ideal for developing fluency and self-confidence in a new language!

Stick puppets

Every year, I have a class of children learning more advanced words for clothing.  They then make stick puppets wearing all sorts of clothes, and practice saying a short blurb about their puppet.  The stick puppets are very simply made by drawing a figure onto paper, coloring it in, cutting it out, and sticking it to a wooden kabob skewer.  I videotape the puppets while the children are talking about what they are wearing, and put the videos into their portfolios.  I also assemble the bits of videos into a larger, class-broad video, that we watch later on as a class.


These are only a few of the ways I use puppets in my lessons.  I wonder if you have any other ways you use puppets?  Please feel free to share!