Share Your Failure Story: 30 Goals 7

Seriously, this could have been my class

The Class from Hell

I just shared a post about the class from hell on my publisher’s blog. As I wrote about them there:

I’ve never forgotten the 9th graders from Lyceum 33 in Astana. It was the worst class I’ve ever have. One student came to class early, stuck his head out the window, and started to smoke! While I was standing there. Another student simply refused to hand me back his test. I said I’d give him a 0 if he didn’t give it back to me and he said, “F*** your 0, who cares?” and walked out of class. I knew it wasn’t all my fault, because I saw kids fighting in the halls. One 14-year-old told me he knew how to drive. He stole his father’s car all the time and drove around with his buddies, getting drunk in the car.

These were the biggest incidents, but every day was a struggle. If I told them to get out their book, there were audible sighs and rolling of eyes. If I asked if anyone had questions about the task, I’d get students asking what basketball team I liked and if it was true that all Americans were fat. We all have students who pack up their bags 5 minutes before class ends, but I had kids packing up their bags and walking out. And the cellphones, oh, the cellphones…..They texted each other in class!

This sounds pretty clearly like a story of student failure, right?

And yet, I firmly believe student failure is also teacher failure. There’s always something we can do.

Sit Down and Shut Up?

The other teachers weren’t getting eaten alive. When I studied what they were doing versus what I was doing, I noticed a lot of behavior that I didn’t like. In this culture, teachers were unassailable authority figures who yelled, screamed, and insulted the students. They never admitted to any wrong doing, and many classes involved students sitting quietly, copying from the board or a textbook, or taking notes of a lecture–ok for college, but in high school, not so much. Especially as they had specifically hired me to teach English speaking! Clearly, the sit down and shut up approach was not going to work.

Keep Them Engaged

Finally, I realized that there was one thing my fellow teachers were doing in class that I did want to emulate. They were keeping the students busy. Now I didn’t want to give my students meaningless busy work. However, by reflecting on my routine and finding the places where students weren’t doing anything, I managed to take a lot of dead time out of my lesson. When the students didn’t have time to be bad, they were actually pretty good.

For me, and I’d imagine for most teachers, the times when students can be most idle are:

  1.  Taking attendance
  2. Writing objectives
  3. When you’re giving directions
  4. When they finish early. And that goes for activities as well as quizzes and tests.
  5. When handing back work

By tweaking my routines, preparing an early-finisher/Do-now file, and doing a lot of housekeeping activities on a blog or webpage instead of in class, I was able to kill a lot of dead-time. Suddenly my class from hell turned into the mildly disruptive class of pretty typical teenagers. Or as one of the bigger, more resistant kids put it to me once:

“I like to make teachers annoyed. It’s a fun game. But at least you try to teach us things. I appreciate that. Please don’t take it personally that I get on your nerves!”


How about you? How do you keep your class moving and dead time to a minimum?

30 Goals: Learn to Play

This goal (part of the 30 Goals Movement) caught my eye as I have begun to finally play Minecraft. And while I am skeptical of a game teaching students English, I like the way David Dodgson at ELT Sandbox  (not ELTs and box as it looks like from the URL) frames this idea for an activity:

Learn to play – let your students teach you how to play a

  • Start by choosing a game – it could be a game for your phone/tablet, for your laptop, from a website, or any other device you have available to you, but make sure it is a popular game the students will know about (check the app store charts for example)
  • Tell your students you have started playing this game. You like it but you are finding it difficult.
  • If they know the game, invite them to explain the rules, give you some
    instructions and offer you some advice about how to play it.
  • Once they have taught the teacher, ask them to prepare a short guide to the game
    (this could take the form a short written set of instructions or
    a recording).

It seems like this could be a whole unit or a simple bonding exercise as a pre- or post-class discussion. Maybe run into a kid in the hall, “Hey is that that Angry Birds thing I’ve heard about? Tell me how it works…”

This seems like a really nice way to let the students shine by making them the expert, sharing (and validating) an interest of theirs, and also getting them to want to use language in order to discuss something they are passionate about.

And then depending on the game, you might be able to do a whole lot more. I mentioned Minecraft and a handful of ideas jumped out at me for using it in the classroom , such as:

  • Construction manuals Their complexity would depend on the level of the student. A manual could range from how to build a simple house to how to recreate the Taj Mahal. Or how to create a certain effect such as a gabled roof.
  • Crafting manuals Students can write out instructions on how to craft different things.
  • Map or picture/sculpture recreation Students can recreate a terrain to match a description. Students can even draw pictures or recreate sculptures from written directions.
  • Explain the missing steps Engineers in particular might enjoy explaining the over-simplifications in the crafting process. TNT is surely more than just sand and gunpowder. How do you really craft a pick axe from stone?
  • Treasure hunts: If students can share worlds, they can hide treasures in locations and write directions how to get there.
  • Books You can write books in Minecraft. Students could create sculptures, buildings, whole worlds and then write a history of it or diary entries from the creator. Then other students go on a tour.

I’m hardly the first to suggest Minecraft for Education. In fact, there will be an EVO on using Minecraft in the classroom next year, so feel free to check that out. I suppose keep an eye on the EVO homepage for when enrollment begins.

30 Goals: Support Learning With an App

Keeping up with the 30 goals posts has been a bit difficult this year, as it is every year but it looks like the end of the year will be slow so it’s a good time to work on projects. The goal that caught my eye today was: Support learning with apps because I just wrote a comment on a blog about going low-tech where I once again praised the ingeniousness of low-tech solutions. The older I get, the more in love I am with simple devices and as a father who now has to assemble, disassemble and fix toy after toy, simple mechanics fascinate me. I also just got a new iPhone (a 5s as it was a free upgrade) and have just gone through the frustration of compex technology that requires you to put in your password, then log in to your account to prove it was you, then copy a code from your computer to your cellphone , which produces another code that you have to use to login to another website and get a consumer key, which you take to the heart of Mordor and drop into the volcano…. As George Washington once said, “Avoid entangling apps and websites….”

And that’s why one of my favorite apps for language learning is actually Dragon Dictation. It does one thing: record your voice and display it in a text form. Here’s some quick and easy things you and your students can do with it:

  • Practice pronunciation by talking into the app and seeing how well it registers your voice.
  • Target problem areas by noting sounds and words that the app finds difficult to understand.
  • Articulation practice  by speaking very slowly and clearly.
  • Speaking races: Who can dictate a sentence or paragraph correctly first?
  • Alphabet or phoneme practice by speaking individual sounds.
  • Play with accents How much can you change your voice and still have the app recognize you?
  • Speak the words is a fun game where you read the words of a song as if it were a speech or conversation. It’s often funny especially with silly pop songs. Imagine Ben Stiller saying, “Read your mind. Read your mind. No he can’t read your mind. Poker Face.” to get the idea. Students love learning lyrics so this is a fun way for them to see them.
  • Mondegreen game is a game related to the Speak the Words game. Students are given a song and do their best to repeat the words. See what Dragon Dictation thinks of their rendition. Students can then take their transcript and “correct” it.

Any dictation app would work for this. Even Siri might work for a lot of this. Other suggestions of things to do with a dictation app?


30Goals: Get Rid of the Unnecessary Weight

Another 30 goals post on Getting Rid of the Unnecessary Weight.

Hana posts a few questions to answer and reflect on how to get rid of literal or metaphorical clutter in our professional lives or teaching. I was thinking of this in terms of my recent post on the Pareto Principle which states that you can get 80% of your output from 20% of your inputs. In other words, we should be able to dump 80% of our content and still get pretty good results from our students.

Of course, it’s debateable if the principle applies to education where results are complex and multiple. But I thought it would be interesting to take a lesson and strip it down as much as possible.

Looking at one of my more popular lessons which I wrote years ago: At the Restaurant, it seems so full of clutter. It’s presenting a sample dialogue, some key vocab and some follow-up questions. Yet it’s very long and I’m not sure what some parts are aiming at. Here’s an example of cutting a lot of weight, and rewriting to make it clearer:

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I’m not sure I killed 80% of it, but it’s a lot more concise now. I think my students will like it a lot better!

30 Goals: Share a Page of Your Future Textbook

by Walton Burns from Branford, CT, USA.

The Writing Master by Thomas Eakins

30 Goals Challenge for Educators: Make a Difference is on a world tour and I am happy to be your Inspire Leader for this part of the journey. So where in the world is the 30 goals? We are visiting Branford, CT  I invite you to accomplish the following goal- Share a Page of Your Future Textbook.

To accomplish this goal:

  •  Pick a page from your textbook that you think could be improved and rewrite it to match your needs.OR
  • Think about a textbook only you could create. What is your big idea about the best way to teach English? Create one page of that textbook. OR
  • Take a lesson or activity that works well with students and re-imagine it as a part of a published book.
  • Like any professional textbook, you might want to include any combination of discussion questions, a reading, a listening, pictures, grammar, vocabulary, cultural notes, speaking activities as well as design elements like titles, subtitles, diagrams, a color scheme and decorations.

Your students can:

  • Rewrite a page of the textbook that they think could be better.
  • Take a text and prepare a worksheet or presentation teaching this text to the class.
  • Prepare their own practice worksheet to help students review a grammar point or vocabulary.
  • I would also encourage them to think about the design and look of their products so that they end up with something professional looking.

 My Reflection

This all started with a challenge from Jason Renshaw to create a unit of class material. It got me to thinking about why more teachers don’t create their own materials.

I can’t tell you how many times I have stayed up late googling “present perfect grammar practice”, trying to find the perfect worksheet for my students. And they are rarely exactly what I want so I give them to students with caveats: “Don’t do #5, we haven’t covered that usage yet. I don’t agree with #6 I think present simple works here too. Just conjugate the verbs, don’t do the other part.”

It would be so much easier (and satisfying) to just make my own worksheet to give my students. Obviously time is a big limitation but it would sometimes be faster to do something myself rather than search and search and then adapt. And then it would be exactly what my students want. And presenting my students with a nice well-thought out lesson or worksheet, maybe something with a bit of color and a clip art to make it look as nice as the textbook, might impress them. It would show the students how much time I put into prepping lessons for them. That might make a difference in how they perceive me and my class, and even how they perceive their own learning.

As I’ve been moving from teaching to writing, I’ve discovered that most of the coursebook writers are in fact teachers. And that some of the materials and ideas shared with me by my fellow teachers are just as good as those I’ve found in textbooks. So I challenge you to tap into your creative side and create just one page–although you may want to take it further and do a whole unit or even a whole book.

The teacher job gets a bad rap sometimes: teaching is more than babysitting and it’s more than just being fun in the classroom and kind outside it. Teachers know their material. Teachers are inventive and resourceful. Teachers know how to teach well and how to write well. I encourage you to not only see how well you can develop a page of activities and materials but also to make it look professional and well-laid out and attractive to learners, just like a professionally published textbook. It might change how you look at yourself, your job, and how you look at the textbook. Who knows, it might lead to a new career as an author!


About Branford, CT

Branford is not one of the more famous places in Connecticut and Connecticut is not one of the more famous states. But Branford was once the Strawberry Capital of Connecticut and our strawberries, raspberries and blueberries are excellent. It’s also home to the Lobster Shack which serves Connecticut style lobster rolls–no lettuce or mayo, just chunks of lobster sautéed in butter on a roll. The dossant (much better than a cronut) was invented here. Beyond food, this is where Yale University was founded  and home of the famous Thimble Islands. So we may be a small town in a small state but we have our pride!

Thank you for dropping by! I hope you enjoyed your visit.

Find out more about The 30 Goals Challenge for Educators at 30Goals.comand join our 30 Goals Facebook community

Letting Them Be Experts

This is my reflection on the latest 30 goals challenge: Let Them Be Stars proposed by Cristina Monteiro Silva.

I remember a colleague once saying that we almost watch our students grow up as they go from level to level. When they start out in the beginner and elementary levels, their language skills are so low, they seem like children. As their language improves, they “grow older and older”. At the time, I thought there was some truth in that, but later as I reflected on it, I thought about how condescending that sounded. How hard it is not to condescend to someone who doesn’t speak your native language as well as you do. Why are we teachers shocked when we learn that Habib who can’t conjugate the verb “to be” is speaks Arabic, Chinese, French and German, has a PhD in engineering, and runs his own company? Would you want to be treated like a child if you went to Russia to learn Russian? I think Cristina came up with a lot of great ways we as teachers can remember that our students may not speak fluent English (or be the ideal student) but they are still often accomplished people.

My favorite method was #4:

#4 With older students I have another suggestion:  Assess their speaking skills and simultaneously let them be the STARS. For 10m they can talk about anything they want. They prepare their presentation at home and can use whatever multimedia they wish (powerpoint, prezi) if they wish. As they choose themes they’re usually good at they feel more motivated and at the same time impress their peers with the knowledge they have about a specific subject.

I once did something like this in the framework of an activity called The Expert Game with high school students in Kazakhstan. It was truly amazing to listen to them talk. Even at the age of 16, some of them had accomplished so much. One girl was a competitive ballroom dancer. Another was a model. One guy did hip hop dancing. I had artists, singers, academic competition champions sitting in that classroom and not even known it. Of course, some of them talked about playing video games or their favorite movie, which is ok too. It was surprising how much they knew about their hobbies. For nine months I had struggled and fought with them to pay attention and do their homework (this was an extracurricular class in high school that parents paid for separately and I couldn’t give them grades so there was little motivation to pay attention).

I do think that letting them open up and tell me about their lives showed them that I was interested in them as human beings. Certainly they loved talking about themselves and I really did enjoy getting past that teacher-student conflict that seemed never-ending! So I think letting students share their talents in one way or another really does build strong rapport and let you get to the teaching part of your job.

30 Goals: e-Encouraging e-to e-Read

Having ensconced myself in eBooks recently, I thought this reflection on eReading for the 30 Goals Challenge was particularly appropriate. I also tried out a new tech toy which is bare bones–Vocaroo. We’ll see how it goes and how it looks.

While you listen, feel free to stare at the covers of the two eBooks in my life right now:

The edition I read many years ago.
I’m reading this on my iPhone right now!
My Very Own Unfinished eBook
My very own eBook under construction!












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