Setting the Tone on Day One (and Keeping it Going)

Do-nows are one of my most important go-to teaching tools. They aren’t suitable for every lesson in every classroom in the world. But when they do work, they solve one of the biggest problems a teacher can face: How to get students to transition smoothly into class time.

The Problem

When I first started teaching, I did a lot of one-to-one tutoring. So my first time teaching a big class took some adjusting. I got to class ten minutes early, and students started shuffling in shortly thereafter. As they came in, they threw down their bags on their desks and started congregating in the back to chat. Some students sat down, but leaned sideways in their desks to talk across the aisle. A few students would come in to cries of, “Hey, Peter. What’s going on?” A handful of students would come in, settle into their seats, getting out books and pencils. But as class hadn’t quite started yet, the quickly got bored and started playing on their cellphones or doodling.

When it came time to start class, no one was looking up at me and there was quite a bit of background noise. After trying to talk over it several times with no result, I ended up turning out the lights. That quieted them down, but it was hardly a permanent solution.

The Solution: Do-Nows

Instead of letting students get distracted in all that dead time before class, give them a focus as soon as they walk into class. That’s what a do-now (or bell ringer) is: an activity students do as they walk in the door. It sets the tone for the class–this is a place where we work. There’s a nice story here that suggests that do-nows are particularly effective on the first day of school because they set the tone for the whole school year.

What Makes a Good Do-Now?

They Do it on Their Own

In order for students to be able to do a do-now as they walk in, it needs to be a clear task that students can do with no input from the teacher. That means the directions should be available and obvious, whether it be on the board or on a handout. They shouldn’t need to check their answers with you from part one in order to go on to part two, either. A do-now is something they can do on their own, while you are getting ready for class. (I gather these are sometimes called teacherless tasks (And Rachel Roberts has a rather nice post up on what makes a good teacherless task).

One great way to make sure students grasp the task without teacher input is to have a limited set of kinds of Do-Now activities. In my classroom, if students walk into class and see a proverb on the board, they know that their job is to interpret the meaning and decide if they agree or disagree. If they see a word cloud, they know they must guess the connection or the theme of the class.

BoredGirlFBBeing able to do it on their own also means that they shouldn’t need any additional materials. Everything they need should be readily available to them. A student can’t do something now, if they are waiting on something you give them, or even waiting for a partner to arrive. Ideally, they shouldn’t need anything more than a pen and perhaps a handout that you leave in a conspicious location. Since do-nows are a sort of warm-up activity, you don’t want students spending 10 minutes finding a book on the bookshelf or collecting objects around the room or looking up a lot of information on a website. You also don’t want to give students an excuse not to do the activity, so make sure they have everything they need.

Real Work, Just Faster

Doing it on their own also means that the activity is leveled to the students. It shouldn’t be too hard for the student to need assistance, but not too easy to be boring. And there should be a clear time limit. I like a good do-now that takes 10 minutes, with the possibility of an extension. My rule of thumb is 5 minutes before class time and 5 minutes into class.

A good do-now shouldn’t be busy work. It should relate to the theme of the class. Some teachers use class activities or test questions as do-nows. As an English teacher, I like using a do-now that is a bit more fun and engaging than a typical grammar activity, for example.  But my do-nows always have students working with the English language. It shouldn’t be meaningless fun. Students shouldn’t feel that they have wasted their time.

In fact, some teachers argue that a do-now should result in written output which is assessed by the teacher. Otherwise, students will not take it seriously. I don’t necessarily agree that every time you start class, you need an activity that requires an output and a grade. But there should definitely be some result that is a t the very least discussed openly in class.schoolgirlwithbook800x600

The Perfect Do-Now

My go-to do-now is a proverb or quotation on the board. As I mentioned, students can then figure out what it means and decide if they agree or not. Then we discuss it briefly. I then try to link the proverb to the theme of the class.

Other great follow-ups include:

  • Translate the proverb into your language
  • Think of a proverb from your culture that is similar.
  • Think of a story that proves or disproves the proverb
  • Since proverbs often contain an idiom or metaphor or some nonstandard grammar, we can talk about that language feature and try to use it elsewhere.

If you’re looking for a collection of quick and easy do-nows, check out my book, On the Board. It’s full of 200 proverbs, brain-teasers, riddles, puzzles, and jokes that make perfect fast, no-prep do-nows for your classroom!

And share your ideas for do-nows in the comments.

Cross-posted on the Alphabet Publishing blog

Celebrate Holidays at School

Teaching EnglishCelebrate holidays at school with these awesome Christmas and New Year's holidays. just posted this question on Facebook about how to celebrate holidays at school.

With Christmas just around the corner, many of us are looking for ways to bring a festive spirit into our classrooms. Have you got any suggestions for class activities that can help us to animate the last days of term?
Thanks! Ann

Here are just a few quick and easy things you can do to bring the holidays into your classroom!

  1. Presents. Buy the students small gifts like a pencil for the final exam
  2. Bring in holiday snacks like hot chocolate or Christmas cookies
  3. Decorate your classroom.
  4. Have students decorate your classroom. Bring in instructions and turn it into  process essay practice.
  5. Write Christmas cards to your students. Include one highlight and one thing they can do better.
  6. Have students write Christmas cards to each other.
  7. Have students write New Year’s resolutions. And practice the future tenses.
  8. Have students choose a local charity and collect money from the school for it–that could involve writing advertising flyers, going to other classrooms and giving persuasive speeches, or selling crafts.
  9. Have students write a holiday memory. Turn it into a narrative essay.
  10. Read to students. Every day for a week read them A Christmas Carol or some other Christmas book.
  11. Watch the Charlie Brown movies. Here are some Charlie Brown specials lesson plans to help you do that.
  12. Do a Word of the Day Advent calendar!
  13. Have a gift swap
  14. Merit points for doing good things. The winner gets a small present from you.

Other ideas for quick and easy ways to give your classroom a holiday spirit?

How to Kill the Dead Time: Students Who Haven't Done the Homework

I had this saved as a draft and when I came back to look at it now, I realized that this is one of my least favorite parts of teaching and the part I feel most helpless dealing with. What do you do when you are about to go over the homework and a student or two tell you they haven’t done it? If you tell them they can do it while everyone else reviews, you’re basically telling students it’s okay not to do the homework. If you tell them to work with someone who did do the homework, you’re allowing them to copy. And I speak from experience, not just abstract theory. If you give them no task, they whip out those cellphones.

So honestly, I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with them.  I have no idea what I was going to write here. I have some ideas on <a href=””>How NOT to hand back homework</a> or go over it in class. But, that only solves the problem some of the time.

So gentle reader I ask for your suggestions. What do you do when some of the students have not done the homework?

7 Ways to Make Sure They Don't Peek

One of the things I’ve been very interested in lately is collaborative group work. Research shows that collaboration really can lead to students learning from each other. However, sometimes we give students tasks to do in groups that are not necessarily actually collaborative. That is, the students are not actually required to work together and both contribute in order to successfully complete the task. For example, when we tell students to check their homework in groups, they may be working together to puzzle out a problem with shared knowledge. Or the student who forgot to do it may be copying from one student while the others who did it well are chatting about last night’s football game.

One thing that forces students to work together, or creates a collaboration, is that each student has knowledge the others need to do the task. We sometimes create this situation somewhat artificially with cloze or information gap exercises or by giving students different parts of a reading or a two versions of the same paragraph or picture that they have to compare. Each student has some information the other needs. But students often sabotage our efforts by peeking. I can’t tell you how many times I catch them just looking at each other’s sheets instead of talking!

So with that in mind, I’ve collected some simple ways you can get students not to peek! Some of them are a bit extreme but that can actually be fun for students!

  1.  Put them back to back—this is one of the easiest ones. If they can’t see each other, they can’t peek without conspicuously craning their necks.
  2.  Put them in separate corners and have them call or text each other—This is a fun way to incorporate technology although you have to monitor them closely and also make sure they have unlimited calling and/or are on the same plan. I’ve only done this successfully once and it was a very big room!
  3. Have them chat online with each other–if you’re in a computer lab you can use Google+ or Yahoo Chat or some other chat program and have students type each other! This is also a great way to have them do it for homework. And if they are in separate buildings, they can’t do much peeking.
  4. Have them prerecord the task–Depending on the task, they might be able to go home and prerecord their answer on an MP3 file or through a service like Voicethread or Voki.
  5. Put bits of cardboard between the desks–set up barriers like they’re playing battleship or taking a standardized test!
  6. Blindfold them–this works if they are doing something that doesn’t require them to read constantly. For example, they might be doing a role play. Blindfold them after they’ve read and memorized their role. This is a great way to get them to actually improvise instead of just reading their role.
  7. Turn the lights off or at least down low–Like blindfolding them, if they can’t see they can’t peek. Even if you dim the lights, it’ll be hard for them to see their partner’s paper making any peeking attempts difficult.

Are Teachers Any Use at All?

A few years ago, I heard a talk by Jeremy Harmer on how students can become more fluent speakers and the role of controlled rote exercises in building automaticity and confidence. It was very interesting and counter-intuitive (which is always my favorite thing to listen to). But it was the end bit that really got to me. Now, Harmer was concentrating on building student fluency, but he raised the question of the role of the teacher and came down fairly hard on the side that the teacher cannot make the student fluent. Only the student makes the student fluent. Only students can motivate themselves. Which led me to wonder what the role of the teacher really is. Especially if motivation (and many would say intrinsic motivation in particular) plays a or even the key role in student learning.

Every teacher I know has at one point complained about the lazy, unmotivated student that we can do nothing with. Unfortunately, that also suggests we have no role in motivating our highly motivated students either. Or do we?

I believe that we are far more creatures of habit than we like to admit. We are what we do. Thus if we change what we do, we change what we are. If we get students to do what motivated students do, then they become motivated students. That may sound odd, but it’s not far from the idea that we can motivate students by teaching through their interests. We’re trying to get students to act as if they are interested so that they get interested.

Harmer gave a lot of examples of things that highly motivated students do. He described one student who used to watch Friends and think about what she would say if she were talking to the characters. He also gave the example of Fernando Torres, the Spanish footballer who plays for Chelsea. He used to read the classified ads and call, pretending to be interested in buying a car. He was also a big Beatles fan so he used to focus very hard on the radio and try to understand the lyrics as he was driving to practice. All of these are fun things that the student wants to do that engage them and also involve effort. If you can get students doing that, then you already have a motivated student. And you may have made yourself obsolete, but then ultimately the goal of any teacher is to work their way out of a job, right?

How to Kill the Dead Time: Students Droning On

The title of this post sounds a bit unsympathetic, but you know what I’m talking about. You ask a question of the students, perhaps a warm-up at the beginning such as, “How was your weekend?” And one student starts to tell about his weekend in great detail for five to ten minutes. Or maybe it’s the answer to a reading question. You ask, “Why did the man see his father?” and you want an answer like, “To help fix the sink” but one student starts retelling every nuance of the relationship between the man and his father. He’s preempting your next question, “Why is that significant?” by explaining how Dad has Parkinson’s disease and can’t do the job alone. He’s talking about irrelevant details like the color of their clothing which is confusing the class. Most importantly, while this one student is talking, the others are taking out their cellphones, doing homework for their next class, or reading ahead which throws the whole class timing off.

This article is the second to last in my series on How to Kill Dead Time in class. I really think that when we teachers keep the class moving and don’t give students a chance to get bored or distracted, a lot of class management issues disappear. You can read about other ideas by looking at that earlier post. This post is on suggestions of what to do when one student is dominating class time. This is an important area for me and one that I am not good at managing. Hence I’m really enjoying looking at what other teachers do about it and I’d love to hear your comments as well.

Getting Students to Shut Up (I mean…managing over-enthusiastic participators)

This is tricky because we usually encourage students to talk, right? So how do you politely tell a student to give a shorter answer without 1) insulting him or her, 2) discouraging participation, and 3) discouraging complete answers?

  • When you hear the right answer, cut them off quickly with praise. Say, “yes” and maybe echo the answer. This provides a model of the kind of answer you want and also interrupts the student with praise.
  • When the student moves beyond the right answer and starts to preempt your next question, tell them, “That’s my next question. Who else can tell me?” If they persist, say, “Let’s give someone else a chance.”
  • Talk to dominant students outside of class.
  • Obviously NEVER be sarcastic or indicate that talking long is a bad idea. Never mock students in class.

Preventing the Problem in the first place

  • Make sure the question is clear and students get what you want. Sometime students give shotgun answers, they just talk and talk and hope they hit the target.
  • Make sure this is a question that needs to have a free answer. I know we are taught to always let students talk and ask open-ended questions but sometimes holding up a piece of paper with the answer, or matching, or something else is better practice
  • Think-Pair-Share gives students a chance to think first and refine their answer with a partner. Plus talkative students may get it out of their system by talking to another student.

Funnily enough, British Council’s just posted a related question on what to do with a dominant student in class:

The ideas I liked included:

  • A basic, always-enforced everyone speaks once before someone can speak a second time rule.
  • Give students a set number of talking cards per class or activity. Every time they talk, they spend one card. Once they are out of cards, they cannot speak. This helps if you have perpetual talkers in class.
  • Speak to a dominant or loquacious student after class and let him or her know that while participation is awesome, he or she needs to let everyone talk.
  • Force students to raise hands. Never call on a caller-outer.


Goal 8: Extend the Conversation

It’s amazing to me how often theory or admins or experienced teachers or the publishing industry tells us what students want, only to have students tell me they want just the opposite.  I’m going back to Goal 8:  Extend the Conversation to discuss some of the most shocking things students have told me about what they like in a classroom or teacher. I think it’s important to sometimes check in with students because every student is different and every classroom is different. We don’t all like or need the same things. Teachers sometimes forget that when they assume that every one likes games or talking about themselves. Also often in teaching assumptions are not tested and theories are misunderstood or misinterpreted (My favorite was a presentation on Krashen’s Affective Filter that seemed to suggest that we make students talk and be more active in class although Krashen clearly stated pushing students to talk too soon creates stress). At the very least, it’s worth remembering that for every rule, there’s an exception! Let’s not forget that people learned foreign languages before CLT or Dogme or audio-lingualism or any given methodology. In other countries, students learn to be fluent through grammar-translation methods to this day. Now the comments I’m discussing below came from individual students so they might be anomalies. But I think it’s always good to question assumptions. So here are some of the most counter-intuitive and anti-best practices® things students have told me.

  • Just tell me already

We are frequently told that students should deduce everything. I love lessons where you give students a ton of examples of a vocabulary word or a grammar point along with some guiding questions and let them deduce the rules. I think they remember better, are able to later deduce other rules as they learn what is important in a language, and of course it’s very student-centered. They go at their own pace, in their own way, and they think deeply about language. Plus they get a lot of example sentences to imitate later. However, sometimes it gets carried to an extreme. Maybe the rule can’t really be deduced. Or maybe the students just don’t get it. Or maybe the point is complicated. Once, I was trying to encourage a student to trick out the difference between:

I lost my key 


I have lost my key

I acted it out for him. I went back to the example sentences. I led him in every direction. He couldn’t get it. Finally, he shouted in frustration, “Just tell me already!” 

I think this sometimes applies to vocabulary too. Sometimes rather than waste class time and get the students frustrated and hating class, it’s so much easier to just say, “Look it up in the translator, please”.

  • Why should I practice talking about life in space!

The unit seemed like it was so much fun. A perfect way to practice the present simple for routines! Students read about the International Space Station and what life was like there. Then they read about Mars and were encouraged to use their imagination to imagine their routine if they lived on Mars. The example sentences were so fun and creative: Every day I watch both moons. I put on heavy shoes to keep me on the ground. Students were scribbling away in pairs. Drawing pictures. Adding funny sentences like: I hunt for aliens at 5pm. But one pair was doing nothing. Assuming that they were BAD students, I dropped a sarcastic remark designed to lightly chide them into work (maybe something like “Can I sharpen your pencils for you?”) One student said to me, “I just don’t want to do this. I don’t understand the point. I want to talk about real things. Why should I practice talking about life in space?” I thought he had a good point. Sometimes these creative exercises seem fun but in fact they are 1) inauthentic because seriously when are these kids going to go to Mars?; 2) difficult because kids don’t know that much about Mars; 3) Pretty limited in output because the kids, not knowing about Mars, just end up copying sentences from the text so it’s really an exercise in substituting a few words; 4) boring  if the subject doesn’t interest them. In a class of 15-30 students, it’s going to be hard to find a topic that interests everyone.

So I think sometimes we need to provide lessons that are less creative and more authentic and personal, close to the students’ lives. Even if it seems boring to us.

  • I didn’t come here to be silly!

This is actually one I can relate to. Now as a teacher, I have no problem doing anything in front of my class. I act out vocabulary words with silly gestures. I prat fall if I’m teaching fall down. I act out scenes to teach abstract words. But as a student I wanted to always have the right answer. I wanted to be taken seriously by the teacher. I was a nerd and I wanted to be treated like a nerd. And our students are sometimes the same way. Or they are shy. Or they don’t think dancing around the classroom is fun. They don’t always want to stand up in class and act funny things out.  Or make funny news. Or tell a personal story about a problem they had.

Some of my students have been judges, lawyers, civil servants, and veterans. That doesn’t mean they can’t be silly or exhibitionist. But we aren’t teaching students to be exhibitionists or extroverts. We certainly shouldn’t grade them on their willingness to look silly in class. Some teachers will say that students need to speak in order to practice or be evaluated. However, some of my students have gone on to be translators so their ability to speak hasn’t really been that important. And for students who are shy or introverted or bored, goading them into doing something they don’t want to do or something they find painful is really not fair. Also, there are sometimes odd cultural and personal lines that we aren’t aware of. Something that seems a bit funny to us may be very humiliating for students. I once had a student tell me that acting out cooking was offensive to him because only women cook. Now you and I may disagree with that attitude. We might think it’s harmless and stupid. But what kind of caring teachers are we to say to a student, “Look I need you to practice this verb tense and this is the activity I thought of. I can’t be bothered to give you a different card or activity so take your personal and cultural values and shove them.” That’s kind of what we’re saying. Often in public in front of other students.

Imagine it the other way around. Imagine teaching a writing class and encouraging students to NOT talk. Grading them on their ability to be silent. Telling the extroverted students, “Are you here to talk or write? Be more quiet.” Lavishing attention and praise on the quietest students. It would feel extremely odd and yet the same logic applies. In writing class, students should practice writing. We are evaluating them on their writing. Time spent talking is time not writing.

Now, I’m not against silliness in the classroom. I’m really not. I just think silliness for silliness sake is, well, silly. If we are doing something fun in order to make a positive atmosphere in the class, then let’s make sure it’s going to actually be something positive in the class. After all, there’s no point in doing an ice-breaker or an energy booster that makes students want to be silent and hide in a corner.