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5 Ways to Keep Students Engaged

Keep students engaged and even the worst class will never have time to misbehave.

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.

But they definitely kept some extra resistance just for me. I was a foreigner. I didn’t scream at them like the other teachers. I wasn’t cold to them and I didn’t insult them. So they thought they could walk all over me. At least, that’s how I saw it.

Idle Hands

Still, I was their English teacher and it was my job to spend 45 minutes with them. And hopefully try to teach them something. After the test incident, I sat back and reflected on how the trouble started. When they first came in, they were fine. They let me take attendance and listened dutifully while I explained last night’s homework and handed back work. About the time, I finished that and started to explain what we were going to do that class, the trouble started. Someone would start whispering or pull out a cellphone or raise their hand to ask to go to the bathroom or ask me what my favorite football team was.

What was the problem?

The problem was I had made them sit doing basically nothing for 5-10 minutes while I took attendance, passed out papers, and started to give directions. It was too much dead time for a 14-year-old. Not even an adult can sit still that long!

That’s when I realized it wasn’t them. It was me. You can’t expect the class from hell to stay engaged doing nothing! I came up with the 5 places that class slowed down and students were doing nothing. You can read my article on It’s Not Them; It’s Us for the solutions (It’s also on our page of free resources for building rapport.) , but to summarize briefly:

The 5 places dead time creeps in and (kids start pulling out their cellphones and spit balls):

  1. Taking attendance
  2. Handing back work
  3. Doing conferences
  4. After a quiz or test
  5. When one student dominates the class

If you have a class that never seems to pay attention, I highly recommend videotaping your class. Not just you, but the whole class. Watch the video and see when they start drifting off. Figure out how to keep students engaged at that time. Can you avoid that moment in class? Is there a new way to take attendance?

Rapport and Respect

Of course, rapport and respect play a huge role. When I did have a chat with the students in that class from hell, they told me that they had been trained to respect teachers who yelled and screamed and insulted them. They were used to it. I had to find new ways to win their respect, because I wasn’t going to be one of those teachers. I told them as much. And honestly, just the reaching out to them did a lot to build classroom rapport. Knowing I was trying to make class fun and keep them engaged encouraged them to work with me, too!

And let us know how you keep the dead time in class to a minimum in the comments.


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Shortlisted for an English Language Award

Only the Best Intentions Shortlisted for English Language Awards

We are thrilled to announce that Only the Best Intentions by Alice Savage has been shortlisted for an English Language Award from the English-Speaking Union in the Resources for Secondary to Adult Learners category! The English Language Awards “celebrate and reward innovation and good practice in the field of English Language teaching.” It is awarded to original, quality resources that help students with oracy skills. And given how much we’ve learned about how students acquire spoken language and the realization that communication is more than just grammar and vocab, it’s wonderful that there is an English Language Award that recognizes materials that teach oral communication skills.

And that is really what the entire Integrated Skills Through Drama series is about: teaching communication skills through the medium of a play, an original short play written with language learners in mind. Drama is the ideal tool to teach speaking skills that go beyond literal, direct meaning (and so much of communication does so). Students are, of course, use pragmatics skills in their native languages, but when learning English, they get too caught up on remembering on grammar and vocabulary to apply those strategies. Or they may not be aware of the cultural differences between their culture and American or the UK, and how those differences play out in communication.

Only the Best Intentions, and the entire Integrated Skills Through Drama series, supports their learning through explicit lessons and also by allowing students to practice language in a space where it is safe to explore, experiment, and risk mistakes. A script gives the words to the actor, so the student doesn’t have to think of the right thing to say. They can focus on fluency, rather than worrying about making a grammar mistake or saying the wrong word.

Only the Best Intentions Audio Recording

Another great thing about a play or scripted drama is that students can take on a character. They can distance themselves from the character that they play and say things they might never say in real life, practice new expressions with less fear of failure, and give themselves permission to be more “dramatic” in how they speak! It’s also a tremendous feeling of accomplishment to produce and perform a play, one that leaves students with a good feeling about their English language speaking ability.

So check out all the shortlisted entries for the English Language Awards. They are all great resources and I’m pleased to see some other indie materials in there and fingers crossed for November 20th!


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I Don’t Know an Interesting Fact About Myself

A while back, I did a workshop for teachers from the former Soviet Union and as a very quick icebreaker, I just asked everyone to say one interesting fact about themselves. The first teacher said, “My name is Elena and my interesting fact is that I am from Karaganda, Kazakhstan.” After that, the second teacher got up, said her name and told us where she was from. And so it continued. One teacher tried to say something fun about himself. I believe he said he liked going riding. However, the crowd quickly corrected him: “We’re saying where we are from!” This taught me two things.

The power of the first answer

First, the first answer has so much power. Students are listening to whoever goes first to figure out what they are supposed to say. And the more people that follow the model of that first answer, the more the momentum builds. So, as a teacher, you need to make sure the first answer is a model of what you want students to say.

What’s interesting?

Second, students don’t always know what an interesting fact is. It might be culture or personality or shyness or language problems or a bit of stage fright, but a lot of my students struggle with coming up with an interesting fact about themselves. If their teachers can’t necessarily stray from something as bland as where they are from, we can’t expect the students to do it either.

Model an interesting fact

Based on my experience, and probably yours, you need to model for your students. Give them an example of what you want and take control of that all-powerful first answer. That means, if you are doing lots of classroom community builders (and you should be), you’ll probably want to have a lot of interesting facts about yourself, ready-to-go off the top of your head. Be sure that they don’t just parrot your one answer by giving them a few examples. One of my funniest experiences was when I told students, “I can speak French and Russian.” Several students copied my model by telling the languages they spoke, which wasn’t too bad. But one poor student got up and said, “I can’t speak French and I can’t speak Russian.” as his interesting fact! So be sure to give them more than one example. At least if they copy you, they’ll have more to choose from. Be sure to grade your wording to the level of your students. I might say, “I once lived on an island near Australia for a year,” with my beginners. With more advanced students I say, “I lived in Vanuatu, a small island country in the South Pacific Ocean.”

Tell them what not to say

I also like to go over some less than interesting facts. There are a few ways to this:

  • Go over the things students already know about you such as your name, your nationality, your job.
  • Discuss some things that are not particularly unique to you such as your hair color, your job, some of your hobbies, some of the places you have lived.
  • Share some facts that people usually don’t care about such as what you had for breakfast
  • Then compare and contrast: Take one of the boring things you just mentioned and compare it with a more interesting answer. I like to tell students, “OK, so I lived in Connecticut and I also lived in Vanuatu. Which one is more interesting to you?” Let them explain why Vanuatu is more interesting.

These explanations don’t have to be long. I can cover three interesting facts about myself in 3 minutes. It takes another 3 minutes to go over some boring facts and contrast them with the interesting facts. Then I take another 1-3 minutes to elicit some examples from students. 10 minutes might seem like a long time to introduce an introductory activity, but if you do it once at on the first day of school, it will pay off in all your icebreakers, rapport builders, and classroom community builders the whole year long!

Do you have other tips? Let me know in the comments!

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Icebreakers on the Second Day, Teaching Today

I just want to pass along this great point about icebreakers from the book Voices of Experience: How Teachers Manage Student-Centered ESL Classes by Janet Giannotti:

It should also be noted that some teachers do not use an icebreaker in the first class. Some icebreakers may seem like games, and we don’t want our students to think they enrolled in our class to play games. Instead many teachers use the first class for diagnostic testing and save an icebreaker for the second day.

Interestingly, I also got a similar piece of feedback from a well-known author who kindly gave me some feedback on 50 Activities for the First Day of School. She wrote that she would never do Two Truths and a Lie on the first day, and maybe not even the first week. She suggested some students like to get down to work on the first day. It also occurs to me that perhaps, not everyone enjoys sharing personal information as soon as they walk into a classroom.

How about you? What did you do on the first day of school? Have you ever postponed icebreakers?

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Building Classroom Community Presentation

When I started writing this, I was coming off my high from an awesome TESOL 2018, and apparently it was a pretty good conference, as the first clause of this sentence is all I wrote before saving this to my drafts folder. So here, belatedly, is my presentation on from the TESOL Conference in Chicago on building classroom community. Specifically I talk about the four conditions that go into really building classroom community. For each principle, I’ve also shared a few activities that you can use in your classroom. I’ve posted about this elsewhere but I think the presentation works really well.

Note that the second slide is meant to represent a class of bored, unengaged students. It’s a stock photo, not my actual students. Some members of the audience thought it was real. One way to definitely destroy rapport with students is to use their images publicly like that. I would never do that.

The third slide shows the “fun” teacher. This is a popular approach to building community. But it’s an approach that doesn’t really build community because:

  1. It’s hard to be funny and cute all the time. You can’t be performing every minute of every class.
  2. Sometimes you have to be serious or even discipline a student and that can feel harsh coming from the “fun” teacher.
  3. You’re really building community between you (or a persona of you, in fact) and the students, but not a community among the whole students themselves.

Hence my four conditions that exist in places where community is built organically, such as sports teams. I hope this presentation and the free activity ideas are helpful. Please feel free to get in touch with questions or comments.

And if you’re interested in classroom community building, you’re probably doing a lot of group work in your class. Check out our free ebook full of tips for putting students in groups, including factors that lead to strong groups and fun ways to form groups quickly.

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How to Engage Reluctant Writers

There was a recent piece in The Atlantic about a teacher who helped her students who get over their fear that they couldn’t write well or that writing wasn’t for them. How did she engage reluctant writers? By forcing them to write a lot. Once they had built a portfolio of writing, they couldn’t say they weren’t writers. They clearly did know how to write because they had written a lot.

Beyond that, this teacher engaged with her students, less as students and more as writers. If you focus too much on correcting, you end up marking up all the grammar and spelling errors and not much more. If you focus too much on building self-esteem, you’re in danger of leaving only vague comments such as, “Great job here” and, “You’re a good student”.

A good writing teacher can engage students in writing by engaging with the student as a writer. That doesn’t mean ignoring errors. But it does mean also reacting to the piece of writing itself: commenting on character motivation, asking where the student got their ideas, suggesting where the plot could have changed a bit, recommending something for the student read, or a source to cite. After all, this is the sort of feedback real writers get from editors and reviewers. How better to make our students feel like real writers, and get over their reluctance, than treat them like real writers? And hold them to that standard?

Getting Reluctant Writers to Build up a Portfolio

Engage Reluctant Writers with Stories Without End by Taylor Sapp available as ebook or in paperback

One great resource to both help students build up their portfolios and help give them good feedback is Stories Without End by Taylor SappStories Without End is a collection of 24 creative and intriguing short stories that Taylor has developed over the years in his own classes. But unlike other stories for students, these are a bit different because they are unfinished. Students have to add their own ending, kind of like Choose Your Own Adventure for ESL students.

And like any good piece of fiction, each story in the collection raises an interesting question or explores a theme that students have something to say about. What is the meaning of success? How can you tell if someone likes you? What makes some people optimists and others pessimists? Some are sci-fi stories in the tradition of Ray Bradbury, asking how our every day life would be different if we could teleport or control the weather. Or what if women were expected to work and men stayed home with the kids?

In other words, students will have something to say about these topics. And because each story ends on a cliff-hanger, they’ll have strong ideas on how it ends. Before they know it, they’ll have written endings to three or four stories. One teacher told me she had a student who vehemently swore he couldn’t write, especially not in English. So she said, “Well, tell me how you’d end the story.” He talked for 10 minutes in great detail and told a wonderful, engaging story. “Write that down,” she said, “You’ve just written a story.”

And each story is also followed by a variety of different creative projects, not to mention the appendix full of project ideas. Students will find themselves keeping a dream journal, turning the story into a movie script, or analyzing a character. They might not see any of that as “real” writing until you point out that it is. Now that they have a wide and diverse portfolio, you can engage with your reluctant writers by, well, engaging with them as writers.

Engage Reluctant Writers as Writers

The other helpful thing about Stories Without End is how it encourages students to look at their writing. Because the students are essentially responding to an extensive prompt in the form of a story beginning, they have to grapple straight away with literary issues such as plot, character, and theme. There’s no instruction to use the past perfect or select phrases from a useful phrases box. Instead, they have to tell what happens next and why and to whom, and bring it all to a conclusion.

To aid this process, we’ve provided guiding questions that students can use or ignore as they see fit. And you, the teacher, can ask them to tell you how they have responded to those guiding questions. So again the focus is on how an interesting character or a new setting and not their grammar.

And in fact, after students read, there are a variety of discussion questions before they get to the writing prompt. These questions ask about the theme of the story as well as the story itself. So from the beginning, students are encouraged to notice and think about these aspects. Then, when they are planning their writing, they are more likely to focus on things like strong plot, interesting characters, and overarching ideas or themes.

For you, the teacher, it’s then easier to apply the same discussion questions to the students’ own writing. You can also ask about the choices they made or point out where their writing could be clearer. And because each student will finish the story differently, students can hold a writers workshop, comparing the choices they made. And as they discuss the reasons for the choices they made, they’ll be analyzing how writing works. How did the author give the impression two characters liked each other? How can your writers in your class employ the same device in their own writing?

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Back to School but Keeping the Essence in Sight

Keeping the Essence in Sight by Sharon Hartle published by Alphabet PublishingThis is the perfect time to pick up a copy of Keeping the Essence in Sight by Sharon Hartle. Why now?

It’s August already. The first day of class is on the horizon. Or for some of you, it’s already here, or there was no summer break at all. If you are one of those poor souls, then you know better than anyone the importance of finding time outside the classroom to reflect on our practice, find new ideas to chew on, and prepare for the coming term. In short, we need time to think outside class in order to be better teachers, even better than we already are, inside of class.

These last few weeks are the perfect time to pick up a new teaching book by a master teacher-practitioner like Sharon. Someone who carefully plans, observes, and reflects on her teaching. Someone who is dedicated to her own professional development and is inviting you along on a journey, or perhaps a cup of tea under a cypress tree in a garden in Verona. It’s still August, so there’s time to read in a garden or park, or perhaps on the beach, or even on the chair in the backyard.

Join Sharon in her contemplation on some of the great questions that confront teachers every day, but that we rarely have time to think about while we are caught up in the bustle of classwork, when we’re so busy we often react by instinct and follow the same patterns. Isn’t it nice that it’s still summer and we can take an hour to consider these questions from a more detached view point?

In her well-organized book, grounded always in practice and observation of practice, Sharon asks important and intriguing questions such as:

  • How do we balance student autonomy and teacher-directed learning?
  • When we assess students, should we focus more correcting errors or rewarding achievements?
  • How do we prepare our students and ourselves for blended learning?
  • How can we continue to develop professionally?
  • What exactly does it mean to teach a language? What is a language any way?

Sharon draws from practice, theory, student experience, conference proceedings, and fellow teachers and bloggers to provide well-considered and helpful opinions. And, she shows her work, taking you through her reasons for her answers with a warm, slightly sassy voice and a sense of humor.

But Keeping the Essence in Sight  is more than a book of 100 teaching tips to cut-and-paste into your classroom. Sharon is nothing if not a consummate teacher and a great teacher expects you to think for yourself. In this way, the book is an invitation to reflect on these questions yourself. Discussion questions after ever chapter help you on your journey, but the whole tone of the book is inviting and conversational, welcoming you into a dialogue.

So that’s this book—fairly short, but packed with important ideas presented well—is a perfect August read for an English teacher, although any language teacher will benefit. There’s enough time left before class starts to read it and absorb the ideas. It won’t take you too long. And the book is well-organized, divided into four topics (Learning, Teaching, Testing, Professional Development), each explored through three analytical questions. So even when you are bogged down in the demands of your teaching job, it’ll be easy for you to go back and find that anecdote you want to refer back to.

Join Sharon on her journey to be a better teacher and let her be your guide and companion.

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Back to School Advice from Our Authors

Forgive my attempt at a pop-culture reference. Is Game of Thrones even a thing now?

We’ve had a post up for a long time on classroom community builders and icebreakers full of back to school advice. And now that the back to school season is upon us, I wanted to highlight a few articles and activities shared by our authors. But do bookmark that page, to read and comment on, and send in your own links and resources. We’ll even give you a coupon for 10% off if we link to your resource!

On to some back to school advice from Patrice Palmer, teacher, trainer, interviewer, and self-care coach:

Group Work Gone Right: Setting Students up for Success from the Beginning

Patrice published Successful Group Work with us after seeing too many group projects fail. The problem is that we assume students are just naturally good at group work, but they aren’t. So she’s written a book of 13 activities that you can do to teach teamwork skills. These are great activities to weave into your beginning of the year plans. Start class off with these simple, mostly low-prep, activities and help students be successful at group work. Take a look at some sample activities in her article on MiddleWeb on avoiding the pitfalls of group work and learn more about why she wrote the book in this interview with Patrice in HLT Magazine.

Question: How Can I Incorporate Reflection into my Teaching?

Sharon Hartle has some great advice for you. Her latest book, Keeping the Essence in Sight, is a remarkable example of what reflective practice looks like. Organized into four key areas, Learning, Teaching, Technology, and PD, Sharon asks and then reflects on key questions that make us better teachers. And if you’re interested in the meaning behind that enigmatic title, read the first post from Sharon’s blog (be sure to bookmark it so you can keep up with her posts). Before we get too busy with classes and admin work, it’s nice to touch base with the reason we teach through this warmly told anecdote.

I Don’t Even Like Icebreakers

As a teacher, in the first days of class, I often feel I’m balancing engaging students and making the class feel welcoming with getting some work done. Now, research suggests that there is some overlap. Students tend to learn better in an environment where they feel respected, where they are free to make mistakes without being mocked, where they believe others are interested in what they say and how the do. And I’m particularly fond of activities that include both rapport-building and language-learning aspects. Here’s the story of how I figured that out and ways to do classroom community building while practicing language: Don’t Break Ice, Build Community.

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Project-Based Learning with Plays

Try Project-based learning with Plays with Her Own Worst Enemy by Alice Savage Alphabet PublishingCurious to try project-based learning in your classroom, but not sure where to start?

Want an engaging project to do with students that teaches authentic communication skills and provides practice in teamwork skills?

Consider project-based learning with plays, using one of the Integrated Skills Through Drama books that guides your class through the process of rehearsing, performing, and producing an original short play. I always like to share resources that contain something a little different in this end of summer, back to school, period, when teachers have time to prepare something like project-based learning (PBL).

The wonderful thing about a project like a play is that students will be engaged in a great deal of authentic conversation as they work together. There’s a lot of logistics to discuss when putting on a play. And students can take charge of a lot of it. That means talking with other students about wardrobe, blocking, set design, props. Some students videotape the performance, so there’s need for a videographer. You may even have students directing each other.

One group of students who performed Her Own Worst Enemy at a local university went to the store on their own to buy props. So they ended up using their English outside of class in an authentic situation! How’s that for a real-world interaction? And student autonomy. It also gives you an idea of how motivating these drama projects can be—Students wanted to work outside class and spend their own money! But even if students chose to perform the play as reader’s theater, they still have to discuss how to play their roles and work together.

Try Project-based learning with Plays with Only the Best Intentions by Alice Savage.

Each book has an attentive listening activity where students discuss a theme related to the play. The students practice paraphrasing or summarizing what someone else said before giving their own opinion. We’ve included this because attentive listening is a key skill in doing any kind of project work.

Try Project-based learning with Plays with Rising Water by Alice Savage published by Alphabet Publishing

In fact, as students study the skills they need to perform, they are also studying the skills they need to work together as a team. Speaking clearly, persuading others to your point of view, showing you are skeptical or enthusiastic about a suggestion—these are all things that both characters in a play and people in a group project, need to be able to do. So the performance skills that students are learning throughout the book are transferable to the project itself. In fact, Alice shared a lesson plan on disagreeing using Only the Best Intentions as an example. But is there anything more needed in a group project than knowing how to express disagreement?

So if you are thinking about a class project for the new school year, I’d recommend project-based learning with plays. The books in the Integrated Skills Through Drama series also make a nice basis for an elective class, or drama club. And search our site for resources or get in touch. We always love to hear what people are doing with our resources. We’re also happy to share advice and ideas for working with our materials in the classroom!


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Fortune: an Innovative Video Series for Language Learning

Jimmy Fortune, private investigator, from the Fortune series, a scripted drama that teaches communication skills.

As you may have gathered from our site, Facebook page, or Twitter, we have a new project out: The Fortune Series, a coursebook with a focus on pragmatics and speaking built around an original 6-episode video series for language learning. The drama, which resembles NCIS or Law and Order or any of those popular TV dramas, students are already watching, was created by the award-winning production team, Chasing Time.

Some highlights of this original and innovation video series for language learning include:

  • Material targeted at two levels: Fortune Blue for High Elementary/Pre-Intermediate learners (CEFR level A2) and Fortune Gold for Upper-Intermediate/Low-Advanced learners (CEFR B2).
  • 30 teaching hours
  • Works as a supplemental text or short module/elective class on communication
  • Teachers book contains teacher notes with suggestions on how to present the material, and ways to adapt it, a complete answer key, and extension activities.
  • Videos are available for free on YouTube or compiled on a USB (Coming soon).

When Chasing Time English approached me about this project, I did a little research on them, and found this nice interview from ELTJam from last year that explains some of the rationale behind the project:

As a writer with both a filmmaking and teaching background, I’ve always been amazed (or concerned!) that not enough really exists in this area. There is a tonne of content available, and we’re not trying to say that that doesn’t exist, but what I have found is that there is a dearth of high quality, dramatic narrative video for English language learners.

Educators find themselves in a position where they’re forced to choose between using popular TV shows or content from educational institutions. I often use Friends as an example of the former; it’s a great show and there is a lot of value there, but it’s designed for an English speaking audience and it’s not original content. As such, any time you’re using it, you’re really restricted. The other option is the video material that English language organisations create that, to put it kindly, doesn’t really fit the bill of what you’re looking for if you’re watching something for entertainment. So, I think we found an interesting gap in the market.

For the rest of the interview, including more on Scott’s background and what the reaction has been thus far, check out the full interview with Scott Granville on ELTJam.