Down with Phones

Phones…the bane of teachers everywhere. Just today, in 2 hours of lessons, at some point or another, almost all of my students were using their phones instead of focusing on the material. Over the years, I’ve tried so many different methods to address this. Forbidding them in the classroom proved to be pointless. Punishing them damaged rapport. Ignoring them Students_Who_Use_Cell_Phones_THUMB_with_watermark__69469.1414424368.168.168allowed them to reproduce with Viagra-munching rabbits. Being more interesting is effective in bursts, but no matter how fun and engaging you make the class, there are going to be points when you have to do writing prompts or reading or whatever, and unless you are just a magic dynamo, you can’t be ‘on’ for a full 5 contact hours on Thursday. Lately, I been trying to integrate cell phones into my lessons in various ways: dictionaries, research, Padlet, learning management systems, and the like. It helps a little. Not enough, not by a long shot. So what should we do?

Cell phones should be banned in school. Science says so. According to a recent study, banning cell phones in school is the equivalent of adding up to a week of extra schooling.

This view [that schools should allow cell phones] is misguided, according to Beland and Murphy, who found that the ban produced improvements in test scores among students, with the lowest-achieving students gaining twice as much as average students. The ban had a greater positive impact on students with special education needs and those eligible for free school meals, while having no discernible effect on high achievers.

Banning cells is possible in primary schools. It’s much harder to implement full-on bans in college programs.

What do you do about cell phones in your class? I’d love to hear your suggestions.



How Much Homework Is Too Much?

Let’s get this out of the way first: there is little correlation between homework and school performance.

Students in America and elsewhere are receiving more and more homework every night, too much homework. In charter and magnet schools, it’s not uncommon for students to be expected to two, three, five hours of homework a night, and more on the weekend, while students in Finland, one of the finest school systems in the world, only average 30 minutes. But why?

Photo R. Nial Bradshaw

One reason is initiatives like No Child Left Behind and ever greater reliance on standardized tests for funding, teacher reviews, and everything else. Teachers are expected to cover vast numbers of objectives in order to meet the state-mandated curriculum. If they have any hope of checking off each objective, they have to give a lot of it as homework. There’s little time left in the school day to do practice and drilling, so that goes into the homework pile, too.


Parents aren’t blameless either, no matter how much they may be railing against the strain of homework now. For decades, helicopter parents viewed idle time as wasted time and viewed teachers who understood the value of free time as mediocre. Charter schools, magnets and the like often view mass amounts of homework as a badge of honor, a sign of the effectiveness of their curriculum. When I taught young learners in Korea, the parents would often call the school and complain if we didn’t give their kindergartners or first graders an hour or two of homework a night. They didn’t care if it was just busy work; they insisted that their kids study at all times.

This article in The Atlantic paints a pretty clear picture of just how much homework kids are getting these days. After seeing how much homework his daughter was getting, he decided to try to do her homework every day for a week. In the author’s own words, it nearly killed him. He raises a number of great points about homework. It’s worth reading.

How much homework do children need? From a Washington Post article:

Harris Cooper, professor of education and psychology at Duke University, who is probably the best known researcher on the subject, has concluded that:

• Up until fifth grade, homework should be very limited.

• Middle-school students should not spend more than 90 minutes a day on homework

• Two hours should be the limit in high school.

Beyond those time limits, he has said, research shows that homework has no impact on student performance.

Homework can be beneficial in some cases, but only if it is well thought-out and meaningful. A teacher should very, very carefully think about whether an assignment is actually needed, or if they’re just assigning it to be assigning something. And, teachers need to have a good handle on what other teachers are assigning as well. Letting students have free time to play, hang out, and do things that are interesting to them is valuable. More valuable than another worksheet on irregular verbs.

Worksheet Wednesday: Taboo

For this week’s Worksheet Wednesday, I’m not sharing a worksheet. See you later, folks.

taboocardI kid, I kid. But really, there’s no worksheet. Rather, I want to talk about a fun technique I use periodically to review vocabulary. Maybe you’ve played the excellent party game Taboo, the fast-paced word guessing game. A quick primer on the rules: two teams compete to guess the most number of words from the game cards. Each round, one member of a team has 90 seconds to describe the target word at the top of a Taboo card to her team while avoiding the ‘taboo’ words on the card. If the team guesses the word, they get a point. If the current ‘it’ member passes on a card or says one of the taboo words, then the other team gets a point. All the while, a member of the other team watches the ‘it’ to make sure they don’t say one of the taboo words. Hilarity ensues.

One of my vocabulary Taboo sheets for an intermediate class.

For my classes, I typically make a Word doc. with 9 text bordered text boxes aligned on it. In each, I’ll put the target vocabulary in a smaller box (or just underlined) at the top, then 4 forbidden taboo words under it. I’ll also include a number of fun words, like Gandalf or banana.

For struggling classes, I’ll change the rules a bit a let them use the taboo words as suggested clues. This lets the teams get more points from actually guessing the words instead of from the other team passing.

When I have large classes, I like to make 4 teams, pair 2 teams together, and give each of the 2 pairs a set of my Taboo cards. I’ll let them keep track of the time and points and float between the games, chiding them for L1 use or maybe whispering clues to a team that is falling far behind.

If you don’t feel like making your own cards, you can easily use the real game. You’ll need to weed out irrelevant cards; Taboo always has a lot of pop culture references that won’t resonate internationally.


Worksheet Wednesday: Kahoot!

For this week’s worksheets, I’m sharing my Kahoot quizzes with you. Do you know Kahoot? If not, it’s worth learning to use. The quizzes are easy to make and even easier to use with your classes. And best of all, the students love it, partly because it’s a fun game, and partly because it lets them use their phones. I think you’ll quickly find that Kahoot quizzes are a great way to assess vocabulary, grammar, and content quickly in class.

If you don’t have time to make a KahootTeachKahoot quiz, you can often find a good one to use for many topics, especially for grammar (much less so for writing, I’ve noticed). Sometimes you will find someone else’s quiz that would be great except for a few errors, or some in-jokes, or L1 stuff from a language unrelated to your learners. In such a case, you can click the ‘duplicate’ button and edit a copy of the quiz to your heart’s content.

Feel free to use or duplicate any of my Kahoots. Most of mine are vocabulary-focused, aimed at target words from our program’s coursebooks. If you find a typo in any of them, please let me know. Thanks, and enjoy!

Getting Away from “Edtech for Tech’s Sake”

In 2013, the Los Angeles Unified School District began handing out iPads to its 650,000 students. This program was heralded as a great success for educational technology. Two years later, the massive school district halted the program and demanded a refund from Pearson and Apple. The program was not just a failure; it was a debacle. The curriculum and apps from Pearson were worthless in most cases, according to many of the teachers who tried to integrate the tools into their lessons, and the program’s failure highlighted just how difficult Edtech really is.

Photo by Lexie Flickinger/Brad Flickinger via Flickr Creative Commons

This story can be heard in many places, though few had the $1.3 billion price tag attached like it was in LA. Schools rush to buy laptops or tablets, through on some nanny software to keep the kids from looking at porn or playing League of Legends too easily, and hope their teachers can find some use for them. This is Edtech for tech’s sake. A principal or school board wants to not be seen as behind the times, to keep up with the charters, to help disadvantaged students. The reasons range from the banal to the saintly. But no matter how good your intentions are, if you haven’t approached the situation correctly, you’re joining the road crew paving the way to Hell.

Any use of Edtech, or just about any innovation or change, needs to start with identifying a need. What are the students missing? What are the holes in the curriculum? Where are the teachers struggling? If the answer to those problems is Edtech, then mazel tov. But far too often, the answer is going to be whatever pet project some stakeholder is trumpeting, regardless of the problem that may or not have been identified yet.

I’ve seen it several times in my program. A teacher will give a workshop on a cool app, and several of us might try it. Sometimes it’s great. Sometimes, meh. More often than not, they’re bookmarked and forgotten about. In an ideal environment, we would start with some problem and search for the best answer, which may well be an Edtech one.

googledocsI recently began to have my students submit their weekly writing assignments to me via Google docs, a service I’ve been using for years. My decision to integrate this tool into my class had to do with a hole I’ve noticed. The students do their writing, but we only give quick, mostly general feedback on content and grammar/vocabulary errors during their tutorial time, assuming they actually come. This level of feedback wasn’t sufficient, I felt, and the students probably forgot most of it as soon as they left the lesson. With a tool like Google docs, I can make in-line edits and give comments which they can see easily whenever they review for the writing tests.

So far, I would say that it is a not-unqualified success, but it is still early in the module. Some of the students have definitely indicated that they like the comments; on the other hand, it’s added a time burden to my workload, somewhat off-set by the ease of which it is to use Gdocs anywhere anytime. The first test for my efforts will be next week when they have their first of four writing tests. I don’t think this is going to be a panacea. My group of students began with rather below writing skills for the Intermediate level, and giving feedback with Gdocs isn’t going to work miracles. If it helps them to stop making subject-verb agreement errors and capitalizing words after commas, I’ll be happy.

Worksheet Wednesday: Station Learning!

For this week’s worksheet, it’s a 4-nanza! Have you ever tried any station learning worksheetactivities in your ESL class? They’re a classic tool for young learners in native language classes, but they can be an excellent way to liven up your older-learner ESL classroom as well. In the university prep program where I teach, I’ve used stations in my classes for the past 4 modules, and they’ve mostly been very well received. (The first time I did it, I didn’t really explain it to the students that well, so they were a tad bit confused. Oops!)

So, for this week’s Worksheet Wednesday, I’ve included the 4 pages you would need to run this station learning activity. It’s an elementary level review activity, with a reading passage, adjectives of emotion, simple sentences, and error correction. I’m sharing these with you more to give you some ideas, not necessarily for you to use them directly, though you are completely welcome to if they meet your needs. If you do use them, you’ll need to do some cutting for each station. And since these are provided as examples, I didn’t make an answer sheet and the instructions are very light. Caveat emptor.

Station 1: simple sentences stations – station 1
Station 2: simple sentences stations – station 2
Station 3: simple sentences stations – station 3
Station 4: simple sentences stations – station 4


These worksheets are considered Creative Commons licensed; you can modify use them if you want in your classroom. If you redistribute them, though, we would like to be acknowledged, and don’t even think about selling them! It would be awesome of you to let us know if you use any of our worksheets, and if you see any mistakes or have any suggestions, please let me know!

My Gamification Project, Episode 1: The Intrinsic Menace

raisinghandsMotivation…or students’ lack there-of, the great scourge, the destroyer of many a teacher. This can be especially true for ESL instructors faced with a room of students who are required to take your class. They did not necessarily want to be in your class, studying past perfect progressive in a language they couldn’t give two flips about (at current exchange rates, 1 flip is worth about 0.65 rat’s asses). Looking out over a sea of glossy eyes or smartphone-illuminated faces hour after hour is enough to drive a teacher to drink. Drink more, anyway.

There is an age component to the motivation problem, in my experience. As long as you keep the lessons well-paced and active, little kids have boundless energies for almost any task, whether they really care about it or not. They’re like empathetic sponges, so if you’re excited about gerunds, they’ll be excited too. This effect diminishes as the learners get older. If you walk into a room of middle school students with a writing lesson after lunch, you can have an unlicensed proton pack of excitement strapped to your back and it won’t matter one whit. But what do you expect? They’re walking bags of rapidly-changing hormones, in a society and at an age where standing out can be social suicide. I thought that intrinsic lack of motivation was a phase. I was wrong. Oh, so wrong.

quotes_motivationWhen I started teaching at a university in Seoul, it was not my first time teaching older learners. I’d had many private lesson students, and I had taught community classes for a vocational school south of the metropolis. I had, I thought, a fair idea of what to expect in terms of motivation. The adults I’d been teaching for the past few years had all been enthusiastic. So imagine my surprise when, during my first lessons, getting my 18-20 year-old students to answer “How are you?” was like asking them to pull their own teeth out with a spoon. I should have realised the key difference between my university students and my adult learners. The adults I’d taught had chosen of their own free will to take my class. The freshmen at the university, by contrast, were required to get 4 credits worth of English in order to graduate. For the most part, students who were already good at English – i.e. the ones who wanted to learn the language – had long before mastered it, gotten high scores on standardized tests, and were thus exempted from the mandatory classes. Those who remained were decidedly uninterested in English, though many of them recognized that they did actually need it, if only to get a decent job at Samsung or Hyundai. But knowing you need to learn something doesn’t make you want to learn it. Necessity isn’t the mother of motivation.

One afternoon, I stumbled across a TEDx talk on something the speaker was referring to as ‘game level theory’. The talk wasn’t actually that good, and as memory serves, I believe he made have made some rather dubious claims, but at its core, there was something exciting and potentially revolutionary. He opined on the possibility of using elements from games – earning points, winning badges, leveling up – as a way of motivating people to do things that we – teachers, bosses, governments – want them to do but that they might not be interested in doing on their own. Of course, he what he was referring to was “gamification”. Put simply, gamification is the application of game-like features to non-game tasks in order to spur motivation.

An early version of my participation  level sheet.

As someone who’d grown up with D&D and video games, this was immediately fascinating to me. I set about that evening to create some sort of ‘level system’ for my classes based on participation. At first, I had some fanciful ideas about awarding points which students could use to buy armor and weapons and somehow compete in a fantasy world (see my D&D comment above). That I rejected as being far too complicated and potentially unappealing to many students. Not that there aren’t viable ways of doing just that. Instead, what I settled on was a rather simple system of 6 levels – our freshman program mandated that 30% of students’ grades be based on participation, so each of my levels was worth 5% of their overall grade. Each level had a number of little dots that had to be filled in if the student wanted to ‘level up’. They could fill in a dot every time they answered a question (regardless of accuracy), asked a relevant question (“what does this mean?” yes, “teach-uh, bath-uh-room?” not so much), did extra homework, and the like.

The system solved a few problems from the very first day I introduced it. One, students went from rarely raising their hands to fighting for my attention whenever I asked a question. Extra bits of homework, which weren’t factored into their grades, used to be ignored by nearly every student; once I introduced my level system, not only did they almost always complete the work, they would actually ask me for more. No one ever forget their books, as not having your material would cost you some dots. The students also no longer complained about their participation scores. If they only got a 15 out of 30, they knew why; they only had to look at their sad, half-undotted level sheets to see why.

In short, it felt like a great success.

But, was it? We’ll discuss that next time.

Thinking out loud about Storytelling

telling stories clip artBecause I have an allergy to anything being too simple in my life, I have two vocational passions: teaching and creative writing. Arguably, I am much more successful in the former than the latter, if you go by evidence… These are two fields that require a dedication of time, effort, and mental bandwidth. And it’s a bit of a zero-sum game; time devoted to professional developmental as an educator is necessarily deducted from time I could be writing. Given that my landlord likes me to give him money at least semi-regularly, education wins more often than creative writing.

Yet, must they be mutually exclusive?

I saw this presentation on Prezi a few days ago, and it got me thinking about how we might use storytelling in the classroom more. Certainly using storytelling could be implemented in certain subjects – history, for one -with little effort, but I am not certain how one would go about it in the academic ESL context so easily. Using storytelling in the young learner classroom seems like a good fit; not just using storybooks, as most of us who’ve taught at that level have done, but interactive, drama-and-play infused activities, could be a powerful way to drive interest and meaningful learning. Back in the day, teaching kindergarten and elementary ESL in Seoul, I loved lessons that let us break out the finger puppets and get the kids to make up stories and performances.

 This post on Edutopia has some good points to consider.

The Many Benefits to Storytelling

When you tell your first story, there is a magical moment. The children sit enthralled, mouths open, eyes wide. If that isn’t enough reason, then consider that storytelling:

  • Inspires purposeful talking, and not just about the story — there are many games you can play.
  • Raises the enthusiasm for reading texts to find stories, reread them, etc.
  • Initiates writing because children will quickly want to write stories and tell them.
  • Enhances the community in the room.
  • Improves listening skills.
  • Really engages the boys who love the acting.
  • Is enjoyed by children from kindergarten to the end of elementary school.
  • Gives a motivating reason for English-language learners to speak and write English.

There’s also this article with several interesting points to consider. It’s a bit longer, so read it at your leisure. Quiz on Friday.

If you have any experience integrating storytelling into your lessons, especially in an ESL environment, please share!

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