Ten Tips for Student Teachers

About this time every year I start to see another round of posts from soon-to-be teachers looking for advice as they get ready to start their student teacher placements. My own student teaching was quite a few years ago, but I’ve had the opportunity to experience it from a variety of perspectives through the years and would like to use this week’s post to offer, in no particular order, some tips for success.

  1. Find out the dress code ahead of time and abide by it.

The official dress code is likely to be something very helpful (read “helpful” in a sarcastic tone) such as, “business casual.” This is your first opportunity to ask a question. Ask your cooperating teacher what he/she wears and would suggest, then do your best to follow their suggestions, or exceed them. You may observe other teachers dressed more casually than what your CT has suggested to you, ignore it and follow your CT’s advice. You don’t know the situation of those teachers and aren’t working under them, what they do falls under the category of, “not my business, not my problem.” (Or, to put it more colorfully, “Not my monkeys, not my circus.”–a good adage to remember and apply to other teacher’s classrooms.) If you are struggling to afford professional clothing, try going to a Salvation Army or Good Will in or near an area that is more affluent. Most of these stores are stocked by local donations, but the prices remain largely the same. You’ll find many more articles of professional clothing, and generally higher quality pieces, than in stores located in more modest neighborhoods.

2. Remember: you’re the teacher now.

You are not there to be the students’ friend, parent, counselor, or anything else. You are there for two purposes: to help teach the students and to learn yourself. It is not your job to be liked (though it will probably happen) or to make them happy (though this will likely happen as well), it is your job to keep them safe and help them learn. This is especially important to remember if you are an early-twenty-something student teacher in a high school. Due to the small age difference, it will be more difficult for students (and possibly you) to remember that you are not peers, and maintaining a professional relationship will require more diligence on your part. Just keep reminding yourself (and possibly them): they have friends, they have parents/guardians, the school has counselors…what they need is a teacher and that is what I am.

3. It’s OK to say, “I don’t know.”

When I first started teaching I thought I had to have all the answers. Now, 20+ years later, I know that I don’t have all, or even most, of the answers and never will–I don’t even know the questions half the time! There is nothing wrong with admitting you don’t know something. What is important is being able to discern what questions/curiosities need to be answered and how to go about doing so. Being able to admit you don’t know something is a sign of strength, not weakness, and being willing to learn is imperative for a teacher. As my former professor used to say, “The day you stop learning is the day you stop teaching…or at least it should be!” The first step to learning something is admitting you don’t already know it, so go ahead and say it.

4. Not every action/choice needs to be explained or defended.

If I had a dollar for every time a student asked me why I made the choice I did, gave the answer I gave, or assigned the thing I assigned, I’d be a very rich woman. Do I explain to students why we are doing something? Yes, fairly often I do. Do I explain everything, every time I’m asked? No, absolutely not. As much as possible I involve students in their own learning, providing them with choices, listening to suggestions, allowing requests, and explaining the reasons behind different activities; that’s just good teaching practice. But I don’t always say yes to requests, I sometimes require the same project/assignment of every student, and I do ultimately direct our learning along a prescribed pathway. At the end of the day, you are the teacher, the expert, and you make the decisions.

5. Try new (or old, as the case may be) things.

No doubt you have been exposed to various teaching techniques, materials, lesson plans, etc. in the course of your studies. You may even have grown quite familiar and comfortable with some of them. That’s great! Student teaching is a time to experiment and learn. Your CT will have had years of experience and likely his/her own way of doing things, quite possibly ways that are new and unfamiliar to you. Watch, learn, and try it yourself. You may like it, you may not, but much like Sam-I-Am from Green Eggs and Ham, you won’t know for sure until you do. Hear about a new idea or have a brainstorm while in the shower? Great! Talk it over with your CT and give it a whirl. If it works, wonderful! If not, your CT will be there to back you up and help figure out why.

6. Visit other classes.

Any chance you have to visit another classroom, grab it! Ask your CT to help you find time and set up opportunities (you might even use a multi-day break to visit a different school-*gasp*). Every teacher is unique and no two classrooms are the same. Observe as many teachers as possible (teaching the same lesson/skill, if possible), look at what’s on walls and shelves, dig into file cabinets (with permission, of course), and peek at lesson plans (again, with permission). Start building your digital resources bank! Scan lesson plans, worksheets, and other documents. Take photos of bulletin boards, activities, and physical materials you like. Side note: try to contain the urge to buy now; it’s difficult, but if you’re anything like me, and every other veteran teacher I know, you’ll ultimately waste a lot of money (see my advice for new teachers and buying materials in this post) buying things you won’t need or use. If you can’t contain the urge, or are gifted with materials (don’t be surprised if it happens, especially if there’s a retiring teacher in the building), start with a good topical organization system now and stick to it.

7. Ask why–a lot!

After you’ve observed, ask why. Why did he/she teach the lesson that way? Why did he/she choose a particular resource? Why did he/she place the desks in this manner? Ask about the thinking behind everything you see and hear. Sometimes the explanation will be exactly what you expected/thought, other times you’ll be utterly shocked. Watching someone do something enough will allow you to imitate him/her, but when you understand the thinking/reasoning behind the observable actions, then you can generalize and apply for yourself. Is anyone else hearing the whispers of Bloom?

8. Keep a reflection journal.

I have no doubt your supervising professor will have you writing all manner of papers and completing mountains of paperwork to document your student teaching experience. A reflection journal is just for you though. Don’t worry about style, form, or even political correctness, just get your thoughts down. What did you see that you liked? What did you see that you didn’t like? What questions do you have? What answers did you discover? What happened that day/week that was good? What happened that wasn’t so good? What are you proud of doing/saying? What do you regret doing/saying? Besides being good for your mental health, it’s this journal that will prove the most helpful to you in the future, because this will be the true reflection of your learning and growth process. It’s also good to get in the habit now of reflecting on your teaching, examining it, and analyzing it so you can continue to improve long after there’s a professor pointing to a due date in a syllabus to motivate you.

9. Remember, your a guest, don’t undermine your CT.

I have no doubt you are brimming with ideas and excited to start stretching your teaching muscles. I also have no doubt your CT is looking forward to hearing your thoughts and getting exposed to some new techniques. Please remember though, while your CT will be welcoming and want you to feel at home, the classroom you’ll be working in is his/hers, not yours. He/she has already been there doing the hard work, building relationships, and establishing routines. He/she will remain there doing the hard work, strengthening relationships, and maintaining routines. It is also your CT who will ultimately be held accountable for anything and everything that does or does not happen in that room. So share your thoughts, ask questions, and do your job, but respect you CT’s position/authority, and don’t forget to be a good guest.

10. Be yourself.

As I’ve already said, every teacher is unique–and that includes you! You are coming to the end of a rigorous academic program and are no doubt excited about your future as a teacher. I’m sure you have worked hard and will continue to do so. I’m also sure you’ve seen some good (and not so good) teachers along the way. While it is always important to learn from those who have gone before (both their successes and mistakes) it is not good to try and follow in their footsteps to the point you become them. Be yourself, find your own style, and let all of the wonderful things that make you you shine!

Happy teaching, everyone!

Toys, Trash, or Teaching Treasures?

Last winter I was asked to present at the National Best Practices Conference. As I was considering what to present on, I thought about all of the conference presentations I’ve sat in that provided great information but weren’t practical or relevant for me. I wanted my sessions to be things teachers could use in their classrooms the very next day, ideas that didn’t require a special program or expensive equipment.

The first presentation I did was one that’s always been popular, Quick Accommodations for English Language Learners in the General Education Classroom. The second presentation was new for me though, and I decided to do a round up of some of the most popular hands-on activities and games from my classroom that utilized common classroom and household materials and recyclables. Today I’d like to share that same round up of activities with you. I’m only going to mention each briefly, but all include links to blog posts with more details.


The most popular writing lesson I’ve ever done has to be Mr. Potato Head Descriptive Writing. Students first build their Potato Head to look like anything they choose. Second, they write a description of their Potato Head with as much detail as possible. The next day, I randomly hand students a descriptive paragraph and tell them to rebuild the Potato Head, using only the information in the paragraph. The first time through students rarely use enough detail in their paragraphs to allow an accurate recreation of their Potato Heads. The second attempt always produces much more descriptive writing.

Legos have a lot of uses in the classroom, but one of our favorite ways to use them is to practice prepositions. In Lego Preposition Build, students work in pairs to create something using Legos. The first student is given a set of step-by-step picture directions (available free in the original post) and the second student is given a baseplate and container of Legos. The first student then gives oral directions to the second student, helping him/her to create the item in the directions.

Beach balls are another toy with a lot of different uses in the classroom. Since they are unlikely to cause injury or damage upon impact, students are able to throw them back and forth across the room (something they greatly enjoy doing). One of our favorite games is Beach Ball Questions. I keep a beach ball with question words written in each section in my classroom and it only takes a moment to blow it up. Students toss the ball and whatever section their right thumb lands on is the question word they must use. After asking a question, students toss the ball again, and the person who catches it must first answer the question, before asking one of their own.

Body Boggle is a great way to practice spelling, and you might be surprised at how much your older students get into the game (my male middle school and college-aged students have been known to become quite competitive while playing). Set up an alphabet grid (I always put the letters in order, though it was suggested to mimic a keyboard setup for older learners, which is genius in my opinion.) using foam letters, a rug, or sidewalk chalk if you’re outside. Give a student a word to spell (or the definition for a word you want them to state and spell), and the student then jumps from letter to letter, spelling the word. My students have come up with several variations, including team spelling, which you can read about in the original post.

In search of yet another way for my students to practice vocabulary that didn’t involve paper and pencil, I tried Magnetic Spelling out on my middle schoolers. I didn’t have high hopes for its success, but they really enjoyed it and it became a regular part of our classroom. All you need are some letter magnets, some type of metal surface to stick them to (I use cookie sheets), and a way for students to know which words to spell (I give strips with pictures or definitions of their spelling/vocabulary words). Students look at the prompt, spell the words, and then check their accuracy with me. It provides excellent spelling practice and it’s fun to see how creative students get when they run out of or can’t find a specific letter.


I wasn’t sure whether to classify this activity as “Toys” or “Trash,” since it’s a little of both. Scrambled Words, another activity we use when practicing vocabulary, uses plastic eggs, egg cartons, and Scrabble tiles. Students are given a piece of paper with pictures or definitions of vocabulary words on it and a set of numbered plastic eggs. Inside each egg is a set of Scrabble tiles that, when unscrambled, will spell one of the vocabulary words. Students unscramble the letters and write the egg number and vocabulary word next to the correct picture/definition.

Paint Can Questions is a very active and fun game. I set up a row of empty paint cans at one end of the room and give each team a set of stir sticks with questions (minus the question word) on them. Students take turns reading the question, deciding which word should start the question, running to place the stick in the correct can, and returning to their team. The game is even better if you can play it outside or in a larger room, such as a gym or cafeteria. Full directions for making the game, and a download of the questions I used, are in the original post.

Have some old magazines stashed away? Need a good prepositions formative assessment activity? Then Picture Perfect Prepositions is for you. Give students a list of 5-10 prepositions, some magazines, scissors, glue, and extra paper, and you’re ready to go. Students search the magazines for pictures to go with each preposition and write sentences to describe how the picture represents the preposition.

Appetizing Adjectives is a great activity because it uses those grocery ads you get for free each week, and it’s easy to differentiate. Students use grocery ads to find foods for each letter. They then use adjectives to describe each food (details about differentiation and requirements in the original post). The end product is a poster. Alternatively, students can use the school lunch menu to create a restaurant-style menu for the school cafeteria.

Cover Up is a popular game in my class. I have game boards to practice cause and effect, types of sentences, past continuous tense, present perfect tense, participial adjectives, and shape vocabulary. I love being able to play a game with only a gameboard (printed on cardstock) and milk jug lids. The students love being able to play with a single friend, and how there is a bit of luck involved in winning. Each board has twelve squares, one question or prompt per square. Students roll a 12-sided die (or two 6-sided dice), and answer the question in the matching square. If the square is already covered, the turn is over. The first student to cover his/her board is the winner.

Now that everything has gone digital there aren’t as many CDs and DVDs being purchased, but there are a lot of CDs and DVDs sitting around unused. I use printable CD label stickers to create a spinner with vocabulary words, questions, or other prompts on them. Spin ‘n Spell is one of our favorite games to play with these CDs. Students spin the spinner and state the vocabulary word, spell it, and use it in a sentence. Directions for building your own CD spinner are a free download.

These eleven activities are far from the only ones I use in my classroom, but they are some of the most popular. The blog is full of other games and activity ideas you can use as well. Simply search for your topic or use the categories to help you find what you’re looking for. Happy teaching, everyone!

New Teacher Classroom Purchases & Setup

Each year in May I start seeing the same basic post appearing in every teacher group I’m part of on Facebook. A newly-graduated, soon-to-be first-year teacher wants to know what he/she should be doing to prepare for the coming school year, specifically what he/she should be buying an how he/she should be decorating and setting up his/her classroom.

For a long time I scrolled by these posts thinking, “Wow! That’s great! I bet that person will make a good teacher, he/she seems really excited. I don’t really have an answer to his/her question though.” The more I thought about it, the more I realized I was wrong. I do have an answer to this question, several in fact, and I wish someone had shared this information with me when I was first starting out. So, today I’d like to share with you an open letter to all first-year/novice teachers regarding purchasing materials for and setting up your classroom.

Dear New Teacher Colleague,

Congratulations on your new job! I know you’re anxious to start buying things and planning your classroom, and I have no doubt you’ll do a great job, but could I give you some advice I wish someone had given me 20+ years ago when I first started? You see, when I see your questions about “must-haves” and “amazing” things for the classroom, I am not really sure what to say. I am not you, I don’t know your teaching style, situation, or any of the important details that go into answering that question. What I can tell you though is that I spent a lot of time and money on things that I thought were necessary and amazing, many of them recommended to me by other teachers, and much of it ended up being wasted. So, while I can’t give you a list of items to add to your wish list (though I’ll try), I would like to share with you three principles that, had I known and followed them when I first started, would have saved me a lot of time and money.

1. When decorating and setting up your classroom everything should serve one of two purposes: to further your students’ learning, to make your job as an educator easier. If it doesn’t accomplish at least one of those two things, it either doesn’t belong in your classroom or is in the wrong location. Cute, Pinterest-perfect classrooms are great, but functional classrooms where students learn and teachers teach are better. Perfectly color-coordinated themed décor makes for great photos, but it doesn’t necessarily result in student learning. Focus on enhancing student learning and making your job easier (because we all know everyone else is going to make it harder!). More on decorating with a purpose in next week’s post (including links to some free and low-cost items that have graced my classroom walls for years).

2. If you must buy things (either because you just can’t help yourself or you happen to get one of the 10 positions available with a classroom budget), stick to the storable, consumable basics. You don’t know what the school will supply, parents will supply, previous teachers will leave in the room, retiring teachers will give you, or the PTA will donate. So purchase things that won’t go bad and if they are supplied/donated you can save yours for later. Some things that would fall into this category (and the category of you-can-never-have-enough) would be: pencils, erasers, colored pencils, markers, copy paper, lined paper, dry erase markers, glue sticks, and construction paper. Look for the sales, buy as much as they’ll allow (many stores allow teachers double or triple the limit), and store it–especially pencils and erasers, the kids must eat them, it’s the only explanation for how they can go through so many… I’ll say it again, having a Pinterest-perfect classroom makes for great photos, but your perfectly themed and color-coordinated decoration won’t help much when the students have nothing to write with or on. Oh, and one last thing: as tempting as it is, don’t cheap out on the off-brands and dollar store versions. It may seem like a good deal, but the lower performance, lower quality, and lack of durability will end up costing you far more in the long run. Buy the Crayola pencils and markers, buy the Elmer’s glue sticks, the Expo markers… your sanity is worth it.

3. Take time to get to know yourself as a teacher before investing a lot of money in durable classroom supplies/decorations. I wish I’d done this, it would have saved me a lot of money! Will you have everything you want? No, but just as a young adult you don’t have a home with everything your parents have, you are a young teacher and can’t expect to have everything your veteran colleagues have. It takes time to get to know your style and needs/wants. It takes time to gather all of those supplies, games, books, etc. Stick with the basics for now: a good electric pencil sharpener, a long-arm stapler, a laminator (I recommend a cold laminator as you can cut through it without worrying about it peeling, it doesn’t require warm up time, and is very portable), a couple pairs of nice scissors, and maybe a paper cutter (guillotine). All of these things will also help you as you create and purchase task cards, games, and other manipulatives for your students. Invest the time to print, laminate, and cut them on cardstock the first time around, it’ll save you a lot of time and energy (and money) later. Other teachers in your building will be happy to loan you more durable manipulatives, games, etc. Borrow their manipulatives and games, try them out, take note of what you like and what you don’t. Then you’ll be able to make better, wiser purchases that will work for you and your students.

The fact that you’re already thinking about and planning for your classroom tells me you’re going to be great. I am truly excited to have you as a new colleague. I hope you have a wonderful and successful first year!

Happy teaching, everyone!

Digital Materials Organization

Last week I shared with you how I organize all of my games, activities, and other physical teaching materials. My obsession with materials is not limited to only the physical, I have a lot of digital teaching resources as well (54+ gigs worth at last check). The great thing about digital resources is that you can have as many as you want without taking up more physical space, they are easily portable, and they can be quickly searched. My obsession with organization also doesn’t stop with the physical, so this week I’d like to share with you how I organize my digital materials.

Before I get into the details of the organization, may I share with you a couple of lessons I learned the hard way about digital files and storage?

  1. Do not rely solely on Google Drive, Dropbox, or other cloud storage. The cloud is great, I love how I can access my materials from anywhere that has an internet connection, but the cloud also has its downsides. If you are using a school-based account, you will lose access when you change jobs, and transferring everything is not as easy as one would think. There will also be times that you need access to a file but will not have internet connectivity (power failure, teaching in a remote location, the internet goes down…). Cloud stored files are susceptible to hacking and a host of other problems. Cloud storage providers do a lot to keep your data safe, but nothing is as safe as on your own system.
  2. Do not skimp on storage when buying a laptop or other computing device. I’ve been a teacher for 20+ years and lived on my teacher salary alone for the first 16 of those years (and for more than 10 of those 16 years it was a non-profit teacher salary–that’s lower still!), I know it’s difficult. More than once I purchased a computer, getting low-end specs in the storage and RAM departments, thinking it was all I could afford. What I learned from those experiences is that you can’t afford NOT to buy at least middle of the road specs on storage and RAM, preferably the high-end. Let me give you the practical working out of this principle: my husband bought a good laptop with high-end specs for memory and RAM. He used that computer constantly (he is a software engineer after all) for over ten years without a problem. I purchased a good laptop with low-end specs for memory and RAM. I used the computer for four years and then had to buy a new one because my husband’s ten-year-old computer ran faster and better than mine, which was less than half as old! I know it’s difficult, but buy as much storage and RAM as you can.
  3. Regularly back up your system to an external hard drive or non-internet-based network storage. Before we got married, my husband set up my computer to automatically backup to an external hard drive. As long as I was connected to the drive the computer would back itself up every time I made a change to a file. I soon became annoyed by it and so simply disconnected from the hard drive. Then my computer crashed and, despite my husband’s best efforts, I lost everything. The hard drive was unrecoverable, short very expensive efforts. Thankfully I had the backup, but because I hadn’t run the backup in nearly three months, I permanently lost a lot of work. Now that I live with a techie, my computer is set to auto-backup to our internal network. The auto-backup still drives me crazy, and I’ve figured out how to keep it from constantly running, but every day when I’m tempted to cancel its run as the computer is booting up, I remember those files I lost and instead adopt a thankful attitude that my files are secure and I don’t have to think about backing them up. Having a non-internet-connected backup of my files also makes me less susceptible to viruses and ransomware. If a file becomes corrupted, or someone were to “kidnap” my data, I don’t need to worry because I have another copy the outside influence can’t touch. Do you need a setup as sophisticated as I have? No, probably not, but everyone should have some form of non-internet-based backup.

Enough of lessons learned the hard way, let’s talk about how to organize all those digital resources! The obvious answer is in a folder on your computer, and I do have a folder on my computer for teaching resources. You can call it anything you want (mine is called ESL, though it contains far more than ESL, I should probably rename it…), the important thing is that it’s a separate folder from your tax information, family photos, personal documents, and all of the other random files we save to our computers. The real magic of organization happens in the subfolders!

Inside my teaching resources folder (ESL) I have quite a few subfolders, all of which have subfolders of their own, which then have subfolders of their own. What you name your various folders is up to you, the important thing is the system makes sense to you. I’ll give you a couple of examples:

  • I was planning a lesson on the present perfect tense the other day. Here are the folders I went through: ESL–Grammar–Verbs–Tense–Present–Perfect. Inside that final folder I have several games, a video, a couple of handouts, and even a worksheet or two. Less than a minute to grab the present perfect file folder from my file cabinet, the present tense verb box from the basement shelf, and thirty seconds to open the folder on my computer–that was all it took to have every resource I own for teaching the present perfect in front of me. 90 seconds to gather several dozen resources, not bad!
  • A friend was looking for something to help a student with elapsed time. I went through these folders to find some resources for her to look at: ESL–Math–Time–Elapsed Time. There were only four files in the folder, but everyone of them related to what she needed to teach and it took me all of 30 seconds to tell her what I had available and another minute or so to email it all to her. Again, 90 seconds to share all of my digital resources with a colleague, not bad!

Most of my top layer of subfolders are labeled with major topics/subjects such as grammar, writing, reading, math, etc. The next level down gets more specific, and each following layer gets more specific still. This allows me to quickly find what I need, and I never have to worry about trying to remember what I named a specific file to find it amongst hundreds or thousands (or tens of thousands) of other files.

One interesting folder I have is my vertical file. I know I’m dating myself now, but remember the old vertical files in the library? You could find a folder with papers and resources related to just about anything in there, and I found it fascinating. My digital vertical file is similar. In it I have a sub-folder for each letter of the alphabet and it’s where I put things that I have no idea where else to put them. A lot of my science and social studies resources end up here, along with holidays, and anything that just grabs my interest. I have folders called trees, sign language, Westward Expansion, pizza… It’s kind of the junk drawer of my digital resources storage, and I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve used things I find there.

I do maintain separate folders, outside of my main teaching resources folder, for my lesson plans. I have a folder for each school I’ve ever taught at and subfolders for each year. Inside the subfolders I’ll have further folders for the different preps, photos, general documents, and files I want to save for my records. The files in these folders are generally either created in them (lesson plans) or copied and pasted from other folders (digital files of the various games and activities I use with that particular unit plan). I usually put a copy of the folder in my Google Drive so I can access it at school, and carry a copy on a flash drive as well (for when the internet goes down). This allows me to quickly access the files I need immediately and, if I’m not supplementing or planning a new unit, to have everything for each unit in one place. When I move to a new school, or get a new curriculum, I start a new folder. If I reuse a plan or material, I copy and paste it into the new folder, leaving the old folder in tact. There have been many times that I have been saved by having these old records, and also times when I’ve been able to help former colleagues out by giving them a copy of a particular unit’s folder (even though I’ve moved to a different position).

Where did I get those 54+ gigs of resources? The short answer is: from all over. Whenever I see something interesting, I stick it in a folder. If I can’t download it, I create a shortcut in the folder. Many of them are games and activities I’ve created myself over the years, but most are things I’ve found on the internet, scanned from magazines, and been given by other teachers. One great resource is Teachers Pay Teachers’ weekly newsletter (biweekly in the summer), each issue includes ten free downloads. For a long time I was teaching so many grades and so many subjects I downloaded every one of those resources (except the foreign language ones), meaning 15-20 new resources a week (there are two newsletters, one K-5 and one 6-12)! Another great way to save things you see online, especially text from websites, is the Chrome extension, Print Friendly. This free extension transforms websites into printable or savable documents, it even lets you take out parts of the website you don’t want to save (such as advertisements and random comments). If I see a website, article, or blog post I want to save, I simply click the Print Friendly icon and choose how I’d like to save it (print, pdf, or email). I can then disseminate it to my students and the attribution is taken for me because the original web address is automatically included at the top.

More good news about digital materials organization: it’s much easier and faster than physical materials organization! The time and stress saving benefits are just as great though, so I would encourage you to not put it off. Happy teaching, everyone!

Materials Organization

I have a confession to make, I am a teaching materials hoarder. After 20+ years of teaching every age imaginable, from pre-school through adult (my youngest and oldest students to date were 3 and 94), and every subject that exists (ESL teachers get to teach it all), I have A LOT of resources. I’m also afraid to get rid of anything because just as I move something to the donate pile, I end up needing it for a lesson. All of those resources are great, but they can leave my classroom/office looking like the desk to the left–a huge mess.

And when one’s workspace is a mess, it can leave you (or at least me), feeling like this:

Can anyone else relate? If so, I have good news for you! Not only am I a resource hoarder, I’m also an obsessive organizer! Over the years I’ve developed an organizational system for my various resources that means I can, within five minutes, access any resource I have for any teaching topic/theme/standard. Today I’ll share with you my system for organizing physical materials and next week I’ll address digital materials.

I know my system isn’t the only one out there, and I will be the first to admit it may not even be the best system, but it’s been working for me for over a decade now. It even helped me keep my teaching materials confined and find things when I had no classroom of my own and living in a tiny one bedroom apartment with one storage closet. What I’ve done is organized my materials so when I know what topic I want to teach, I simply grab one folder from a file cabinet and one box from a couple sets of shelves in my basement. That’s all it takes to have at my fingertips every resource I own on a particular topic.

Before I get into the details of my system, let me address the reason I don’t organize my materials by unit or month. The short answer: I teach too many different curricula. When you organize materials by units or months, you then have to remember which unit/month it was that you taught a particular topic or skill. It also means every time you get a new curriculum you’re going to have to completely redo your organizational system. Not to mention the problems that can ensue if a colleague wants to borrow something, you need to teach the same topic more than once, or to more than one group of students at different times. So for me, organizing by unit or month never made much sense because I was always digging through multiple boxes to find something, forgetting about a particular resource, and having to reorganize my boxes. Thus I changed to organization by topic.

Paper Resources

I would love to eliminate paper copies completely. In fact, I tried to do this when I made an international move. I scanned every piece of paper, carefully labeled the files, and organized my drive. I then recycled all of the paper and folders I had accumulated. I moved and made it approximately one day into my new teaching job before I started accumulating paper resources again. It’s just not practical to expect to eliminate them completely, so I set out to organize them instead.

In the “teacher area” of our basement you’ll find two full-size file cabinets. Each drawer is labeled (grammar, reading, writing, math, science, social studies…). Inside each drawer you’ll find files which are also labeled (nouns, verbs, adjectives, quotation marks, fables, book titles, multiplication, exponents, weather, Civil War…). Inside each file you’ll find all of the paper resources I’ve collected relating to that particular topic. You’ll also find copies of any photocopiable books (i.e.: Reading A-Z) and a card listing any trade books I own that relate to that topic.

If you remember the old vertical files libraries used to maintain, my file cabinets are similar to those. They provide me a place to keep original copies of worksheets (yes, even I occasionally can’t avoid them), game/activity ideas I haven’t had time to make yet, lesson plans, magazine articles I might want to read with students, and any other paper that could possibly help me when teaching that particular topic.

Games / Task Cards / Etc.

The organizing of my various games, task cards, activities, and so forth was a bit more complicated. They come in all shapes and sizes, involve pieces that don’t lay flat, and can take up a lot more room. I still organize by topic, but these are kept in plastic totes and bins of various sizes on metal shelves. Each shelf has a designated subject (ELA, math, science, social studies…) and I’m able to mix in any commercial board games or other manipulatives with the plastic storage bins. I label the bins by placing a piece of masking tape on the end and using a marker to write the topic (noun, verb, adjective, weather, family, addition, money…) on it. This means when a topic outgrows it’s current bin, I can easily transfer the materials to a larger one, peel off the label, and reuse the bin for something else. For topics that have a lot of materials (such as verbs) I will sometimes make more than one bin and label them more specifically (past tense, present tense…).

As I mentioned, I place all of my games, task cards, and other non-consumable activities in these bins. Each game/activity is kept in its own Ziploc bag along with all of the materials necessary to use it. Some of the things I place into the bags are: game board, dice, place markers, directions, original copies of recording sheets, answer keys, etc. This allows me to quickly grab a single bag and know that I have everything I need (other than extra copies of recording sheets) to implement that game/activity with my students.

Before someone gets upset with me and begins to lecture about how there’s too much plastic in the world, please hear me out on something. I have been using this system, with the same plastic totes, and the same plastic bags, for well over a decade now. I only throw them out when they become ripped and totally unusable, and that is a rare occurrence. Whenever possible I recycle materials and storage items that are no longer usable. I do my best to care for our planet, but I also try to be practical about what it takes to do this job well.

Time to Teach

Organizing by topic is great because I can always find what I need. If I am teaching a unit I’ve taught in the past, I can grab my lesson plan and just head to the basement. I then work my way down the lesson plan, pulling materials and adding them to a tote or rolling bin to take to school. At school I have a wire storage cube system with one storage box for every prep. At the beginning of a unit I load all of the materials into it. As we use materials, I toss them in a tote that goes home with me each night (or week, depending on my mood). Materials are returned to their proper storage places in the basement to await the next time I need them.

When I’m teaching a unit that is new to me, the topic organization system is again very helpful. Once I know what I am teaching, I need only grab one file folder and one tote from the basement. I then have every activity, game, book, worksheet, idea, or other material I have on that topic at my fingertips. I can look through everything, choosing the best activities and materials for my students and overall unit plan.

Does this system take an investment of time and money to set up? Yes, absolutely. Is the return on investment in time saved worth it? Yes, absolutely. Again, I’m not claiming to have the only, or even the best, system out there, but it’s one that’s worked for me for well over a decade now, so I thought I’d share it for those who are just getting started, or looking for something new to try. Happy teaching, everyone!

Since posting, I’ve had several people request photos. These aren’t the greatest, but I hope they’ll give you some idea of how I organize things. Please keep in mind it took 20+ years to accumulate this many materials. Newer teachers, don’t feel bad that you don’t have them, or like you need to buy/gather this much now. Be patient, take your time, it’ll all come with time.

The best I can do for a full view of one side/end. You’re looking at the math shelves and grammar shelves. You can see I have a variety of box sizes and other materials mixed in on the shelves.
Up close view of some of the smaller boxes on a math shelf so you can see how I label them.

Jeopardy In Slides

My students and I love playing Jeopardy. We traditionally play it using PowerPoint, but recently have had to use Google Slides instead. This lead to a lot of frustration because, unlike PowerPoint, once a link is clicked (or activated) in Google Slides, it doesn’t change color. My students would choose their category and point value, I’d click the link, they’d answer the question, we’d return to the game board, and very quickly forget which questions had been chosen. The happy ending to this story is that I have come up with a workaround for this problem and plan to share it with you today.

Ever since the start of the pandemic (and even before), teachers have been creating interactive activities in Google Slides. I myself have quite a few drag and drops, sequencing, vocabulary activities, cover up games, and other digital board games. Many teachers and students searched for a way to make these interactive activities full screen, or at least get rid of the slide sorter and make the editing area larger. I didn’t pay too much attention to these discussions at first because it wasn’t something my students and I cared about all that much. Then we started having to use Google Slides to play Jeopardy, and the problem of hyperlinks not changing colors became very annoying very fast.

My first thought was to use a cover of some kind, something simple that could be dropped over the number once it had been chosen. The problem was you can’t create or move anything on a slide when it is in present mode. Playing the game in edit mode didn’t work well because the gameboard wasn’t large enough and students could see the other slides in the slide sorter. I kept thinking, if only there was a way to make a full screen slide interactive. It was actually while I was listening to the Shake Up Learning podcast by Kasey Bell that I finally put two and two together. Kasey gave a quick tip about a chrome extension, Fullscreen Interactive Google Slides. This extension allows you to hide the slide sorter and make the editing area of Slides larger. Kasey also suggested hiding the menu bar to enlarge the area further. By combining this extension and an infinity pile of covers my problem was solved!

This is one of those things that’s easier to show than explain, so take a look at this video and I’ll do my best to explain it in writing after:

Let me explain this by starting from the beginning.

Convert PowerPoint to Google Slides

The first thing I had to do was upload my PowerPoint to Google Drive.

  1. Open Google Drive.
  2. Click New
  3. Click File Upload
  4. Navigate to your saved file, select it, click open.

Once the file is added to Google Drive, convert it to a Slides file.

  1. Right click on the file.
  2. Choose Open With….Google Slides.
  3. After the file opens, click File
  4. Choose Save as Google Slides

Make Adjustments to File

If your Jeopardy game is the like the ones I’ve made for my students, the questions and answers are on the same slide. The player (or game master) will click on the desired category and point value. This will display the question and another click will display the answer. This method of setting up the slides will not work when playing in full screen interactive mode because all slide elements are displayed at all times. Here is how I quickly (takes me about 5 minutes for a one round game) adjust my game files:

  1. Click on the first question slide.
  2. Scroll to the last question slide in the round.
  3. Hold down the shift key and click on the last question slide in round one. This will select all of the slides in that round.
  4. Copy the slides (ctrl + c)
  5. Scroll to the bottom of the slide deck.
  6. Click below the last slide.
  7. Paste the copied slides (ctrl + v). Pay attention to the number of the first pasted slide, you’ll need this later.
  8. Scroll back to the first slide in round one.
  9. Delete the answer from the slide.
  10. Draw a shape of some kind (I like the beveled rectangle).
  11. Add the word “Answer” to the shape and format it to your liking.
  12. Copy the answer button.
  13. Click on the next slide (the second question in the round).
  14. Delete the answer and paste the button you just created and copied.
  15. Continue deleting answers and pasting the button until you’ve done every slide in the round.
  16. If necessary, repeat the steps for round two (Double Jeopardy).
  17. Return to the first question of round one and click on the answer button.
  18. Click on the insert link button from the tool bar (looks like two links in a chain).
  19. Click Slides in this presentation.
  20. Choose the first answer slide (you should have noted the number of it in step 7).
  21. Click apply.
  22. Click on the next slide (the second question in the round) and link it to the next answer slide by following steps 18-21 again but adding 1 to the slide number you select.
  23. Continue until all answer buttons have been linked to the correct answer slide (your last answer slide should be the last slide in your presentation).

Create Cover Pile

  1. Scroll to the game board slide.
  2. Choose a rectangle tool and draw a rectangle over the first 100. Drawing on the game board helps you to ensure the size is correct.
  3. Format the rectangle however you choose.
  4. Drag the rectangle to the side and drop it in the gray work area.
  5. Copy the rectangle (ctrl+c).
  6. Paste the rectangle (ctrl+v) as many times as you have questions (or just do 30-40 of them).
  7. Select all of the rectangles.
  8. Click Arrange – Align – Center.
  9. Click Arrange – Align – Middle.
  10. Drag your pile of rectangles to the side so they are close to the board but not covering any spaces.

Add the Chrome Extension

  1. Go to the chrome store and find the Fullscreen Interactive Google Slides extension.
  2. Add it to chrome.
  3. Go back to your Jeopardy game.
  4. Click on the extension icon at the top of the screen (looks like a puzzle piece).
  5. Click on the Fullscreen Interactive Google Slides extension.
  6. Click the up arrow to hide the menu bar.

*If you need more help with how to do this, check out Kasey Bell’s helpful tutorial.

Play the Game

  1. Before students arrive, have the game set to interactive full screen mode (open it and activate the extension) and sitting on the game board slide.
  2. Once students choose a category and point value, click on it, and click the link that appears below it.
  3. You can then click on “Answer” and the link that appears below it to reveal the answer.
  4. Click the arrow (or game board button, whatever you’re game uses to return to the game board) and the link that appears below it to return to the game board.
  5. Drag and drop a rectangular cover over the used space.
  6. The next team is then able to make their selection from the remaining choices.

Does this solve all of the problems we have experienced playing Jeopardy in Google Slides? No, but it does solve the biggest one: keeping track of which questions have already been chosen. I hope you’ll find it useful as well. Happy teaching, everyone!

Authentic Open Book Assessments?

This semester I’ve heard a lot of discussion about test formats, cheating, and all things related to assessment integrity. These are all very valid discussions, and we are certainly facing some new circumstances in regards to assessing our students. One question that I didn’t worry about with my students was, “How do I keep them from looking at their textbook/notes while taking a test?” I didn’t worry about it, because it’s been years since I gave closed books tests (except when required by state/school regulations, of course). While I don’t claim to have all the answers, I’d like to explain my reasoning for this particular policy in my classroom.

The short answer is, I think open book/note tests are more authentic. By that, I mean that they more closely mimic the circumstances students will be expected to perform under in the real world. (As an aside, this is also my rational behind my no late work policy and exceptions, as well as a few other classroom procedures/policies.) I will admit that my work experience outside of education is more limited than most, but I have held several different jobs that had absolutely nothing to do with education. I have also held a variety of education-related positions, for a plethora of different schools/organizations, and at various levels. So while my work experience may be more limited than others’, it is far from non-existent. One thing that I have always experienced, and observed in the work experience of family and friends who aren’t educators, is that it is extremely rare that one is required to complete a task with nothing but the knowledge that exists in one’s head. Rather, what commonly occurs is that one is given a task to complete and an amount of time within which to competently complete it. Occasionally further parameters will be set, such as allowable or required materials or a budget, but rarely is one told that one may not use whatever resources are available. In short, your boss expects that you will use available resources to produce quality (or at least competent) results in a (hopefully) reasonable time frame.

I believe a test can mimic this real-world situation:

  • quality (competent) product = correct answers on an assessment
  • reasonable time frame = amount of time given to complete assessment
  • available resources = textbooks, notes, and even (dare I say it?) the internet

Of course to produce this quality product in a reasonable time frame, students will not (or at least should not) be able to look up every answer in a book, notes, or even Google. When I give open book/notes tests, I do not give unlimited time. I give a reasonable amount of time. If students do not have at least a basic level of knowledge in their heads, they will never be able to finish enough of the assessment to receive a passing grade. The more knowledge they have in their heads, the more time they’ll be able to spend transferring that knowledge to the paper, thus resulting in a higher grade.

Another factor that allows me to confidently assess students using this open book model is the type of assessments I give. It is rare that I pass out multiple choice, matching, or even fill-in-the-blank assessments. I prefer assessments that are, at minimum, short answer or essays. This means students have to express their knowledge in their own words, they can’t simply Google the question and write a one or two word response (or circle a single letter). Let’s take the listening course that I taught last semester as an example. I am required to assess students’ listening comprehension skills, grammar skills, and vocabulary skills. In order to do this I could use the standard test produced by the curriculum company that has vocabulary and definition matching questions, short listening passages with basic comprehension questions, and fill-in-the blank questions for grammar. Instead, I use TED Talks. I find a TED Talk that is related to the themes we’ve been studying, or is something that will be interesting to my students. I then design a series of comprehension questions that require different levels of responses. Students are required to listen to the TED Talk and write complete sentence answers for each question. With one TED Talk, and 7-10 questions, I’m able to assess all the required skills:

  • Listening Comprehension: some questions are factual in nature, others require evaluations or opinions, if students understand what the speaker said, they’ll be able to answer the questions. This last semester I had one student who had great answers to all of the questions, but the answers were all expressing something in direct opposition to the speaker’s main point. It was very obvious that the student had understood some of the speech, but not much.
  • Grammar: because all answers are written in complete sentences, I can easily see if students can express themselves using proper grammar or not. Since none of the questions are worth a single point, I’m able to take off a point, or more, for poor grammar, and give feedback to help the student improve.
  • Vocabulary: I will admit that it is rare that I find a TED Talk that uses most, or even many, of the specific vocabulary words we’ve discussed in our units. This would be a problem if I believed that knowing those specific words was the most important part of our vocabulary instruction. It’s not. I actually think vocabulary skills, such as context clues, are much more valuable than a specific list of words (before you start emailing and commenting with all the reasons why students need to learn specific words, please look at the vocabulary section of my blog. I do teach specific words, especially academic vocabulary, and I even test it.). I often include questions that ask students to define specific words/terms from the talk, or to give their opinion relating to them. This allows me to assess what I really want to know: can you understand, and communicate in relation to, the overall message, even if you don’t know every word.

My summative assessments were timed (my school uses Blackboard, which allows for timed tests), but they also had four formative assessments of this type, all of which were untimed. In my opinion this too is more authentic. It is rare that you have to give a big presentation to a client, release a new piece of software, or begin selling a new product without having some sort of practice with it first. The practice may be on a much smaller scale, or with a slightly different product, but you get the opportunity to do a trial run of some kind before the final release. This is why I prefer to not give summative assessments that do not mimic or contain pieces of formative assessments from the previous unit(s).

As I said in the beginning, I don’t claim to have all the answers. I’m not even claiming to have the best answer to this particular question! This is just the approach to assessment that I’ve developed/used over the last decade or so, and it seems to work well for me. Every time I’ve had the opportunity to explain it to an administrator or parent, he/she has affirmed the logic and ultimately supported my approach. Students have all been receptive as well (how much explanation I offer or give in response to questions depends on the age of the student, but I’ve used this method with students from third grade through college); and while I’m sure at the beginning they were just happy to get “easier” tests, I know by the end they really appreciated how much learning they had to demonstrate. It’s not a method that I would force onto anyone else, but it does work for me, and I encourage you to consider if, or how, it could fit with your own personal teaching style. Happy teaching, everyone!

ELLs Can Common Core

There is an erroneous idea floating around educational circles. Not everyone believes this, but many do, and some unconsciously allow this idea to affect their lesson planning and teaching. It is the idea that English language learners (ELLs) can’t meet the Common Core (or any) State Standards. As we discussed in my last post about accommodating ELLs, the vast majority of ELLs have grade level knowledge and abilities, the only thing they lack is the ability to express their knowledge in English. They CAN meet Common Core Standards, they simply need to do it in a different way.

In order to assist our colleagues in their instruction of ELLs (because as was also addressed in my last post, the vast majority of the work falls on the general classroom teacher, the ESL teacher is there to assist), a fellow ESL teacher and I developed a reference tool. We took the Common Core State Standards for K-8 (we were at a K-8 school) ELA and the WIDA Can Do Descriptors and combined them into a chart (available via the download button on the left). For those who are not familiar, the WIDA Can Do Descriptors “highlight what language learners can do at various stages of language development” (taken from the WIDA website). In other words, they describe what ELLs are able to do at various proficiency levels to communicate their knowledge in English. 

Within the document you will find a page (there are 358 pages, so I wouldn’t recommend trying to download it to a phone) for each of the CCSS ELA standards. On each page you will find the standard, the cognitive function (I can) statements for that standard, a chart showing the reading/listening and writing/speaking can do descriptors for each of the five WIDA levels (level 6 is considered grade level proficient), and academic vocabulary words relating to the standard. If a teacher has an ELL, he/she is able to look up the standard that will be taught in a given lesson, find the student’s proficiency level in the chart, and read the can do descriptors for how that student can demonstrate competency with that standard. This not-so-little document has unequivocally become the most helpful, most requested, most beloved teaching resource I’ve ever created. 

The good news, if you haven’t already discovered it, is the document is available for download with this post. You can click the download button above to get a PDF version for yourself. Remember, it is over 300 pages long and 2.81 MB in size, so you might not want to try this on a phone. Feel free to download, print, use, and share with your colleagues. All we ask is that you please give proper attribution. While the standards and the can do descriptors aren’t ours, the alignment and formatting are, and it was a lot of work to put together. The bad news is no, there is no document for grades 9-12. I always meant to create it (my colleague was our little people expert, so this is my fault, not hers), but never got around to it. The highest grade I taught after WIDA came to our state was 9th, and I just referenced the 8th grade standards for them. Then a couple years ago I migrated to the college level and haven’t done much with Common Core or WIDA since. 

Since I don’t want to leave you on a negative point, I’d like to share with you about another resource that my middle school colleagues may find useful. I spent most of my K-12 career in middle school (and loved it, I still miss it), and one of the greatest needs my students had was academic vocabulary. I was the ESL teacher who believed my students could understand and use the “difficult” vocabulary if someone just took the time to teach it to them. Hence my new arrivals knew words such as “consequences,” “appropriate,” and “stupendous” before they knew much more basic vocabulary. Since I couldn’t find a way to fit all of the academic vocabulary into general everyday interactions (I may have been known to use behavioral correction discussions as opportunities to teach parts of speech: “What verb did I ask you to use? What verb were you demonstrating? What adverb did I use to describe the verb? What adverb did you demonstrate?”), I developed a program to explicitly teach the CCSS academic vocabulary words for grades 5-8. The program only took about fifteen minutes a day to implement, but by the end of the year my students had learned 150+ academic vocabulary words, and were much less intimidated by standardized tests. I also developed a context clues game to practice these words. There are buttons below to link you to these resources if you think they’d be helpful for your students. Happy teaching everyone, and remember: ELLs Can Common Core!

Accommodating ELLs

We are now a month (or more) into another school year and that means it is time for the annual struggle to begin. There are many annual struggles in education, but the one I’m considering today is the one that I have been most involved in over the years: the struggle between the ESL teacher and the classroom teacher over accommodations for English language learners (ELLs). A big part of my job as an ESL teacher involves helping ELLs succeed in their content classes. I do this through various means such as providing teachers with resources (such as my CCSS-old WIDA I Can Statement alignment), finding alternate readings, pre-teaching vocabulary, working with students on projects, helping adjust tests, etc. But the real work ultimately falls on the classroom teacher, and classroom teachers are the busiest and hardest working people in education (except maybe school secretaries–they truly make the education world go round!).  I completely understand the tendency towards just translating materials, getting bilingual paras to translate classroom discussions, and generally relying on a student’s first language. It’s easier on the teacher, it’s easier on the student, the teacher is happier, the student is happier…what’s the problem?

The problem is that while I agree, it is easier and it does (at least in the short-term) make everyone happier, it is not the best thing for the student in the long term. Students need to learn English. Yes, they also need to learn math, science, history, etc., but ultimately their greatest need is to learn English. Consider the big picture. This student has moved to our country and intends to live here for the rest of his/her life. In order to have a future, he/she will need to be able to speak English. Yes, he/she also needs to be able to read and write, do basic math, and understand science, etc., but he/she needs to be able to do all of this in English. When this student finishes high school and wants to go to college, he/she can take remedial math courses if needed, but those courses will be in English. If the student decides to go into a trade, he/she may be able to find an apprenticeship in his/her first language, but what kind of a customer base will he/she be able to establish without being able to speak English? If he/she goes into the military, what language will orders be given in? English. The most crucial educational need ELLs have is to learn English, everything else flows from that. Therefore, we need to do whatever it takes to help these students learn English, while also helping them take in as much of the content as possible. 

As I’ve already acknowledged, an ESL teacher’s job is to help content area teachers in this effort, but the bulk of the work is going to fall on general education teachers. I’ve also already acknowledged that general education teachers are extremely hardworking and lacking in one key resource: time. Knowing all of this, when I was asked to put together a professional development on ESL for teachers, I decided to focus on accommodations for the general education classroom. More specifically, I decided to focus on accommodations that I knew worked and did not take much time to implement. In fact, most of the accommodations in this post take less than five minutes (many of them less than 1 minute) to implement. (Attached to this post is a Google Slides version of the presentation I developed for professional development presentations. In it you’ll find many helpful examples and illustrations of these accommodations.)

1. Slow Down
When learning a language it’s not just the tongue that needs to be trained, the ears have to be trained as well. Our ears are attuned to specific sounds and speech patterns, any deviation and we have to work harder to understand what we’re hearing. Think about when you speak to someone with a different accent than your own. I don’t mean someone who is not a native speaker of English, I mean think about when you have to listen to another native speaker from a different region or country (see slide 2 of the presentation for examples). You can understand them, but it takes more work, doesn’t it? You may even find yourself asking that person to slow down a little because the slower the speech the more time you have to process it.

2. Extend Wait Times
Another factor that we often fail to consider is how many times an ELL, especially a low proficiency ELL, has to process information. First he has to hear the information in English. Second, he has to search the English for words he knows. Third, he has to “translate” the information into his first language and determine what the question might be. Fourth, he has to search his brain for an answer/response in his first language. Fifth, he has to translate the response into English. Sixth, he has to communicate his response. All of this takes time. Do you know the average teacher wait time? One and a half seconds. Think back to your educational training, what is the minimal wait time for improved learning for all students? Three to five seconds. Try an experiment: start talking to a friend or family member, after finishing a sentence, stop and wait for four seconds (time it with your watch). I’m willing to be it will be longer than you expect and there’s a better than decent chance the person you’re talking to will start talking. Remember, this four seconds is for your average student, your ELLs need a minimum of ten seconds. Try to wait that long in a conversation and see what happens, I dare you! Make this easier on yourself and give students something to do while they wait. Tell them up front that you don’t want anyone to raise a hand until you give a signal, and encourage students to write their responses on white boards or scrap paper to help them think.

3. Enunciate
Remember how we talked about our ears needing to be trained as well as our tongues? You can help your ELLs with this process by doing one simple thing: enunciate. Pronounce the complete word, don’t slur your words together. This helps your ELLs to more easily hear vowel sounds, word breaks, and other finer points of language. Don’t go overboard, you want to model good pronunciation and natural speech, but speak clearly. Think of an actor, they have to enunciate to make their speech clear for large audiences (see slide 3 for an example–President Reagan wasn’t speaking slowly, but he was pronouncing every word deliberately and clearly). This same principal of pronouncing each word deliberately and clearly helps ELLs hear syllables, multiple letters, and other idiosyncrasies of the English language.

4. Visualize
Almost all teachers put the objective, or at least the topic for the day’s lesson on the board. It’s good teaching practice. Here’s an example: Efni dagsins er veðrið. Ready to learn? No? Why not? The topic is right there, I even used first grade level vocabulary. What if I drew a picture of the sun peaking out from behind the clouds (see slide four)? Can you at least make a guess as to what we’ll be talking about? With the addition of one picture (and an easy one that even a non-artist such as me can draw in seconds), you are at least able to figure out the topic of the lesson and start activating your prior knowledge. A simple rule of thumb: if you can add a picture (or clipart), do it. Pictures are key; it’s not unusual for ELL to be completely lost with very easy vocabulary or concepts, but as soon as they see a picture her face lights up and she starts exclaiming in her first language a translation or explanation. Put pictures everywhere: on charts, posters, word walls, etc. 

5. Subtitles
When you show a video, turn on the English subtitles. This not only helps when the speaking gets going to fast for your ELLs, it provides a visual support for the language helping them improve their reading and better segment sounds into individual words. It will also help your native English speaking students catch important information when background noise or music makes words indistinct or hard to hear. If you want to experience the difference this can make, look at slide five in the presentation for an example.

6. Repeat, Repeat, Repeat
You know you’re going to have to say it all again anyway, don’t wait for that one student in the back to wake up and ask you what you just said, say it again now. Research has shown that it takes an average of ten separate meetings of a new word in context for us to truly learn it and its usage. I’m going to say that again–IN CONTEXT. Yes, that means what you think it does, all those hours spent looking up words in dictionaries and copying the definitions truly were worthless. Rather than inflicting that same pointless torture on your students, spend the time explicitly teaching them strategies such as context clues and text features. Then expose them to vocabulary rich texts and environments. Also keep in mind that ten contextual exposures is a minimum for ELLs, and is increased for words that are challenging such as homonyms, idioms, and abstract terms that have changed meaning through the years. See slides six and seven of the presentation for examples of how I make this fun for my students. You can also look at my blog post Vocabulary Activities for examples of how I provide less context-rich exposure to vocabulary in an effort to speed up its acquisition.

7. Kinesthetic Learning
We already know that the more senses we involve, the greater the learning. This is magnified for ELLs because the auditory methods and written text (often the foundation of our visual methods after kindergarten) are all but useless for them, especially in the beginning. So what do we do? Active learning! Get them actively doing something; manipulating words, playing with language, and creating things that communicate. This is why math and science are generally an ELL’s best subjects, we use a lot of manipulatives and do a lot of lab activities. Slides eight, nine, and ten of the presentation have several examples of this (and activities I like to use) on them. My blog (which you’re already reading!) is also filled with games and other activities for playing with words and grammar (and even a few math an science activities).

8. Story Time
Read to them, all of them. I read picture books to my middle school students and they loved it. I read picture books to my college students and they love it. All ages like to be read to and all ages can benefit from it. Research tells us that ELLs need to be read to as much as six times more than native speakers! It helps them with their intonation, fluency, and pronunciation, among other things (including context-rich vocabulary exposure). Look into and invest in good picture books for your subject such as Scholastic’s Grammar TalesMagic School Bus books, or the Sir Cumference series. There are lots of picture books out there for all subjects, and don’t forget to read some just for the fun of it!

9. Scaffold
This one is going to take a little longer, but it’s something you have to do anyway. Prior knowledge is absolutely essential. The good news is that many ELLs have grade level knowledge, they just don’t have it in English. If you can find a way to access that knowledge, it will help a lot. An ideal lesson should present a new concept or new vocabulary, never both (enlist the ESL teacher to help you pre-teach vocabulary by giving him/her a list and a couple weeks notice). If you must teach new vocabulary and new content simultaneously expect it to take two to three times longer, and know that neither may not actually be conveyed at this time. 

10. Love Them
You love all your students, but love on your ELLs a little extra. Love translates to any language. I can’t count the number of moms who speak absolutely zero English and have quite literally nothing in common with me, but they come to school and give me the biggest, tightest hugs ever. Why? They know I love their children. I can also tell you story after story of students who were terrors for every other teacher but were eager to learn with me; or students who sat in chairs shaking with teachers who were beloved by all, but clung to my hand and refused to leave my side even when I would discipline them and force them to do things they didn’t want to do. Why? They knew I loved them. Not that their other teachers didn’t, I just had the extra time to spend with them (because I’m not a general classroom teacher and didn’t have 30 other little voices calling for my attention) and did. Love them, even when they are hard to love, and you will reap great dividends! But watch out, they just might steal your heart. 😉

July, 2022 update:

I’ve had several requests for an easy to distribute summary or tip sheet of this information. This one page pdf is a quick and easy document that you are welcome to print and distribute to your colleagues. Happy teaching, everyone!

How to Use a PDF Game Digitally

Today I’ve been working on figuring out how to use some of my existing paper-based resources with my fully digital classes. Most of the resources I use in a typical semester are things I’ve created myself, but I do have a decent number of resources that I’ve gotten from other sources and really like. It’s how to use those resources that ​were created by other people that’s been giving me fits lately. My own things were easy, I have all the original files and was able to edit and convert as needed. Not so much with those that came from other sources. For some of the activities I ended up creating something brand new (like my Context Clue Connect Four Digital Game, blog post coming soon), but I don’t have time to create something to replace all of my existing games and activities (and I really like some of them). Today I figured out how to use all of those great PDF games I have!

My first thought was to copy and paste the part of the PDF document that I wanted. Nope, didn’t work, couldn’t select anything. Second, I tried opening the PDF in Adobe Photoshop Elements, but that didn’t work either. Finally, I remembered seeing a video about how to create editable text from a non-editable PDF. In the video the presenter talked about using the Snipping Tool to take a screenshot of part of the PDF. I decided to try it, and it worked! I just searched for Snipping Tool on my computer and it came right up. I clicked on New, drew a box around the part of the PDF I wanted, and saved the image to my computer. 

Now that I had the game board the rest was easy. I opened a new PowerPoint file, resized the slide to be 17×11 (click on Design, Slide Size, Custom), and started designing. First, I built my title slide. Having a title slide isn’t necessary, but I like to put one there so I can quickly know what game I’m looking at in my Google Drive. Second, I added a second blank slide and inserted the image of the game board I snipped earlier (Insert, Pictures, This Device). Third, I inserted a text box and typed out step-by-step directions for students to follow when they played the game. Finally, I put in the Teach This logo (I am very strict with my students about plagiarism and wanted to be sure to give proper credit to the creator of the game board.) and my own Gaming Grammarian logo. 

Why did I do all of this work in PowerPoint when the game is going to be played as a Google Slide? Simple, protection from accidental or accidentally-on-purpose edits by students. I design all unmovable parts of my digital activities in PowerPoint or Publisher and save them as images. To save these slides as images I clicked File, Save As, my destination folder, and chose .jpeg as my file type. PowerPoint will then ask if you want just the one slide, or all of them. If you choose all slides PowerPoint will create a new folder and place all of your slide images inside it.

It was now time to put everything into Google Slides. I opened a new Slides presentation in my Google Drive and named it. Since I only have two slides in this game I didn’t bother with the Slides Toolbox add-on, but I highly recommend it for when you have a large number of slides to upload as backgrounds. With only two slides it was just as easy to right click on the white background, choose Change Background, Choose Image, and navigate to where PowerPoint had stored my backgrounds. After adding my title slide I added a blank slide (click the + button) and repeated the process to add the game board. Now there were only three things left to do:

  1. I drew a circle, copied and pasted three more times, and changed the colors so I’d have four different playing pieces for the students.
  2. I drew boxes over the two logos, made the boxes transparent with transparent borders and linked (use the button that looks like a chain) each logo to the appropriate website.
  3. Add the dice.

There are a lot of options out there for dice, but most of them involve going off to another site, and many of my students struggle with moving between tabs on the computer. To avoid these problems, as well as the distractions that inevitably arise from students moving around the web, I use a special script that my husband wrote for me. The Dice Script adds a menu item to Google Slides that says “Dice.” The script doesn’t actually add pictures of dice, and nothing moves on the screen, but it does produce a random number between one and six. My students don’t mind not having actual dice at all and find using the menu to be quite easy. If you are interested in how I add the script I’ve made a video showing the step-by-step process:

Once I hit the reload button (to activate the script, you only have to do this after installing the script the first time), I was ready to play. To allow my students to play the game I make a copy for each group of four students (so they won’t all be playing on the same file and because I never let my students have access to my original files). Each copy is then shared, with editing rights, with the four students who will play it, and we are ready to go. The students open the file using the share link and are automatically in the same file. Remember, the file must remain in editing mode during the game! If the file is put in present mode the game pieces will become unmovable and students will lose access to the dice menu. Students can talk to one another via our virtual meeting platform (we’re using Blackboard Collaborate) or through the built in chat feature found in all Google Apps. In class I wander from group to group, listening in and helping as needed. Digitally I jump in and out of breakout rooms. If I wanted to be able to check all the sentences my students use I could use the comment feature. Tell students that on each turn they need to right click on the square where their piece is, click Comment, and type out their sentence before clicking Comment again. That will create a record of all sentences that can be viewed later.

I have to say, this is a game-changer for me! The list of resources that needed to be either converted to digital or replaced with something new was starting to depress me. Now I feel re-energized and excited about the rest of the semester.

Want this game for yourself? Click on the picture above or the button below. The link is a template link, you’ll be able to see a preview of the game and choose whether or not to click the “Use Template” button. Please note, the dice script needs a little longer to load, it may be as long as 30-60 seconds before it appears. The exact length of loading time depends on your connection.