Each of us develops our own theory of teaching and learning, consciously or not.  It’s based on our own experiences as students, our training, the influence of our peers, our teaching context, and our teaching experiences.  At our next Reflective Practice Group gathering, we’ll explore our beliefs about teaching and learning, and look at some of the widely-promulgated lists of DO’s and DON’Ts.

Before you come, please think about your personal philosophy of teaching:  What makes you cringe when you see a teacher doing it?  What makes you sad when a student talks about their previous learning experiences?  What do you think about these and other questions:

  • the teacher using the students’ L1 (first language)
  • students using their L1
  • correcting students’ errors
  • assigning homework
  • where the teacher stands (or do you sit or squat?)
  • the challenge level of reading material
  • student interaction
  • teacher authority
  • learner autonomy
  • always….
  • never….

Please join our Reflective Practice Group for ESL practitioners.  All are welcome: teachers, aides, pre-service teachers…

Date:            Sunday, March 5th

6:30pm         Refreshments & Social time (Bring something small to share)

7-9 pm          Reflective Workshop

Where:         Canal Alliance, 91 Larkspur Street, San Rafael (Upstairs in Bldg. 86)


Sign up here to drive or ride in a car pool.     Parking is challenging; please contact me for parking information and a parking pass:


Teachers from around the San Francisco Bay Area, participants in our 2-year old Reflective Practice Group, complete the thought  “Reflecting in a Community of Practice …..”,  our Holiday Greeting to other reflective practice groups and teachers around the world, and especially to teachers in Dnipro, Ukraine, who’ve just begun meeting as a new RPG, guided by Zhenya Polosatova .  And I want to express my personal gratitude to Zhenya, and to Josette LeBlanc and  Michael Griffin in Korea; without them we might not have launched the SF Bay Area RPG, and even if we had, I’m sure we might have run out of ideas!  Instead, we have a solid community of practicing “reflectors”, always eager to come together and share, which enriches our personal and professional lives.  THANK YOU ALL!

Reflecting in a Community of Practice…





Everyone who came to last Sunday’s meeting about teaching multi-level classes seemed genuinely eager and hopeful about getting some practical ideas to address this challenging reality!  And by the end of the evening, we all came away with lots of new, concrete ideas to implement immediately!

That is one of the magical aspects of reflecting in community, as we do at our monthly RPG meetings:  It’s like a stone soup:  each individual may feel they have very little to offer:  unanswered questions, needs and frustrations.  But as we share and reflect together, it turns out that the rich variety of experiences and wisdom contributed by each person yields a rich, varied, complex soup that none of us could have cooked up alone.

stone soup

The experience of reflecting in this way can’t be replaced or simulated by reading about the topic we reflected on.  That would be about as satisfying as reading a restaurant review:  you had to be there in person to enjoy the nuanced fragrances and complex flavors of the soup as we stirred and simmered and tasted and seasoned and tasted again…

So I hope you’ll be able to join us for the next RPG meeting!



At our next Reflective Practice Group gathering we will have two special guest facilitators and a panel of speakers:


Sunday, March 20th      ***       6:30-9:00 pm

  • In the first half of the evening, we will explore unconscious assumptions and judgments we may have about immigrants that can get in the way of seeing who our students really are, hindering our effectiveness as their teachers. This workshop will be facilitated by Melisandra Leonardos, a specialist in education diversity,  SIT-TESOL alumna, Canal Alliance teacher, and RPG member, based on her experiences with theUNtraining.
  • In the second half of the evening, there will be a panel discussion with individuals who grew up in the East San Rafael community and have lived the experience of our students, but who also have been on “the other side” and get along in the world that many teachers inhabit. The panel discussion will be moderated by Martin Steinman, immigrant rights activist and ESL Manager at the Canal Alliance.

Our RPG meetings are free, and open to anyone who is interested.  Bring a colleague! We meet at the Canal Alliance, 91 Larkspur Street, in San Rafael, CA.  (Upstairs in the “86 Building” across the parking lot from the main offices.)  I hope to see you on March 20th!  (Please RSVP)




2016-01-03 20.44.08

Hello Reflective Teachers!

We were asked to combine the Canal Alliance’s Spring Orientation training session with our RPG meeting next Sunday evening (Jan 10th).

So there will be two changes:

1. We’ll begin and end earlier:

6-6:30 Social/Snacks

6:30-7:30 Workshop

2. The topic has been changed to the following:

“Backwards Planning” a Communicative Speaking Lesson from a Textbook

Our textbooks are designed for a generic, hypothetical student. But our students are real people!  At our January 10th RPG meeting, we will explore “backwards planning” of a communicative speaking lesson, tailored to our students’ knowledge and needs, based on our textbooks, with an interactive speaking task as the final objective.  The workshop will begin with a short demo lesson. Then, in small groups of teachers who teach the same level, we will use the same approach to plan a lesson, adapting what’s in the textbook. This session is relevant for classroom aides, as well.

We will return to the original topic (Multi-Level Classes, Early Finishers & Grouping Strategies) at our February 7th meeting.

Please RSVP!  415-717-3568

Location:  Canal Alliance, 91 Larkspur Street, San Rafael (Upstairs in Bldg. 86)

Email to request parking info, or sign up to carpool:


Some classes are officially “multi-level,” but most teachers agree that every class is a multi-level class.

How do you address students’ individual needs?  How do you support the lower-level students while continuing to challenge the early finishers? How does classroom set-up fit in to your strategy? How do you use pair- and group-work?

Bring ideas and questions to reflect together with peers.  And to get your juices flowing, take a look at this post by my colleague Zhenya in Ukraine, about Early Finishers.

Everyone is welcome.

Please RSVP: (415)717-3568

Sunday, Jan 10     This topic has been rescheduled for February 7, 2016

6:30-7 Social & snacks (bring something small to share)

7-9       Workshop

Canal Alliance, 91 Larkspur Street, San Rafael (Upstairs in Bldg. 86)

Parking Info (attached) or sign up to carpool:

I hope to see you there.  And if you can’t come, stay tuned for a follow-up post about what we did and discovered.


Lesson Planning Time:  How can we make it shorter, more efficient, and productive? will be the topic for our November 8th Reflective Practice Group meeting.  In preparation, I thought I’d write about a reflective experiment I did a few years ago to  figure out why I was spending so many hours planning lessons.  Fortunately, I kept a reflective journal, so it’s easy for me to recreate it here. (I also searched the reflective practice blogosphere for others’ wisdom on the subject; scroll down for links at the end of this post.)

My first paid teaching gig was a half-time job, but I basically spent all my waking hours preparing for the next day’s classes.  When I mentioned this to my boss, she laughed it off, saying that when she started teaching ESOL, she calculated that, taking lesson planning time into consideration, she was only earning $5/hour.  It seems to be a given that conscientious new teachers, especially if they’ve been through a teacher training course, devote an unsustainable amount of time to lesson planning.


A reflective approach to understanding my Lesson Planning time


A few years ago, I decided to keep a log of exactly what I was doing during my planning time, and then after teaching the lesson, compare things that worked in class with the planning process associated with them.  I hoped that I could identify planning time that didn’t pay off:  either it led to problematic implementation, didn’t help students learn, or the “fruits” of that block of planning time weren’t even used in class.  Ideally, the post-teaching reflection on my pre-teaching “process” would allow me to identify what to eliminate, what to keep, and how to make it all more efficient and shorter.

When I sat down to plan a lesson for 25 +/- adult beginners, I set an alarm to go off every ten minutes, and each time I made a note about what I had been doing.  It was difficult to admit, even to my private journal, what I was actually doing with most of that time.

Winnie-the-Pooh looking at his stomach

The bulk of it went to:

  • –   Dreaming up activities, sequencing and allocating minutes to each of them
  • –   Trying to squeeze in more activities, re-sequencing and re-allocating time
  • –   Searching the web for images
  • –   Designing new materials: formatting them, inserting pictures, etc.
  • –   Fussing with the layout and wording of my lesson plan
  • –   Fussing with the printer
  • –   Cutting, collating, and paper-clipping worksheets, flash cards, etc.

Then I hauled all my materials to class, and taught the lesson.  Of course, I was teaching in the swampy lowland,” where the reality of students’ readiness, responses and ingenuity cast a new light (or shadow) over the lesson I’d planned. During class, I did a lot of reflecting-in-action, regretting some of my earlier decisions, using some materials differently than I’d planned, and in general, not adhering to the letter of the lesson plan.  Notwithstanding the disappointments and frustrations, some parts of the lesson worked well, and I could see evidence of learning happening!


When I got home, I reflected on the whole lesson, doing a quick handwritten Experiential Learning Cycle reflection for each step (Description, Analysis, Generalization and Action Plan) This reflection was focused on equating what happened in the classroom with what happened during planning.  Here are some excerpts from my journal:

Description:  Generated Qs & As (Yes-No) on board, referring to chart, using new pics as prompts.  Took a long time for Ss to get the hang of it.

Analysis:  1) All the pieces of paper, too many & too slow to move. Could have just referred to the chart handout.  2) The picture prompts weren’t flexible, were unwieldy, made it hard to make my “prompt” intentions clear.

Generalization: It never helps to have a zillion pieces of paper and pics to move around on board. Put a clear model up, then find simpler ways to prompt.

Action Plan:  Decide in advance to only use existing materials – at most generate a poster model, but no moving parts on board.  Prompts:  dice or toss a coin.

When I looked back at the log of how I spent my planning time, a hefty portion of it was on producing the materials which, like in the activity described above, turned out to be unhelpful, inflexible and confusing during the lesson!

Here’s part of another journal entry, about an activity using Cuisenaire rods to teach the syntax of questions and answers:

I worried beforehand that the rods would be too abstract, but afterwards I don’t see it as abstract at all. Quite the contrary:  students did a great job; the rods are very concrete & reliable, far more so than the words & phrases they represent.  During the activity, when it occurred to me to add in sentences using vocab & concepts from previous units, I wasn’t sure how they’d respond. When I wrote “Is he hot?” there was a momentary stunned silence, and then very quickly, most students figured out what to do with the rods to form an answer.  I could feel their collective “Ah hah! I get it!”

In my post-teaching reflection, I realized that because I didn’t create fixed materials for this Cuisenaire rods activity, I had the flexibility during class to add something I hadn’t planned, generating a magical learning moment for students!

Planning in blocks of time

Other things I changed about my lesson planning, as a result of this experiment:  I was driving myself crazy trying to squeeze favorite activities into little segments of 6½ minutes, 4 mins, and so on. When I wanted to add one, I’d try to steal time from other activities. Craziness! When I reflected on the lessons post-teaching, I saw that typically, in an hour and forty-five minutes of lesson time, I usually could only facilitate seven distinct segments or activities, averaging 15 minutes each.  This includes the inevitable down time while I get organized, modeling use of the new target language, telling students which page to turn to, distributing worksheets, giving instructions, modeling the pairs activity, and checking comprehension. Plus, of course, time for students to interact with one another, practicing using the new language.  Sometimes it’s less and sometimes more than 15 minutes, but it pretty much always averages out to 7 blocks of time.  Of these, the first is always devoted to recycling and reviewing vocabulary from previously studied units, and the last is always devoted to vocabulary BINGO from the current unit.  So that leaves 5 blocks of time.  When I’m planning, it’s so much simpler (and liberating) to know that’s all I can aspire to, so there’s no point trying to squeeze more in.  This rule of thumb allows me to short-circuit the endless mind loop of trying to sequence and squeeze too much into a lesson. And the five blocks align with the ECRIF lesson framework I use most frequently in my speaking- and vocabulary-focused class: time for students to 1) Encounter the new target language or structure, 2) Clarify its form, function and meaning, 3) Remember or recognize it, 4) Internalize it through practice using it in a controlled, scaffolded activity, and finally 5) Fluently Use it in a freer, personalized, real-world context.

Once I moved to planning by blocks, I shaved tons of time off of planning and worrying about sequencing.  This made it really clear what I had to do, and also clear when I had finished outlining the lesson!  If I couldn’t get students to the objective in five blocks of time, I needed to reconsider whether the objective was achievable in a single class.

Another benefit of limiting the number of things I asked students to do: I don’t over plan and rush through the lesson.  This means students get more practice using the target language, I have more opportunities for ongoing assessment. And we usually do have time for everything I planned, including the final ‘fluent use’ activity where the learning objective is (hopefully J) achieved.

“Pencils and whatnot. Overrated if you ask me.” Winnie the Pooh

Another discovery from this “research” into my planning process was that I was spending a great deal of time on the computer.  Too many of my “planning” minutes were spent at the keyboard, formatting the lesson plan and materials. I felt my trainer was looking over my shoulder, checking that I was still adhering to the discipline of how a lesson plan “should” look, the columns and categories it should have, fonts, spacing, trying to get pictures to line up properly on a worksheet, etc. These concerns sucked me down into a black hole, where I wasn’t even thinking about the lesson, I was just working on the computer!

So I started doing all my planning with a lined pad and a pencil. For some reason, the ghost of my trainer doesn’t manifest when I use a notepad.  I begin with bullets for the seven blocks of time, and draft a barebones outline of what I’ll do, what the students will do, note the essential page references and materials needed, and let it percolate.

I now do this with a pencil. That was new for me too.  I’ve always disliked pencils, having to sharpen them, empty the sharpener, and so on. But I discovered inexpensive disposable mechanical pencils, which are the best of all possible tools!  I usually do type up the lesson plan, so I can share with co-teachers and make notes for the next time, but I wait to type it until right before I leave for class. With one foot already out the door, I don’t get sucked into that black hole of “ideal” lesson plans.

More is not better; less is best

I realized that I was overthinking the lesson plan. Should we do this, or that? This before or after that?  I had too many creative ideas; I wasn’t very good at making up my mind and then keeping it made up. My indecisive flip-flopping was filling up all of the available time, and there was no evidence that my lesson plan was getting better as I tinkered.  So I set a time limit:  I’ll spend 45 minutes to plan tomorrow’s lesson, and then I’ll go to yoga class. It really helps to have an actual deadline.  Curiously, my post-teaching reflection on the pre-teaching process revealed evidence that lessons worked best when I spent less time planning.

Take the challenge: 

If you’re overwhelmed by lesson planning, you might want to try it:  While you’re planning your lesson, record exactly how you use your planning minutes and hours. Then, after you teach the lesson, identify what was useful and what was wasn’t. And if you’re comfortable with it, share your discoveries here.

Master teachers’ lesson planning stories:

Every teacher is different, and every class is different.  These things that helped me shorten planning time and become more effective won’t work for everyone.  So here are links to thoughts about lesson planning from some master ESOL teachers.  And if you have ideas on how to tackle this issue, please share them!

More practical than philosophical:  These posts are about the authors’ actual lesson plans, and the evolution of their planning process:

More philosophical than practical:  These authors write about whether to plan, when to plan, the pros and cons of planning

Sophie reflecting on my reflective journal
Sophie reflecting on my reflective journal

Interrupting the Forgetting

I often hear fellow teachers complain with surprise and dismay when students don’t seem to remember something they should know, even though “they learned it last week!”

I recently had a personal experience – standing in the shoes of a student – which reminded me that what students learn isn’t necessarily what we teach them, and when students learn isn’t necessarily during class.  And that English ought to have multiple words for “learn,” each with a different definition, depending on when the learning is assessed.

One week ago, I was a “student” in a 15-minute Georgian lesson taught by a colleague to demonstrate teaching methodology at a recent TESOL information session.  We students “learned” seven Georgian words for plate, cup, knife, fork, spoon, touch and pick up.  At the end of the 15 minute lesson, each of us was able to give and respond to instructions to touch or pick up the objects, with 100% accuracy.  In fifteen minutes, we had “learned” those seven words.

Something made me think about that lesson today, and I tried to remember my new Georgian vocabulary.  I could only remember two words:  chika (cup) and dana (knife).  I remember them because they both reminded me of words I knew in other languages: chica is small or girl in Spanish, and dana is a Sanskrit word meaning charity or giving.  I can’t remember anything at all about the other five words that I used fluently a week ago.  Today I might not even have been able to remember chika or dana if the teacher hadn’t asked us, right after the lesson, whether any of the words reminded us of words we know in other languages?  His causing me to notice the connections I made between the new vocabulary and my pre-existing knowledge was the essential factor that moved those two words from my short-term memory (15 mins) to longer-term memory (one week, so far).  And because I’m reviewing them by writing this right now, I’m reinforcing my brain’s pathways to chika and dana, so I’ll probably still “know” those two words six months from now.

We shouldn’t be surprised when the class doesn’t seem to remember what they “learned” last week.  It’s up to us as teachers to create the noticing and connecting experiences that help students move new knowledge from short to long term memory.  And then to constantly review prior learning, so that what students still remember this week is made permanent through multiple reinforcing experiences in the near future. Only then will students have “learned.”  And the corollary is: only then will there have been actual “teaching.”

In Peter Brown’s outstanding book Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, this is called “interrupting the forgetting.”

Recently, Robert Reich interviewed David Brooks, for City Arts and Lectures, about Brook’s recent book, The Road to Character. (It’s about how we’re focused on developing “resume values” and have lost track of “eulogy values.”)  Reich asked Brooks why he wrote the book.  This is how David Brooks answered:

“I was in Frederick, Maryland, and I ran into some ladies, age fifty to eighty, who teach immigrants English and how to read. And it can take up to several years to learn this. It’s a very slow process.  And I walked into a room with them and they just radiated goodness, and they’re patient and they’re calm, and they make you feel valued & important, and they listen to you, and they’re not thinking about what great work they’re doing, they’re just not even thinking about themselves.  And so I remember thinking, I’ve achieved more career success than I ever imagined, but I haven’t achieved that inner beauty.”