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.”

Swamp reflection

Report from our Reflective Practice Group 10/15

We met on Sunday evening in classroom space of the Canal Alliance, where many of us teach, and caught up with each other over mouth-watering home-made cornbread and carrot cake, home-grown cherry tomatoes, and other treats brought by the participants. Emily Goldberg and Tim Farey launched us in an “embodied cognition” activity that some of us had experienced in a recent workshop by Jiwon Chung about using theater in the ESL classroom.  Afterwards, we shared ideas for how to adapt the activity for use in our own classes.

The evening’s focus was on Reflection-in-Action, the reflection that we do on the spot, while teaching, to adapt to unexpected events in the classroom.  This concept was elaborated by Donald Schön (1930-1997), who observed that

Reflection-in-Action is the core of professional artistry.”

We began by reviewing the ELC (Experiential Learning Cycle), a reflective framework which begins with a concrete experience (the lesson) and then progresses to reflection on what happened, analysis of why it happened, and then action plans to apply in class.  These last three stages are all Reflection-ON-Action, because they occur after the fact; Reflection-IN-Action occurs during the initial experience.

ELC diagram

We began with two questions: “How often does your class go exactly the way you planned it?” (which drew laughter) and “When it doesn’t, how do you know what change is needed?”  Scattered around the room were several quotes and paraphrases of Schön’s philosophy, describing the circumstances that generate both the need and the capacity to react to what happens in the classroom, plus a few quotes from Carole Rodgers and Peter Senge on the same topic.  In pairs, we did a gallery walk and discussed what resonated for us.  One favorite was Schön’s observation (I’m paraphrasing a bit):

In the varied topography of professional practice, there is a high, hard ground where practitioners can make effective use of research-based theory and technique, and there is a swampy lowland where situations are confusing “messes” incapable of technical solution.  The difficulty is that the problems of the high ground, however great their technical interest, are often relatively unimportant … while in the swamp are the problems of the greatest human concern.

After the gallery walk with a partner, the full group shared some of the highlights of our reactions to the quotes about reflection-in-action. One of the things I personally really love about Schön’s perspective is that it is respectful and descriptive (and not prescriptive) of the intuition, knowledge and reflective capacity teachers bring to bear down in the swamp.  I find Schön reaffirming.

Next: we prepared to reflect collaboratively on our own critical incidents. Each of us “brought” an event from a recent class, where something unexpected occurred, we reflected-in-action and responded there and then.  Schön noted that among professionals, teachers have a special challenge when it comes to reflection-in-action, because we can’t take a ‘time out’ to evaluate the evolving situation. And he acknowledged that ‘reflecting-in-action’ is especially difficult for newer teachers, because they are juggling so many other things.  It’s a capacity that develops with experience.  So…since our group includes teachers whose years of teaching experience ranges from 25 years to a few months,  the very-experienced paired up with the less-experienced to reflect on our lessons.

We followed a protocol for reflecting, inspired by the Critical Response Process approach to giving and getting feedback: In Part I, each teacher took a few minutes to share:

  • What they had planned or expected to happened
  • What actually happened
  • How they felt and what they were thinking in that moment
  • How they reacted to the unexpected turn of events

During this time, partners just listened, but didn’t speak.  (Note that everything the teacher has shared up to now, is the “What happened?” stage of the ELC framework.)

Then, after all the teachers had described their critical incident, we moved to Part II (the critical thinking “So what?” and “Now what?” stages of reflecting in the ELC framework.)  At this point, the protocol was that each teacher asked her partner for input on specific questions s/he had about what had happened in the lesson.

I hadn’t experienced this Critical Response Process approach before, just read about it.  The day before our meeting, a teacher told me she’d had a particularly difficult lesson that week, and she hoped attending the meeting might be “healing” for her.  This was the impetus for me to try the teacher-directed approach to getting feedback.  When we’ve had a challenging or painful experience, we often feel fragile; we may have a specific burning question we want to explore, but we might not be up to hearing all of the advice a well-meaning colleague could offer.  This allows each teacher to manage feedback in a way that will be most helpful to them.

We all felt the meeting was fruitful and worthwhile.  One indicator of the meaningfulness of our gatherings is that when we discussed upcoming dates, no one wanted to skip December, even though it’s a busy time of year.  Another is that at the end of the one-on-one reflection on one another’s  lessons, the teacher with 25 years’ experience volunteered that she’d gotten valuable new perspectives from her partner.

And the teacher who’d had a difficult week wrote me afterwards, saying “I’m glad I could make it last night.  It was healing indeed.”

Coming up: 

Nov 8             Lesson Planning Time; How do we keep it reasonable? One of the most difficult challenges for new teachers is the incredible amount of time we spend planning lessons. What’s reasonable?  How do we streamline the process and use the time we spend more efficiently?  It can’t be a simple as developing a repertoire of lessons, because every class and every student is different.  Bring your issues, experiences, questions and ideas.

 Dec 13           Holiday Party + SMILE: Setting sustainable goals for ourselves.  We have high expectations for ourselves and for our students.  At times we want to do more AND simultaneously, we feel overwhelmed. The SMILE approach was developed by Josette Leblanc, a reflective teacher trainer who focuses on self-compassion for teachers.

 Where & When:  We meet at 6:30 for social/snacks, and the workshop is 7-9pm.  Address:  93 Larkspur, San Rafael, California, upstairs in the “86 Building,” which is across the parking lot from the Canal Alliance main office.

Bring a snack or beverage to share.

Everyone is welcome!

For more Information:  linda@lmkoza.com

Learning Strategies and Reflection for my Adult Beginner Students

This semester, teaching at the Canal Alliance in San Rafael, CA, I’ve undertaken a small Action Research project.  This is a report on the first few weeks.

The Challenge:

For years I’ve been frustrated by the fact that so many of my adult low-beginner ESL students don’t have learning strategies.  They don’t seem to know what they must do to learn.  For example, when I launch a five minute pairs speaking activity, practicing a dialogue with a partner, they will do it just once, and then sit and wait for me to call the class back to order and move on to the next thing. As I see it, they are wasting a precious opportunity to practice and internalize the material by changing roles or substituting target language, and practicing the dialogue again and again.

Dialogue on board

Profile of the Students

It’s not that they aren’t motivated to learn.  I have over thirty students, who are mostly Guatemalans in their twenties, young men and a few women. They work hard during the day, often doing demanding, physical labor, and then come to an 8-10 pm class twice a week.  Clearly they want to learn English.

Over the years, I’ve observed that this behavior seems to correlate with limited formal education in students’ home country.  When I noticed this phenomenon, it was the first time I really appreciated that one of the most valuable things we learn in school is how to learn. Those who attended school longer are far more likely to embrace the notion of practicing. They do so enthusiastically, and they learn. But the others I worry about, because I believe they’re not getting as much out of the class as they could.

How to Help Students Develop Learning Strategies?

For some time I’ve been thinking about what I can do to change these students’ behavior. But recently, while researching how to develop learner strategies and autonomy, I read something that made me completely question that goal.

In MaryAnn Florez’ article “Reflective Teaching in Adult ESL Classes,” a teacher is advised “to think of ways to facilitate and foster learner input rather than ways to change her practice to accommodate the learners’ reluctance to speak.”  This was an “ah-hah!” moment for me.  It dawned on me that I need to facilitate my students’ reflection and awareness of what helps them learn! And perhaps I should stop thinking prescriptively. I would need to open myself up to learning from the students, rather than being so certain that I know what will help them learn.

Raising Students’ Awareness of What Helps Them Learn

So I decided that I would focus on raising students’ awareness of what they’re learning, how they learn it, and what works for them and what doesn’t.  As I know from my own reflective practice, this is not a skill that’s learned in an evening.  I made this initial action plan for every class:

  • Write the name of each step of the lesson on the board, and draw students’ attention to them as we progress through the class.
  • At the end of class, have students reflect on whether each of the activities did or didn’t help them learn.
  • For the first few weeks, just work on raising awareness, theirs and mine.

We could discuss the lesson in Spanish, but it happens that this semester I have a handful of students from Vietnam.  Since I don’t speak Vietnamese, using Spanish wouldn’t be appropriate.  All of the students are beginners, so talking about learning in English isn’t practical.  So I have to rely on primarily non-verbal methods of communication for the reflection and feedback.

Steps on Board

Feedback from Students

At the end of each class so far, students have been completing a form with the same list of lesson steps as was on the board, and a Likert scale of three faces (smiling, straight face, and frowning). Written above the faces in English, Spanish and Vietnamese is:

This did not help me learn     ……………………………………………     This helped me learn   

Esto no me ayudó a aprender  ……………………………………………. Esto me ayudó a aprender

Điều này đã không giúp tôi được hiểu ……………………………………..…   Điều này đã giúp tôi học được.

Individual Feedback Form

I hesitated about whether to ask students to write their names on the feedback form.  There’s an argument to be made for anonymity:  they might feel “safer” expressing their true feelings if I don’t know who made the comments.  But I opted to ask for the names for two reasons:  one is it would show them I’m interested in each individual. Second, if I didn’t know who was responding, the data would be much less useful; I wouldn’t be able to correlate feedback with students’ performance, participation and proficiency.

Validating the Feedback

Initially, I needed to confirm that students understood the purpose of the feedback form and that the feedback they gave me was actually meaningful to them.  If most of them just checked smiling faces, it would be useless. To tell the truth, I wasn’t really certain how I would know if the feedback was “real”.  Fortunately, when I looked at the results after five successive lessons, several patterns emerged, which persuaded me that I was getting valid data:

Group Feedback on a Lesson
Group Feedback on a Lesson
  • Observation #1: There are clear tendencies: straight faces and a few frowns clump around particular steps in each lesson.  My Interpretations:  If they had been randomly or evenly distributed, I wouldn’t know whether the “data” was valid.  This continuity suggests that students really are expressing how they feel about the activities.
  • Observation #2: After each lesson, the steps that students score with straight or frowning faces are predominantly in the beginning and middle of the lesson, when students are encountering and clarifying new vocabulary and grammar.  As the lesson moves towards the final steps, where students use the target language in freer, more fluent, personalized activities (such as asking for and giving their telephone numbers) the smiling faces become more numerous.  My Interpretations: This rating pattern is repeated after every class.  So one interpretation is that the earlier steps of the lesson are more uncomfortable, because students are more tentative, unsure, and don’t feel confident with the new material, but as they internalize it and are able to use it with confidence, they rate the activities positively. Unfortunately, this would also mean students are indicating what they enjoy and don’t enjoy, which isn’t necessarily the same as what helps them learn.  Another possibility is that there is something about how I set up the encounter and clarifying steps which isn’t effective.  Food for Thought.
  • Observation #3: Contrary to my expectation, the twenty percent who always mark only smiling faces aren’t necessarily the most proficient. My Interpretations: Several ideas:  Some students really enjoy class, regardless of how challenging it is; some students just don’t want to “criticize” the teacher; some students are just going through the motions and aren’t interested in reflecting or sharing what helps them learn; some students have no idea what the feedback form is about.  Inconclusive.
  • Observation #4: During one class, I forgot a couple of essential practice activities meant to help students clarify and internalize the meaning of the new vocabulary before asking them to use it in an authentic, personalized task (making a family tree).  I also assigned an activity from the textbook which (I later realized) required vocabulary that they hadn’t learned yet.  Students were confused and weren’t able to complete the activities.  My Interpretations:  This fiasco was nothing to celebrate as a teacher. But in terms of students’ reflections on the lesson, their confusion and frustration was clearly reflected in their feedback on the particularly problematic parts of the lesson, which allowed me to unequivocally validate their feedback.  (And it proved  the importance of properly sequencing and scaffolding a lesson so that students have plenty of chances to clarify and practice before they have to use new target language independently.)
  • Observation #5: Students in tight, collaborative cliques mark their feedback forms differently.  For example, there is a lovey-dovey couple who practically sit in the same chair through class.  She marks 100% smiling faces, while he always marks a few straight faces for some activities.  Three Vietnamese students who always come together and converse a lot as they work in class also mark their feedback forms differently. My Interpretations:  I might expect these tight groups to either copy one another’s answers OR reach a consensus before marking the form.  The fact that they aren’t doing either makes me believe each person is reflecting independently on their personal experience.

So I’m pleased with the initial feedback process. I believe students are doing some meta thinking about their learning. And it was exciting when I realized that getting student feedback wouldn’t just tell me about what helps students learn; it would also give me valuable information about how effective my teaching is, and point out areas for further reflection!

Next steps:

I plan to continue the Feedback forms after each class.  Soon I will also try to get students to discuss the following in small groups, and then write their individual answers in their first language:

  • How they usually feel at the beginning, middle, and in the final activities of the class, and why.
  • Which generic types of classroom activities help them learn, such as matching pictures and flash cards, substitution dialogue practice, written fill-in-the-blank, etc. , and why.

Questions I still have:

  • Are students marking what they do/don’t like OR what helps them learn? Do they know there is a difference?  How can I tease the two apart?
  • What can I do to deepen their awareness, so we can find out more about why they feel the way they do?
  • How can I shift the focus to developing an awareness of what they are asked to do during class vs. what they actually do?

What do you think?

I would LOVE to hear from teachers who have ideas about getting meaningful feedback from low beginners, and helping them develop learning strategies!

Monet weeping-willow-and-water-lily-pond-painting

Next RPG meeting: Sunday, October 11th.

Topic:           Reflecting-in-Action: Where and when do we learn to be effective teachers?

Usually, the answer is “in the classroom,” or “on the job.”  But what does that mean?  Does it happen in the classroom, the mechanical reinforcement of skills by repetition?  Or does it happen across the whole process of teaching: during planning, execution of the lesson, and reflecting afterwards?  What role does feedback play?  And whose feedback?  Students? Peers? Supervisors?  At what point in the process do we learn?

There are many models for teacher reflection.  We’ll explore the approach developed by Daniel Schön.[i]  Schön challenged teachers to reconsider the role of technical knowledge versus “artistry” in developing professional excellence. He distinguished “reflection-in-action” from “reflection-on-action.”  Reflection-in-action occurs in real-time, while we are teaching; it’s analogous to intuitive knowledge.  This type of reflective competence develops with time and experience.[ii]  Since our RPG group has both new teachers and very experienced teachers, this will be an opportunity for peer-teaching!

For this workshop, “bring” one thing that happened in a recent lesson that was different from what you expected; and which you responded to by changing your plan on the spot.  If you’re not teaching right now, think of such an incident that you observed.  It could be positive, negative, or just different. You don’t need to analyze it; we’ll do that together.

 Where & When:  We meet at 6:30pm for social/snacks. The workshop is 7-9pm.  Address:  93 Larkspur, San Rafael, upstairs in the “86 Building,” which is across the parking lot from the Canal Alliance main office.

Bring a snack or beverage to share.

Please carpool: http://www.groupcarpool.com/t/bv2pmi  If you prefer to drive, please sign up here to let others know where you’re coming from.  There are usually people coming from San Francisco, northern Marin and Sonoma County, and the east bay.

RSVP:  linda@lmkoza.com 415-717-3568

Everyone is Welcome!

[i] Schön, D. (The Reflective Practitioner:  How Professionals Think in Action (1984)  and Educating the Reflective Practitioner (1987))

[ii] Randall & Thornton, Advising and Supporting Teachers, (2001)

2015-09-12 12.20.14

Following the 3rd meeting of our nascent reflective practice group…included in this post are:

        1. The characteristics of a master teacher,

2. Dates & topics for upcoming RPG Gatherings,

3. A summary of our most recent session, and

4. Our reflections about the group: What do we want our Reflective Practice Group to be?

You are perfect the way you are...

Characteristics of a Master Teacher

In his book, The Teacher Makes the Difference, M. Pressley[i] says

“…master teachers are just a bit unsatisfied with their own knowledge or skill level, in spite of their tremendous success with student learning.  They constantly seek out new ideas from colleagues and professional development opportunities” and they see “instruction as equal parts art and science.”

So, congratulations to those of you who are seeking out new ideas with a Reflective Practice Group!

Upcoming RPG Gatherings

Save these Sunday evenings (note that they are all the 2nd Sunday of the month).

Oct 11          Where do we learn to be effective teachers? Usually, the answer is “in the classroom,” or “on the job.”  But what does that mean?  Teaching typically involves 3 stages:  planning, execution, and reflecting afterwards.  When and where in the process do we learn?

There are many models for teacher reflection.  We’ll experiment with the approach developed by Daniel Schön.[ii]  Schön challenged teachers to reconsider the role of technical knowledge versus “artistry” in developing professional excellence.

For this session, “bring” one thing that happened in a recent lesson that was different from what you expected.  It could be positive, negative, or just different. You don’t need to analyze it; we’ll do that together.

Nov 8           Lesson Planning Time; How do we keep it reasonable? One of the most difficult challenges for new teachers is the incredible amount of time we spend planning lessons. What’s reasonable?  How do we streamline the process and use the time we spend more efficiently?  It can’t be a simple as developing a repertoire of lessons, because every class and every student is different.  Bring your questions and ideas.

 Dec 13          Holiday Party + SMILE: Setting sustainable goals for ourselvesWe have high expectations for ourselves and for our students.  At times we want to do more AND simultaneously, we feel overwhelmed. The SMILE approach was developed by Josette Leblanc, a reflective teacher trainer who focuses on self-compassion for teachers.

 Where & When:  We meet at 6:30 for social/snacks, and the workshop is 7-9pm.  Address:  93 Larkspur, San Rafael, upstairs in the “86 Building,” which is across the parking lot from the Canal Alliance main office.

Bring a snack or beverage to share.

If you can, please carpool: http://www.groupcarpool.com/t/gfcn28

RSVP:  linda@lmkoza.com

Everyone is Welcome!

Summary of our most recent gathering:

13 teachers met on September 6th, for a session focused on how we help students encounter and clarify new vocabulary.  After social time with wonderful, healthy snacks and home-baked goodies, we enjoyed a fun and funny community-builder based on phrasal-verbs.  Then, in groups of 3 and 4, we shared ideas about how we approach teaching new vocabulary in our classes.  It was interesting to hear several people talking about their own experiences learning vocabulary in other languages. Putting ourselves in the students’ shoes can’t help but make us more aware of what really facilitates learning.  In fact, the next thing we did was role-play students to experience five easy, low prep ways of helping students encounter and clarify vocabulary. After those experiences, we regrouped according to the levels we teach, and each group discussed how they might adapt the activities for use with different target language and concepts in their own classes.  And we shared some vocabulary activities from Laurel Pollard’s Zero-Prep for Beginners.

What do we want our Reflective Practice Group to be?

The “regulars” are an interesting mixture of very, very experienced teachers and new teachers. As coordinator, I wasn’t sure whether we should be focusing on sharing practical teaching tips and techniques for the classroom, or spending our time collaboratively reflecting on our individual teaching practices.  So, at the end of the workshop, everyone did an anonymous “free-write” about what they liked best about their favorite group experiences, what they bring to a group (in general), what they want to offer this group, and what they want to learn from this group.

What does every one value in a group?  Humor!  Humor was mentioned by nearly every teacher.  (And we had lots of humor at our last meeting – sassy role-playing students debating whether tomatoes are fruits or vegetables, plus Tim’s socks!)  Plus food. We value sharing good food! And this I found both moving and encouraging:  virtually everyone felt that they have valuable insights and experiences to share – experienced and newer teachers alike!

Our colleagues who teach at community colleges have lots of opportunity for collaboration and professional development. But most of us in this group don’t work in a context that offers such opportunities.  And everyone said that is something they want from the group.

So this is what we want our RPG to be:  opportunities to reflect in community on our own teaching practice, to share our experiences and hard-earned wisdom, and to learn from one another. With food and humor!

[i] Pressley, M. http://www.pearsonhighered.com/assets/hip/us/hip_us_pearsonhighered/samplechapter/0132963507.pdf

[ii] Schön, D. (The Reflective Practitioner:  How Professionals Think in Action (1984)  and Educating the Reflective Practitioner (1987))


Our nascent Reflective Practice Group gathered for the second time on Sunday, July 12th  During the first half, we worked on Learning Objectives, which was a topic several people had requested in the survey last month.  Everyone there was already a big believer in using learning objectives.  As an exercise, pairs came up with learning objectives for the Korean numbers lesson we’d had at the previous meeting, and they were all good at articulating objectives that are SMARTA (Specific, Measurable/Observable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound and Adjustable).

We focused on making objectives Specific and Measurable, and distinguished between verbs that do or don’t meet those criteria.  For example, an objective might begin this way:

“By the end of the lesson, students will be able to (categorize, list, order, write, tell, identify)…… 

but not:   

learn, understand, realize, know  

because there is no measurable/observable way for the teacher to assess whether someone understands or knows something.  At least not until they demonstrate their understanding by categorizing, listing, writing, etc.

We also took some time to discuss some of our objective-related questions and issues, including setting objectives for multi-level classes, differentiating between course goals and lesson objectives, and looking at long-term and short-term learning objectives. (If they’ve “learned” something by the end of the lesson, do they still know it the following week?)

Next, we reviewed the components of the Experiential Learning Cycle (ELC) and reconstructed a sample ELC Reflection, focusing on how this kind of reflection is evidence-based, the evidence being in the initial Description of what happened during the lesson.  The Analysis and Action Plans are all based on that evidence.

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Then, we broke into pairs, and each of us developed a personal reflection on a small “slice” of one of our own recent lessons, focusing on the final 15-20 minutes (because our theme was Learning Objectives, and we usually expect to meet the objectives at the end of the lesson.)  After drafting each section, we shared with our partners.  Everyone came up with multiple interpretations about their lessons, and based on that analysis, we developed personal action plans for when we teach in the future.

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All agreed that this reflecting on one’s own lesson with a partner had been fruitful!


We finished with a bit of reflection on what we found most meaningful about the evening’s activities, and what we still had questions about.

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I’m headed to Korea to train Korean English teachers for six weeks. While there, I’ll attend a local Reflective Practice group that a friend and colleague, Josette LeBlanc, has been coordinating in Daegu for four years.  Would you believe the topic of the Daegu session will be What to do when learning objectives aren’t met?  Maybe that will be Part 2 of our Bay Area RPG’s Learning Objectives focus. And we’ll take the high-speed train to Seoul for an entire “Day of Reflection,” Hopefully, I’ll come back inspired and full of good ideas to share when we gather again!


“We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.”  John Dewey

Our first “Reflective Practice Group” meeting was quite successful!  We were a group of 16 teachers, coming from San Francisco, the “East Bay” and the “North Bay.”  We met in a classroom at the Canal Alliance, where many of us teach. There were teachers with decades of experience, and some brand new teachers.  Our 2-hour session began with a get-acquainted mingle about what reflective practice means to each of us, and what motivated us to attend the first RPG meeting.

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About a third of the attendees had some previous experience with the Experiential Learning Cycle (ELC), so we had a brief intro/review of the ELC, focusing on the idea that it is both a description of the learning process, and a framework for reflecting on our experiences. For this introductory session, I didn’t distinguish between Interpretations and Generalizations, conflating them together in Analysis.


A shared learning experience

Then we had a shared experience (I taught a mini-lesson on the Korean numbers 1-to-6 and the Korean words for “yes” and “no.”)  After the mini-lesson, everyone reflected on just one step of the lesson that stood out for them, looking at their experiences as learners in the lesson, using the ELC framework, first to describe what happened and how they felt, and then to analyze the experience and come up with multiple ideas about what helped and hindered their learning during that part of the Korean lesson.  At each step of the ELC, we shared our reflections with partners and the entire group.

Lots of interesting discoveries 

Almost every teacher had several “interpretations” about the slice of the lesson they analyzed.   For example, teachers mentioned:

  • –  sometimes what helped one person learn was exactly what hindered someone else’s learning
  • –  the effectiveness of minimal teacher-talk
  • –  the effectiveness of group work
  • –  the value of students’ knowing what the learning objective is
  • –  the importance of providing written as well as spoken information
  • –  seeing things from the students’ perspective
  • –  the possibility of getting students to also reflect on the lesson

And there were other rich topics of discussion, all emanating from the reflection on our experiences as learners.

Learner Hat Teacher Hat

Changing Hats:

In the last step of the reflective cycle, each person made action plans for themselves as teachers, based on their reflection about the lesson. For this first meeting, we reflected on this ‘shared experience’ as learners, but in the future, we will be reflecting on our own individual teaching experiences.

We finished with discussions about what we each would take away from the evening’s activities, and how everyone wanted to proceed with the Reflective Practice Group.  Attendees completed a survey, the results of which are below:

Results of the survey about attendees’ interests and how we want to proceed:

By far the majority indicated they’d like to continue meeting…monthly, on Sunday evenings, in the same location. (Several were also open to meeting at someone’s home – maybe we’ll eventually morph to that).  All were interested in continuing with the Reflective Practice focus, as well as workshops  on the following topics they suggested :

Learning objectives, assessment, feedback, classroom management, facilitating group work, lesson planning, effective teaching practices, materials development and sharing favorite resources.

In addition, the following specific comments were offered:

“I want us to come up with ideas for subjects we might cover that enable our collective reflective practice – as we did tonight.”

“I think it would be nice to have some time set aside occasionally for small groups to discuss actual experience they’ve had and to get ideas and feedback.”

“I am mostly interested in getting to talk about what I’m doing and get feedback so I’m not the only one analyzing my experience. And doing the same for other people.”

 “We should have a structure and all participants should be in agreement with what we will do so that the meeting doesn’t become a free-for-all or storytelling.”

“ESL teachers often teach in isolation. Peer feedback is something I would welcome, and I think the ELC could provide a good format or framework to share effective teaching practices as well as to help diagnose and correct ineffective ones.”

These comments made me feel that others shared my personal vision for an RPG that’s really focused on structured, disciplined reflection on our own teaching, in a supportive community of practice.

My slides from the session are here: Intro to Reflective Practice

Our plan for the next meeting is below.  Since there will be more newcomers, I’ll plan to take a fresh look at the ELC, but in a different manner, so that it provides an intro to those who need it, and a stimulating refresher to the others.  Then we’ll have a mini-workshop on objectives (one of the topics teachers asked for in the survey), followed by a reflection on the final minutes of one of their own lessons.

What:  “Learning Objectives:  How do I know what they’re learning?”

When:  Sunday, July 12, 7-9pm

Where:  Canal Alliance, Building 86

Bring:   Keyword notes about a recent lesson you taught (or observed, or participated as a learner). We will reflect together on the learning objectives and final minutes of our own lessons.

  1. Choose a lesson close to the next meeting date, so you’ll be able to remember it clearly.
  2. Was there a Learning Objective? If so, how was it set?
  3. Was the objective achieved? How do you know?
  4. What were students doing in the final 10-15 mins of the lesson?
    1. Take brief notes as soon as possible after the lesson.
    2. Record as much detail as you can about individual students’ actual participation, what they were saying, what they were doing, your instructions, the materials, the energy level in the room (yours and the students), the temperature, etc.
    3. Keywords are fine! (Gorgeous prose wouldn’t necessarily be a good use of your valuable time!)

I’m full of gratitude to colleagues from Ukraine, Korea, Canada and Guatemala who helped me brainstorm this nascent RPG!

“Arriving at one goal is the starting point to another.”   John Dewey, 1916

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I recently read an article by Michael Griffin and Manpal Sahota about improving one’s teaching through reflective journal writing.  It inspired me to write about my own amazing experience that proved their point.

When I am training teachers to reflect on their experiences, I ask them “What evidence can you point to that supports your interpretation?”  Evidence is our objective description of what did or didn’t happen. If we can’t point to something concrete that we observed, our interpretations may be faulty, incomplete, and even completely wrong.  I’m such a believer in the power of reflective practice that I always tell teachers if they just take one thing away from the course, it should be the skill of rigorous, disciplined reflection.

So is my belief in the value of reflection based on evidence?  Here’s my story:

In early 2014, at the end of a teacher-training course in Korea, feedback from the teachers indicated that I needed to work on giving clear instructions.  I brought it up at the farewell lunch with co-trainer Phil Thompson. Phil responded that he over-models how to do an activity to such a point that he worries he’s being patronizing.  (I later realized that Phil’s humility was really his graceful way of suggesting that I needed to work on modeling when giving instructions.)

On the 12-hour flight home to San Francisco, I had an inspiration. After a month working with talented trainers like Phil Thompson and German Gomez, who consistently walk the talk, modeling what we trainers say we believe about experiential learning and reflection, I decided to work on improving my instructions-giving by keeping a reflective journal.

My intention to purposefully reflect on how I give instructions and what helps and hinders students’ ability to understand immediately changed how I felt about the upcoming spring term. Suddenly, I thought of my class of adult immigrant beginners as my laboratory, where I could try things out, experiment with various techniques.  There would be no failures, and no disasters; whatever happened would simply be the results of an experiment.  Through reflection, I would process those results, and come up with action plans for the next experiment – the next class session.  This was positively liberating. In fact, it was exciting!

Here’s how it worked:  while planning my lessons, I resolved to actually write down word-for-word how I would say the instructions, how I would model the activity, and what I would write on the board.  Before going to class, I would write a bit in my reflective journal about my plans, especially about anything new I was going to try out, or something I feared would be challenging. Then I went to class, to conduct my experiment.  I noticed that before class I was much more relaxed, thinking “Whatever happens will happen. We’ll see.”

After class, I would have my usual reactions:  something worked really, really well and I was thrilled to be a teacher, and/or something failed horribly and I was the worst teacher on the planet.  I’m my harshest critic, practicing focalism,  a cognitive bias where I devote disproportional attention to the negatives.  While I drove home, I “reflected” on the puzzles from my lesson, but it was the intuitive, gut reaction, undisciplined kind of reflection that we all do automatically, and which often leads us to inaccurate conclusions. For the life of me, even with the intention of reflecting rigorously, I simply couldn’t do it in the car.

Once home, I immediately pulled out my reflective journal.  (I had “borrowed” one of the blank journals we give teachers taking the Korean course.) Then I sat and wrote.  I first wrote an objective description of a slice of the lesson where giving instructions was critical – whether successful or unsuccessful.  The description included everything I could remember about what I said and did, and what students said and did, and whatever else seemed like it might be relevant: the materials, how students were grouped, the environment in the classroom, etc.

Then I started writing interpretations.  This is where the magic happens in reflective practice.  What I couldn’t do in my head, in the car, literally poured out of me once I sat down with my journal and pen. I wrote down my initial gut reaction as to why something went the way it did, but I also came up with many other possible interpretations that I hadn’t thought of, and wouldn’t have thought of, if I hadn’t been doing this written reflection.  When I say this is where the magic happens, what I mean is that when we learn to reflect rigorously, we insist on 1) getting as much evidence down as possible, in the description, and then 2) coming up with multiple interpretations of the evidence, even if at first we’re certain that our initial instinct is correct.  It’s the multiple interpretations, which invariably turn out to be revealing and to contain precious truths, that make reflective practice such a powerful tool. 

Here’s an example of multiple interpretations.  During a Q&A activity to practice the use of the prepositions “on” and” next to,” I observed many students asking “What’s on next to the book?” using both prepositions together. I don’t remember what my preliminary conclusion was as I drove home that day, but I see in my journal that I came up with eight different interpretations of why students might have been using both options together in the same sentence!  Some of them had to do with how I gave instructions or modeled the activity.  Some had to do with the materials students were asked to use for the activity.  Some were more fundamental:  about whether I had sequenced and scaffolded previous activities so that students were ready for this one.  Each interpretation led to generalizations about what helps students, and to specific action plans for me to implement in the future.  My favorite action plan from this particular reflection was  “Don’t let the textbook push me around!”

Every experiment/class/reflection that spring term resulted in action plans, which I would implement in the next class session.  Here’s an example from the first post-teaching entry in my reflective journal:

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For me, hand-writing in a real journal was absolutely essential.  I have no idea why, or even how I knew to begin with paper and pen, since it has been years since I abandoned notepads in favor of the computer. In any case, I am certain that my reflections wouldn’t have generated so many ideas if I had done them on the computer.

This process turned the not-so-successful events in my classroom into useful evidence, which I analyzed so I could keep tinkering with how I gave instructions.  This produced a subtle, but wonderful shift in my attitude about my class, and about myself as a teacher.  It really invigorated my practice.  I tried all kinds of things that term. Some I ultimately rejected, others I still do.  Here’s an example of something I developed back then and I still do it now: I keep the upper left corner of the white board reserved for instructions.  There are permanent bullets and I add the details for each activity:

 Who?  (solo, partners, table group)

What?  (point to pictures, ask and answer questions)

Page?  (worksheet, page 72)

How many times?  (each partner 5+ times)

How long? (5 minutes)

When I’m giving the instructions, I stand near the Instructions Corner of the board, I point to the bullets, and I ask Comprehension Checking Questions (CCQs) like “Are you going to work solo, or with a partner?”  Then I tell students to begin the activity, before I move away from the Instructions Corner, so they know they can stop listening to me and focus on their task.

The reflective journal also helped me maintain realistic, healthy expectations for myself:  sometimes my instructions will be ineffective, sometimes a model of clarity.  And that’s ok. It’s the path, not the destination, that I’m focused on.

Did that spring term of written reflection result in permanent improvement?  Yes and No. I’m much better at giving instructions, and it’s no longer mentioned in trainees’ feedback at the end of courses.  I’ve even developed a fun and effective workshop on Giving Clear Instructions (which I do partly in Haitian Creole). But, as I re-read the journal I kept back then, I re-discovered some “ah-hahs” that I’d totally forgotten about. And that’s another reason to keep a written reflective journal. I will recycle some of those ideas, just in time for the new class that begins next week!