Learning No. 4: “Don’t just do something, stand there.”

My fourth powerful learning moment of 2010 was inspired by my KIETT trainees, my colleague and friend Kevin Giddens, and this Buddhist saying:

Don’t just do something, stand there.

I first read this quote in the book Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life by Marshall Rosenberg. It was in the chapter titled Receiving Emapthically. The image I got from this quote went something like this:

Imagine there is a man and a woman. The woman is feeling sad, and needs to talk it out. The man listens to her; he just listens, standing there. He gives no advice. The woman feels his listening, and is able to go deeper within herself. She feels her emotions and connects to her needs. In the end she feels relief, and has found her own solution. She has gained more than if the man had “done something.”

Something similar applies to teaching. For me the idea is that by supporting students, by creating the right learning environment, the teacher doesn’t really need to do anything in class. The teacher just needs to be there and listen. This is what Kevin writes about in his blog Do-Nothing Teaching (DNT), and by the end of this entry my goal is to have convinced you to take part in his DNT challenge.

I noticed the power of doing nothing a few times during the last semester. This especially resonated for me during my lesson on how to scaffold learning. In order to present this concept, I said nothing about it.

How did I present it then? I planned a lesson on acrostic poetry. Since my trainees had just switched classes, and were with a new group of not-so-familiar faces, I thought this would be a fun “getting to know you” activity to start the new session.

To start, I gave a handout with three different acrostic poems. I asked them what they noticed about how each poem was written (see inductive learning). After eliciting and writing their answers on the board, I asked each trainee to write their name on a slip of paper. They then put it in a bag, and chose the name of one of their classmates. Guess what they had to do next?

Well before they could write a poem about that person, they had to get to know each other a little better. To do this, I gave them a list of idiomatic expressions that connected to character traits. For example, heart of gold, knows the tricks of the trade and pulls out all the stops. With the list, they had to interview their partners to find out how they related personally to the idioms. After about 15 minutes (I just sat and listened), they started writing their acrostic poem.

When they were done, and had written the final draft on a colorful piece of paper, they posted their poems on the classroom walls. During the gallery walk we heard laughter and happy sighs, and saw smiles and blushing cheeks. This was the beginning of a positive classroom atmosphere.

Poster walk

Poster Walk

After the gallery walk we took some time to talk about how they felt reading the poems. There was a lot of joy and amusement. We also talked about what they learned. They mentioned they learned new idioms, the format of an acrostic poem, and a bit more about their classmates. The class ended like this.

The next day I asked them to remember the sequence of events for the acrostic poetry lesson. After I wrote the sequence on the board, I asked them what they noticed about how I had planned the lesson. Someone finally said that I had planned the activities step-by-step. This is when I introduced the term “scaffolding”. All I told them was that scaffolding was essentially a teaching theory whereby the teacher supports her students by introducing the material step-by-step. This is all I said. I didn’t give any lecture.

Instead I gave them a handout that explained the different elements of scaffolding, and they got into groups. With their scaffolded experience (acrostic poems) and the handout, they discussed their understanding of scaffolding. To display their understanding, I asked them to create a poster. The poster could be as creative as they wanted, but it had to explain the concept of scaffolding. Here were the results (also see the header image to this blog):

Scaffolding Poster

What did I do during this time? I didn’t do too much. I sat at my desk, I monitored the groups, I listened, and sometimes I answered questions. What did they do? They discussed the concept, developed an understanding of scaffolding for themselves, and then presented this understanding to the other members. In the end, they taught themselves.

Of course I had a plan, and with my vision I guided them to where I wanted them to go. If I had noticed they were struggling or had no idea about scaffolding, I would have helped. After all, I was teaching about scaffolding. However, if I create the right environment, and I give enough support, I don’t need to stick my nose where it doesn’t belong. At this point I trust that my trainees will go where they need to go. I believe that in the end, if I butt out, their learning will be deeper. This is how I view do-nothing teaching, and this is how I “just don’t do something” and sit there.

If you have examples of how you just stand there and do nothing during your lessons, why not join the DNT challenge? Go to Kevin’s site (click here) and follow the instructions. Your concept of Do-Nothing Teaching may be different than mine or his, and that’s fine. That’s the idea.

Learning No.3: Time to Process, Time to Reflect

I believe that student feedback is a teaching compass. Although it takes a bit of courage to receive feedback on my classes, it provides invaluable insight into how I can create more effective lessons. The two usual questions I ask my participants at the end of each session are along these lines: What did you learn during the session that was significant or important for you, and why was it significant? Would you change anything about your learning experience in order to increase your learning, and if so, how would you change it? Some answers don’t reflect their learning. Instead they offer me warm words of encouragement for a job well done. I smile when I read these comments, and wonder if these comments are subconsciously meant for themselves.

During the fall semester, one participant’s answer to the second question reminded me about the importance of a learning skill I claim to practice on a consistent basis: reflective inquiry. She hoped that we could spend more time in class to reflect on what we learned during the lesson, and expressed how this would help her understand and internalize the subject matter.

I was embarrassed. As a student of experiential education at SIT, and the fact that I base this blog on reflective practice, how couldn’t I have noticed that I had exempted time for reflection in most of my lessons? She had placed a magnifying glass on my bad teaching habit. I have a tendency to place too much emphasis on the experience, and as a result, there is little time left at the end of class to look back on what happened. I was grateful for this participant’s insight into her learning process, and her willingness to share her need with me.

I have come to understand that it is my job to create an experience for my learners. However, without me facilitating an environment of reflective inquiry, I also believe that learning has a lesser chance of happening. Experience without reflection is like running in a mouse wheel: the scene stays the same, and we don’t get anywhere.

In her article Defining Reflection: Another Look at John Dewey and Reflective Thinking Carol Rodgers explores John Dewey‘s theories on experiential education. I revisited this article today to help me clarify why reflection is such a powerful learning tool. To sum up, reflective inquiry increases learning because it allows you to put an experience into slow motion, and in doing so, you are more able to place meaning on this event. Once you find meaning in an experience, you are then more able to act on this experience. This circles back to last week’s entry on meaning and motivation.

The slow motion I mentioned is also what I call process. Learning takes time. It’s a process. Sometimes we only understand a lesson months after we were exposed to it. The length of time it takes to really sink into learning something new depends on each individual. But a valuable lesson I’ve learned from being a learner myself is if we don’t give our minds space to breath and expand, it is hard to take in new information. The reflective process aims to provide such space.

When we act on what we have learned from reflecting on an experience, it means that we are playing with new knowledge and trying to make it our own. We are placing our own meaning on our learning via our planned and subsequent action.

So how did I respond to my participant’s request? I went back to my days at SIT with Pat Moran, dug up my handouts on the experiential learning cycle, and I went back to class with a new plan. I provided an experience (an activity around language learning). I asked them to think back on what we did, sticking to facts, not interpretations. Then I asked them to think about the benefits or shortcomings of this activity as it would relate to their teaching contexts. Finally, I asked them how they would use or adapt this activity for their students. I helped them connect meaning to their experience.

I know how valuable reflection is for learners, and I also know how valuable it is for teachers. For teachers, it helps us remember what our students experience during our lessons. It helps us be better teachers. This participant reminded this of this value.

From now on I will do my best to save time at the end of class for reflective inquiry and processing. My aim is to create space.


Do you have an alibi? – Good Cop/Bad Cop

First intermediate class of the week – Mixed years (Freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors); Mixed majors; mixed levels; mixed feeling; Unit 3 – Interests, Breakthrough

Every time I enter this class I feel like I just need to dive in head-first and not worry about the water.  I have students in here who have spent years studying abroad, and I have some who barely know the present tense.  Luckily the majority is in between these levels. I also feel lucky that it’s a mixed aged class.  You see, in Korea the older students tend to take a leader/support role with the younger ones. At least that’s how it’s working out in this class.  I’m also lucky that those older students have the most advanced English abilities, so they can quickly explain what I am talking about.

Getting caught

Getting caught

The fluency activity I had planned was Alibi. To set up the context I told the students that someone broke into my house last night between 8pm and 9pm. They took all my things and broke the window.  Someone in the class did it and I need to find out.  I group students into groups of five according to their ability/fluency level.  Two are cops and three are suspects. I hand out example cop questions to all the students.  This is intended to guide the police officers in their questioning, and help the suspects create their alibi. I tell the suspects that one of them is the criminal and they decide amongst themselves. The cops are in another room thinking of questions they can ask. After a few minutes they come in and start interrogating.  For three of the four groups, the suspects are sitting next to each other. One group decides to break up the suspects and question them separately.  They think this will help them catch the suspects in a lie.  One group of cops seems to be doing a good job of catching the suspects in a lie. They think they know who did it.  I ask them to keep going to make sure they’re right.  The two other groups aren’t successful. They have no idea who may have stolen my things.   This continues for the rest of the activity. At the end the group that split up the suspects was wrong about the criminal. The group who thought they guessed, guessed correctly.  The other groups felt that maybe they hadn’t played the game correctly.  We discovered that those groups hadn’t tried to catch the suspects in a lie. They hadn’t planned their questions as traps as the other groups had.  For example, the group who guessed correctly asked one suspect where he was between 8 and 9. He said he was watching TV. Then the cop asked another suspect what they watched. He said “1 Night 2 Days (1박2일)”. Then they asked the last suspect, “On what floor was the movie theater?” He said, “The 5th floor.” Obviously there was a liar. 1 night 2 days

This activity took about 40 minutes.  I think I could have shortened it so that they took turns being suspect and cops.

To set up this activity as a past tense lesson, I used the vocabulary/lexical chunk section in Unit 3.  Together we went through the past tense verbs and practiced using the dialogue activity.  I told the advanced students that they could create their own dialogues if they wanted. These students just need time to practice their speaking skills. They are already fluent with the material we covered today.  After this activity I handed them a pictured list of irregular past tense verbs. I told them that they could use these verbs in the alibi activity. That was it for the list.

I feel like I didn’t know how to handle the list because of the different levels.  I know most students knew the words, but I gave the list for the ones who were less advanced.  For those students I feel like I didn’t help them learn the verbs. I think next time I would go through an activity that helps them identify with some of the verbs.  For example I might do a chain story activity, “it was a dark and stormy night…” where the students need to keep the story going by using one verb on the list.  By doing this the other students listening at least notice the verb meaning.  I think I would do this in small groups since there are 20 students in class.

I was happy to see the less advanced students interacted in the activity.  Even though they didn’t talk much, they listened to the more advanced and tried to participate.  The more advanced students included them in the activity by translating. I feel that at least this promoted noticing.

Luckily I taught two more intermediate classes the following week.  So after reflecting on what could be improved for the Alibi activity, I made a few changes.  In relation to helping students get a grasp on how to question and catch the suspect, this is what I did:

I thought that it would be helpful to help the suspects create an alibi. So before I separated the suspects and the cops, I asked them to analyze the vocabulary/lexical chunk pictures in the textbook and think of some activities that go with the picture.  For example, one picture had the lexical chunk “watch a concert”. In their groups of five, students had to think of what can happen at a concert, and they had to make sure it was in the past tense.  I felt that this would help them create an alibi.

The interrogation

The interrogation

Then I told the cops that they should use the question sheet I gave them only as a guide.  Some of the questions on there did not work for the context they were facing.  For example, if the suspects’ alibi was that they were at a concert, they couldn’t ask the question “was the waiter handsome?”

By creating this new flow to the alibi activity, the suspects were better prepared to answer questions, and the cops had a better idea of what kind of questions to ask.  All in all, this was a successful activity, because it encouraged students to create their own questions, and answer accordingly. There was a lot of smiling, which is great when you’re trying to battle low motivation :)

Week 5, Fall 2009 – Students Take on New Personas – FACES



I had the same activities planned all week, with every class, and every level.  It’s an activity that asks students to take on a new persona as a way to practice speaking. Each student got the chance to choose pre-drawn picture of a face from the book Faces created by my SIT professor Pat Moran.  I laid out each original face on the desks in front of the class and asked the students to choose one. It was fun to see them scramble for faces they connected with.  Some felt their pictures were too old, or too ugly.  Some said nothing and went back to their desks.  As homework, the students had to create an introduction for their characters. The introduction reviewed the language we’ve been studying since the beginning of the semester.  The only rules were that their characters be Keimyung students and that their introductions cover what we had studied. As a guide, I provided questions, and an example of my character’s introduction.  They also had the choice to design their character’s face anyway they wanted.

The idea was that during the next class these characters would interact with each other.  Of course each class had a different flow and feel, but I tried my best to keep the same structure to each class.

On the due date I checked each introduction to see if students used the language we had covered.  I only corrected mistakes pertaining to this.  I noticed that some students (L1) seemed to have used an online translation service.  The sentences made no sense to me and they used complex words. Some L1 students also complained that the homework was too hard.  When I checked what they wrote, they had hardly used any structures that we had studied. They had tried to use more complex sentences and vocabulary. Other students wrote introductions that followed the structure we covered and the extra information that added was understandable, although the structure wasn’t perfect. Again, this did not matter because I was just checking structures we had studied.

While checking homework I asked the other students to practice their introductions so that they could get comfortable with their character’s story. I wrote this instruction on the board. While checking, I also asked students to tie a string on their picture so their picture could hang off their necks.  Their introductions were behind the pictures.  The idea was that this would help them take on the role of their character and they would be able to refer to what they wrote if they needed to.

Introducing their new personas

Introducing their new personas

The next step I wrote on the board was: introduce your character (yourself) to your partner. Your partner will listen and try to answer these questions – Level 2: What does he/she love/hate doing? – Level 1: What does he/she do everyday? Once they were done with their interactions, I went to each pair, or as many as I could and asked them to reply to these answers.  Sometimes I asked other questions or they volunteered extra information. I was looking to see if they could reply using the correct sentence structure.

The next activity was the Cocktail Party.  The gist of it is that as their characters, students mingle and practice the question and answers we had studied.  I was the bartender (soda was served). In order to refresh the memories, in groups or pairs, students made lists of questions we had covered.  After, they shared their lists with the whole class.  I wrote the questions for everyone to see.  Before starting the cocktail party I told them they could use these questions or others they thought of in order to meet people. For some classes this was it and I told them to get started with the cocktail party.

What happened next depended on the vibe of each class.  In some classes the students lined up for a drink without talking to each other, and the only person they talked with, as their character, was me when they got their drinks.  After, they would then sit down with their group of friends, and some even sat alone with their cell phones :P In other classes students would start conversations after a few people had their drinks.  I could hear them laughing and discussing the lives of their characters.  Since I was the bartender, and spent time talking to each student that came to my “bar”, it was hard for me to notice what kind of conversations were going on.  I did notice that some were just speaking Korean.

Cocktail Party

Cocktail Party

After going through a few lessons where students only talked to me, but didn’t mingle much with each other, I realized that maybe they needed a better understanding of what a was a cocktail party.  I created a cocktail party powerpoint with pictures to give them an idea.  I also quickly noticed that they needed more specific tasks. On the board I wrote: Speak to 3 people. Ask 5 questions. Tell the teacher who you talked to after you are done. This worked magically in some classes. Students used their notebooks, or were able to clearly tell me about who they spoke to. Again, in some classes, this did not matter. They still sat down and talked Korean, or only spoke to their friends.


The Korean education system is set up in a way that does not prepare students for communicative activities. They are taught to sit quietly and not question the teacher.  From the time they start middle school they learn that competing with each other is the only way to make the grade. This means that for the most part they aren’t used to, and therefore are not comfortable with activities that ask them to work together even in their own language.  Then comes in the English teacher from Canada who asks them to pair up, form teams or work as individuals in a large group in order to practice their speaking skills. I realize that when I plan activities like this week’s, I can’t expect everyone to participate enthusiastically. I also need to remember that this is a mandatory class, and therefore the motivation isn’t always there.

Since this lesson plan spanned over a week and various lessons, I was able to reflect quickly and modify my plan from class to class.  I felt that with each lesson my plan got better.  This didn’t mean that the lessons were a success. Maybe if I had encouraged student to speak to ten people instead of three, I would have seen more talking. Maybe asking them to talk to three people kept them in their circle of friends.

Was the lesson a success? I felt it was a success when I could ask a student who they talked to and they could respond. I’m happy to say that this happened on many occasions.

In relation to the L1 students who wrote confusing introductions, I realized that the example I had given them may have been too complex. My example introduction had some creative sentences, although still simple, they did not follow the exact structure we had studied. I did this because I wanted to give some students the chance to express themselves creatively.  I realized this backfired because it may have given some students the impression that I was looking for creativity.  In other cases maybe students wanted to be creative with their characters, but still didn’t have the ability to do so.

I’ll do this activity again, but may refrain from being the bartender so that I can get a better picture of what’s going on at the party :)


My friend and colleague Kevin Giddens and I had this discussion this weekend: what message are we sending to our students when we encourage communicative activities? Is it possible for them to take the activities seriously and see their value?  How do we help students who grew up with the kind of education mentioned above, understand the value of communicative activities like the cocktail party?  How do they really feel when they are asked to communicate freely with their teacher when all their lives they’ve learned to keep their distance from teachers?

Week 4, Fall 2009 – Redeeming the Role-play

Tuesday, 9am-10:50am, Intermediate Level, 20 students, freshmen, mostly natural science and nursing students – My first class of the week

I have to say, this is a stellar group of students. They all came through with the role-play assignment. When I assigned it last week without it being my initial intention, I was concerned that they wouldn’t do it. 

 After doing a quick review of the language being addressed (adverbs of frequency), some students needed some time to edit their role-plays. This gave students a chance to practice. It also gave me the chance to help pairs who had questions, and also check out what the created. I was pleased to see that the had pairs creatively and properly used the adverbs. The scenarios ranged from a patient and doctor discussing unhealthy habits to Snow White contemplating her beauty with the Magic Mirror. I was concerned when I noticed that in some occasions one member of the pair took the responsibility to write the whole role-play. I assumed this fact because the other student had nothing in their notebook. I guess it is possible that they had met at some point during the week and one student had taken the responsibility of being the scribe.

I asked the students to perform their role-play in front of the class so everyone could listen and watch. I had thought about putting them into smaller groups, but I didn’t want to spend the time forming groups. I decided to see how this would work out. One team at a time, they came up front. Before they started, I asked them about their scenario and told the other students. Most of the students read off their sheets. They spoke loudly. The audience was attentive, and laughed when a line was funny. We all clapped when each pair was done.

This role-play activity was for practicing language.  It focused on accuracy, not fluency. I could have asked the students to remember the lines, but that isn’t authentic and still wouldn’t display fluency.  I could also have asked them to be spontaneous, but that wasn’t how I had set up the assignment.  In order to make it spontaneous, and therefore check for fluency, I could create the scene for the students and hand them lines to build on.  For example, I could hand a pair a piece of paper with the line “You never clean your room!”, and ask them to work from there without writing anything. This seems to be an activity for higher levels, and I’m still not sure if this group is at that level.  I know some could, but not all.

The way this role-play activity turned out, gave me insight into the class’ ability. Their sentence structure was better than expected. However, the fact that some students in the pairs wrote the whole role-play makes me wonder if the other students aren’t capable, or if they just did it that way out of ease.  I also learned that they aren’t shy to perform in front of their peers. This means that I could use drama for future activities.

Although, the fiasco turned out not to be so bad, I won’t assign a role-play as homework again. I want the main activity of the lesson to focus on fluency, not accuracy. I also want to get a better understanding of the ability of every student. What I will keep doing however is use role-plays for language practice. In order to spice up the role-plays found in the textbook, I will give each pair a scenario, or ask them to create their own scenario. Since I know this class is up to performing, they will perform these scenarios in small groups as a way to promote repetition and noticing of the language.