Listening to the Inner Teacher: The (R)evolution of #RedThumbForLove

When the universe calls your name, it’s important to make sure your inner teacher (a.k.a. gut feeling, inner truth, etc.) is ready to listen. The universe speaks in mysterious ways.

This is how I’ve been feeling as of late. It first started when I got the idea to ask teachers to share how they offer themselves self-care and self-compassion, and why they do so. I really had no idea what the response would be. To my delight, 99% of the teachers I asked have said yes, and they continue to say yes. Some have even volunteered! Click here, Teachers Talking About Self-compassion, to read their stories.

Then today in the series, I share an interview of an empowering woman/teacher, Rupa Mehta, I saw speak at one of the festivals I’ve been following in YouTube for the past year, Wanderlust — highly recommended for all soul seekers. In this post, Emotional & Physical Fitness, you can read about how my inner teacher led me to asking Rupa to share her experience with self-care and self-compassion.

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I can’t end this post about paying attention to the universe’s subtle winks to #RedThumbForLove without sharing the most inspiring detail of all. This coming weekend, I’ll be doing a workshop with Chuck Sandy at the KOTESOL International Conference where we’ll be talking about listening to the teacher within. But this, although very cool, isn’t the amazing part. The amazing part is that the #RedThumbForLove blog/movement/project/revolution was a result of me listening to my inner teacher. My inner teacher knew how important it was to pay attention to Chuck’s Facebook status on that faithful day in 2014.

It’s all lining up, coming full circle, and evolving beautifully.

And so dear Readers, thank you so much for celebrating this mystery of life with me. But more importantly, I hope this was the message your inner teacher needed to hear today.

When Rapport Just Happens

The truth is, I was really worried about walking into this classroom. You see, I haven’t strictly taught a conversation based class in six years. More importantly, I haven’t taught a beginner class in that time either.

To top it off, I didn’t have fond memories of this particular classroom. When I taught beginner conversation classes six years ago, it’s in this classroom I recalled my biggest challenges: building rapport with quiet students whose interest in learning to speak English either didn’t exist or slowly dissipated as the semester went on. I remembered how much I had dreaded walking into this classroom back then. Looking back, perhaps my students’ motivation was a reflection of my apprehension.

Then on Friday, after all that worrying,  this happened.

IMG_4607This was my second class with this group of freshman. During the first class we did an icebreaker activity which involved finding out how old I was (age is an important factor in how relationships are built in Korea). Some students remembered that our Friday class together would be my 38th birthday. I never thought they would remember let alone go as far as buying a cake!

And just like that, my fears went out the door. We had a small celebration together which included one of the best rapport builders I know in Korea: group pictures.

During the rest of the class students shared their own birth dates. Some students discovered they were born on the same day. Then some learned the were from the same city; then the same majors.

Sometimes we can plan ways to build rapport with our students, but most of the time it’s just about being open to genuine moments of connection.

To learn more about building rapport with your language students, join #KELTchat tonight (September 9) from 8 to 9pm (Korea time) on Twitter.

Educational Influences: Talking with my father about “les Jeux de l’Acadie” & learning from students

This is part 2 of the interview I did with my father, Guy J. LeBlanc, for a new blog series called, Educational Influences. My intention with this series is to share the stories of people who have influenced my perception of education. I know you will learn as much from them as I did, and this is why I want to share their stories here.

In the last post, my father spoke about the beginning of his career in education. This post continues from his time as an elementary school PE teacher where he answers the question, “What was one of your most memorable moments teaching PE?”

Photo taken at St. Pete Beach, Florida, where I interviewed my father

Photo taken at St. Pete Beach, Florida, where I interviewed my father

Guy: The other was to give elementary students the chance to participate in sports they had never even heard about. Like soccer: in Clare (where we grew up) soccer was not a sport that was recognized. We started volleyball, badminton. Volleyball, that my daughters, and many others participated in, started here at the elementary level. Another teacher, James Boudreau, had organized the first volleyball team that participated at the Jeux de l’Acadie (a provincial, multi-sport competition for the Acadian regions in Canada’s Atlantic provinces): they were grade seven girls from École Joseph Dugas. And from there, volleyball has always been a sport that is strong in Clare. We were often the Nova Scotia champions.

Me: So because of the work that you did, in terms of bringing sports to the community,…

Guy: It was the first team from Nova Scotia that ever played for the Jeux d’Acadie because before that it was only for the acadian youths from New Brunswick.  Because of my affiliation with recreation, I knew guys at the University of Moncton and basically they were the backbone of les Jeux de l’Acadie. So they invited me to a meeting and we left there with the participation of one team, and now it’s a full delegation like any other region from New Brunswick.

Me: And at that time the first team or group was just a volleyball team?

Guy: Yes. A group of girls. Louanne Dugas, Judy Aucoin who’s on CIFA (Acadian radio station) now, Brenda LeBlanc… that was at the grade 7 level at the elementary school. Only the grade sevens at that time. And then after that… well, you played for many years after that. (My sister – at Louizette Photography – and I played varsity volleyball throughout our middle school and high school years. My sister also played for the provincial team. Les Jeux were the highlight of our summers.)

Me: And it was because of you?

Guy: Yeah, I guess I was there. I wasn’t scared to step out of Clare to network, and so we had the opportunity, and we had people who supported us. At that time there was Yvon Samson who worked for the FANE who helped us raise money. And then the year after, well, Clare was going, so Ste. Anne du Ruisseau (the municipality of Argyle) put together a team. Then Richmond went, and then Cheticamp…everyone. In the Acadian regions if one wants to do it, the others do too. So then everyone was encouraged.

Me: In relation to the students, when you were teaching at the elementary school, was there a student who stood out for you, or something you learned about teaching children?

Guy: One thing I learned is that children up to the age of 4 or 5, at least back then, don’t have secrets. Often, what happens at home, you (the PE teacher) would hear about it in the PE class. They trusted you and they spoke about it. Often you heard strange things, and at that time there weren’t all the regulations that there are now. Some kids did not have a good time at home. I realized at that time that there were people who weren’t treated well, but in their eyes, they were happy. Today you might say they were abused, but it was just because the parents didn’t know better. And some of them (the students) turned out really great.

Me: You thought it was the PE class that helped them to speak?

Guy: The PE class was less formal than others so they could speak to you. I guess they felt they could speak more freely, more often.

Me: Do you remember if they would take you aside, or was it just random?

Guy: Well, it was just random for them. It wasn’t a big thing. They were waiting their turn to serve the ball or to go on the court, or something like that.

Me: Anything else about the students?

Guy: There were many more students back then. There were large classes.

Me: Did you think motivation was different than it was today?

Guy: There weren’t computers, so kids were looking for something to do, whether it was sports or dance. They had more time for that than they do now. Now they have time but they have more choices. They can spend two hours on the internet, or on video games. At that time there weren’t any. The only video games If you can call them that ones that existed were at Alcide’s Restaurant, or the Submarine Restaurant… pinball machines. That was the closest to video games that existed.

Me: What was after this?

Guy: I was president of the Chamber of Commerce. I was in charge of the Boys Scouts in our area. That was when I was teaching I think.

Me: You were in charge of the Boy Scouts because you were a Boy Scout?

Guy: Yes. I went through that system.  Then I went to the Chamber of Commerce.

Me: Was it volunteer?

Guy: Yes.

Me: Why did you want to do that?

Guy: I was always interested in the well-being of the community. To make sure that there were jobs and that people stayed; to develop something new in the community.

Me: I guess that’s why you entered politics. Was it because you really wanted to make a big change?



My father will answer this question in part 3 of this interview in the following weeks.

You can also find the post I wrote about my father for International Teacher Development Institute, Outside Influences Issue, at this link.

Questions I ask myself before class

I’m currently working on a project that asks me to question what teachers may need to consider and do in order to confidently teach an English language class. To do this, I wrote a list of questions that have come to my mind during my years of teaching, and thought it might be of use to you as well. The list below relates to questions I try to ask myself before class, with “before” being subjective to time. I also intend to create a list of what I think about during and after class.

  • Individual learners – Who are my learners? What do they already know about English? What are their interests in life? Why are they here? How do they feel today? What’s going on in their lives that might affect their time here?
  • Group dynamics – Do the learners get along? What can I do to create a community (collaborative rather than competitive)? What are the cultural dynamics at play? How do the learners relate to me?
  • Classroom dynamics – Is the layout conducive to discussions or the tasks I have in mind? From what I know about them (how they may feel today or their personal preferences), or based on the task I have planned, will they need to move around? How can I display visuals?
  • Materials – Do they have a textbook (assigned audio)? Will I use what’s in it or will supplement it? Will I disregard parts of the chapter? Will I create my own material? Will they create their own material? If so, with what and how? Will I tell them what to create or will they decide?
  • Language – Are we starting with target language in mind? How could I visually or conceptually clarify the language that comes up? Do I have examples or visuals (audio) to help clarify the language skill (i.e.: genre; communicative purpose; register)? Do I want to be explicit (deductive approach) or implicit (inductive approach) with my clarification, or both? Is metalanguage needed (thanks to Chia Suan Chong for this inspiration)?
  • The language lesson – How can I structure my lesson in a way that the learners feel supported yet also challenged? Do they need a heavily structured lesson or do they work well with a more laid back, organic approach? Writing skills – What do they need to know in order to write a successful text? What is the genre or purpose of the text? What kind of language (register, grammar, lexis…) is needed to write in this genre or to communicate a desired message? How much time will I give for thinking, planning, outlining, revising, editing, and sharing with the audience? Will they share their text, and if so with who and how? Reading and listening skills – Is the text meaningful to the learners? Do I need to pre-teach lexis? What language may they find challenging? What skills (prediction, scanning, skimming, listening for details or gist…) will be needed to complete the task? What questions can I ask to help them catch the main idea and specific details? Speaking- What are they trying to communicate? Is it a conversation or a presentation? Is the topic meaningful to the learners? What is the context (i.e.: what is appropriate or inappropriate  language)? Do they have a reason to use the language (i.e.: is someone listening and does that person have a reason to respond)? Do they have enough time to practice the language? How will I help them clarify the pronunciation? 4skills – How will I help learners balance accuracy and fluency? How will I deal with errors? Can they self or peer correct?
  • Approach – How does what I know about how languages are learned inform how I create opportunities for learning (i.e.: input theories, output theories, affective learning theories…)? How will my past experience with learning language inform my approach? What methodologies would would work best considering the needs of my learners (audio-lingual, CLT, TBL, grammar translation…)? How can I mix these up to serve them best?
  • Teacher (self and intentions) – How am I feeling today? What do I need? How do my past experiences influence today’s class, and what am I ready to do about it?

Now for the last question: what am I missing? If you notice I’ve missed an important question, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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 :)