Today was a good day.

The best days are when you expected them to be the worst, and then they’re not. And then, even if they weren’t objectively the best, they still become the best.

Highlights include:

Special lunch today: jjajangbap (rice in a black bean sauce with small diced potato, veggies and pork), fried pork with a Korean version of sweet & sour sauce, cucumbers & unidentified other green vegetables, and an apple cider pouch.

One of my classes had to get chest x-rays (a normal thing here; this is how they test for TB and various other problems, from what I understand, and students and teachers get them yearly), so we basically had a 10-minute class in which I introduced the topic/key expression and let them do book work for 5 minutes before they peaced out.

Starting to feel a little more connected to the 1st graders. It always takes a couple months for them to get comfortable with me and for me to learn more about their personalities and ability levels.

Managed to be productive even though Wednesdays are one of my busiest days. In my break times and free class periods I polished up my lessons for the next few weeks and started putting together a pop song quiz for the last week of the semester. It’s become a mini tradition that we play a big “guess the pop song” game right before vacation time, and the kids look forward to it.

My after-school class with a dozen 15/16-yr-olds went surprisingly well today.

— We did a “board race” warmup: 2 teams make straight lines. I give them a category like “Food” or “Animals,” and the first member of each team writes a word on the board that fits the category, then hands the marker to the next team member. We continue for 2 minutes and then count up and see which team got more words. I thought they wouldn’t want to get up and move when I introduced this, but they were into it.

— Then I showed them the oldie but goodie “Where (the hell) is Matt?” from 2008. They hadn’t seen it before, and it was really sweet/amusing to hear & watch them “ooh” and “aah” over the locations and imitate his goofy dance (no, my 16-year-olds are not too cool for that). The follow-up worksheet asked them to list some of the countries and cities he visited, and then I showed them screenshots from the video and they had to guess which country it was.

— Finally, we did a lyrics arranging activity that I learned in my TEFL course. The song was “Count on Me” by Bruno Mars (ideal for middle school ESL because it’s not too fast, only 3 min long, his pronunciation is reasonably clear, vocab is reasonably simple, and the kids know & like Bruno Mars). I’d printed out and cut all of the song lyrics into strips, one per team of 4 kids. While they listened, they tried to put all of the strips in order.

I was really impressed at how well they did, actually. After the initial listen, I played it one more time and they mostly just needed to check or add a line here or there that they’d missed.

This is an activity I tried with an after-school class in my first year and my students really struggled. My mistake that time was breaking up the lyrics into super small chunks. This time I used 1-2 full lines of the lyrics per strip and a bigger font for a total of 22 strips of paper to arrange, and that transformed this activity from semi-frustrating and discouraging to fun and engaging. Sometimes all it takes it just that little tweak.

Oh, and best of all? Two words: air conditioning. Amen.


Is this a school or a zoo

I kid.

But surely this thought runs through every teacher’s head from time to time.

We’re into Week 2, we’ve picked up speed, we’re diving into the textbooks.

This is only Day 6 and I’ve already come to that desperate stage of being tempted to eat all the candy I bought for the kids. In one sitting, possibly.

I decided to try out some new activities this week (and this semester), and the first has been getting the 2nd graders to brainstorm a ton of “Have you ever~?” questions in groups, then each group takes turns asking me one question. If I say “Yes, I have,” they get a point; “No, I haven’t,” no point. I change up the scoring (Yes = 0 pts, No = 3 pts / Yes = 5 pts, No = -5 pts, etc.) to keep it interesting, and then I have a student come to the front to answer the questions, and we rotate. The kids have been more interested and engaged than I thought they’d be.

Currently, an entire class of 2nd graders is “cleaning” my classroom. Half of them are belting out “Let It Go” at the top of their lungs and one boy is screeching like a hawk. Exactly like a hawk.

Hence the titular zoo comment.

… He came out through my office just now, looked at me and said, “Oh, loudly? Sorry.”

As I finish typing up all the “favorite things” surveys I collected last week, I find a strange entry under “Favorite Computer/Video Game”: “엄마가 내 게임을 숨겼다” – “Mom hid my games.” LOL. Sorry, kid.


More ESL Activities

Since my week of solo-taught English conversation classes with extremely mixed levels has been going really well, I thought I’d write about a few more of the activities I’ve been doing with them that they’ve really liked.

I think it’s good to have a structure in place when you’re teaching daily classes with the same students for any length of time. The routine helps them get through class (knowing what to expect), and it also helps you as the teacher with lesson planning and prepping if a solid chunk of time is devoted to the same set of activities each day, which you can just tweak according to the day’s theme or whatever.

Daily Routine

(1-week mixed-level conversation class, 1st & 2nd grade middle school, two 45-minute sections w/ the same 9 students):

Warm-up (5 min): A quick activity that gets their brains or bodies moving, such as the “Word Chain” race I described in my previous post or some kind of brainteaser. Simple “Who/What Am I?” riddles usually work well. I tried toothpick puzzles similar to these, but they didn’t go over as well, since most of the kids were too impatient to try to solve them and it slowed the class momentum right at the start.

Tongue Twister challenge (10-15 min): As described in my previous post. However, if I could do this over again I would NOT show the teams their times each day, because if one team gets significantly behind they might lose hope towards the end. The next time I use this activity I’ll keep the times a secret until the final day, when the winning team is revealed.

Worksheet (10-15 min): As mentioned, I’m using some that I pulled from handy-dandy ESL sites like iSLCollective. I just chose random themes that all middle school students will know some basic vocabulary for by now, such as summer vacation, food, or labeling body parts. I don’t want to teach new vocabulary/grammar in this class so much as review and practice what they already know. Even so, the C level kids have struggled a bit, so I’ve usually modified the work by telling them to complete the first half of the worksheet or working with them in a group while the other kids work independently.

This takes up a good portion of the first period. For the remainder of the first period and through the second period, we’ve done speaking activities and games such as these (reminder/disclaimer- these are not activities of my own creation; they’re easy to find in many many places around the internet):

Minimal Pairs: Listening + Speaking

Time: 10-15 minutes

This is great practice for comprehension and pronunciation. Minimal pairs are two words that have only one different element of pronunciation, such as the vowel sound or the ending consonant sound. These can be really really really really REALLY hard for ESL learners to distinguish and pronounce. Examples: bad/bed, bad/bat, sheep/ship, mouse/mouth, lice/rice, walk/work, glass/grass.

For this activity, you need to print off minimal pairs “tree” charts (see some examples here, or you can make your own either in Word or by hand & make copies).

Start by saying one of the two minimal pair words at the top of the tree. Then say a word on the second level, then the third level, etc. until you reach the bottom. Students should follow along down the tree and circle the correct word at the bottom of the chart. If they circled the wrong word, you can retrace their steps and figure out which word they heard incorrectly.

After a few practice rounds, get the students to repeat each set of minimal pairs after you several times to practice the correct pronunciation. Then have the students do the activity with a partner so they can practice both speaking and listening. They really seem to enjoy this relatively simple activity.

Song Lyrics Game: Listening

Time: ~ 5 minutes per song (I recommend only using 1-2 songs per class even though they might beg you for more!)

For this game, you should choose a number of kid- and ESL-appropriate songs (i.e.: no inappropriate language, not too fast, relatively clear pronunciation).

It may be best to play this game after doing some other activities related to the song, such as talking about new vocabulary or doing a lyric gap fill sheet. However, it can also be played without any prep as a time filler, and the kids love it!

To prep, look at the lyrics and select some of the words that come up many times in the song. For example, if the song is “Eight Days a Week” by the Beatles, you could choose “week,” “babe,” “love,” “you,” etc. Write these on the board. Students choose one word and write it down (they have to write it so they can’t cheat).

Play the song. When students hear their word, they stand up. If they hear the word again, they sit down. At the end of the song, any students who are standing up are the winners (in my case, I gave them a small piece of candy as a prize). Note: make sure to choose some words that show up an even number of times, and some words that show up an odd number! Otherwise everyone will win or everyone will lose. o.O

Alternate version: Select words that are scattered throughout the song, but they don’t have to appear many times (just once is fine). Students choose and write down a word. They begin standing up, and as soon as they hear their word, they sit down and they’re out of the game. The “last one standing” is the winner. Lazy middle school students will like this version much better (haha), but the downside is that students who are “out” early in the song may tune out or get bored. So, especially if you teach elementary, I recommend version 1.

Note: If you have some low level students in class, I recommend tapping or pointing out the words on the board as they come up in the song, because some students may not be able to recognize each time their word comes up.

Telephone: Listening & Speaking

Time: 10-15 minutes

The classic game we all played in elementary/middle school (right?). Have students stand in a straight line. Show Student 1 a written word or sentence, which they memorize and then whisper to Student 2, Student 2 whispers to Student 3, etc. etc., and the final student says the sentence out loud. Hopefully it will get messed up somewhere down the line and the end result will be something goofy and everyone will laugh, but then again if they get it right that’s a good thing too!

For bigger classes (20+), you can make two or more teams and have the teams race to get the correct sentence down the chain, then have the last student run up and say the sentence to you.

Photo Scavenger Hunt

Time: 25-30 minutes

Okay, so this isn’t necessarily an “ESL” activity, but it’s really fun for the kids and can be categorized under “immersion English.” This is great for camps, after-school classes, or random extra classes like the one I have this week, and works well for ~5th grade elementary and up. Not recommended for normal class, and not recommended for young kids.

Put students in teams (teams of 3-5 students are preferable). Give the teams a list of items/places/things around school, such as “the library,” “an English sentence,” “the playground,” “the gym,” “a green license plate,” “a black car.” Instruct them to go around school with their team and take pictures of each item (with their phone, which inevitably most of them will have). Each picture must include at least 1 team member. You can also include some fun ones, such as “with an English teacher,” “with another [non-English] teacher,” “jumping pose,” “cute pose,” “[adjective] pose,” “team selfie,” etc.

Stress that teams MAY NOT LEAVE SCHOOL and must stay with their team members at all times. Technically I’m responsible for them during this time period and I don’t want anyone wandering off. My kids have always been good about this.

Assign point values to each item, with more difficult items worth more points. This motivates every team because even if another team finishes first, they still have a chance to win via points.

When teams return to the classroom (I usually give 25 minutes for about 30-40 list items, but you can make yours harder with more items if you want), check their photos and tally up their points to determine the winner. You can give prizes or candy as you see fit.

That’s it for now! Tomorrow is the final day, and we’re watching a movie (they voted for Bridge to Terabithia, which my school conveniently had a copy of stored in the back of the supply closet), and I’m bringing snacks and drinks as a treat. I never let them watch movies in normal class, so I’ve justified watching one with this class. We’re not even going to do a worksheet or a discussion. We’re just gonna watch and eat chips and choco pies and drink juice.

And then it’s time for real summer vacation.

Sighs of relief (+ ESL speaking games)

You know when something’s been hanging over your head, and you don’t even realize it was burdening you until it’s over and the burden is suddenly not there anymore?

As the first semester wound down for all my coworkers, it heated up for me with back-to-back events from coaching high school book-writing clubs to summer camp to, currently, a week of extra classes, 2 hours every morning, Monday (today) to Friday.


But as it turns out, at least in the case of this extra class, it wasn’t worth all the extra stress. (isn’t it always worse in your head, though?)

There are only 9 students in this class; about half of them are A level, and half are C level. Thankfully, the activities I picked today were all able to strike a balance where everyone could participate.

I’d also forgotten how nice it is to teach alone. Last year at my previous school, I had several classes which were just “mine,” not co-taught, and it was a really nice environment to form better relationships with the kids and boost their confidence. This is the first opportunity I’ve had this year to teach my “very own” class. I find that not only do the kids focus more on what I say, but I also feel more confident. Maybe it’s because I instinctively… not exactly seek approval, but look for a positive reaction from my co-teachers if they’re in the room with me. And if I don’t perceive a positive reaction (if they look spaced out, bored, bemused, whatever), it immediately impacts my own confidence and therefore my teaching efficacy. It shouldn’t, but it does. I’m working on it.

Anyway, the students actually seemed to have a lot of fun considering it’s 9:00 a.m. on a blistering hot Monday morning during what’s supposed to be summer vacation. We played speaking games that I wouldn’t normally be able to play with my full classes – the kinds of activities I learned in my ESL courses that are meant for exactly this class size, around 10 students.

Since I usually just write goofy ramblings and complaints on this blog, I figure I’ll post something useful for a change and explain what we actually did in my class. Not that any of these are original ideas; like I said, they’re typical ESL activities, and you can find variations of them all over the internet.

“I’m going on a picnic, and I’m bringing…”

The memory game where everyone picks a word in alphabetical order – apple, baseball, cat, drumstick, etc. – and each person has to remember all the previous words and then add one more word to the chain. It worked for all levels because (A) even the high level kids picked pretty basic vocabulary words, so the low level kids could understand and remember, and (B) they all seemed to enjoy the challenge of rattling off the list when it was their turn.

“Word Chain” Relay Race

I put them into two teams and wrote a word on the board (“tree”). The first person from each team runs to the board and writes a word starting with the last letter of my word (“e”). They keep rotating through their team members. I give them about 1 minute, and then we count which team has more total letters (not words). I let the high level kids on each team help the low level ones who struggled to think of or spell words.

Tongue Twister Challenge

I showed them some Korean tongue twisters first to get them going (they loved that, and were very good at them). Then I showed them an easy English one (Unique New York) and explained the challenge setup: 2 teams, 5 minutes to practice the English tongue twister. Then Team 1 stands up and each member has to recite the tongue twister correctly in order. I time them with my phone. Team 2 does the same. Any mistakes or stumbles, they start over. I record their times. We’re going to have this challenge every day this week, with a different tt every time, and at the end of the week I’ll total up the times and give a prize to the team with the faster overall time.

They really got into this one. At first they all started mumbling, “Unique New York, Unique New York,” but I said hold up there, kiddos, that’s too easy. That was just an example. So today’s tt challenge was “Sally sells seashells by the seashore. The shells she sells are surely seashells.” The point isn’t for them to necessarily understand the meaning (tongue twisters are usually half-nonsense anyway), but to work on the pronunciation. It’s especially hard for Koreans to differentiate “see” and “she” because there isn’t really a “see” sound in Korean.

Then we did a summer-themed cloze worksheet, which was fairly easy for the high level kids but a bit of a struggle for the low level ones. I helped them and translated as many words as I knew in Korean, and then had each of them take turns reading a sentence from the text out loud.

Because I was determined not to work myself to death in planning these lessons, I pulled five worksheets from various ESL sites (which I now have listed on a separate page on this blog, “ESL Resources“). We’ll do one per day.

We were running short on time at that point, so instead of doing the full final activity I’d planned (look at screenshots of a short video, try to guess and write what it will be about, then watch and discuss), we just watched the video and did a brief Q&A, and then I released them back into the wild, until tomorrow morning.

One final note, since I haven’t blogged for a while and have had this thought recently:

I’ve been eating lunch each weekday with whichever Korean teachers happen to be at school that day, including (sometimes) the principal and vice principal. As I sit there, eating quietly and letting the flow of Korean wash around me, I can’t help but feel sent back to childhood. Haven’t we all had the experience, when young, of sitting at the dinner table and listening to the grown-ups talk about things you can’t really understand, and you can’t participate in the conversation, so you just wait there until they say you can go?

At least the vice principal seems to take an… interest…? in me, as she keeps ordering the other teachers (in Korean) to ask me this or that (in English), like “Ask Maddy Teacher if she likes sushi. Ask!” “Is Maddy Teacher going to visit her family this summer? Ask her!” Before the flustered Korean teachers have to stress themselves out over asking me in English, I usually just answer the question in English, and they can all understand my simple answers. It’s amusing for everyone involved.

This may or may not be my last blog post until 2nd semester starts up in mid-August. We’ll see if anything hilarious happens during the rest of my classes this week.