Category Archives: classroom ideas

Don’t be the car.

I was fortunate enough to be invited to watch a series of Chinese-English classes. This is a rare thing – usually Chinese-English teachers don’t like native speakers watching their class. They sometimes think that we’ll judge their English prowess (when really, I’m taking notes on how awesomely she corralled that snarky boy with just a look – I must learn their secrets!) or look down on them for having an accent. Or something.

They're laughing at me because I ordered them to do something. I am not a Chinese teacher, therefore I am not intimidating enough. ^__^

There was one male teacher I watched who was utterly brilliant in his efforts to make class interesting! He brought props. He had a flash powerpoint presentationwith cute, singing cartoons. He spoke 95% English in his class (a lot of C-E teachers do a lot of translating, which is a bad thing – but that’s the subject of another post) which is another rarity.

In fact, he did such a great job, that it was really disappointing when he got to the Q&A wrap-up. I mean, he had them singing, chanting full sentences, doing matching games, checking comprehension – and now comes the big part: asking questions and getting answers from the students.

Teacher: “Did the fox want to eat the blueberries?”

Student: “Yes, he did.”

Teacher: “Excellent! The fox wanted to eat the blueberries, great job!”

I’ve already posted about the importance of full sentences and the 80×20 rule so I won’t repeat myself (much). But this teacher did something that surprised me. After accepting this lackluster answer, he turned to the rest of the class, repeated the question and got everyone to repeat it. It was the 1 point answer, not a great one, but he got the group repeat.

That is called a macro response.

I see this look a lot with middle school kids.

Have you ever heard of the expression, ‘like a deer in headlights?’ If you’re a Canadian, you may change it to ‘moose’ or ‘caribou’ and then that covers the whole country and so yes, you have heard of the saying. It means that when the spotlight hits you, you freeze and can’t move or say anything, much like the poor deer which has now just totalled your new Neon.

Don’t be the car, people.

How to not be the car: Students are the same way. Yes, they are like deer. Some of them are outgoing and eager to volunteer and participate in bounding through the classroom field and talking without reservation. Others are almost pathologically shy, or terrified of making a mistake in front of their peers, or god forbid, their homeroom teacher who might now call their parents and explain that “little Timmy just shamed his ancestors because he couldn’t answer the question ‘what color is the brown dog’ with ‘it’s brown’.”

When – not if, when – you get that student in class who looks at you in utter terror as you ask him/her a question, keep one very important rule in mind: do not let the silence drag out. If they do not answer you in 3 seconds or less, they will not answer you in 5. Or even 10. What will happen instead is the child’s eyes will get bigger and bigger like that poor dead deer in your freezer and they will start inching backwards in their seat, trying to get away from the evil teacher closing in on them. They will then start lowering their gaze, refusing to make eye contact with you in the future and that child will grow up hating English all because you stared them down back in grade one, traumatizing them for life. Life!

So what do you do instead?

If a student doesn’t answer you right away, immediately look to their neighbour, or someone with their hand up. Get the correct response from them.This is called a micro response – getting one student to give the answer. Get that answer, and then get the whole class to repeat it for the macro.

Understand?Β  Let me show you:

Teacher -> one student -> Teacher repeats ?? -> whole class answers

They all get to take advantage of that correct answer instead of just one kid in the class. But then, the most important thing you need to remember, which so many people don’t, is to go back to the original kid, the deer in the headlights, and give them a second chance to answer in the micro response.

Maybe they didn’t understand the question and needed to hear the answer first. Maybe they knew the answer but were shy about pronouncing some of the words. Maybe they thought they knew the answer, but being Chinese and being conditioned to being ridiculed or insulted for not giving perfect answers, they chose to remain silent until they knew for sure. Whatever the reason, you now have an excellent opportunity to get that full answer from them. You can now get them to OPEN THEIR MOUTHS and USE ENGLISH.

So like I said – don’t be the car.

Back to this awesome Chinese teacher – had they been accepting proper, 5-point-or-more sentences, this would have been darn near perfect. Get those full-sentence answers, get the micro-macro-micro responses and let them all take advantage of the proper English being spoken and used in the classroom. Full sentences. FULL. Please, for the love of Hades, don’t do this:

Teacher: “Did he want strawberries?”

Student: “No, he didn’t want strawberries.”

Teacher: “No. Did he want strawberries?”

Student: “……No, he wanted blueberries…?”

Teacher: “No. DID HE want strawberries?”

Student: “…..Oh. No, he didn’t.”

Teacher: “Great job!”


You’re doing it wrong.

Anything can be taught to anyone. Any subject to any grade level. If you tell me that you can’t teach a certain subject matter to a student, my first thought is not that the content is too difficult – it’s that you haven’t done your job right. A teacher needs to know how to break down difficult material – break it down, break it up, find snippets inside it to expand on and then knit all the little snippets back together for the big finish.

One thing I always try to tell teachers is to experiment with what works. Try new things. Everything from sign language to decorative letters to inter-class postcards to play dough, to cooking with non-cook recipes. Your mileage may vary depending on the activity, the way you manage it, and your students, but there’s no reason not to try something at least once. Once you have the students interest, the comprehension will eventually follow. Trust me. They want to learn, they just don’t always know it. πŸ˜€

Every textbook has a unit on food, and once you hit grade 3, they start to talk to you about recipes and how to prepare things, like sandwiches, or fruit salad. I had an entire month dedicated to making as many non-cook classroom recipes as I could, including no-cook applesauce and fruit smoothies. The kids – if you’ll pardon the pun – ate it up.

For example, the sandwiches. Oh, the sandwiches! We made peanut butter and jam sandwiches in my G3 class after everyone’s parents signed a bilingual waiver regarding eating and food allergies. I divided them up into groups of four (I had 20 kids at the time) and then divided them again into pairs. Everyone got one piece of bread.

I did it this way because after four years of floundering, I had finally discovered the key to mastering these type of group activities. Planning. Strict, even severe planning, from step 1A all the to Z4. Everyone follows along and everyone does exactly as told. And it worked!

So yes, everyone has a slice of bread in hand. In the pairs, I had additionally labeled them 1 and 2. 1’s got the butter knife and the peanut butter. 2’s got the spoon and the jam jar. I instructed the 1’s to spread the peanut butter on the bread, and that’s where the hilarity began.

Ilia began pounding the peanut butter with her knife, trying to move across the surface by brute force. Two others neatly ripped their slices in half with the knife as they tried to spread. The only one to do it successfully was Elly, who waved me over, gave me a cheeky grin and a double V-sign and told me, β€œI no break the bread!”

That would be why I brought that extra loaf of bread. It did come in handy, yes indeed.

Next up was the jelly. This was fairly easy – dip, scoop, dump and spread with the back of spoon. Pretty much every 2 was able to do this fairly easily. But group 1 was having a lot of chatter, so I went to investigate – and found poor, henpecked Potato being bossed around by his seat mate Margaret.

Margaret: β€œSpread it more. More. This side. That side. Potato, more spread. More spread! Do you want more jam? Jam in the corner, Potato. Can I help? Can I do it?”

Potato: β€œI can do it! You no say you! Mandy, she is a 1, she sit down, yes?”

Recalling the rules, I told Margaret Potato had a point. She had her turn, now it was Potato’s. Margaret wasn’t satisfied.

Margaret: β€œMandy, he do it wrong.”

The drama ended soon after Potato slammed a third spoonful of jam onto the bread and slopped it all over every single white space left. He held up the dripping mess for Margaret’s approval and she nodded. He had appeased her.Β  Thank the goddesses.

The easy part was putting the two slices together. The interesting part was cutting it in half so each pair could get one half of the sandwich. Kelly demonstrated her expertise in handling flatware as she carefully sawed through the sandwich. Jack wailed for me to help him when he accidentally pulled the top slice along with his knife where it landed jelly – and a bit of peanut butter – side down on the desk. Jack took the Ilia method of sandwich-ology – that is, he began beating his knife against the sandwich until there were several cuts through it instead of the smooth diagonal line we were going for.

In the end though, all the kids enjoyed their English snack, and carefully copied down the ‘recipe’ and the instructions. I knew this was a complete success when a few days later, several of the kids returned to class to tell me they’d convinced their parents to buy peanut butter and jam so they could make sandwiches at home. Potato told me that for several months, it was his preferred afternoon snack after school, and rather than have his grandpa bring it to him already made to nibble on during the walk home, Potato insisted on going straight home so he could make it himself. Not only did he learn English, but he picked up a few life skills as well!

I did the same thing when we studied Goldilocks and the 3 bears (we made sweet porridge with Quaker oats, brown sugar, cinnamon, hot water, a bit of milk and sweet raisins), healthy eating (fruit smoothies, with yogurt, apple juice, bananas, strawberries and kiwi’s) and when we came to the fruit salad recipe in the textbook (apples, oranges, bananas, sugar, apple juice, and lemon juice).

The key to all this is to make it English related. We start by reviewing the ingredients – mostly English food vocabulary. Then we add materials – cups, spoons, bowls, knives – basically, things found in a kitchen (and this can also be tied into an overall ‘In My Home’ kind of theme). Then we put them together and wrote a recipe complete with the materials, ingredients and then step by step instructions. This also includes new vocabulary, like ‘spread’, ‘peel’, ‘open’, ‘chop’, ‘cut’, ‘mix’ and ‘stir’. Then you wrap it up after eating by challenging them to come up with their own recipes, making substitutions, or inventing strange new ones (Insect Stew anyone?).

And of course, you stress hygiene at all times. Ingredients like fruits and veggies need to be washed, utensils need to be clean, and everyone – no exceptions – needs to wash their hands. My kids had two steps to this actually – first, they all trooped to the bathroom to wash their hands. Then when they came back, as they passed through the door, I squirted some hand sanitizer into their cupped palms. They got so good at washing their hands, they began to berate their classmates (remember I had 20 – half of them. An actual Chinese class has 40+kids in it) when they neglected to wash their hands before lunchtime.

Now, I realize not everyone has the freedom or ability – or even classroom capability to activities like these. I don’t expect everyone to. But you do have to find new ways to make your classes interesting and memorable, if you truly want your students to retain anything.

If you’re not a cooking fan, well, there’s still plenty of other things you can get them to do and try that still fits under the umbrella of English. I have a few more things to share along those lines but that will wait until the next post. ^^


Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.

In an ideal situation, as a new teacher you’d be given a fresh new classroom with the wrapper still clinging to the untouched blackboard. A shiny plasma screen glints at you from the corner of the room, and the computer is already hooked up and ready to go.

Reality is slightly different. ^^Β  If you’re lucky enough to get your own classroom, you may have to equip it yourself. The bottom line when starting your new teaching job in Shanghai? Come prepared with absolutely everything you need to teach – and be pleasantly surprised if you have more than you expect.

What do I mean? Well, if this is your first day of teaching and you haven’t seen your classroom yet, don’t prepare a flash program or a PowerPoint presentation. Murphy’s Law states that the day you need the computer is the day you’ll find out you don’t have a computer, or the teacher tells you theirs is broken. Maybe your format isn’t compatible with an outdated system – or vice versa. Until you know in detail what will and will not be available to you, come prepared with the basics.

  • Colored chalk – believe it or not, young kids are easily enthralled by your stick figures done in colored chalk. It brightens up the board and makes class a little cheerier. While white chalk is universal, not all schools carry colored chalk, so pick up a supply until you know for sure.
  • Colored magnets – these are great for designating teams (both for games and for class control) and again, they add a splash of color to a dull board
  • Stickers/stamps – these make for great rewards systems (which I will detail further on). Shanghai kids are by nature, highly competitive. They love counting up their stamps and stickers to see who has the most int he classroom.
  • Large color flashcards – again, if that PPT with your wonderful slide show isn’t working, bring your backup. You can find printing places and color copier shops on every corner in Shanghai and it doesn’t cost much at all (less than 1rmb per sheet) to get large 8×10 color pics. Color attracts students attention, and small FC’s are hard for kids at the back of the room to see.
  • A game plan – you may laugh, but a lesson plan is something that can save your class from devolving into chaos, and yet it is one of the things most people swear they don’t need. A proper school/university in your home country would demand lesson plans from you in advance – why should you treat this job any differently? Plan your class and when you’re done – plan some more. The golden rule of thumb – if you teach for 35 minutes, plan for 45.

The First Day

The first time I was in a classroom, I had nothing. I was told we were going to look at a school. About ten minutes after we got there, I was ushered towards a classroom and told ‘You’ll teach in 5 minutes’.

‘Teach what?’ I asked, completely flabbergasted and clueless.

‘Anything you like’, was the answer and then I was pushed through the door.

Forty pairs of eyes stared at me curiously and I had to fight back the urge to jump out the window (the door was blocked by curious local teachers who wanted to see what I was going to do). ‘Hello,’ I said shakily, and as one, they chorused back, ‘Hello!’

‘How are you?’ I ventured.

They parroted back: ‘I’m fine thank you and you?’

Aaaaaaand that was it – I was tapped out. I wracked my brain frantically, trying to figure out where to go from there. I grabbed a piece of chalk and began nervously sketching animals on the blackboard. The children watched me with bright, interested eyes, and to my shock – and relief – they began calling out the names.



Oh, thank the gods, we had a starting point! I drew a big house, about a dozen more animals and set about teaching them about the English word ‘pet’ and whether or not they had one. By the time we had established that the triangle sitting on top of the square on the blackboard was indeed supposed to be their apartment and not my house back in Canada, the bell rang and they charged out of the room. I collapsed, limp as a wet dishrag and completely exhausted from 40 minutes of tension-filled terror and scrabbling to fill time.

One of the local teachers eventually detached herself from the group and came over to me. She had a sympathetic look on her face and she held out her hand to me, saying, ‘Would you like me to help you?’

I swear, I burst into tears and begged for her guidance.Thus began the next three months of her teaching me how to teach.

Now, I was lucky. Not everyone gets a local teacher kind enough – and brave enough – to walk up to the foreigner and offer their help. Most of the time, the local teachers take time to warm up to us because we come across as intimidating. In many cases, we’re physically bigger than they are, and we speak English fluently – which makes them nervous about heir own ability. Chances are, unless they’ve dealt with a foreign teacher in their school previously, they’re going to be wary around you until you prove you’re there as an actual teacher, and not just a paycheck-surfer, traveling from place to place and teaching just to earn some spending money.

Come prepared to handle everything on your own, and be happy and grateful if someone guides you along the way. A simple chant, a get-to-know-you game, something that gets students opening their mouths and moving along (TBR / TPR = total body response / total physical response). Get them to practice simple commands you’re going to need them to know in a modified Simon Says – raise your hand, stand up, sit down etc. It will make your life so much easier in the long run, and you won’t need any translating done.

Most importantly, smile! Have fun with these kids! They will love you automatically, and they want to do whatever you want to do! If you’re not having fun, chances are neither are they. So check your dignity at the door and get in there!