keeping it cool: Classroom management in the ESL classroom

March 26, 2011

Right now is having a blog carnival on classroom management.  It comes at a good time because the semester is just starting, and the first few weeks are really, really, really, important for classroom management.

I teach 1st years (high Schools in Korea have only 3 years and they are 1st, 2nd, and 3rd year – they like to keep it simple here)  My students are just out of middle school, and they are still getting their balance for high school.  Some of them have had a foreign teacher, and some of them haven’t.  They have had to deal with different styles and different emphasis from their foreign teachers or this is the first time they have had one.

Many foreign teachers play games, or have the Korean c0-teacher translate everything. I do not do these things. I also do not give out candy to keep my students in line.  And yes these first few weeks I will be a lot more strict and “mean” than I will be later in the year. Mostly because it is a hell of a lot easier to lighten up towards the end of the year, than to try to get them in line at the end of the year.

I don’t think I’m a very strict teacher, but I do have rules, they are necessary if you want to get anything accomplished.  Ted at Ted’s TEFL teacher training blog ( ) has some good ideas, and he really talks about keeping your cool, and having clear rules.  Mine are the big three:  1. Everyone works together  2. Everyone does presentation 3. Respect each other.   When I come in the classroom the first thing I do, after I say good morning or good afternoon, is have the students repeat the rules to me, and then I put them up on the  board.  If students aren’t working, I go up to them and ask: “What is Rule 1?” or if they are talking when other people are doing their presentation I will go up to them and ask: “What is Rule 2?”  — I really don’t like it when students talk during presentations, so I often ask them to repeat what the student giving the presentation says.  (it is also good to help them with their listening skills).

But having all the discipline in the world won’t help you if you don’t have a good lesson plan, come to class unprepared or un-engaged, or (here in Korea a distressingly common problem) hung over.  If you don’t care, why should your students?  Also your lessons have to be relevant and actually have something they can use.  You also can’t expect  40 teenagers to just sit there and pay attention while you drone on. Seriously you have to mix it up.

Jenna Makowski has a post up on managing teens: and she talks a lot about varying the activities.  I agree with her in principle.  She talks in the blog post about playing games. Normally I do use games much in the classroom, although my probably copyright infringed version of “Clue” works really well.  My biggest reason for not using board games is that in a class with 16-30 students a board game is just not practical at all. The dice get thrown around and lost, the students either have to wait to long or if you put them in different groups keeping your eye on everyone is too difficult. So I modified “Clue” so students are in teams and each team has to ask the other teams for the cards they want, then I allow all the teams to “guess” who murdered “Mr. Body” and the team that has the most  correct guesses wins.  It sounds complicated, but it does work.    Ms. Makowski has some great ideas for grammar and vocabulary games.  I would add a modified “Taboo” for vocabulary – have the students have to give a definition of each word, and their team has to guess the word, and the team that gets the most words correct WINS!

Overall Korean students are very good. They usually don’t misbehave in the classroom much.  The biggest problem is sleeping in the classroom. (at least it doesn’t disturb the other students as long as they don’t snore) –  1/2 of my students don’t want to be in the English classroom at all. Still I’ve found that if I can give the students activities they are able to do, and the tools to do them, they will usually do what you need them to do in the classroom. Sleep deprivation is a serious problem here, but I haven’t gotten to upset about it. Most of the time if I find a student sleeping, I’ll ask if she is ill. Many times they will say “no”, but if they are, I let them sit in back and put their head down.  I also try to remember that I really have no idea what is going on in her life.  I don’t know if she was up all night because of a sister that was ill, or if she had to work to help the family out, or if she was left alone in the apartment and was scared of something or someone (my students are all over 16 so it isn’t neglect although that does happen here too).  I just don’t know. So I try to be compassionate.

To be continued.

My evil plan is working

March 23, 2011

I work in a high school. Therefore I eat lunch in a high school cafeteria.  Most of the meals are as you would expect.  Last year, we actually had some pretty good food.  Then the top dietitian got married. Although I am happy for her, the food quality went way down.  Now, some of the lunches were very helpful to my resolution to ‘eat less’. (the ‘exercise more’ still needs work)  The lunch ajuma also made it easier to eat less by getting slightly grumpy if you went back for more.

So I hatched an evil plan.  I started saying to the lunch ajuma “thank you” and smiling broadly.  I made a point to say something to her everyday.  Soon she learned the English phrase “help yourself” and “enjoy your meal” – she also got a lot less grumpy if I went back for seconds.  And… although it is still high school cafeteria food, I’ve noticed that the food I pointed out as especially good, and the food I’ve gone back for, is offered slightly more often. (although the horrible kimchi wrapped fish that everyone else but me loves, is still offered distressingly often)

Bwaa haha haha”  she says as she rubs her hands together “my evil plan is working”.


Fresh faces

March 19, 2011

So the new year has begun in earnest.  Here we start in March, not August like in the states. So all my students from last year are in 2nd year now, and I only have 80 of them in my special English class. I have all new students for 1st year.  Fresh faces staring back at me, some eager, some bored, some uncomprehending, some happy, some sad, some shy, some out going.  I always get a little excited and nervous at the new semester.  I hope they like me, I hope they learn something, I hope they have fun in my class, I hope they don’t have so much fun they forget to do their homework.

I’m especially excited about my 2nd year class. We are going to work on our writing.  I wrote a workbook for them, and this is the first year it will be used “for real” – so far I’ve gotten two of the worksheets back (and almost everyone has done their homework a very happy burden) and I’m pretty impressed and happy with the work they are doing.  Korean has a very different grammatical structure from English, and many of my students have a hard time with word order and word placement in sentences. Some of my students are really working hard and they have quite a bit of creativity. Yes slogging through sentences that have “interesting” grammar can be difficult, but, reading sentences that have a song in them… that is awesome.   Right now we are working on nouns. This week  I had them put two nouns into a sentence of 6 to 10 words.  I still have to remind them that the adjective goes before the noun, and the adverb goes after the verb, but so far I’m very happy with the results.

My little first years are going to be awesome. I can feel it.  Most of the classes are pretty active, so my biggest problem is keeping them on task and speaking English.   They want  candy because the middle school teachers often use candy to help control their class. I have a whole rant on why I hate hate hate hate hate the practice, but for now, I will just have to work on re-training them to do the right thing without a cavity inducing reward.  One of my tricks is to use a call response when I want to change activities or just get their attention.  Last year I used the song “We will rock you” by Queen.  Since I already have the CD, I decided to keep a Queenly theme by using “Another one bites the dust” – 1/2 my students have the beat and can sing it pretty well.   The other half will need a bit more practice. I think Queen is a very appropriate group for my students.  I teach all girls and so “princess syndrome” can become a bit of a problem. I tell my students that’s OK, they can indeed be a princess.  Just as long as they remember I am the Queen, and this is not a constitutional monarchy.   I don’t think most of them know what constitutional monarchy means, but they get the idea that I hold absolute power within my classroom and that is the important thing.

In case you were wondering how my students see me– this is me, telling them they are awesome.

And here is one of the best “I am proud to be a teacher rants I’ve heard in a long time.  It makes me proud to be a teacher.  I wish he would speak more

Oh and before I forget, let me introduce a friend’s blog. She’s doing a lot with jewelry and homemade soaps.  I have some of the most creative people for friends.  I feel blessed.

On Japan

March 12, 2011

I was going to write about my first week back in school. I had some musings on school life here in Korea, and some thoughts on food for my cousin. But.

Last night reports of the earthquake and tsunami started to pour in, and luckily I was able to hear from friends in Japan who are safe. Not everyone is.  Their nuclear reactor’s core has been breached and that is going to be troublesome for a long time after the initial cleanup has been completed.

When I was young I didn’t understand how living in interesting times could be a curse.  Who wants to live in boring times? But as I get older, I have come to value safety and comfort.

I have been amazingly lucky in my life. I don’t know what it is like to lose family or friends to natural disaster. I don’t know what it is like to lose my home, my security, my health.  I am reminded just how blessed I am, as I wish for blessing on those not so fortunate.

Before we are distracted by the latest faux outrage and celebrity’s train-wreck, there are people who are out there everyday, working to alleviate suffering around the world:

The International Red Cross and Crescent :

Doctors without Borders :

And if you are feeling small and helpless in the face of such tragedy remember this guy and his friends have already taken over the world.



Because Dinosaurs are cool

March 7, 2011

It started, like these things usually do, with a phone call.  A friend called and asked if I wanted to see some cool dinosaurs. I said, who doesn’t want to see dinosaurs?.  She said, lets go to the Seodaemun Natural History Museum (  I said, sounds cool.  So the adventure began.

First we met at a coffee shop in Sinchon, and took a bus, then went a teeny, tiny bit too far, got off, walked a bit, felt totally lost, asked a very nice policeman, got directions, walked some more, saw a really cool river walk , and then found a very cool building that housed… you guessed it…. dinosaurs!

Of course it was, like most things here, upon a fairly steep hill, but well worth the climb. For only 3,000 won you can see quite a few dinosaurs, a mammoth, an anatomically correct display of human ancestors, a very cool polar bear, some insects, and a very good film about the start of the solar system (even though the narration was in Korean, it was still pretty cool).  I didn’t go into the display about man and nature, mostly because after going home and eating lots of pot roast, chili, and homemade vegetable soup, I was feeling optimistic about the future and didn’t want to ruin it.  My friend said that the display does indeed make a case for the human race being kind of doomed.

And the star of the show:

She’s back!

March 3, 2011

I must admit, February was probably not the best choice for travel. But. With lunar New Year the first week and my vacation days, it seemed to work out perfectly, and I got my tickets before the price went up as well. It seemed like a good plan on paper.

Well. I arrived in Dallas right when one of the worst winter storms hit the south. Dallas really didn’t know how to deal with snow. At all. The airline canceled my flight to St. Lewis, Louis and it was just as well, because my aunt wouldn’t have been able to get there to pick me up. So I thought I’d get a bus to Corpus Cristi and see my sister and my maternal aunts.  The buses at the airport were not running, but there were a few taxis, so I got one to the Dallas greyhound station. What would normally take 20 minutes took 1 and a 1/2 hours.  People were slip sliding away on the road, and I was a bit stressed.  When I got to the station, the clerks informed me that there were no buses leaving Dallas. So I tried to walk to the Amtrak station, to take a train.  I slipped slided away on the sidewalks trying to walk the three blocks to the station. It was pretty harrowing, with the wind and the ice and the fact that nothing was cleared.  Dallas was a ghost town, with only a few cars out, and almost no people.  I crossed a street to get to one hotel near the train station, and called Amtrak and found out the train to San Antonio had already left. So I made a reservation for the next morning and got a room.

The next morning I went across the street to the station, and despite the short distance it was a bit of an adventure, since I didn’t have ice skates, and trying to carry my luggage while sliding across the street was a bit more interesting than I would have liked.  I got to the station only to find out that the train was delayed.  For 5 hours.  Finally I got to San Antonio.  San Antonio was the nearest station to Corpus Cristi, and my hope was to get a bus down there. I thought it would be far enough south, and it wouldn’t be a big problem.  Well.  The buses out of San Antonio weren’t running. They had an inch of snow, and of course, they had to close all the roads, including the interstate. This was the first time I’ve ever heard of an interstate closing. So I got a room, and tried to get a bus the next day. No dice.  San Antonio is a beautiful city, and the river walk would have been fun, if anything had been open. Osco drugstore was open, and two restaurants, but most of the stores were closed, and since it was very cold, I decided not to explore more.

3 days and two “What not to wear” marathons later, I called my sister and told her, I would not be coming to Corpus Cristi this time.  She was a bit upset, but in the end, since there were no buses out, and the train only went north, she forgave me.  So I took a train to St. Lewis, Louis and then to Springfield to see my paternal aunts and uncles.  5 days after I landed in the US, I finally got to see some family.  Chili was waiting for me.  I did do some other things beside eat, but really, most of my holiday was spent eating, doing puzzles, and talking.

I did do one exciting thing. I went to a hockey game. The St. Lewis Louis Blues vs. The Anaheim Ducks.   Of course we were rooting for the Blues. And. WE WON, 9-3.  It was an exciting game. I kind of like hockey. The game is fairly simple and easy to follow, but it is fast and has a lot going on.  ( I didn’t like the fights, but if the players, the refs, and the fans like it, who am I to judge)

I’m not sure what is going on here, but it was fun.

My cousin Raymond, who brought me to the hockey game, also created a monster.  He brought Yahtzee to my aunt’s house. We played quite often.  I also shopped, and ate, and caught up with everyone. We even baked zucchini bread for the teachers here.

It was good to see everyone, and I’m just sorry I didn’t see my sister or my other aunts. (and I’m very sorry I didn’t get to eat any gumbo, because all of my aunts, maternal and paternal, are very good cooks.- I’m not sure what happened to me- I’m an aunt now, and I think that should bring some kind of magical cooking ability, but sadly, no.)

And now I’m back, the first day of classes went well, and I’ve almost finished unpacking.

a picture of snow from my aunts porch for your enjoyment

* Yes I do feel like an idiot for misspelling St. Louis three times.