Thinking about classrooms – Chuck

Making Classrooms Everywhere Matter More – Chuck Sandy

Chuck Sandy

Last year when still working at the university I was working at then, I began spending my entire day sitting outside with students. My workstation was a park bench. I’d sit there talking with whoever came, sometimes helping with homework, but often just listening to students as they’d tell me about problems they were having in their lives. When it was time for one of my classes, I’d gather my students together and we’d head inside to spend ninety minutes in a traditional classroom. When class was over, we’d head back outside and the learning continued. People would come and go, but I began thinking of that bench as the non-stop classroom. Great things happened there: thesis topics were discovered, new directions were found, hearts got mended, complaints got heard, and when one student we all loved was killed in a motorcycle accident, grief was acknowledged and shared.  I learned as much as I taught. The thing is, at that moment in my teaching career,  and for lot of different reasons, I’d lost the support of most of my colleagues at the university and had no local professional community.  Looking back, I see those days on the park bench as one of the most rewarding periods of my life as a teacher. Still, I doubt I would have realized this as quickly as I have had it not been for the global community of connected teachers: people like you who helped me see that my work mattered.

Long ago, my teacher, the poet Cid Corman, modeled this kind of teaching for me by quitting his job at a famous university and taking up daily residence in a Kyoto coffee shop. Cid would sit there from 10 AM till 5 PM five days a week, welcoming whoever came to learn with a big smile followed by his warm, undivided attention. I was one of those people, and one of the things Cid taught me was that a classroom doesn’t need to be in a school nor does being a teacher mean working in a classroom. What’s important, said Cid, is community and feeling valued by that community. In addition to learners like me, Cid’s community was the worldwide community of poets who in those days supported each other via airmailed letters. Those letters connected him the way the internet connects me.

I was thinking about all this recently when I came across an old post I’d written for Eltnews and rediscovered an activity I’d done with my students, one where I’d asked them to tell me about their favorite and least favorite classrooms and allowed them the freedom to say anything. Here’s some of what they came up with that day:

In my favorite classroom …

We get to talk about interesting stuff.

Everyone laughs a lot and has fun.

The teacher listens to me.

I feel excited and I learn a lot.

I’m happy being there.

In my least favorite classroom …

The mood is not good.

The teacher talks all the time.

We use computers all the time in a boring way.

It has nothing to do with my life.

I don’t have any friends there.

Clearly, what was important to those students was not the classroom itself, but rather how they felt about being there. No matter where students learn and teachers teach, they need to feel welcome, challenged, connected, and valued. This can happen anywhere, no fancy classroom or even school required. What is required though is support from a community, and increasingly, the only support that can be readily found is from the online community of connected educators around the world: people like you.

Not long ago I got a Facebook message from a teacher friend in Syria letting me know that he and some colleagues had set up a school in a refugee center. They worked in the most basic of classrooms with learners living in the most basic of conditions. He wrote on his Facebook page that working with children there was like taking a course in innocence where the first lesson he taught was “though I live in the hardest of life conditions, I can still find a reason to smile.” Although I’ve only met this teacher once, he’s an important person to me. Today, I learned he’d been accepted into an MA program at a good university abroad. When I heard, I felt his joy.

In Indonesia, I met an iTDi member whose father is also a teacher. She told me her father walks jungle paths and across a river each day to meet his students in a village school with dirt floors and no electricity. Although his classroom has nothing, he works to connect students with the world, teaching English as a way out and forward. He believes that as a teacher, his role is to open doors that would otherwise be invisible to his students. His teacher daughter believes she can change the world. I believe it, too. She’s now active on social media and is an edu-blogger. Daily she’s empowered by the teachers she’s met online through iTDi and elsewhere.

Back in the 1930s my grandmother taught in a one-room schoolhouse where students wrote with chalk on slate tablets, sat on hard wooden benches, shared textbooks, and studied by lamplight. Still something magical must have happened in that room because when she passed away at 99 many of her former students, then senior citizens themselves, came to her funeral to tell stories about how what they’d learned in that little schoolroom with my grandmother had changed their lives and how the local community was centered around what happened in that school.

Learning and teaching can happen in one-room schools, in refugee camps, at village schools in jungles, on park benches, over coffee in coffee shops, or in completely wired classrooms at the most up-to-date schools. It doesn’t matter where it happens. It only matters that it does happen and that all teachers have community support. Today, the local community of my grandmother’s day is gone. Today, that community is you, reading this.

If the sky was the limit, and it is, I would put far less emphasis on classrooms and focus resources and energy on teacher development. I would work to get all teachers everywhere connected while helping teachers everywhere understand that the work they do matters, that they are valued, that we’re all in this together and that it will only be by joining hands and supporting each other that we’ll make classrooms everywhere matter more.  In fact, this is the work I do, and it’s why I work with iTDi.


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Working with Groups – Chuck Sandy

Chuck Sandy

Make Space For Introverts  –  Chuck Sandy

Although group work has become an almost de rigueur part of modern communicative language teaching, it’s well worth remembering that not all learners feel entirely comfortable about this. I know this because I’m one of those learners. I’m an introvert, and according to Susan Cain, I am not alone.  In fact, in her recent book Quiet: The Power of Introverts In a World That Can’t Stop Talking and in her Ted talk, Cain estimates that in a classroom or workplace, between one third and a half of all people self-identify as introverts.

Yet, introverts like me are not shy. They are just quieter and more introspective than extroverts. While the truly shy withdraw because they fear social judgment, introverts, according to Cain and my own experience, are not withdrawn at all. They’re simply people who work best and learn most in quieter low-key environments — as in alone. While extroverts thrive on outside stimulation and interaction, introverts most often just find a way to put up with it all unless they’re given some options.

I was in graduate school when I first learned how introverted I am and how much I disliked group work. Every assignment we had in my first semester was some group project leading to some group presentation. This was so painful for me, I even thought about getting out of education and going back to literature. Fortunately, in my second semester, I took a class in Educational Psychology with Dr. Linda McCain who did group work so differently that it not only helped get me through grad school, but also wound up informing how I’ve arranged my own classes throughout my entire teaching career.

Here’s some of what I learned about group work from Dr. McCain:

Create Space for introverts by organizing desks or chairs in fairly circular arrangements of three or five whenever possible.  This allows for anyone who does not wish to get close and personal to sit him or herself back a bit from the group, while also forcing the group to work harder at being cohesive. I know this sound contradictory, but believe me: it works. My experience is that five works better than three, and that seven is too big, but experiment with this yourself and see what’s best. When pair work is called for, one group member simply turns and works with someone from a neighboring group on that activity.

Allow groups to self-organize and organically change membership over the course. Learners are better aware of who they work best with than their teachers are, so unless a problem develops, let learners organize themselves. Of course, be ready to step in and gently suggest changes when problems arise, but try to frame your suggestion in a positive way. You might say something like, “I’ve noticed that you enjoy X. Most of the people in Group Y do, too. How about joining them?” instead of “If you don’t be quiet, I’m going to move you to another group.”

Do some group building activities early onto help group members find their strengths and weaknesses. One that I’ve enjoyed doing is The Marshmellow Challenge in which groups get a marshmallow, several pieces of uncooked spaghetti noodles,  some tape, and a string with which they have to build a tower. As groups work, they invariably discover who has leadership skills, who has organizational skills, and who quietly watches before later popping in with an idea. Of course the teacher sees this, too, but doing a post activity reflection helps bring the point home for everyone.

Have group members organically choose a group role that’s comfortable for them. For example, in groups of five, you might need a group leader who makes sure everyone is included, a secretary who takes notes, a task-master who keeps everyone on task, a language master who makes notes about new vocabulary and grammar encountered or needed, and a reporter whose job is to report back to the class. In those varied roles there is something for both extroverts and introverts.

Allow time for quiet individual deskwork even while sitting in groups. Not everything has to be done collectively. If group assignments are introduced by and followed up with individually done reflective writing or vocabulary/ grammar revision, this creates more space for the introverts to do what they do best.

Create alternative ways to do assignments and projects. Better yet, allow students to come up with their own suggestions for how they’d like to do a project. When learners are offered several possible ways into and through an activity or project, everyone is likely to find a way that works for them along with some new ways they can then tell others about and be proud of having discovered.

Be sensitive to and aware of the ever-changing moods and energy levels of your learners, and allow an out for those who do not feel like sharing much. Even extroverts have quiet introspective low-energy days on which they’d rather not share their feelings and opinions about whatever topic the group is focusing on. In fact, almost everyone has a day when they’d rather sit back and read a book or even take a break and go out for a walk. Why not let them do just that? Encourage a class atmosphere which is open enough that anyone, introvert or extrovert, can opt out when needed. Sometimes, just knowing that’s a possibility is a way forward.

And thank you Dr. McCain. After all these years I’m still using what you taught me — happily learning and teaching in my own introverted way. ~ Chuck Sandy

About Chuck: Chuck Sandy is a teacher, teacher trainer, author & educational activist with more than 30 years of experience. His many publications include the Passages and Connect series from Cambridge University Press,  the Active Skills For Communication series from Cengage Learning, and English For Teachers from iTDi. He is a frequent presenter at conferences and workshops around the world. Chuck believes that positive change in education happens one student, one classroom, and one school at a time, and that it arises most readily out of dialogue and in collaboration with other educators. He is a cofounder and director of iTDi.

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Presenting Vocabulary – Chuck Sandy

Chuck Sandy

The Vocabulary Masters    –  Chuck Sandy

 “Once we truly know that life is difficult — once we truly understand and accept it — then life is no longer difficult.” – M. Scott Peck

Substitute learning for life, say the new quote aloud, then read on:

When I heard my colleague-at-large, Rob Waring say several years ago at a conference that he’d walked into his university EFL class on the first day, handed his students a copy of the 570 word Academic Word List (AWL) and told them they were going to learn it, I thought this sounded both painful and a bit much. It turns out I was sort of right about it being painful but completely wrong about it being a bit much.

I found this out by trying it myself with two different university EFL classes I’d been charged with teaching: the highest-level freshman class at the university and the lowest level sophomore class.

On the first day in both classes, I announced our goal for the semester was to learn the academic world list, made that sound as exciting as I could, and then did what Rob had suggested. I passed out copies of the AWL and had students draw an x through the words they knew, place a check mark next to the words they sort of knew, and circle the words they didn’t know. I was pretty sure we had a real challenge on our hands when later I discovered that the best student in either class had circled only 119 words and that in both classes there were students who knew none of the words well enough to circle any.

The next thing we did in both classes was to talk about how best to go about learning these 570 words. I confessed that because I am not an expert on vocabulary learning, I’d need their help, and though they looked shocked about this, they willingly got into groups and came up with some great ideas that they shared with the class. I wrote all ideas on the board, and then we ranked them from most to least effective, most to least fun, and wildest to most boring. We had ideas that fit all categories, and I’d like to share some of the best with you.

Before I continue though, let me tell you the end of the story. In the next to the last class, we took a test on all 570 AWL words and in both classes more than half of the students scored 100% and though we’d mutually agreed to set the passing score at 80%, not a single student failed. When on the last day I passed the tests back and announced the results, both classes cheered. They’d done it! They knew they’d done it.  They were vocabulary masters, and for some in the lowest level class, it was probably the first time probably they’d been masters of anything.

And how did this happen?  Well, it wasn’t magic. It was them coming to embrace a difficult goal while slowly coming to realize  (because of the disciplined time they put into reaching it) that it could be done. It was them taking ownership for how learning happened. It was me believing in them and then them believing in each other.  It was good painful fun.

I won’t tell you about the weekly quizzes we did on AWL’s sublists or the flashcards we created on Quizlet or even how we used those cards to play rounds of Vocabulary Master, a flashcard game the students invented and decided to play the first 15 minutes of every class as they tested themselves on that weeks words, but I will tell you about ….

The Wall of WordsSince our classroom was graced on two sides by old fashioned black boards, the students decided to use these in every class to group AWL words in different ways. At first they decided to group the words by part of speech. Later they decided it might be more effective to come of with categories like Science, Environment, Politics, and Society to group the words into, even though they often had to defend and revise their decisions, which they came to enjoy. Students also used their cell phones to take photos of the word walls to keep for both their memory and at home study.

Chuck Image 1


Hot 50 At some point students decided it would be useful to work in groups, choose one of the categories they’d created, and decide as a group what 50 words (out of 570) best fit that category and were most important to learn. They then presented their decisions to the class, and later we used these to decorate the room.

chuck image 3

HOT 10 Song What would happen if we took 10 words from the Hot 50 poster, worked in groups and turned them into a song, the students wondered, so we tried that. This was one of the less successful activities but probably one that was the most fun and therefore very motivating after all those quizzes and flashcard games.  Have a look hereto see a little clip of one group in the process of creating their song.

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Human Vocabulary Well, how about if we spelled out some words with our bodies and had others guess the word? Or how about if we each became an adjective and acted that out? This was wildly fun, and a nice break from the other more traditional sorts of learning we were doing.


Chuck Image 5

Chuck Image 6

In addition to these class activities, students chose among several options such as writing a daily blog post using some of the vocabulary, writing collaborative quizzes to share with group members, keeping a vocabulary notebook, and writing their own personal dictionary for at home study. Meanwhile, they studied. They memorized. They quizzed themselves. They encouraged each other, and in the end, had some fun while putting up with the pain that was no longer pain because it had been accepted and became Vocabulary Masters.

Motivating our students – Chuck Sandy

Please Stop Talking About Motivation — Chuck Sandy

Chuck Sandy

When we say someone is unmotivated, what we often mean is they are not doing what we think they should be doing. When we say we ourselves our lacking motivation, what we often mean is “I don’t feel like doing anything today” or “I don’t feel very well” or even “I don’t feel like I belong here.” It sounds like depression, doesn’t it?

Openly confessing to being unmotivated is sometimes a small act of personal rebellion and sometimes a call for help. When it’s a call for help, having to listen to someone talk about motivation will just make things worse.

Our students don’t usually use words to describe their inner states. They act them out in ways that can look like a lack of motivation but isn’t. When we see someone doing this, we have to stop and say to ourselves, “No, I am not going to walk over and give a lecture on the importance of being motivated.” Yet, sometimes we do what we have just told ourselves we shouldn’t. Why do we do this?

Often it’s because we mistakenly feel it’s about us.  It’s not about us, yet we look at a student acting out and looking openly unmotivated and think, “I am not reaching this student, do not know how to reach this student, and the only thing I can think to do is stop this behaviour because it’s a threat.” Such thoughts occur to all of us. We’re human.

I’ve got a student who worked hard getting me to notice how unmotivated he is. Every time he slouched down or pulled out his mobile or indicated he has no book, pen, or paper, he looked at me to see if this would be the moment I walked over and used the voice of authority on him – the one he’s probably had used on him all his life.

He acted out. I responded in a normal way. He stopped what he was doing, and then started doing something doubly annoying. I ignored that because it wasn’t bothering anyone except me.  Instead I commented on something else and walked away. It was a stand off that lasted until one day he could stand it no longer.

As I approached his group to talk to another student, he looked up and said in a loud angry voice “I’ve got a headache, alright?” I was completely taken aback. He glared at me, repeated this line in an angrier voice, and then waited. I confess, I almost said something different from what I did say, but what I did say was, “I’m sorry to hear that. Why don’t you go to my office and take a nap. The door’s open.”

He picked up his bag, turned to me, and said, “I’m not stupid, you know.”  I said, “I know that. I didn’t say you are. I said maybe you could use a nap. My office is a great place to take naps.” He stormed off without another word.

An hour later, he came in, sat down, asked someone what we were doing, and started doing it. At the end of class, when the room was empty he said, “You have a nice office” and left.  That was about a month ago. Since then he’s become what some might call a motivated person. He’s pleasant, brings his materials and participates.

Why do people act like this and what happened there? I have no idea, but clearly there was much more than a nap involved. Some wall fell down. A new understanding was born between us and something important happened.

People sometimes work hard at putting up fences to keep others from coming in their inner world and messing things up. I don’t know why people do that, but they do. If you’re going to be a teacher, you have to understand this has nothing to do with motivation and nothing to do with you. Your job is to wait patiently, look for an opening in the fence and when you see it, reach in and say the right thing. A miracle happens when we are able to do this.

It’s as simple and as complex as that.  —  Chuck Sandy

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Learning to See – Chuck

Will You Please Be Quiet, Please   — Chuck Sandy


When I first came to Japan, I lived in Tokyo and worked not too far from where I’m sitting now in the Ginza area of Tokyo. For several years, I’d finish classes and head to Ginza to wander the streets. I can honestly say that I’ve never been lost in Ginza– until this morning.

Yesterday, I traveled to Tokyo from rural Japan for a conference.  As usual when I’m in Tokyo, I booked a hotel in Ginza but this time reserved a room at a new hotel – a few blocks from where I usually stay. This morning, I woke up there with a lot on my mind and went for a walk.  I had no destination in mind. All I wanted to do was walk. I confirmed the check out time. 11 AM.  I had two hours to wander and off I went.

As I walked, I thought about a loved one going through a difficult time, about a conversation I’d had in which I was unable to express my ideas clearly or kindly enough. Soon, I was remembering advice my father had once given me that would have been useful yesterday.  Meanwhile, I was reminding myself to email this person or call that one, thinking about this blog post and where I’d write it, and deciding what order I should do what.  That’s when I looked up and saw that it was 10:45 and I was lost.

I looked around for landmarks, spotted one, and headed in what I was sure was the right direction. It was the right direction, but while I was out construction workers had put scaffolding outside my hotel, making it look like nothing I’d seen before. I passed right by it in a panic.

I started mentally rehearsing the language I would use to explain why I was late checking out. What form of the verb should I use, and why hadn’t I just checked out before I went for a walk?  Why had I even booked this hotel? Gosh, Chuck, you’re such an idiot., I told myself.   While having this internal conversation, I walked by the hotel three times before asking a construction worker for directions.  “It’s right in front of you,” he said, “You’re looking at it.”

My internal chatter, my increasing panic, and my stored mental image of the hotel entrance had blinded me. I’d gotten lost inside myself.  It happens. It happens to all of us, and it happens frequently in the classroom.

I’m reading a book called The Untethered Soul by Michael A. Singer. In this book, Singer writes about the voice inside all of us, about how that voice can get us to believe it is who we are and is reality itself. It’s not. “What voice?” I can hear you asking.   Say the word “hello” silently in your mind. Make your inner voice say “hello” several times.  Hear that? That voice.  Make it shout “hello” inside yourself. Make it say, “I’m not good at ______.”  No, stop. Don’t complete that sentence. Make the voice say, “I’m really good at ______.  Complete the sentence in different ways. Listen to yourself. Now, think about this.

Inside all of us, writes Singer,  “there is a voice talking, and there is you who notices the voice talking and you listening.” Are you the voice, the observer, or the listener?  Think about this and you’ll realize you are the one who listens, not the one who’s talking. You’ll also understand that your inner voice isn’t reality. It’s your mental model of reality and when you pay too much attention to it or let it get out of control, it can get you lost and panicky.

In the classroom, this is the voice that can say things like this isn’t working and that student is causing problems and I should have planned better and I’m not very good at …. .  Stop it.  You’re getting lost. Take a deep breath. Look for landmarks, spot one and head in that direction. Better yet, before you get to class, take some moments to quiet that voice.  At the very least, get it to tell you something good.

As always, I’m writing about something I’m trying to get better at myself. Obviously, I fail sometimes and wind up lost and panicky. What’s clear to me is that if I want to see clearly what really is, I’m going to have to keep working on this while telling myself this noisy chatter inside me is not me.  I am good enough. This IS going to be FUN. Now, will you please be quiet please? 

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