Over the Wall of Experience

Kevin SteinBy Kevin Stein

I’ve been a high school English teacher for 10 out of the past 15 years. Before that I spent five years as a coordinator of an outreach program for runaway youth in Chicago.  I wish that those years of experience added up to a deep understanding of teenagers that I could share with you, a key to unlocking the secret fears and longings that sometimes hide behind a sullen look or a blank face of boredom.  But honestly, I probably understand my teenage students less than when I first started working with ‘the youth’.  Probably because the older I get, the less I remember about what made the daily grind of my junior high school and high school days difficult.  So instead of insights into what teenagers are or are not like, I thought I would share 4 things I try to keep in mind that my 45-year-old perspective doesn’t get in the way of communicating with my students.

1. Students have to go to school every day, but there are days they would rather be somewhere else. Sometimes my students work late at a part-time job to help their family make ends meet. Probably the last thing they want to be doing is sitting at a desk in school the next day and trying to keep their eyes open. So instead of just acting like my students are the problem because they aren’t in the perfect place to study on any given day, I ask them the following 3 questions: 1) What time did you get to bed last night? 2) Did you eat breakfast today? 3) If you weren’t in school right now, what would you be doing? And I find that if I ask these questions, instead of nudging my students awake, or worse, scolding them for not participating, they usually will answer the questions and give a little bit more effort in class. Because, “I’m interested in what’s going on with you” is a much more motivating sentiment than, “I’m upset with you.”

2. Just because a student isn’t noticeably joining in an activity, doesn’t mean they aren’t participating. Sometimes I see one of my students just kind of hanging back in a group activity and I get the itch to jump in and try and get them more involved in what’s going on. But if I step back and watch, I often notice that while those students might not be speaking or writing, they are often listening, nodding, and making space for others to lead. Instead of feeling that group work requires a certain set of ideal behaviors, I try and remind myself that there’s no way for me to know what role a student is playing in a group of teenagers unless I spend time carefully observing what’s going on.

3. Tests totally suck. And I mean that in a very technical way. For the most part, tests suck the joy out of learning, the curiosity out of a topic, and the energy out of my students. I often try to use alternative testing to assess my students. In any case, regardless of what kind of testing I do, my students have at least 12 years of school experience to trigger feelings that at the end of each semester they will be standing on the lip of a black hole of giant-test-suckiness which is going to pull all the color right out of their lives. That means that in my classrooms I have to keep the focus on learning. I have to highlight the small gains made in each and every class. I have to find a way to make class about learning and NOT about the test. Even then, my students are going to have to suffer through mid-term and final exams, and the least I can do is empathize with how difficult that can be.

4. Time is relative. When I am sitting down and doing career guidance or holding a student-parent-teacher conference, and feel a wave of anxiety about how hard a student will have to work to prepare for a university entry test three years down the road, I need to take a deep breath and give myself a time out. Three years to a sixteen-year-old is the distant future, it is the glowing umbrellas in Blade Runner, it is unknowable. Three years for me sometimes feels like it might arrive the day after tomorrow. But how I feel isn’t really the point of counseling a student about their future. Before I can talk about a student’s future, I need to make sure that I am listening to and understanding the story of their here and now.

I have a friend, Devon, who manages the PR and recruitment division of a large language school here in Osaka. Up until five years ago, he had been a classroom teacher.  Sometimes when we have coffee together, he reminisces about his time in the classroom.  When I asked him why he had stopped teaching, he said, “One day, I was teaching a unit on hobbies and likes and dislikes, and I suddenly felt like there was this huge gap between me and my students.” He said that he just couldn’t find a way to personally connect with his students the way he had in the past. He didn’t think it was anything he had done which had led to the gap. It was just the result of growing and changing and ending up in a place very different from the one he had been in when he started teaching.

The older I get, the more I understand what Devon meant, how he felt on that day. For me, though, there is no job I would rather do and nowhere I would rather spend my workdays than in a classroom. If that means I need to spend a few extra minutes trying to peer over the wall of my 15 years-experience to see my students a bit more clearly, then that is what I will happily do. Because there are no special keys to help us understand our teenage students, just as there are no magic keys to unlock the feelings and dreams of any of the people we talk with throughout our day. The best we can do is to keep in mind that the people in front of us are living their own stories, in their own way. Making real connections with the people around begins not with our own expectations of how things should be, but with watching, listening, and noticing the small moments of how things are now.

The Difference an Audience Makes

Barbara Hoskins SakamotoBy Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto

My teen learners are amazing. After a long day spent in an environment that values English test scores over communicative skills, they still come to my English class. While they appreciate that pronunciation and word choice matter, and that the best way to improve in English is to use it as a means of communication with their classmates, they have a hard time moving away from focusing on getting right answers. They have enough years of experience as students that they’re generally pretty quick at figuring out patterns so that they can create grammatically accurate sentences, yet still have a lot of trouble in using learned language to communicate meaningfully beyond getting the ‘right’ answer.

I’ve found that giving my teens an audience makes a huge difference. Who they are communicating with helps define language parameters.  Trying to communicate something to someone presents students with real-life problems to solve, and encourages them to think deeply about the language they use. Strategic selection of audience and task can help create problem-solving activities that are within my students’ ability to discuss in English. Having an audience tends to help balance the public school focus on English as a subject where success is measured by a test, by focusing on English where success is when communication happens.

Here are three examples where having an audience made a difference.

Listening Tests

When students answer questions, or talk to each other in class, there’s not much motivation to speak clearly. Even when I ask them to record themselves, they don’t work very hard at careful pronunciation. So, I asked my teens to make listening tests for younger students. The preparation was great review for the older students, but even more importantly, the process of recording the test for the younger students encouraged my teens to make a lot of effort in speaking loudly and clearly. They felt responsible for being understandable. You can hear the effort Satoshi makes in his listening test. Click the link to go to Satoshi’s listening test online, in order to hear his recording.

listening test image

Book Reviews

My teens do a lot of writing – it really helps them build fluency with the grammar and vocabulary they’ve learned over the years. Even when they write stories where peers are the audience, it doesn’t really push them to consider word choice in the way an outside audience would. So, I had them write book reviews of books they’d chosen to read from our small library. The first time, I asked them to tell me about the book and if they liked it. I got something like this:

It’s a book about dogs. It’s a good book. I like it.

The second time, I told them we’d put the reviews on our class blog so that students in other countries could read them. I told them that their review would help other students decide whether or not they might want to read the same book. Suddenly, they were thinking about what might information might be important to include in their review in order to help other students make good decisions based on their reading interests. They were also being much more careful about revising and correcting, so they wouldn’t look ‘bad’ in public. You can see how Satoshi includes a summary and recommendation in his review.

The third time, we posted the reviews on Amazon. This time we talked about who would be reading the review – teachers, mostly – and why they would be reading it – to decide whether or not to buy the book for their own students. This time I noticed students really considering what information to include in the review based on who might be reading it.

Satoshi's book review on Amazon


My teens enjoy creating games, and the process can be a great creative and critical thinking activity. However, unless I’m very careful in setting up the activity students tend to switch into their first language when they get caught up in the excitement of deciding content and rules. It’s still a great discussion activity, but not great language practice.

If, however, I ask them to create games for much younger students, the content tends to be language that teens find very easy, and the rules are simple enough that they can manage to keep the discussion in English (mostly, with some reminders).

I asked the students to create a matching card game that would reinforce the language the kindergarten class was learning – shapes, colors, and numbers. They based the first version on a card game they’d seen online (Blink), and then had to decide how many items and how many variations of the items were needed for a game, and then how to adapt the rules so that the kindergarteners could play it in English.

student made game

If you’d like to read more about the game students created, I wrote about it on the Teaching Children English blog.

I don’t always specify an audience for tasks, but when I do I find that it helps my students see English as a tool for communication, using it to communicate something meaningful to a specific audience. Success happens when they communicate clearly enough for someone to understand their speaking on a listening test, or provide enough information to enable someone to make a decision, or create an easy-to-play game that reinforces language practice for a specific group of learners. Success in communicating with people outside of their small class also builds confidence in their ability to interact with others, in English.

T Stands for Tired Teens

Naomi EpsteinBy Naomi Ganin-Epstein

Teens are a tired bunch. Any high school teacher will attest to that. In fact, so will the students themselves. They certainly complain about it and exhibit their tiredness clearly, especially if they suspect you aren’t taking note of the fact.

Teens are tired in many ways.

For starters, teenagers are physically tired because many of them are in the midst of a growth spurt, their bodies are changing and their hormones are raging. Their body seems to be begging them to sleep while their mind’s response seems to be: “Are you kidding? Only little kids go to sleep early!”

Then there are the students who work after school. Juggling schoolwork and a job is a new experience for them and some don’t balance the two well. School may seem to have a lower priority for the adolescent than the job because schools don’t usually fire students for not paying attention.

Naturally, there are those who party till late or others who cannot tear themselves away from their electronic devices…


However, physical tiredness is just part of the picture. You had better wait a minute if you think handing out cups of coffee to the students will be a marvellous idea. Factor in “Tired of being at school for so many years”, “Tired of following rules”, “Tired of being told what to do by adults”, and “Tired of not being considered an adult yet” – and you won’t bother bringing in the coffee cups. Coffee won’t keep these tired teens on target.

“Hold it right there”, you may be saying after you’ve read this far, “I’ve seen teenagers spend tremendous energy on producing a school play, planning a party, or fighting to save a tree particularly favored by owls from being chopped down.” It is true. Teenagers ‘wake up’ when they care passionately about something, when they are all fired up about a project.


But then, what is a teacher to do? Even the most hard-working teacher with the best of intentions can’t make every single lesson one that each and every student will care passionately about. At least I don’t believe that can be done.

What can be done is making sure your teenage students know exactly why the tasks they are expected to do are being assigned, why they are now learning this particular topic, and exactly what the stages are that they need to work through in order to achieve any clearly defined outcome (such as passing a high-stakes test). Busy work is a bad idea in class at all ages, but it is especially disastrous with teenagers. In order to truly get ‘on board’ they have to have a clear understanding of the journey they must undertake and how it’s related to achieving the goal.

Oh, and one more thing… It helps to turn a blind eye sometimes when you see a teenager slacking off (or even nodding off!). You saw them, they know you know, but you didn’t ‘rat on them’ or make fun of them. Your status in their eyes will rise…

No Respect These Days

Marc profile picBy Marc Jones

There are a lot of people who say that they could not teach teenagers, that it is too hard and that there is a “lack of respect”. This lack of respect keeps coming up, again and again. It is usually followed by some comment like “When I was their age, I wouldn’t have dared to do that”, where “that” could be anything from sleeping in class, drawing on desks, or just constant chatter, while the teacher – the authority figure – is there to ward off misbehavior.

Marc's post picLighten up! Maybe I am totally wrong here but these young people with their low-level disorder have reasons for what they do. Some of it is about what goes on in the classroom but some of it has nothing to do with school, let alone your lessons. Some teenagers get sleepy because they have heavy workload and social obligations. Question your responses and those of others around you. Are you sure the gamer who is sleepy in every class is not just trying to escape a turbulent home life? Is the noisy kid acting out or is it that there is so much worry at home that there needs to be a release somewhere? We are not always privy to such information so making assumptions seems unwise.

“They just hang out with their friends or play stupid computer games.” This hanging out is, sorry to say it, probably more important to the development of the teenagers in our charge than the finer points of irregular past-tense verbs. If we can make our language classes more social and provide an outlet for small talk, I think we can say that at least part of our lessons have been successful. “This graffiti is disrespectful.” Yes, it is. That said, nobody in their teens is seized by a desire to sit in rows for six hours a day listening to people on the other side of a wide generation gap. They go to school because there are consequences for not going. If I could have avoided school with no fallout as a teen, I would have. My personal outlet for the frustration I felt was a marker pen on the notices and warnings posted on the walls or in my maths, German and French textbooks. “The low-level disturbance is just constant.” It can be. Why? Could this be harnessed? If not, could it be contained?

I teach in a prestigious school that usually leads to entry to a prestigious university. The boys I see for an hour a week are or have been motivated, but sometimes they get close to breaking. On top of that, factor in the social anxiety and awkwardness that goes with teen age and it is a wonder I do not have outright hysteria on my hands every day.

When I first started working at this school, I was authoritarian with the classes that did not behave in the way I expected. The classes of more acquiescent teenagers were given more of an outlet for fun and creative use of language. In hindsight, the classes that did not live up to my expectations were exactly the ones that needed the outlet more.

So what do I do? Let them run riot? No. The language is there to be used, be it for entertainment or communication. There is a syllabus but as long as it is covered somehow, I do not care how the learning takes place. The only rules are that nobody is disrespectful of anyone, and that jokes are not funny if not everyone is laughing. It generally works, and that is OK; there needs to be a reason to use the language but if it only comes from above, then allowing a bit of subversion is the least I can do.

Nobody writes on the desks because the consequence is cleaning everyone’s desk. There is English spoken because the consequence is that you get more practice and can help your classmates. There is respect, hard won sometimes, transient at others, but it is there. Whether or not I am respected is neither here nor there; if my students at least respect one another, they nail their pragmatics and develop better conversation skills in English. It’s about them. My graffiti days are done.