Things I Teach In School

One of my favorite things about teaching 11 classes is that I get to review so much information, and occasionally I learn something new. Here is a non-comprehensive sample of the variety of topics I have covered so far this year:

  • The nervous, circulatory, excretory, and respiratory systems
  • Dinosaur extinction
  • Evolution
  • Short stories by Flannery O’Connor, D. H. Lawrence, and several New Zealand others; and an adaptation of Sherlock Holmes
  • Birds and mammals
  • The ecosphere and ecosystems
  • Electricity
  • Pulleys, levers, gears, and other simple machines
  • Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol
  • Myers-Briggs Personality Types

Although every subject has its perks, my favorite subject to teach is science–a big surprise to this English major. Every week I am excited to learn about the new topic we will be covering. And then this week happened. And the next Natural Science topic for my 3rd level students is drugs.

I’ve always hated drug education. The drug education I received was dry, preachy, and black and white. We had a list of drugs and their classifications, and then another list of drugs and how they injure and kill you. Growing up, I bought into the black and white wholeheartedly. But because I vowed never to do drugs anyway, details about their effects seemed irrelevant.

These days, I understand drugs to be a large gray area, which is far more interesting! In part, this is because I have learned about neurotransmitters and hormones. What really catches my fancy, though, is the politics of drugs. (I know I’m not the only one. Look at the popularity of The Wire!)

Today, my Natural Science professor handed me a paper with a list of depressants and stimulants and their negative side effects, including the ever-dangerous “feeling of well-being”. My heart sank imagining the lessons from my childhood. I hadn’t had to teach something I didn’t care about yet, and I really didn’t want to start now.

This is a conflict with an anticlimactic solution. I told my professor that I’d like to present the effects of drugs using drug-related news and politics, and she said, “OK!”

So now I get to add one or more of the following topics to my list of subjects:

  • The effects of the cocaine industry
  • Artists of genius and drug use
  • Drawing the line between safe and dangerous drug use
  • Drawing the line between legal and illegal drugs

I think I will find some news articles about these topics, pass them around the class, and have the students debate them. I still have to work out the kinks of the lesson plan, and I should probably create a worksheet that will help them organize their thoughts, but I’m really excited to see what the students have to say!


Trying To Plan A Lesson For Every Student In Every Class

In any class, I can reliably expect three groups of students:

  1. 2-6 students have read the text before class and thoroughly understand it
  2. 8-16 students have skimmed the text before class, but mainly understand it in Spanish as the teacher explained it previously
  3. 4-7 students may or may not have looked at the text, but even if they did, they don’t understand it at all

Group 1: These students raise their hands to answer every question. They would do this all year long if I would let them, and the other students in class would love it and use the class to do other homework. I have to make sure my lesson does not move so quickly that I see other students doing unrelated homework.

Group 2: These students are quick to respond to “recognize” activities like multiple choice and true or false, but require vocabulary review at the start of class before they are confident for “recall” activities like short answer or long answer. Even if they know the answer, they may not be confident enough to volunteer, so I have to make sure I call on students randomly to get them to participate.

Group 3: These students can usually follow along, but can only answer very simple questions and get frustrated easily when trying to express themselves in English. They are likely to respond with, “I don’t know” if randomly selected unless they can read the question and write their answer down first. They need a lot of structure in the classroom or they get lost and begin to daydream.

It is challenging to plan a lesson that is basic and structured enough for Group 3 students without boring the Group 1 students to tears. After some trial and error, I have decided upon the following lesson plan structure:

I begin each lesson with a light-hearted review of former material. This is usually in the form of a game or a quick quiz that reinforces prior vocabulary and hopefully instills some confidence in reluctant participants. I call on students in pairs in order to minimize stress, which also helps me include as many students as possible. My biggest obstacle is making sure my bright students don’t blurt out every answer and end the entire activity in 2 minutes. I’ve also learned not to use a funny image on my “Incorrect Answer” slides or my students will sabotage the review for laughs.

After this, I introduce new material. This usually consists of a new text or a video with a transcript. We tend to go through the material piecemeal. I try to ask a variety of short-answer and long-answer questions in order to check for comprehension and to engage learners at different levels. I focus on picking out key vocabulary and concepts. I’ve got tried-and-true questions.

The short-answer questions:

  • What is another word for…?
  • What is the opposite of…?
  • What is the noun form of this verb?
  • What is the adjective form of this noun?
  • Who did …?
  • Where did …?
  • When did …?

The long-answer questions:

  • Could you use … in a new sentence?
  • What does … mean?
  • Why did …?
  • How does …?
  • What does …?

Going over new material for the first time, especially when I’m sure that half the class needs to re-read the text in order to participate in any meaningful way, is my biggest challenge of the entire lesson. I try to strike a balance between modeling fluent phrasing, correcting their pronunciation, and individual reading, but when varying reading levels means that some students complete a paragraph in 35 seconds where it takes another student 2 minutes, pacing is delicate indeed.

My favorite game to get my young students to read at the same pace is called No Way, José, a name which the students love… and more importantly, love to yell out. I model read a short text of 1-3 paragraphs to the class. Beforehand, I pick out some key words to change while reading aloud. When the students hear me say a wrong word, they interrupt me and yell, “No Way, José!” They tell me my wrong word, what the right word is in the text, and we go on. It’s a good listening exercise, and when we say the right word together as a class, it’s a good pronunciation exercise.

Once we’ve covered all the new material, we review the new material with another activity, worksheet, or game. If students have already read the text before class, this part of the lesson can be the most time-intensive. It can also be the most fun! We reinforce vocabulary and concepts, and I try to provide ample small group work that we can later discuss as a class.

One of my favorite things to do at this stage is to have the students teach other. They write activities on the board, drawing diagrams or correcting sentences. I like to put a struggling student at the board with the marker while the other students direct each new step.

Another reinforcing activity I really like is to have the students draw a relevant concept as a group and then explain their drawing to the class.

I’m still trying to come up with new activities that give many opportunities to speak, but which are more engaging than reciting answers to worksheet problems. Sometimes I get bored doing the same things every day in every class, but in other ways, the structure allows me to be more flexible. If the class is moving too quickly or too slowly, I have an arsenal of “What should I do in this part of class” methods to re-plan the class… even while it is in session.

A part of me thinks this would have been a lot easier if I had … oh, any training at all before starting this job. Another part of me thinks there was just no way to know until I did it for myself; I’ll admit it: I’m contrary. I still wish I could find someone to comment on all my lesson plans! For now, I guess this blog will have to do.

Activity: The Dramatic Reenactment

My latest lesson recipe is the ‘dramatic reenactment.’ I assign the students parts and make them act them out. The catch? The roles are not exactly… human.

When to use dramatic reenactment:

Dramatic reenactment is great activity when you have a bunch of vocabulary that is inter-related within a system. Last week I used dramatic reenactment to review electric circuits. Next week we will use it to review the circulatory system.

Lesson objectives:

  • Identify the different parts of a system
  • Understand the functions of the parts of a system
  • Follow the sequence of a system


  • Space: you either need enough room for all students to be involved, or enough room that all students can easily see the students who are involved.
  • Props: kinesthetically engage your students with the relevant verbs; for example, if red blood cells carry oxygen to body parts, create oxygen props for your red blood cell actors to literally carry.


One way or another, I have my students identify the parts of the system. There are a bazillion ways to come up with a word bank. Then, I assign each student a part that we have identified. Some of the parts I reserve for the props, especially if their role is to be carried, transmitted, or exchanged.

It’s best to start out with the basics so that the students get used to the activity before they have to do too much critical thinking. In my experience, I find it is best to focus on the main item that is moving through the system and have the students answer the question,

“Where does it go next?”

This question identifies the major parts of the system and puts them in order. Next, I have the students run through the system again, but this time we identify the roles of the different parts of the system by asking:

“What happens here?”

As a class, we talk about the best way to show what is happening. This is a nice opportunity for discussion when students have to say why they think one thing or another is the best visual representation. Once we’ve determined the role of the major parts and how to show it, we can do another run-through. Then we go into more detail:

“How do we get from here to there?”

“How” can be a difficult question to answer, which is why I save it for later. We might run through the system a couple more times so that the students can play different parts.

Then, I add any complexity or complications with questions like:

“What happens if…?”

Then, I have everyone sit down and take an exam.


Because I’m teaching subjects in an ESL classroom, no matter what the content, every lesson has the same underlying goals:
  1. Teach and reinforce new vocabulary
  2. Model fluent phrasing and pronunciation
  3. Create opportunities for students to speak

One of the challenges of dramatically reenacting non-human interactions in the ESL classroom is coming up with opportunities for the students to speak. Here are some of my ideas:

  • Class Mandate: Keep a few students out of the reenactment in order to have them tell the students in the reenactment what to do
  • Auto-narration: Have students narrate what they are doing when they are doing it, e.g. “I am transferring oxygen to the body organs and picking up carbon dioxide.”
  • Scripted narration: Create a script which students read aloud while other students perform
  • Charades: Ask performers to do certain things, and have the classmates guess where and what they are based on what is happening.

Other Resources: