We have about two-and-a-half months left in the school year, and I thought it would be a good time to “take stock” of how it’s gone so far.

There are about nine new things I’ve tried, and they’ve all seemed to work well.  Though I’ve made countless instructional moves over the years that have not worked (and have recounted many of them in blog posts here), twenty-two years of teaching experience seems to have paid off with my not doing anything new that has turned into a fiasco over the past eight months.  But, of course, the year isn’t over yet.

A future post will share new actions I want to try next year, but that’s for another day.

Here’s my list of good teacher moves, not in any order of importance:

1.Providing a bowl of fruit for students each day was a home run (I got the idea from my talented colleague, Lara Hoekstra).  Four days a week (we have “Fruitless Fridays” because the cost was exceeding my budget), I bring twenty pieces of fruit to class (four for each of my five classes).  It’s huge hit, with students actually rushing to class so they can some.  Even though our school provides free breakfast, lunch, and an after-school snack to take home, teenagers are ravenous (and we all know that it’s more difficult for hungry students to learn), and I “score” tons of points in the relationship “bank.”  Even better, and what I didn’t expect, was that students themselves add food to the basket that they don’t want – including fruit cups (they tape plastic spoons to it), oranges, apples, and chips.  Each day, at least seven-or-eight additional pieces of food are added to what I bring.  There’s no question that I could triple the amount of fruit I bring and it would all be gone by the end of the day, but one can only do what one can do.


2. Organizing one of my two rooms into “pods” for my two-period ELL Newcomers class with student baskets containing materials, and leaving it set up permanently.  I then teach my IB Theory of Knowledge classes in my other room.  I can’t believe I didn’t think of this before!  Desks are arranged so that there’s a peer tutor in each pod, and we don’t have to waste time each day distributing student folders.


3. Completely organized my two period ELL Newcomers class to take advantage of peer tutors.  I’ve had peer tutors for years, but this year was able to completely embrace using them with the new pod seating set-up.  It’s clear to me that peer tutors are game-changers, but only if a teacher organizes their entire lessons around using them.  I shared what my typical two-period class looks like at Here’s What My Two-Period ELL Newcomers Class Looks Like This Year.  I’ll soon be sharing a more updated version.


4. Substantially refined my approach towards teaching sentence structure to ELLs.    Once a week, students decode four pages of “Sentence Navigators” comprised of sentences related to the theme we’re using that week (feelings, home, jobs, etc.).  Sentence Navigators are a sort of puzzle originally created by former ELL teacher Jason Renshaw (see “SENTENCE NAVIGATOR” IS JASON RENSHAW’S GIFT TO ESL/EFL/ELL TEACHERS EVERYWHERE!).  I also have students create their own for classmates to decode.  Then, in a twist on the “expanding sentence” strategy, students have to unscramble a series of scrambled sentences that are “expanded.”  You can read about it at HOW I’M ADDING A TWIST TO THE SENTENCE EXPANSION STRATEGY IN MY ELL NEWCOMERS CLASS and download an example using Feelings words here.


5. Further refined and expanded our peer mentor program. For many years, my TOK students have taken ninth-graders, and my ELL students, out once each week for a ten-minute “walk-and-talk.”  It’s generally gone well, but this week we doubled its size by having them have “mentees” from two different classes – instead of meeting with the same mentee four times a month, they only meet with them two times.  In addition, I now also accompany my mentors to their mentee classes to ensure that the pick-up process moves smoothly and rapidly.  You can read more this program at these posts:



Being A Mentor At Our School May Have Resulted In Improved Grades For The…Mentors

Useful Downloadable Feedback Form For Mentees In Our Mentor Program


6. Made more advanced ELL students “assistant peer tutors.”  Though we have a lot of peer tutors in our class, as every ELL teacher knows, we also get lots of new students during the year (see THE BEST WAYS TO WELCOME NEW ELL NEWCOMER STUDENTS THROUGHOUT THE YEAR).  To help make sure the peer tutors can handle slightly larger numbers in their groups, and to also run the groups when peer tutors are absent, I invite more advanced ELL students to become “assistant peer tutors.”  This is an ongoing process since I regularly move students to the Intermediate class when they are ready, so many students have this opportunity – and generally seem to feel honored by it.


7. Enforced a strict no cellphone use.  Here’s what I wrote about it in Education Week:

This year, our school faculty committed to enforce a rule that no cellphones could be used in the classroom, except with teacher permission (for example, if the class was playing an online game). Students were asked to keep phones in their backpacks and could use them between classes and during lunch.

Though it hasn’t solved all phone problems, it’s made all the difference in the world! I would suggest the problem—at least for me—is 10 percent to 20 percent of what it was last year. However, I also recognize that not all classes are the same, and that some may very well offer bigger challenges than mine.

I periodically remind students of the “deal” we have: “I work very hard to create engaging lessons, you get to work with your friends (Note: we do a lot of group work where students can choose their group mates), and I’m supportive of you in many ways. In return, I just ask that you try your best and don’t put me in the position of having to police phones.”

That seems to help!


8. Created criteria that had to be met for TOK students to be able to work outside or in my second room. I do a ton of group work in my TOK classes, and students generally have the option of working outside or in my second room.  Of course, one of the rules from day one was a no cellphone rule.  Students have generally respectful of that, especially since they knew that I had negotiated with our administration to let them work outside after giving assurances that students would honor the rule (no one wants to be responsible for messing it up for everyone).  I have, in the past, been nicknamed by some students as Ninja Teacher (primarily because of long-past roles in breaking-up fights), and I can also move pretty quietly.  Through spot-checks, I am able to monitor respect of that rule.  Students also know that if they don’t honor it, they will not be allowed to work in those areas.  More recently, a few students who have been working in those areas have not always been completing their work or doing high quality work.  With the class, we worked out a criteria that students have to meet in order to work in those areas:

  • No missing work
  • Have received an A in their last three assignments
  • I haven’t had to ask them to put their phone away more than once in the previous few days.
  • If they don’t meet the first two criteria, they can still go out that day if they promise (and subsequently act on) completing missing work or resubmitting higher quality work.

It’s worked quite well – so far.


9. Had my ELL students do practice tests mid-week.  We do a low-stakes test every Friday (see HOW I’M VISUALIZING ASSESSMENT DATA FOR STUDENTS). I’ve done that for many years.  This year, though, I’ve added having peer tutors give students in their groups simple practice tests.  There are many benefits to these kinds of practice tests, and it’s just one form of retrieval practice we do during the week.  It has seemed to help a lot.


So, so far so good – knock on wood!


ADDENDUM:  After I published this post, I remembered number 10!

10. Regularly incorporate “review weeks” in my ELL Newcomers class.  This may very well be a “no-brainer” for many ELL teachers but, in the past, I really never spent much time reviewing thematic units after initially did them – there’s just so much else to cover!  I finally realized the error of my ways, and now use approximately the last week of each month to review what we’ve done during the previous three weeks.  I cover similar material, but in different ways.  It’s worked quite well.