Why viewing lessons as products can improve them

Over on my other blog, I don’t make it much of a secret that I’m fascinated by startup stories. One of the things I’ve been trying to bring from that world into my classroom is the process of refinement that you can read about in Silicon Valley.

What doesn’t happen in Silicon Valley

If most people are like me, they think that some nerd has this great idea (probably while sitting in his parents’ basement, right?) and sits down to start coding. A few weeks, months, or years later, the next Instagram is born.

There’s this sense that the idea came fully formed into someone’s head–or was developed in one epic brainstorming meeting–and was set into the world the way it is.

What happens in Silicon Valley

Instead, what seems to emerge from the stories we hear about product development is this: someone has an idea (often because they realize they’d like to have a certain product to make their own work easier).

That person sits down and makes what Silicon Valley calls a “minimum viable product,” which is the fancy way of saying “the very least that anyone can do and still put it in front of customers.”

Then, the minimum viable product is presented to customers and, if they like it enough to use it, it will be developed further.

First lesson: lots of things are abandoned

It makes sense that we wouldn’t know about the thousands of idea that never get past the minimum viable product phase. After all, if nobody is interested in using it, how would we ever hear about them? For every Facebook, Instagram, or Tinder, there are thousands of things that have been tried and abandoned.

Second lesson: things are refined

Once users start using a Minimum Viable Product, it seems as though they take over development. One popular way of approaching product development says “you shouldn’t develop features until your users ask for them.”

So, as people are using this product, they are routinely contacting the startup behind it and tell them how to make it better.

Even more, the producers are constantly testing new ideas.

Any time you log into a website that has a pretty solid team behind it, there’s a good chance that you’re part of an experiment and you don’t even know it. Anytime the Googles and Facebooks of the world want to tweak the texts of their websites, they try out two different versions and deliver them both to thousands or millions of people… and then measure how the people reacted.

It’s called A/B testing (Which is better? A? or B?). And, because every minor change is rigorously tested, you don’t notice it: instead, you see a well-designed product.

My lessons

There was a time — only weeks ago — that I tried to make lessons according to the “produce it fully-formed and without any customer feedback” philosophy. And this resulted in some amazing lessons.

The fully-formed lesson

Often it’s made on Sunday in a panic: tomorrow the week starts and I need some great material for my conversation courses. With a bit of work, I would put something together and, improving in my delivery as the week continued, give the same lesson again and again.

Perhaps a student would discover a phrasing that I should have used (“It would be more clear if you just said ‘like a grandpa’.”) or I’d stumble upon a joke I should have incorporated in the text. (You can never have too many jokes!) But it would be too late: the lesson was prepared and I didn’t have a lot of time between lessons (and family) to really sit down and redo materials on most days.

The incrementally improved lesson

The strategy I’m trying for now, when my time allows me, is to prepare a few good ideas and make up a minimum viable set of worksheets and ideas.

Armed with these ideas and materials, I go into a classroom and give the best lesson I can under the circumstances. All the while I’m teaching and leading a conversation, I’m marking my copy of the materials with the ideas I’m having: something isn’t clear enough, another part doesn’t seem to interest the group…

Then, I plan to have enough time to update the materials and my ideas before I take it into the next class. Often, that can mean that I teach a lesson only once per week. Each week, it improves, though.

What do you think?

Is this something that you already do? (Often, I think I’ve found a new, great idea only to realize it was a well-established best practice.) What are ideas that you’ve refined through teaching? And — here’s my next question — how do you share great lessons that you’ve prepared?


I need better paperwork

Paperwork is often maligned in English. In fact, I’ve even had (German) students who took offense at some example sentences such as “I just have some paperwork to do before I got home.” Or “all that’s left to do is the paperwork.”

Paperwork, to some it seems, is essential.

Slowly, I’m learning why.

And I’m learning it the hard way: by not having a really great, structured system of record-keeping. I need that.

My system now

The current situation

When I got serious about vocabulary, I made some pretty solid record-keeping worksheets for vocabulary. They still form the backbone of my record keeping. Basically, I have an attendance sheet that I make — it helps me learn the names, as well as being honest about who attended if that becomes a question later — and the vocab worksheets.

That leaves me with a packet of six or so papers–the attendance sheet and five vocab sheets–bound together. I add any other material that we’ve worked on or that I’ve handed out to the bottom of this stack in chronological order.

When I realize that there are more and better things that I could be doing, I make a note to myself and put it on top of the attendance sheet. That’s great for recording that train of thought that you have at the end of the lesson (“a great idea would be to come back and work on family vocabulary and use that as an excuse to drill questions”) but it’s insufficient for really planning out something that’s several lessons long. You know, when you have the inspiration that “we could work towards this goal, by hitting on these intermediate steps…”

I don’t do that well. Partly, I use my to-do list app, and sometimes calendar reminders. But, well, I’m dissatisfied.

What I want

I’m not sure what I want. Here are some of the things I’d like to be able to record and read at a glance:

  • Which “special topics” have we covered already (I do special lessons on Greek myths, but each myth only once per group. After three years, how should I know which ones I’ve covered where?)
  • Which topics have the group requested to cover?
  • Which grammars have we intentionally practiced? How often? When was the last time?
  • Which grammars do I think will need to be practiced in the future?
  • What sort of framework do I have in mind for the next six or so lessons? This has to be something that can be changed and altered and still be readable as I plan. (These requirements, I should add, are the things that make this seem hardest for me.)
  • I think I’m ready to go from a single stack of papers per group to two stacks: one for the material, so I can reference it while leading a conversation, and one for my to record vocab to review and my notes on planning.

I’ll post when I get a system going that seems to make sense to me. Until then, what system do you use to record the plans and progress you’ve made with each group–and how to two diverge? Are there any good ready-made worksheets out there that I should look at?

I’m grateful for any tips I can get.

An update and a plan

One of my goals in blogging about teaching has been to focus on improving as a teacher. To that end, I’ve started writing about one group, in particular, that challenges me. You might want to start at the beginning.

Feeling a failure

My evening courses take a break for the month of February. That means that I’ve had three weeks to process things, but it also means that one block of lessons ended at the end of January and the next block begins next month, in March.

And that means that students have to sign the next contract. There are always students who leave groups, and certainly, there will be new students in March. Even though I still take it personally when students leave my groups, I generally know that I shouldn’t and I’m generally okay with them leaving.

The the “problem group” however, I had a student who was always challenging. (The whole group was challenging, remember?) He was from Vietnam but had lived in Germany since the GDR and spoke German with a thick accent. In English, his accent wasn’t better, but he was motivated to learn.

You know where this is going: he left the course. Of course, he didn’t blame me. Instead, he did the German thing of bringing a bottle of sparkling wine and saying farewell. And, who knows, he might have reasons aside from not making progress.

But, I know that he didn’t make the progress he wanted to make, and I blame myself.

This means that I’m motivated to do better.

The plan

As you’ll recall from the first and second posts about the problem group, you’ll know that one of the things that worked was using “conversation drills,” but that one of the problems I had was that, quickly, it became repetitive.

Learning from it, I’d like to start out with a few different ‘drill conversations,’ to be able to rotate through them.

Also, you’ll remember from my post on reusing things, that I’ve become a fan of reusing activities in things like an envelope review. So, in addition to my amazing vocab worksheets, I plan to use a sort of gentle, drawn-out grammar-review strategy that I’ve started using with other groups. (I’ll try to write more about how I’ve started going about it, soon.)

One more thing I hope to have finished first is a set of matched role cards for the telephone, with a card for the caller and a card for the ‘recipient’ of the call (who will work at a hotel or whatever). The goal is to use them as a recurring activity that adds structure and predictability, but gets more simple conversations going.

Lastly, something that I used to do and somehow got away from, was a vocabulary review strategy that had students translating entire sentences–containing the target vocabulary–from German. (Because I think L1 belongs in the classroom.) The idea is that, in addition to reviewing vocabulary, students would have to form well-formed sentences or questions, and practice this.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Classroom vocab review

From conversations with other teachers, it seems as though the first thing any of else ever felt great at in the classroom was presenting vocabulary. It’s like a party game, and it’s fun to be good at it.

But, one of the things we all acknowledge we need to do better is vocabulary review. After you taught a bunch of vocab in this lesson, how do you bring it back in the next lesson?

I know I can improve in this, but here’s what I know now.

(Fair warning: At the end of this, I’m going to point you at a product I make. But all the advice I have between here and there is pretty good.)

Reduce the number of words you’re going to cover

You don’t have to review every single word that was presented. Maybe something super-specific came up in a conversation and it was useful to use the word once. But, you don’t have to make stress over every word.

Instead, pick a set number of words from each lesson that you’re going to review. This can be your executive decision as a teacher, or it can be something that the group agrees on. Towards the end of the class, you might say “we’re each going to pick a word that we think is worth reviewing.” (For smaller groups) or “What are the six most useful words that we learned today?”

Then, focus on those words.

Make a classroom dictionary

Print and hand out a classroom dictionary at the beginning of each lesson. Tell students to write down each new word that is taught in the classroom dictionary. Then, when you decide which words you are going to focus on, ask them to fill out the other fields for those words (the word in their language, and an example sentence that they might say).

The classroom dictionary in action!

You don’t have to check that they did this all the time. But you have to check it more often than not. Partly because they will need help with the sentences, partly because some students will only do it if they know it will be checked. And, lastly, because some students need to let you know that they’re doing what you’ve asked of them.

(If the .PDF I have above doesn’t work for you — if your students don’t speak German, for example — make your own, use the generic version or doctor the OpenOffice file. For example, you should put your own header on it, so they know it’s from you.)

Keep track of the vocab

The students have their classroom dictionaries. After they take the vocab home and fill them in, a lot of them won’t have the structure or the discipline to do much more unless you tell them how or what.

So, I wound up making my own vocab record sheet.

The vocab record sheet

In the vocabulary columns, I wrote the words we decided to learn. In the activity columns I wrote the activities I could think of (they’re coming up), and marked behind each word when I used that word in the activity.

That helped me to make sure that I was repeating vocabulary but in different ways.

Find ways to bring them back

I utterly failed at my attempts to bring the conversation back towards previously learned vocabulary in a free and flowing method. But, once you get over the idea that things don’t have to always feel like a conversation, there are a bunch of activities you can use to bring vocab back:

  • Definition matching. That’s exactly what you think it is. Just remember that you’ve writing definitions more like a party game than a definition (they know what these things are!)
  • Fill in the blank. You know this one too.
  • Translation matching. If you speak the students’ language, and your teaching philosophy allows for it, this is a great way to review vocab.
  • Memory. The classic language classroom game. Match vocab to its translation, or to a picture.
  • Sentence translation. For this, I’d write the vocab in a sentence in German and cut them into strips. The German for the vocab is underlined, so students know which word they have to, at a minimum, say. That would let me go for a laugh (“I will never get in a car with the person across from me. It doesn’t feel safe.”) or just get them to practice making sentences.
  • Envelope review. I’ve written about how envelope review works before. I wrote tasks like “What kind of car does the person on your left drive?” I cut them up, put them in an envelope, and passed them around. The person who drew that sentence had to ask the person on their left and report on it. If there was no problem using the word (nobody said “what is ‘car’ in German?”), that question does not go back into the envelope.
  • Crosswords. Use an online crossword generator and make crosswords.
  • Domino. Like memory, this is a matching game. Print up cards that include the words in English and their translations (or pictures). Students have to put them together like regular dominoes.

Automate it all

This is where I come to the part where I try to sell you on a product I’ve made.

I got so frustrated managing all of this, that I taught myself programming to make software that would automate all this. If you’re interested, give Dynamic-EFL.com a try. It works by letting you set up individual vocab lists for each group you teach and automates creating worksheets and some of the review activities mentioned above.

It’s worked well for me (obviously), and my students consistently thank me for the vocab review. Maybe it will work for you.

What do you think?

How do you do manage this? Have I overlooked any activities that you suggest for bringing vocabulary back? I’d love to have more in my toolbox.

Don’t make anything you will use only once

As a teacher, I struggle with the tension between wanting to be a great teacher and wanting to be a great business. After all, a teacher does everything he can for his students. A business tries to maximize the return on what it does.

So, maybe a great teacher would invest an hour learning about a company’s products in order to make one really great worksheet. A great business, however, would acknowledge that, as long as your pay is the same on a per-lesson basis, every extra unit of prep time you invest dilutes your return per hour.

Don’t kid yourself: you deserve a decent return per hour.

So, what can you do?


I made a web application that automates the vocabulary side of my lessons. Of course I’ll plug that shamelessly here.

But there’s a lot more you can do.

Raid the internet

My thoughts on the correct level of internet-to-self produced worksheets are not completely formalized. On the one hand, you don’t want to create the impression that your professional training didn’t amount to much more than a few internet searches.

On the other hand, though, my students are generally happy to get their hands on ‘different’ stuff. My stuff has a feel, a certain personality to it. And, I tend to use certain words. Things from the internet broaden all of that.

That’s one obvious way to maximize your return on the time you spend.

Reuse everything you make

There is only so much you can hide behind the “it’s good to expose you to different vocabularies and accents” argument. You’re getting paid to prepare a lesson, and it’s nice to show your customers that they’re getting their money’s worth.

To speak to the side of you that wants to be a great teacher, I should point out that students respond more to things that you have made for them. Even grizzled old adults like the idea that someone invested time in them, and they respond better to it. Almost everything I make available at NewSporkCity.com is something I made along those lines.


A quick aside here: Before I talk about how I reuse stuff, I thought I’d point out that your students won’t know that you invested so much time making great materials unless you make them clearly yours. Use a header (or a footer) or distinct formatting or something so that, when your students get their hands on materials that you have made, they know it comes from you.

There are a handful of ways to reuse material. And they probably all deserve their own blog post. (Note to self, write them.)

Here are the ideas that come to mind:

  • Get two or more courses to run ‘parallel’ to each other in some way, whether it’s in grammar (if the courses are at about the same level) or in material (you can prepare travel activities that work with a lower level group as well as a higher level group). Then, prepare material that you can use with all the groups.
  • Master the art of organization. I struggle with this, but I know that it’s costing me time (and, therefore, Euros). If you know you’ll have a great activity with your own look and feel to use again and again later, you can spend that hour in prep time without feeling like a bad business person.
  • Reuse material in the same course. After covering some grammar point with great worksheets from the Internet, I’ll make up a review activity covering the same grammar, but with the students’ names and vocabulary from their company (or from our group). After we go over it in class as a sort of final review — ideally getting a few laughs along the way — I put it aside for a bit, then cut it into strips and mix it with other grammar that we mastered for an envelope review activity.
  • Make your own worksheet series. This sounds like a ton of work, but it’s basically the story behind the Absurd Business Worksheets that I make. I taught the topics so often, that I realized it just made sense to have something that looked like it came from me and so that I could leave out the parts that I never taught on other worksheets. It was a ton of time, once. But it’s been paid back to me many times.
  • Share your work. If you have a really great idea that you can only use in one class, go ahead and make it. Put it where you can find it if you need it again, and then share it with your colleagues. Post it on worksheet sharing sites like ISLCollective or try to make a few bucks on TeachersPayTeachers. The point is, you can get other returns from your work.

What do you think? Have I missed a great technique for recycling work? Are you the kind of person who makes everything fresh for every class? Do you have some tricks in how you do it quickly?

These are all things I’d like to know.

You’re a teacher and a business

The title I originally had planned for this post was maybe too long: “You’re a teacher and a business, so engage with your learner on at least two levels.” It does seem like a bit much.

Not every teacher is a business

If you volunteer or teach in a school system, then you’re probably not a teacher. When people read this blog, however, I imagine them working like I do: teaching adults (and some kids) for money on a freelance basis.

If that’s what you do, you’re a business.

Thinking like a business

This part of teaching is not easy for me. I can’t say “I have this mastered, let me show you the ropes.” Instead, I can say: “I get that this is important, and I know we all have to work on it.”

The thing is this: when you’re a business, your learners are customers. And they have certain expectations and behaviors. A customer knows that they are paying money for something. They don’t always know what. And, when the time comes to decide whether or not to continue paying for a course, they will look at it as a business decision.

Why do they come to the English lesson?

Most people begin coming to a lesson to learn English. Their boss told them they have to, or they have a four week road trip across Canada planned on their horizon. Either way, they start with a simple reason.

Once they are in the lesson, however, they continue coming because the lesson adds something to their life. Either they can see in some direct way how it makes their work easier, or it’s a fun thing to do to unwind after work, or maybe it’s a group of people they wouldn’t otherwise know who have interesting discussions.

Give them a reason to come

This seems like an obvious thing to say, but I’ve been guilty of forgetting this part of teaching. In (the former East) Germany, at least, students are so well trained by the school system that I never have to fight for respect to maintain control of the classroom. They come in, know that I’m the teacher, and behave.

But, even the ones who are learning English quit. It was eye-opening for me when one of my students told my boss “I was in Scottland this summer, and it really was easier to speak. But I don’t know what I’m learning in the English lesson.”

The moral for me is this: Students — customers — don’t always know they are learning. Looking at English as a circle, if the lesson spends most of the time close to the edge of their circle, where they’re working hard to keep up, they are liable to overlook how much bigger the circle has got. Instead, they’ll just remember that “it never gets any easier.”

It’s on you, as the teacher — and business — to take time to point out to them what they’ve learned. Go back to a conversation drill that was practiced several months ago and praise them for still having it mastered. Remind them how hard it was on the first day of the lesson. Even more, have something (a worksheet, a text, two pages in the textbook) that they can hold in their hand and say “we did this today.”

Most of all, once their English is good enough to have a bit of fun in English, make that a goal. Not for all the time, but for pretty frequent intervals. You can just have a great, rambling conversation. Take them to a virtual restaurant. Play a card game and make small talk in English. Do a one-teacher theatrical performance for them. The point is this: you should be able to remember the last time they were able to enjoy being able to speak English.

They will also come for a group

It’s probably worth writing a whole extra post on the fact that many learners come because they enjoy being in the group.

The point here is this: you should be good at keeping the group dynamic going and avoiding conversation topics (politics, religion) that you think will divide them. For this kind of student, English is something they find time for in their lives because it helps them relax. Other people do sudoku, these people learn vocab. Don’t spoil it.

This is an incomplete post

This is not something I’m great at. I can easily get too into teaching and forget the business side of things, or become too obsessed with “are they happy” to really teach well. But, the more I teach, the more I’m aware that it’s important.

Have I missed anything? How do you balance these two aspects of one job? Have I forgotten any important motivations that people have for sticking with an English lesson? Let me know.