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.