The Story of the Kid-Inspired ESL Curriculum

Kid-Inspired Teacher How to Teach ESL Book Cover

This Post Is an Excerpt from Chapter 1 of the book Kid-Inspired Teacher

What you find in these pages is the result of twelve years of frustration, anger, breakthroughs, disappointments, successes, pains, and joys. It has been a long road for me, and one that some might say has resulted only in reinventing the wheel. Yet for me, it was an important road that led from misery in the classroom to joy. I imagine there are others who haven’t figured it all out yet, as I have not. I also imagine there are others who long for that amazing feeling, as I do, when everything goes right, the students learn, and you are not absolutely spent by the effort. 

This is not a book about theories. You probably know more of those than you need anyways.

This is a book on the practicalities of creating student-centered, wildly productive, and enjoyable classroom experiences.

The majority of my time has been spent with K–6 English language learners (ELL). The stories and activities in this book apply most directly to that group, though the overall structure and guidelines described here can apply to any teaching done in any subject. 

Even if you are not an ELL teacher, you probably have some ELLs in your school or in your classes. Non-native English speakers are the fastest-growing student population in the United States, according to a recent article on Edutopia, a website started by the George Lucas Educational Foundation to help transform K–12 education.

Unfortunately, as I learned the hard way myself, speaking a language does not necessarily prepare you to teach it. Many teachers are thrown into ELL education with little training. The training they do receive is often far more focused on educational theory than on the practicalities of the classroom. Even though teachers are willing to sacrifice their time, money and sanity, many still feel unprepared to handle the needs of English language learners. 

How are we to make the most of the time? How are we to meet the needs of various levels of English language learners in the same class? How are we to balance basic language instruction with the material needed for their general education classes?

I have been struggling with similar issues for years, albeit in a slightly different context. Here is my story.

The Beginning of My Teaching Story

His name was Jimmy, and, if I’m being honest, I wanted to throw him out the window. He was in the first class I ever taught in Taiwan—a class I was to teach with absolutely no experience or training. I had done a teaching demonstration and undergone a brief interview, and now I was in a classroom with five kids. I couldn’t believe that I had been entrusted with them. I also couldn’t believe that five kids could be so difficult to teach; many teachers have thirty or more. 

I yelled. I threatened. I physically put Jimmy back in his chair at one point because he absolutely refused to stop walking around the classroom. He erased things I wrote on the board as I was teaching. He interrupted me constantly and laughed when I got upset. I was losing, and I wanted to throw him out the window.

Adding insult to injury, not only did the students, especially Jimmy, not respect me, but they also didn’t understand me. Their English was quite poor, despite having been in English classes for a couple of years. They spoke Chinese to each other, and under their breath, and pretty much whenever else they felt like it. When I talked, all five of them glazed over—which, again, is a ridiculously small number of students to lose control over. I had to become a rodeo clown to keep their attention, which was exhausting. 

The teaching materials were about as inspired as the teaching. We had to work through multiple textbooks that were fairly disconnected and uninteresting. There was a grammar book, a reading book, a science book, and some other book I can’t remember now. Though they were popularly-used textbooks, the content went way over the heads of my five ELL students. The kids groaned with every one of them, and I groaned, secretly, right along with them. 

Many days while I was riding home on my bicycle, anger surged through me. I gripped the handlebars so tightly that my hands went white. I started telling people that I hated teaching. I hated teaching children. I wasn’t cut out for it. Others might be able to do it, but not me. I needed to find some other means of supporting myself in Taiwan; teaching wasn’t going to do it. The problem was that foreigners can’t really do anything else in Taiwan. 

So I kept teaching.

Putting Down My Pride

After leaving the first school where I had taught, I started at another. At my first school I had only one class, but now I had three. One of those classes had about fifteen students, and like my first class, they were also uninterested in learning English. So I played rowdy, hootin’ ’n’ hollerin’ kinds of games made up of whatever I could think of, and through sheer force of personality, I managed to feel like I was getting somewhere. 

The problem was that from everyone else’s perspective, I was managing only to create havoc. 

For instance, we would be running around the room with our hands in the air screaming after one of the students made a 3-pointer into the trash can with a wad of paper when a neighboring teacher’s head would appear in my classroom’s window with a look of murder on her face.

I was so bad that a school administrator gave me a book on classroom management. That was it—the final blow. I was so embarrassed that I didn’t know how to respond. I figured there wasn’t much use in defending myself, so I tried to accept the feedback humbly and learn from the book. It was then, after I swallowed my pride, that things began to change. 

Within a year, I had become the teacher to whom the school gave the more behaviorally difficult classes. My pride began to surge once more. I heard other chaotic classes in neighboring classrooms, and I secretly judged them. 

When my wife and I had the opportunity to start our own English school, I quit my job, and we threw ourselves into it. It was an amazing opportunity, but also an incredibly difficult one. I believed, unfortunately, that I had it figured out, that I could now do it better than everyone else. 

Renovations were completed at the new school. We picked the books, pitched the school to some parents, and opened a couple of classes. 

Then I proceeded to crash and burn. 

We had too many books with too many fill-in-the-blanks and too little time. I was miserable. The students weren’t doing well. Parents were concerned. My pride was once again swirling downward like the water of a toilet flush. I had begun teaching at our school thinking that we were going to do things better than everyone else, yet we ended up doing things exactly the same. 

Things had to change once more. Painstakingly putting my pride aside again and again, I tackled the issues. 

It did little good to make excuses for the books I had chosen. They were the first things to go. I had sworn to our parents that they were good books and that we would have time to finish them all in a semester. I was wrong. I looked around at different textbook series, but every series was the same in one respect: not every page was good, but not every page was bad, and I couldn’t pick and choose the pages I needed from each series. So I started writing my own textbooks. 

When I began writing my own textbooks, they, of course, were going to be the best textbooks ever . . . and then they weren’t. I remember when we printed the first set of them. They were babies swaddled in 100-pound glossy paper. Teachers and students began cradling my babies in the classroom, and the feedback started rolling in. It was hard to accept at first. There was too much writing and not enough speaking. The goals of each chapter were unclear. There were spelling mistakes. This exercise was too easy, and that one was too hard. There was too much material in this level, and not enough in that one. 

The problems were manifold, and the feedback was hard to accept. Yet the textbooks weren’t the only problem.

Textbooks, however good or bad, are only as good as the teachers using them. In addition to learning how to write curriculum, I was also learning how to hire and train teachers. When we hired our first teachers, I sat down with them and told them everything I had learned so far about teaching—which wasn’t nearly enough, to be honest—and they listened carefully. 

Then they forgot it all. 

Some teachers had little more experience than I had had when I first began teaching, back in the days when I wanted to throw students out of windows. Some had lots of experience and were quite uninterested in anyone’s views on teaching other than their own.

I observed a lot of classes. A wide range of problems was happening from class to class and from teacher to teacher. Some teachers couldn’t get through the material because the material was bad. Others couldn’t get through the material because the students were bad. Some teachers were fun but ineffective. Others were efficient but boring. Some were neither efficient nor interesting. I fired some, celebrated others, and learned from all of them.

Between the curriculum and the teachers, there were enough problems to make a guy want to become a monk and pass his days in a quiet monastery somewhere in the Italian foothills, having only to pray and plant vegetables and seek forgiveness for all of the curses he had uttered against the children he had taught. But none of this is saying anything about the complications of parents and staff, and of managing conflicts and finding new students. The whole thing was a mess.

It should not be surprising, then, when I say that our students struggled with everything. They couldn’t read. Their grammar was awful. They couldn’t spell. They had trouble understanding the most basic English. Now that I’m looking back, the only things we had going for us were the low amount of homework, the few tests, and the absence of at-home memorization—which, funny enough, was enough to make a Taiwanese student want to throw his arms around you and cry tears of joy. We also had some great board games, so it wasn’t a complete bore.

Regardless, we pressed on. I rewrote the textbooks many times over, using what we were learning from the students’ progress and all of the feedback we were receiving from teachers. I also completely rethought how time in class should be used. I adjusted and readjusted recommended teaching methods and how I trained our teachers to use them. I tackled issues of communication with parents and created administratively helpful school procedures. I even wrote a lot of our own software to automate anything and everything that could be automated. 

You’ll be relieved to know that the school runs much, much better now.  

It runs well enough now that I decided to take what I have learned over the past decade or so to help teachers who might be facing issues similar to what I faced. That is how the website Kid-Inspired Classroom and this book were born. Online, you can find our ESL curriculum as well as lots more support for teaching your English language learners. I want to do everything I can to inspire and support ESL teachers so that they can focus their time and energy on what matters most: their students.

You can learn more by visiting Kid-Inspired.com

Two Lists

Over the years, our classes became more efficient and a lot more interesting. We began to get a lot more done in a lot less time. 

In the process, I came up with two lists: a list of warning signs and a list of teaching guidelines. The goal of the first list is to help teachers recognize when there is a problem; the goal of the second list is to help fix those problems. If the best classes are crafted, then we need to humbly examine our craftsmanship for defects as well as continually hone the skills needed to craft well. It is a lifelong process.

The first part of this book details the warning signs, signs that there are defects in your craftsmanship. They should read something like this: 

  • “Turn back.”
  • “Unhealthy hatred of children ahead.”
  • “You’re going the wrong way.”
  • “You’re about to be pummeled.”

The second part of this book details the guidelines for crafting a good class. When you are thinking of how to organize your time or what activities to plan, these are the tools to use. They will help you steer clear of the pitfalls many teachers spend way too much time falling into and trying to get out of.

I have not set out to prove or support any particular language teaching model, of which there are many. The debates will continue on the strengths and weaknesses of sheltered, scaffolded, direct, or immersive models. I have my views on these things, but we often get so entrenched in defending this or that theory that we forget what we were fighting for in the first place. 

In the end, there are as many ways to teach well as there are teachers. Each one of us is unique and each one of us has to find our own unique way. Yet, just as there are a million ways to teach well, there are also just as many ways to crash and burn. An airplane designer may decide to express their unique style by ignoring the laws of aerodynamics, but their plane is not going to fly, and someone is probably going to get hurt.

I have tried to keep this book as practical as possible, based on what I have seen make the biggest difference in the lives of teachers. I have chosen to make this book as accessible and fun to read as possible. All of the ideas can be found in other more academically-focused books and I try to mention them where appropriate. 

For the purposes of this book, if we can just take an arm to clear off all of the stuff cluttering our teaching tables and keep our eyes focused on what works for children, we will be in good shape. 

It is my hope that by the end of this book, you will be inspired. You will feel energized and excited rather than discouraged and exhausted about your classes. You’ll see students you never thought could succeed go on to flourish, students you never believed would try go on to make an effort, and students you never imagined could behave go on to remain composed. 

You’ll see them not only reach but surpass your standards. You’ll see them start helping each other, encouraging each other, and rooting for each other. You’ll see them take responsibility for themselves, gain confidence, and enjoy learning. You’ll have a relationship with your worst students that you may not have thought possible. You and your students will start making connections, enjoying each other, and accomplishing together what has become uncommon in so many classrooms around the world: learning.

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