Teaching Diversity is Imperative (Part One)

Teaching Diversity is Imperative (Part One)

One of the great benefits of being a self-employed educator is being able to create individualized curricula. Some teachers use standard materials, some exchange resources with other teachers, and some create all the materials from scratch. As long as the curriculum is high quality, the method of acquisition is moot.

However, ELA teachers–and any teacher who incorporates literature into their lessons–must decide what to prioritize in their text and assignment selections. These decisions can result in enormous anxiety and debate, both with the teacher themself, families, administrators, and other teachers. Despite the potential backlash, we as educators must choose to teach diversity to prepare students to make compassionate decisions in their adulthood.

Saying “No” to the Classics

If you are attempting to teach texts based on a Western education, you’re likely to be pushed to teach the “classics”. Some of these texts are “classics” in the traditional sense (e.g. Homer and Shakespeare), some are more modern (e.g. Fitzgerald and Austen), and some are the books that will likely be given that honor this century (e.g. L’Engle and Morrison). The largest problem teaching these books is the lack of diversity. Gabriel García Márquez, Toni Morrison, and Amy Tan appear on these lists, but most authors are White men from the United States and Western Europe.

Parents argue that those books are what help students succeed on the AP Literature exam, college admissions, freshman English composition, and world literature. It’s hard to dismiss that argument; if a student wants to enroll in a Western university, having some knowledge of those texts is likely to help. However, if that’s the argument, here is the rebuttal: Then what?

What happens after the English composition and world literature classes are finished? Will reading “The Great Gatsby” help students love their chosen career? Will studying “War and Peace” make them better parents? Will dissecting “Great Expectations” make them healthy, compassionate adults?

In most cases, the answer is, “No, probably not.”

There’s nothing wrong with students reading these books. If a student wants to read Hemmingway in the summer or on the weekends, that’s fine; I’m thrilled when a student is reading anything. However, should teachers spend precious class time teaching these texts?

No, probably not.

Saying “Yes” to Diversity

I spent months designing my fall curriculum. Even books that I love to read and teach were moved to summer to make way for greater diversity and lessons I felt students could genuinely use. Mary Louisa Alcott’s “Little Women” was replaced by Linda Sue Park’s “A Long Walk to Water,” and Ann Braden’s “The Benefits of Being an Octopus” was replaced with “Listen, Slowly” by Thanhhà Lại.

“Little Women” is fun to teach, and Braden’s book deepens students’ empathy and understanding of peers in difficult situations; in fact, Braden’s novel will remain one of my favorite middle grade books. Nevertheless, Park and Lại wrote stories that create intense discussions, widen perspectives, and will likely stay with students long after we’ve moved to a new unit.

Linda Sue Park is a Korean-American author best known for “A Long Walk to Water,” although she has plenty of other award-winning books. Thanhhà Lại is a Vietnamese-born American author best known for “Inside Out & Back Again,” but her three other books are also highly acclaimed. Both authors write beautiful stories worthy of their success and awards.

The rubric I used to choose these and other texts is a subject for another post. For now, I would like to explain why Thanhhà Lại is a perfect example of an author worthy of precious classroom time.

Listen, Slowly

First, “Listen, Slowly” begins when a Vietnamese-American girl has just finished sixth grade and is blind sighted by her parents when they announce the family will be spending the summer in Vietnam. My seventh graders, just returning from summer break, will be able to relate to this story, at least in part, creating a smoother transition.

Second, the book takes a close look at how we define our identity. Tweens and teens are having these inner monologues already, but the choices they make in the next few years help mold them into the people they will be in adulthood. “Who am I?” and “Who do I want to be?” are questions worth exploring in fiction to help students explore those questions in real life.

Third, the creative writing has an informal style that will resonate well with its intended audience, allowing us to discuss word choice, sentence structure, and all the other difficult English concepts teachers love to explain.

In short, the book is well-written, relatable, and thought-provoking. That could be enough of a reason to teach a book. However, Lại’s life story and accomplishments add another layer, which persuaded me to keep it at the top of the list.

Teachable Lives; Teachable Moments

If I’m honest, my text selection really boils down to me looking for as many “teachable moments” as I can cram into a semester. How many lessons can I turn into advice (without sounding like advice)? How many times can students leave class thinking about something we discussed? “Listen, Slowly” will increase those teachable moments exponentially.

Often, teachers give students information about the author of a book because that’s what we’re supposed to do as a “pre-reading” activity. However, students rarely care when and where an author was born, where they went to college, or what job they had before they published their first book. These facts don’t enhance the story for them; it’s basically the same as learning information about a complete stranger. I try to find a more engaging way to introduce this material–usually after we have started the book.

I won’t need to do that with Lại.

First, Lại’s family fled Vietnam in 1975, shortly after the end of the Vietnam War. Her childhood and adolescence allow us to discuss the Vietnam War (about which students know very little at that age), immigration, and the refugee crisis. It builds empathy, tolerance, and humility.

Second, Lại struggled to learn English properly, and she wrote a scholarly article entitled “From Awkward to Still Awkward, but More Chill” detailing the challenges she faced in learning the language. She tells a story about being exiled from AP English and discusses how one can’t use logic to write English properly. The article is humorous and captivating, and I know my students–especially multilingual students–will appreciate this personal story.

Her experience provides us with the opportunity to talk about the difficulties of English grammar, syntax, and mechanics, and I hope that it will instill optimism. After all, a student who struggled for years to understand the complexities of English became a bestselling author; my students can overcome those difficulties, too.

Third, Lại founded Viet Kids Inc, a nonprofit organization that provides bicycles to Vietnamese students who often walk four hours each day to receive their education. Biking to or from a school can cut a 2-hour commute to a 30-minute trip, giving students more energy to concentrate on learning. Additionally, the nonprofit provides tuition, uniforms, and rice to students; my American students often do not realize that the necessities of education are not available to everyone.

This information allows us to gain a sense of community and interdependence, foster kindness, and learn humility. Additionally, we can tie this noble organization to the information about the Vietnamese culture included in the book.

Students may not remember all of the facts. The story of being kicked out of AP English and the exact name of the nonprofit may escape them. However, the lessons they will learn and the positive character traits they will develop thanks to the book and the author’s story will be with them much longer–and I will feel proud of those teachable moments.

Positive Character Outweighs Classic Knowledge

I do feel it is my responsibility to help prepare students for university, and I’m not sure that “Listen, Slowly” will ever be on the AP Literature test or discussed in a college English class. However, more importantly, it is my responsibility to help prepare them for adulthood–in whatever form that takes for them.

Reading Baum and Dickens is unlikely to help students when they’re facing their biggest decisions.

But the information they discussed while reading Lại just might.

13 Activities to Help Your Child Study

13 Activities to Help Your Child Study

Parents often ask how they can help their child review what they’ve been learning in class. One way to do this is by using flashcards. Flashcards are fun and versatile learning tools that can be used for a variety of games and ESL levels. Here are just a few of them.

Memory games
Use 3 cards, or more for older, more capable children. Place the cards face up, and then turn them over and try to remember which card was where.

Timed memory game
Put the flashcards face up, and then turn them over. Set a timer and ask the student to find a particular card. If they choose the wrong one, they need to put it face down again and keep trying to find the card.

Noughts and crosses
Flashcards can be used to play some common pen and paper games, like tic tac toe. Place three lines of three cards face up. If you’re using alphabet cards, you can ask your child to say a word starting with one of the letters. If you’re using word cards, you can your child to read the word or use it in a sentence. When the child does this correctly, they can take the card or put a removable sticker on it.

Make a story or word
This is a fun way of playing with the English words, letters, and concepts your child knows well. Take some flashcards at random and place them face up on the floor. Ask your child to make a word, sentence or story with the words or letters on the cards.

Quick glance
Quickly hold up the card and then turn in face down so your child can’t see it. Ask your child to guess what is on the card. If they’re not able to, hold it up for a little longer and then turn it face down again. Keep playing until they can tell you what is on the card.

Hold up a card so only you can see it. Start saying things that are in the same category as what is on the card. For example, if the card says “B” you could say “banana”, “ball” and “bear”. If the card says “verbs” you could say “running”, “singing”, “raining”. Your child needs to guess what is on the card.

Treasure hunt
This is a fun game for energetic children. Hide some flashcards around the room and ask your student to find them. There are a few variations of this game. You could play “hot and cold” by telling your child they’re hot when they’re close to a card and cold when they’re far away from any cards. You could also hide some “trick” cards. Tell your child a word or sentence like “book” or “he read yesterday” and ask them to find the flashcards with those letters or words. But you’ll have hidden other cards with different words or letters on them, and your child needs to identify the correct ones.

What’s missing?
Spell out a word except for one letter and the student needs to say which one is missing. To make this more challenging, take out more letters. You can also use this game for making sentences.

Odd one out
This game is a good way of practising grammar concepts, but it can also be using for identifying rhyming words or even words in your child’s favourite English story or poem. Place some cards face up and ask your child to identify which one is different. To make sure your child is learning, ask them to tell you why the card is different.

The good thing about this game is that you don’t need much space to play it, and it is something you can do while you’re waiting for a train or at a restaurant and trying to keep your children entertained while the food arrives. Give every player several cards and you each take turns putting them down, face up. When a child puts down a card that “matches” or is in the same word category, they say “snap!” and win the game.

Is it a….?
Young children often really enjoy this game. Hold up a flashcard and ask your child if it is something different. So you could hold up a “yellow” card and ask them if it is a sun, purple or an animal.

Find me a…
Give your child a set of flashcards and ask them to find particular cards, like the “R” or “ball” card. For more advanced learners, you can ask them to find you a word in a certain category, like a colour or a noun.

Musical flashcards
This is another good one for energetic students. Place the cards face up on the floor and play their favourite songs. Your child needs to walk, jump or dance around the room until you stop the music, and then they need to tell you what is on the nearest flashcard and a little bit more about it. For example, if the card says “M” your child could say “M mmmmm, mouth.” If the card says “green” your child could say “green, my favourite colour” or “green, like my school bag.”

There are many flashcard games you could play with your child to review what they’re learning in class.

Try a few of these and see which ones you both like!

Winter Festivals to Inspire TEFL Lesson Plans

Winter Festivals to Inspire TEFL Lesson Plans

For teachers with long term students, festivals can be a great time to change our usual TEFL lesson plans and introduce fun activities in the classroom. Here are 5 winter festivals I celebrate with my students, and some of of my favourite activities.

Christmas – 25th of December

Being a global festival, Christmas is celebrated by many students and known by many others. There are so many free Christmas worksheets, songs, activities, and stories available that you can create your ideal TEFL lesson plans or customise your classes so they’re perfect for your student. Here are just three of many ideas for your Christmas themed class:

Read a book. As simple as this idea is, there are many beautifully written Christmas stories and poems, from The Night Before Christmas to A Christmas Carol.

Listen to a Christmas song. Christmas songs are ideal for listening activities because they’re fun and exciting, especially for children.

You can find some Christmas songs here:


Write a letter to Santa – A fun activity for children is writing a letter to Santa. This activity can be adjusted to your student’s level, with beginners listing their favourite toys and more advanced students learning about letter writing.

Chinese New Year – 1st of February

For those of us who teach Chinese children (or live in big cities) will be familiar with Chinese New Year. Celebratory activities include the dragon dance, fireworks, and the famous red packets. Red is the main colour of this vibrant winter festival, which for younger children could be a lesson in itself. Try finding red versions of your class topics – clothes, fruit, or animals. Other fun activities include:

Reading about the Chinese zodiac. 2022 will be the year of the tiger but you could also learn about your student’s zodiac animal.

Discussing tidying the house. Cleaning is a big part of Chinese New Year, a lesson on tidying things away is a timely way to practice nouns, prepositions of place, verbs, and sentence structure. Use a picture of a messy house and ask the student to help tidy it up by telling you where the items should go.

Creating a family tree for your student or a character in a book you’ve been reading.

You can find some more fun ideas here:



The Rio Carnival – 25th of February through 5th of March

Rio’s famous carnival comes from the Portuguese tradition of dressing up in costumes before the start of Lent. It has since come to reflect more of Brazil’s many cultural influences, with the Brazilian dance called Samba taking centre stage.

Being an energetic, multi-cultural event, The Rio Carnival is perfect inspiration for EFL teachers. Here are a few ideas for carnival themed lessons.

Play Samba music. Although this isn’t overtly English practice, rhythm is an important part of language and awareness of rhythm has been shown to be beneficial for English students. There are some interesting Youtube videos about Samba rhythms which you could watch with your student. Alternatively, you could try speaking sentences or reading poems in a Samba rhythm to see how different it sounds.

Design carnival masks or costumes. The Rio Carnival is known for its vibrant masks and costumes, so students can have a lot of fun designing their own. You can find some masks to colour, and other Carnival themed colouring pages here.

Plan a street party. Street parties are an important part of Rio’s Carnival. A lesson on planning a street party can include adjusting recipes for more people, describing the student’s ideal party, or colouring some decorations for the event.

You can find more interesting activities here:



Winter Solstice – 21st of December

The winter solstice has been celebrated for many centuries by people all over the world. There are many different ways of celebrating the solstice, making it ideal inspiration for teachers with lots of international students. Ways of celebrating the winter solstice include:

Reading ancient myths. Many cultures celebrate the winter solstice by telling traditional stories and poems. You could tell your student a traditional story from your culture or ask them to tell one of theirs. You could also read some ancient myths about the sun. Alternatively, you could read a story or poem that you just know your student will love.

Reading some recipes. Another common way of celebrating the winter solstice is by making a special meal, so reading recipes is a good solstice themed activity to do in a TEFL lesson. Creative students can write their own recipes, while those who love maths can have fun adjusting the recipes for more people. 

Studying astronomy – The winter solstice is a celebration of a natural event, so it is an ideal chance for those teaching science enthusiasts to bring their interests into our lesson. You can read a text explaining the solstice or even learn about the solar system in general. Many of the activities found here can be used in or adapted for online classes.

The Sapporo Snow Festival – 5th of February

This Japanese festival is very new and started in 1950 when some children made snow sculptures in Odori Park in Sapporo, Japan. This continued for several years and in 1974 it became an international competition.

The beauty of this festival is that it started with children playing in the snow. Although it has since become an international event, spontaneity and playfulness are useful in children’s TEFL lesson, and this festival is a reminder of what children can do when they’re given the tools and freedom to play. Here are three activity ideas inspired by The Sapporo Snow Festival:

Make some word art. Write out the words you’ve been working on and shape it, so it looks like an ice sculpture. You can make examples to show your students here.

Play snow sculpture dictation. The students draw their own snow sculpture but don’t show it to you. Instead, they give you instructions on how to draw it. Compare the pictures afterwards.

Play ice statue. This game is similar to musical statues. The student becomes an ice statue and needs to stay still while the teacher reads out words, or sentences, they’ve been working on. The student needs to move when they hear an incorrect word or sentence.

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