The Good Old Phone Call

On June 1st this year, I began to teach a new batch of 54 students remotely and asynchronously. Given that the only piece of knowledge I had about them was their names, it was arguably scarier and more difficult than the switch to remote learning in March, when I did it with a batch I had been teaching for 2 years.

Now, 7 weeks in, I have a lot more information about each of my 54 students than I thought possible. The one tech tool that helped me achieve this is the good old telephone.

Nothing tells a student that you are invested in them personally more than a phone call. Even in a 5-minute conversation, the teacher gets to intently listen to the student as if no one and nothing else matters. It trumps group zoom calls and prerecorded video messages any day.

More importantly, I have been able to gather significant information about the situation of my students and how they’re engaging with my classes, and I’m confident that no survey could have fetched me this data. I have learnt about time, motivation and attention management issues, network issues which force them to work from the terrace of their houses, overwhelm due to too many pending tasks, misunderstandings in the content, and a myriad tech issues such as multiple Edmodo accounts and forgotten passwords. This data has also informed my subsequent lessons and improved my instruction delivery significantly.

In this post, I briefly describe the different types of calls I make to my students:

  1. Check in to appreciate: Even pre-corona, it has always been hard for me to remember to make appreciation calls home. Calling the student to appreciate them for their work signals to them that you see them and their work despite being far away. It proves to them that their learning matters to you. It helps students who are doing well to continue to do well.
  2. Check in to remind: Many of my students need reminders for retakes (I insist that students retake my formative assessments if they score below a certain percentage.) A 2-minute reminder phone call goes a long way in preventing future learning gaps for the student.
  3. Check in to find out why: Sometimes, the student is a week or two behind, or appears to have submitted an assignment in a hurry, or has skipped assignments. I have found that reminder messages / emails in such cases work only for a small minority of students. Most of the time, a listening ear over a phone call helps diagnose underlying issues (“I didn’t know I need to work for at least 4 hours a day. I used to study only for an hour a day.” or “But that’s just a Google Form; am I required to proofread before I submit?” or “I didn’t know that learning must prioritized above deadlines.” or “I didn’t notice assignment 9e.”) and fix them once and for all.
  4. Reteach/clarify key concepts: Asynchronous remote learning makes it hard to honour the fact that learning and teaching is a 2-way street. No matter how much I think and rethink about what misconceptions students might have or encounter, and account for them in my lesson plans, I have always met a student with a question I couldn’t have come up with in a 100 years. Based on student responses in Google Forms, I am able to assess fairly correctly if certain students need reteaching or a key clarification to move forward in their learning. Phone calls make students’ thinking instantly clear to me and help me present the content to them the way they need it. Insight into student thinking also helps make my future lessons better.
  5. Support for retakes: Sometimes, a reminder message/email about a retake is enough. But, sometimes, the responses in Google Forms make it abundantly clear that the student needs more support without which she might end up retaking the quiz multiple times and lead herself into a zone of unnecessary frustration. In such cases, I call the student and guide her through the retake. She succeeds in the retake, and in the process, I get to learn about the student’s knowledge and thinking.
  6. Support for ELLs: Given that all the videos and instructions are in English, it is very easy for me to not know when I’m making things difficult for an ELL, esp. because I have never taught these students before. My intuition for which words, phrases, and sentences the Ss may struggle with is sometimes not enough. Calling ELLs allows me to speak to them in Hindi or their home language, and time and again, I have witnessed communication barriers crumble before my eyes (or ears?).
  7. Support to help the student organize herself: During this unprecedented time, many students require help with organizing themselves irrespective of whether they have learning difficulties or not. Almost all issues concerning organization and executive function are invisible through work submitted online. Phone calls have helped me get to the bottom of the issue and suggest solutions immediately. (I made a planner but I can’t find it now: Stick your planner on the wall. I saw your message about the retake but forgot about it: From now on, enter retakes in your planner as soon as you see my message.)

Although student surveys (written/audio/video) exist and can help us gather useful information about our students asynchronously, it is important to remember that students who are able self-diagnose issues and articulate them well enough so that an adult miles away can understand is probably already doing well in class.

Phone calls can help us reach the rest.

Photo by Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash

Remote Teaching: Helping Students Organize Themselves and Their Learning

Emergency remote teaching in March and April taught me a few valuable lessons about my students’ lives at home, esp. their struggles with keeping themselves and their learning organized in the absence of a school schedule, teachers, classmates, timelines, deadlines and accountability.

When I returned to asynchronous remote teaching after the summer break in June, I knew that I needed to ensure that I help them organize themselves and their learning.

The videos I share in this post are videos I sent to my students. They cover self-management skills which are sometimes taken for granted by teachers. Unless students are able to manage and organize themselves and their learning, remote teaching and learning cannot succeed.

Although the videos were tailor-made for my students and include details such as the online tools we are currently using at my school, I believe that the central principles are applicable to all students studying from home now. I hope the specific examples serve as springboards for you to apply the general principle in your context.

Please watch the videos at a higher speed for a better experience.

  • Studying from Home: What Does It Take?
  • Setting up for Success: Planner and Materials
  • Planning Your Day
  • More Tips to Organize Yourself: Scheduling Daily and Weekly Tasks
  • Reviewing Previous Week’s Work

Feature Image Credit: Photo by Renáta-Adrienn on Unsplash

Announcement: New Site for Word Sums

I stumbled into the world of Structured Word Inquiry (SWI) in early 2020 when I began to learn about remedial education for English Language Learners and students with learning difficulties and disabilities. SWI has since transformed my spelling instruction and teaching in general. It’s hard to describe how and why SWI has affected me this deeply. This post captures a tiny part of the sentiment. I now use SWI in my mainstream classroom as well.

Since I began studying English words through SWI, I have been writing down word sums and matrices in a physical notebook.

I originally thought that the notebook will serve as a reference when I am planning for lessons or teaching. But, in the last 5 months, the notebook has become unmanageable. Although I have tried to keep it organized, it’s hard to find bases/words when I need them immediately.

Additionally, there are times when I spend hours investigating words only to later find that I had investigated (and subsequently forgotten) the same word 2 months earlier and had written down all word sums neatly in the book.

With heartfelt gratitude for the work of Etymonline, Gina Cooke, Peter Bowers, Heather Johnson, Dr. Holly Shapiro, Melvyn Ramsden, Real Spelling and Word Searcher, I am making this site public.

Since childhood, I have always prayed to Goddess Saraswati by reciting a shloka before studying. I recite it now, in the hope of limitless learning ahead.

ಸರಸ್ವತಿ ನಮಸ್ತುಭ್ಯಂ ವರದೇ ಕಾಮರೂಪಿಣಿ
ವಿದ್ಯಾರಂಭಂ ಕರಿಷ್ಯಾಮಿ ಸಿದ್ಧಿರ್ಭವತು ಮೇ ಸದಾ

The site can be found here:

I have also created a permanent link on the left for easy navigation.

Feature Image Credit: Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash

The Bare Minimum List

Avoiding prolongation of a chronic pain episode while keeping guilt and shame at bay

It doesn’t take a genius to realize that chanting, “Don’t come, just don’t come,” in your head is not an effective preventative measure for migraine. Yet, that’s what I do – sometimes all day long. And yes, it does come back. More often than not, it creeps up on me slowly and steadily when I am deeply engaged in loving life.

For as long as I’ve had migraine, the moment of arrival has been the one that causes me the most panic, sometimes more than the actual pain itself. It brings on a massive amount of hopelessness and helplessness all at once: “Didn’t I plead with you not to come? Didn’t I?”

My already cognitively-compromised brain begins to make either of the following terrible choices by this point:

  1. “Let’s power through this.” Let me spell it out if it’s not already sufficiently clear: Power through = more pain = longer recovery time = regret guaranteed.
  2. Uncontrolled Panic Spiral = Chanting “Please go now” repeatedly while remembering every task, however inane, that’s undone: “I have 4 lesson plans to make, 3 emails to write, 2 stacks of papers to grade, 1 kitchen slab to clean. Why can’t you just go now?”

It is not hard to guess that both of the above choices are neither wise nor productive. Both of them reliably ensure that I end up collapsing in a dark room as a heap of crying mess when my phonophobia makes my own whimpers unbearable. 

I have had to learn the hard way that I must not power through a bout of pain, nor must I incessantly worry about what I could be doing instead of lying down with an eye mask and ear plugs in a dark room.

I’ve also come to learn the hard way that knowing what not to do is never enough. The part I hate about any life-changing realization is that it doesn’t come with guidance about what to replace a bad habit with. One has to figure it out by trudging through the long-winded, hurdle-filled path of behaviour change.

While I needed to understand that migraine IS the very signal my body is giving me to STOP WORKING,  I also needed to stop my ever-lingering guilt about NOT WORKING* to take a rest. That’s when I began to write bare minimum lists.

A bare minimum list is a list of just enough tasks

  1. to trick myself into believing that I am not wasting time especially when there’s urgent work to do.
  2. that are truly indispensable on a day-to-day basis that ensure that my brain fog doesn’t misguide me into reorganizing my attic when prints for the next day’s class are not ready. It consists of carefully chosen tasks that prevent a giant mess from unraveling once the pain subsides.
  3. that expedite recovery. I am embarrassed to admit that I have overworked through dull-witted stupors leading to the doubling or even tripling of the duration and intensity of pain.

Here’s a snapshot of my bare minimum list:

  1. The Next Meal
  2. Tomorrow’s Lesson Plans
  3. Prints for Tomorrow

Yes. Only 3 tasks.

This list was not always so short. A great amount of literal pain has led to its correct current size that is devoid of all tasks that can wait.

This list has prevented me from having to prioritize tasks in the middle of agony. It has also reduced the stress of having to find time for reset days after the postdrome and is now at the top of the list of my life savers, next only to Crocin Pain Relief.

Whether you’re suffering from chronic pain like me, or wrestle with issues like anxiety that lead to piles of pending work and pangs of guilt and shame waiting at the other end, the bare minimum list may potentially be your friend.

*The reader might assume that I deem myself to be too important to consider what I do to be ever urgent. That’s, unfortunately, not true. It is the nature of my job, of teaching, that doesn’t allow one to rest without the burden of dreadful guilt coupled with catastrophic consequences in the classroom the next day. Fear is a more appropriate word to describe the cause of my constant on-the-run anxious existence.

Feature Image credit: Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash

Writing Workshop for ELLs: Movie Scenes as Mentor Texts – Lesson 2

Please click here to read Lesson 1.

After ensuring that my students knew the difference between showing and telling, I moved on to teach them the lesson “Slow Down the Hot Spot” from Craft Lessons by JoAnn Portalupi and Ralph Fletcher. I adapted it by using the song “Yad Lagla” from the movie Sairat to demonstrate how the movie makers used slow motion to slow down the hot spot when the male protagonist gets the attention of the female protagonist for the first time.

Here are my slides:

Once I was sure that my students got the point of slow motion in the song, I introduced the book Fig Pudding to them.

And then supplied the context for chapter 4.

I then read chapter 4 aloud.

At this point, I circled back to the song and asked them to consider the effect if the movie makers decided to show the crucial point in the scene in a hurry. To illustrate, I played the same section of the song again in 2x speed.

Amidst peels of laughter, they conceded that they had indeed rushed through crucial scenes in their stories.

The next lesson, in case you’re curious, was “Make the Movie” from Nancie Atwell’s In the Middle.

Please note that I have not said anything about what skills/supports ELLs need when they put pen to paper after the lesson is delivered. That’s a potential subject for a future post.

Tough Questions that Remain

While the two lessons I’ve described were far more successful compared to my previous attempts in teaching the same principles of writing, the constant opposing forces of writing workshop and ELT leave me wrestling with hard questions. Here’s a snapshot of my current unpolished thoughts:

  1. My pedagogy is based on all the path-breaking work done by Donald Graves and Nancie Atwell in writing instruction. And, as far as I know, majority of their students were native speakers of English in the USA. Is it then right to use this pedagogy with English Language Learners in India?
  2. But, writing workshop works with my students. Their writing here, here and here is just a tiny fraction of the evidence for how teaching and learning in my classroom has transformed for the better with this pedagogy.
  3. Who are the students in my classroom that benefit the most from this pedagogy? Who is struggling?
  4. Students who struggle in my class are consistently those with learning difficulties or disabilities, those who have had little/no literacy instruction in their previous years of schooling. They are students who don’t have a sense of the English sentence yet.
  5. Students who struggle in my class need explicit instruction at the sentence level, spelling and vocabulary. (which I try to include along with the craft lessons from time to time)
  6. I guess the keyword is try. My instruction at the sentence level, although explicit, is definitely not systematic, doesn’t follow a scope and sequence, doesn’t guarantee that they will learn everything they need to about English syntax, semantics and orthography by the time they enter high school.
  7. What is the minimum proficiency for an ELL to be ready to engage in creative writing? And at what point does it become cognitive overload?
  8. Am I causing heavy cognitive overload by expecting students to wrestle with multiple, complicated aspects of writing all at once? Am I pushing my struggling students into difficult corners with haphazard, inconsistent support?
  9. If I abandon workshop, what about my students who are finding their voice through writing, a voice they never had access to before workshop?
  10. What about the struggling students then? The very reason I adopted writing workshop was so that every student could write, and write well.
  11. Do I even have a real choice given that all my students, struggling or not, are going to appear for the Cambridge FLE exam, an exam that requires them to produce high quality, original writing with a voice?

Writing Workshop for ELLs: Movie Scenes as Mentor Texts – Lesson 1

In a previous post, I argued that Language Sensitive mini lessons pose the most difficulty for ELLs in a writing workshop. While that may still be true, over the last few months, I have come to understand what now appears to be glaringly obvious. Craft lessons can cause significant difficulty to ELLs even if they are language agnostic.

What I overlooked earlier was the fact that ELLs are expected to get a mentor text and be affected by it enough to want to try the same technique in their writing even in language agnostic lessons. And, getting a mentor text cannot be taken for granted as long as the mentor text is not in a language they are reasonably proficient at.

I have, in my ignorance, delivered many language agnostic mini lessons to ELLs with the assumption that the principle of writing being taught applies to all languages. While that is certainly true, it didn’t occur to me that if the language of the mentor text is a barrier, the fact that the lesson is language agnostic no longer holds water.

To illustrate my point, consider the ubiquitous craft lesson, Show, Don’t Tell. Many of my ELLs with vocabulary sizes often below 6000 word families struggle with Chekov’s oft-quoted line, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass.” That’s just 16 words, but 20 out of 25 students in my 8th grade class did not know the meaning of glint.

One might argue that the meaning of glint can be pretaught, or that students can guess it from context. Preteaching vocabulary certainly works with a short mentor text like this one. More often than not, writing workshop at the middle school level requires students to engage with much longer mentor texts. And enough has been written about how unreliable context clues are (1). In fact, I have found that context clues work only for students with an already reasonable proficiency in English. But that’s a story for another day.

Once again, I turned to movies for a solution and used movie scenes and songs to illustrate the principles of writing I wanted to teach. Here’s what guided this decision:

  • I choose scenes from popular movies that most students had already watched. Engaging with already familiar content with a new lens is far more enjoyable, efficient, and effective than convincing my students to read something they’ve never heard about because I believe there’s something worth noticing in it. This is more true in case of English mentor texts that I bring to the classroom (except the ones written by students themselves) because they are completely alien to my students.
  • An unfamiliar English mentor text usually means 1-2 classes of comprehension of the text itself before we begin to look at it as a mentor text. That’s 30 to 60 minutes of class time. There are very few places on the planet where every minute is indispensable. An English classroom with 95% ELLs with an average CEFR proficiency of B1/B2 preparing to write the Cambridge FLE Exam in two years definitely features in the top 10% of the list.
  • Even after guided comprehension of the text, many a time, my students are not as affected by them as they “should” be. Their proficiency in the language is simply not enough for its appreciation yet.
  • Ralph Fletcher uses photography and photographs to teach the craft of writing in Focus Lessons. In the same vein, movie screenplays, camera angles, and techniques like slow motion offer invaluable insights into the principles of effective storytelling.
  • I always follow up a discussion of movie scenes with a discussion of an English mentor text. This way, they are able to see the application of the principle in English writing.

Let me now stop telling and show you the slides I used for the lesson:

Lesson 1: Show, Don’t Tell OR Scenes vs Narration

My students had already been taught Show, Don’t Tell but were struggling to apply it correctly.

Here’s the video:

We now begin to read the actual mentor text: Molly by Anne Atwell (2)

Additionally, this lesson helped resolve three longstanding issues in my students’ writing:

  1. Clarified the purpose of Show, Don’t Tell as an intentional choice an author makes. Emphasize that Showing is not always superior to Telling. Telling has it’s own place and authors do tell in artful ways.
  2. Contextualize dialogue, thoughts and feelings, action, and description within the framework of showing.
  3. Helped stop the overuse of Show, Don’t Tell leading to unnecessary descriptions of unimportant aspects of the story like the color of a secondary character’s shoes (The shoes had no other part to play in the story except to convince me that the student had used Show, Don’t Tell.)

In the next post, I describe the subsequent lesson: Slow down the hot spot.

  1. Schatz, Elinore Kress, and R. Scott Baldwin. “Context Clues Are Unreliable Predictors of Word Meanings.” Reading Research Quarterly, vol. 21, no. 4, 1986, pp. 439–453. JSTOR, Accessed 7 May 2020.
  2. Lessons that Change Writers by Nancie Atwell

Learning to Listen: Part 18 – Teacher Voice

In this post, I share the letter I wrote to my students about what I wish they knew about me. Click here to read other articles from the blog series, Learning to Listen.


I care about you as a whole person, not just as a student of English.

I am constantly observing you in class: from the smallest frowns on your forehead when something confuses you to the tiredness in your eyes when you haven’t had a good night’s sleep.

I wish I could communicate better how proud of you I am.

I wish you knew how much you’ve grown in the past year in this classroom.

I respect your personal space and I’m very careful not to force anything – a lesson or a piece of feedback.

I know, understand and sometimes worry about how you’re feeling. Because I know how you feel affects how you learn.

I wish you knew this job is tough, and sometimes, I am required to fight the very systems that exist to educate you.

I am constantly thinking about what’s good for you and I advocate for you, sometimes at my own peril.

I wish you knew that every lesson, every writing conference, every move in the classroom is a result of hours of reading, training, experimenting, failing, thinking, reflecting, discussing, questioning, arguing and constantly learning.

I find my voice by helping you find yours.

I believe that finding your voice on paper today will aid you years later if, like me, you’re ever stuck in place that’s trying to take your voice away.

In every writing conference, I care about your wish for your piece more than anything else.

I wish you knew that I hate small talk, and that after many years of faking it, I’ve finally come to accept it and be myself. I wish you didn’t assume that I’m not friendly or I don’t care about you because I don’t chat around in the hallways or during lunch.

I wish you knew that I could have a bad day too, sometimes because of personal reasons, sometimes because of a student, and many times because of systems that are bad for students.

I wish you knew that for me, feedback is a gift. I usually know when I’ve screwed up, and am mostly already on a journey to make amends.

I wish you knew that I am unafraid to apologize.

I wish you didn’t judge me by other teacher’s mistakes. All adults are not the same. Each of us is unique, just like you.

I wish you knew I’m human: I’ve seen abuse, fear, isolation, loss, hope, laughter, peace, and love. I wish you knew that I get it.

It’s disconcerting when a student is scared of me especially when I can’t figure why.

I wish you knew that I can sense it when you dislike me. I can see the walls between us, and hate that you assume those walls can’t be broken. Sometimes, your unwillingness to break those walls frustrates me, not because of anything to do with me, but because I know how that unwillingness could risk your future.

Learning to Listen: Part 17 – Teacher Voice [Guest Post]

This is a guest post written by my dear colleague Alekhya Y. Click here to read other articles from the blog series, Learning to Listen.

“The force of listening will draw words out; writers will find themselves saying things they didn’t know they knew.” – Lucy Calkins

We may be born with throats but it takes years to find our voice. I was born with a throat too, like many, but it took me years to find my voice. 

“Amma, I feel tired.”

“Ssh! Go check if I turned off the gas.”

“Amma I got fewer marks than last year.”

“Ssh don’t you see I am cooking?”

“Amma I want to read this book”

“Hmm, read.”


“Get out of my way now. Your father must be hungry.”

“Amma, a boy in school is disturbing me.”


When no one listened to me, I felt angry. But when my mother didn’t listen, I felt lost. Sadness began to hide in the deepest of places and refused to part with me. I thought what I said didn’t matter. I thought my words were trash, my experiences were unimportant, my questions were stupid. 

My presence was unnecessary, maybe?

My childhood was mute and my struggles were silenced because no one listened. My abuses were unheard and my abuser free because no one listened. 

After 21 years of silence, I decided that it is a crime to not listen. Today, I wish my students knew that if there is anything that I know to do well, it is to listen.

I owe it to the lonely 10-year-old Alekhya to listen when a student asks a question. 

I owe it to the 12-year-old Alekhya to listen to a child when she says, “I feel lost.”

I owe it to the 14-year-old Alekhya to not walk away when a child expresses, “I am hurt by you.”

I swear by the 16-year-old Alekhya to listen when you tell me, “I can’t sleep because my friend left me.”

I wish you knew that I began writing as an escape from the world and I continue to do so. But I am very shy.

I wish you knew 

that I don’t just help write, I want each one of you to find your voice

that I will always ask before I push

that I won’t stop you when you want to be heard

that your words are my fuel

that I have fought my fears through your stories

I really wish you knew that in my conferences, I talk not to put words on your paper but to figure out how to get to know you and help your words say what your heart wants to say.

I wish you knew that sometimes I struggle and I worry but that doesn’t mean I am not strong. 

that I am sensitive but it is my strength

that I fight

but I am not afraid to apologize

that I can take scoldings

but I don’t like it when you don’t talk it out assuming I won’t be able to handle or help

I wish you knew that the reason I don’t shut off your questions or allow discussion to happen is because I care for your voice. Many times, a question raised by one student paves way organically to future lessons (remember the lesson on abandoning books, the lesson on Dystopia, linguistics lesson on British English vs American English?)

I think it is the most beautiful and powerful way of living – asking and listening. I let the discussion happen because I care for and respect your voice, your story and knowing what makes you YOU.

I wish you knew that I spend a lot of time reading about reading and writing, discussing, questioning, not blindly following what the book says and making sure this room becomes a place where learning is possible at all times. I read one hour a day too. 

I notice everything, what you say, how you say, where you look and how you feel. If you have noticed, I come to you and tell you that I did and will ask you to help me out. I feel hurt when your subtle expressions judge me, and I make sure I get it out of my system by telling you that I feel hurt. I do so, not to show you down but to not hold anything unpleasant inside me. I have begun to believe in not piling up unpleasantness inside me recently, and have learned to express in a way that is not hurtful. It has taken a lot of effort to do that – day in and day out. I wasn’t able to do it a few years ago. So today, I will tell you, “Hey, that wasn’t nice” or “Hey, there is a difference between having fun with someone and making fun of someone.” I will tell you because there can be anything between you and me but unresolved feelings.

Learning to Listen: Part 16 – You Scare Me

This is a student’s response to the question, “What do you wish your teachers knew about you?” Click here to read other articles from the blog series, Learning to Listen.

It’s almost my third month in her class, and I’m still plagued with the same deep fear every day before entering English class. How am I supposed to tell her that she is scary?

I wish you knew – 

Whenever you are in front of me, 

the picture in my mind blurs

I can’t find words to speak 

I avoid answering your questions even though I know the answers 

I never ask questions even though I have many 

I avoid school to escape your class 

your sick days off are highlights of my day 

This piece has been edited slightly for brevity and clarity.

Learning to Listen: Part 15 – My Family

This is a student’s response to the question, “What do you wish your teachers knew about you?” Click here to read other articles from the blog series, Learning to Listen.

My teachers need to know both academic and non-academic aspects of my life. 

My teachers need to know that my family doesn’t have access to the internet and hence I cannot complete HW that requires the internet. 

My teachers need to know that my parents can’t help me with my homework because they don’t know English. 

My teachers need to know my weaknesses and distractions that keep me from achieving my academic goals. 

My teachers need to know my academic goals so they can help me achieve them. 

This piece has been edited slightly for brevity and clarity.