A Surprisingly Difficult Challenge

Right to Education: My Fair Trade soccer ball from Pakistan
One of my friends from college just emailed me the other day with a very interesting request.  She is leaving for Rwanda to volunteer as an English teacher for six months and she contacted me to give her some advice on teaching.  She has never taught before, but she wants to be as effective as possible while she is abroad.  She asked me for some best practice teaching strategies, in addition to resources that she should buy to bring over with her.  "Wow! Where do I start?" I thought to myself.  After reading her email I started to think about everything I had learned regarding education and the science of learning.  However, I couldn't possibly tell her everything that I had learned, so I had to decide on what might be most useful and valuable to her while she was teaching abroad.

Her email is below:

Hi Brad,

I know you're a teacher and want to ask you something. I am moving back to Rwanda for 5 months to teach English as a second language to teachers, community members and kids. I have never taught in my life, and I was wondering if you could recommend any good lesson-plan websites, ESL books to bring, people you can connect me with or teaching ideas or anything! Any help would be greatly appreciated.

This was a surprisingly difficult challenge for me because I know so much about education. How could I possibly explain this to her over an email? I really had to go back to the basics and fundamentals of best-practice teaching. She will more than likely have very little resources and she said she might have access to computers, but she's not sure. I knew this was going to be difficult, but I was up for the challenge.

I have included my response to her email below ...


Get your hands on the following books if you can:

It's Not About the Technology: My Volunteer Teaching Experience in Peru

If you have access to computers and the Internet, have your students visit these two websites:

Google Search Tools

These two websites will allow your students to search in a language that they understand, translate what they find into English, and narrow down their search when they are investigating and exploring content.

My Two Cents

The most important part of teaching is getting students curious, interested, and excited to learn.  That is the real art of teaching.  If you can “hook” your students for every lesson, every day, you will be a great teacher.  You can’t make students learn, you can only motivate, inspire, foster, facilitate, encourage, and assist them in the process.  This sounds weird, but the less YOU do and the more your STUDENTS do, the better. If you remember this quote, you will be successful:

“Tell me and I forget, show me and I remember, involve me and I learn.”

Don’t lecture. Don’t use worksheets if possible. Get students asking questions, researching, exploring, constructing their own meaning, sharing, and creating artifacts that demonstrate their learning and understanding.  Don’t always plan what the students will learn everyday.  Allow the students to go off on tangents.  Allow students to have “voice and choice” over what they learn.  This will help to keep them interested, and they will be more excited to learn.

When helping or assisting students construct their own meaning of information, use the following strategies.

Research-Based, Best Practice Teaching Strategies
  1. Examples vs. Nonexamples
  2. Analogies 
  3. Compare and Contrast: Venn Diagrams (similarities and differences)
  4. Graphic Organizers for classification or concept patterns (Teacher generated and/or student generated)
  5. Summarizing and Note-taking
  6. Reciprocal teaching (having students explain to other students and/or teacher)
  7. Reinforce student effort not finished products.  Students will do better if they know their effort is being rewarded, not their outcomes.
  8. Nonlinguistic Representations:  Have students …
    a. Draw pictures or other visuals
    b. Create graphs, charts, tables, etc.
    c. Act, create a skit, use gestures. etc. 
  9. Cooperative and Collaborative Learning: Have students work in groups to learn together. They can all be doing the same task, or they can be working on different tasks toward a common goal.
    a. Jigsaw Activity: students work with peers who study one facet of a topic.  Then they return to a “home-base” group for sharing what they have learned.  The home-base group is composed of a student specializing in each facet of the topic.  Students in the home-base group are responsible for reporting to the group on their specialty topic and for learning what other students report.
    b. Literature Circles: This allows for students to read on topics of interest and share readings with others who read the same material.  It allows teachers to break away comfortably from the sense that all students must read the same materials in order to have meaningful discussions. 
  10. Intelligence Preferences:  Allow for students to investigate and demonstrate their learning and understanding via their strengths and interests.  Here are some examples:
    a. music smart (musical, auditory)
    b. picture smart (visual-spacial)
    c. self smart (intrapersonal)
    d. body smart (bodily-kinesthetic)
    e. word smart (verbal-linguistic)
    f. logic smart (logical-mathematical)
    g. nature smart (naturalistic)
    h. people smart (interpersonal)

While I was in Peru, I often had students play the following games:
  • Pictionary
  • Charades
  • Catch-Phrase

What I did was use the basic principles of these games and use words that we were currently learning about. Students would either work in small groups, or have two teams competing against each other. These games are great to help students conceptualize information with as little words as possible (works especially well when learning a new language).

Find out what students are interested in. Find out what sports they like, games they play, music their into, etc. This was really helpful when trying to make connections and relationships with my students, and it also helped me to tailor my instruction to their interests, which made learning more fun and meaningful.

Also, remember that ALL students can learn, it just might take different approaches and a different amount of time for each. Figure out what your students’ strengths and interests are, and allow them to use their talents and interests when learning.

Lastly, tell your students that they are all unique and valuable to this world. Let them know that you believe in them. Because, “Students don’t care how much you know … until they know how much you care!”


This was a really fun activity for me. I am so glad she wrote me this email, because this provided me with an opportunity to synthesize all of my resources, experience and knowledge into an email that reflected what I value most as a teacher. You know, it's easy to get caught up in all of the technology that is out there, but true learning comes from great pedagogy and instruction.

For your consideration

I encourage all educators to take this surprisingly difficult challenge. What would you tell my friend who has never taught before, is entering a school in third world country, and has very limited access to resources?
  • What might you have added to this email? 
  • What strategies might you have told her? 
  • What tips, or reminders might you have mentioned?

All responses are welcome!