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Think Tank

This Month's Think Tank Panel

May 2009

Topic: What are some ways to start a class off right?

Peter Viney

What are some ways to start a class off right?

There were two tips I gave to new teachers about the first lesson: learn the students’ names and get them moving about.

The first lesson is unpredictable, and it varies according to situation, one factor is the length of the lesson, another is how long the students are going to be studying on the course.

Most people consider a lesson unit to be 45 to 60 minutes, with 90 minutes to 120 minutes considered a double-lesson. Double lessons are common in evening classes and are becoming almost standard in many secondary schools in Europe. Teachers point out that it takes ten minutes, at least, for most students to switch into English mode, and this makes the 45 minute lesson uneconomic. I consider first lesson strategies to be for no more than for the first 45 to 60 minutes. In a double lesson, I would expect to be teaching something in the second half.

If you have just ten evening classes, or as I often did, nine day intensive courses, you don’t hang around too much over the first lesson. You break the ice and get started.


Learning students’ names is essential, though lapses can be forgiven once class size passes thirty. In groups of forty or fifty, the students don’t expect you to know their names. Learning names takes work, and I’d sit down with the register and read them all carefully before the lesson, then concentrate really hard as I called the first register and said a few words to each student, making sure I used the name. Kenji? Ah, hello, Kenji. What’s your job, Kenji? How did you come here today, Kenji?

In the first lesson I would always have a circulating, smiling, shaking hands and introduction phase, even with zero beginners.

I’ve had mainly multi-lingual classes where names are a lot easier to remember, but at the same time I taught monolingual groups on specialized courses (Kuwaiti nurses, Japanese golfers, Venezuelan oil workers, Chinese translators, Algerian air traffic controllers) and most of these were single sex, which makes them doubly hard.

Many teachers have students make name cards for the first few lessons, but I prided myself on remembering. Teachers would protest that it was hard, but I was the head of department, and instead of seeing five classes a week, I saw all ten or twelve in my department and knew all of their names. That was thirty years ago, I hasten to add. I also banned teachers from writing helpful notes on the register card, which was common practice before I was head of department. However politely they are phrased, physical descriptions are going to be offensive if anyone accidentally sees them. One teacher used to write things like ‘fat, spotty, glasses’ in pencil.

I picked up one other tip watching a colleague who was fluent in seven or more languages, and native speaker level in four of them. He could pronounce every name in any class perfectly. I noticed that students were intimidated pronouncing English when confronted with a perfect accent in their own language. At the same time we had a French-Canadian group learning English, and I’d done a song in class (The Band’s ‘Acadian Driftwood’) which has a few lines of French at the end. They so loved correcting my French accent, that I determined in future to retain a definite slight Anglicization when I pronounced names, and have students correct me in lesson one. And I’d try hard to improve and say, ‘Is that OK?’ The psychological effect is that we’re going through a process together. No one’s perfect. Foreign languages are tricky to pronounce.


Cultural sensitivities intervene in a multi-lingual situation, but nevetheless, in the first lesson I would always have a circulating, smiling, shaking hands and introduction phase, even with zero beginners, though with zero beginners you teach the basic introduction language first. (And it might just be, ‘Hello. I’m Peter.’ You need to get across the idea that the classroom is not a static place. You can also get across that facial expression and friendly tone are as much a part of the introduction as the words. From elementary (British elementary, i.e. level two rather than ‘starter’) up, I’d have a form so that students could interview each other and find out basic facts.

Course books

The problem with first lessons is those spare fifteen or twenty minutes at the end. You learn the names, you have students introduce themselves to each other thoroughly, but then you have a quarter of an hour or so before the bell. As a course book writer, I try to envisage the first lesson. I assume that in many situations the book will only be opened in lesson two (or part two of the double lesson). To get around that, we have often written a classroom language pre-unit that will only take 15 or 20 minutes. We’ve also often built the introductions (including circulating and pair work form) into lesson one in the book.

Who are the students? Are they students on a secondary or tertiary education course who already know each other? Or are they new to the course? Don’t forget that people might be interviewing strangers, and some facts, even ones as basic as marital status might be information they would prefer to keep to themselves. Most people would be wary about giving a telephone number to a stranger in lesson one. I once attended a talk on Gender & ELT where the speaker was advocating the use of ‘Ms’ in most situations, but one teacher said she would always prefer to use a definite ‘Mrs’ if introducing herself to a male stranger in an evening class.

This is where the course book can help (and so can the teacher without a book) by putting students into a role-play situation right at the start. Think of a famous person. Imagine you’re that person. Write down an imaginary address, phone number, etc.

In one low intermediate book we set lesson one on a space station. There’s a conversation which starts off the lesson where a computer interviews a new arrival. The new arrival is a computer designer and there’s a comic punch line: as more information appears the interviewing computer gets more and more excited and the punch-line is when the computer finally discovers who the computer designer is and exclaims ‘Mummy!’ Then students do a role play interview with a blank form and information based on the characters. Next, they do a real interview with a partner, and the teacher says clearly that they can invent information or use real information. It’s their choice. Personalization has its place, and with students who know each other, it’s obvious that you will probably use real information. But in lesson one with adult strangers? Students may wish to preserve their privacy just a little longer. Role play allows this.

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Marc Helgesen

What are some ways to start a class off right?

I start the first class with something simple – that is actually a lot more complex than it sounds. I walk into class – and here’s the secret – I smile. Not some wimpy “How are you. My name is Marc.” smile. I give them a big “It is GREAT to see you” grin. It is sincere. I love what I do and I am genuinely delighted to meet my new students. But there is something else going on.

When I smile at them, most of them automatically smile back. And that is the first step of establishing rapport. Establishing rapport is a key to developing a positive, cooperative class culture. We humans reflect our expressions. I want a class where we are all important parts of one whole, not a series of cliques and separate sub-groups. I want a class where anyone can and will work happily with anyone else. When we have a positive class culture, the year is off to a great start.

smile%20sunburst.jpg The smile seems like a little thing, but think of how many teachers you’ve heard say, “I start off the year tough. I want them to know that they will need to work. I don’t want them to take advantage of me. Later on I might back off but I need to be strong from the start.” So what happens? That teacher walks in looking tough. The students match the expression. They look tough, too. And you’ve off on a “me vs. them” footing. Isn’t that almost an invitation for them to take advantage of you?

When I smile at them, most of them automatically smile back. And that is the first step of establishing rapport.

Over the first few classes, we do several icebreaking tasks where the students get to know each other. One of my favorites is “An Introduction to Remember.” I point out that many classes start with introductions that include things you like. “I’m Marc. I like music.” The problem is that everyone likes music so that makes it a highly forgettable self-introduction. I ask them to think of something true about themselves that is probably not true about anyone else. Then they stand up, find a partner, and introduce themselves with the unusual information.

I’ve done this with a few hundred students and I’ve never had students who couldn’t think of something unique about themselves. Here are a few of the interesting things I’ve learned over the years:

Shiho’s sister is an opera singer.
Chiaki has 9 pierces.
David’s cousin was attacked by a shark.
Eriko plays in a metal band.
Miho’s been to Tokyo Disneyland 6 times.
Natsumi’s cute dimple is really a scar she got when she fell down on the school’s outdoor clock on the day of JHS graduation. Blood everywhere.

There are a couple things going on here. The students are sharing interesting information about themselves. Which communicates to themselves, “Gee, I’m interesting. I’m worth knowing. I’ve got something to say.” It is positive self-talk which is useful because it sets them up, and leads to healthy self-fulfilling prophesies.

Also, the students are up and moving around. So there is physical activity. People doing physical activity together build a sense of being a group. (Did you really think those rajio taiso morning exercise routines were only about exercise?). Also, movement means there is a kinesthetic element to the class. The three primary sensory learning styles are visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. Nearly any English class has visual input from books, handouts, the teacher, and other students. They get auditory from recording and listening to the teacher and to each other. When we’ve added kinesthetic input, it means we’ve covered all three so everyone is getting some input in their strongest learning style.

You might wonder what I’m doing while the students are doing this “memorable self-introduction mixer.” I’m listening, and working on learning names. I have to admit that it is hard to learn who everybody is, especially at the beginning of the school year when we have dozens, perhaps hundreds of new students. But I really do try. And the fact that I can combine learning the names with their interesting information gives me a head start.

I encourage them to try to learn each other’s names, too. They follow-up An Introduction to Remember by working with a partner. They look around the room and see how many people and their interesting information they can remember. “That’s Chiaki. She has nine pierces. Hmm. I can only see seven.”

Skeptical readers might say, “Pretty touchy-feely stuff. Where’s the English teaching. Where are the educational objectives? How is this going to help the students raise their TOIEC scores?” Well, think about it. They are spending most of the first class speaking English, listening and comprehending English, remembering English. Without me having to say it, they’ve experienced the fact that they – not me – are going to have to do the real work of communicating in class. But they’ve also experienced the fact that they had something worth saying and that their new classmates wanted to hear it. And they’ve started to connect to the other students and to me. We’re building rapport.

When I was training as a teacher, I don’t remember anyone talking about building rapport. Now, when I teach my own graduate school classes, we talk about building rapport and work on it from the first day. If you can get the class culture right, everyone will be pulling in the same direction. That makes the heavy lifting so much easier.

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Curtis Kelly

What are some ways to start a class off right?

It’s the first day of class. I’m walking down the hall carrying the textbook I plan to use. Since the first class is always a kind of throwaway, I’m planning the lesson as I walk:

“I’ll spend the first 20 minutes telling them about the class requirements. Then I’ll spend the next 20 introducing myself, telling them where I grew up, what I studied, how I got to Japan, and so on. Then I’ll have each of them ask me one question. That’ll take another 20 minutes for sure. After I assign their seats I’ll have them introduce themselves to the class in whatever time is left over. They’ll take turns standing up, say saying their names and where they are from. Done! Piece of cake.”

Our students’ need to get to know their peers represents a strong developmental need; so strong in fact, that it is like a tidal wave.

Oh. Let me clarify the setting of this scenario. I’m at Kansai Gaidai University, this first day, on my way to my 30-student speaking class, although it could as easily be my writing class. And one more thing: it’s 1989.

Yep. This is how I did first classes twenty years ago, and pretty much the way my peers did them. I did not think these classes were all that good. In fact, I didn’t even think about the product at all. It was just an easy way to get through the first week.
What a waste. If only I had known then what I know now I wouldn’t have squandered these opportunities to make really great classes. Not anymore, though. What I do now is totally different, and in end-of-year surveys, invariably, students say the first class or two were the best. So what do I do now that gets such good results? The easy answer is, that I forget myself.

Over the years, I’ve noticed a change in my orientation. Where once, I followed a tell-them-about-me-and-the-class formula, I have replaced it with a help-them-with-their-lives focus. The part about me got shorter and shorter and the part about them got longer. After all, who really wants to hear about me?

Still, having 30 students introduce themselves one-by-one can get pretty tedious, so I had to make some innovations. I tried having students interview each other and tell the class about their partners (good, but not great), I’d have them spend time in groups talking to each other (better), and eventually, I’d made up some identity games (now we are getting there). One of my favorites for writing class (and now an activity in both Writing from Within and Significant Scribbles) was to have students write a short paragraph about themselves without signing their names. I’d collect the papers, shuffle them, number them, and post them around the room. I’d then have the students read the profiles and see if they could figure out who wrote each. At the end, when I read these profiles to the class and asked the authors to show themselves. I got everyone’s full attention.

But the great first class activity came later. It has to do with surfing. Before I tell you about it though, let’s look at a little psychology.

One of the key concepts in Adult Education is that learners are life-centered. In other words, learners are geared to attend to learning that helps them solve real life problems. One way to identify the shared problems our learners face is to look at life stage studies and developmental psychology. Piaget, Kohberg, Erikson, Maslow, Belenky et al., Knowles and many others tell us that the greatest challenge youth faces is something called
moral development
which means figuring out the rights and wrongs of filling social roles, following rules, and forming relationships. This developmental challenge is pretty much what the rest of us call establishing one’s identity. Since individual identity is closely tied to group identity, interaction and bonding with peers is a critical part of finding it.

In short, our students’ need to get to know their peers represents a strong developmental need; so strong in fact, that it is like a tidal wave. Catch that wave, and what a ride we get. It is the perfect vehicle for delivering English instruction.

So here is how I do in first classes these days, a way that makes them great. I have students interview each other to fill in one-page forms about their partners. The forms include mail addresses (optional, of course), hobbies, dreams, hand-drawn portraits, etc. After the interviews, I collect the forms, make class albums out of them, and pass them out the following class. It is amazing how excited students get when they receive them, and it is not unusual for graduates to tell me they still have the class albums they made in the first class a decade ago. Chuck Sandy and I developed three different levels of class album forms for our Active Skills for Communication series. Here is the class album activity from Book 1. Just click below to download.

Download Class Album Activity

If our learners’ need to bond with their peers is the wave, and the album is the surfboard, then you might also do a little “hang ten” to deliver some language. For example, you might have them write out the needed interview questions beforehand, you might teach them Do you mind questions for personal information, or you could explain how wh and yes/no questions are grammatically different. As with any activity that is completely engaging, acquiring the related language is a natural and unavoidable side effect.

So, what is a good way start a class off right? Forget your own needs and attend to theirs – getting to know their peers – and use this “teachable moment” to deliver English.

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Chris Hunt

What are some ways to start a class off right?

"Goodbye, goodbye - speak English!

Goodbye, goodbye - speak English!

Goodbye, goodbye - speak English!

Speak English, every day!

See you, see you - speak English!

See you, see you - speak English!

See you, see you - speak English!

Speak English, every day!"

Jean-Luc Godard once said that every film has a beginning, a middle, and an end, but not necessarily in that order. The same goes for classes with children. I typically begin my first class with young children by saying, “Hello!” to everyone and then wave, say “Goodbye!” and hurry out the door. I then wait for someone to call out, “Come here!” before returning and repeating the process until everyone is laughing and the children are really shouting. It helps that I team-teach, so the child can learn by example. On the occasions that I have taught alone I have used a
parrot flag to pre-teach the important phrase. It takes a bit longer to get the children responding but I think it well worth the effort. They become really vocal from the outset, and it also undermines the notion of the teacher as a figure of authority. I aim to establish the feeling that we are all doing English together and to that end I think it is important to reshape the traditional student teacher relationship as quickly as possible.
So the stuff of my first lesson is all about sharing and being together. We'll do activities like
Which One,
Wake Up, and
Happy or Sad.

Learning names is secondary. In some cases I have gone a couple of classes with young children without doing names. Don't get me wrong, I think names are very important. But for young children names are often handles used by adults for control. For them, being is enough. When I was a child I could play with other children without ever learning their names. With young children we often get so busy with activities that names fall by the wayside.

I aim to establish the feeling that we are all doing English together and to that end I think it is important to reshape the traditional student teacher relationship as quickly as possible.

With children going to elementary school I do use names, combining them with the use of randomness. As much as possible, I aim to give up the power claimed by the traditional teacher. One important power is deciding who does what with whom. When it comes to deciding partners or who goes first in a game we use a dice, or with a large group, name cards drawn from a hat. This avoids possible feelings of favouritism and over time helps ensure that everyone works with everyone.

A simple name activity for small groups is to roll a dice, count around the group and ask, “Who are you?” Then, roll the dice again, count on from the previous finishing place and repeat. This means it is possible to ask a person their name more than once, and if the dice is kind, sometimes several times in a row. This procedure can be used with any question and once the pattern is established the children can take turns commanding the dice. We use a toy microphone to add to the sense of drama. It is important to keep the whole activity very short by using a timer – no more than a minute. On the occasions when someone is missed it’s then possible to repeat the game until their number comes up.

Apart from establishing the use of randomness, I’ll usually introduce the parrot flag and also symbol cards. These can be used to make sentences and introduce children to the structure of English without requiring them to read. Flags and cards can also be passed around. For example, I can take an “I” card and the “Be” card and make a sentence “I am Chris” punctuating each word by holding up the matching card. I can then pass the cards on to the person on my left and let them travel around the room. When the cards return I can replace the “I” card with a “You” card and hand the cards dramatically to my neighbour saying, “You are …” and adding their name. Or, I can switch the order of the cards and ask, “Are you …” and get the name wrong once or twice.

From this April, I’ll be taking the use of cards a stage further by having one for each class activity. In the first class I’ll lay them out on the table and use a dice to select a card before doing its activity. The ultimate aim is to structure the entire class using these Activity Cards. Once the format is established the whole group will be able to have a much bigger say in the execution and content of the class without the need to use Japanese.

From a moral point of view I think that students should be able to control their own learning. I also believe that the more control children have over their own learning the more English they can learn. The experiments I have done have yet to dissuade me from this view.

I think that as a society if we genuinely value democracy we should be extending it to everyday life and activities. That means democracy in the workplace and democracy in the schools. I guess that put this way the idea has all the popularity of lead ice-cream. If I substitute the word democracy for choice does that make the idea more palatable?

Anyway, to get any class right I feel it its important to keep the ends in mind, both big and small. We often skip an opening song but it is a rare day indeed when we don’t finish a class with our goodbye song. And that’s where I came back in.

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Chuck Sandy

What are some ways to start a class off right?

It’s the first day of school and you want to make a good first impression. Get it right and you’re off to a good start. Get it wrong and you probably won’t be able to change anyone’s perception of you and your way of doing things later on. That’s because first impressions, once in place, are virtually irreversible. You won’t want to just wander into a new class unprepared for this. You’ll want to think it through.

Do you arrive early, right on time, or just a little late? Are you smiling when you walk in the room or does your expression convey seriousness of purpose? What’s the first thing you do after walking into your classroom? Do you sit or do you stand? How do you introduce yourself? Is your tone friendly and open or do you speak in the voice of someone in charge? Do you start right in with an activity or do you begin by explaining class rules and policies? And by the way, what are you wearing?

Students can work with almost any kind of teacher except an inconsistent one.

Although I’m not about to tell you what to do, say, or wear on your first day of class, how you answer those questions for yourself truly does matter.

Teachers who smile upon walking in the room are likely to be smiled back at by at least a few students who have keyed into the first impression that a smile conveys while those who enter with a more serious expression on their face will probably not be smiled at by anyone at all.

Teachers who arrive on the bell give students a different first impression than teachers who arrive early. Teachers dressed in business attire or smart chic are noted in a way that’s different from teachers dressed in jeans and a tee shirt. Teachers who arrive a bit late and shuffle their papers around are perceived differently than teachers who walk in and get things started right away.

Sit on the desk and you’ll give a different impression than you will if you stand in front of the room. Tell your students that they can call you by your first name and you’ll be a different kind of teacher in their eyes than someone who asks to be addressed by last name and title. Begin with a set of rules and you’ll have a different class than if you start off with an activity.

This is what you’ll want to think through because not only are first impressions lasting but also how you begin and what you do in the rest of the class will also lock you into doing the same sorts of things and acting in the same ways in every class that follows.

The good news is that there are no right or wrong answers because there are no right or wrong ways of being a teacher. The only right way to begin a class is by being just who you are and by starting off doing the kinds of things you want students to be doing the rest of the term. If you want to have students working in pairs and groups, then start doing that with them from the very first. If you want them sitting in rows and quietly listening to you as you profess, then start off in a way that demonstrates what you expect. Then, whatever you do, be consistent.

Students can work with almost any kind of teacher except an inconsistent one. If you’re not going to be playing games and doing fun activities in every class, then don’t raise false expectations by starting out the first class with nothing but fun activities and games. If you set a rule, follow through with it. If you start off with a relaxed and open atmosphere, don’t then suddenly shift tone and clamp down. If you insist on students arriving on time, then you’ll have to be consistently on time yourself. If you expect students to be respectful and understanding of everyone equally, then you’re going to have to be that kind of person as well – from the very start.

Although all of this may seem self-evident, it’s apparently not. Not only has it taken me years to learn this, but also I’ve found that almost every classroom management problem or student complaint I come across has at its core an inconsistency issue. When teachers begin by leaving one kind of first impression and then go on to try to run a different kind of class, students get confused. When rules set forth on the first day of class are ignored in subsequent classes, or worse yet, are only enforced for some students but not for others, every other rule becomes suspect. That’s when classes fall apart, students complain, and someone like me gets called in to try to sort it all out. It happens more than you’d imagine.

So, wear a suit or wear jeans and a t-shirt. Play games or don’t. Make rules or let things happen as they do. Expect quiet from your students or encourage a lively class atmosphere where people call out unexpected things at unexpected times. Be approachable or be more reserved. It doesn’t much matter. Just decide how you will present yourself and what kind of class you want to have before you walk in on the first day. Then, as long as you are being true to yourself and are from that moment on consistent in your own behaviors and expectations, things are going to be fine.

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Dorothy Zemach

What are some ways to start a class off right?

The first day of a new class at an American university is a tricky one because you aren’t necessarily looking at your “real” class. Two students aren’t in the country yet; three will switch to another section; five more will change from someone else’s section to yours; four are placed in the wrong level and will move to a more appropriate class.

Therefore, it’s not a great day to do anything essential unless you want to repeat it at the next class or schedule individual make-up sessions. Yet many students do show up, and you have the whole class period reserved, so it seems a shame to waste it by merely handing out a syllabus and telling students to come back next time for the “real” class.

What you need, then, are activities that aren’t necessary, yet are still worthwhile.

I do first pass out a syllabus because that is expected and it contains information students need as they decide whether to stay in the class. What is the textbook? Are office hours convenient? How much homework will be assigned, and when are major assignments due? My class is just one out of their full schedules, and I know they need this information to make their choices.

The largest chunk of class time I reserve for the most important first day activity: building a positive classroom atmosphere.

Next I give students some information about myself. I’m always surprised at how controversial this is amongst some teachers. There’s a school of thought that says the teacher should be so unobtrusive as to be almost absent, and that therefore when introductions are done it should be only students introducing themselves to one another. However, I’ve found that students do want to know something about me, and I think they have a right to, as well. They should know that I have enough experience, interest, and qualifications to be teaching their class. Having some feel for my personality lets them know what the classroom atmosphere will be like. As much as we try to schedule students to balance out class sizes, there is still a good deal of section shuffling that goes on after initial schedules are passed out. I actually don’t mind if students choose class sections based on where they’d fit in best (when possible); I too want a good mesh of personalities.

The largest chunk of class time I reserve for the most important first day activity: building a positive classroom atmosphere. A class where students feel connected to one another is easier for me to work with. I want students to call on one another for support and email for missed assignments. I want them to look forward to coming to class because it’s a comfortable place to be, one charged with energy and dedicated to working intensively with the material.

I do tailor the first-day activities to the type of class I’m teaching, and I don’t have space here to describe everything in my bag of tricks, so I will choose just one favorite because it’s an easy one for anyone to construct.

I have several large conversation board games that I built with my husband. They look somewhat like a Candyland board, with a meandering path of squares. There is a “Start” square where players begin the path, but the final square says “Go back.” Each square has a broad topic such as school, a prized possession, pets, or money for students to address. I also have one version with questions and prompts such as Talk about a recent event that made you happy and What are some things you like to do on rainy days? for higher level groups.

The rules are simple. Students take turns rolling a die and advancing their marker along the board. When they land on a square, they say as much (or as little) as they wish to about any aspect of the topic. Other players may ask questions or make comments, but may NOT talk about themselves. When the player feels done, he/she hands the die to the next player.
No one can win or lose, and it’s a rare class that even makes it to the “Go back” square. And while the topics sound simple, somehow the game board format brings out the best in people. I’ve used these with countless nationalities, ages from middle school to senior citizen, and all proficiency levels. (The middle school students even used to come in at lunch and play on their own.) The amount of information shared goes way beyond the typical “Where are you from?” and “What are your hobbies?” questionnaires in some textbooks.

For those who wish to make their own games, I offer these suggestions:

• Make the game boards large and sturdy. We used heavy cardboard that has stood up well over about 15 years of steady use. (If you cannot transport large heavy boards, you can also use laminated paper versions that can be rolled up.)

• Paint the boards with bright colors and make them as attractive as you can. Add a top coat of a clear sealant to protect the board and make it possible to wipe and clean it.

• Make several different versions. You can use the same topics for each board but just put them in different places. Paint the boards in different colors. About 4-5 students is a good number for a game, so if you have a class of 30, you’ll want 6 different boards.

• The game works best when students land on different topics. To spread them out quickly, a 12-sided die works better than the standard 6-sided die. A hobby shop or store that caters to gamers should have a lovely selection of multi-sided dice in attractive colors and shapes.

• Erasers make great game markers, and Japan is one of the best countries for buying erasers in interesting shapes. Use a different theme per board, such as letters of the alphabet, fruit, or cartoon characters, and have a good selection from which students can choose.

Finally, don’t forget to circulate while students are playing, and join in. Pick up a marker and play yourself (just be careful to spend the same amount of time with each group). Students will be happy to hear about your life, and it gives you a chance to bond with students in a small-group setting.

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