Adult Education Diploma Library

Diploma resources for adult educators.

Mini Grants and Lesson Plans

Tried and True Techniques from Elizabeth Feingold

Class Norms

When students are new to adult education – particularly those younger students who have just transferred from traditional high school settings – it can be challenging to transition to this new way of "being a student." The truth of the matter is, adult education is different from traditional high school, and it's a big adjustment for many. One way to help with this transition, and to establish a positive classroom culture, is to have the students develop class norms.

An easy way to do this is to start off with some activities to help the students determine what they value in their classrooms, and in their educational experiences. After establishing this through the use of some individual activities, it's time to pull the students together in small groups to develop consensus regarding what they value. You could establish base groups that could then be used for various activities throughout the term. Once there are agreed-upon values, you can gather the whole group together to establish group norms (e.g., agree to disagree, use of cell phone texting during transition times only, silence during journaling, etc.) Ask the class to create a large and colorful poster that you can hang up in the room. You can also create a Google drive document that all can access online. Establish with the class that anyone can refer to the poster to remind others of the established class norms. Refer to it in your instructional activities, and ask your students to refer to it as well.

Not only will this help your new students but it's also a great way to develop the class culture.

Teacher Reflection

Teaching an adult education class is particularly challenging as your students are not only at all different instructional levels, they are most likely at different developmental/maturity levels as well. Then throw in the fact that there might be language or cultural barriers to address, and this all makes for a complex teaching and learning environment.

Something that may help in planning for this differentiated classroom is a pretty simple self-reflection technique. I would suggest that you might try asking yourself these questions when planning lessons for your diverse learners:

How frequently do I engage my students in group activities with classmates of their own choosing?

  • How frequently do I engage my students in group activities in groupings configured by me?
  • How frequently do I ask my students to engage in oral presentations?
  • How often are my students engaged in individual activities?
  • How often are my students engaged in inquiry-based learning?
  • How often are my students asked to produce a final product based on what they've just learned?
  • How frequently do I lecture or deliver content that requires passive listening for my students?
  • How frequently do I change activities during a three-hour class?
  • In what ways do I provide transitions between the activities in a three-hour class?
  • What types of scaffolding do I provide for students who need more guided practice and pre/re-teaching of concepts?
  • What types of assistive technology do I provide for my students?
  • How much reading and writing do I require of my students during a three-hour class?

"Smart" Cell Phone Usage

The battle over cell phone use in an adult education classroom has grown significantly over the past decade, as cell phones have become ingrained in our everyday culture. It can be a huge bone of contention for the teacher, a source of conflict between teacher and students, and a major nightly disruption. So rather than continuing the battle, here are some ways to incorporate the use of cell phones into your classroom:

  • Allow for cell phone use during natural classroom transitions. I call this "texting time" or "text breaks." If students have finished up journal writing, for example, they are allowed to quietly take out their phones and text or search the Internet, if they have a smartphone. Or if class has a quick break from one activity to another, students can use their phones silently during this transition time.
  • Ask your students at the beginning of the term if they have smartphones. Make a list of who does/doesn't have smartphones and keep this for future reference. When an Internet activity is commencing, pair up the "smartphone" students with those who do not have one, and allow them to use the phone as a search device, rather than using computers.
  • If you don't have enough Chrome Books or iPADs for all students to use for an Internet activity, allow your "smartphone" students to use their phones so that everyone is using an internet-connected device for the activity.
  • We often stop class to explain new vocabulary words to students. Explain to students at the beginning of the term that they may use their smartphones to look up word definitions, and that they have to share what they discover with the class. The class can create their own dictionary out of these defined words that can be referred to throughout the term.

Cell phones – and now smartphones – are here to stay. Incorporating them into your classroom not only can take away conflicts, but can enhance learning.

The Importance of Pictures

Often when learners are engaged in reading, they tend to skim over the pictures within that text. Researchers have informed us for a long time that pictures can significantly improve recall and enhance conceptual learning. When pictures are used in class discussions as learning tools, they can definitely enhance the adult learners' inferential comprehension skills, as well as lead to deeper class discussions.

Here are some questions for discussion purposes, using pictures as vehicles to drive the discussions:

  • What can you glean from this picture that helps you understand the conflict and climax of the story?
  • How can you create a different ending to this story, using your interpretations of this picture?
  • What do you see in this picture that may represent an important concept that we've been studying?
  • Why is this picture relevant to our understanding of the concept we are grappling with this term?
  • Why are we looking at this picture now, and not at the beginning (or middle, or end) of the term?
  • What's not pictured that should be based on what you've just read?
  • What ideas does this picture give you about the theme of the story?
  • What can you glean from this picture that relates to character development?

(Some questions adapted from Differentiating Instruction for Students with Learning Disabilities by William N. Bender, 2002.)

Creating Community

At the beginning of the term, students often come into the classroom feeling awkward and uncomfortable. You can see the discomfort on their faces. For many, school has been a frustrating and defeating place, and stepping back into school after some time away doesn't lessen those feelings. Students who know each other from their day school communities tend to sit together and might build up walls of resistance against others whom they don't know.

A great way to start creating community after the usual housekeeping items have been reviewed, the syllabus has been read, and a short introductory lesson has occurred is to randomly divide the class up into groups of no greater than four. Hand each student an unlined index card, colored pencils, markers, or a pen of their choice and ask them to answer a few basic questions, writing their answers in each corner of the card. It usually won't be hard for the students to do this silently as they are now no longer sitting with anyone they know.

The questions that are asked are simple and easy for anyone to answer. Here are a few examples: favorite (or least favorite) childhood food; if you could go to any concert, what would it be; who is your favorite super hero; if you were stranded on a deserted island, what 3 things couldn't you do without, or, which 3 people would you want with you there; if you could have dinner with any historical figure who would it be; if you could travel anywhere where would you go; favorite vacation; favorite story/book/song; least favorite grade in school, etc…

Students can decorate the card any way they'd like. On the back, ask them to write the number that is the most symbolic to each of them. Then ask the students to share their answers. The volume will increase as the students become more comfortable with each other, especially when they see the similarities in some of their answers. After this activity, I let them know that while they will be able to choose partners and groups during the term, this group will remain their base group and they will come together for a variety of different activities. This can be an effective, simple way to begin to create community in your adult education classroom.

Comprehension Assistance in Short Story Reading

Predicting and summarizing reading passages are difficult, but necessary, skills for the development of reading comprehension. It helps to get students mentally involved and interactive with their reading. One way to do this is to provide a template that students can use to aid this process when reading short stories. This template can be adapted for other reading materials as well:

Prior to Reading

  • What does the title of the story convey to you?
  • What predictions can you make about the story based on the title?
  • Make a prediction about the theme or possible plot of the story based on the title.

While Reading

  • Who/what are the protagonist and antagonist? How do you know this?
  • What is the setting (both time and place) of the story? What points you in this direction?
  • What is the main problem that's being faced in the story?
  • How do you think this problem will be resolved? What clues can you identify to prove you are correct about this possible resolution?

After Reading

  • How was the problem/conflict dealt with in the end?
  • What was the involvement of the protagonist/antagonist?
  • Was your prediction about the theme correct? Why/why not? Explain in detail.
  • How did understanding the setting help you analyze the story?

Final Thoughts

  • What did you learn from your predictions?
  • What did you learn from this story?
  • How will you approach the next story you read?

The Importance of Wait Time

As teachers, we come armed to our classrooms with well-prepared lessons and a clear-cut idea of expected outcomes. We've been trained to ask well-thought-out questions and to expect classroom participation. Traditionally, when we ask questions, we call on the students who raise their hands first, and quickly. Research has indicated that teachers usually wait no more than two seconds for a response to each question they ask. This causes a dilemma for our nontraditional learners. Many of our students have experienced defeat in the classroom for a variety of reasons, and for them classroom participation is no easy task. For students with processing issues, the typical teacher wait time of two seconds or less is a setup for defeat. Recent brain research has informed us that students may need up to ten seconds to respond to a teacher question, or to start participating in a class discussion. Increased wait time allows for more students to be involved, and more comprehensive discussions to occur. It's hard, however, for teacher and students to pause and patiently wait for the questions to be answered, and for the discussions to start. We teachers tend to have the "answers" in our heads and are eager to have the students convey those answers so we can move on with the lesson and "get the job done." But getting the job done does not always engage all learners, and does not always lead to the best outcomes.

  • What I've found is that the following strategies have allowed for better class discussions, and better results in my classroom:
  • Use learning-style inventories at the start of the term to understand more fully the types of learners you have in your classroom.
  • Explain to the students why you are doing this, and once you've reviewed the inventories, discuss the results with the class.
  • Ask your students to journal about the results of their particular learning-style inventory.
  • Lead a discussion about different learning styles, and explain the need to use different approaches in your classroom. Be up front and honest with your students about this.
  • Establish small base groups (no larger than 4) at the onset of the term.
  • Use icebreaker activities within the base groups to help them establish a small learning community within the larger classroom setting.
  • Start classroom discussions first within the base group so that reticent participants (whether due to processing issues, a naturally reserved personality, years of being frustrated in a traditional classroom, language issues, etc.) feel comfortable to open up in this small learning community.
  • Establish right from the start a longer wait time than students are typically used to, and explain why you are doing this.
  • Try for a 8-10 second wait time. It can be done!
  • Be consistent with your wait time throughout the course of the term.

(Adapted from D. Sousa, How The Brain Learns. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2001)

Focusing on Students' Strengths

Often we start out the year asking our students to fill out a variety of inventories so we can see what types of learners they are, and to develop appropriate lesson plans. Many of these inventories, however, focus on what the students can't do, rather than focusing on what they can do. This can cause students to feel defeated before the class even really gets started. Once again, students are reminded of what has been frustrating for them in school, and why they became disengaged in the first place.

And these inventories can raise the students' feelings of anxiety and defeat before any classroom lessons have even been attempted.

Rather than drawing from old "tried and true” learning style inventories which can point out weaknesses, you can create your own Strengths Inventory through the creation of a checklist that pulls from a number of categories to create a profile of all the positives the students will be bringing to your classroom. Some of the categories could include: social strengths, emotional strengths, literacy strengths, visual-spatial strengths, technology strengths, and kinesthetic strengths. Some of the items that you might wish to put on the checklist could be: Takes responsibility for own actions; Is self-disciplined; Asks great questions; Has leadership qualities; Helps others; Works well alone; Works well in groups; Enjoys being read to; Has good listening comprehension skills; Explains concepts well to others; Can assist others in need; Thinks through problems before taking action; Uses technology well; Works well with money problems; Great at fixing things; Has a great sense of direction; and, Comprehends graphs, maps, and charts.

Using a strengths awareness approach at the beginning of the term can only help to build a positive educational environment for all.

(Adapted from Neurodiversity in the Classroom by Thomas Armstrong, 2012.)

Engaging Reluctant Participants

It can be hard to engage all of your learners in activities, so a great tool that can be used effectively can be an adaptation of the Save the Last Word for ME protocol (developed by Patricia Averette), which can be found on the National School Reform Faculty website at This protocol can be adapted in the following ways:

Purpose: To clarify our thinking about articles, novels, non-fiction or short stories we have read.

*Time: 20-30 minutes


  1. Create groups of 3-5, depending on your class size. You can allow your students to choose the groups, or, you can randomly choose the groups, or plan your groups ahead of time, depending on the task, and the make-up of the class.
  2. Choose a timekeeper for each group.
  3. Each group member silently identifies what he/she considers to be the most significant idea addressed in the article/short story/reading and highlights that passage.
  4. When ready, a volunteer states what he/she has found most significant and reads it aloud to the group. This person then says nothing about why he/she chose the passage.
  5. The group silently reflects on the passage.
  6. The other group members each have a few minutes to respond to the passage — what it makes them think about, what questions is raises, what meaning it holds for them.
  7. The first group member then takes several minutes to state why he/she chose the passage and then builds on what he/she has heard from the other group members.
  8. This pattern is repeated until everyone has had a chance to be the presenter and to "have the last word.”
  9. Open dialogue and questions can occur after everyone has presented.
  10. The final step is a debriefing of the experience. Was this a useful strategy? How did it help you gain understanding of the text or other materials presented?

*This format can easily be adapted and used for other classroom activities (e.g., to formalize science hypotheses, to complete labs, to review and apply math models and concepts, to analyze textbook readings.)

Corwin Press, 2001