Language Sensei

Thoughts on Teaching Languages and Integrating Technology

March 22, 2015
by leesensei
1 Comment

What Kind of Teacher Are YOU? I am…

What Kind of Teacher Are You-I am taking up Laura Sexton’s challenge – her latest post looks at the ‘changes’ she has undergone as a teacher through her responses to a series of questions (repeated each 5 years).  We talk a lot about working to produce reflective students and I think it is equally important to take these opportunities to reflect on our own teaching practice. With thanks to Laura for sparking this post….my answers to the @sraspanglish reflection challenge.

1. I am a good teacher because I reflect, change, adjust (and throw out stuff) as I learn more about teaching – and what good teaching is.

2. If I weren’t a teacher I would put my MBA to use and be in marketing or advertising.  I like the challenge, both intellectual and creative, that this area of business presents.

3. My teaching style is a work in process but much much looser than it used to be. I’ve eased up a lot on the ‘control’ and have become more of a guide than a dictator!

4. My classroom is busy, loud and colourful with students sitting at tables of 4. I’ve been in the same room for 15 years so the Hello Kitty decorations and anime posters help with the Japanese ambiance! 10 years ago my students sat in rows facing the whiteboard – and me.

5. My lesson plans are less ‘concrete’ than I would sometimes like. Some days they are detailed and others  – not so much. They are more of a ‘weekly plan’ – recognizing that there are objectives but allowing for more/less time to focus on things as needed.

6. One of my teaching goals is to explore all the acronyms – PBL, TPRS and more – and add them to my repertoire.

7. The toughest part of teaching is also the most exciting – the fact that you are never ‘done’.

8. The thing I love most about teaching is that magic moment when my students are in the zone and fully engaged – and I’m standing on the side essentially just watching it all happen.

9. A common misconception about teaching is that still that good teaching is ‘stand and deliver’ in a classroom that is quiet with all students focused on the teacher. A common misconception about language teaching is that we spend our days ‘doing grammar’ and that if you don’t understand ‘grammar’ you can’t be a successful language learner.

10. The most important thing I’ve learned since I started teaching is to relax and give up the control. Honestly! The less it is about me – the more it is about the most important people in the room – the learners.

Thanks again to my wonderful #langchat amiga Laura for this idea. She encourages you to either blog your answers to her post – or reply in her comments section – What would your answers be?




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March 19, 2015
by leesensei

New to Twitter? – Tips on the Journey from Lurking to Listing to Chat…

Twitter_bird_logoI have seen a lot of new faces in the #langchat discussions lately and its a reminder that educators are continuing to discover the benefits of what a Twitter Personal Learning Network can be. Learning to manage your PLN, can take some time – as you configure what works for you. I wanted to repost some tips that I gathered as I began my Twitter journey and hopefully they will be helpful to you too!

Who you are – I noticed that I followed people that shared a bit about who they were – and what they are interested in. I made sure my profile tells a bit of that. Also I quickly learned to get rid of the egg. If you don’t want to share your photo there are lots of publicly licensed images to draw from. People share a lot on twitter and your profile is an indication that you will too.

Who You Follow – As I began to build my personal learning network (PLN) I didn’t know a hashtag from a MT. But I knew something exciting was happening for educators on Twitter. So I began with a direct search (‘languages twitter teaching), then I learned about hashtags. I followed a few who seemed to have something to say. I also look to who they follow for more possibilities. Tailor your PLN to what you want easily this way. You may at times edit who you follow – and this is okay too as it shows you are becoming more purposeful in constructing your PLN.

Turn Off Retweets? – This is a personal choice decision. I was finding that my Twitter stream was crowded with tweets that were just simple ‘retweets’ (RTs) . I’m not talking about RTs that feature comments added by the people I follow. Just RTs with no context or comment. For me they clutter up my Twitter stream. So when I follow someone I choose to “Turn Off Retweets”. I get a lot of what is retweeted still – but with pertinent comments by my PLN – reasons, according to them, why I should look at what is being retweeted.

Go Public – Initially the temptation is to ‘lock’ your account – it allows you to determine who follows you. The control is initially key. But – and it’s a big but – it also locks you out from participating in general chats because only your followers will see what you tweet. Yes there will be spammers – those who follow you for reasons other than ‘learning’. All you need to do is click on the ‘wheel’ next to the follow button on their profile and ‘block’ them. The rewards of being public outweigh the annoyance of the occasional spam follower.

Listing – As you follow I recommend that you start to list. Make the lists based upon why you chose to follow in the first place – if you looked at the profile. Maybe you follow for more than one reason. As you follow more and more lists make it easy to cut through the noise and get a ‘hit’ of what you want. For me  – I visit my ‘edtech’, ‘langchat’, and ‘japanese teachers’ when I can and I love that my stream is sorted into these convenient categories.

Lurking – Most of us start as ‘lurkers’…watching the stream, finding out information. Initially maybe I wasn’t sure that I had much to say. I was excited to see what was out there – so I watched, found people to follow, expanded my PLN gradually and thoughtfully. Lurking is the first step as you take time to learn more about what Twitter can offer. I know many who right now only lurk – but I’ll be eventually they will be confident enough to begin to share!

Chat – The scheduled ‘chat’, for me #langchat, is the most powerful pro-d I know of – each week something new to learn and discuss. We often work in isolation and the chat gives us a community to share and learn from. I use Tweetdeck or Tweetchat during these to allow me  to follow the stream exclusively. Introduce yourself and your reason for being on the chat. Some chats are huge and the stream flows – but keep with it and gradually you’ll find your voice in the discussion. Many chats will publish a digest – like #langchat does – that allows you to see the ‘big’ takeaways from the time. If you find yourself noticing certain tweets more than others that just may be someone to follow!

It is said that the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step…I encourage you to dip your toe into Twitter and begin constructing a PLN – your teaching will be the better for it!


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March 17, 2015
by leesensei

Reflecting on Reflecting in the MFL Classroom


I didn’t start out with a conscious ‘plan’ to build a reflective classroom. Honestly early in my career my goals were all about ‘grammar-based’ linguistic elements. But somewhere along the way (as my teaching changed) it crept in – and I ‘m glad that it did. Yes my students are learning – but just as important to me now as what the ‘know’ is their ability to articulate, and reflecting, on the process. How it’s going for them? What’s sticking or isn’t? What’s engaging them or not?  How did they feel about what they did in class?

How to build this reflective practice in the classroom? As I fumble my way through I have learned some things that are helping me in this process:

Pre-Activity Expectations: We don’t throw kids into an activity without a establishing a ‘why’ and giving them the tools for what they are going to do. I think it is equally key to set up a reason why they are reflecting before they begin to do what they ask them to do. So often I will give out my activity rubric activity out prior to interacting and ask students to think about what’s coming up. Most times I ask them to ‘choose their challenge’ – what are they going to try to stress /work on during the activity. Sometimes it will be to put a star beside what they think will go well for them.

Share and be Accountable/Support: Students often have the false sense that they are the only one in the room who is struggling or isn’t ‘getting it’. Before we launch into what we will do,  I frequently ask them to them to tell their activity partners what their challenge in the upcoming activity will be. Is it not using English at all? Are you trying to ask more questions not just respond to them?  It is powerful as a learner to hear that others share the same concerns too.  It also helps the student if the partner/group is aware of what someone is trying to do. It makes them accountable for trying to meet the challenge that they have set out. It also allows the partner to support the change. If I know that my partner is trying to ask more questions I may give her/him the time to formulate them – and assist in reaching her/his goal.

Talk to Yourself Post-Activity: Yes I have a rubric for informal interpersonal activities but to me the descriptors (while modelling how I want the activity to be carried out) are not as key as the pre-rubric written response. We do not go straight to the filling in the rubric but always start on the back with a ‘response’. This is in English and is one or two ‘complete the phrase’ type statements like “That went __because…” or “A challenge for me today was ___because…”. Not all students respond in great detail (and sometimes I do ask them to ‘think again’) but the vast majority take the time to seriously craft an answer. These comments are pure gold for me as a teacher and the responses show that they are really considering the process of their learning.

Show Them A Reflective Teacher: Trying to encourage reflective students is all for naught to me if they don’t see it modeled by their teacher. Now when I try something new I like to tell them (often after the case) and debrief it. This is not generally whole class but often done as I walk around the room (when they have finished their own reflection) I ask them if they have any feedback for me – on how it went, what worked, what didn’t. I also talk to them occasionally about the ongoing shifts in my teaching – how I have changed/am changing my teaching practices and why.  One of my students, in an ‘end of class’ feedback time told me that he liked how I was always trying new things, trying to change things up and admitting when it did (or didn’t) go as expected.

When students can reflect on their use of language they see the value in what they do in class and what they are learning from it. When teachers reflect on their practice with their students they share the learning that they are doing as educators and model ‘life-long’ learning in the process. How do you build a reflective environment in your classes?






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March 9, 2015
by leesensei

“Who Killed Him?” An Interactive TL Murder Mystery


Image Source:

The origins of this activity come from the textbook Yookoso (by Yasu-Hiku Tohsaku) – a text we own as a school but which I am not using as a ‘class text’ any more. In a daily routine section there is a listening activity about a dead rich man and suspects who are being interviewed. Students are asked to listen to where the suspects (the wife, daughter, son, lover, chauffeur and brother) were during the evening and then determine who killed the man. But I wanted more…and I wanted it be interactive and wanted the use of the ‘daily routine’ to be realistic (and to me an interview by authorities was). So I added and fleshed it out and it became a class favourite – the ‘murder mystery’.

Why Do I Do This?: I do a scaffolded revisit of ‘daily life’ in Yr 4 as our first unit of the year – and it allows students in my semestered school a way to ease back into using Japanese via a topic (their lives) that they are familiar with.  Essentially this summative oral activity asks my students use this information in a ‘real-life’ context to solve a problem using the target language hitting their interpersonal and presentational (written) skills.

How many students?: I have “detectives” work in pairs and can vary the number of people that need to be interviewed. The detectives will get to interview the dead guy himself  as well (although he has no idea who killed him and can’t tell them that!) So, in a class of 28 I would have 8 interview stations (7 suspects/dead man plus a station to chat with the chief (me) and then a station for the them to chat on their own/discuss how its going in the TL.

What’s the ‘setup’ for the mystery?: 

 Preparation: It take 2 class periods (65 min each) to prepare. The volunteers playing the suspects/dead guy each prepare in a different room. The week before we begin to prep for this I ask for volunteers to play ‘a role’.

Backstory: I use a mock-up of a newspaper article (and visual Powerpoint) to introduce the characters. We all read it as a class and work out who the main players are. Essentially I used the idea of Mr. Hasegawa from the listening activity and fleshed it out. For the oral it revolves around a tech entrepreneur found dead in his garden. There are 7 suspects each with a motive to kill him (note: depending on numbers needed I drop the younger brother, first wife as suspects). The key is that every suspect has a motive:

  • - the younger brother who started the tech company with him then was cut out of the business
  • - the sweetheart he married, had 2 kids with & then divorced to marry a younger woman
  • - 2 kids who hate the new wife and who both have no jobs & various expensive habits
  • - the new wife who is insecure & scared of being dumped herself and losing access to money!
  • -a lover who fears he is tiring of her and needs money for her karaoke business
  • -a chauffeur who hates him and secretly fancies the second wife

Suspects get a basic individual back story of age, whether they are right/left-handed, possible motive, a few opinions on the dead guy/other suspects, any other information that could be suspicious. They also get a basic outline of what they did on that day (they can have this with them in English on a note card for the interviews – I’m not asking for memorization). They get a ‘map’ of the house/gardens where the crime was committed. Finally they get a list of ‘ideas’ in English of the types of questions that they might be asked. Their job in preparing is to be comfortable with who they are, practice answering the sample questions and be able to describe their day. They know that they can’t lie if they are asked a question but they won’t admit guilt either. They don’t see the autopsy report.

Detectives get the same sample questions, an autopsy report (he was hit from behind, stabbed with a sword and found to be dying of cancer) and a map of the house/garden. They also get a blank ‘grid’ that they can use to construct the questions they want to ask and put in answers. Their job in preparing is to use the information they have to generate & practice questions they want to use on interview day. They know that, on the interview day, they have to get to motive/opportunity in very limited time.  For this reason they can note their questions down in English and take notes in English – but can only converse in the target language.  They are often working off 1 copy so at the end of interviews I take their notes and copy them for them – so that each will have their own set of notes for the summative write.

On the Day:

What’s the setup: I essentially use my interactive oral setup. Circular desks with detectives moving in a clock-work fashion from suspect to suspect (no random moves!). Detectives sit at a desk (they have no idea who will be at it) and when they are ready I bring the suspects in.

Timing?: My school has a 1:45 min afternoon class but if timing doesn’t work I do this over 2 days…typically I give 7 minutes per station (this requires efficiency) and at the end a 10-min “ask anyone” free-for-all for detectives to question people again.

Bring a Prop!: Suspects are expected to come with a prop or two to help them get in character – and give hints to the detectives about who they are. Detectives are expected to come dressed as detectives (minus the guns) with a badge, ball-cap or whatever else they think works!

But Who Did It?: Everyone always wants to know if there is a correct answer – and, just like real life, I remind them all that the police ‘recommend’ charges only – which is what they will be doing. There are two keys to this as an activity. ONE – the time of death is not given on interview day. They won’t get this until the day of the summative write. TWO - Both the motives and the daily routines I give the suspects are set up so that any one of them  (alone or working with others) could have done it. The outcome often depends on the strengths/choices of the students playing the roles.

How Does It End?:

Post-Interview Self Evaluation: At the end of the interviews I ask students to tell me how it went for them – how well they asked questions, answered, provided follow-up information and stayed in the target language. As is my practice they start with a written response. This year I choose “That went __because…”. Students wrote that they loved the problem-solving aspect, the challenge of coming up with extra questions, or answers to new questions, on the spot – and it gives me feedback on what worked and didn’t.

Written Report (Recommending Charges/Defending or Blaming): For me it ends the day after the interviews in the summative writing time. Finally just as they go to write, I put the time of the murder on the board. Students have 60 minutes to write who did it based upon what role they played. Detectives (using their notes) say who they would charge with the murder and why. Suspects (using their bio/daily routine) have to give a defense of why they weren’t the murderer and who they think was (& why) or, if they confess, a detailed reasoning as to why they did what they did.

Results: I may not have marked what they wrote yet but a quick read lets me see who they favour as the ‘murderer(s)”. So the day after the written evaluation, I post the results – who voted to charge which suspects and why! The class loves to discuss, in the TL, if the ‘correct’ person(s) was/were charged!

The preparation may seem like a lot but really it isn’t once you have your characters set. Then it just requires some tweaking year to year to keep it fresh. My students look forward to this in their final year – and I enjoy watching them stretch their language skills to do it…


PS I’ve added some ‘samples’ of the kind of information given to students. Detectives get the newspaper article, sample question ideas, the autopsy, plans of house&garden. Suspects get the newspaper article, their own profile and house&garden plans.


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March 1, 2015
by leesensei

Learning/Evaluating In Context – Not Content: The Journey ….

RENOVATION 3As teachers we are always saying that we are on a ‘journey’. I know for me the transformation of my teaching from ‘teaching the textbook’ to ‘facilitating language acquisition and use’ is an exciting one. It’s also, as we always affirm, about small do-able changes – steps that, when they are taken, will ‘stick’. I have learned – and now seen put into practice – the benefits of teaching in context – and learning that way too. And although my examples of ‘how’ and ‘why’ may seem a bit odd to a teacher who uses the regular a-b-c’s in their teaching it is the lessons on ‘real contextual’ learning that are key for me and perhaps you will see your own journey in them as well.

I am a Japanese teacher and, as a result, my students not only are mastering a 2nd language – but also a 2nd, 3rd and sometimes 4th orthography. We begin in year 1 with hiragana – a script of 46 sounds out of which any ‘native’ Japanese word can be written. Then we start to add in katakana – another 46 character script primarily for words imported into Japanese from other languages (think ‘pizza’ and ‘T shirt’) . As students are learning these we also throw in kanji (Chinese characters) – not all of the required 1900 or so to be fluent but about 300 by the time students are done Yr 4. Whew!

The old “Teach the Content” way – Ah the old days. It would look like this. Start students learning Japanese – they can’t write the characters yet so let’s use ‘romaji’ (Japanese written in English characters) until we have introduced all the written hiragana. Then when we’ve done that – let’s test those characters – discreetly – in batches of 10 – making kids memorize them because if they can’t memorize them like that well then they can’t use them can they? Then let’s finally make them write phrases that they’ve written in romaji the ‘real’ way. Oh and what about those import words? Well we’ll keep writing them in romaji until Yr2 when we introduce katakana (the same way as the first script) and then force them to stop using the english letters and use those. Whew – head awhirl? I suspect my students’ were!

The start of “Teach in Context” way - Speak First! Suddenly it struck me – why use the English letters? Japanese kids don’t. They speak and speak and gradually learn to write the words that they know. So last year my Yr1’s started speaking. Using picture clues we learned, practiced and used key content phrases to interact with classmates. “Where are you from?”, “How old are you?” etc. As the characters were introduced we started reading…BUT…I still taught the characters and tested discreetly. That is I still tested the ‘sounds’ – as, well, sounds. And I still used the ‘romaji’ for foreign words…A start it was but…

The evolution of “Content” way – Give It To Them When They Need It – This year has seen an evolution in my teaching and use of characters. The first has been that I have dropped the ‘romaji’ altogether. In consultation with my Yr 2’s & 3’s (and my new more ‘aware’ self) I decided to introduce the ‘katakana’ foreign-sound orthography as needed. That is the students are not required to know how to write it but they are required to see it and use it. So now they get a chart as part of their key package. They can try using it but they get the katakana chart for all tests/quizzes (and I don’t mark their ‘spelling’ of them). To help them read it I write the hiragana sounds they know over top to help them. They are – shockingly – using it correctly in context. Next year when I want them to be ‘off chart’ I see an easy transition.

Evolution Step 2 – Don’t “Test the Content” – “Evaluate in Context” – This year I also returned to teaching a compressed course called Beginner’s Japanese 11. It is a ‘catch-up’ course that tries to introduce content /structures of Yr 1 & 2 in just 1 semester! (I know!). I haven’t taught it in 8 years and how I’m approaching it reflects my ‘context’ shift. I still taught the individual characters (wait for it) but instead of the dreaded ‘write rows A-O, KA-KO’ tests now we tested in ‘context’. The first quizzes were writing phrases we knew – and students could have the chart if they wanted to. The majority came prepared to write and didn’t use the chart at all. They liked that they were tested on what they knew already rather than random sounds. As for the Chinese characters – I’ll ask that they recognize them and instead of waiting for when the book said to introduce them – they’ll be in there the first time that they see the word.

Next Step To Come…? I’m toying with introducing the characters as we need them. While the ‘context’ in me likes that the ‘content’ part of me realizes that they need all the characters to be able to read short passages that may contain words they have not yet seen. I’m still thinking about this.

Context, real-life use and not the ‘content’ should be what/how we are delivering language to our students…and I’m finally seeing that.


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February 15, 2015
by leesensei

The Interactive “Fair” – An Idea for Group Orals in the MFL Classroom

women-handshakeOne of the mainstays of my teaching is the belief that language should be used by students to ‘do something’. As a result there are very few ‘stand in front of everyone and speak’ opportunities for my students, and many ‘talk with many people’ ones.

As I have moved along in my teaching I have used the concept of the “fair” or ‘group oral’ as a pretext for student interaction (and evaluation). In a recent post John Cadena outlined how he used the fair idea for his fairy-tale retelling (an idea I am going to use for my classes as well). He mentioned that he based this upon some of the ‘interactive fair’ orals that I do. I thought I would pull together several posts outlining examples of those that I have done. I use them in all levels of language learning – especially in Yr 3 and 4.

There are several keys for me in using these types of orals.

Pairs Work Together To Prepare – But Individually to “Present” – On fair day the desks in my room are in a circle. One partner sits on the ‘inside’ of the circle and the other on the ‘outside’. The outside partner runs the booth for half of the time (generally 20-25 min) while the other is out finding out information from other groups. Depending on the complexity/detail of the information they are getting students can visit as few as 3 or as many as 7 other teams during their time. Then they switch – even if one is in ‘mid-explanation’ their partner is expected to slide in and replace them on the spot.

Students Understand The Expectation of Target Language Use – All oral interaction is to be in the Target Language. We work on self-evaluation skills a lot during my classes and my students  are very aware of how well they could do what I asked them to.

Speaking in the TL/Writing in English - Generally students are filling in an information sheet as they go around – one that is done in English and not the Target Language. Yes this can bring up a fear of not understanding something. However, my students regularly practice ‘the assist’ - helping someone when they don’t comprehend and are fully aware that they are allowed to say “I’m sorry but I don’t understand (vocabulary).

Self-Reporting of Success – The fairs are ‘self-marked’ – for the students’ ability to complete the task as required.  They are asked 2 exit questions (such as “how did that go?” or “a challenge for me was…”) that they must answer prior to completing the  oral evaluation rubric. I feel very strongly about this – that personal reflection must precede ‘filling in’. One part of the rubric always touches on the amount of English or non-TL used during the time.

Linking the Oral to the Written – As much as possible I try to link the information gathered in the oral – to the piece of writing they will do to show summative knowledge. In my Yr1 class, after the Club Oral, this can be as basic as outlining what various clubs they liked and why. In the Yr 4 Taste test this takes the form of a marketing report – using the data they collected. After the Travel Fair students write as a bored teen using one of the tours as the basis for “The Trip My Parents Forced Me To Go On”.

Adaptable for Any Year & Many Types of Themes/Content – I think the basic premise of the interactive fair can work for a wide variety of language levels, and themes. The examples below all take the basic premise – and all draw on different themes/levels of skill:

The “Club Decision” – students prepare and present their club activities

The “School Fair” - students construct and sell their themed schools to classmates

The “Taste Test” - students conduct blind taste-tests of products and analyze results

The “Travel Fair” - students research and construct tour packages to lesser-known areas of the TL countries

Next up for my Year 4’s is the “Murder Mystery” - where pairs of detectives ask questions of suspects in the murder of a wealthy Japanese Tech entrepreneur. Their fellow students play the suspects, and, in a twist, one student plays the ‘dead guy’ (and detectives get to interview him as well. It’s a fun way for students to test their language skills (and in the written test – they get to say who they think ‘did it’.)

What themes, language situations do you have in your classes that might lend themselves to an interactive fair?










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February 8, 2015
by leesensei

#Teach2Teach Question 3: Most Troubling Teaching Experience

This is the third  question in the #Teach2Teach series, a collaboration with Amy Lenord (@alenord) and Karen Tharrington, Foreign Language Education Program Coordinator at North Carolina State University. After finding out her pre-service education students were nervous about engaging in the #langchat conversation with their own comments and questions Amy encouraged her to have them submit questions to share with the world.

Question 3 comes from Jennifer who has asked a tough question, but one that every teacher has an answer to no matter what content area they teach.  Jennifer asked…”What has been your most troublesome experience with teaching and how did you handle it?”

I thought a lot about this question and what my answer would be. There were the fleeting thoughts to blog about the time before I started using carefully constructed rubrics that I awarded a student 19/20 and couldn’t tell her why she lost the mark. Then there was the moment when I reminded a veteran teacher – in front of his student teacher – about something and he took it to be my embarrassing him in front of his new charge. But the more I thought the more I realized the most troubling experience I have had teaching is that moment when I realized that ‘how’ I was approaching second language education in my classes was not what I thought it should be. That moment when I realized that I was spending more time teaching – discreetly and overtly and mainly – grammar. That I was pushing my students to learn reams of vocabulary that were not relevant to them – because they were in the book. And that communication, risk and personal responsibility for learning were lacking in my classroom.

I’ve written several times that I was the “get the perfect textbook/workbook program and you’re done!” kind of teacher. I remember being in my principal’s office begging for funds because ” if I got this program I’d never have to get another one again!” Along with the text/workbook reliance I was someone who was highly skilled at teaching Japanese – or rather teaching about Japanese. My students were drilled  and coached to perfection. But the reliance was on writing – and if your writing was poor your chances of success in my class were too. Moreover if your brain didn’t work like I taught – good luck.  It was a happy place for me – I had everything set – and then suddenly it wasn’t.

I don’t know quite when I became so troubled about HOW I was teaching – I don’t recall a moment in time when the feeling suddenly occurred. But I do remember going into my principal’s office and telling him that after 14 years of teaching I was bored. “I think that I am done” I told him. “I have no motivation, I can’t get hyped up about my lessons, I’m just going through the motions.”. He was really encouraging – and urged me to think about my classroom and try to identify what it was that was making me so – well – bored about what was happening. At the same time I stumbled upon #langchat on twitter. The more I lurked then participated the more I realized that I wasn’t bored..okay I was…but rather that somewhere inside I was realizing that I didn’t like my tightly bundled program. That I was spending more time teaching about things than challenging students to use what they were learning. That my classroom was way too focused on what I wanted my students to learn and not enough on what they wanted to do. And  so I began to change it up. My most troubling experience was that I was not the teacher, leader, coach that I wanted to be….

The more I reflect the more I think that my troubling time came as I evolved and grew as a teacher. That it came about because I was well into my career when I had been ‘in the business’ for a number of years. That there comes a point I think in any career where you make a decision to grow – or hopefully go.  I’m glad that my decision was to move forward – acting upon what was so unsettling to me – a journey that I love and am still on today.















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February 2, 2015
by leesensei
1 Comment

The “What We Know How To Say” List – Supporting Summative Writing…

Student WritingThis may be controversial, and I am really open to hearing back on this…you see – it’s about ‘the list’. The what? Not a prescribed vocabulary list (breathe Amy Lenord breathe!) but a reminder list. I work hard with my students to expand ‘how’ they say things. We do readings, we practice with targeted games, we do ‘pop-up’ grammar lessons, do interactive homework and I try to tie the summative write to what has been done in our summative oral task. Still – when I ask them to do a summative write I often don’t see ‘it’. The ‘it’ being the new ways students can express themselves – and often any inclusion of ways of expressing themselves learned in the past. Some students are instinctively good at this but others aren’t. And when I mark on my writing rubric I would often not see “goes beyond current unit” or even “good evidence of unit concepts” in their written expression.

So this semester I tried an experiment. My concern is that my students show me that they know how to incorporate and use new expressions/structures – and don’t forget what they already know. Yes, I want them to be aware of what they have learned. No I don’t want to be prescriptive in what they ‘must’ use (they are marked on a holistic rubric). Enter the “what we know how to say” list as a way to support their writing. For me, it’s about showing what the can use, do use and know how to use.

At the start of the semester – In the writing period I allow 4-5 minutes for students to peruse notes and jot down things they want to remember to use in their writing. My rules are that this must be in English – like “Comparisons” or “Plan to do” but  cannot be in the Target language or a ‘formula’ (or ‘how’ to do it). Once they have their list – and I’ve checked it for compliance – they begin to write.

By the end of the semester – Students no longer get time to ‘look over notes and construct’ but are, instead, doing this as part of their exam preparation outside of class. They do get time/paper at the start of the exam class to note down the items – but this time it’s from their memory. I did this at the start of the final as well.

As students progress through their time in my classes I will gradually drop the exercise. It’s my belief that by their 3rd and 4th years their awareness of their learning should bring them to do this kind of thing instinctively.  I am also hoping that this spills over – positively – to influence other types of writing that they do.

It was interesting to gauge student reaction to this. Many said that they actually didn’t look at their list during their write – but it made them more aware of the different ways that they could express themselves while they did so. Several said that it helped in their write “because I knew I had to use what I noted down – it pushed me to write more”. For some this was a ‘natural’ thing to do anyway. “I’ve always had this in my head but this time I got time to write it down to refer to it” while others found it a new, and helpful experience.

As for me I noticed an uptick in the use of/variety of sentences I am seeing in their writing. I don’t want to create robotic writers who are driven by including specific “grammar” in their pieces but I hope that this exercise makes students more aware of what they have learned – and pushes them to show me their growth in their ability to express themselves.





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January 24, 2015
by leesensei

“It Was Cool!” Their First Group Interpersonal Oral…

club namesI am so proud of my Year 1’s. In one (strike-shortened) semester they have mastered one new orthography and are well on their way to a second. They are learning how to feel confident and communicate in a second language they’ve only experienced watching anime or looking at manga. And yesterday – for 40 fabulous minutes – they talked, laughed and communicated solely in Japanese.

The first interactive group oral of their language-learning journey is based on a simple premise: activities they like to do.  The students are also, by this time, becoming very comfortable with follow-up questions like ‘where at?’, ‘when’, and ‘who with’.  Whenever I am casting about for a suitable oral I like to think of ‘when’ the vocabulary/grammar would be used in real life. For me, tying in activities with their daily life led me to clubs.

The Task - The students are asked to create a club and select 3 activities that would be done there. Then they have to decide on meeting times, who they have formed their club with and where they meet. The students also had to think of reasons/ways to convince someone to join in with them.

The Preparation - The topic is introduced via a club that I created and put up on the screen. We worked through Q/A on the details of that club. Then they had, working as pairs, 2 classes to prepare – with part of one taken up with an ‘information gap’ (partner has information that I need, I have information for them) activity to practice asking/answering questions. They also had time to come up with their club sign which is worth no marks but still seems to be the most labour-intensive part of the whole task!

The Club Day – With a 30-student class I pulled out 1/2 of my desks and made a big circle around the room with the rest. Students sat on either side of the desks – the student on the ‘inside’ of the circle would be first to visit other clubs – the student on the ‘outside’ would be the club signmanager for that period of time and give out information. The signs stand up on the desk with the help of dollar store picture holders. Just before we begin we review what the purpose of the oral is – to practice speaking, to talk to our classmates and to relax and have fun. Then we begin – and students visit other clubs, asking questions in Japanese and recording in English (do they understand?). After they visited 6 or 7 clubs they switched roles with their partner. All in all about 35-40 minutes in the target language!

The Evaluation – It’s my practice to have this activity ‘self-evaluated’. It is also my practice not go straight to the rubric but to have students reflect on the process through written comments first.  They were asked to complete two sentences: “That was ___ because…” and “I am most proud that…”  Their comments showed their personal pride in completing the task:

“That was cool because we talked in Japanese for 40 minutes! When I started (class) I didn’t think that we would have learned that much!”
“That was fun because I learned from other people and got to know others better!”
“I am most proud that I didn’t use English during this activity.”
“I am most proud that I could tell others about my club!”
“That was awesome because I know that I’ve improved in my Japanese speaking and listening!”
“That was cool because I got to talk with my classmates without having a lot of pressure about messing up!”
“That was pretty cool because as I was speaking I was also realizing that I learned a lot this semester!”

But, after a semester of language learning and team building my favourite comment was:

“That was fun because I got to speak Japanese with my friends!” 

Job done!


A copy of the student portion of the task is here with task outline, fill in form and evaluation. If you find it useful – please do so with credit.

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January 21, 2015
by leesensei

Counting, Shopping and “The Bank”….#AuthRes #AuthTask

MP900385312What to do when we introduce the Chinese Characters and counting above 100 – way above 100?  How to introduce in an authentic way? What #authres (authentic resource) to use? And what #authtask (authentic task)?

It is of course, for me, shopping. With the average Tshirt at 2,500yen what other authentic task do we use such large numbers for? And so we went shopping – and visited the ‘bank of Mom’ as well as ‘the cash register’ to complete the process.

The #AuthRes – I have a large number of “Uniqlo” (a hip Japanese clothing company) flyers that I obtained on my last trip to Japan – students practiced their numbers/counting by looking at clothes and figuring out the prices.  If I had access to reliable internet or a lab – we would have gone e-shopping – but we don’t so regular paper ones had to suffice.

The SetUp Story – I wrote a story – with a recurring character that we have – in which the character finds money in his wallet and is off to “Uniqlo” to shop!  Basic shopping phrases, comparing and even haggling form part of the story. On the back of the story was a collection of vocabulary students might find useful in getting what they want.  We read, reviewed and questioned our way to understanding.

The “Key” Authentic Prop – I have inherited (from somewhere) a collection of Japanese play money – 1,000yen, 5,000yen and 10,000yen bills and plastic coins of various denominations. I have a huge amount of 1 yen coins which we turned into ’10 yen’ coins for making change.

The Visit to the “Bank of Mom” – Time to shop – but how to get some cash to shop with? Come see the bank of Mom (me). Students had to come and ask to borrow money. “Mom can I borrow….?” They had to ask correctly and for an amount that I felt was reasonable. Sometimes they asked for too much and we haggled/negotiated until we agreed on an amount. Then they went shopping..

Making Change at the ‘Register’ – Shopping ensued with students playing the roles of clerk and shopper. When a purchase was confirmed the clerk had to figure out the change and come to the teacher at the “register” to get it. That required them to say it properly – and ask correctly. When the transaction was done – they switched roles.

The students were so into it that they asked to start the next class with another trip to the store – so we did.

A fun way to work in #authres – in an #authtask kind of way!




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