Language Sensei

Thoughts on The Journey of Teaching Languages

October 21, 2016
by leesensei

Why My Year1’s Don’t Know The Word For “Homework” (They DO Know The Word “Preparation”)

img_0798The issue of ‘homework’ is big with teachers. What is homework? Should it be assigned? What about ‘choice’ homework? What about ‘no homework’ policies? I’ve had an ongoing ‘wrestle’ with this issue as well. I have hated the negativity around the word. I’ve watched kids struggle in their first year of high school with the mounds of math homework assigned. I don’t want to ‘assign’  a lot of work and, as far as I am concerned if you can show understanding/mastery on question 4, why do you have to do 20 more? Long ago I made the decision to not have them do homework for homework’s sake. But….

I do see a role in work that is not done in class but will be used in class – for class activities etc. Work that students do so that we can use our class time really using the language effectively for communication. So this year I made a change. I banished the word ‘homework’ from my room. Because, really it isn’t homework for me. What it is is ‘next day preparation’ (in my TL I choose to use the word “junbi”/じゅんび). I’m asking you the student to get something ready to be used the next day in class. It may be a self-generated piece showing understanding of the concept (like a ‘Sketch & Share‘), it may be watching a video a la a ‘flipped lesson’. It may be any number of things that will be used in class. But what it is not – is homework.

So I’ve erased that portion of my board that used to be titled ‘homework’ and put up the word ‘preparation’. In my class outlines I removed the word and replaced with ‘next day preparation’. In student monitor speeches (it’s a Japanese way to start a class) they no longer mention if there was homework but now say “we had things to prepare for today’s class”. It is all designed to instill in the students that what they do outside of class is important for what we do inside the classroom. That they have a role in how the class functions. That they also have a job to do in preparing to learn. They may not have something to prepare for every day, but when they do it needs to be done for their role in class to proceed as effectively as possible.

My students know that if they have not completed their preparation (and it happens to everyone once in a while), they are to see me prior to class to explain this and offer a solution as to when I will see the work done. I know that this ‘shift’ to preparing and away from ‘homework’ is starting when a young Gr 9 looked at me and said “Sensei, I don’t have my junbi for today…may I show it to you at lunch?”

It is my vow that my students will never know the word for homework….but they will know that they have things to do to help prepare for the class….



October 19, 2016
by leesensei

Pre-Bell: The Short Vocabulary Video Intro/Review…

First off we don’t have bells in our school. But we do have time when students are in the room prior to class starting and I want to use this time to set the environment for learning. This year with my Year1’s I have started experimenting with a video to either reinforce or introduce a concept.

Today this involved the idea of counting how many people there are. We use it a lot in our “What Is Your Family Like? What Are Japanese Families Like?” unit. It’s a pretty simple and easy concept. Instead of embedding it in a story to introduce…I chose a more ‘direct’ visual approach. I searched YouTube for a video – ‘counting people in Japanese‘ and found a fun one including visuals, subtitles and an annoyingly catchy tune. Note that, due to wifi unreliability I download the video from Youtube. Then, I put the video into Quicktime (or a similar program) and set it to play on a loop. As students entered it played, over and over, and when we were ready to begin I asked the class, in the Target Language, “How many people at this table?”. They all responded. We went around with variations and then extended it to “How many people in your family?”…done…easily, in context, and without my direct teaching of it. We went on to use the information in class activities. As they finished up some ‘next day preparation’ I played the audio on a loop as well….Finally prior to leaving I asked them to tell their partner how you said “one person” or “two people” in Japanese. All could…

Another example – Days of the month – which in Japanese involve a variety of special words for the days 1-10, 14, 20 and 24. I want them to be able to say their own birthday but at least to recognize a classmates date of birth when they hear it. So I found a wacky video made by some students in Australia. Again it played on a loop…Again we used it afterwards via audio to reinforce.

Instead of vocabulary you could use a commercial or other short piece of video that highlights a particular language concept. I looped a small scene from the drama we watch yesterday in order to pull out the phrase related to ‘intend to do’. There are a wealth of videos out there for almost any topic in almost every language (I do find that it is vocabulary that is most prevalent). This is by no means the only way that students will encounter these words/concepts as we will use them in embedded readings and more activities. But it is a quick way to introduce and/or reinforce…and hopefully engage…


PS – The day after the ‘counting people’ video I put it on at the start of class again. And what happened? Singing. Yes – almost the whole class singing the song…then I turned off the projector and they sang with the song audio…then I turned off the audio and they sang. Finally they counted with their partner…I’m off looking for more ‘quick hit’ videos!

October 9, 2016
by leesensei

Who Is The Focus? From “Centre Stage” to “Coaching Corner”…

file000981898347I’ve worked a lot to “re-orient” my teaching over the past few years. This is not just in the ‘way’ I teach, the ‘how’ of assessment and the ‘what’ of the new content of my courses. There’s another way I have signaled my change in teaching and that is in the physical set-up of my room. It began with the seating – when I realized that I could talk all day about communication, but if I didn’t support my students by creating the environment then I was really just that – all talk. So I changed the seating and have not regretted a day since I did.

There has been another issue in my class – my ‘computer’ working desk. Before I go further we have limited wi-fi and are not a 1:1 school. I am tied to using my laptop computer/LCD in a traditional classroom setting. And I am further tied down by where my ‘screen’ was located. In that traditional place, smack dab in the centre of the room. Smack dab in the middle of the white boards. And that put me smack dab in the middle of all of the action. I have been increasingly uncomfortable with this; with all of the student desks oriented so that they could see me in the middle. I’m trying to get out of the way of my student’s learning. I’m trying to minimize the time that I am front and centre. I’m trying to model that I am the ‘coach’ and what coach makes it all about them?

Finally I could stand it no more. We have a new principal this year and I am grateful that he really ‘gets’ that we are in changing times. So I went to him and said that I was tired of being in the middle of the action. And that I wanted to make a physical gesture to my students that they are the focus – not me. My principal got right on it with a simple work order and faster than both of us imagined the change was made. room

I am so pleased with my ‘new’ setup. I have way more board space to put up information that students need. The room is actually more ‘roomy’ because the computer desk is no longer the physically there. But most importantly I no longer have to be in the middle. I’m now really the coach in the corner (Canadians – no Don Cherry references please!).

We can talk a lot about our philosophy of teaching. But I also think it is also the physical setup changes that hammer home to students that ‘things are different’ here.


October 6, 2016
by leesensei

The “Pre-Oral” Consult – Another Formative Feedback Opportunity

whyAsking if they need assistance. We all do it and for me this is especially true before interpersonal orals. We have them involved in an activity or practice to help set them up for the evaluation. We walk around, ask “any questions?”, respond to the few we get. But I am trying to provide more feedback and, specifically, more meaningful feedback this year. Feedback that encourages growth in their language.

Today for the first time I stepped out to try to do that. In my Yr3 class we have explored the world of Anime and Manga. Their task will be to discuss their favourite characters with an unknown (until the oral) partner in a 5-6 minute conversation. We debriefed the rubric, we talked about what ‘meeting expectations’ would look like. They set out practicing/preparing for what they will have to do including specific circumlocution practice for the vocabulary they selected to use. And then…I added my new piece. One by one I called them out of the room for a quick personal one-on-one ‘consult’. I asked them if they had any questions. Any questions about the process? Anything they are worried they aren’t expressing correctly? Anything they might not be sure how to use if they wanted to include.  The questions they had for me were wide-ranging from ‘What do I do if my partner…” to “I still don’t get how to do/use ….” and even to “So, if I don’t understand something they say I am allowed to tell them that? (yes!)”. Some students had nothing that was pressing. Others had several detailed things they wanted to know. The 60min it took to talk to each of my 30 students was, to me, invaluable. I saw and heard their specific needs, I could provide support and clarification. My goodness – I put my ‘words’ into practice and offered more actual formative feedback!

This was a personal ‘big step’ and win for me. And a confirmation  AGAIN that when we take the time to add formative feedback (in any shape/way we choose) it is time well spent in developing our learners…. I will make time for this in all of my classes….


September 30, 2016
by leesensei

Fine Tuning Writing = Fine Tuning Language

Source: Morguefile.comLast year one of my ‘could have been betters‘ was my work with students to improve their written output. Yes I have a rubric/feedback form I like. Yes I use descriptors and not numbers to evaluate their writing. Yes I sometimes show exemplars during a writing ‘workshop’ to assist. And Yes – you may not agree – I sometimes use a “spot the problem” handout to help review common written language ‘issues’.

But I wanted to help push and develop their awareness of what I am looking for and their written output. So this year I have tried/am trying to add onto the process.

A ‘Physical’ Portfolio: Okay – it’s a paper folder – we’re not that tech-able in my school. But we’ve started to put all of the writing they have handed in – from activities like ‘Sketch and Share‘ to more formal pieces into the paper folder portfolio. I realized that what I handed back often got buried in their binders…I want to find it easily and be able to use the information in it. And, quite honestly, the physical presence of the folders in my room reminds me that we have them too!

Going Through the Rubric & Clarifying: It’s not enough, I found, for me to talk about what I am looking for. I need to hear what they ‘think’ I am looking for and for them to realize that they ‘get’ what the goal is, or not. So we took 1/2 a class and went line by line through the rubric/feedback form. What did they think each line meant? After they had a minute to discuss I told them what it meant to me… This was a chance for them to see if their thoughts matched up with my expectations!

Using the Portfolio As a Resource: Now before we write a piece – we take out the portfolio and look at past work. What were the comments and suggestions? What were issues in the last piece?  Today my Year 3’s wrote 2 notes to themselves actually on the folder to ‘remember’ for next time.  Some wrote a ‘suggestion’ that I had given them. Others wrote down a common error they tend to make over and over again. I’m going to look on this evolving “note to self” as a resource for ongoing use. Today, in the period prior to the Yr4 Murder Mystery write – I had a student come request her folder as she wanted to look at past pieces and comments.

I believe that the focus on the writing will also produce a ‘side bonus’ – a focus on the overall language that they use. That the may, perhaps, be more aware of what to say but the options/resources they have to say things in a different, more detailed way.  There is a LONG way to go for me in this process…but it’s a start I’m pleased with!



September 20, 2016
by leesensei

“I’m not doing enough!!!!” Learning to Say “Yes I Am…”


Oh I love Twitter and #langchat. It has revolutionized my teaching. Really it has. It has challenged me, helped me and sometimes (okay more than sometimes) pushed me to ‘stretch’. But with growth comes, I’ll be frank, panic. Sometimes I feel very very inadequate compared to what other people are sharing/advocating/leading on #langchat. Sometimes I feel like there are not enough hours in the day to ‘change everything’. Sometimes I feel that I am not doing “enough”. That some teachers are way ahead of me in how they teach. That some teachers appear to “know” when I don’t.

And then I have to sit back and take stock. This is a pep talk for me. This is to tell myself that I am adapting and changing because I am inspired to. That I am shifting away from the textbook, am writing my own CI stories, am attempting to add TPRS to my teaching, am working on more formative feedback and more. This is me doing all this BUT I also need to have a life. I need to sleep. I need to make time for my husband, family and friends. I need to be a person.

Could I be doing ‘more’? Yes. Quite frankly I could rewrite everything and never sleep. But I can’t. I know that I am not at my best when I am tired and stressed. I know that my classes are not at their optimal learning when their teacher is worried more about ‘how’ we are doing something and not why.

So this is for me remember. The fact that I am worried about not ‘changing’ my practice for the better means I am actually changing my practice for the better. If I wasn’t worried, if I didn’t question the why/how of my teaching, if I didn’t make any changes then to me that would be a sign of ‘no-growth’. I know I am not that…so, to me the panicked person, I say:

“It’s okay not to be ‘all that’ right now….Remember the adage that slow and steady wins the race? Well that’s okay for you as you grow your teaching!”

So I will continue to share and be inspired by my amazing #langchat colleagues. But I will also take time and not panic if I think I’m not doing ‘enough’. And maybe you’ll realize that that’s okay for you too!

Yours in change – but “I can have a life change”,


August 10, 2016
by leesensei

Evolving Teaching – Evolving ‘Outline’…

Teaching is a constant work in progress – as I have repeatedly said “I’m busier in my 20th+ year than I thought I’d be”. And as my teaching evolves so does how I present information about my course on the first day. A few years ago I started using an ‘infographic’ style of presentation. This year, spurred on by #langchat colleagues Wendy Farabaugh and Kris Climer – I have used Piktochart to create an outline that is as updated in look as it is in reflecting my teaching. What does it provide for students?

part 1Class Information – Basics at the start about the course, who the teacher is and how to contact me/connect with the website. I don’t have Google Voice (not in Canada) but if I did my number would be there too! I don’t use Twitter or Instagram with students at this point but there’s always room to add that on if I decide it would be useful!

What We Will Do? – For my absolute rookies it’s a summary of the various unit “I can’s” that they will work to master (eg. You will learn to ask about/tell about …). For my more senior students I use this as a quick introduction to the types/focus of the units we will experience – each with an integrated task at then end of the unit.

japanese-12-2 copy2Our Focus – Why you are here – what you can expect that class will be about. In my case it is about communicating. I want to establish that we will be working on communication skills of various types at all times. I also want them to know both making errors and not understanding someone are natural parts of the process of learning/using a language.

There are also gentle reminders of the ‘rules’ in the room – purposeful phone use, getting help, missing class and more. Quick and easy and quite honestly they all could probably tell me what they are any way!

How Are Our Tasks Organized? – Straight up – I may not use the ACTFL modes as you do. This is my japanese-12-2 copy3first year, first dip into organizing tasks into a more meaningful way. I got tired of the 4 skills (read/write/listen/speak) and decided to use a modified form of the mode descriptions. My biggest deviation is probably in the interpretive but I am willing to be a little ‘loose’ on that as I work to implement this way of ‘grouping’ my tasks.

What? No “Homework”?! – No, I banished that word. What is homework? I don’t assign ‘homework’? What I do assign is something that will be needed for next day’s class. So I have changed the wording to “Next Day Preparation”. Why? Because if I choose to assign something that’s what it is – something I need a student to do to use in the next class. (I sense a future dedicated post on this to come!)

japanese-12-2.png 4Evaluation – How Well Am I Meeting Expectations? – Okay this is what they all care about. I have blogged extensively on going to descriptors in my gradebook. It has taken a lot of tweaking and editing. What you see here is my latest iteration of both describing the descriptors and then ‘how’ I translate them into our school-required percentages. I wanted just ‘one line’ for each major descriptor and selected what I usually find myself saying when I quickly remind students, throughout the semester, what they describe.

What Isn’t There? – Proficiency descriptors. Okay we talk about them a lot, a lot on #langchat. I’m just not convinced at this point that it’s a ‘driver’ for student engagement. That is, I’m not sure I want them on my outline as they are more of a ‘where are you now’ snapshot of progress. In some ways I think they are more of a classroom thing than an outline one. Feel free to disagree…

I also add in an FAQ section (answers to the typical ‘any questions?’ question) and my ‘digital use contract’ (borrowed with permission from Amy Lenord). You can see the entire outline here!

I have 3.5 weeks left until I return to the classroom (yes Sept 6!) but, as the updated outline shows, I’m looking forward to a new year of their, and my, learning….


PS – the ‘cute’ pictures? From my favourite free Japanese-themed site Irasutoya!


June 27, 2016
by leesensei

The Year End – What Was, What Wasn’t, What Will Be…

side-viewLike Seuss’ “Horton Hears A Who” I am saying “I’m still here!”. With 2 days left it’s time to sit and reflect for a bit on the past year. It was a year in which I dove off the deep end in terms of changing how I reported progress, re-examined what was key in my class and looked to enlighten my students as to ‘why’ we were doing things to hopefully involve them more in their learning. So on to the ‘was’, the ‘wasn’t’ and, looking ahead, the ‘will be’.

What Was:

More Formative Assessment – I was less about the ‘marks for if you’re getting it’ and more about the formative assessment. I don’t know as yet if it worked for my students? Did the more ‘casual’ less grade-based pressure work? I think it worked in letting them give themselves permission to take their time in acquiring a skill – that is in knowing that if they didn’t get ‘it’ right away that was okay. I employed more pop ‘check-ins’ and more self-generated language (not worksheets) to provide formative feedback. This will continue.

Purposeful Learning/Intentions – I tried to let my students ‘in on the why’ this year. That is I purposely, and in English, put the intentions of a major activity – and sometimes a minor one on the board. Calling their attention to the why would, I hoped, increase their commitment to an activity. I followed that up often by asking them if they met the intentions set out. At the start I put the intentions on the board but by the end of the semester I was asking them what they thought the intentions of the exercise should be. And not surprisingly they seemed to really get the why and I feel that this increased the commitment to the task and the target language.

#Forget the Fluff – Born out of my lack of planning (time-wise) I learned to really drill down to what is key in an activity/task/class. Why do we ask students to ‘make’ or ‘do’ something that is really not key to the learning outcomes. In my case it was a complete re-work of my Yr4 travel fair – stripped down to what is key I saw the best communication work yet by the students. I will continue to search out the necessary and trash the ‘fluff’ next year.


What Wasn’t:

‘Grade Weighting’ – Not a great year for this. It was my intention, as I told my students, that the ‘importance’ of items in a unit would be weighted towards the ‘end’ of the unit (things should build to the summative). By extension, the skills students demonstrated should count more towards the end of the class than at the start of the semester. I don’t feel that I did a good job in this – and that I didn’t up my expectations (and communicate those to the students) as well as I could have. And, as I am forced to keep a number-based gradebook, I don’t think I did a good job in weighting the items as I could have.

Planning – I must admit I lost track of time a few times. I found that I was more willing to ‘go with the class’ on what we were doing and less intent on ‘following my schedule’. As a result I took more time for units than usual (and I ask myself ‘is this a bad thing?’). I didn’t like this kind of ‘lost’ feeling I had in a unit as far as how long it should take to accomplish it. I didn’t like not having some sort of ‘timeline’ for the unit. Maybe this is a natural thing when you are changing your practice but for me, it was uncomfortable.

Guiding ‘Growth’ – I think I was good at providing an explanation for students as to where they were in meeting expectations. But what I wasn’t so good at was giving specific guidance, examples, focussed work on how to improve. I think this means more ‘samples’ of what different levels of achievement might look like. It means time spent specifically focusing on a particular skill. It means that I can’t just report how they are doing but perhaps have individual discussions during the year with students about where they are and how they can improve. Hm..


What Will Be:

Streamlined – I will continue to look for ways to drill down to what is key in the language work that we are doing and remove the ‘fluff’ from my units. I will ask/involve students in this process as well – what is it that they see as key?

Risk-Community-Reward – I will continue to support students in risk – by giving them the tools to be confident in their interactions, especially around the fear of not understanding or making a mistake.

Better Planned – I will try to set out a basic ‘plan’ (the number of weeks etc) for each unit to keep me on track. But if something comes up I will not be afraid to ‘deviate’ from the plan.

Achievement – I will develop a plan to effectively record and weight achievement so that the mark reflects what students can do at the end of units and the course more accurately. I will also clearly identify on my course outline what it means to be at which level of meeting expectations.

I’m sure there is much more that went well and much more to improve. But right now…I’m ready for summer!



June 21, 2016
by leesensei

Setting Them Up For the Real World: What Should An “Oral Final” Be?

58db2d0e2c1397f19cc3fd65bcffa2daWhat should an oral final look/sound like? I’ve been thinking about this as I continue to try to take away the ‘unnecessary’ – and get to the necessary – in my classroom.  And I’ve thought a lot about what the ‘summative’ part means. This is the ‘last’ oral interaction – especially for some of my juniors (not going to Yr4), and all of my seniors, that they will have in the Target Language. This is a significant moment and I want the legacy of this moment – the impact of it – to be felt by them. I want them to leave my program with the confidence to take an opportunity to use, or further develop, their skills and choose to act upon them. It may be the end of their class journey but I hope it’s not the end of their learning. So I’ve rethought what a summative oral should be and I’ve gone in my thinking from ‘testing what they know’ to ‘establishing what they will hopefully do…’

It Should Mirror A Future Real Life Situation

Our goal in the future is to hopefully have students, in some way, continue their interest in the TL. And what will this most likely involve? Using it – using it in conversation, using it to find out information, using it to get something done. So their summative oral should leave them with the confidence that they have the skills (basic or more developed) to do this. I watched students in our cafeteria – sitting around…talking….interacting with their peers and I thought “This is what I want…”

It Should Capture All You Hope Their Learning Should Be

 For me that means its isn’t memorized, it involves choice in expression and it is communicative. The summative has to allow students to put into use what we have spent the time in class ‘developing’. Providing detailed information, asking when you don’t understand & being able to help others understand, and asking follow-up questions are the three big skills we work on in oral interaction. I want my students to be confident communicators no matter what their level. So the oral summative must draw upon these and be a ‘test’ of these skills. Can they communicate and provide details, can they say when they don’t understand & explain what someone doesn’t understand them and finally can they ask for information using great follow-up questions? This is what I want their summative experience to be.

It Should Not Involve The Teacher

Barring a job interview or maybe a university opportunity the majority of my students will actually use their TL skills in other ways. So why would I insert myself into their conversation? I have also come to realize that, if at all possible, I should not be present for this. Yes – I won’t be there in the future will I? They won’t choose to speak with someone for ‘marks’. So if at all possible I want them to see that they can do this on their own and don’t need a ‘monitor’ or ‘input provider’ or the ‘presence’ of an evaluator to do this.

So what is my intention now in a summative oral? I wrote it on the board for my students to keep in mind:



This year I held my breath, trusted my students, trusted the process we have gone through and sent them off to do all of the above. We had some in-class preparation around the basic prompts but they didn’t know who they would be working with, or ‘how’ this would be done (they thought it would be in front of me). On the day of the oral I talked with them about what I feel the oral should be, then I told them they would be doing this in teams of 4, without me there, with people they knew. Armed with 2 phones (a back up recording) they went in 4’s to empty rooms, turned on the the voice recording memo feature and talked.

In Yr4 they started with a key item that is important to them. A chance to ‘show & tell’ but so much more. Most groups talked for about 25 minutes –  explaining, lots of questions, inclusive of all, and supporting their peers in this. Amazing detail, use of language and most of all – relaxed conversation. Yr3 took some prompts…basic ‘find out about’ designed to allow them to use what we had explored, and talked for about 15+ minutes. No notes, no ‘re-do’s’, no worrying about ‘what if I make an mistake or don’t understand’. I am listening to them now. Yes there are errors, misunderstandings and some are not as confident as others. But I am listening to 4 students converse & share detailed information in a relatively relaxed manner using the TL.  I believe I’m also listening to students who, in the future, are going to take that chance to use the language again.





June 14, 2016
by leesensei

“The Courage To Try” – Students Tell What They Learned In Language Class

8d4d7f0ab0b83ace80c036194be2da93My Yr4’s are just 10 days away from the end of school…and as always I am asking for them to reflect on their learning. They are a fantastic bunch of students who have worked their hearts out this semester – despite having the class at 8am. So at the end of their summative travel fair last week I asked them about their experience in class. I didn’t ask them what they learned in/about Japanese. Instead I asked them to look forward and reflect on what skills, if any, they might carry forward into the big world they are now entering. I should note that I did not prep them in any way for this nor go over with them what I wanted to hear from them. Some students just reflected on the immediate oral they had just completed. But it’s the answers of those who really reflected and thought that I find insightful. The prompt was:

“Language class teaches skills for life. One ‘life skill’ that I have developed/improved on during my classes is…….and this skill will be important for me in the future because..”

“To not panic. I’m the kind of person that stresses on being perfect…but this class has taught me how to let go of that…and to relax..because in the future things won’t always go as I plan them to go..”

“The most important are strategies for communication…diversifying how I communicate and being thoughtful of others during conversation is critical…especially in the future when I work in team situations.”

“Communication and understanding (of what is really being said) are key…I want to be a teacher and these skills will be key in dealing with students…”

“Asking for help when I need it and not being afraid to admit that I don’t know something…important in the future so I won’t be afraid to ask for input – and possibly lose my job!”

“Taking risks, approaching people you don’t know and speaking comfortably ….and accepting/coping with errors will be important future communication skills”

“To explain clearly what I mean and help others in understanding – especially important if I become a boss in the future!”

“Listening carefully…”

“That speaking confidently inspires confidence in me and in how others perceive me…I may be nervous but appearing calm will help me get my point across more!”

“Being able to adapt to different situations…you never know what is going to come up!”

“To communicate more freely and in a more relaxed way with people who I don’t know well…”

And my favourite…

“The courage to try….because nothing will happen if we don’t attempt…”

So in the their own’s about courage, risk and communication….





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