Language Sensei

Thoughts on Teaching Languages and Integrating Technology

November 25, 2015
by leesensei

“That Could Have Been Better”: Dealing With The ‘Not Good Enough’ Feelings..

up_stairsAs I watched my Yr3’s in their summative write for the School Fair I found myself thinking “I should have done more..” I should have done more formative feedback in writing, I could have provided more support prior to the interactive oral, we could have taken more time…” Have you ever found yourself in this position? That it could have, should of, had to have been better? I have that a lot. It comes when I forget something in the plan, when an activity isn’t going well, or at the end of a unit when I look back at how it went. It comes when I am tired, it comes when I read inspiring blogs and it comes in the middle of the night when I wake up, start thinking of school and can’t get back to sleep.

There are some in my school who mistakenly think I am some sort of ‘super teacher’. That what I do in my class is so great it is intimidating to them. I am flabbergasted when I hear that. Many days I feel like I am flying by the seat of my pants. There are days when the lessons aren’t so great, when I am tired, when I’m not inspired and when it just goes sideways. There are days when students in my class might even be – okay – are bored.

How do you deal with the doubt, the stress, the ‘it wasn’t good enough?’. How do you work to implement change and yet keep a hold on your own health? In a recent #langchat someone mentioned ‘time’.  And yes – they are on to something. I think you need to think about ‘time’. The fact that ‘time’ is lacking for many of us. That we could, if we could, spend unlimited time on the ‘quest’ for the perfect lesson.

When the doubt comes, when the lesson bombs, when you think about what you ‘could’ have done I encourage you to take a step back. What were you doing when you weren’t ‘improving and innovating’?  What were you doing with your time? Were you taking a walk, talking with a loved one, watching something fun, surfing the net?  Because that time is important too. For me I have to be rested, to be engaged in “my” world to have the time to be innovative. I have to be rested to have the energy. I have to be expanding my own horizons in order to work to expand my students’.

Change is hard. It’s necessary and its vital and it keeps my head in the ‘teaching game’. Without it I would have given up on this 20 year career long ago. But I am learning to ‘take my time’. Yes that unit could have been better. Yes I might have tried something different. Yes – it’s a long slow walk to try to be better and NO it will never be perfect.

So, as we approach some time off – I encourage you to take time for yourself….it’s an investment that will pay off in your classroom in the future…


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November 19, 2015
by leesensei
1 Comment

Using the Rubric As A “Dialogue Starter” To Increase Student Awareness About Their Learning

IMG_1616I’ve done a lot of work with my rubrics in the past couple of years. This year my move was to eliminate all numbers from the rubric. I learned that no matter how great your criteria is – the minute you put a number on the rubric students will spend time ‘calculating’. I’ve made one other change this year as well. My goal is for students to really look at the criteria for how they are meeting/not meeting/exceeding expectations. With that in mind I now request that anything submitted (from projects to summative written pieces) come in with ‘checked’ by the student. Why this shift?

Students complete first because…

  • It makes them look at the criteria
  • Establishes what they think the expectations are
  • Allows them to ask the follow-up question of  ‘how do I get to….?’
  • Increases student awareness of where they are currently and where they might want to get to

Teacher completes second because….

  • I see what the student has ‘taken in’ as the expectations – Was I clear? Did I establish both a base of knowledge to accomplish the task and demonstrate knowledge?
  • Deal with any wildly differentiating opinions – Have I missed a chance to clarify what levels of achievement are? Is the student ‘missing’ something in what they think they are expected to do? Why did Johnny think he was fully meeting when he was only minimally meeting?
  • Student receives even more specific communication from me about where they are. And the more that I can increase this flow of information the better it is for learning.

This is a step in the journey to more student awareness of what level of language they have mastered. And its a great chance for me to make that I am providing those opportunities to demonstrate that.


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November 15, 2015
by leesensei

Learning/Testing Script: The Update On A Successful Switch

hiraganaI often preface a post with “This may look like it is only for Japanese teachers” when the content may apply to all. This post is specifically about teaching script in Japanese. But maybe the underlying ideas – my shift in approaching a required skill in the language I teach – may speak to you as well.

This is an update post on my shift – my shift from ‘memorizing’ characters/script and testing it to death – to a more ‘natural’ learning (and testing) way. This may be where you are as well. Last year I wrote about my ‘experiment’ as I changed the way I introduced characters…and an update on that follows.

Hiragana – The Foundation Script: This year my first year students again experienced my new approach to character testing. With 46 characters to learn to do basic writing, I used to ‘teach the chart’ and then ‘test the chart’. Stress on my students, memorizing characters in order, unnatural context – I’d had enough. So where are am I now in having my students ‘learn’ their characters? I still introduce ‘the chart’ (over 3-4 classes). But instead of immediately applying pressure to learn them we begin to read/write with the chart for ‘assistance’. Then, and keep in mind we’ve done the words we’re writing over and over again orally, I start with simple quizzes that require them to use/practice certain characters. We continue in this style.

For the first unit test – still chart support is offered. We practice how to prepare for writing tests (I like to use my ‘power 7′ method) but students know that they can have the chart with them. (They also know that having the chart is not a substitute for studying!). Some kids are keeners and they take advantage of the ‘bonus’ they can get for not using the chart. The ‘bonus’ is 2% – a number I purposely set low as I am not trying to encourage ‘going for the bonus’ at this point.   For the second unit test I ask that they try to be ‘off chart’ and to be honest most of them are. We are on the 3rd unit test this week. I will have 1 or 2 of my 30 that still request the chart. There will be others that will ask for support as they forget how to write that ‘one’ character – and I give them the one they can’t think of.

Katakana – The Next  Essential Script: I only require my Yr1’s to be responsible for 1 script off chart. But there is another essential one that I now introduce right away. Katakana is introduced from the first times we start writing with hiragana – always with furigana (hiragana) for it. All of my Yr1’s have a chart to read Katakana and are provided a chart during unit tests. I don’t ‘test’ or ‘mark’ the Katakana they use for correctness. Yes I know I may be sacrificing some stroke order (until I formally teach it in year 2) but for me the natural use of the kana overrides the instinct to control how they may write it.

This year my new Year 2’s – the first to experience my shift in teaching writing last year – took on Katakana right away. I still taught the character in groups – but again – the way I ‘tested’ was to go back to the words we had used in Yr1. Yes – spelling tests – but spelling words they had used for almost a whole semester – and would use in the future. Did we hit all of the katakana in those 4 quizzes? No. But I know we will have ‘tested’ them all through the vocabulary that they will encounter by the time we end of the semester. As we move through unit tests I still get an occasional ‘Sensei I can’t remember how to write…’ and I provide the character.

My students are now relaxed and more worried about expressing themselves in the language than they are about memorizing charts of script. And I am way more relaxed as I give them what I now see as the proper ‘time’ to acquire these new scripts. The stress of ‘learning/testing’ the script is gone…and in the end I have more confident learners in the room.


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November 6, 2015
by leesensei
1 Comment

“It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over” – Why Am I Even Busier In My 20th Year…?



It’s been 20 years of teaching for me this year. 20 years since I left a private sector job and completed my education degree. Wow. I’m not sure what vision I had of the type of teacher I would be back then – but I know the type of teacher that I am now. And that is a teacher who is more involved in ‘changing/altering’ my curriculum than I ever was at the start of my career…so why is it just as busy/busier for me now? I think it’s because I AM in my 20th year…and (for me) here’s why:

Experience to Be Able To Innovate – For me this is not about being an experienced teacher. No, this is about having the experience that allows you to innovate. Early in my career it is all about ‘survival’. Really – with new courses (sometimes every year) it is all about covering a basic set of skills. There’s not a long time to reflect on what is being done – to have the experience to see the ‘long range’ view of what we are teaching. But now, I do. I can improvise, edit and alter my lessons on a daily basis because I ‘know’ where the group of students should be heading in their language learning. Because I ‘know’ what has worked before, and more importantly what isn’t having the impact that I want it to have, I am not constrained as I was earlier in my career by just getting something ready. This gives me the freedom to move away from a stock/standard program and towards more open, freer and relevant content for my students. If I was earlier in my career I don’t think I would have this ability. And this shift takes more of my time…

A Shift From Teaching To More ‘Coaching’ – When I started I would tell you that I ‘teach Japanese’. But these days I will tell you that I teach ‘using Japanese’. I realized at the start of my career I was teaching more about the language than ‘in’ the language. In this shift I am making there isn’t a lot of room for a textbook. Instead I am creating more stories myself to make the learning more relevant – and this gives me that ability to include the language that my students want/need instead of having the textbook tell them what they should be learning. I am trying to find authentic resources for the students to learn from/with. I’m also working to provide more formative assessment to my students to assist them in their learning and more criteria-based rubrics to have them really understand where they are in that learning. More resources for them to use..more things that I need to provide support with. And this shift takes more of my time…

A “Leadership Group” That Leads Me On – Yes #langchat – I’m talking about you. Last week – as I was thinking about this post, I joking wrote a tweet in which I added the #curseyoulangchat hashtag. And I mean it. I mean it with much much love. I used to be in a textbook/workbook bubble. I used to be the ‘teacher’ on the stage – and marched my students through technical grammar lessons to ‘learn’ their language. And then one day I stumbled on #langchat. It opened my eyes to opportunities, challenged me to really look at my teaching and generally helped me to push myself in a new direction. #Langchat for me is not about being told that I’m not a ‘good teacher’ (I know I am). #Langchat is about opening my eyes to new opportunities/methods/strategies that – for all the time they take – make my teaching better for my students. My ‘old’ lessons are no longer what I want to teach. My old style of ‘textbook/workbook’ was no longer what I wanted. #Langchat colleagues showed me different possibilities and, most importantly, helped me/applauded me/supported me (and continue to do so) as I make changes. And this shift takes time…

Thank you Yogi Berra for your insight…it’s true that “It Ain’t Over Until It’s Over”.

I have 7 years until I retire and I suspect I’ll be as pressed for time then as I am now!


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October 30, 2015
by leesensei

The New Cultural Station Activity – Part 2 – Connecting/Using What We Learned

The new Sumo Cultural station activity was my attempt to step beyond language stations and use them to explore a cultural area in greater detail. It is also the first time that I planned ‘summative’ activities using what we learned. I thought I’d post, in a bit more detail, what we did.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS – I drew up some discussion questions about the readings that we did. These were in the Target Language (TL) and designed to make them think beyond the ‘answers’ to the original questions they were asked. That is – they weren’t just about ‘information’ in the reading. Questions were things like “Do you think having 6 Sumo tournaments a year is too many, too few or just right? (and why?)” and “A sumo wrestler’s daily life is hard/easy? What do you think?”. Students first went over answers in pairs using the notes that they had. Then they discussed as a table. Finally we took this up with the whole class. This is the first time we have done something like this. Next time I will quote the ‘reading’ that I am drawing the question from to help them find the information/support their ideas better. I am going to work to polish this for next time.

INFOGRAPHIC DAY - I have done variations on this kind of day before and it worked well. The infographics were spread out on the desks – and I put a number (on a post-it) on each. Students worked with their table partner. I asked them to visit all the posters and take time to read the information on them. Yes some of the information repeated poster to poster but they understood/saw repetitions of a lot of new vocabulary (which was part of my purpose in doing this). When they were all done they were asked to see me. Each of them was then handed a response sheet. They had to go back to the posters, as individuals, to complete the task. They had 3 categories: “Best Use of Graphics/Statistics to Support Information”, “Best Use of Information Available” and “Most Overall Useful – Information/Graphics/Statistics”. I also asked them to make up their own 4th category “Best…..”. For each category they chose the poster that they thought best fit that criteria and had to provide detailed (point form) reasons why they selected that one. They couldn’t just say “nice layout” but had to tell me ‘why’ the layout worked so well for them.  Amazingly almost every poster was cited in a “category” and the student-choice category included “Most Easy to Follow”, “Most Eye-catching”, “Most Unique” and “Best Use of Humour”.

sumo 1sumo2

It’s my goal to get at least one of these ‘in-depth’ cultural exploration station activities for each level…




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October 24, 2015
by leesensei

A “New” Cultural/Target Language Station Activity Day…



This post seems at first just to be for Japanese teachers – but I believe that the ideas – not the content – make it useful for anyone contemplating adding more ‘station’ work in their classes. I have written before about my quest to put more into my units. This was my first “not at the end of a unit – review & extra items” station experience. No this was all about a visual/audio/reading work focused on one topic: Sumo wrestling. Students would be exposed to both authentic resources, adapted resources and TL/English videos.

My class has 30 students in it – so I had 8 stations on the go. We were at each for 15 minutes.. and if they ended early they worked on a station activity (reading) that they might not have finished – or they talked. This took just over 2 whole periods to do  (or you could space this out and do a couple a day while doing other things.)

Each station – has a table number and resources for the station. The viewing stations used my 3 class computers and my laptop. They all had a headphone splitter and extra headphones (dollar store) if students didn’t have their own. The reading stations had extra copies of the vocabulary needed for the readings.

Each student – received a readings package, a handout booklet – with the activity/instructions for each station. Students moved sequentially from table to table with their current table partners.

Video Stations – Each station involved viewing with questions before or after in the English or the TL.  One station called on them to answers questions to test their prior knowledge of Sumo (in English) and then watch a short history video to see how correct they were. Another showed an actual match with Japanese commentary – students viewed the match and answered questions in English about various information that appeared, in print, on the screen (the wrestlers, their rank etc). Another station showed a short National Geographic piece about the daily life of wrestlers and asked them to reflect on what they found most interesting.

Audio Station – an “interview with a sumo wrestler” taken from an older textbook resource I no longer use. It’s a nice piece with TL and cultural content so I continue to use it. Students listen/read along and answer questions in the TL.

Reading Stations – I had 4 TL-related reading stations all together. Two stations were short readings in the TL about Sumo’s history, rules, requirements to be a wrestler and daily life. These are ‘adapted’ pieces taken from graded readers designed for those learning Japanese. They are accessible, written by Japanese and in my books ‘authentic’. Students completed reading comprehension Q’s in Japanese.  The third station was a ‘catch up’ station for any readings that they had started by not completed. A fourth station was another TL reading that had them looking at a sumo-related recipe for  the high calorie/high protein stew – Chankonabe; finding the ingredients that goes into this famous dish. Then they watched a short video on the making of the dish.

Using the Information Gathered – Students have two activities designed to tap into what they learned during their station work. One is an oral discussion day – a conversation circle activity based upon questions that they answered at the reading stations. The second is an infographic produced in the TL by the partners. They can only use the information gathered during the sumo day and any ‘new vocabulary’ they encountered there is okay as well. The assignment is mostly in Japanese but the rubric gives a good idea of what I am looking for. They will have time on ‘graphic’ day to read/view the infographics. I just included an updated post on the activities in my latest post.

This was my first move to use stations to really explore/introduce a topic. It will undergo ‘refining’ in the future I am sure but I am pleased to have made my first foray into this ‘cultural’ target language learning activity.


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October 12, 2015
by leesensei

“Pop Check-In” The New Formative “Quiz” in Class

file8541339345592I have come to believe that the following statement is true for most of our students, “You know, I always know it for the quiz and then 45 minutes later I don’t remember what the concept was when I need to use it.” As a teacher this has always been a challenging area. How could they score so well on a quiz – and then not use it correctly in classroom interaction? How could I make a more accurate appraisal of where they are in acquiring a concept, and what they may or may not need to master it? How could I offer formative assessment on what they ‘really’ understand/know?

And so this year I began the “Pop Check-In”. When I first announced a “pop quiz” in my Year 3 class there were looks of horror. “A quiz? You hadn’t warned us! A quiz? For marks?” So I explained what the ‘pop check in’ is:

- It’s a chance to see what you have in your head ‘right now’ regarding this concept

- It is not ‘for marks’ but it is ‘for learning’ so I will ask that you provide ‘corrections’ for what you have not mastered

- It’s a chance for me to see if I have to do some further instruction/teaching around  a point

I “mark” the check-in by circling areas that are not showing mastery. It lets me see where areas of weakness exist in individuals (one on one reinforcement) and the class as a whole (re-teaching a concept perhaps). Students then hand in their ‘updated (corrected)’ quiz for a completion mark.

Students like the approach. They tell me it really shows them what they know and don’t and some are surprised that they didn’t really understand the concept they ‘thought’ they knew.  It is a way then to assess their own learning without a fear of it reflecting on their mark (which they are always focused on despite my efforts). If I choose to do a ‘for marks’ quiz it will come after this formative feedback.

The second and third time that I did this in class the students were happy to participate. They understand the ‘why’ behind the idea. I appreciate the opportunity for more formative assessment/feedback for them.

Pop Check-In Quiz – it’s a positive thing, and one I’ll continue to employ in class.



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October 6, 2015
by leesensei

The “New and Improved” Conversation Circles Activity

convo1One of the more popular posts on Language Sensei involved my use of “Conversation Circles” in class. Essentially the premise involves a small group of students interacting to answer questions regarding a reading that we have done in class. The original exercise is good, and has been effective, but as is usually the case in teaching, I have refined what I do. I have made 3 major changes to this activity…

A “New” Rubric – I continue to refine and hone my rubric for this activity – trying to encourage a depth of conversation beyond what students would normally do. This is a self-evaluated activity – and my students are used to responding to “how did that go?” in class. My new version of the rubric has added a section for the “Everyone” questions that I now include (see below). We preview the rubric before the activity and I ask them to select 2 things prior to the activity – something that they already feel comfortable with and one thing that they want to ‘challenge’ themselves in doing when they start. I ask them to share this with their partner, as saying it out loud increases the sense of personal ownership in how they participate in the activity.

Adding “Group Reflective Questions” – The original activity involved students answering pre-set questions about a reading in the target language. The typical comprehension questions we might ask are there and in the group they ask/answer these questions in the Target Language. (Note – they get a chance to prepare notes for answers and practice with their partner before getting into groups) But the NEW change is to ask a group-focused reflective question after the story question. An example is “Where is Peter from and why is he in Japan?” with the new question “Everyone – where are you from and how long have you been in Canada?”.  Another one is “Which manga is Peter a fan of?” and the new question “What manga do you think are popular at this school – and why?”.  Students are expected to use their arsenal of ‘follow-up questions‘ to further interaction with their group.

An Expectation of “Depth” –  With 8 or 9 story questions, and the new ‘group’ ones, I tell students that this activity is to take at least 45 minutes to do. I want them to push for a deeper conversation – especially on the group questions. They are not to race through the questions but are expected to work hard to dig for details.  They are asked to begin with a group (they determine who is in it sometimes, sometimes I set it out). Typically I let them work for about 25 minutes with this group. Then I ask them to find a new group – and to only work on the ‘Everyone’ questions on their sheet. I will admit that one group was so gung-ho on the everyone questions that they were only on Q3 (out of 8) after 25 minutes – no complaints from me!

Small changes with an increasingly big payoff….more changes in the future for sure!



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September 28, 2015
by leesensei

“I Figure I’ll Try One Thing” – Presenting Tech Options as Opportunities Not Necessities

Source: Creative Commons

On Friday last week I was lucky to present to a small group of staff interested in on-line and tech options to enhance their classrooms. I was surprised any came as the person who put out our Pro-D agenda wrote ‘Technology’ for my session. And if there’s anything that seems to turn many on my staff off it’s the idea that ‘technology’ is now needed/ useful for their classroom. The group that I presented to was really varied real – in both years of teaching experience (2-25 years) and subject matter (Home Ec to PE to Math).

I presented ideas that would allow teachers to enhance kids learning even when they were not actually in class. This was not a hands-on presentation – by choice. I find people are often pushed into a technological tool with no idea how it will really be useful for them. So instead I wanted to ‘sell’ them on these tools – that is ‘sell’ in its purest form – find a need that they have and meet it with something that I was offering. These included (and my handout is here):

  • Vocabulary Reinforcement/Review with Quizlet
  • Video Review/Enhanced Learning via curated YouTube Playlists
  • Video review by making your own videos with Snagit
  • Self Paced Learning/Checking in with Educanon
  • Learning, Self-Testing and Feedback with Google Forms/Flubaroo (my original post on using it here)

In addition I focused on the 3 tech tools that I had outlined in a previous post. What was key was not to leap into using ‘technology’ but rather – to really find out what a teacher wanted/needed in their room. For example, every one of these teachers, regardless of subject, have students who need to interact with vocabulary – and Quizlet is the ‘tool’ (not the goal) in helping them to do that.  Another key for me was to clearly show just how long a process this has been for me. It starts with a lesson, then a unit, then a course…one course …not everything changing at once.

After the presentation I spent some time visiting each teacher who had attended and offering further clarification/support. One teacher said that she had always been hesitant with options on-line – as they had always been presented with the focus on what it was –  not what it could do for her. She said “You know, that Quizlet is one small thing that I think I could use.” We have an appointment set aside to talk further about it.

As someone who has been quick to adopt new tools and has been frustrated for/with those who view it as ‘technology’ and not just a new ‘tool’, I learned it is more key to “sell” the service it can provide, not the ‘tool’ itself. Equally key is one-on-one followup to offer more explanation and support. And finally, I cannot stress more and more that those adopting new tools only do one at a time. It is more key to take a step than paralyze a teacher with all that they ‘could do’.

Baby steps…big payoff…



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September 19, 2015
by leesensei

Three “Small But Vital” Tech Bits for My Language Classroom techonology images


There are lots of technology ‘tools’ and ‘apps’ out there to make our teaching lives easier – and enrich the learning experience for our students. As I was uploading a file to my Evernote yesterday I thought about 3 ‘tech’ bits that are vital in my classroom.

Tiny Scanner App for my Phone –  I admit that I got this because Joe Dale posted that the “pro” version was free one day on his amazing blog. Wasn’t sure I’d use it but if Joe says its good – you get it. Well – with my use of Evernote for my school planning it has been an absolute winner. I use TinyScan to take pictures of my board before/after class. Often I don’t need a full ‘photo’ but really am just looking for a ‘record’ of what happened. Tiny Scanner turns my phone into a portable scanner. It will upload directly to my Evernote in formats from ‘photo’ to ‘black & white’ and can also directly link to other ‘cloud’ storage programs. It is an essential app in my daily teaching. (Joe has already let me know that if you are an Office user then Office Lens might be a more ‘seamless’ app for you to directly integrate with the Office suite of products.)

Keynote Export to Video (even HD!) option – I’m big on unit slideshows. I use them for teaching/repetition of ideas all the time. But a nifty feature I have been using more and more is the ‘export’ to video function. An example of its impact is going on right now in my class – we review ‘class language’ at the start of the year. I use my Keynote slideshow for that as I take kids through our key phrases. I also have the video file (set to about 8 seconds per slide) ready to go – it plays before class starts, it plays while the are completing work…it rolls whenever I need it. It’s a great way to reinforce key points, or introduce ideas in an indirect way. You can even export the audio from a presentation to the video as well. And yes you can also create videos via PowerPoint….

SaveFrom.Net – Easy Youtube Downloading –  When the internet at school is shaky – or even non-existent – you can’t stream anything in class. So downloading a video from YouTube or another source becomes key. There are some great programs out there – including – but my current fave is SaveFrom.Net. Why? Because you don’t have to copy/paste the YouTube URL to use it. Just type “ss” between the ‘www.’ and the ‘youtube’ in the URLusethis  – then hit ‘enter’. When you do this you go directly to their site. Don’t click on any links there for other products – but download your video when it shows up as ready to go! It will handle YouTube, Vimeo and many more formats. No more ‘buffering’ …..

What are your ‘small but vital’ tech bits that enhance your teaching life?


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