Language Sensei

A Language Teacher's Journey

November 22, 2014
by leesensei

Inspiration and Validation…ACTFL 2014

2014ACTFLImagine going to a conference on your own. Imagine trying to figure out who is key to listen to and who you should seek out. A daunting task at best. Then try going to a conference as someone who participates in the #langchat PLN. You may not have met these people in the flesh – but faces are familiar and everyone is so darn happy to meet other people – its like you’re there with a crew! My first ACTFL – WOW.  I was talking to Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell before she started her session and I said “Inspiration and Validation” and that’s what it’s meant to me. The chance to see, listen to and talk with so many great people. So, for what it’s worth, here’s my take on ACTFL 2014:

Inspiration  – Shelter the Vocabulary – Not the Grammar – the awesome Carol Gaab continued to build upon ideas that Amy Lenord has been sending my/our way (no Vocab lists) by pounding home the idea that we should be sheltering the vocabulary – not the way to express it that they need. Carol said to focus on high-frequency vocabulary and use an appropriate text to keep reintroducing those words to allow students to make connections. But – if they need the grammar to communicate – give it/use it. After all, who ever said to a 4 year old  “sorry but you can’t learn/use that until next year and I’ve explained how to construct it!”?  If they need it, can use it – let them have it!  I’ve already taken this idea in a new unit with my Yr 1’s and concocted 3 mini-stories for my students to use in exploring their current unit – using a class character that we love to put into interesting situations.

Inspiration  – Throw Out the Vocabulary Quiz – When a room is packed out at 5:15 on a Saturday you know this is a hot topic. Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell (a #langchat moderator) challenged us to think about the usefulness of the traditional “Here’s a word now write it in the Target Language” quiz. Really – how many times has a kid been able to produce it on the Friday quiz but never really use it/learn it after that. It is, Sara-Elizabeth emphasized, the myriad of connections to a word that makes it meaningful and useful to us. Instead of asking for the word for black – give a more open question “what colour is a panda?” I tried this already with my Yr2’s on various town locations. I asked “where can you hang out with friends?”  – and got responses that were meaningful to my students. I have a full post coming on my first experiments with this!

Inspiration  – Untextbooking – This was a recurrent theme in more than one presentation and,  judging by the attendance, a movement that is growing. I even tweeted that I wouldn’t be investing in textbook futures if I had seen the enthusiasm in many rooms for this. Why? Those who advocated for it did not shy away from the fact that leaving the textbook can initially mean more ‘work’ for the teacher. But the benefits  – flexibility, choice, relevance and more – seem to far outweigh what it takes to convert. I will admit that many of my units, and initial structures I taught, came from textbooks – but ‘untextbooking’ seems to be a way to go beyond someone else’s definition of ‘what a student should know. I’m getting there!

Validation – Focus on Summative Learning –  a fast paced presentation from Sam and Steve in  Alpine SD in Utah. They snuck in a clip of comedian Gerry Dee’s show (who was a teacher) and his ‘marking system’ for good measure – loved the home-grown Canadian touch (honestly I dare you to watch the clip and not see a bit of yourself in it). What was the validation – that the key and the goal should be “can they do what I want them to be able to do?”. They score a lot but only grade the summatives. Their freedom to innovate in their  middle school environment is enviable but there are definite take-aways for me. I note that this year there is most of my weight on the summative evaluations and not much weight on the formative – I liked their rationale – I’m on the right path.

Validation – Focus on Interactive Purposeful Communication – Carrie Toth, a nominee for Teacher of the Year, made even more impressive for me with her admission that her district/school has no tech – and that their tech guy doesn’t want them to use it (think computers with floppy disk drives!). What her presentation validated for me is the focus on communication – and the ‘real’ student to student interaction. One example that she used was that of a debate. It was the way that she structured the time – similar to how I do in my debate unit. She provided many examples of how she has her students use the language to accomplish a task – not just to ‘speak it’. This is also my goal in class – ‘language to ‘do’ rather than to ‘study’ – an awesome presentation (link here)

langchat team in action

The #langchat team selfie!

Validation – #langchat – When ACTFL Board Member Thomas Sauer crashes your session, stands up before the group and says “#Langchat – listen to these people” – you know that you are on to something good!  What a privilege to actually meet and interact with almost all of the #langchat moderators and thank them for the role that they have played in my teaching. We presented to a great group – sharing the ‘why’ and ‘how-to’ of belonging to the #langchat community. The other validation #langchat provided wasn’t about the presentation itself. I don’t know if this conference would have been the same without #langchat – the PLN. Although I traveled to this on my own, I got the chance to connect with so many fellow #langchat-ers that it felt like I was attending with a whole group. It was so awesome to put real faces to Twitter profiles and get a chance to meet (and thank) those I share with daily on Twitter. If you are thinking of attending a big conference such as this you’ll be surprised how many #langchat-ers you will get to see (and wearing the Tshirt doesn’t hurt!)

Finally I leave you with 2 of my other biggest lessons learned at ACTFL 2104. One – Comfortable shoes! You will walk and walk and walk – and run sometimes – to sessions to get into the room! Be prepared! Great shoes will be a necessity in your bid to make it to a workshop on time. The second lesson? Twitter rocks! I found people, shared ideas and learned about sessions I couldn’t attend all through the great tweeting of so many attendees. Many are part of the #langchat PLN (see above!). Twitter – get on it and get using the #langchat hashtag – you won’t regret it!

I may not make San Diego (budgeting etc) but I am aiming for a return visit ASAP. Thanks ACTFL!


October 5, 2014
by leesensei

Thoughts/Considerations On Starting a “Class” Twitter Account

4786110042_43c31cc235Many teachers are making the foray into using social media with their students. I am at the point of ‘dipping’ my toe in. There’s a number of things I’ve learned, and found out, as I have started tweeting to students and wanted to collect my thoughts on keys in beginning this path.

Set up a dedicated class account – I am an active user of Twitter in my professional life. But I do not want to have my students involved in my PLN and the learning that I do online. So I have a separate identity for my class account. I recommend that you talk to students about it and the boundaries that you have established. I know that when a couple of my students tried to follow my ‘professional’ account, I had to speak to the groups about this. I talked to them about my personal PLN, and why I had blocked them from that account. At the same time I extended the invitation to follow the class account. So if you are already on Twitter and, like me, feel strongly about separating your professional and in-class life – I recommend that you do the same.

Don’t make joining mandatory – I am loath to require students to sign up for social media. And I know that there are parents out there who would be concerned. In addition Canadian privacy laws also require parent approval. So following my class account is not required – if I post a picture or info my students can ‘search’ it under the established hashtag. Right now I have a whole 2 student followers but I know more have checked out posted photos etc. Early days yet…and fine by me.

Establish a hashtag – and use the school one too –  In order for students who are not on Twitter to locate items you post – establish a consistent hashtag. For me it is #ptjapanese (Pinetree being the name of my school). All of my ‘tweets’ include it. If I post photos of class activities or other interesting things that happen in class I also include my school’s hashtag as well. It gets the word out about what we’re doing – both to those who follow the school and to one of my administrators who administers it.

Start with key ‘student-friendly’ TL and TL-related Follows – If students are going to see who I follow then I have to be comfortable with what they see. So I am careful to comb the feed for inappropriate posts. For example, Time-Out Tokyo looked great for city interest but the repeated beer-related and adult-level tweets meant I couldn’t follow them on the class account. I follow a couple of pop stars, some language related accounts and – most popular – fast food/international items with lots of visual posts. I’m also careful to check the feed occasionally to block any ‘promoted’ but inappropriate accounts.

Get permission to post pictures of class activities  – In my district, parent permission is required to show pictures of any student in a public way. Before I began posting pictures of class activities I obtained permission – signed by the parent and student to do so. I don’t publish names and try not to publish close-ups. I also maintain a list of who has not given permission which I check before posting photos.  And don’t forget to link your phone to your class account – I like to quickly upload photos once I’ve taken them. When I started the new account I forgot to add it to my ‘phone’ so that I could easily and directly upload to the class account. Don’t forget to do this – you will always be asked which account you are posting to so you won’t make a mistake!

Tweet a variety of things –   I do post to a website as well but have started tweeting out the homework. I’m always looking for another way to ‘meet students where they are at’ and tweeting out the homework is just another way to ‘get the word’ out. Sometimes I even tweet out a preview of the next day’s class, or next week’s song of the week. I am also big on taking photos of my ‘whiteboard notes’ as well – and often post those so I am starting to add those pics as well to the tweets.  When I’ve posted pictures I tell the class (I try to take them when they are ‘actively’ learning and don’t notice) to check the hashtag to see if they are ‘in the picture’!

I am looking forward to the evolution of my class account – and where it will take us, as a group, in the future.


September 15, 2014
by leesensei

Cool Tools – My Favourite Browser Extensions, Add-Ons and Docs Extras

MP900387935We use a lot of tools, apps and other on-line resources in our teaching. I had to work on a browser the other day – which required me to re-enable the add-ons and extensions for it. It got me to thinking about my ‘go to’ tools that I use with both Firefox and Chrome. So I put together a collection of my favourites – probably some of yours as well.

Kaizena – Google Docs: a free tool that you can integrate with your Google Drive account to leave voice comments on the documents that students share with you. With Kaizena authorized to access your Google Drive account you can highlight portions of your students’ work and add voice or text comments to it. Haven’t used it much yet – going to this year.

Texthelp Study Skills – Google Docs: I use Texthelp’s Highlighting Tools to highlight key areas of  student’s documents. I’ve written before about my ‘colour coded feedback‘ – and this allows me to do so online.  You can also collect all the highlighted parts of a document to create a ‘feedback’ page (by color or location) for a student  to review. Love it!

Rikaichan- Chrome/Firefox: This could be a GAME CHANGER for my classes in working with authentic resources. I’ve written about the challenges of teaching a character-based language in the past. Then I discovered this Rikaichan add-on that allows a student to ‘hover’ over the Chinese characters Japanese uses – and get both the way to say the word – and a general translation of it. Oh My Goodness – Equality of Access! Works with Japanese to English/German/French/Russian dictionary. Don’t forget to download the necessary dictionaries for the add-on to work with the languages you want!

Tweetdeck – Chrome (Twitter): Following a Twitter chat like #langchat can be a challenge. Tweetdeck  (a Twitter product) works with Chrome and is a social media ‘dashboard’. Essentially it allows me to customize my view of Twitter. I have a column for an individual hashtag, another for specific references to me all at the same time. It makes it easy to focus on that one hashtag and quickly respond to comments/questions to me personally. I couldn’t do #langchat without it! Edublogs offers a short primer on it here.

Evernote Webclipper- Chrome/Firefox: I’ve blogged a lot before about my shift to using Evernote to curate my teaching life. One of the most indispensable tools for me is the Evernote Web Clipper. It allows me to send full articles, parts of hte article or just the URL right to my Evernote account. More importantly it sends it to the notebook I want – and allows me to “tag” it before I send it – and for me ‘tagging‘ means I’ll actually find the article again.

KeepVid – Chrome/Firefox: Ever had a great clip you want to show from YouTube or another source and  – bam – the internet goes down in your class. Or its slow….and keeps buffering. If a video clip is key to my teaching I have to be able to use it without relying on the speed or availability of the web. I’ve used a couple of methods and KeepVid Video Downloader is a pretty reliable one. It is a free web application that allows you to download from sites like YouTube, Facebook, Twitch.Tv, Vimeo,etc.  All you need is the URL of the page that has the video you want to download. Videos – Chrome (YouTube): Sometimes I do show a YouTube clip in class – and stream it. At that point I just want to show the clip – and not worry about any questionable ads or other ‘sidebar’ issues. So I use Cleanr is a browser extension that strips out the ads, sidebars, comments, buttons etc from YouTube videos. If I haven’t downloaded the video to keep for future reference – then this is the way to ensure that the video is all that I’m showing!

Hola Unblocker – Chrome/Firefox: US-based colleagues won’t understand but frequently clips/streaming from BBC, Hula, Pandora and  other networks are blocked by region locks and unavailable to me in Canada.  Well I can – using Hola Unblocker – a browser extension that removes region locks and allows you to watch BBC iPlayer, Netflix, Hula, Pandora, and more regardless of where you live. They try to get you to pay at some point – but works for free (and lets me watch “Downton Abbey” way before we get it here in North America!)

There are a lot more add-ons, extensions and web tools out there – I haven’t even mentioned Diigo which I am starting to work with either! What are your favourites?


September 8, 2014
by leesensei

Coping in a Tech-Challenged School ( & Dealing with 1:1, BYOD Envy!)

Concept of Hand with Electronic FingerprintsThere are lots of schools that are rich with technological resources. My school – due to priorities and budgets – is not rich in that area. Add onto that strict Canadian privacy laws and the difficulty of using online resources is compounded. I wonder how many others in this ‘tech rich’ era that we are in are in a similar plight? So how do I cope and use what I can to offer challenges and choice to my students?

The situation in my school: 6 ‘labs’ full of desktop computers – not always available for regular class use; reliable WiFi but not the capacity to have everyone online at once; issues with streaming anything; no 1:1 or iPad initiative. The only BYOD occurs when a student chooses to bring it from home.

The situation in my classroom:  A personal Macbook Pro as my main instructional technology (with an LCD and an add-on graphics tablet). A desktop computer (Windows) issued by the school but only allowed to run Firefox or Internet Explorer (not Chrome). Three iMacs – older but capable of running WiFi (can’t hook into the network as I bought them independently from district tech sources) and any phones or devices students may have on them that day

The wrinkle: I live in Canada and it has stringent privacy rules. Therefore, parent permission must be sought for any student to use any online program/app that requires giving any personal data in registering, or has any personal info that may be held outside of Canada. That means the required use of any Google Docs, Edmodo etc must be signed off on. It also means that apps such as ‘Remind’ are not authorized as data is held in the States.

Using an online video clip?  Download it off of the internet via Keepvid or other convertors – so you don’t rely on a dicey connection that may or may not be as fast as you need on the day. Not sure how to download what you have – google a ‘how to download a (name type) video”  – it’s how I learned.

Contacting Students via Texts? There are a couple of solutions for me – one surprising one was our school attendance software. It can be programmed by class to do a call-out. It’s a clumsy workaround for me but just may work if I need it. The other option for me is Edmodo (with parent permission) – as I start to transition all my classes to it, I have learned that students may choose to be contacted via email or text with updates I send out on Edmodo. It isn’t a great solution but it will work for me. At any time there is also my traditional class website – with links to clips, reviews and the homework uploaded each day!

Few Devices/Machines – Many students?  Groups, Stations and Headphone splitters. When we play an online game such a Kahoot, I’m conscious of students who don’t have a phone, or are not wanting to use a lot of data minutes. So we’ve always played as teams – at least 2 students (and sometimes 3). Generally this means I give a little longer to answer questions (consultation is requried) but its a sneaky way for them to review too. Stations are a great way to ‘spread the tech around’ and with my new resources I will try to balance the paper with the tech for each. Making it a lot easier for many students to use 1 machine is the ‘headphone splitter’. Kristy Placido alerted me to these and I now have 4 Belkin Rockstar Splitters (5 sets of headphones at a time) for my room – that’s 15 kids on 3 machines/devices.

Recording Conversations? The Phone/Hand-held Digital Recorder – I know there are lots of online resources and apps but I continue to make use of the phone. Not all students have phones so what it is used for is never required. Dictionaries online are okay – but I also have the paper ones and it is a good ‘tool’ to learn to use. Any recording is most often done in pairs. Additionally I purchased a hand-held digital recorder for students who don’t have a phone. I love to use phone recorded conversations to demonstrate proficiency!

Handing in Work? Choice! I don’t require students to hand things in on-line. Some prefer to do that – and it is marked and returned on-line as well. Others like to handwrite and some don’t have a computer at home. So I give options. Those that enjoy using a keyboard (or their phone) are welcome to do so – and those that are more traditional in their supply use don’t suffer. The issue for me is consistency in how it is marked. At least once or twice I offer Japanese keyboard orientation for students to learn some tips and tricks!

Video Reviews?  I do a series of video reviews for each unit. They are not fancy – I use Snagit (an upgraded version of Jing) to ‘talk’ and write my way through concepts. There are lots of apps/programs out there to use. All of the videos are uploaded directly from the program to my YouTube channel – and grouped by grade as a playlist. Remember to make sure the videos are made public (and I disable comments – really – I don’t need those!). Students can access the videos via the school computers in open labs or the library if they don’t have a computer at home.

Being in a tech-challenged school means that you have to think a little more about what you are using and how you will use it. What are your favourite workarounds in a low-tech environment?






August 18, 2014
by leesensei

Lose The Word “Chapter” – Gain a World…Freeing Yourself Up to “Change”

losing chapter word


It started with my Evernote daybook – I was editing and reviewing my classes and I thought “Why do I have units by ‘chapter’ and not theme?” Indeed – why? If you’re already here, and this is long gone in your teaching then these musings may cause more nostalgic thoughts than insight. If you are like me and gradually, sometimes it feels glacially, making lasting change in HOW you do things – then perhaps you have found what I found. What have I learned as I organized by ‘thematic unit’ and NOT by ‘number? Well…

You’ll See What Your Focus Has/Hasn’t Been – Wow – does my Yr 2 class need work. When I erased the chapter titles I saw that what I thought were ‘themes’ weren’t. Instead I had disparate grammar points held together by previous textbook/workbook support. Did I feel awful – all this talk about meaningful learning and it sure wasn’t here in this course. But – what I did have were some great interactive inter-personal orals – that I can see are the ’emerging’ themes for this Yr2 class. For my other courses I did finally “see” my thematic units – now without a meaningless number in front of them – and it shows me that I am on the right track. I’m even abandoning a thematic unit I attempted in my Yr4 course in the past because I see how it no longer fits with my other units (and frees us up to spend more time on them!)

You’ll Open Yourself Up to “What They Really Need AND When They Need It” – So if you are no longer ‘bound by the book’ then you can give students what they need – when they need it . This is a great ‘aha’ moment when it happens and I wrote about it last year with regards to vocabulary. But this year it really allows me to look at all the incidental language my students asked for in a unit and work in pop-up grammar lesson points when needed. I started doing this last year as well but now with the words gone I’m free to add as it works and finally answer the question “Why can’t my students express an opinion until Ch. 7?”!

You’ll Find New Resources to Enhance Your Theme – So no more textbook to march through. I will still use some of the dialogues or stories in my teaching – in part as they provide reading with equal opportunity for student access in my character-based language (something Authentic Resources are challenging for as I’ve written before). But I’m now able to supplement with other visuals, video clips, infographics etc. It allows me to ‘step sideways’ from what the unit focus was dictated by the text to be – and really find the ‘hook’ that the unit should be.

You’ll Find More Meaningful Ways to Check For Learning – No textbook – and therefore – no workbook. Okay – there will be some use of some of the exercises, especially as my students learn any of the three orthographies we use in Japanese. I may also find some readings or listening parts that are ‘authentic’ and fit a theme but I decide when/how to use them – the ‘number’ doesn’t! It also means that I, okay we as a class, can get more creative, and more varied in how learning is demonstrated. Imagine a class where we decide as a group, or small groups, how understanding of something will be shown, do that, and share. Wow…and I’ll not need to write “Workbook Chapter 4 Exercise 2, 5, 9” on the board ever again.

If you are moving along on the road to no textbooks, or workbooks, as I am – it can be an unsettling thing. Certainly the encouragement and leadership of the #langchat PLN has helped immensely. I look forward to the day when all of my courses, and classes, are where I want them to be. In the meantime I am revelling in, and feeling a little bit of ‘good nervous’ in erasing the word ‘Chapter’ from my class vocabulary. Onward!


PS – I work a lot with an Evernote and my daybook in the cloud. I’ve put together a collection of my posts on using this to organize my teaching life if you are curious!

May 13, 2014
by leesensei

Text and Learn…The Text Message as Lesson Device

IMG_0368Right off the top – this idea was inspired by a post from Bryan Kandel. If focussed on using a fake text message, sent to him, from a celebrity. Great idea I thought – and it would be great for my “want/want to/don’t want” section of my current unit. Here’s the fun…and how I extended it.

The Text Story for the Hook – Class started, like Bryan’s, with a story. A class character had texted me asking what I wanted to do the next day. He was whining about all the work he had that he didn’t want to do – and how he really just wanted to go play soccer, watch movies and eat sushi. Wham – students are already on board and can easily tell me what they want and don’t want to do. The character’s complaining also made it clear what to do with certain types of verbs – and students easily picked up on this.

During Class – We followed up on the dialogue and students guessed about what their partners, and other people wanted to do, or not do, on the upcoming long weekend (Victoria Day in Canada). Then they would run over to a person they had guessed about and ask them. Lots of moving around and energy in using the language.

Extending the Activity – Do they know how to use it? What would be more natural  than using the structures in their own text conversation? Students were asked to demonstrate their comfort with wanting/wanting to do in Japanese. The options for them were

– use the iphone text generating site that I learned about from Bryan’s post
– do an ‘actual’ text conversation with someone from class – and take screenshots of it
– write their own conversation on paper

They then sent it to me by email – it was easy for me to print it off (my choice) and ask them to rework any points of difficulty. Next time I will drop the conversation files  into Google Docs and mark them online using the same ‘colour’ system that I use if I mark ‘paper’.

What fun – about 1/2 my students opted for the peer-peer texting which was great to see – and hopefully there will be more messaging in the Target Language to come!

Thanks for sharing Bryan – it’s now a great tool in my teaching toolkit!


May 5, 2014
by leesensei

Online Marking Using Docs – The Update (Or Tips You Might Find Helpful)

Google_docsI’ll admit that when I first started I thought it was taking way more time to mark online than it was on paper. So, as more of my students opt to hand things in electronically, I’ve been working on streamlining my online marking. I’ve found a few things that help me along – and garnered a few tips from the #langchat PLN and thought I’d add an update to my first online marking post to share what I’ve implemented.

Organizing By Name and Class: I’m much more organized now. One of my worries was to be able to find a document quickly (with so many coming in). So I’ve worked both on how the document is named – and where it’s put.

Changing the Name – It doesn’t take long but when I need to find something it’s much easier for me now. Each document is named for the student/assignment such as “Sick Note – Jenny”. I don’t have to guess based upon what my students have called it and it’s easier to find a ‘group’ of items.
Course Folders – Each of my courses/classes has its own folder and once the individual paper is marked, or a group are done, I move them to the appropriate folder.  Then when I need to find an item quickly – it’s there – and all organized for me

Marking/Feedback Ideas: I recently blogged about streamlining my feedback to students using colours and the Text Help Study Add-On.

Using Colour – Colour Keying using Text Help Study Add-On – In feedback post, I outline how I have standardized to two consistent colours using the Add-on. This allows me to reserve 3 others colours for items that may be specific to an assignment – or items that I feel need to be added as a regular comment.
Header space for comments/edits – I use the header space for comments to my students. Sometimes it’s a standard explanation of the colour coding, and often it includes personal feedback just for them. The header area is a great space because it is actually ‘in’ the document and doesn’t appear to be limited by length.
Document for Comments – Sometimes I need to include standard information for students in the header area. Not only do I not want to type it over and over, but I may use the same comment for different assignments. So I’ve created a “Comments”  document in Docs. When I start marking I open it up and  copy/paste as needed. I also add new ‘repeated’ comments there for next time.
Upload the Rubric – There’s two ways to incorporate the rubric after you’ve uploaded it. One is to copy/paste it onto the end of the document and mark it there. Another is to copy it for each student using the ‘assignment/name’ idea.  I add comments to the header of the rubric and use the highlighting to mark out where a student’s work falls in it. When I finish I send the document back to the student – with the link to the rubric in the header.


Group Document: Laura Sexton uses a form for her students – which is a fabulous idea that I have tried as well. The only issue for me is that it doesn’t generate a private report for each student. However it works really well if you’re having a group “find the error/correct it” session.
Individual Reports: I find that the header/highlights/rubric (outlined above) works best for me. A new option may be the “Collected Highlights Report” that comes as part of the Text Help Study Add-On. This allows you generate a report based upon either the colour code, or the order that the errors appear. I’ve yet to fully use this but I may see a future use!

Sharing the Marked Document: Just remember to reset the privacy on the document – which defaults to ‘specific person’ – to “anyone with link”. I’ve tried to find a way to change this default but can’t locate it! So I automatically change it each time.

I know that there will be more to learn on this marking online journey – and that I’ll probably change things again and again. Stay tuned! In the meantime – what’s your best online marking tip?



March 28, 2014
by leesensei

Dear Edtech “Nervous”: You don’t have to understand “how” it works…just be able to work with it.

Hand ReachingDear “Nervous To Try Something New (Edtech-wise)”:

You know when you spoke with me the other day and told me that that introducing more tech into my class was fine for me because I was ‘into it’ and ‘understood’ it? That you were not going to try a new way of doing things (edtech-wise) because your students would see that you weren’t an expert. Well I need to let you in on a secret. Neither am I. It would probably shock you that me, a proponent of choice/more edtech started exactly where you are now in terms of knowledge and confidence. It took, it takes, some courage, and a big leap of faith to step out and try something new in class – in front of 30 teenagers?  How do I do it? I remember 3 key things:

I am Not the First to Do This – “Search Engine” It – Take the simple voice recorded phone conversation. As I’ve said before – we in Canada have no access to Google Voice – so my default is the ‘voice memo’ utility on student’s phones. I use this quite a bit and when I naively did it the first time I received files that my computer couldn’t work with. Disaster or challenge? When you get a file your computer can’t open – “search engine it”. Seriously – when the .amr and .mp3 file extensions come in from your student’s mobile-phone recorded conversations don’t panic. Just type in your problem into your favourite search engine and hit ‘enter’. Amazingly you will probably find out what you need.

I Have Help Available in Every Program/App – Prior to teaching I worked for a developer in the area of school administrative software. My job, in the early 1990’s, was to provide demonstrations of the possibilities of the program to rooms full of educators who had limited exposure to computerized administration tools. One of the biggest selling points for me was the “help” menu item. I knew the people who wrote the documentation for us and the detail that they went into to assist people to understand how something worked. I know to look at the menu items for a software program and locate the ‘help’ one. And if I can’t find my answer there – see tip 1.

My Peers in My School Are a Great Resource – In a school of  over 120 staff members the chances are that someone out there has faced a similar challenge/implemented a similar tech tool. And if they haven’t they probably know someone who has. So prior to trying the new tool/trick – send out an email and ask. Before my first on-line discussion I sent a blanket email to all the teachers on my staff with the subject “Have you done any ‘on-line’ discussions?”. Amazingly a teacher in the Social Studies department had. He was invaluable in giving me tips on how to structure and conduct the discussion. All I had to do was put it out there. If you aren’t a fan of the blanket email then ask your school librarian. They see so many classes, and work with so many teachers, that they probably have an idea of who does. And if that doesn’t work – see tip 1.

So go ahead and try something new. It could be as simple as using a wordcloud instead of a worksheet. Or perhaps allowing students to send in files that you will mark/comment on in Google Drive. In any case be sure that someone out there has an answer when you confront a challenge. And if you happen to find success – let your department, your staff, and even perhaps your online PLN know what you have done. After all the way we really know we’ve learned is to help out someone else.





March 17, 2014
by leesensei

Thinking about ‘Paperless’ – The Kids Weigh In

MP900341458Some of us in our school are looking to try going ‘paperless’. There are many reasons, and programs/apps to support this. (Did I mention the huge deficit in our district that means slashed budgets for supplies?) However, my high school, in a middle-class suburb of Vancouver, is not a 1:1 for devices, has limited wireless capability, no BYOD policy and doesn’t even have an LCD in all classrooms. And keep in mind that privacy concerns/laws in Canada mean that requiring the use of any cloud-based program based outside of Canada (Evernote, Google Docs, Edmodo, Prezi etc) requires signed parent permission.

I’ve always believed in asking, and not assuming, so recently surveyed students in language classes (mostly mine) about access to, and attitudes toward working only online. Their responses indicate that there is still an issue for access to, and varying degrees of comfort with, using computers in classes.

– The majority of kids bring phones to school (54%) – but not everyone is able to bring a computer/tablet (28%)
– 80% of students report being ‘quite to very’ comfortable reading online – but fully 20% were ‘fairly – not’
– 50% report using their mobile devices ‘almost daily – daily’ but 50% don’t
– 44% used their devices to obtain information (dictionary/research) and a small number use it for note-taking (11%) or outside of class work/homework (12%)

 What is the most interesting – and worth heeding – are the comments of kids when asked “Is there anything more we should be asking about using mobile devices at school?” Clearly not all students would find a complete move to technology to be a benefit. In fact, many of their comments mirror the hesitation that some educators express when moving to more technology use in school.

 – If I was going to use mobile technology at school I’d like there to be a simple, easy to read standard program for viewing – as often it is hard to read scanned documents put online
– I would only be comfortable reading online from a computer/tablet – not a hand-held phone
-I don’t think students should be allowed to use on-line dictionaries – use a book-based one
– I’d like more e-texts so I don’t have to carry books around
– I don’t have the internet at home, and my device can’t access it at school
– I’m excited that teachers want to integrate technology into my learning
– My phone is a Windows phone so I can’t use most apps that are recommended
– I am not as comfortable sending work on-line as it may get deleted or not be received
– If the school wants us to use the internet – they should stop changing the WiFi password!

  What does it mean as I consider paperless? Until there is a supported solution, or push in my school, it will have to remain what it is right now, an option. So my focus will be on expanding options for students to demonstrate learning, Some will continue to do work the traditional way (paper). Others will move/have moved to create and compose on their phones and computers and then submit online. If I do consider ‘all – paperless’ it will be an option for those who find that it works for them. Perhaps, as budgets, priorities in the building, and degree of comfort allow – we may all get there one day.








February 24, 2014
by leesensei

QR for Curiosity – Encouraging Students To Be Curious

qrtellagamiAs smartphone use/ownership among students rises – so has the use of the QR codes. I add them to unit packages for links for Quizlet sites or my YouTube channel  – hoping that the ubiquitous phone in the teenagers hand will help them find support outside of class time. Some educators use them as a required part of the lesson. I know that not all of my kids have smart phones capable of reading codes so I don’t require them. Even when I provide them for support I also provide a shortened link to the same material. In a previous post I wrote about a number of practical ways to use them but I didn’t really focus on another reason to use them in your teaching.

To me, the fact that they are a visual, and don’t come with any ‘words’ attached also means that we can use them to reward the curious. This year I am trying an ‘experiment’ in my room – just to see who is curious enough, or aware enough to want to know more. I won’t be giving out extra marks for this, but I will wait to see if any students comment on what I have done.

A QR code on my door – I used an app called “Tellagami”  to create a short animated video introducing who I am and what I teach. Then using a free QR code creator I generated a QR code (it’s the one at the start of  this post). It’s on window of my door – right where students might notice. If they are curious they will find out a bit about who I am. Almost as important to me is the message it sends “We try new things in here!”

A visual/QR code bulletin board – One of the reasons that I like QR codes is that they don’t come with any words attached. This semester I set up a bulletin board with areas in Japan – outside of the major cities. I dug up some older picture cards I had and put tbulletinboardhem together with a map. The only information provided is an arrow to a part of the map and a QR code. The code links to a page for the city or region. This bulletin board will come into play later in my grade 12 course but for now I notice kids looking, pointing and sometimes scanning.

A ‘What is This’?  – I receive a magazine a few times a year and one of its pages features objects/items that are photo(2)unique to Japan. In this case I have the picture/explanation but I remove the title (and black out the word in the text if needed). Instead I substitute an audio QR code. They are easy to make via the qrvoice website and available for many languages. Students can read about the object but won’t know what it is until they scan and hear the word.

If you need a code reader on your phone – search your appropriate app store – there are a lot of free ones there. Making QR codes is easy too – there are several sources out there including:

  • kaywa  – make sure you select “static” not dynamic for the easy creation
  •  – it’s a url shortener and, if you click on ‘details’  create a QR code
  • qrvoice  – type your text, select your language and the code is generated

I’m hoping that the lack of information, and the ease of scanning the code, will reward the curious. And curious learners will, I hope, be more willing to risk in my classroom.



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