Language Sensei

A Language Teacher's Journey

June 6, 2016
by leesensei

#forgetthefluff – My Most Important Classroom “Tech Piece”? Still The Pencil…

ytpBK2ScYes.  After all this…the pencil. First up I am a big fan of technology use in classes – technology not for tech’s sake (honestly for many of us initially the LCD projector/computer combo was just a fancier overhead) but technology that integrates, and propels, learning. But there is  also a reality, one I live with everyday in my school. We lack great access to WiFi. My district isn’t a BYOD one and my school leadership (unlike others in the district) hasn’t decided to ‘go for it’ and do it anyway. It is tough to get access to the web for all via the computer labs (yes we still have these..) and mobile carts of Chromebooks are more than a wish away. Despite my district going all in with Microsoft and Office 360 they are still rolling out wireless web capacity and this is more than 2 years away. Compounding that is the issue of equality of access – as I don’t want to ask students to use parent-paid data to get information off the web via their phones. I allow students to use any kind of tech they want to record/produce notes and in my class I have a myriad of laptops, phones and paper/binders…they have the choice but as a teacher I feel incredibly limited in what I can compel students to do.

But really this is all unimportant when I look at what continues to be a valuable tool for me and my students. The pencil…here’s 3 examples why…

It Records Changing Progress/Mastery of Concepts – I’ve gone all in for grading moving from numbers to descriptors. And as such have moved on to way more formative assessments. Not as many ”for mark” quizzes but way more formative assessment such as the “pop check-in“. So I need the pencil – because students’ achievement, their mastery of things, their proficiency can be a moving target. When I am checking for mastery I always start with a ‘dot’ in the corner of the box. This says to me “I’ve seen something but it’s not quite there yet”. The student see’s either a dot or a circled part on their piece. Often I refer them to me for review, sometimes I send them to see a follow-up video and many times a student looks at it and says “I know what I wasn’t getting/missed”. When I see the piece in the mastered form I erase the dot and put in the “C” (complete) or the “M” for meets. So the pencil allows me to easily record these changes in progress…

It Allows Students To Create Their Own Practice – Yes I do worksheets – but my worksheets are mostly ‘student chooses example’ to show learning practice. From the ‘Oral Worksheet‘ to the “Sketch and Share” students are using a quick visual, linked to the concept in use, to demonstrate learning. Some students choose to use ‘clip art’ (it’s always an option) but most use an 11×17′ piece of paper and a pencil. I set the criteria I want “I need to see you show me you know the difference between the X, Y and Z use of…” and they prep a drawing on the front with matching caption on the back. The key for this is the quick use of the pencil leads to great targeted practice between students. Practice that is relevant to them because they chose what they wrote. They interact/use/talk for about 20 minutes. I get to see the writing after and it is marked for ‘completion and correctness’ – some students are great the first time, others have small changes to make. The pencil let’s them create to interact…

It Allows Students to Record What They Learn & Use That Information Later – I am very big on interactive orals – and the key to these is that students record (in English) what they learn during whatever style of fair they may be doing. This requires them to focus on clearly understanding meaning and negotiate with someone when they don’t. The pencil is used to record the information that they get. In our Yr4 Travel Fair it records details of the areas that they learn about. In the Yr 1 Club Day they are learning about possible school activities. The Yr3 School Fair replicates what actually occurs in Japan when students opt to attend different high schools. Students use a pencil to record information and, key for me, then use this information gathered in some form for their summative write. In Yr 4 the Travel Fair info becomes a long moaning complaint to a friend about a ‘boring’ tour they were dragged on. The Club Day for Yr 1 is an in-class open book write about themselves and why certain clubs appeal. The School Fair asks students to past tap knowledge on which school they want to attend because of how it relates to them. Throughout the pencil serves as both a tool to record and inform…

I’m dedicated to removing the ‘fluff’ – the non-essential – from my classes and teaching. I’ve eased back on some tech options because I realized that’s what they were – a nifty thing that had nothing to do with language learning & use. Oh I dream of the day that technology is so accessible to my students that I am not using paper and graphite…when I can truly use technology accessible for all. But until then I’m happy to sharpen my students’ knowledge via the pencil.



May 29, 2016
by leesensei
1 Comment

The “Music Mania/音楽マニア” Song Contest Activity!

After all of the great sharing from other teachers about their Music March Madness – thanks especially to Carrie Toth and Wendy Farabaugh – I decided to weigh in with my own version. Although March Madness is still very popular here north of the border, I’m using it for the last loooooong month of classes (we have our last class June 21)! So on to how I run 音楽マニア (music mania)!

The Physical Setup – Taking the advice of those who have already done this I went searching for a ‘bracket’ online. I found a 14 match bracket, and because I wanted 3 qualifying rounds too, added those on to the image. I was lucky to have one of tech-ed teachers volunteer a computer drafting student who made up the bracket and printed it on large paper.

Song selection – We use songs for a lot of activities in class and I wanted to put in a ‘mix’ of those familiar tunes. I also constrained the list to ones I had, because I only use legitimately purchased music from iTunes (see previous post on this). For 5 days before the contest I also invited student submissions via a Google Doc Form. That allowed me to ‘purchase’ those tunes in time for the activity. The student selections were all part of the ‘qualifying rounds’ – which allowed us to introduce them in a showcase way. Finally I added tunes that I had purchased but not used in class.

Filling Out the Brackets –  Songs on the bracket were initially paired via style – in the initial stages I wanted them to have to choose between two that were not radically different from each other. We also included a #1 seed – the song “Zutto” by Spicy Chocolate – a huge favourite especially with my Yr4’s. I  didn’t put all the songs on at once but rather in the days before we started I added 5-6 songs per day. This happened at the end of class so I had their attention and helped to build interest/excitement. I will note that after the brackets were set I made one change due to a mass outcry from my classes that no tunes from the group “Baby Metal” had made it into the contest! (I bend to their will!).

Playing songs – The song battle of the day is listed on my white board each morning. For playing, I use iTunes and have created a special playlist. Each day I drop the two songs into it and then play them once each while we all listen. After that, during class and in the background we ‘play on loop’. I learned that iTunes learns what you want and after having to edit the playing order in day one to alternate the songs, iTunes alternates the selections for me now automatically. I chose not to use ‘videos’ of the songs – the audio only. This allowed me to avoid the potentially inappropriate video problem or the ‘can’ t find the video’ issue that sometimes arises.

Voting – We are not a very tech-friendly school (don’t ask!) and I wanted to capture the voting right away. So I prepared voting slips for each day – a basic one where they would enter the two song names and then say why they chose the song that they did. But I wanted some accountability – some ‘participation by them’. So I asked my students and one of my great Yr4’s Abbey McLane, thought of a great idea. “Why not have us pick out two words we recognized as we listen?”. Great idea and one that all levels of my classes could do. I have the voting slips in the baskets on their tables of 4 and now they enter and automatically fill them out. I read all the voting slips and it is amazing the variety of words that they select. Voting occurs at the end of class after we have listened to the songs fully one more time. I note that one day my Yr3’s were called to an assembly so I loaded the songs online & included a Google Form link so that they could still participate.

The Final Four and Two – We are almost set with our Final Four and, to create some more interest I will be providing lyrics for all of the four remaning songs. Note that many of these songs the kids have heard before and/or used in class while learning a concept. But I thought it might generate an extra spark … And for the ‘Final 2’ we are going to show the videos instead of just listening, adding a twist to voting (I’m doing this because I have a copy of each and they have no inappropriate content!)

The Verdict – We have really enjoyed this foray into listening. And, with classes ending in late June it’s a great diversion at the start of class. Some kids are really into it…others just listen then move on. But today, as the 2 songs continued to play in the background, I looked across to see one of Yr4’s singing along with the tune. Loved it.  I may/will modify in the future but I will do Mania again. I’m hoping it will be one of those ongoing class traditions!


PS The Final Four? “Zutto” from Spicy Chocolate, “Nijiiro” from Ayaka, “Taiyou no Megami” from Ieiri Leo and “Kimigainakya damemitai” from Ooishi Masayoshi!


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.


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.


September 20, 2012
by leesensei

Please Don’t Raise Your Hand….

A couple of years ago I was lucky enough to know that how I questioned kids in the class was not particularly effective. I always seemed to notice ‘the evident’ kid – you know the one. Big personality, or quick to answer, or fearless even if they didn’t really know. That kid. But what about the others? What about the quiet one, the shy one or the ‘I know but I’m not doing it” one? How was I to make sure everyone was asked – and no one avoided participating?

I was lucky enough to read a few books, talk to a few teachers and try out several things to change my ways. So now in my class one of the first things I say is “Please don’t raise your hand.” And so when a student asks why…here’s what I say:

Pair then Share – As a student you will always get to practice or test out your response with your partner first. You will have time to try. You will also have time to ‘investigate’ – using your notes or a dictionary  – to find a possible answer. Having time to do this means that your input alone will not be on the line and that you both can work towards an answer if you need to.

Anyone could be asked – Your name is written down on a popsicle stick in a bag on my desk. When I look for responses I will draw one. I won’t call on you because you were ‘off task’ and caught my eye. I won’t use your name as a punishment. However, if your name comes up, I will expect you to be ready to answer.

Answers not Avoidance – When I call on you its with the idea that you will be answering. “I don’t know” doesn’t get you off the hook. No, I will put your name aside and ask you to show me (by nodding for example) when you have found your answer. If you still not sure I will help you, with hints and examples, in finding the answer. Even if another student helps out you will be asked to give the final full answer.

The art of questioning is, for me, a journey and I am nowhere near the end! Do you have something that works well for you?




April 4, 2012
by leesensei

My Tech Setup…(“More with Less!”)

Although I am passionate about integrating technology in my work you may be surprised how much I personally have access to in my classroom. Funding priorities in my school and district have not expanded as quickly as my desire to be more tech-savy. So it’s a surprisingly simple setup…

  Macbook 2007:  Yes you read that   correctly. My interest in expanding my ‘tech footprint’ didn’t coincide with any funding from my school/district. Along with 10 other teachers in my school we decided to forge ahead anyway and use our personal laptops. Curiously we are all Mac users….

Wacom Tablet: When you can’t afford a tablet computer you make one yourself. Investing in a medium Wacom tablet, and using Photoshop and .pdf’s of documents,  I can review work, make videos of my lessons, create class notes for my website etc. Next up – Google docs for everything?

Logitech Speakers: Under $75 at the time…. playing Japanese pop-tunes, YouTube clips and whatever we need to hear…

Benq LCD projector: Funded 3 years ago by school funds, it’s old but it works for anything from the wide variety of programs I use, for polls, Google Earth tours of Kyoto, Quicktime clips etc..

I dream of a class set of iPads and enough enough bandwidth to allow kids to access their computer wirelessly in my room. But I don’t let that hold me back…

Doing more with less,



April 2, 2012
by leesensei

Why Twitter?

I’ll get right to it. I’m 50 and of a generation where Facebook is seen as a way to connect with long lost ‘friends’ or play scrabble. Mention to many colleagues of the same age that I am on Twitter and I am met with a slight look of disbelief. Add  that I actually ‘Tweet’ and I can see them thinking “Does anyone really care what you are doing right now?”.

Twitter is some of the best Pro-D that I have participated in during my 16 year teaching career. Why?

It’s informative: The generosity of those I follow has contributed so much to my teaching ‘repertoire’. They share ideas, thoughts and results of their efforts. Many have answered direct messages when I had a particular question about what they were doing.

It’s current: People generally are tweeting about the ‘new and now’. That is inspiring as they become my personal ‘leaders’ in Ed. Tech and Second Language learning. I’m not waiting for a Pro-D day to learn something new.

It’s manageable:  At only 140 characters, information is short and sweet. I also have a limited set of people so my feed is not so ‘full’ that I feel overwhelmed with the number of tweets.

It’s remarkably easy: I signed up for an account and made sure my bio indicated why I was on Twitter. Then, using Google, I started looking for hashtags and directories of the topic that interested me. I asked to follow a few and some, reading my bio, asked to follow me.

It encouraged me to contribute: I started as a ‘passive’ reader but, as with any learning, realized that it is being active in the process that brings that rewards.  I don’t feel compelled to tweet all the time – just when I have something to say.

You can find me at @coleesensei and maybe I’ll see you on Twitter  too.


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March 29, 2012
by leesensei
1 Comment

Worksheet or WordCloud?

I recently looked at a new way of doing an “old” thing. My Japanese 11 students typically read an article (in English) on Haiku and answer questions about this poetry form. Admittedly it is a pretty dry, and not necessarily engaging, activity. This year I changed it up and used a program called Wordle (  to make word clouds about poetry. It is a web-based program that is easily accessed from any computer in my school. It works in English (and even Japanese with a few tricks).

How does it work? Basically you enter English words directly in to the create ‘field’. The size of a word in the visualization is proportional to the number of times the word appears in the input text. So, for example, if you type “apple banana banana grape grape grape” into the create page’s text field, you’ll see that banana’s font size is twice apple’s, and grape’s font size is 3/2 that of banana’s. When a particular word doesn’t show up in Wordle it is probably because it thinks it is a “stop word” (a frequently-used word  such as “the”, “and”, or “but”) . See the “Language” menu for a setting to turn off the removal of such common words.

Key elements composed by Alice Han (Jap. 11)

To keep my students on track the criteria for the work included required elements such as a title “Haiku”, demonstrated knowledge of topic via choice of words and at least 2 ‘prominent’ elements – words selected due to their relevance to the topic. Marking was done in a holistic way using a criteria referenced scale (‘word cloud rubrics’ are easy to find on the internet). If you are interested in using Wordle and have questions, I am happy to send you the assignment that I gave – or talk to you about it.


March 27, 2012
by leesensei

Helping Students Learn Vocabulary – On Line…

Every course has vocabulary specific to it that we ask kids to learn. In my subject I am always looking for new ways to help kids “learn the words and what they mean”. I have recently been using an online flashcard program called Quizlet ( I am enjoying using it, and so are my students, for a number of reasons:

Convenience: Search cards already produced in almost any category such as AP History, Geography, Canadian history, AP Chem. Solubility Rules etc

Easily practice vocabulary - on your computer or phone!

Ease of Use: Easily import vocabulary from word (or have a student assistant help?). Can also export into Excel from site. Supports written text and audio in a large number of languages – including Chinese (simplified and traditional), Spanish, French and Japanese

Accessibility: Students can access from any computer. They can also access using smart phones via free flashcard apps. Have your own site? You can even embed links to specific card sets into your current website.

Its More than a Simple Flashcard: Offers a variety of ‘testing’ for comprehension including matching, spelling, multiple choice etc. Can even say the word to have student hear as they read.

Supports Review: It’s a way to post unit vocabulary – once – and then it is done. Students can use to study for finals or unit tests.

No it won’t be used by all – but it may support learners who don’t benefit from traditional ‘studying’ methods and allows us to expand how we deliver info to them. Give it a try!

Any questions? Just ask!


March 27, 2012
by leesensei

Why? Why? Why!

Age and experience. Used to laugh about that but now I realize that indeed I possess both. I used to think that teaching would be less involved the longer I did it but it seems to be the opposite. With my knowledge of the curriculum (mostly) secure, I find myself looking to alter, expand and enhance what I have always done. New twist on an old style of evaluating? Yes. More use of technology in the classroom. For sure! Join me if you’d like – as I reflect on the ‘old’, implement the ‘new’ and integrate the ‘tech’.


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