Language Sensei

A Language Teacher's Journey

May 28, 2013
by leesensei

It’s an “ALN” not a “PLN”….or it should be…

MC900438747There’s a lot made about the Personal Learning Network (PLN) these days. I know it isn’t a new idea. For years teachers who wish it, have taken personal time and initiative to connect, learn and expand their professional skills. In some schools this is easier than others to do. Many of us work in schools that do not give a lot of personal learning time – and instead favour group Pro-D. Others have the freedom to spend much more time on personally designed pursuits.

Enter Twitter and suddenly, regardless of your school’s focus, the ability to connect and learn on your desktop. Twitter has proven to be revolutionary for many of us -and we enthusiastically search out people, and links to others, that add to our professional lives.

However a PLN doesn’t end with following people on Twitter. I would argue it’s not how you construct it but if, and how, you use it. To me the most important part of the PLN isn’t the Network or the Personal at all. It’s the Learning that is key. And it cannot stop there. To really have a PLN that counts, I believe, you have to be an ‘Active’ Learner. This isn’t about tweets or retweets at all. What do I mean by “Active Learning”?.

Trying Something New You Got From Your PLN: It may be taking something that is shared with you, using it, testing it, maybe even adapting it and then, and this is the most important part, offering up your view/experience with it to the Twitterverse. Would you consider that someone had mastered a skill if they never had to demonstrate that they could use it?

Attending a Hashtag Chat: I admit that some of these chats are so big that the ability to put in ideas, and even see what’s going on is difficult. But there are so many out there that finding one that fits for you is possible – and many lists of them exist if you search for them. For me #langchat,  (Foreign Language teachers) on Thursday is the one. It’s an easy first step to lurk at these chats but to be actively participating, even if it’s just tweeting your presence, is activity- and maybe the first step to joining in.

Check In On a Regular Basis : Active also means that you make a concerted effort to check in on your PLN on a regular basis. I find it ironic that so many educators moan about no time to learn but, when it is as easy as following a list on a subject, seem overwhelmed at ‘how much time’ they may need to invest. Yes it takes time, any learning does if it is to be meaningful.

Many teachers are the first to say that they want to expand their skills and try new things. Creating a PLN using Twitter is a good first step…then making it an ALN is the next…isn’t it?


May 8, 2013
by leesensei

A New “Sense” of Direction….Street View

As part of my travel unit for Japanese 12 I do a quick review of direction giving. In the Japanese 11 class we use a static map for guiding around. But bringing that same map back for the Grade 12’s just didn’t seem to cut it. I don’t work in a school with 1:1 or even the wireless capability to support BYOD but our labs are reasonably quick so I have a pair share a computer there.

SetUp – Student Input:  Many of my students dream of visiting Japan and Tokyo is the first choice for them. So  2 days before the activity I ask them where they would like to go in Tokyo if they had a chance – and draw the inspiration for my activity from their information. I use a quick written exit slip. It is important that I don’t suggest where. Using the student’s information, I search Google for images “free to use or share” from each of the locations my students identified. Then I choose an ‘iconic’ location from that area as the target of the activity and a label for it that allows them to zero in on the general area.

SetUp – An Expectation of Language Use: My Grade 12’s are used to the expectation that an activity will be done using the TL (target language) only. I build this via informal and formal reinforcement after class activities. Sometimes it’s a quick ‘stop-light’ slip – Green (only the TL), Yellow (few words of English) or Red (1/2 the time or more in English). At other times I use a more detailed rubric for self and partner evaluation. The result is students who do use the TL – even without a teacher hovering over them.

The Task: Students are given the picture “quest” sheet and use Google Maps to go first to the general area. From there it’s into Street View and they work together to try to get to the location in the photo using the TL. It’s fun to hear them “No – don’t go left, go right at the next street” – as they work to find the spot. I make if very clear that they don’t have to go to every location on the page – but rather to pick one or two – find the spot and then explore the area.  Some do like to find all the picture spots while others take up the exploring challenge.

The Wrap-Up: After the activity I use a rubric for self and partner evaluation of their use of the TL – including a written justification of their choices.  I also ask them to provide any TL words/phrases that they felt they needed (for the next time I do this).

My students loved the chance to visually explore an area they are interested in and more than one commented on how proud they were that ‘they didn’t use any English’ in doing so. As for me it put me in the role I like best – supporting my students in their learning – not leading!



April 24, 2013
by leesensei

A Web Quest That Asks Them To Think…

I have always struggled with the traditional web quest. You know the kind where there are questions and the students go to a site, or various sites, to get the answers. It seems that I am not exposing them to anything new when I do this but rather just teaching them that a ‘blank’ is there to be filled. The quest then becomes not the answer but a completed sheet. Find, write (or paste) and go onto the next.

Each year with my Japanese 11 students we read a story set in Kyoto. It is an amazing city full of world heritage sites, traditional tea shops and the chance of spotting a geisha on the street. I want my students to be able to have various sites in mind when they read the story – and so thought a web quest – for it’s visual element especially – would be a good idea. My first one was a dud – basically a ‘what, where’ sheet that I myself found boring. What to do?

Talking to our school librarian, who sees lots of these activities, she challenged me to have my students use the information they find – in a way that would not become just a copy/paste exercise. So I imagined a tourist – pressed for time – who has 1 day in Kyoto and 6 possible places that they could visit (all from our story). Students have to find out what these places are, where in the city they are located, why a person would go there and finally rank them in order of visiting preference. It’s amazing to look at the results and find out what would appeal to them and why. Often we have a class discussion after in which they talk with each other, in Japanese, about the results.

Kyoto also has an interesting dialect so I send them to a site to ‘hear’ what it would be like to be on the streets. Finally I ask them to comment on the websites themselves – what they found appealing or what they think could be improved.

So now its not a web quest for me but rather a task that uses some websites. A link to my exercise – never fear its mostly in English! – is here if you wish.

What kind of web quests do you do?


April 23, 2013
by leesensei

The Times They Are A Changing…Why Won’t You?

Hey you – you out there in your classroom. Remember when you were young? Remember your parents talking about the pace of change in daily life and you  rolling your eyes at what they were saying? Remember thinking “Life’s changing people and why do you keep talking about ‘when I was young’? It’s not 19__ anymore.”  When did we become those people? We’re supposed to be educating a generation to be ready for the ‘real world’ but when it comes to ‘real world’ methods and ideas we dig in our heels.

I am a language teacher and increasingly trying to offer new ways for students to do things. In my class at any one time students could be using paper, phones or computers for their work. I run classes, as many of you do, using web 2.0 tools. As an educator I use my Twitter PLN, #langchat colleagues and online sources such as Edudemic etc to find new things to challenge my learners and new ways to do them. When I share alternatives with my co-workers I find many on similar journeys. But there are a great number who offer up the same response.”Well I am not going to allow them to use  (fill in blank with program/platform etc) if I don’t know how it works.”  Even if they are assured that they don’t have to know – that their students do know- they stand firm. Why? It seems to me that a teacher who has a full-time job and is comfortable with their curriculum should be a great candidate for ‘change’, or dare I say, updating their classroom experience.

So you there sitting at your desk. Take a moment. Instead of being glad that you are retiring in X number of years so you “don’t have to learn anything new” why not see it as “I only have X years left to learn.”  Consider the challenge, the gift, of recognizing that we are in a new age. You don’t have to be an active user of the new tools yourself but can you deny your students their opportunity to learn and grow.

Can you?



April 2, 2013
by leesensei
1 Comment

Blogging? Me? Answers to 3 Reluctant Blogger’s Questions

After a year of blogging on “Language Sensei” I thought it might be nice to reflect on what this process has been like. I know that those who blog strongly encourage those who don’t to give it a try but I don’t know if you really see how beneficial it is until you actually commit to it. So if you are considering blogging here’s some answers to those question you might be asking yourself.

No one wants to hear what I think do they?

Really? Don’t you? I started to blog not to have others read but really to initially talk to an audience of one – myself. Sitting down and talking about something – addressing a topic has helped me to actually see what I think and feel about a topic or an issue. A blog is your way to explore what your role in education and how you view your area. The best blogs I’ve read are not ‘experts speechifying’ but those that you can tell began with a self-dialogue. If others want to read it – fantastic – but ultimately a blog is for you….

It’s a lot of pressure to come up with post topics isn’t it?

The beauty of blog posts is that the best ones are short and pithy. They address one issue and are on things that you do, wonder about or have had to overcome in your classroom. Ideas come different times and I am getting better at either firing off an idea via Evernote – or entering a potential title directly into Edublogs. So think about the ‘how’ or ‘why’ or ‘what’ of what goes on in your classroom…there are lots of topics there.

I don’t have time to do it do I?

Time is a problem for us all. But remember – you aren’t writing a term paper or planning a speech. Your short comments/instructions should not take that long to get down. If you find yourself spending too much time on it then is it really a blog topic? – or is it more than one that could it be spread out over several posts? The beauty of many blogging services is that you can schedule publication for a later date. So if you have things to say that come all at once – then write early and publish later!

 For those who are considering a blog but still questioning the process I encourage you to go for it…your personal teaching practice will benefit from the challenge!




March 25, 2013
by leesensei

Just One Thing At A Time – My Mantra for Change

It’s spring break here in my district and during my time off I thought I would revisit a post that I keep as my touchstone in my teaching transformation – the ‘one at a time’ philosophy to updating my teaching practice. Happy Spring Break whenever you have yours!

I have  attended a lot of conferences this year,  through fabulous PLN teachers who are generous in tweeting information (and comments) as they participate. From #flipcon to #iste and #pbl, the array of opportunities out there for me to enhance my teaching is huge. So why lately have I been filled with feelings of inadequacy about my teaching and classroom practices?  How can I ever put this all into action. The answer is, of course, that I can’t…but I can begin to transform how I do things – which is what I tried to do this year:

Transform a Class  –  I am intrigued by flipped learning however am still wrapping my head around how it would work in my foreign language classroom. I committed to try a ‘flipped’ class for each course that I teach and next semester will do it for all my classes.  My students used video/worksheet at home and came ready to participate in the learning activity – it worked! I have the basic tools and the small step of trying a class can give me the confidence to do more and eventually take the ‘full course’ step

Transform a Project  – They can get so routine. Once we find a good ‘project’ do we ever change it? This year I really looked at my Grade 11 course and the final task focus/effectiveness. Is it doing what I want in pushing my students to communicate, to be engaged? Is it ‘real?’. I vowed to banish the poster so this year a project went from presentational to inter-personal.  Students required to get information that would help them on the unit test by talking  – not reading silently. They loved it.

Having transformed a class and a project this year – I can see where I am headed. Next semester I will transform a unit in each of the three grades I teach. For me slowly tweaking what I do is a manageable way to fundamentally alter how I teach. And as is often said..”Slow and steady wins the race!”


March 19, 2013
by leesensei

A Year with Evernote – Update #3

This post is an update on my year-long experiment using Evernote as my personal organization program.

9 months into my Evernote experiment and, as I look back I have learned a lot. As I noted before it took a while for me to form just how/what my Evernote use would look like. My stacks have undergone some editing but mostly it is my ‘notes’ that have changed. Here’s what I am liking about the move to ‘paperless’:

Integration – with Evernote on my phone and personal computer (that I use in class) I get a seamless integration of my files. I access them from anywhere and love that capability. I also like that I can upload the photos I take in my class directly to Evernote for later reference. Love it.

Photos/Audio Notes – It wasn’t until I started using Evernote that I thought to document what I was doing in class. Being able to ‘see’ what happened is a big help in recreating a lesson at another time. Also the ability to record an audio attachment to my notes has been very useful. Often I put my lesson plans in advance things don’t always go as planned. If I don’t have time to manually edit the plan then the chance to record a quick voice memo is a great option.

Evernote Web – although I use my own computer/phone with Evernote my school district doesn’t support it for my ‘class’ computer. At the start of the year I was emailing or using a flash drive to manually copy things to my personal computer and then upload. There had to be a better way and, voila, I finally found Evernote Web. Now I quickly load any documents need from my school computer easily and quickly. Love it.

The “Password Scare”  – I liked it? Well not really- but it served to remind me that if everything is in the cloud – then how is it being backed up in case something goes wrong? Or the cloud ‘goes down’? For me it forced me to learn where my data was on my Mac. But individual notes? The most popular option- seems to be to pay to have my Evernote synched to my Dropbox via CloudHQ. I haven’t done that yet but the scare has made me consider my options.

The move to less paper and more documenting of what goes on in my class continues – any tips from more experienced users?


March 6, 2013
by leesensei
1 Comment

The Value of Being “Forced” to Make Lemonade

What happens when your ‘traditional’ way of doing things in class doesn’t “fit” with the times or the situation? I confronted that this week. In prepping my Japanese 12 students for a debate on the value of a school uniform I traditionally take a few days to introduce and practice the patterns/structures that they might need.

Unfortunately this year’s unit (or fortunately!) begins 3 days before we start a 2 week spring break. What to do? Compounding the time frame my class of 18 is being reduced to 9 next week due to other school programs and trips. How did I react? Well it was a classic case of the 5 steps of ‘grief’ – there was denial it was happening, there was rage at my program being inconvenienced, there was bargaining with the teacher taking the majority of my students away, a bout of depression and then finally accepting it was going to happen – so what was I going to do about it?

I finally realized that I had been given a gift. I was being forced to face my ‘previous’ style of teaching and could use the tips, tricks and tech that I have gathered from my #langchat PLN to do what I needed in a much more modern way.

So now…on Day 1 we’re using #authres (authentic resources) to gather information on uniforms. The ‘grammar’ we’re needing will be woven into the project – and the key concepts introduced via video the night before in ‘flipped’ lessons. Comprehension will be checked via student ‘decided’ homework. Finally on Day 3 students will use a ’round table’ format to discuss scenarios and reasons to explain their choices – with a twist of adding some 21st century features. My absent students can also complete the activity and, instead of  participating in the round-table can narrate (using a 2.0 source) the visuals.

So thank you teachers for taking those students out of my class. I may not have been a pretty sight as I worked my way through the process but my students are certainly going to enjoy the lemonade we’ve made.




March 4, 2013
by leesensei

5 Things to Consider for Your On-line Class Discussion

Class discussions that can occur any time of day and students engaged in that discussion. It took me a while to get my head around ‘on-line’ discussion and I used the experience of other teachers in my school who’d tried it. I currently use this with my Independent Directed Study students (Japanese language) and will be expanding it to my Year4 students next year. What to consider? Here’s a few of my thoughts:

Platform – a secure program such as Edmodo or Schoology . My key is that it comes with a free mobile app and is a secure environment.  Students enjoy the ability to contribute via mobiles but I ensure that computer access is also available for those without smart phones. I am not at the point comfortable using social media for this.  With regard to Twitter,  I don’t feel comfortable asking students to join, for the purpose of a course, something that opens them up to outside ‘spam’ followers. Facebook I also avoid as I want to maintain a clear and professional distance from my students. For me the link between their personal Facebook, and my role as their teacher should be separate.

Topic – For me the point is to have them interacting and sharing ideas. Thus a topic that is reachable with the language that they know and just ‘controversial’ enough to court opinion. In the past we have touched on ideas such as “It’s a good idea for a high school student to have a part-time job” to “Students should take a mandatory year off between high school and post-secondary school.”

Group Size – To ensure a robust discussion I like to do this not as a ‘whole’ class but rather in smaller sub-groups. I like the ‘small group’ options that Edmodo and Schoology offer so that my class of 30 can be comfortable discussing among a smaller group of 8-9. As a tip – don’t forget to include yourself in the group so that you can see their posts!

Rules – In order to ensure that students are engaged the ‘discussion’ occurs over more than 1 day – and is done in two parts.  Typically I allow 4 days for on-line discussion. It starts at 7:45 on the first day and students have until midnight of Day 2 to post 1 comment stating their personal view and 1 specific response to a classmate’s comments. If a student does NOT do that then they are locked out of part 2 of the discussion and can only generate a maximum of 1 out of 5 marks for the exercise. Once they have completed part 1 – then in part 2 they are asked to extend the discussion by contributing at least 5 more posts including 2 specific references to another person. Naturally the students are aware that our district code of conduct applies – and failure that adhere to that not only removes them from the discussion but will include further school-based discipline.

Marking – I am not marking for ‘grammar’ or other technical parts but rather am looking for opinion – and the ability to quality of thought behind their responses. 5 POINTS – Excellent. Insightful and reflective discussion contributions; expands upon ideas presented in discussion; Multiple contributions to the discussion; language reflects concepts studied 3 POINTS – Acceptable. Elaboration and contribution to one or two ideas within the discussion; Participated in both halves of the discussion to the minimum amount; language mostly reflects concepts studied. 1POINT – Marginal. Simple insight or contribution to the topic; only participated in Part 1 of the discussion. I sourced the ideas for the rubric from Rizopoulos, L.A., & McCarthy, P. (2009). Using Online threaded discussions: best practice for the digital learner. Journal of Educational Technology Systems.

It’s rewarding to see my students defending their ‘ideas’ in a second language – and some of the best ‘authentic’ interaction out there! What’s your experience with the on-line discussion world?


February 19, 2013
by leesensei

Independent…Directed…Finding the Balance

As the organizer of a  modern languages program I always look to providing opportunities to expand my program, and the options for students. A few years ago students, who had completed their 4th year of study (the highest course there is) were looking to extend their study. My offering of AP Japanese never fills enough to warrant a class (minimum 20 in my school).

My province offers an ‘independent directed’ studies option and I have used this to craft a post-4th year course. For Japanese IDS I work to allow the ‘independence’ of learning with opportunities to demonstrate competence. Every year I tweak and alter. This year, with 10 students, I have a chance to refine my vision. What is my IDS course?

Self-Paced Yet Calendar Driven – My IDS students have 10 days to complete a unit including  3 ‘in-class’ days every second week. On the first day they have time to play a game, work with flashcards or another pair activity to practice concepts. They also have time to preview and practice the upcoming oral task. Tasks are ‘real life’ based. On the second day they come to record their orals – I set the pairs and they record on their phones. On day three they have a short multiple-choice test and a writing piece to complete .

On-line Organizing via Edmodo – I need a way to ‘meet’ with students and Edmodo is my solution. The messaging ability allows me to provide exclusive support for the students as well as conduct our on-line discussions (one per term). I don’t use Edmodo for my other classes as yet – but find that keeping it ‘exclusive’ for my IDS helps in my personal class managing.

Required Content – as I don’t ‘teach’ this class I needed to provide some area for content and structure. IDS is the last to benefit from my new commitment to authentic resources so I will confess that we currently use a textbook with thematic units/workbook to ensure content mastery. Students have an assigned number of exercises that they must do and self-check. It’s not pretty but at this point it helps them to see ‘grammar’ in context.

Individual Interests– each term in the semester the students are asked to complete a 12-15 hour project on a topic – related to Japan-  that interests them. For each there is a ‘presentational’ and reflective element. Projects are handed in electronically. Some topics are suggested – a public service announcement on honourific speech, marketing a student trip to Japan etc. Others allow the students to teach a lesson to the 4th year class or dive into an area of interstest to them. All are marked on rubrics allowing students to know how they are evaluated.

Making Use of Technology – We make big use of the mobile phone in IDS. Students record their oral tests and send to me (later so data minutes aren’t used up). They can participate in Edmodo discussions as well using their phone. Word lists are available in Quizlet and we use a couple of on-line grammar sites to assist in learning.

Many of my IDS students continue to study Japanese in university – and I am thrilled that the majority, after interviews or tests, enter into 2nd year classes. I dream of 20 students and the promised ‘class’ but until then I will work to refine and modify my IDS course.





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