Language Sensei

Thoughts on The Journey of Teaching Languages

January 2, 2015
by leesensei

My 2015 #OneWord – “Applicable”

MP900398869 Last year I focused on the word “Opportunity” and the ways in which I could provide students the opportunity to interact with authentic materials and deliver their work in Japanese. Laura Sexton has already provided a great post on  the benefits of “Less”  – one I will be keeping in mind in 2015.

And for me? I tossed around a few ideas. At first it was ‘Recycle’ – in allowing students to take what they know and re-use it in new challenges and situations. Not quite what I wanted though. Then I moved on to “Stretchy” – that being the ‘stretch’ past what students are comfortable doing (and not the ‘stretchy pants after over-indulging in holiday eating’ meaning). Nope. But I think I’ve found it now…and that word is “applicable”. Not terribly flashy but really relevant. Applicable is defined by Merriam-Webster as “capable of or suitable for being applied; appropriate” and for me this is perfect. So this year I will strive even more for the “applicable” – in the topics students will explore, the words that they will use to explore them, the structures that they need to express themselves and even in learning what they already can do.

Applicable topics – A 5 week teachers strike and a vastly shortened semester have really helped me to hone in on what is great, and what isn’t, in my current course topics. When I was faced with reducing the units that I taught in Grade 11 it was really easy to chuck one – the one that really was more of an ‘exercise’ than a learning opportunity. Interestingly when I surveyed my peer tutors in the course about what was the least relevant unit for them – it’s the one that they picked as well. This also means that I will work to take out the weaker units and add applicable ones in courses as my time (and the opportunity) allows. This is really relevant for me as I return to teaching a ‘cram course’ (2 semesters in 1 essentially) this spring. Keeping what we explore applicable to what they need will be key….

Applicable vocabulary – Ah…that Amy Lenord. What she did to my nice stable world of ‘lists’ when she set out to challenge us to let go of those lists. It made me really think about what students were wanting to say and not what I, or the book!, thought they should.  I do still have a ‘list’ for each unit – but its a “base list” only.  This year I will root out the words from the ‘base list’ that aren’t working and add in the ones that they really want  – as they ask for them. I will also continue to work on my vocabulary non-tests (from the inspiring Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell) keep a record of this by looking, at the end of my course – at what students put in their “Stuff We Want to Know” vocabulary section in their unit handout.

Applicable structures – Carol Gaab made this so clear to me at #ACTFL14 – shelter the vocabulary and not the grammar.  Or as I tried to explain to a colleague “Who cares if they don’t know how to ‘construct’ it – give it to them to use it (they’ll learn how later)!”. So I will continue to add the structures that students need to do what they want to do. I’m not trying to add to what they know – and place more of a burden on them. I’ve found that students will take in, and retain, what is meaningful to them  – when they are ready to have it. And if they want to know the ‘how’ of what they’re asking for a quick “pop-up” 5 minute grammar lesson helps them to see (I’ve found that those who don’t want the ‘how’ don’t tend to take it in at that time – they’ll get it when they’re ready to use it).

Applicable in Other Situations –  This is one area that I want to continue to work on with my students. The awareness, when they encounter a something new of what they already have that is applicable in this new situation.  In other words what tools, in their current language toolbox, can they already use? I want students to have this “I already know…” mentality and a real awareness of their toolbox. We will continue to build their “awareness” of their knowledge and  I’ve even started an experiment around this in my written summative evaluations (more on this later).

And finally I hope to continue to apply the great lessons I learn every day from the #langchat community. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t find something “applicable” to my classroom and my teaching journey. What a joy to work with such great colleagues.

Happy 2105!


April 15, 2014
by leesensei

Changing Seating/Changing Teaching – What My Classroom “Set Up” Says…

Teaching ClassI looked out at my room the other day – the same room I started to teach in when it was a new school in in 1997. The blackboard is now a whiteboard, the screen is there for my computer…and wow – is that the same old TV in the corner for video announcements? (Yes!) But even more interesting for me is what has really changed. There is a big difference in ‘how’ my students use the room – how they sit, what they do, and where the focus on learning is. It took me a minute to connect the change in my room setup and my changing educational practice.The journey mirrors the evolution of my teaching…

Single Rows – Focus: Teacher at the front of the room:  Those first few years, with their long nights of prepping material and me trying to wrap my head around what I was ‘teaching’. Note the word ‘teaching’. With my students in rows, facing the front, it was clearly a ‘teacher as the driving force’ kind of space. And in those early years, as I worked to discover who I was as a teacher, and even what kind of things I wanted my students to explore it probably needed to be this way. The first few years can be chaotic, challenging and oh so much fun…and clearly, if you looked at my desk arrangement, I was the one ‘in charge’.

Pairs – in a “U” shape – Focus: Teacher at the  front of the room/another student: Gradually my room saw a change – from single rows to pairs – and, daringly, not even in rows. This coincided with my degree of comfort in the what and how that I was teaching. Notice again though that the focus was on me and the front of the room. Yes, I thought it had to be as that is where the screen for the overhead – replaced by computer/LCD is located. My degree of comfort in ‘letting them go and interact’ was growing – and I injected lots of partner/interactive time into the class. But clearly the setup still said ” ‘Focus on the teacher – and then shift to practicing with your partner’ (but remember who is in charge! )

“Tables” 4 desks- all facing each other – Focus: Fellow Students/Teacher when needed: And this year – another change for me – and another ‘leap’ in my style of teaching. I had tried the group of 4 in the past – but hadn’t made the permanent shift. But the changes in my teaching, and a visit to Catherine Ousselin (@catherineKU72) and her ‘table setup’ did it for me. If I was going to let my students, and a communicative/interactive focus be a priority, I needed to put my ‘desks where my teaching philosophy is’. So now they sit – pods of 4 desks – a partner to talk to beside them – and pair across the table for broader consultation/interaction. It’s a challenge at times – but remarkably easy to pull them all together for the ‘coaching’ moments at the screen/board. I don’t even think of it as the ‘front’ of the room any more – the focus is now on the students – and my teaching, okay my language coaching – is improving because of it.

I hope that my room now says to my students “the focus here is on you and using your language skills to communicate.” What does your setup say about what you value in your class?




March 24, 2014
by leesensei

A Language Facilitator, Not a “Teacher” (or Learning to Give Up Control)

SeedlingI used to tell people that I was a language teacher. But I no longer think of myself that way. My shift started in earnest this year when I was challenged, via the #langchat PLN, to let go of my vocabulary list. Let go of the list? It’s safe to say that while I still have a set of vocabulary to use as a basis for common interaction, I have opened up my mind to the idea that it is now just a “start” for students. It is, however, in no way what will be key for each student, and what they will know, at the end of the unit. That I now know is up to what they, as individuals, need.

What it also means is opening up to the idea that students should have what they need now — to use now. You may know what I’m talking about if you get the following scenario. Student: “How do I say___?”. Teacher thinks – “ah, that uses the (fill in grammatical concept) but I usually don’t cover that until grade X.” and says “well you could say it like this __(using either incomplete or more basic language)”. Sound familiar? I’ll admit it does for me. Or it did.

When I loosened up on the”list” I also had to loosen up on the idea that there was an order to “teach” the language. Rather the idea of leaving the list is, for me, also making the realization that we don’t “teach” a language, but rather that we “facilitate the use of” one. Yes we may cover something more in depth later on but now I also give the information, gasp, when it’s needed by the student not when I deem it appropriate. Big leap of faith needed on my part. I had to trust that a student is asking for it because they want/need to use it now (not next semester). Believe that the world won’t end because I hadn’t fully ‘taught’ the concept yet. Be surprised when they actually use what you gave, and correctly, in interacting.

A perfect example for me is my Yr2 class. 30 enthusiastic students keen to interact. Believe it or not but it takes a whole second form of the verb in Japanese to say “I like to do something.” Traditionally then students don’t learn to express this until Yr3. But my grade 10s were asking for it now, and suddenly I thought it weird that I would not provide it. So I gave them the words they needed, in the form they needed. No great big explanations, no “be careful not to’s”, just gave it. And what happened? Shockingly they used it appropriately, in their spoken interaction and written work. If a classmate didn’t understand they used their communication skills to get the meaning across. Yes, we will revisit the concept in Yr3 but then it will be more of a case of “ah, that’s why we say it like that.” and less of a case of “why are we learning this?”

I want to reiterate that I still have a “list”. But now it is a starting point for learning and not the only words a student is confined to. More importantly my students have a teacher who now is more focused on my students using the language -all of language when and how they need it – rather than learning it. More to come!

March 19, 2014
by leesensei

An Exercise for Building Circumlocution Skills -The Group Reading Recap

soothing ripplesI’ve always approached “another way to say the same thing/get your meaning across” as an essential skill for the vocabulary-limited second language learner. But how to start – how to have kids begin to think of other ways to express an idea without the immediate lunge for the dictionary?

One way for me is the “Group Reading Recap”. In my classes we  use this as we do specific readings and some sort of summary/discussion based upon it. Students work their way through a reading – first as a group and then again as pairs. During the pair time I ask them to do “Two and Talk” – meaning that they are to each read a sentence then stop and talk about what they have read – and work out the meaning together. After that it is my custom – with the Yr1 and Yr2 groups – to do what I call a whole class ‘reading re-cap’. What it is  – I realize – is my first collective exercise in circumlocution skills. Here’s how it works for me:

The setup:

7-10 comprehension questions about what they have read – dialogue, short story piece, chapter of a book, song etc
In order to facilitate talking about an answer, and not just reading it, they are asked to provide answers to the questions in ‘key word’ or ‘point’ form (I will run a quick eye over the page to see if there are sentences).
A goal of  6 oral responses over the course of the exercise
They know that they have to have more than the direct answer available to get a contribution point and I ‘ll take anything that ‘works’ to indicate an answer. So if the answer to “Where is Ben from?” is “Australia” – they work on other ways to communicate that – “a hot country” “a country near New Zealand” “a country with lots of kangaroos” “a country that loves to eat vegemite” etc.  Another might be “How does he get to school?” and for “on foot” it may extend to “he walks” “he walks quickly” or even “He doesn’t go by car”.

The recap day:

– Time to prepare
– students get initial time to go over what they have with their partner – it’s a chance to check for errors or alter what they have in a non-public and supportive way
– Remind them of the “rules” & ideas to rework an answer someone just gave
-prior to beginning I remind students that I want them to get their full 6 points – so I am looking for answers from everyone possible
– this isn’t a competition – it’s a time to encourage participation so I remind them that I will not always take the hand that goes up first but I promise to take all possible answers before I move on to the next question
-we also review how to rework an answer adding in other adjectives/adverbs to make it “original”
– Ask the first questions & correct as needed
-ask the first question and up go the hands. In order to encourage them I often call on students who I know are less reluctant to participate when I see their hand up before those that love to give answers. As they give an answer I note it down on a class list
-if an answer comes in a not totally correct way – I provide it and ask the student to repeat it
– stay with one question until all hands are down…before moving on to the next
-Watch for those who are slower to participate
-as we near the end I also start looking for kids who have less than their 6 answers and encourage them – a silent look/or ‘1 more!’ – to ensure that they get full marks.

Results that I see/hear:

 – students become more aware that not having the ‘right’ word is not a block to communicating
– they are more willing to try to explain than just whip out the dictionary
– they tend to use these skills naturally when a conversation partner does not understand them
– their writing shows evidence of the work – with more descriptive and detailed expression

The Reading Recap exercise is just one way that students practice circumlocution. It directly prompts them to think of other ways to communicate meaning and gives them skills to use when a roadblock occurs.  As students leave Yr2 and enter Yr3 I move them away from always doing the ‘group’ reading recap and into doing something similar in their conversation circles.  If you have any questions about the exercise – just let me know. It’s a great start in building their skills in ‘another way to say…’





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.








March 13, 2014
by leesensei

It’s Not Where You’re At – It’s Where You’re Headed

MP900438811It was a great #langchat tonight. A really lively talk about advocating for the communicative approach in your teaching area. Teachers were great in sharing common objections, ways to lead and why they believe so passionately in how they teach. Sometimes the ideas, the teacher leaders, the things we’re not doing (and everyone else seems to be) can be overwhelming.

I remember when I first started teaching – almost 20 years ago – and a comment made to an administrator. “If I could just get this textbook program…I’d be set.” Wow – it kind of goes along with one of my tweets tonight – “I thought if I got good binders all organized by unit…I’d be done.”. It’s how I used to look at language teaching. It’s how many still do. I was fine in my classroom – it was going great – but then..something happened.

I joined Twitter, found the #langchat PLN – and holy cow – that ruined it for me. Well, not ‘ruined’ like disaster but ‘ruined’ as in “Nope – having a binder for Gr 11 Japanese full of worksheets and lesson plans so that you never have to revisit it again  and you’re finished – not going to be like that” kind of ruined. Suddenly I was the one not satisfied with how my program was running and, more importantly, how and what my students were learning. To me it seemed like there needed to be a different way – a way beyond a textbook and workbook. But how…

At times the #langchat PLN is intimidating and I think “Whoa – these people are so ahead of where I am I’ll never get there.” Sarah Bolaños (@mrsbolanos) really said it well tonight:I love/hate the fact that I’ve been teaching 10 years and it sometimes still feels like my 1st #langchat so many new ideas!” It speaks to that sinking feeling that it isn’t ‘done’, our tinkering, revamping and just plain throwing out what doesn’t work will never be done.  And that can be as exhilarating as it is exhausting at times.

So if you are feeling like that…as if the place you are now is so not where everyone else contributing to #langchat is I say – wrong! #langchat is teachers – from every area of the continent (and beyond), in every kind of classroom and situation, each facing their own struggles, challenges and circumstances. Good teaching is like travelling down a road…we’re all on it and all at different places. No one person is ever at the end and I, for one, am grateful to those just ahead of me – they shine the light, blaze the trail and motion me to keep going. #langchat is what it is because we all, all contributors, lurkers, posters and leaders, play a role in this amazingly organic and rich PLN. Keep on…and know that there are as many ahead lighting the way as walking in step with where you are right now!


March 10, 2014
by leesensei
1 Comment

“Today I took a risk and….” Asking for Student Self Reflection

b  We often tell students what we value in the classroom but how do we know the message is getting through? How do they interpret what I am trying to get them to be: risk-takers, supportive classmates, inquisitive learners? I never know unless I ask.

It is my custom to use various rubrics after an oral activity. This can be for a short interaction or a longer conversation circle. In any case I like to get them to think before they fill in the rubric and self-evaluate. I think it leads to more honest and meaningful choices once they get to the rubric itself. The thinking, for me, means that they are asked leading questions. Typically I put two ‘starters’ on the board and they are asked to respond to at least one.

This week my Yr 3 and Yr 4’s both completed their 30-40min conversation circle activities and I wanted to find out if they were stretching, risking in their interaction or just happy to stay in that comfortable place. So on the board I wrote “Today I took a risk and….” and “I didn’t use English and here’s how I did it…” as their pre-rubric response options. Over 75% of students responded to the risk statement and their replies, some of which are below, show me that they are ‘getting it’.

Today I took a risk and…

-tried to use follow up questions so the conversation could go on more easily

-talked about something we didn’t necessarily have all the vocabulary for and it was an interesting conversation

-didn’t resort to English when someone didn’t understand – I used gestures and synonyms (it worked!)

-asked questions that I hadn’t written down in advance

-just used what I knew – I didn’t rely on any notes

-tried to create sentences with more details than usual in them

-asked my table – in Japanese – to explain something when I didn’t know

-asked more questions than I usually do

Their answers show me that my message  – to be a risk-taker in using the language – is paying off. If it didn’t – then I know that I have work to do to get them to be willing to step out of their comfort zone. My favorite response?

“Today I took a risk and tried to include my own personal ‘sass’ in my speaking!”

 Yes –  I’ll take that!


March 6, 2014
by leesensei

A Few Thoughts on “Station Management”

MP900387586Call them “Stations”, “Roundabouts” or “Carousels” – they are a hot topic with the #langchat crew. A recent #langchat devoted to the ideas of the ‘station’ led to all sorts of ideas for use and management (summary here). I have been privileged to visit with Catherine Ousselin (@CatherineKU72 ) – the only member of my PLN I’ve actually met – to see her classes work in their stations. There are some great posts out there currently – like this awesome one from Candida Gould  (@candidagould) and a promised one from Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell’s Musicuentos blog (@secottrell).

Having now used stations a few times – I’ve been thinking about how to actually set-up/use them – things that make it easier to actually get a ‘station class’ running (and ultimately use the idea again). These are some of my considerations:


Table Number Cards – I’ve made up some ‘numbered’ cards – folded card-stock – that I keep to quickly number tables for station setup. They are easy to grab and set out – and on clipped together/pinned on my bulletin board for quick access.

Station Instructions – Mine are on plain sheets of  paper and afterwards all stored together in a large envelope. The paper tells the students what is to be done in point form – so hopefully they don’t need me there to ‘start them off’

Notes for me – When you do stations you are typically pulling a number of resources – so I have a written sheet in each envelope for what supplies/resources are needed for that station day. It’s a handy checklist when I have 5 minutes to change classes.

Changing Stations:

All Together – In One Direction – With a big class the motion to change stations may create more chaos than needed. If I have my students change ‘en masse’ then we rotate in a clockwise fashion.

Go Where You Want To – I have typically been doing this at the end of a station session – inviting students to return to a station that they feel they need more work on. In future I can see a ‘free movement’ with a requirement that you visit all the stations at least once during the time

Station Moves to Them – In my class of  30 sometimes it’s easier to move the station to the students. In that case everything is grouped together and numbered (eg – hand over package 1 to the next table). Natalia Delaat (@natadel76) says she likes to use this format.

Number/Length of Time:

Multiple stations/Multiple repetitions – I like to hit several skills at one time – so I find that having only 3 stations – with a couple repeated (if your class is large enough) works best for me. Typically students in my class are at tables of 4 so they can work together with a partner if it is called for.

Start Short & Let Them Expand It – I like 7 minutes and with multiple stations (that repeat) that means about 20 minutes per skill in a 65 minute block. Sometimes I have started with only 5 minutes and let them ask me for longer time (reverse psychology!)

The ‘station’ train has clearly left the station for the #langchat/#mfltwitterati group! All Aboard!


March 3, 2014
by leesensei

“How did that go?” An Oral Activity Feedback Rubric

Students Doing HomeworkI’ve always asked students to work in pairs, or small groups in class. But only lately have I started to ask for their feedback as to how it went. I’ve worked for a while on a quick feedback rubric – one that builds an expectation not only of what students should be doing when they are working in small groups – but also how they are to be working together.

The key for me in using it is the following:

Students Know What’s On the Rubric: They know that what is on the rubric – taking risks, not using English, working together, equals in an activity – are things that I value in my classroom. We have taken lots of time to practice how to support someone who doesn’t understand and, equally key, how to ask for assistance from a peer in understanding.

They Reflect Before They Select: They know that they will fill out the sheet after they have answered a reflective question (posed by me) in writing on the back. It can be anything from “During this I was most proud that I…”, “One thing that still is a stretch for me is..” or even, “I didn’t use English – here’s how I managed to do that…”. Once they turn to the actual rubric, students know that they are to select the phrases that match how they felt/what happened during the activity.

They Know It Will Be Used (Maybe Just Not When): They know that this feedback rubric can be used at ‘any time’ – and after any activity in which they worked with their classmates. They may know when they start the activity, or not know, that it will be used. It’s one way I build an awareness of what is key. If they know in advance they are often asked to ‘choose their focus’ prior to the activity and if what they want to work on is not there – they can add it.

It’s Always Ready – I keep a stack of these in a basket at my main teaching desk. Sometimes the decision to use is set well in advance but other times I choose to use it just because it feels like a good time to use it. In either case a supply is always there for me to use.


I know that the contents – and the descriptors – are a work in progress. The rubric’s value is in the information that it provides to the students as they think/reflect on their learning. It’s also a chance for me to see ‘how it went’ and what to alter or support as they continue to work in the TL.




February 25, 2014
by leesensei

Continuing the “Vocabulary” Journey – A Quick Update

To educateI wrote recently about my ‘journey’ with going beyond the vocabulary list and the challenge thrown out by Amy Lenord (@alenord) and others to go beyond a confined set of words in a unit. My post spoke about the ‘shifts’ that needed to happen in my mind, and my classes, to allow the vocabulary freedom that I feel students need.

Today was a day in my Yr2 class when it all came together for me. There is a peculiarity in dealing with the “I like to do (something)” phrase in Japanese. It involves an alternative form of verbs that my students don’t know. In fact they don’t see it typically until their 3rd semester/year of the language. But today they were speaking in a situation that really demanded it. I heard the incorrect phrase and suddenly I stopped the class.

“I think we need to know how to say we like ‘doing’ things!” I began “What do you need to know how to say?”. We added the phrases on the board that they needed. I even extended it so that they were giving opinions on doing those activities – which, coincidentally, is exactly what my Yr3’s were going to be doing the next period. My Yr2 students were reminded that this was a “level up” addition which means that they won’t be tested on it, but are free to use it. Most went on to include it in their ‘Extra things I want to know how to say’ section of their unit handout.

It felt great to give myself permission to let them loose with the most appropriate language for them. I threw out the worry that they didn’t know how to construct/use the altered form of the verb and trusted that all these students wanted was to be able to use it.

What hit home for me today?

  • Give them what they need now – don’t worry about the ‘how will they know how to make it’ or the ‘what if they don’t fully know how to use it’ – they’re using the language appropriately NOW
  • Let them choose to include the new vocabulary without the pressure that they have to. It’s about choice. Those struggling to master the basics may not be using the “level up” additions – but they’ve had a preview of where they are going.
  • Relax – they just want to communicate – help them do that

My journey down the “non-restricted vocabulary” road is now, I think, past the point of no return and I ‘m looking forward to where it will take my classes! Thanks for the push Amy! (and if you’re interested check out her awesome blog)


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