Language Sensei

Thoughts on The Journey of Teaching Languages

September 28, 2015
by leesensei

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

Source: Creative Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

Baby steps…big payoff…



February 17, 2014
by leesensei

Developing Conversation Skills: The “Follow Up Question” Game

MP900262685We work hard in my class on developing an ease at conversing. It isn’t natural for many people, including me I’ll admit, so why would we expect it to be so for our students? This semester I have a new crop of Grade 10’s, 30 students who are in my class for the first time. When I asked what it is they want to many of them wrote ‘have a regular conversation in Japanese.” My job is to have them meet that challenge. I’ve written before about extending conversation skills using ‘follow-up questions’ and this group needed a way to jump-start their ability in this area.

So I invented the ‘Follow Up Question’ game….my fancy title for essentially practicing conversations!

What You Need

  • Question Cards- a set of follow-up questions in the Target Language. I input the phrases I want into Quizlet – then print out thefollow up quest ‘large’ flashcards on coloured paper and cut them out . My initial ones are shown on the right.
  • Students – in pairs – initially of your choosing then eventually their own
  • An ’emergency sheet’ (list) with the questions/answers already matched (upside down on the desk)

Initial Round (First Day)

  • These words are not new to them so I have students match the English and TL cards – then mix them up and spend 3-4 minutes quizzing each other.
  • Have the students separate the cards again into two piles – and select the TL pile (put the English aside)
  • Student 1 begins with a simple phrase such as “I’m going shopping”
  • Student 2 pulls a card from the pile such as “When?” and Student 1 thinks of an answer that fits
  • Student 2 then pulls a second card – perhaps “Where at?” and it continues
  • Students run through the ‘stack’ of question cards then switch roles
  • They will run through this with 3 or 4 different partners – experiencing asking/answering a number of times – and be encouraged to change their ‘starting phrase’ a couple of times

Recognizing Appropriate Questions – Sometimes the follow-up question a student draws doesn’t work. For example if you are shopping at the mall then “Where to?” isn’t appropriate. Students know that if a question is not usable they are to tell their partner that. It sharpens skills and awareness around the questions – and to be honest they love it when they say “No – that one won’t work!” in the target language.

Assisting in Comprehension – Not every student will remember all of the questions initially. So we also practice helping each other understand. If the question is asked and it isn’t understood then the student asking knows that, if they understand it, they are to try to assist by giving a sample answer. For example if their partner doesn’t understand/know how to answer “Who with?” they can use “For example ‘with a friend’ ‘by yourself'” to help their partner clue in. If the both students don’t understand they can peek at the emergency sheet.

Later Round (Second Day) – I employ the same strategy, and start with a quick warmup with the cards. Then they are paired with new partners, but now use the pile of cards in English. Again we rotate through 3 or 4 partners. Students are encouraged to change up their ‘starting phrase’ at least once during the time of the activity.

Later On (Third Day etc) – Again we start with a partner and a quick warmup. Then the cards are put away (an emergency sheet is on the desk if needed). We rotate through 2 or 3 partners, switching up the starting phrase. At the end of the time students have an opportunity to record the questions on their conversation phrase sheet that they keep in their binder.

Finally –  No cards are provided at all (the questions are on a sheet the student knows how to access). Instead of the student providing the initial phrase students may start the class with a question on the screen (from me) like “Ask your partner what they are doing after school? Where? When? Why…etc!” And they are off – with great questions that allow them to dig for details. As the semester progresses we find new questions to add to our ‘follow-up’ list.

Taking the time to help them develop their questioning skills pays off when the room is alive with conversation. My job at that point is to get out the way and let them talk!





August 7, 2013
by leesensei

What If Your Bulletin Board Could Speak? QR Codes in the Classroom….

Language Sensei is on summer break until I return to school September 3rd. Just as I spend time rethinking my teaching and learning anew, Language Sensei will be revisiting past posts concentrating on professional change and ‘easy to implement tech’.
We are, as teachers, always looking for a unique way to either engage a student, or facilitate their learning. Linking to a piece of text, a website or even an audio clip, one of my most useful tools is becoming the Quick Response (QR) code.  Easily scanned by any smart phone, iPod Touch or tablet with a free reading app, these codes provide a new ‘tool’ in getting information to students but also empowering them to seek information themselves.
What if your bulletin boards could speak? Imagine a group of students armed with a device in a vocabulary lesson treasure hunt. Pictures for words or phrases with a code below that provides audio information. No dictionary, just learning by experiencing.  You can even practice verb conjugations – with a picture of people doing a particular action and a code that correct verb form – in short audio clip or as a text-based message.
What if you could put video or an actual website on your worksheet? Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words – or at least not visiting the dictionary.  I typically hand out my unit book on the day of the previous unit’s exam. For my Japanese 12 class a unit on travel includes the code for the National Tour Organization right on the schedule – students had already visited the site, and were primed for the work prior to my even beginning the section.
What if your student’s work could be seen and heard? Are your students encouraged to introducing themselves in the target language? Magnify the impact by placing a code below a student’s picture to allow classmates learn more about each other. By experimenting with longer audio clips students could narrate a story about their daily routine. Another possibility is to use the code only – as a ‘mystery student of the week’ – students listening or hearing about someone and guessing who it is.
What if you found a way to help kids access more information on a topic?  Learning new verbs in class and need a quick review – then scan the code to be taken to a video (selected by you the teacher) that reviews the content. One student finally accessed assistance because “I didn’t need to type in that long url”. In my class each unit handout includes codes that take students directly to ome of my YouTube video reviews and the Quizlet vocabulary cards.
I know that all students do not have access to this technology. For my classes any ‘QR’ use is done in groups and the key is not reading the code – but what happens with the information it provides. All codes are accompanied by a corresponding ‘shortened’ link for the same information – easily accessed on one of our school library computers. How might you use them in your class?
Want to know more? Visit the link here for my ‘how-to’ presentation for codes/shortened links.

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.





May 29, 2012
by leesensei

Thoughts on Maintaining a Successful Language Program…

*First a disclaimer. I teach in Canada, an officially bilingual country with an institutionalized requirement of more than 1 language for success in many areas of work. This is also reflected in our 4 year universities that require language to the Gr 11 level (2-3 semesters) for direct entrance. 

There has been a lot of consternation in the language teaching community in BC – especially for teachers of languages currently not as ‘in vogue’ as they were. My Japanese program continues to hold its numbers and recently I was asked to reflect on why that might be.  I have thought a lot about that and what I do…here’s a few of those thoughts…

Grade 8 Walkabout Presentation: We, as a department, address incoming Grade 8’s prior to coming to the school. We emphasize that a language to the Gr. 11 level is needed for direct university entrance .  We stress that universities are looking for students with ‘soft skills’ like language that show their ability to communicate and interact with others. Our Spanish teacher also stands up and states that Spanish is not the easiest language and she doesn’t want kids in her class who are only there because they think that! We say over and over to take the language that they are interested in – we don’t care which one – just take one.

Communicative Purposeful Focus: In my Japanese classes we are moving to course grading with 50% on oral/listening work. I have shifted almost all of our orals at the Grade 11 and 12 level to be peer to peer ones that focus on a final unit task. We don’t do skits or plays. This means that students must talk to each other to achieve their goal. In Grade 12 we do a murder mystery, debate, taste tests, a miracle product sell, a travel fair and a self-produced drama episode. In Grade 11 we do a school fair, a directions unit, job search skills etc. All interaction in the oral is in Japanese, all written notes are in English. After the oral we tend to use the information gathered in the written unit tests.   Classes are fast paced (we have 65 min classes) and students do a lot of work with their partners. They do a lot of guessing, communication gaps etc.  They do a lot of self-evaluation – I don’t do a lot of critical one on one orals with me esp. in the upper grades. As I have written about before, our text stories also involve recap activities – ones in which students either discuss or prepare a product based on their reading.

Focus on Study Skills/Out of Class support: I work a lot with the students on how to study for a language. I feel that I have to retain my students once I get them. They know that they are to study for the type of test that they are having and extra practice for listening, reading or writing will be posted on my site. A video review of key chapter points is on my YouTube channel for each chapter/unit. Vocabulary for each unit is on Students know where and how to access this and rely on it to assist them out of class.

Technology: I am trying to incorporate more technology in my teaching but I am also giving more options to kids on how to do projects. Curiously I am usually the one to introduce a new tool to them! For any assignment they also have a variety of ways to deliver material and I think that keeps them interested.

Minimual “Direct Culture” focus: I don’t believe a lot in ‘teaching culture’ so a lot of what they learn is indirectly through the language but I do highlight one topic in each grade. I don’t show many movies – mostly they can get those on their own. We do have an area of for each grade. In Gr. 10 it is the Samurai, in Grade 11 it involves a unit on Sumo & one on creating Haiku and in Grade 12 we watch an 11-part  high school drama (subtitled). That’s it.

It takes work to ‘sell’ your program and sometimes its downright exhausting but, for me, the reward continues to be worth it!

May 1, 2012
by leesensei

Web 2.0 – My ‘Easy’ Way into EdTech….

While writing a request to my district for enhanced network access  for my account (ultimately denied!) I had a chance to reflect on my current use of technology in class. Due to a lack of funding for ‘hardware’ , my technology integration has been primarily of a Web 2.0 nature.  It reminds me that it is relatively easy to begin to incorporate new tools into teaching – even if your hardware setup is not ideal. So, as a teacher of “Japanese as a foreign language” in a public high school, where am I now?

  1. Edmodo for online secure class discussions with my  students
  2.  Twitter (2 accounts) one  for class discussion & one for my PLN
  3.  Edublogs – for my professional “Language Sensei” blog
  4.   Google docs for student forms/ work etc
  5.  iWeb for website – being shifted to another venue….(but I digress)
  6. YouTube for my class video channel – used for review/flip class work search
  7.  Quizlet for all course vocabulary
  8. Jing/Audacity for screencasts for lessons

This didn’t happen overnight but in many instances once the ‘set up’ is done all that is required is minimal updating. As usual, I am always scouting for new tools and ideas on Twitter.

By the way…any thoughts on what to replace iWeb with?


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