Language Sensei

Thoughts on The Journey of Teaching Languages

June 14, 2016
by leesensei

“The Courage To Try” – Students Tell What They Learned In Language Class

8d4d7f0ab0b83ace80c036194be2da93My Yr4’s are just 10 days away from the end of school…and as always I am asking for them to reflect on their learning. They are a fantastic bunch of students who have worked their hearts out this semester – despite having the class at 8am. So at the end of their summative travel fair last week I asked them about their experience in class. I didn’t ask them what they learned in/about Japanese. Instead I asked them to look forward and reflect on what skills, if any, they might carry forward into the big world they are now entering. I should note that I did not prep them in any way for this nor go over with them what I wanted to hear from them. Some students just reflected on the immediate oral they had just completed. But it’s the answers of those who really reflected and thought that I find insightful. The prompt was:

“Language class teaches skills for life. One ‘life skill’ that I have developed/improved on during my classes is…….and this skill will be important for me in the future because..”

“To not panic. I’m the kind of person that stresses on being perfect…but this class has taught me how to let go of that…and to relax..because in the future things won’t always go as I plan them to go..”

“The most important are strategies for communication…diversifying how I communicate and being thoughtful of others during conversation is critical…especially in the future when I work in team situations.”

“Communication and understanding (of what is really being said) are key…I want to be a teacher and these skills will be key in dealing with students…”

“Asking for help when I need it and not being afraid to admit that I don’t know something…important in the future so I won’t be afraid to ask for input – and possibly lose my job!”

“Taking risks, approaching people you don’t know and speaking comfortably ….and accepting/coping with errors will be important future communication skills”

“To explain clearly what I mean and help others in understanding – especially important if I become a boss in the future!”

“Listening carefully…”

“That speaking confidently inspires confidence in me and in how others perceive me…I may be nervous but appearing calm will help me get my point across more!”

“Being able to adapt to different situations…you never know what is going to come up!”

“To communicate more freely and in a more relaxed way with people who I don’t know well…”

And my favourite…

“The courage to try….because nothing will happen if we don’t attempt…”

So in the their own’s about courage, risk and communication….





April 2, 2016
by leesensei

Building Student Responsibility For Learning: Pre-to-Post Oral Activity Ideas

DSC05583The ideas in this post deals with oral interpersonal activities in my classes. However I think many of them can be used for presentational and interpretive activities as well.

One of the big things that I have learned, and continue to learn, in my teaching is that, in order for learning to occur, my students need to be as aware of/involved in it as I am. Increasingly I’ve been building in opportunities for them to take on responsibility for their learning and provide feedback for themselves (and me) on the process. I’ve done a variety of posts in the past on parts of these but thought I would put it all together in one post that spans the ‘pre to post’ activity process.

Pre-Activity – Setting Our Expectations – I’ve learned that I can’t just set out ‘what’ we will be doing, but, in building in self-responsibility I also have to address ‘how’ and ‘why’ we will be doing an activity. With that in mind I now employ a range of pre-activity strategies (sometimes I use all of these at once, sometimes just a few) including:

  • Rubric in advance – Wow have I learned how powerful a rubric can be in establishing expectations. But what I have also learned is to use it to see if they both understand the expectations and their impression of how they are meeting them. So now I often ask them to mark the rubric before we do the activity so that I can see how they are expecting it to go.
  • Intention and/or Post Reflection Starters on board- new for me this year is to put either the ‘intention’ of the activity  or the actual post-reflection sentence starters on the board in English (or both!). In reading out the intention it gives an opportunity to remind my students why they are doing the activity. “Today we will discuss our favourite activities with partners. The focus is on communication and understanding – not on finishing quickly.” I’ve also experimented with writing the post-activity ‘reflection starters’ on the board – another way to set/build expectations.
  • Checks/Smile – Again a new one for me this year that expands beyond just having students read the rubric in advance. I am seeing results in using “Checks & a Smile” in the reflective comments of students afterwards.
  • Sharing with partner – We know that if we share a journey of change and growth with someone it helps us to make the change/take a risk. In a quick ‘share a challenge with your partner’ students share, and often learn, that everyone, regardless of perceived ability, has areas that they can still grow in

During Activity – Focus On Communicating – The goal during any activity that’s interpersonal is ‘good communication’. We work a lot in class on this. What does it for students to be good communicators in class? Students know that top ‘marks’ go to those who:

  • Are as good at listening as they are speaking
  • Don’t confuse good communicating with dominating/making speeches
  • Say when they don’t understand & help out when someone doesn’t
  • Asks a variety of appropriate related follow-up questions
  • Know that it isn’t about ‘finishing’ it’s about participating

Post Activity – Reflecting and Evaluating: Yes there is a rubric to fill out. It may be a simple ‘how did that go‘ or a more complex one specifically designed for the activity.  But before they fill it out students know they will also be writing. And they know that I will be reading these reflections and responding to them. Some of my favourite post-activity starters include:

  • That went ….because…
  • I am most proud that….
  • A challenge that I set out for me was to …and I met/didn’t meet it because…
  • My work in class today reflected/did not reflect our year level because…
  • One challenge for me for next time is…because…
  • We should do more/less of this type of activity because…

It’s taken time, and the great support of my #langchat PLN for me to realize that it’s what my students think/know/feel about their learning counts the most.



January 20, 2016
by leesensei

“How Am I Doing? I Know How!” Improving Formative Feedback

YOne of the reasons I am making a big shift from numbers to proficiency/expectation descriptors is to ensure that students don’t wait for me to tell them how they are doing – but rather that they will know and be able to articulate for themselves. With this shift comes more challenges in improving feedback and learning opportunities for students. I am by no means good at this – but, as a believer in ‘small tweaks lead to big changes’ I have been experimenting with additional ways to provide feedback. I think I’ve been really weak on this in the past….so my ‘small tweaks’ this semester included:

Pop Check-In – born out of the frustration of students being able to do things for a quiz but not 10 minutes later, and a desire to see if they are really ‘getting it’, I introduced the concept of the “Pop Check-In”. These are not announced beforehand and focus on a particular skill/structure we may be working on. As my students know – and can repeat back to me – this is a chance to see ‘what is in their heads’ now. It is not ‘for marks’ but rather is for learning and feedback for them on how well they are internalizing a concept. More here….

Rubrics With Feedback – Ah Amy Lenord – where would I be as a teacher without the amazing sharing (and challenging) that you do! I realized after reading a piece by Amy that my rubrics needed to be reinforced with some ‘great job/for next time’ comments. And Amy’s amazing post on this inspired me to make a change to my rubrics too. With attribution, I have added her checklist to my oral interpersonal rubric – fabulous and so easy to use when I am grading students. Extending beyond that I decided that my writing rubric needed it as well. This is my first draft of this and I know it will evolve but I am looking forward to using it in the future!

Completion Required – I am taking in more small pieces of writing this semester. I realized in the past that I left too much to the final summative writing piece. My twist on feedback is not to do the corrections for them but to highlight areas of weakness and ask them to work on them. They get an ‘incomplete’ in my evolving grade-book until that is done and the piece is then marked as ‘complete’. In order to be able to do the corrections I often include hints or reinforcement of the concept via a written comment, a chat with me or pointing them to one of my on-line reviews.

Reflective Responses From Me – I am very keen on collecting reflections from students especially after they self-evaluate an activity. I used to read them but this semester I added what I thought was a missing component which is my comment on that reflection. So now – especially after a summative oral that has been self-assessed (yes – I do those!) I take the time to read and respond to their comments. Then they receive that back with their ‘unit summative’ sheet and I make sure to attach it so that they see the comments that I have made. I notice that they take the time to read and note them.  I also do an ‘end of course’ reflection and take the time to write, or orally respond to each as well. They get this back at the final exam – a nice way to end I think.

Unit Summative Sheet – I usually don’t have students keep a summative writing piece but have always felt that they should retain something at the end of the unit to chart their progress. So this semester I introduced their unit summative sheet (brightly coloured so its easy to find). On it are two rubrics that I have filled out – their writing/oral pieces with checklist feedback (see above) showing how they are doing in meeting expectations. I also attach the pre-oral rubric they fill out – so that they can see how they felt about how they would do going into the oral. I am also looking to incorporate a space on that for them to include a reflection about what worked for them in learning in that unit and a place where they can articulate how they felt about their learning during that course of study (based upon a piece from the TELL project). I saw many students voluntarily take these out as we were preparing for finals to help them prepare.

Oh there’s so much more I think that I can do…but with these small steps I hope I’m moving in the right direction….



March 17, 2015
by leesensei

Reflecting on Reflecting in the MFL Classroom


I didn’t start out with a conscious ‘plan’ to build a reflective classroom. Honestly early in my career my goals were all about ‘grammar-based’ linguistic elements. But somewhere along the way (as my teaching changed) it crept in – and I ‘m glad that it did. Yes my students are learning – but just as important to me now as what the ‘know’ is their ability to articulate, and reflecting, on the process. How it’s going for them? What’s sticking or isn’t? What’s engaging them or not?  How did they feel about what they did in class?

How to build this reflective practice in the classroom? As I fumble my way through I have learned some things that are helping me in this process:

Pre-Activity Expectations: We don’t throw kids into an activity without a establishing a ‘why’ and giving them the tools for what they are going to do. I think it is equally key to set up a reason why they are reflecting before they begin to do what they ask them to do. So often I will give out my activity rubric activity out prior to interacting and ask students to think about what’s coming up. Most times I ask them to ‘choose their challenge’ – what are they going to try to stress /work on during the activity. Sometimes it will be to put a star beside what they think will go well for them.

Share and be Accountable/Support: Students often have the false sense that they are the only one in the room who is struggling or isn’t ‘getting it’. Before we launch into what we will do,  I frequently ask them to them to tell their activity partners what their challenge in the upcoming activity will be. Is it not using English at all? Are you trying to ask more questions not just respond to them?  It is powerful as a learner to hear that others share the same concerns too.  It also helps the student if the partner/group is aware of what someone is trying to do. It makes them accountable for trying to meet the challenge that they have set out. It also allows the partner to support the change. If I know that my partner is trying to ask more questions I may give her/him the time to formulate them – and assist in reaching her/his goal.

Talk to Yourself Post-Activity: Yes I have a rubric for informal interpersonal activities but to me the descriptors (while modelling how I want the activity to be carried out) are not as key as the pre-rubric written response. We do not go straight to the filling in the rubric but always start on the back with a ‘response’. This is in English and is one or two ‘complete the phrase’ type statements like “That went __because…” or “A challenge for me today was ___because…”. Not all students respond in great detail (and sometimes I do ask them to ‘think again’) but the vast majority take the time to seriously craft an answer. These comments are pure gold for me as a teacher and the responses show that they are really considering the process of their learning.

Show Them A Reflective Teacher: Trying to encourage reflective students is all for naught to me if they don’t see it modeled by their teacher. Now when I try something new I like to tell them (often after the case) and debrief it. This is not generally whole class but often done as I walk around the room (when they have finished their own reflection) I ask them if they have any feedback for me – on how it went, what worked, what didn’t. I also talk to them occasionally about the ongoing shifts in my teaching – how I have changed/am changing my teaching practices and why.  One of my students, in an ‘end of class’ feedback time told me that he liked how I was always trying new things, trying to change things up and admitting when it did (or didn’t) go as expected.

When students can reflect on their use of language they see the value in what they do in class and what they are learning from it. When teachers reflect on their practice with their students they share the learning that they are doing as educators and model ‘life-long’ learning in the process. How do you build a reflective environment in your classes?






June 26, 2014
by leesensei

Developing A Reflective Classroom (End of Year Reflection Part 2)

Eating CaterpillarIn my previous post I wrote about the “choice” that I am trying to inject into my classroom. If choice is key – then it seems that I also need to make sure that what I’m doing in class, the choices I am offering etc, are effective. To that end my other stress this year was to develop a more reflective classroom. What were the key things that I found to establishing a culture of ‘reflection’ in my classes?

Consistent Expectations/Feedback – I don’t think that students can actively, or accurately, offer a reflection on how they are feeling about their learning without a solid understanding of what it is they are trying to master. To me that comes down to consistency – and two key areas are in what I expect from them and how I offer feedback.

Expectation – What I Value: I worked this year to try to align my expectations, and how I communicated them, through the use of various rubrics. I began with 3 basic rubrics taken from the DELF program, and began to alter and adjust to suit my classes needs. I removed all of the ‘numbers’ from them – that screams ‘mark’ to me – and instead tried to come up with a descriptor that might mirror my students’ language like “comfortable” or “pretty good”. I began to use an ‘activity rubric’ as well – not all the time – but enough that they might expect it to come. What’s on it is key to me for the type of learner I am trying to develop, as well as ‘how’ I hope they learn (such as  ‘not using English’ ‘working with partner to communicate’).

Expectation – Consistent Use (Reflecting Before You “Rubric”):  Another way for me to get my students thinking about their learning is to not allow them to use rubrics for an activity without ‘reflecting’ first. I wrote about this when I talked about my activity rubric but I use this strategy for almost any time that I use a rubric. The questions/leading statements that I ask them to reflect on may change but the idea that students are to ‘think before they evaluate’ does not.

Expectation – Consistent Feedback: My feedback to my students became more consistent this year as well. This isn’t about how often I offer feedback but the format that it came in – specifically for written work. I decided upon the idea of marking by ‘colour’. As my post explained, this allows students to quickly see where their challenges are, and I found that the corrections that I asked for in the writing also showed up in their oral communication. My challenge for next year is to possibly expand my colour codes to one more colour – focussing on using the correct form of the verb for specific grammatical constructions.

Pre/Mid/End of Term Formal Reflections – This is the first year that I did 3 ‘formal’ reflective exercises with my students. The information that I received and that they shared was invaluable. I’ll never not do this again!

Pre-Term: I started the year with an idea shared originally by Martina Bex.  This year my first ‘homework’ assignment was to read my class FAQ’s and complete a series of questions designed to get them thinking about class, their role as a language learner and what works for them. Several said they had never been asked before what worked for them in class – and as the emails came in I responded with 1 or 2 sentences that touched upon their information. It was a great way to establish both expectations and a relationship at that beginning of term.

Mid-Term: Just before the first report card I asked for a mid-term reflection from students. As I read each I made comments on their sheet – offering support and suggestions before handing it back to them. This was, for me, a student generated ‘report’ and a chance to further dialogue. After reading all of the “I’d like to learn more..” I made sure to speak about what I learned from them – and talk about how I would be incorporating their suggestions into second term.

End of Term: Finally, and just before finals, I asked again – the same form as the mid-term with only a change to the last question – asking them to give 2 pieces of advice to a student taking this course next. They gave great advice that I’m going to use to start my classes with in September.

The final piece that, for me, starts to build a culture of ‘reflection’ in class is mine. I cannot in good conscience ask my students to reflect on their learning journey without doing the same. My participation in the #langchat PLN and this blog are, for me, my way that I do that.MP900314068 The twitter chats force me (in 140 characters) to really see what is important to me as a teacher for any given topic. This blog is a way that I can ask key questions and, in writing a post, answer them first and foremost for myself.  And if you have not yet jumped into #langchat or blogging, I urge you to take that step!



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