Language Sensei

A Language Teacher's Journey

March 6, 2020
by leesensei

“Just 1 More Thing…” A Quick Peer Editing Activity…

“Just 1 more thing…” – it was a favourite line of Columbo’s (and if you remember him you are my contemporary) and even Steve Jobs (who can forget his ‘one more thing’ iPhone?). And for me it’s also a ‘tagline’ for a peer editing activity. There are times when I want in-depth discussion of a piece between students. However when the piece isn’t long enough (or I don’t want to do the full feedforward activity) a quick look for  quick level up is needed. So enter…”Just 1 More Thing…”  Here’s how I use it.

Before the activity:

  • Students have created a piece of work – sentences, a paragraph, some ‘chunk’ of writing that utilizes unit structures. In my case it was Japanese 11 and students were asked to create 8 sentences using a particular structure and then work in several structures somewhere over the 8 sentences (eg. a reason, an ‘although’, a habitual action, an opinion etc.)

Using the Activity:

  • I announce the idea of ‘just one more thing…’ and ask them to consider if they were asked to add just one more thing to what they have written
  • As a group they generate ideas for what that one more thing might be. I have whiteboard tables in my class and students worked together to come up with their list (on the table). Students in today’s class came up with various ideas including: intensifiers, ~ly words, frequencies, want to’s etc. As they brainstormed, I walked around and then would ask students to put one of their ideas up on the board. After a few minutes we had about 7 suggestions on the board.
  • Students are then told that they are going to meet up with their first partner. They will exchange pieces and have 2 minutes (you can adjust but this timing worked for us) to silently read the piece and think of a ‘just 1 more thing’ suggestion. They could not talk with their partner until the 2 minutes were done.
  • After the 2 minutes they have about 1 1/2 minutes to give their suggestions and receive information from their partner.
  • When that time is up it is on to the next. For today’s class my students completed 3 rounds. After the rounds they had time to alter, adjust, edit their piece before handing it in..

Why I Like This…

  • Students have concentrated silent time to read. They are thinking about ‘level ups’ they might suggest. They are also seeing ideas for their own piece.
  • The timing is great because it forces them to concentrate and really think. The shortened ‘suggestion’ time also ensures that a student is not overwhelmed by those partners who think it’s their job to totally edit the piece.
  • It’s relatively quick (15-20 minutes for me start to end of editing) and can be adapted for any level

Why They Like This…

  • Students are more aware of the little things that they can do to level up their piece
  • They get a quick suggestion or two to add to their piece.
  • They know that their piece is understandable (and if parts aren’t then more than 1 partner has pointed out the problem part)
  • They get the satisfaction of being able to offer a suggestion – no matter their level
  • They get to see what others have done – and maybe ‘steal’ an idea or two to add

And Just 1 More Thing…

Again – it’s another snappy name for a pretty routine activity…and somehow it makes it more engaging…!




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March 5, 2020
by leesensei

Adapting To Support….Adapting For Growth….

My educational jurisdiction is adamant about universal adaptations –  the idea that not only students with IEP’s but any, repeat that with more emphasis ANY student, can access these to show their knowledge.  Rebecca Blouwolff outlines the goals of “all student success” in her article in February’s ACTFL “Language Educator” (check it out!). I started on this journey a few years ago – when I was lucky enough to have a fantastic student with an IEP. She taught be so much  – including the idea that an IEP is something that outlines strengths and not areas of weakness. I included what I learned  in my post “Thank You For Having An IEP.”  I’ve continue to learn more about adapting to support and felt the need to expand on the post…and so ….mode by mode…my small steps in offering adaptations for success..IEP or not…

Interpersonal Orals….My interpersonal orals take generally take 2 classes and involve multiple speaking partners…so to support success students have…

  • Notes – If they need notes to allow them to participate…I let them. No they won’t be fully meeting but they will be confident enough to participate and minimally meet expectations. Even holding a paper with notes is sometimes effective. In my Japanese 11 class a student (with an IEP) used the class ‘resource book’ to participate. The smile on her face at the end when she said “I didn’t need them as much on day 2!” said it all.
  • Multiple opportunities to speak –  It’s challenging in one aspect but supportive in another. What is supportive is the idea of ‘do overs’. It can be precarious when a student is dependent on only one partner. With multiple people,  students will work better with some than others.  All partners offer small bits of language that the student sometimes borrows. So rather than ‘one and done’ I’ve found the opportunity to repeat (and expand) leads to more success
  • An “Understanding” Rubric – All students fear not understanding…and making a mistake. I’ve worked to take that fear out by honouring good communication in the rubric. Students know they can’t fully meet unless they tell their partner that they don’t understand something…and help out if asked. Do they try to self-correct? That’s valued too. It’s not an adaptation per se but it’s a support…and removes the ‘must say it perfectly without hesitation the first time’ fear…

Interpretive Tasks…

  • Reading – Audio – that’s one of my adaptations. Any student who needs it can listen to a recording of the text that they have been asked to read. Admittedly it’s me reading it (recorded on my phone) but its available if needed. I have several students who have found this to help them in reading…Students do the task with their class then come in on their off block  (or at lunch) to listen again (I load the audio onto a page on my blog – they listen – then I take the page down…). Another support is to highlight the general area that an answer is in (and the question that it refers to). Students still must use their understanding to complete but they are more focused on finding the answer.
  • Listening – Like the reading – supporting listening is all about opportunity… they can listen again. (and again). Sometimes I’ve given them a ‘timing’ range. (The answer is between the 35 and 50 second mark).

Presentional Writing…

  • Again it was the resource teachers in my school who helped me to put together ‘organizers’ for writing…I’ve used a fill in the blank/add a sentence strategy for some tasks. For others it’s been a target structure/add a reason/add a detail’ sheet. The full post on this “Scaffolding UP: Learning To Support The “Less Confident” Writer” details both approaches.

As I explore adaptations I am grateful for the insight and support of my students – and the fabulous resource teachers who have much to teach me. Thanks especially to colleagues Liz Bell and Connie Santos who share their ideas, and offer their input as I work to help kids to show what they know…


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February 9, 2020
by leesensei

A “Feedback For Learning” Dialogue – Student Self-Corrections

To correct or not to correct? It’s an ongoing discussion among my colleagues both in school and on line. Is it of any use? Do students learn anything from us doing it? What to do?

In keeping with my attempts to provide more feedback – and ‘dialogue’ with students about their work – I abandoned the ‘teacher correct’ model a couple of years ago. I also looked to this move to help strengthen student accountability for their own work (and their role in their learning).

In my class it goes like this – students generate sentences or chunks depending upon our focus. They hand in (or can submit online). If there are no issues they get the Shiba Inu ‘okay’ stamp. (if you are unfamiliar …this a Japanese breed and I happened upon this set of stamps at a local Japanese store). In my mark book I indicate this with a happy face (yes a happy face). An online submission gets the JPG attached when I return it.

If there are any issues I will indicate things that I want the student to look at again. Sometimes it’s just spelling. Sometimes something is missing. And at other times the structure I am looking for is not used correctly. My feedback for their corrections can be a simple notation (such as ‘sp!’ or ‘missing…’). At other times it’s a reminder..(remember this is one of those that…). Often it leads to a quick discussion one on one as in “Sensei, I’m not sure …” or “Sensei, is this supposed to be…?” Then they resubmit for me to take a look. In my mark book this is indicated with a ‘circle’ (handed in but awaiting correction) Once it looks fine – the stamp goes on (or admittedly in a rush my scribbled ‘okay’) and I put a check mark in the circle in my book.

Now students know that there are no ‘marks’ attached to this beyond completing. They know that they don’t ‘have’ to do this. But they also know that their choice not to do them means that they miss out on growth, on learning and on raising their level of language. Yes there are students who don’t do this and who choose to ignore this input for improving. Sometimes they are then asked to (or required to) come in for mandatory assistance during our school support block. Their lack of engagement in their learning is also noted in a comment when reporting to parents. In the end ‘does this count towards my mark?’ is answered in the quality of the unit assessment and their proficiency level (reflecting accuracy and consistency). I feel that I see stronger more accurate language as a result of this process.

Please note that I am lucky to work with several neuro-diverse students. Their feedback is just as deep as other students’ is but I adjust the ‘correction’ idea to fit their individual strengths (for example ‘recognizing a correct answer’ instead of self-generating one or putting in a part of the answer with me giving the rest.)

I like this idea of a ‘dialogue’ for each student and the discussion it sparks around the language…and I like that they demonstrate an interest in improving their understanding…




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January 12, 2020
by leesensei

“Pick 10 Jenga!” – Jenga With An Opening Twist

I have really enjoyed using Jenga in my classes. It was such a great addition that I blogged about it – from how to prep/label the blocks to what kinds of things you can do with it. But…..I have had one frustration. This is when I am using it for reviewing a structure/form etc and not necessarily when they are responding to a question prompt.

You see I have larger classes so I have kids playing in teams of 4. This is a great number but, what with 4 turns per round – and the long time it takes some kids to actually choose a block to try to take out – they don’t get the number of reps that I want them too. What to do?

Enter “Pick 10 Jenga”. Before they construct the game they have to pick 10 blocks . They must answer those 10 questions on their response sheet (see my original post) and check their answers. Once everyone is completed (and corrected) then they can play the game. Sure they might get a block they’ve already done – wow – and they do it again. Moreover, their partners will already possibly know the answer before they do and can help out (or chirp!) because they do.

I like this because…

  • There is a preview before they get into the game of what they will be doing
  • I can assist if there are any questions about “how do I..?”
  • They get more opportunities than just in the regular game taking turns

Okay you can call it whatever you want and choose any number you want…but it might be a “twist” that works for you…


PS I will say that today some of my kids even opted for ‘no game – just get the answers’ and didn’t stop with 10. I always say my kids have choice in what works best for them…they aren’t the biggest Jenga fans so…great that it worked for them!

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January 6, 2020
by leesensei
1 Comment

The “Challenge Sentence” Start of the Year (or Mid-Unit) Activity…

I’m always working on providing formative feedback for my students. For that reason I rarely announce a structure ‘quiz’ but choose to see how well kids are doing with a “pop check in“. And in another change from the start of my teaching career, I don’t do a ‘review’ any more…I jump right into the first unit with the idea that some ‘review’ may occur while we are working on the new material.  And for this purpose I began to use the the “Challenge Sentence” activity. In it I ask a student ‘how might we communicate…?”

How It Works….

On the board I will put 3-4 sentences in English and say to students ‘Here’s some Challenge Sentences…How might we communicate these in Japanese?” (horrified people who may consider this translating stop reading now!). Then below the English sentence I actually put the vocabulary words that a student would use – in random order. The students find a blank spot in their unit book and see if they can put the challenge sentence together.  As they are working on it I gradually write out a possible answer on the board. After all are done…we debrief – especially if there are ‘options’ or ‘choices’ in how it can be written. I often use it each day of the first 5-6 days of a new semester to quickly review ‘past’ structures needed for the new unit. (Sometimes I also want to see if, in the middle of a unit, a concept is ‘there’ for a student and I will use this instead of a pop check-in.)

Why We Like It …

It’s gentle, personal , instant feedback for a student. It checks to see if they are ‘okay’ with a structure and putting a particular style of sentence together. It doesn’t punish a student for not remembering a word.  It can be used when you want to have kids check if they are getting a current concept. My students tell me they like it because it is private and personal. They get to see what they already know and where the gaps are or if they ‘have it (and I’ve learned that kids like to know when they do get it).

It’s really not a new idea…but somehow the name “Challenge Sentence” makes it seem more intensely “fun”…!


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December 8, 2019
by leesensei

Dear “I Just Want To Meet Expectations” Student…I’m Sorry…

Meeting Expectations…You demonstrate knowledge & use of some current unit concepts & language structures and some evidence of previous learning. You make errors that sometimes detract, but your work is generally understandable. You tend to stick to the basic vocabulary and your work may lack details and personalization.

Dear “Meeting”,

Thank you for being in my class. You are a consistent presence in my room, come every day, do work as required and work in the TL with your classmates. In every unit you put effort into learning what we are working on. I’ve worked to change my classroom over the years. And one way has been to introduce the idea of ‘choice’ as in how much you choose to meet expectations.

But I’ve noticed things are a bit out of kilter lately. And quite frankly it comes down to me. You see I’ve been off and running in class – so busy trying to give students ways to “fully meet” and go beyond the unit items that I’ve forgotten about you.  I’ve been busy with the “you could say this, or try to add on this, or even take the structure and extend it to this’ that I realize that I’ve been muddling you up. I’ve been pushing opportunity but sacrificing the comfort you get in knowing that you have “got it”. And, quite frankly, I’ve been so busy giving options I’ve forgotten to give you something to hold onto.  It’s been a ‘sea of choice’ when you really don’t want just want to learn what I’m asking you to…

I’ve also forgotten that if I help you see that you are ‘meeting’ you will be more confident. And, if you are more confident, you might want to add more to what you do. But you will most definitely not be comfortable in the ‘stretch’ if you don’t feel that you’ve got the basics.

So I promise to make sure to support you. That in giving a variety options I clearly identify what ‘meets’ the expectations. That I use that language in my teaching with you – that you will hear “this will meet my expectations” as a ‘goal’ more and not as some kind of ‘minimum’ it might imply. That I will honour your wish to show me that you ‘have it’ and show you that I value what you are doing in meeting. That I will thank you for meeting my expectations more explicitly. I have always said that the ‘achievement’ in my classes isn’t the goal but the learning is… but I fear that the steadiness of ‘meeting’ has been perceived as seemingly less important than ‘fully meeting’ of late and it shouldn’t be.

Thank you again for continuing to take my class and I hope to meet your expectations a bit more clearly and effectively in the future.

Your teacher….



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November 26, 2019
by leesensei

Using a Song Lyric Strategy…For a TL AuthRes Video Activity…

I like to use songs in class and one of my favourite activities is the ‘listen and organize the lyrics’ activity. You probably do the same kind of thing; chop up the lyrics into strips and have kids put them in order as they hear the song. It’s one of many ways I use music...and and great fun. And finally I realized that these activities are great for any time I ask them to listen…

My challenge was around the idea of weather. The students had already done a reading about seasons in Japan which included some basic weather terms. But I wanted to challenge this group so I went to the Japanese national broadcaster NHK. Every day they post their weather forecast in video on their site. I used a screencapture program (many exist like Snagit) to get the broadcast. Then I listened for key vocabulary used throughout the broadcast. I put the words into Quizlet and used their ‘print flashcard’ option to create my key vocabulary flashcards. (I can’t say enough about the ease of using Quizlet to create ‘sets’ of words, and even images, into card format.)

Kids initially found and matched the vocabulary that they knew. Then there was some great ‘guessing’ using previous knowledge (and some hints on the board) for the rest. I came to check for each group as they indicated completion. They could also consult a list, included in the flashcard package, helped them at the end to ensure that they were correct. They reviewed all the cards a couple of times (see English say in TL – see the TL and say in English) and then put the English portion away and spread out the TL cards in front of them. Their task would be to listen to the broadcast and put the TL vocab words in the order that they heard the word.

Then I began to play the broadcast – at real-time speed. I played the first minute several times and as they heard a word they grabbed it and began to organize. I probably played it about 5-6 times…and we ran out of time in the period. The next day they came in and reviewed the outstanding cards…and we listened 3-4 times. The majority of kids had the majority of the weather forecast in order. We then went over the order the words appeared and they listened one final time – putting their finger on the word as they heard it. At the end I asked if they could each find 4 or 5 key words that they might want to use again and they said “we’d like them all!” My students typically work in pairs and they said, after this activity, that this was a great partner thing to do.

I’d never considered using the idea from a song activity for an authentic resource video. Why hadn’t I? Now I’m casting around for other ways to use my various song activities for other ways I ask them to interact with audio in class.


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November 17, 2019
by leesensei

A New Lens….Am I Just “Testing Memory” Or Seeing How Well They Can “Use” The Language?

I have been undergoing a great change in my teaching, an evolution in my practice – one that is propelled by my work with kids with IEPs, our new provincial curriculum. my discussions regarding assessment with fellow self-reflective colleagues and my frustrations in how I felt I was not supporting my students at both ends of the achievement spectrum. So what has changed with this new ‘lens’ on how I view assessing in my classroom?…

Yes I Ask Them To “Learn and Remember” – This is not to say that I don’t ask them to ‘learn’, remember and demonstrate their knowledge.  Our learning checks  (what you might call a ‘quiz’) can be the traditional “know how to write these words”. But now I also give checks that show that they can ‘recognize words’ instead of just write them. This is especially key for vocabulary that will be used in oral interpersonals. So I ask them to “match” (TL & English) or listen and indicated the order that they heard a word. I also don’t announce ‘structure’ quizzes. Instead I use pop-check-ins which allow me to see how well a concept is being understood. Sometimes this results in my ‘re-teaching’ because clearly no one is getting it. Often it results in one-on-one coaching with those that clearly are not sure.

Summative Presentational Writing– As I tell my students “I don’t want to know what you remember as much as how well you can use what we have been learning.”  I figure that in real life and in any job you’d have notes, guides, logbooks or access to references in crafting your communication. Why am I asking kids to write only what they ‘remember’ in a foreign language? This is not to say that there is no memory involved. That they haven’t “learned” anything (above).  What is key for me is how they will be assessed. You can’t fully meet in my class unless you utilize current and past learning effectively. And if you add in those little things we mention, the asides, the ‘in additions’, the things that I might refer to once you can push to ‘exceeding’. And all of this end or unit writing is done ‘with notes of some kind’.

What I find here is, that having notes, any student can respond. Often my weakest kids are the ones who don’t know how to prepare, have minimally met on learning checks and haven’t ‘figured out how’ to prepare for this kind of assesment.  This new approach allows them to be able to write more than what they ‘remember’. Often, as well, they get supports for their writing.  It allows them to show more of what they actually can understand.

Many teachers (even in my department) are concerned about the ‘fairness’ of this – that a student who did ‘nothing’ has the same advantage as a diligent student who has tried to master everything during the unit work. This worry implies that a student is unfairly being helped/rewarded for not learning. This has never played out in what I see or what my students have written. The students who have internalized/’learned’ the vocabulary/structures don’t need to spend time looking them up and  they have time to go deeper and really expand on what they are writing. They are using their notes not to look up the basics but to create rich, meaningful responses. The kids who haven’t internalized the words/ideas have less time for more expansive writing – but they are able to write something instead of almost nothing.

As for the writes – sometimes the notes are provided by me (a collection of Quizlets that I have prepared for units as a sort of ‘dictionary’ for example). Sometimes they are ‘open book’ allowing them to use any of their notes in a timed write – but no dictionaries. Other times this can resemble an English essay write – with rough copies, peer or teacher editing and then a final write (and a maximum of 6 words they’ve looked up – they have to use circumlocution for the rest).

Presentational/Interpersonal Speaking – I’ll admit that I do very little presentational speaking in front of the class. Yes there are the two skits (one each in Gr 9 and 10). But beyond that students only present to another student via interpersonal fairs.  Even in this case they can have ‘notes’ in English about what they want to say but have to have ‘learned’ how to communicate this in the TL. We even practice circumlocuting so that if they forget what they wanted to say they can still communicate their message. Some kids can’t do this and will need ‘notes’. This reduces their ability to meet expectations but it still allows them to participate and feel a certain level of achievement. The same goes for their interpersonals. Referring to notes may allow full participation as opposed to being able to ‘say nothing’ and if you don’t need anything to participate you may, depending on what you say, be on your way to fully meeting/exceeding.

Japanese specific – Chinese characters (Kanji) – This is a Japanese-specific observation – it is the language that I teach. Kids often struggle with Chinese characters. They can’t memorize how to write them perhaps. They are frustrated. They can adopt a negative attitude towards them.  I try to teach the characters in context, with a story to go along with how it is constructed. I ask them to see it like ‘lego’; composed of individual parts rather than a complex solo item. Now I am experimenting with two styles of learning checks. If you want to meet my expectations I will give you the characters – you tell me how to say them and what they mean. For fully meeting – I will give you the reading and you write them in Chinese characters and give me the meaning. I see some kids actually relax – they may not be able to write them well but when it comes to interpretive reading they know what they are reading.

Adaptations to Show Learning – Ultimately I am always considering what my provincial curriculum refers to adaptations. This is not reducing expectations but adapting so that any kid can show learning. This is not just for students with IEPs. In my province adaptations are there for any student that might need them. This means that kids can access the audio for any reading assessment or can ‘talk’ me through vocabulary that they can’t remember how to write.

My new lens asks me to consider what I am really assessing – and how I am giving students the opportunity to show what they know. As I evolve in my teaching I hope the focus on this is becoming clearer and clearer…


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November 13, 2019
by leesensei

Changing Seating/Changing Teaching – What My 2019 Classroom “Set Up” Now Says…

Teaching ClassI wrote the first part of this post in 2014….when I was making what I knew was a huge first step in my classroom environment. Today in November 2019 – as the last ‘student desk’ came out of my room I took another step. So I thought I would repost & update this for my new space…and my evolved classroom.

I 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.

Now….Round and Wavy Moveable Tables, Camping Chairs and a Sofa – Focus: Comfortable, More Natural Communication: Loved the pods of desks – the square 4 set that allowed my kids to face each other. But…my needs, and more importantly, my students needed more. They needed to be able to move, to get away from being at a desk and be in a place that made it easier to talk. So initially in came the camping chairs. You can see them in the photo below – under the window, near the front of the room on both ‘sides’ of the board. They cost under $10 each and are light and extremely moveable. With clipboards from the dollar store they are a place kids can do a learning check or assessment and  easily be moved to suit what they need. I often use them when we conference and I love how relaxed you feel in them. And then…the desks had to go!

With the support of my colleague (who took the ‘take the desks out’ leap first) I scrounged a couple of round tables and out went a few desks.  And then my principal stepped up.  In came 2 more round tables and the wavy tables you see on the right. These are great – they are easily wheeled around and, if I need more room, the tops flip up and I can move them almost completely out of the way. My principal even encouraged me (and paid for it!) to get ‘whiteboard’ tables. Kids love it when they can practice/write/think on them. And I’m sourcing large whiteboard squares for the round tables so that they can too.

I also put in a sofa (you can’t see it) which is immensely popular – maybe it’s the large Hello Kitty stuffed animals they like to hold while they talk. I encourage students to ‘move to where you are comfortable’ for almost every task. One of my grade 11’s said today “When we started in Grade 9 there were desks…now there are none..and I like it!!”

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




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November 5, 2019
by leesensei

The Evolution of My Class Interpersonal Orals….

How can I evaluate an interpersonal conversation in a way that is not super stressful for my students? How can I listen to them just “talk”?  When I first started I used to have them do the conversation in front of me. They had to talk and I sat there with my rubrics and evaluated.  They were nervous to speak in front of me and worrying about how well they are doing. I was trying not to make them nervous, to just listen and not write too much (they equated writing with mistakes) and then had a split second to record impressions before the next set. So then I moved on to recording. “Just go out and record you and your partner speaking.” What a great idea! Despite the issues of quality, and sometimes the ‘obvious clicks’ of a recording pausing I thought this was better. Then I’d spend a long time listening to the audio files…But I still didn’t like it – too stilted and  too ‘staged’. They found it nerve-wracking saying they felt a pressure to perform and be right on a recording or they’d want to record it again. A great colleague Connie Santos, who is an awesome department collaborator, had been experimenting with a new style of oral…and I was willing to test her ideas out too…The new ‘orals’ began.

Before the Oral Discussion – What They Are Doing

Generally I have two partial periods for them to prep before the orals. They are brainstorming ideas for themselves to use as a basis for the orals. Just like before they are chatting with partners as they prepare. They are speaking, and listening and practicing supporting. They are reviewing how to say when they don’t understand and how to assist someone who isn’t understanding them. They are using supports as they need to. They are asking questions of me and trying to say what they want to say.  They are exploring ways to address the topic(s) to be discussed and what fully meet, or meet, would sound like (we do have a rubric for this to guide them).

Before the Oral Discussion – What I Am Doing

I am working with them to give them any supports that they need. I am taking some time to ask them to target specific structures during a preparation session. I am listening and giving some feedback. I am actually walking around with a clipboard to get them used to what I will have during the oral. I am asking them to not understand something on purpose to practice both asking for and providing assistance. I am working with them in any way they ask me to from “how would I say…?” to “is there another way I can…?” to “am I saying …. correctly?”.  I am also modelling what I will be doing during their oral – walking around, looking like I am taking notes, stopping to listen…and reinforcing that what I am/will be writing is what I am hearing not writing down a list of ‘mistakes’.

During the Oral Discussions – What They Are Doing

They are speaking with a partner for a set period of time. If they need supports they have them although they know they can’t fully meet expectations if they do. They are listening, and speaking, and clarifying and questioning. They are talking the entire time – addressing the topic and going beyond when they have other things to discuss. They are telling their partner when they don’t understand and helping out when they are asked to. At the end of the alloted time (my Grade 11’s first oral was 11min per partner) they are thanking their partner and moving on to another. They are speaking with 8-9 people over the almost 2 classes this will require.

During the Oral Discussions – What I Am Doing

I am walking around with a clipboard and stopping to listen. Often who I am looking at is not who I am listening to. (I’m getting good at looking one way but listening to another to try to reduce their anxiety!) I am making notes on what I hear. “At grade level” “clarifies” “unit structures” “adding details” “says when doesn’t understand” “effective follow ups” and more in a shorthand that allows me to make notes more quickly “agl”  “clfy”, “Unit” “dets” “asks help” “eff f-up” etc. If there are serious issues I am making a brief note too. I am making multiple passes listening to kids more than 1 time. I am leaning in when I need to to hear the quiet ones. I am constantly checking that I have ‘enough’ and when I feel I have enough for a student checking them off and listening to those kids I need more on. I am moving, listening, moving, recording over and over.

After the Oral Discussions – What They Are Doing

Student Evidence Sheet

They are reflecting on the oral. They are assessing how they feel about how well they have met expectations. They are considering my question “What did you hope that I heard” and are offering up evidence of the kinds of things they said on the topic. They aren’t using notes or dictionaries to do this so it’s coming from what they actually said. And I’m not worrying as much about spelling/correct forms as I am looking at what they said. They are providing evidence of how they participated. On my last Grade 11 orals I gave them room to provide 4-5 sentences on the three topics areas they touched on.

After the Oral Discussions – What I Am Doing

Teacher Response Sheet

I’m also reading their evidence to see what they highlighted – and seeing if generally what they report they said reflects what I heard. I’m looking at my notes generated when I listened to them. I am preparing my feedback for them – not on everything but on key items. My response sheet (feedback sheet teacher) is divided into “Things That Were Noticed..”  – the positive things I say/heard them doing and “For Next Time” – advice on how to step up and sometimes corrections. I write out my notes for each…and eventually clip it to their response sheet.

What They Like About This…

They like the multiple partners. They like that it takes more than one period so they don’t feel rushed. They like that they are, depending on who they talk with, sometimes more the helper, and sometimes more the “helpee”. They like the idea that they get, with multiple partners, a  kind of do-over and they also get the chance to pick up extras from others. They like how ‘natural’ it feels…

What I Like About This….

I like seeing kids in a room – on the couch, in the camping chairs, at tables talking.  I like seeing kids engaged, listening to each other and actually having conversations. I like to see them reasonably relaxed during the process. I like to see the kids who aren’t so confident able to speak and actually interact. I like to see the really nervous kids relax and sit on a couch and just talk. I like that, although it’s my job to hear them,  they are asked to play their role in the evaluation process too.

It took a bit to get comfortable with this  style – and every time I do one I get better at it. But I like this…I like what I see and, most importantly, I like what I hear…



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