Language Sensei

A Language Teacher's Journey

February 8, 2015
by leesensei

#Teach2Teach Question 3: Most Troubling Teaching Experience

This is the third  question in the #Teach2Teach series, a collaboration with Amy Lenord (@alenord) and Karen Tharrington, Foreign Language Education Program Coordinator at North Carolina State University. After finding out her pre-service education students were nervous about engaging in the #langchat conversation with their own comments and questions Amy encouraged her to have them submit questions to share with the world.

Question 3 comes from Jennifer who has asked a tough question, but one that every teacher has an answer to no matter what content area they teach.  Jennifer asked…”What has been your most troublesome experience with teaching and how did you handle it?”

I thought a lot about this question and what my answer would be. There were the fleeting thoughts to blog about the time before I started using carefully constructed rubrics that I awarded a student 19/20 and couldn’t tell her why she lost the mark. Then there was the moment when I reminded a veteran teacher – in front of his student teacher – about something and he took it to be my embarrassing him in front of his new charge. But the more I thought the more I realized the most troubling experience I have had teaching is that moment when I realized that ‘how’ I was approaching second language education in my classes was not what I thought it should be. That moment when I realized that I was spending more time teaching – discreetly and overtly and mainly – grammar. That I was pushing my students to learn reams of vocabulary that were not relevant to them – because they were in the book. And that communication, risk and personal responsibility for learning were lacking in my classroom.

I’ve written several times that I was the “get the perfect textbook/workbook program and you’re done!” kind of teacher. I remember being in my principal’s office begging for funds because ” if I got this program I’d never have to get another one again!” Along with the text/workbook reliance I was someone who was highly skilled at teaching Japanese – or rather teaching about Japanese. My students were drilled  and coached to perfection. But the reliance was on writing – and if your writing was poor your chances of success in my class were too. Moreover if your brain didn’t work like I taught – good luck.  It was a happy place for me – I had everything set – and then suddenly it wasn’t.

I don’t know quite when I became so troubled about HOW I was teaching – I don’t recall a moment in time when the feeling suddenly occurred. But I do remember going into my principal’s office and telling him that after 14 years of teaching I was bored. “I think that I am done” I told him. “I have no motivation, I can’t get hyped up about my lessons, I’m just going through the motions.”. He was really encouraging – and urged me to think about my classroom and try to identify what it was that was making me so – well – bored about what was happening. At the same time I stumbled upon #langchat on twitter. The more I lurked then participated the more I realized that I wasn’t bored..okay I was…but rather that somewhere inside I was realizing that I didn’t like my tightly bundled program. That I was spending more time teaching about things than challenging students to use what they were learning. That my classroom was way too focused on what I wanted my students to learn and not enough on what they wanted to do. And  so I began to change it up. My most troubling experience was that I was not the teacher, leader, coach that I wanted to be….

The more I reflect the more I think that my troubling time came as I evolved and grew as a teacher. That it came about because I was well into my career when I had been ‘in the business’ for a number of years. That there comes a point I think in any career where you make a decision to grow – or hopefully go.  I’m glad that my decision was to move forward – acting upon what was so unsettling to me – a journey that I love and am still on today.















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January 12, 2015
by leesensei
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#Teach2Teach Question 1…

MP900341413My #langchat amiga Amy Lenord (and if you aren’t following @alenord and her blog you need to!) has started a new project/hashtag. To quote from her first post:

I am so excited to start my #Teach2Teach series which is a collaboration project I am doing with Karen Tharrington, Foreign Language Education Program Coordinator at North Carolina State University. She and I met for the first time at ACTFL 2014 and came up with the idea for her Methods students to send their most pressing questions to me so that an experienced classroom teacher can answer them.  On that note, here we go! My first official #Teach2Teach post will be answering Garrett’s question. Here’s what he asked: 
“How do all these teachers balance the workload between teaching and planning?  Now that I am getting ready to perform all this work, I am beginning to wonder how anyone manages it at all.”

Amy’s answer is right on the mark – and I wanted to add a couple of comments of my own…

Amy has touched on many of the key things that teachers do to try to ‘plan’ effectively and maintain that balance. I would really second her stress of a ‘calendar’. I plan and keep my lessons in Evernote (I like the accessibility and my journey is documented here) but also need to have a paper copy of my overall unit/year plan. It’s my road map and I like having the ‘big picture’ to plan timing and length of what I am doing. I remember that when I first started teaching I tended to underestimate the time students would take doing something so I was constantly revising my timelines. Amy is right that this is the number 1 challenge that we as teachers face – balancing prepping with teaching (and occasionally life!)

If I can add 3 things to what Amy has written about they are..

1)    KNOW IT’S THE REALITY: It will be all-consuming at the start. I found that I was planning, teaching, reworking, planning, teaching like a hamster running on a wheel at the start. It will be this way – and its important to accept that it is. Trust that you will find more time later on when you are not planning or teaching but actually living. HOWEVER, the reality is as you start teaching that your assignment may change year to year…so be kind to yourself and sometimes what you have is okay…

2)     ACCEPT IT: This is a reality for all teachers so at some point you have to accept that you will not be hitting it out of the park for every lesson. I remember my practice teaching and being on the phone with my Dad (a veteran teacher) freaking out because I didn’t have an ‘amazing’ lesson for the next day. He knew his daughter well – got me to breathe and asked ‘will it work and will they be moving forward to meeting learning outcomes?’ When I squeaked out a ‘yes’ he said ‘you can overplan all the time- go to bed and be fresh for tomorrow’. So sometimes you will have a lesson that’s ‘good enough’ and sometimes that’s fine.

3)    YOU WILL PROBABLY NEVER FIND THAT PERFECT BALANCE: I have to tell you that the planning time isn’t going to be over soon. Once you get through your first couple of years – years spent in survival – you will hopefully start to reflect on your lessons/units and I’m here to tell you that you will want to change them. I used to think I could have a nice orderly book/binder and be ‘all planned’. You can’t be. As you evolve as a teacher you will change, grow, alter your outlook. You will probably not be satisfied with how you are doing things now…and will need to spend time planning changes. If/when you do – make sure you do them incrementally. I’m in my 20th year of teaching and I’m still taking time to plan new units, new approaches to old units etc. My husband keeps saying ‘don’t you have it all set yet?’ and my answer is always ‘no’.

Looking forward to Question 2!



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June 18, 2014
by leesensei
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‘Senpai’ – The Rewards of Senior Student Class Volunteers

Hand ReachingMany schools have a peer tutor option available for students. Traditionally this is a one-to-one idea in which a student helps to support the learning of the other. I have used this idea for a long time in my classes – but in my case I have the ‘senpai’ – who works with the entire class. It can be an immensely rewarding situation – for the Senpai, for the class and for me. The concept of “Senpai and kōhai ”  in Japan  applies,  as Wikipedia puts it,  “to the senior/junior mentor system in wide use in Japanese culture; often found at all levels of education, in sports clubs, businesses, and informal or social organizations”.  My Senpai are either working on a volunteer basis to earn volunteer hours (required for graduation) or completing a school course called “Peer Tutoring”.  These students are in my classes because they have great ‘mentor’ potential and I have the final say as to whether I will accept them in my classes.

What do my Senpai’s do/don’t do?  

They do: Answer questions from students as they occur ; Fill in for absent students in pair or table work; Help catch up students who have missed class; Review/reinforce learning; Help students seek out words they need; Act as a ‘sounding board’ for me regarding class activities or support required
They don’t: Act as a dictionary; Give an answer – rather they help students to find an answer;  Mark or assess for me

What characteristics make a great Senpai? Do I need a top student as a senpai?  Not necessarily – just one who has completed the course they are volunteering in. In fact some of my best senpai have been students who know what its like to work hard to learn. What I really look for is:

Native or Non-native speaker – I’ve had both – my native speakers bring ‘current’ language to the room and a resource for all of us; my non-native speakers bring their own learning experience to their role – which for me is often more valuable.
Empathetic and Self-Aware – My best senpai’s know what they know, and what they don’t. They know they are also students, not dictionaries, and that they don’t need to have ‘all the answers’. They model the ability to risk, and seek help that I look for in all my students.  
Confident, Mature with a Good Sense of Humour– I talk to them as ‘junior’ peers  and often seek their input into how an activity may run or a concept introduced.  They need to have the confidence to accept the role as a ‘mentor’  and the maturity to handle the role – while remaining approachable – which is where the sense of fun/humour is critical. 
Self-starters – The Senpai doesn’t sit and wait. When students are actively learning they are up and about and circulating around the room. I ask them to have ‘big ears’ to listen for students struggling, those not quite using a concept correctly etc. My best Senpais have provided me with critical feedback into how the learning is going in the room. 

What classes work best with a Senpai? Generally I use them with my Yr3 and Yr4 classes. I have found that the more junior classes don’t always have enough for them to do. It’s when students start to really expand their language, and deepen their communication that the Senpai’s seem to be the most useful. I usually have one Senpai per class – but in a class of 30 – have used 2 when I could.

My Yr3 class this semester have an amazing Senpai duo. Grade 12 students,  they move easily among the 30 Gr. 11 students and are always quick to answer the call of “Senpai”!  They have become my ‘right-hand’ in the room  – and have inspired some of the Yr3’s to ask to be Senpai’s next year. I’m looking forward to working with them.


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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!


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April 9, 2013
by leesensei
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What I Really “Teach”: Literacy, Communication and Self-Reliance

I have had the privilege of working with a student teacher for the first time in my 18 years of teaching. It has been a great journey working with a ‘new’ professional. Today as I sat  in his ‘final’ conference we were talking about what would make his resume stand out in future hiring. My goal with him was not to have him talk about his MFL – Japanese teaching experience but to drill down and look at what he really does in the classroom. What do we do as MFL teachers?

Literacy – I do it every day. We guide and teach kids to decode, guess and work out meanings of texts that are not familiar to them. We teach them to infer and guess when encountering text in authentic documents. We also lead them to understand how a language works. We introduce and reinforce vocabulary – making it meaningful for them. Often we encourage them to gain the vocabulary that they need to function in class. Yes – I am a Literacy teacher.

Interpersonal Communication skills – We assist our students in developing interpersonal communication skills. Students learn to clarify, to explain, to ensure that a meaning is correct. Through authentic activities the become more skilled at working in a group or with a partner. They also develop an appreciation for the cultural realities that influence communication. Being aware of the do’s and don’ts in a foreign language makes students more aware of those that exist in their own first language (and if it’s not – for English as well). Yes I am a Communication Facilitator.

Self-reliance – I don’t stand and deliver a language. That’s not how the modern MFL class works. Instead I may draw upon methods such as TPRS, PBL or even (yes) Flipped learning – where the student and their choices/interests drive the learning. My MFL students learn to acquire what they need – in a personal way – in order to accomplish the task at hand. They also learn to ask for assistance and draw on resources when they need support. It’s important as well that they see how I acquire more language – that I’m not a dictionary but a learner/student of the language as well.  Yes – I model and develop Self-Reliant Learners.

I haven’t even mentioned “Life-Long Learning” as I work to incorporate more ed-tech. So when someone says to me – “Oh you teach a second language”…I now have a new way to respond “Well actually….”


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July 27, 2012
by leesensei

Finding Your In-School Mentors..

In the age of personal learning and pro-d much is written about the benefit of Twitter and other web-based collaborative forums. At the same time many schools and districts have established programs for new teachers in their schools. But what if yours doesn’t? What if you aren’t ‘new’ – just new to some aspect of your teaching? When I was beginning my foray into technology I faced the same issue. How can you find those elusive mentors?

Ask your librarian! No one in the school gets to see a broader range of teachers, approaches and techniques. When I began talking to our librarian about some tech discoveries I was making she was quick to point out other teachers in our school who were also following that path. Its amazing what you learn by just putting your wish out there and your librarian is one of the best to help you.

Think about how you teach – not what you teach! I found a lot of ideas from teachers who weren’t in my department but who did teach classes that required students to experiment and collaborate. My colleagues in the science department were the first to bring their laptops into the classroom – and I rely on them a lot. They also know a lot about ‘lab’ based learning and, therefore, have some policies/procedures that helped me in my language activities.

Smile – and get walking! One of my most generous mentors is @jonhamlin. I began to learn from  him by simply seeing what was going on in his classroom as I walked by on the way to the photocopier. Eventually I engaged him in conversation and he is open to my asking informal questions when they occurred. Another colleague was reviewing on-line class discussion items as I passed by.  I have gleaned ideas from others by seeing what as posted on their walls, or what was onscreen in their room.

Finding your in-school mentors requires you to be active, involved and have some personal initiative. And isn’t that what a good learner should be?


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