Language Sensei

A Language Teacher's Journey

March 4, 2013
by leesensei

5 Things to Consider for Your On-line Class Discussion

Class discussions that can occur any time of day and students engaged in that discussion. It took me a while to get my head around ‘on-line’ discussion and I used the experience of other teachers in my school who’d tried it. I currently use this with my Independent Directed Study students (Japanese language) and will be expanding it to my Year4 students next year. What to consider? Here’s a few of my thoughts:

Platform – a secure program such as Edmodo or Schoology . My key is that it comes with a free mobile app and is a secure environment.  Students enjoy the ability to contribute via mobiles but I ensure that computer access is also available for those without smart phones. I am not at the point comfortable using social media for this.  With regard to Twitter,  I don’t feel comfortable asking students to join, for the purpose of a course, something that opens them up to outside ‘spam’ followers. Facebook I also avoid as I want to maintain a clear and professional distance from my students. For me the link between their personal Facebook, and my role as their teacher should be separate.

Topic – For me the point is to have them interacting and sharing ideas. Thus a topic that is reachable with the language that they know and just ‘controversial’ enough to court opinion. In the past we have touched on ideas such as “It’s a good idea for a high school student to have a part-time job” to “Students should take a mandatory year off between high school and post-secondary school.”

Group Size – To ensure a robust discussion I like to do this not as a ‘whole’ class but rather in smaller sub-groups. I like the ‘small group’ options that Edmodo and Schoology offer so that my class of 30 can be comfortable discussing among a smaller group of 8-9. As a tip – don’t forget to include yourself in the group so that you can see their posts!

Rules – In order to ensure that students are engaged the ‘discussion’ occurs over more than 1 day – and is done in two parts.  Typically I allow 4 days for on-line discussion. It starts at 7:45 on the first day and students have until midnight of Day 2 to post 1 comment stating their personal view and 1 specific response to a classmate’s comments. If a student does NOT do that then they are locked out of part 2 of the discussion and can only generate a maximum of 1 out of 5 marks for the exercise. Once they have completed part 1 – then in part 2 they are asked to extend the discussion by contributing at least 5 more posts including 2 specific references to another person. Naturally the students are aware that our district code of conduct applies – and failure that adhere to that not only removes them from the discussion but will include further school-based discipline.

Marking – I am not marking for ‘grammar’ or other technical parts but rather am looking for opinion – and the ability to quality of thought behind their responses. 5 POINTS – Excellent. Insightful and reflective discussion contributions; expands upon ideas presented in discussion; Multiple contributions to the discussion; language reflects concepts studied 3 POINTS – Acceptable. Elaboration and contribution to one or two ideas within the discussion; Participated in both halves of the discussion to the minimum amount; language mostly reflects concepts studied. 1POINT – Marginal. Simple insight or contribution to the topic; only participated in Part 1 of the discussion. I sourced the ideas for the rubric from Rizopoulos, L.A., & McCarthy, P. (2009). Using Online threaded discussions: best practice for the digital learner. Journal of Educational Technology Systems.

It’s rewarding to see my students defending their ‘ideas’ in a second language – and some of the best ‘authentic’ interaction out there! What’s your experience with the on-line discussion world?


November 14, 2012
by leesensei

From “Learning To” to “Loving” the Phone in Class

Last spring I wrote about “Learning to Love the Phone” in my Japanese MFL class. It has been a journey for me from banned item to ubiquitous tool. As I wrote before I have a simple rule. It is out on the desk, upside down unless being used. Your phone is on mute and if it goes off, you apologize and rectify it immediately.  If you are caught sneaking texts or Facebook updates you will not be using your phone for the week.

My students use dictionary apps that are free to download and provide character readings.  They also use the phone to record quick conversations to show mastery of a topic. With 5 minutes to record a conversation that utilizes the  particular point, they can immediately send me their ‘proof of learning’. My senior students also use the phone to access Edmodo as a class discussion tool. They are quick to respond to posts using their phones; much faster than if I relied on them being at a station. Next semester I am branching out to use polling and other phone based options – like Socrative.

However it isn’t just my students that have their phones at the ready. Mine is now out on my desk full-time. My phone is a great tool in documenting my classes. What do I use it for?

Activities in Progress – Photos and video of activities as they unfold are great. They give life to the ‘word based’ lesson plan and add key details into  ‘how it went’. I not only use the visual option for my own records, but also in promoting department activities (note: student faces/identifying features are always blurred – I use iPhoto/iMovie options for this). It’s not only the sights but also the sounds of the room that are important. I take advantage of the recording function, and the ability to discreetly hold it in my hand to sample student interaction.  It’s quick, easy and when I collect enough snippets – easily merged into an ‘audio collage’ of the activity. My students know that I do record on the fly and will never publish anything that identifies them.

Final ‘boards’ – My language lessons can be quite organic – driven by thematic topic, or student need. Sometimes, instead of the computer, I use the whiteboard for these kind of notes. My phone helps me to quickly capture what the boards end up looking like. I have a record of not only what happened but information for the next time that I plan to do the activity.

Evernote Access– This year I am committed to using Evernote to record my year in teaching.  One of the reasons is the ability to use my mobile to access and add to anything in my notebooks. Photos from class can quickly be added to notes. My audio clips are also easily added to my daily lesson plans. No need to load/transfer etc. Simple and effective for me – and one of the selling key features for me of Evernote.

Leading by Example – I have my phone out and open on my desk. I use it just as the students are asked to do in my class. My phone is out and upside down unless its being used. What I am not doing is texting or checking Twitter or Facebook during class time. Perhaps the most powerful thing about using my phone – modelling proper etiquette and use in the class environment.

There are many more phone possibilities that I hope to explore in the future. What do you use your phone for?





June 4, 2012
by leesensei
1 Comment

Learning to love the phone in class….

It used to be that the sight of a phone in class, not even mentioning an annoying ringtone (!), was against the rules. Fighting the phone became a constant battle. Then one day I decided to stop fighting and embrace the phone. And an amazing thing happened. It has  ceased to be a contentious object and is now a ubiquitous one – just as it is in many student’s lives.

My phone rule: Your phone is out on the desk, upside down unless being used. Your phone is on mute and if it goes off, you apologize and rectify it immediately.  If you are caught sneaking texts or Facebook updates you will not be using your phone for the week. I’ve only had to do this once.

As a Language Resource – There are so many dictionary apps out there that our class readily promotes the good ones. To meet our criteria they must be free to download and consistently useful. In my Japanese language classes this means that the app provides both the Chinese character and phonetic character readings as well as a variety of uses of the point in context. Our current favorite – Kotoba.

Demonstrating Knowledge – I teach a language and in the past we might look to writing alone, or presentations to show understanding.  Students can now opt to demonstrate knowledge through a quick conversation recording. Do you get what we have been learning today? I ask you to demonstrate it by recording a quick clip of you and your partner using it in context. They send the clip to me as part of their homework.

Class Discussion Tool – The phone has really improved the ability and desire of kids to participate in in-class discussion. They can link into Edmodo (our tool of choice) at any time. I notice that kids are quick to respond to what others have posted – and the fact that they can do so on their phone, and in Japanese, seems to increase the desire of kids to take part in the activity.

I haven’t branched out into polling, collaborative presentations and the myriad of other uses that a smartphone  has as I’m aware that not all kids possess this technology. But if school is preparation for real life I hope that my students are seeing the proper time and place for the phone.




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?


April 23, 2012
by leesensei

Let’s Discuss – Online of Course!

Online class discussions are a way to extend the course beyond the page – and for my Japanese classes to put what they are learning into action. Having never done a discussion I found the prospect of organizing one daunting – I should have realized that, with the assistance of my PLN, it was an ‘easy to organize’ great activity.

Platform choice –  What you use depends on your resources and goals for the activity. For my Japanese class discussions I was looking for a specific platform that could be used ‘out of class’;  many of my students don’t have smart phones and our school’s wireless capability in my room is dicey at best. I also wanted a secure ‘non-public’ platform. Thanks to  @joedale who led me to Edmodo. As it is ‘invitation only’ the security was there for me. I could  alsohave my students discuss as a group of 30 or break them into smaller groups for a more personal discussion experience.

Defined Timeframe/Participation Levels – the discussion is a two-part process. In stage one they are given 24 hours to respond at least twice. For one they must give their opinion on the topic, for the other they must respond to a classmate’s point (eg. @Julie…) Part 2 of the discussion – usually an extension of the original topic – continues for 48 hours. Students participate in this only if they have met the minimal requirements for Part 1. If the student hasn’t – they are set to ‘read only’ and are out of the activity. In Part 2 they are asked to respond/give their opinion at least 5 more times.

Easily marked – I selected rubric marking for both Part 1 and Part 2. The rubric relies not only on a minimal number of responses but also the quality of the discussion. Students know that it is not enough, for full marks, to just participate but that they must bring also incorporate class concepts into their responses. You can find all sorts of rubrics on line to aid you.

My first discussion group of 8 Japanese Honours students generated more than 88 entries in discussing whether school uniforms were a good idea or not. They cited the ability to participate at any time of day, and via cell phone, as benefits of this activity. If you wish to see the entire assignment just let me know and I’d be happy to share!





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