Language Sensei

A Language Teacher's Journey

August 27, 2013
by leesensei

What Exactly Are They Reviewing?

Football teamThere is a lot of talk in my professional circles at this time of year about ‘review’. With the two month holiday drawing down and the Sept.3 start of classes looming the question of whether to/how much to go over is always a timely one. Last week my #langchat PLN spent time discussing it – and, true to form, my personal view of the role of review came to me in one of my quick and spontaneous 120 character tweet

So what are my “Rules Of The Road” that need revisiting at the start of the year?

Self-Sufficiency – Your teacher is a resource, a guide and someone who can clarify and support in the classroom. Most of your real use of the language will happen outside these 4 walls. So, you are the person who must know where your resources are, how to locate what you need and, most importantly, when to go to them for support.

Supportive Sustained Interaction – You will not always understand what is being communicated to you, and someone will not always understand you. How do you make it work? What are your strategies? Do you repeat? Use gestures? How about rephrasing or supplying examples? How do you sustain a conversation – what are your follow-up questions to learn more about the topic/person?

Target Language Work – You are being asked to work in the Target Language (in my case Japanese). Your partner, or group, expects you do this, just as you expect it of them. You will not be asked to do something that you do not have the skills to do – so relax and use what you have in your head (and at your fingertips). You will improve your skills, accomplish the task, and – unbelievably – have more fun if you stay in the target language.

Incidental Chatting – If you finish something when others are busy you are to not to sit there mutely awaiting instructions. No – this is your time to practice those ‘small talk skills’. What is your partner doing after school? What did they do this morning? Do they like broccoli? How do they feel about a particular subject? If you’re stuck you can use some of  the ideas on our conversation sheet. Imagine – you can sit and talk with someone about everyday things…just like a real person might!

Welcome back to the journey…glad to have you on the road again!


 PS If you are interested in connecting with other MFL teachers – why not join us for our weekly #langchat Thursday at 8pmEST? Topics discussed are suggested by participants and are voted on weekly. It’s the best personal Pro-D you can do from anywhere!

September 20, 2012
by leesensei

Please Don’t Raise Your Hand….

A couple of years ago I was lucky enough to know that how I questioned kids in the class was not particularly effective. I always seemed to notice ‘the evident’ kid – you know the one. Big personality, or quick to answer, or fearless even if they didn’t really know. That kid. But what about the others? What about the quiet one, the shy one or the ‘I know but I’m not doing it” one? How was I to make sure everyone was asked – and no one avoided participating?

I was lucky enough to read a few books, talk to a few teachers and try out several things to change my ways. So now in my class one of the first things I say is “Please don’t raise your hand.” And so when a student asks why…here’s what I say:

Pair then Share – As a student you will always get to practice or test out your response with your partner first. You will have time to try. You will also have time to ‘investigate’ – using your notes or a dictionary  – to find a possible answer. Having time to do this means that your input alone will not be on the line and that you both can work towards an answer if you need to.

Anyone could be asked – Your name is written down on a popsicle stick in a bag on my desk. When I look for responses I will draw one. I won’t call on you because you were ‘off task’ and caught my eye. I won’t use your name as a punishment. However, if your name comes up, I will expect you to be ready to answer.

Answers not Avoidance – When I call on you its with the idea that you will be answering. “I don’t know” doesn’t get you off the hook. No, I will put your name aside and ask you to show me (by nodding for example) when you have found your answer. If you still not sure I will help you, with hints and examples, in finding the answer. Even if another student helps out you will be asked to give the final full answer.

The art of questioning is, for me, a journey and I am nowhere near the end! Do you have something that works well for you?




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!

April 10, 2012
by leesensei

Organizing Myself On Line….

Like me you probably have lists of websites that you bookmarked but you can’t remember why or what they relate to. They end up in a long list in your browser with little to suggest why you bookmarked them or what they might be useful for. I have discovered Pearltrees – – that allows you to visually organize your websites into useful (and memorable) clusters.  In the software’s terminology a “pearl” is a site that you mark and a ‘tree’ is acollection of sites that are organized based upon common theme or use.

You may create more than one ‘tree’ – perhaps for an overall subject and then individualcourses. I have mine divided into major categories – eg. web resources – as well as courses.

In a more ‘social’ angle Pearltrees also allows you to search other Pearltree users who have marked the same sites as you to find sites that you might find useful. It also let’s you know who has sampled your ‘pearls’ as well but ,no, it doesn’t bother you with suggestions!

If you use Firefox or Chrome you can also add a plugin that allows you to quickly save a new site (or pearl) and add to your collection to be organized later. When you land on a site that you would like to save – click on the pearl (circle) icon to the left of the site’s url and it is automatically added to your Pearltree site.

Pearltree may not be for everyone but as a visual learner, and thinker, I found it a quick and easy way to organize my sites – and remember why they were considered important in the first place. If you  want any further information just tweet!!


April 4, 2012
by leesensei

My Tech Setup…(“More with Less!”)

Although I am passionate about integrating technology in my work you may be surprised how much I personally have access to in my classroom. Funding priorities in my school and district have not expanded as quickly as my desire to be more tech-savy. So it’s a surprisingly simple setup…

  Macbook 2007:  Yes you read that   correctly. My interest in expanding my ‘tech footprint’ didn’t coincide with any funding from my school/district. Along with 10 other teachers in my school we decided to forge ahead anyway and use our personal laptops. Curiously we are all Mac users….

Wacom Tablet: When you can’t afford a tablet computer you make one yourself. Investing in a medium Wacom tablet, and using Photoshop and .pdf’s of documents,  I can review work, make videos of my lessons, create class notes for my website etc. Next up – Google docs for everything?

Logitech Speakers: Under $75 at the time…. playing Japanese pop-tunes, YouTube clips and whatever we need to hear…

Benq LCD projector: Funded 3 years ago by school funds, it’s old but it works for anything from the wide variety of programs I use, for polls, Google Earth tours of Kyoto, Quicktime clips etc..

I dream of a class set of iPads and enough enough bandwidth to allow kids to access their computer wirelessly in my room. But I don’t let that hold me back…

Doing more with less,



April 2, 2012
by leesensei

Why Twitter?

I’ll get right to it. I’m 50 and of a generation where Facebook is seen as a way to connect with long lost ‘friends’ or play scrabble. Mention to many colleagues of the same age that I am on Twitter and I am met with a slight look of disbelief. Add  that I actually ‘Tweet’ and I can see them thinking “Does anyone really care what you are doing right now?”.

Twitter is some of the best Pro-D that I have participated in during my 16 year teaching career. Why?

It’s informative: The generosity of those I follow has contributed so much to my teaching ‘repertoire’. They share ideas, thoughts and results of their efforts. Many have answered direct messages when I had a particular question about what they were doing.

It’s current: People generally are tweeting about the ‘new and now’. That is inspiring as they become my personal ‘leaders’ in Ed. Tech and Second Language learning. I’m not waiting for a Pro-D day to learn something new.

It’s manageable:  At only 140 characters, information is short and sweet. I also have a limited set of people so my feed is not so ‘full’ that I feel overwhelmed with the number of tweets.

It’s remarkably easy: I signed up for an account and made sure my bio indicated why I was on Twitter. Then, using Google, I started looking for hashtags and directories of the topic that interested me. I asked to follow a few and some, reading my bio, asked to follow me.

It encouraged me to contribute: I started as a ‘passive’ reader but, as with any learning, realized that it is being active in the process that brings that rewards.  I don’t feel compelled to tweet all the time – just when I have something to say.

You can find me at @coleesensei and maybe I’ll see you on Twitter  too.


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March 29, 2012
by leesensei
1 Comment

Worksheet or WordCloud?

I recently looked at a new way of doing an “old” thing. My Japanese 11 students typically read an article (in English) on Haiku and answer questions about this poetry form. Admittedly it is a pretty dry, and not necessarily engaging, activity. This year I changed it up and used a program called Wordle (  to make word clouds about poetry. It is a web-based program that is easily accessed from any computer in my school. It works in English (and even Japanese with a few tricks).

How does it work? Basically you enter English words directly in to the create ‘field’. The size of a word in the visualization is proportional to the number of times the word appears in the input text. So, for example, if you type “apple banana banana grape grape grape” into the create page’s text field, you’ll see that banana’s font size is twice apple’s, and grape’s font size is 3/2 that of banana’s. When a particular word doesn’t show up in Wordle it is probably because it thinks it is a “stop word” (a frequently-used word  such as “the”, “and”, or “but”) . See the “Language” menu for a setting to turn off the removal of such common words.

Key elements composed by Alice Han (Jap. 11)

To keep my students on track the criteria for the work included required elements such as a title “Haiku”, demonstrated knowledge of topic via choice of words and at least 2 ‘prominent’ elements – words selected due to their relevance to the topic. Marking was done in a holistic way using a criteria referenced scale (‘word cloud rubrics’ are easy to find on the internet). If you are interested in using Wordle and have questions, I am happy to send you the assignment that I gave – or talk to you about it.


March 27, 2012
by leesensei

Helping Students Learn Vocabulary – On Line…

Every course has vocabulary specific to it that we ask kids to learn. In my subject I am always looking for new ways to help kids “learn the words and what they mean”. I have recently been using an online flashcard program called Quizlet ( I am enjoying using it, and so are my students, for a number of reasons:

Convenience: Search cards already produced in almost any category such as AP History, Geography, Canadian history, AP Chem. Solubility Rules etc

Easily practice vocabulary - on your computer or phone!

Ease of Use: Easily import vocabulary from word (or have a student assistant help?). Can also export into Excel from site. Supports written text and audio in a large number of languages – including Chinese (simplified and traditional), Spanish, French and Japanese

Accessibility: Students can access from any computer. They can also access using smart phones via free flashcard apps. Have your own site? You can even embed links to specific card sets into your current website.

Its More than a Simple Flashcard: Offers a variety of ‘testing’ for comprehension including matching, spelling, multiple choice etc. Can even say the word to have student hear as they read.

Supports Review: It’s a way to post unit vocabulary – once – and then it is done. Students can use to study for finals or unit tests.

No it won’t be used by all – but it may support learners who don’t benefit from traditional ‘studying’ methods and allows us to expand how we deliver info to them. Give it a try!

Any questions? Just ask!


March 27, 2012
by leesensei

Why? Why? Why!

Age and experience. Used to laugh about that but now I realize that indeed I possess both. I used to think that teaching would be less involved the longer I did it but it seems to be the opposite. With my knowledge of the curriculum (mostly) secure, I find myself looking to alter, expand and enhance what I have always done. New twist on an old style of evaluating? Yes. More use of technology in the classroom. For sure! Join me if you’d like – as I reflect on the ‘old’, implement the ‘new’ and integrate the ‘tech’.


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