Language Sensei

A Language Teacher's Journey

June 27, 2016
by leesensei

The Year End – What Was, What Wasn’t, What Will Be…

side-viewLike Seuss’ “Horton Hears A Who” I am saying “I’m still here!”. With 2 days left it’s time to sit and reflect for a bit on the past year. It was a year in which I dove off the deep end in terms of changing how I reported progress, re-examined what was key in my class and looked to enlighten my students as to ‘why’ we were doing things to hopefully involve them more in their learning. So on to the ‘was’, the ‘wasn’t’ and, looking ahead, the ‘will be’.

What Was:

More Formative Assessment – I was less about the ‘marks for if you’re getting it’ and more about the formative assessment. I don’t know as yet if it worked for my students? Did the more ‘casual’ less grade-based pressure work? I think it worked in letting them give themselves permission to take their time in acquiring a skill – that is in knowing that if they didn’t get ‘it’ right away that was okay. I employed more pop ‘check-ins’ and more self-generated language (not worksheets) to provide formative feedback. This will continue.

Purposeful Learning/Intentions – I tried to let my students ‘in on the why’ this year. That is I purposely, and in English, put the intentions of a major activity – and sometimes a minor one on the board. Calling their attention to the why would, I hoped, increase their commitment to an activity. I followed that up often by asking them if they met the intentions set out. At the start I put the intentions on the board but by the end of the semester I was asking them what they thought the intentions of the exercise should be. And not surprisingly they seemed to really get the why and I feel that this increased the commitment to the task and the target language.

#Forget the Fluff – Born out of my lack of planning (time-wise) I learned to really drill down to what is key in an activity/task/class. Why do we ask students to ‘make’ or ‘do’ something that is really not key to the learning outcomes. In my case it was a complete re-work of my Yr4 travel fair – stripped down to what is key I saw the best communication work yet by the students. I will continue to search out the necessary and trash the ‘fluff’ next year.


What Wasn’t:

‘Grade Weighting’ – Not a great year for this. It was my intention, as I told my students, that the ‘importance’ of items in a unit would be weighted towards the ‘end’ of the unit (things should build to the summative). By extension, the skills students demonstrated should count more towards the end of the class than at the start of the semester. I don’t feel that I did a good job in this – and that I didn’t up my expectations (and communicate those to the students) as well as I could have. And, as I am forced to keep a number-based gradebook, I don’t think I did a good job in weighting the items as I could have.

Planning – I must admit I lost track of time a few times. I found that I was more willing to ‘go with the class’ on what we were doing and less intent on ‘following my schedule’. As a result I took more time for units than usual (and I ask myself ‘is this a bad thing?’). I didn’t like this kind of ‘lost’ feeling I had in a unit as far as how long it should take to accomplish it. I didn’t like not having some sort of ‘timeline’ for the unit. Maybe this is a natural thing when you are changing your practice but for me, it was uncomfortable.

Guiding ‘Growth’ – I think I was good at providing an explanation for students as to where they were in meeting expectations. But what I wasn’t so good at was giving specific guidance, examples, focussed work on how to improve. I think this means more ‘samples’ of what different levels of achievement might look like. It means time spent specifically focusing on a particular skill. It means that I can’t just report how they are doing but perhaps have individual discussions during the year with students about where they are and how they can improve. Hm..


What Will Be:

Streamlined – I will continue to look for ways to drill down to what is key in the language work that we are doing and remove the ‘fluff’ from my units. I will ask/involve students in this process as well – what is it that they see as key?

Risk-Community-Reward – I will continue to support students in risk – by giving them the tools to be confident in their interactions, especially around the fear of not understanding or making a mistake.

Better Planned – I will try to set out a basic ‘plan’ (the number of weeks etc) for each unit to keep me on track. But if something comes up I will not be afraid to ‘deviate’ from the plan.

Achievement – I will develop a plan to effectively record and weight achievement so that the mark reflects what students can do at the end of units and the course more accurately. I will also clearly identify on my course outline what it means to be at which level of meeting expectations.

I’m sure there is much more that went well and much more to improve. But right now…I’m ready for summer!



April 10, 2016
by leesensei

Teaching? To Me It’s Kind of Like Golf…

4538570185What is it like to teach? What makes a ‘good’ teacher? What is ‘good teaching practice’? What ‘method’ is the best?I’ve been thinking about this a lot as I watch the #langchat community grapple with the rise of the “(fill in method) teacher” and the staunch defense by some of one ‘method’ over another…There are many teachers leading the charge these days to find the ‘common’ among all of these schools of teaching thought. I thank Martina Bex, Thomas Sauer, Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell, Lisa Shepard and Amy Lenord among those leading a spirited discussion on line about this.

And it led me to wonder what language teaching, or teaching in general, is like?  Now it may not be golf season for you but here in my corner of Canada we can (you may not believe this) golf outside year round. So allow me the analogy when I say that teaching, to me, is like golf. It is because…

I have a lot of clubs in the bag – As a golfer you don’t go out and play with just one club. And I don’t teach like that either – but rather I borrow/use/try a variety of approaches in order to enhance my students’ learning. Truth be told I experiment because I like variety. With 30 kids in class I realize that employing one kind of teaching style may not be allowing all of my students to learn in the way they like or need to. So I mix it up and use different ideas, approaches and styles as it suits. That’s not to say that, like my trusty 7 iron, I don’t have go-to strategies and activities that work for my students but I’m always looking to add to me repertoire.

I play the club for the lie I have – In golf you have to learn to pay attention where you are – and choose your club accordingly. In the classroom, in the past I admit there were days, lessons, where I ignored where I was in pursuit of an activity. It wasn’t working, it didn’t meet my students’ needs but I was so enamored of the activity I pushed ahead. And yes, the lesson bombed. I’ve learned to pay attention to the individuals in the room and adjust (or not use) things as needed. In teaching you are most effective when you pay attention to the room.

The club may differ but the swing is the same – No matter what approach or activity I choose my principle goals remain the same. (1) Teacher not as leader but coach (2) a “can do” learning environment that prepares students for success (3) proficient students aware of and driving their own learning (4) learning that prepares students for beyond the classroom.

Sometimes I make birdies, and sometimes bogies – It’s nice to hit a lesson or unit out of the park. But what is most important for me is to realize that it won’t always go well. I remember an authentic resource lesson I was so keen on. It really used the resource but ultimately it stank! It wasn’t until I looked at how I was using it that I was able to re-jig it and it was much more successful. I think the bogies are more important than the birdies though – because they tell me that I am risking and trying new things.

I may play the same course over & over – but fortunately I’ll never play it the same way twice  – In golf you rarely duplicate a round and its the same in the classroom. We know that every class will be different. Their skills and their needs, we learn, dictate the how/why of the approaches we choose.  However, this isn’t just about a different mix of students each time. I also think it speaks to teacher growth. As a teacher you are constantly reflecting on your class work. How did it go? What didn’t work? What did? What changes can I make?

I have a great caddy on the bag  – Okay in real life I’ve never had the chance to use a caddy, so my choices in clubs and approach to each hole are mine alone. But as a teacher I have a great caddy in the #langchat PLN. This amazing group of teachers offers mentorship and support that is so needed to by all of us on our teaching journey. #langchat allows me to share my successes, and offers advice and direction when things don’t go so well. It is an inspiration to me, and a guide to improving my teaching game.

Thanks for indulging me in this analogy….what is teaching like for you?




June 7, 2015
by leesensei

Journey On – Lessons Learned This Year In My ‘Changing’ Classroom…



Another year is almost done for me – classes officially ending June 19 – and as usual it has been a year of professional growth and classroom change. Inspired by John Cadena’s awesome post, I want to reflect on my own experience.. and indulge in a little reflection on what the changes that happened in my classes – and in my teaching.

Organic language needs a good recording system:  As I work to give students more of what they need to express themselves I know I won’t always have what they want in the resource package. So photos of my boards are key.They tell me what I didn’t think of and more importantly what I want to remember for next time. So for me my phone – and my Evernote account – are key. This year as I taught I course I had not taught in 8 years I found myself taking photos of my boards after almost every class. It’s my hope that I will (a) know for next time what I did and (b) adjust my planning/input based upon what showed up on the board as we did it.

No Text – No Problem: I think I used the text once or twice – and then only for small stories that fit with the themes we were exploring. And you know what? The students didn’t miss it. Not a bit. Instead they were involved in the developing story of the Yr2 character Nonki and his quest to win the heart of Miss Kawaii (and by the end of Yr2…he has…).  They wrote their own extended endings to stories and had a ball sharing them with classmates. They saw language in context – comprehensible and easy to learn – and they learned it too. Oh we will still use the textbook – but mostly to put under papers as something hard to write on when they are moving about the room talking to each other.   For next year I will work to develop more stories for each year – including a continuous story-line for Year 1 as well….

Script Taught Naturally – Not Forced As “Character Learning”: Or, to put it another way, teach it like they’d acquire it as L1 speakers: Big big revelation to me that script (we have 3 to teach in Japanese) should be introduced naturally. Again John Cadena, Kathryn Tominaga and I chatted a lot about this. My decision this year was to introduce script naturally – with support  – right away and avoid the ‘romaji’ (Eng. alphabet) that no Japanese child would ever use anyway. I wrote about this earlier in the year and, again, John’s post sums it up well. Big big revelation.

Chuck What You’ve Never Liked & Find New Great Units: Our semester was shortened by a week due to job action earlier in the year. Perfect. It was perfect as it allowed me to the opportunity to really look at concepts/units that I taught in the past ‘because the text said to’ and when/how grammar elements were introduced. So this year I threw out some ‘not favourite’ units – and you know, no one missed them. I have to admit this was done in consultation with students who had already completed the course. When asked to identify the least meaningful/useful unit – they identified the ones that had been bothering me too. In Yr4 this meant introducing the month-long story unit (part 2 of the unit here) and they loved it.

Just Because It’s Authentic Doesn’t Mean It Will Engage: I had a great resource for my year 2’s – or so I thought. But 1/2 way through the lesson I realized it was a dud. Not the resource, my lesson. I’d forgotten that the ‘authentic resource’ isn’t any use if the task, motivation, purpose is not relevant to what we are engaged in. This isn’t to say that my increasing attempts to incorporate authentic resources did not have resounding successes. Indeed there were some great ones. But the dud lessons – the ones where the resource was so great but the activity wasn’t – reminded me that no matter how great the tool is – it can’t repair a bad lesson.

#langchat Rocks As My Go-To Source Of Inspiration/How-To’s: I will say it again as I said in a previous chat “#langchat is my go-to for those who have done what I want to do – or on the journey with me as we all try to do it.”  I would not be the teacher I am today, and the teacher that I am becoming tomorrow without this group. I am inspired daily by the knowledge and sharing of folks like Amy Lenord, Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell, Laura Sexton, Thomas Sauer, Wendy Farabaugh and more. They lead by example and share willingly their successes and failures. I also have found new colleagues – and who knew they were in Texas and Australia – to work specifically on Japanese-language issues. Thanks John Cadena and Kathryn Tominaga and I look forward to more collaborating in the future!

The Journey Continues: I think if my students hear me say “It’s the journey that’s key” one more time they will all, simultaneously roll their eyes and groan. But I really believe it. I believe it for them – as they learn that their learning and doing is, many times, more important than finishing. And I believe it for me. I am more toward the end than the start of my career and yet the evolution of my teaching really seems to be picking up speed now.  I am looking forward to the summer – and the chance to rest and recharge. And then I look forward to the journey continuing…


March 22, 2015
by leesensei
1 Comment

What Kind of Teacher Are YOU? I am…

What Kind of Teacher Are You-I am taking up Laura Sexton’s challenge – her latest post looks at the ‘changes’ she has undergone as a teacher through her responses to a series of questions (repeated each 5 years).  We talk a lot about working to produce reflective students and I think it is equally important to take these opportunities to reflect on our own teaching practice. With thanks to Laura for sparking this post….my answers to the @sraspanglish reflection challenge.

1. I am a good teacher because I reflect, change, adjust (and throw out stuff) as I learn more about teaching – and what good teaching is.

2. If I weren’t a teacher I would put my MBA to use and be in marketing or advertising.  I like the challenge, both intellectual and creative, that this area of business presents.

3. My teaching style is a work in process but much much looser than it used to be. I’ve eased up a lot on the ‘control’ and have become more of a guide than a dictator!

4. My classroom is busy, loud and colourful with students sitting at tables of 4. I’ve been in the same room for 15 years so the Hello Kitty decorations and anime posters help with the Japanese ambiance! 10 years ago my students sat in rows facing the whiteboard – and me.

5. My lesson plans are less ‘concrete’ than I would sometimes like. Some days they are detailed and others  – not so much. They are more of a ‘weekly plan’ – recognizing that there are objectives but allowing for more/less time to focus on things as needed.

6. One of my teaching goals is to explore all the acronyms – PBL, TPRS and more – and add them to my repertoire.

7. The toughest part of teaching is also the most exciting – the fact that you are never ‘done’.

8. The thing I love most about teaching is that magic moment when my students are in the zone and fully engaged – and I’m standing on the side essentially just watching it all happen.

9. A common misconception about teaching is that still that good teaching is ‘stand and deliver’ in a classroom that is quiet with all students focused on the teacher. A common misconception about language teaching is that we spend our days ‘doing grammar’ and that if you don’t understand ‘grammar’ you can’t be a successful language learner.

10. The most important thing I’ve learned since I started teaching is to relax and give up the control. Honestly! The less it is about me – the more it is about the most important people in the room – the learners.

Thanks again to my wonderful #langchat amiga Laura for this idea. She encourages you to either blog your answers to her post – or reply in her comments section – What would your answers be?




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