Language Sensei

A Language Teacher's Journey

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!

April 28, 2016
by leesensei
1 Comment

When You Ask For Their Feedback – Empowering You and Them in Class

recap self grading rubric

The ‘original’ participation tally handout

It started with good intentions. I frequently do a class ‘recap’ of a reading and I wanted to encourage my students to say more, give more during this process. I am a big believer in letting a rubric or other such tool set & guide expectations. However finding one for this purpose had eluded me. Suddenly timely posts by Carrie Toth on her independent reading yielded a class discussion participation sheet. Perfect I thought. With credit to Carrie, I took her original idea and modified it to what I wanted. By ‘what I wanted’ I mean to include descriptors of the kind of language that I expect, and know, my students are capable of producing and how they corresponded to expectations.

Admittedly I sprang this on them. They were not warned in advance of this addition to the activity and I was okay with that as I wanted to encourage spontaneous, not prepared, depth and detail. I introduced the ‘recording sheet’ and reminded them to keep track of the types of answers they were giving. I also reviewed how those answers would ‘rate’ in meeting expectations. So we started. Wow it was amazing. My students really worked to try to add in detail, depth and breadth to their answers. I was almost in tears hearing what I was hearing. Lots of props, thumbs up and smiling from me. They were fantastic. Then – perhaps I sensed something but really I’m not that tuned in – after the activity I asked them to reflect not on their work but on the success of using this type of tally to spur participation. They were sincere in their comments – I collected and read them and was ‘floored’ by some of the comments. They felt:

  • intimidated by others
  • ‘compared’ to other students
  • that they were not warned
  • confused by the process itself
  • it made them less likely to try
  • demeaned because their answers weren’t ‘as good’
recap pptn rubric modified 2016

Participation Sheet 2.0 (after student feedback)

Not good. Not what I intended and not what I value in my classroom. To quote Paolo Jennemann, “We needed to talk”! The next day I acknowledged to them what had I read. I posted on the board what my intentions were and, more importantly, were not(!) in using this tool to help them participate more. I explained that this tool was for them, to encourage them and that clearly it hadn’t done that and that I needed their help. And then I set them to the task. I wanted their own opinions on this so I chose to have them work with their partner. They were given a copy of the tally sheet from the day before and ask to ‘make it into a better tool to encourage them in this activity’. Wow – 20 minutes of talking intently, honest feedback on the form (and I mean honest!) and suggestions. They shredded the original document and provided me with ‘Participation Sheet 2.0’. The new sheet tells me so much about my classes and what they value in learning:

They believe in “I can” as a motivator – It’s been a couple of years and this crop of Yr3 started in Yr1 when I started to use ‘I can’ statements on the first page of my unit book. And apparently this is making an impact. More than one group turned the ‘statement’ of what they said into a representation of what they ‘can do’. Wow. They like the sense of accomplishment and they like to be able to articulate what they are capable of.

They want to challenge themselves/set their own expectations for how they will do – I’ve worked a lot on the pre-setting expectations both by me and having themselves set them and apparently they like to do this. The new sheet now starts with a ‘predictor’ or a setting of expectations but the student themselves.

They want to see if they meet their own expectations – They like the ability to set a bar and rise to it. I’ve never yet seen it as an excuse for just wanting to minimally meet. They like the setting of goals and several groups wanted them to not only be able to record how many items they offered a type of answer but also to be able to ‘check’ off the category as we they went along.

They want to reflect about the process after – This was my favourite. One group’s critique included a rather incredulous “What? No reflection?!!!” comment about the lack of opportunity to process the activity. So I combined this with a statement in which they get to say how well they met expectations. They know that the “That went…” starter demands both a statement about how they felt about it and, more importantly, reasons why they feel as they do.

They value when they take risks in using new items they are learning – They get that to meet expectations for a unit they are going to have to show that they can understand and use current unit items. They also realize that using new items requires them to risk. I loved this “I step out of my comfort zone…” statement one group suggested. It means that they know that they have to not be content with the ‘old’ but take what they know and layer on – expand – it with the ‘new’.

They don’t value a ‘points or expectation value’ on contributions – Many groups said  to ‘ditch’ the expectation indicators. Some said that any contribution at all was valuable and shouldn’t be discounted for a perceived value. Others said that they ‘know’ what is expected and what ‘meeting expectations’ involves so you don’t have to have it on there. And still others said that if they delivered the majority of the tupes of contributions they know they would be meeting expectations anyway. Gone.

They know that what they think/do matters – I will be presenting this updated sheet to them in the next few days. They already know that I value their choices and learning goals in the room. Now I am taking their feedback and working it into the document – and demonstrating their role/importance in the learning environment.

They have voices – and they matter. After all it’s all about their learning (not my teaching). What a process – what a powerful process.








September 10, 2015
by leesensei

A “Refreshing” Day 1- Reminding Them How We Work in Class


Image source:

I made a vow this year that I would not spend my first day of class doing the ‘outline/student info’ massive amount of teacher talk this year. No – my new attitude is to treat the first few days not reviewing material – but rather reviewing the ‘how’ we work in class and reestablishing routines/support.

Just a quick background about the class I am describing. It is a 79 minute (not 80!) Year 3 class on the semestered system.  This is Day 1 described below but the first few days are all designed to drive home the same points…

As they entered…they heard the song of the week. What It Reminds Them: We listen to music as a group here. We will use it for learning, for relaxing and for setting a mood. If you have any music to contribute – please do! And a reminder – no headphones allowed.

Seats are set at tables of four and students find their name card. What It Reminds Them: Your seats will change – with each unit and you are expected to work with/facilitate conversation with both your partner and your table-mates. We face each other and when we work we always have our partner’s, and table’s, support.

Movie trailer for a new anime movie just released in Japan played 2 times and a mini-movie talk exercise – with teacher Q/A and then with their partner. What It Reminds Them:  We will use ‘authentic’ resources in here that you may be interested in as well. You are not expected to understand everything nor are you asked to translate. You will always get a chance to respond, check things out with your partner as well. Relax and look for clues, guess, risk, dare to try!

Screen shot from trailer – with questions for them designed to have them read & talk with each other. (eg. “Find the character for…). What It Reminds Them: When we read we are reading for key pieces of information and not ‘getting everything’ is okay. When we are working and don’t understand something there are key resources to use – our partner, our phone dictionary or paper dictionary. Don’t sit there because you don’t understand – in this class we take out and use our resources when we need them.

Screen shot from trailer – asking them to write a comment to describe the “mood” of the screenshot. Descriptive phrases are then written, 1 per pair, on the board. What It Reminds Them:  That there are ways to describe beyond ‘It’s fun’ using intensifiers (adverbs) etc to differentiate your answer. Forgot a describing word? Your orange “panic package” (okay – it sounds much more fun in Japanese) has all the characters learned, grammar info, word banks we used last year – see what’s in it – and know that you can go there for a reminder if you need to.

Reading a story featuring this year’s character “Mr. Busy” and what he did in the summer. What It Reminds Them: When we read, we read in pairs often and practice “2 and talk” – each partner reading a sentence then talking about what it means. Remember that you have resources as well – phone/paper dictionary is something is not ringing a bell with you. Your teacher will always be circulating to assist as well.

Group read of story and teacher checking for understanding. What It Reminds Them: We will always work through the story together – and you will confirm what you knew as you read and to add any explanations, support and even a pop-up grammar lesson as needed.

Out of Class Work – (homework) – tell me about 4 things you did on your holiday (and maybe something you didn’t do) and how it went. What It Reminds Them: You have information in your hands to support this. You can hand in work in a variety of forms, online or on paper. Remember my email address and if you are sending it in Google Docs – give me permission to edit.

What they didn’t get – a ‘reading of the outline’; a ‘talk about expectations’; a ‘list of rules’. What they did get – a ‘refresher’ on how we operate in class, supports they have & our ‘community feeling’ of working together. My other classes – even the newbie ones – are designed to start reinforcing this message from day 1.  Welcome back – let’s get down to using our language right away!


January 11, 2015
by leesensei

Class Activity Fun: Pictionary! Phrase-onary and even Sentence-onary!

MP900341508Take 30 Yr1’s and 25 minutes to go in the period and a game is needed!  We’ve done the bingo and jeopardy to death and I am without a Kahoot ready for this. So I go back to an old favourite – Pictionary – but “whole class” Pictionary. And not just pictures…eventually phrases and sentences. It’s structured to be a review time if needed and fun/competitive enough to involve them in the spirit of the game. And best of all it draws upon teamwork to succeed.

The Game Rules:

Team Set-Up: I like to play in teams of 5-6 students. They will all be taking a turn drawing – and answering and it gives enough ‘mass’ to work well. I allow one set of notes – upside down in the centre of their table (answers there if they are needed….). They are required to think of a team name in the target language (with 14-year olds this can take 10 minutes!)

Everyone Answers – We’ve all had that one Hermione Granger (Harry Potter reference) – the kid who knows it all (I loved her by the way!). But in my pictionary world it is the team that is key. As soon as you answer for your team you are ‘out’ until everyone else on the team has answered. Of course a student can give an answer to someone on their team – that’s fine. But no putting up your hand until all are called (I often note names for teams to avoid the “But Sensei I haven’t answered yet – really” claim).

The Drawing: No pressure to be a Picasso! Drawing takes place on my whiteboard at the front of the room. All ‘drawers’ are doing so in front of all the teams. Who cares if you can’t draw well – everyone can see all of the pictures – and someone else’s may provide the clue for your team! You don’t need a lot of room – I had 6 teams working on a double board…If you don’t have a lot of board space then large sheets of paper would work I think. “Send up your drawers” – and the students come forward. I give them the word – in English – so the pressure is on the team, not them, to know the word. They aren’t allowed to write words but I do allow ‘am’ ‘pm’ and characters for ‘month’ and ‘day’. Students get the word – get into position and I call ‘start’ and watch for hands going up.

The Progression:

This is the key part for me. We start with individual words – usually a quick few rounds to get them used to the game – and have everyone give an answer. Typically I give 1 point for each but the points don’t matter. Then I start to progress. From a basic word “TV” to “watching TV yesterday” to “I watched TV yesterday with my friends at my house.”  As we move up I will give clues like “This is a phrase” or “its a sentence”. It’s a great review time as, in Japanese, it hits some technical grammar points (particle use) particularly well. As kids guess I will encourage with “close” or “think about…” and other clues. Often the need to have a new ‘answerer’ each time means that they are working together to solve the picture puzzle. We keep going team to team until the correct answer comes out. Of course I add outrageous point values to try to keep it fun!

Pictionary/Phrase-onary/Sentence-onary is a fun alternative for part of a review class, or any other time when you just feel that you ‘need’ a game…





January 6, 2015
by leesensei

The “Oral” Exit Ticket

AToday I finally went back to trying exit tickets to see if my students had ‘got’ the concept. I am increasingly not a big fan of written homework and am always looking for alternate means to  see if they have the idea that we are trying for. I did this in a year 2 and year 3 class.

Disclaimer!!: Today’s exit tickets were very ‘grammar point’ focused but they can also be ‘student choice’ in content (EG “tell me something that you want to do on the weekend”)

What We Did:

Year 2 – we are working on ‘verb groups’ (a concept in Japanese) – they lined up – I gave them a random activity and they told me what group it fell into
Year 3 – we are working on giving highlights of activities done (eg. Today I have to do things like…and ….). We had played a game where they practiced manipulating meaning. Everything from “I want to…”, “I must….”, “I think I will” – in total I had 8 prompts on the board (in English). For the exit ticket, I gave them “Eating snacks” and “Doing Homework” and then said I would ask them one of the 8 prompts on the board. So a student may have to say “Today I must eat snacks, do homework etc” while the next one may have “I think I’ll eat snacks, do homework etc”…

Why I Like It:

Its relatively fast – my class of 30 was done in 10 minutes or so 
Students line up as they are ready
They will practice and practice while in line and consult with each other to make sure they ‘have it’.
If they don’t get it they ‘step out’ until they are ready – then ‘step in and try again’.
They won’t be doing this at home….

It’s quick and fast and can be used for communicative purposes as well as to drive home a sticky grammar point (review or new). The Oral Exit Ticket is what you want it to be.


December 19, 2014
by leesensei

Best of 2014: No. 2 Review in 7 Minute Stations

Hand Displaying Peace SignThe use of stations in class is an ongoing project of mine this year. I have committed to developing 1 station day per unit in each of my Yr 2 & 3 classes. I learned a lot about using them – as two follow up posts – a follow-up post on station management and one outlining my tips for implementing the idea pointed out. This is the post that chronicled my first foray into stations…This post was the second most popular of 2014…

A class of 30 Grade 9′s can be difficult to keep motivated so for a ‘review’ I decided to try stations. I’ve been wanting to try them and the review time seemed like the easiest to do this. I opted to incorporate an aspect of our study method – the ‘Power 7′ idea.

The Basis – The “7 Minute”  Drill –  I have previously blogged about helping students to learn to study using what we call the “Power 7″ method. The idea of short powerful bursts of study – repeated 4-5 times a night – instead of a long study session, prone to distractions, seems to bring results to those who find concentrating difficult. As students get better at this method they increase the time – up to 20 min/session. Many use it now in other classes for review. Keep in mind they are not memorizing lists out of context – but this is a way they use to review vocabulary etc. prior to reading or to work on their vocabulary for writing (always marked holistically – the aim is to minimize high frequency errors).

How Many Stations?

  • For a class of 30 students – 65 minutes I set up 8 stations – you could do more – that the students would rotate through.
  • 4 desks in a square for a station with room for 4 students (2 pairs) at each station

What Goes on the Table?

  • Flashcards (2 sets – 1 per pair): I use flashcards a lot in class. Often they are a set consisting of a Japanese word and a picture. They are used many ways – from concentration matching to fun ‘who can name the object first’ competitions with their partner. I had flashcards for 1/2 the stations already ready. But for the first few units I was missing them – until I thought to use my Quizlet files. All of the unit information is loaded into them for study opportunities for students. So I printed out the early chapters in the large size – copied them onto paper/cut out the cards and I had ‘English-Japanese’ ones.
  • “I can statements” (2 pages – 1 per pair) – I have a set of “I can..” statements for each chapter – I also printed up a list of these and put them at the table. If students finished their cards early they could quiz each other by asking “Can you….?” and seeing if their partner could do the task.
  • Unit ‘sheets’ with the answers on them  – that is the phrases/words in both the Target Language and English (note: my students had their own unit sheets so I didn’t need to provide these)

How Long?

  • Initially I was not sure how long to give the students at each station. Ten minutes seemed a bit long – so we started out at 5. I think its best to underestimate what is needed and in fact, at the end of the first station time, my students requested that we go to 7 minutes per table. It is true that for some groups – with students who typically achieve above expectations – they were done well within the 7 minutes. For other pairs this was not long enough. But it is enough to start reminding kids of what we had covered.

Focus of Review –  Given that there are both English and Japanese (or a picture) for each this lends itself well to using the stations different ways at different times. In my initial 65 minute period I only used it for Reading Comprehension.

  • Listening Comprehension Round –  look at  the word in the Target Language – read it out loud to your partner – do you know it in English? Then your partner takes a card and reads it to you.
  • Reading Comprehension Round – look at  the word in the Target Language – read it with your partner – do you know it in English?
  • Written Practice Round – Look at the English or picture card – write it out in the Target language – check with your unit sheets – did you write it correctly?


  • Reconfirmation of how to review/study – this serves to underscore the idea that effective study (short/concentrated) can be more useful than a longer period where people are easily distracted.
  • Reconfirmation of how to help someone understand – without asking them to do so I saw a lot of partners not giving the answer but actually miming, acting out or giving hints rather than just tell the answer. This confirmed to me that my message of how to assist someone who doesn’t understand has been received.
  • Partners helping each other in a relaxed  way – there was high energy and lots of laughter – two great things to see during an activity that could have been a boring run through previously seen material

As a chance to dip my toe into the station world this was a good first experience. I’ll do more of them again not just for review but also for variety in the class. More to come!


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