Thursday, April 19, 2007


I have decided to move to for 3 reasons:

1. I thnk Wordpress is better: for creating multiple pages, automatic RSS feeds, cropping pics, and more options (some cost though)

2. In general, the most visually appealing blogs that I've run into have overwhelmingly been wordpress blogs (and I'm vain).

3. There seems to be more room to grow in wordpress (and I'd like to grow)

Having said that, I'd like to express my thanks to this free blogger service for being relatively easy to navigate and for getting me started.


Steve Herder

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Takin my chances and the learning curve's gonna be a steep one!

Well, having thrown out all textbooks this year (ask if you wanna know why) I'm now forced to think just about each and every day. I just spent four months studying Syllabus and Materials via the Birmingham MA TEFL and now it's time to "put up or shut up". I used 4500 words to trash textbooks (sorry D.N.), define my theory of learning and present my new theory of practice.

In a nutshell, my recipe looks like this:

I'm going to explore Paul Nation's four strand approach as the base of my lessons (equal parts of input, output, focus on form, and fluency), throw in a supplementary extensive reading program, add a pinch of motivation and a dash of learner autonomy. I'd also like to try to garnish the whole thing with some juicy 'lexical chunks' and top it off with a "judicious" smidgeon of the mother tongue for the struggling girls.

Tomorrow, I'm going to try a dictogloss type activity with the following original text in a Ko II and Ko III Oral class (20 students/elementary level):

Why are Japanese people so good at business and so good at making things like cars, cameras and other electronics? Why are Japanese people so good at some sports like figure skating, baseball and synchronized swimmimg? Why do many people think that Japanese food is the most delicious food in the world? And finally, why are a few Japanese people really good at English but so many other people are not at all good at English? I think I recently found part of the answer. Actually, there are two answers:

1. You need to make an effort. All the things Japanese are good at take a really big effort. Most people fail at English because they don’t try, not because they have no talent. I’m pretty sure that if you make an effort, all of you can be better at English. This year I want you to get a little better at English by trying either listening, reading, writing or speaking.

2. You need to balance studying English and using English. In Japan, the balance is about 90% studying and 10% using. You must try to make more chances to use English in order to make the balance a little closer to 50-50. What are some ways you can make a better balance?

I may dictogloss the first paragraph and do an info gap activity with points 1. and 2. as follows:

1. You need to ________ an effort. All the things Japanese are good at take a really big effort. Most people fail at English ________ they don’t try, not because they have no ________. I’m pretty sure that if you make an effort, all of you can be ________ at English. This year I want you to get a little better at English by trying either listening, reading, ________ or speaking.

2. You need to balance studying English and ________ English. In Japan, the ________ is about 90% studying and 10% using. You must try to make more chances to use English in order to make the balance a little ________ to 50-50. What are some ________ you can make a better balance?

I'm walking into class with a plan and we'll see what happens when reality hits. This may turn out to be another activity to add to the "Retrospective Syllabus". I wrote in my latest essay:

A teacher’s primary role is to imagine opportunities for learning when planning a lesson or a syllabus; and then, more importantly, to notice opportunities for learning when interacting in the classroom. A classroom is a fluid environment and what is planned so often does not resemble what actually happens.

OK, I've put you through enough for one sitting. I apologize if anyone is still reading. Let's all go get some rest...

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Are you a "Praise Junkie" too?

Wow! What an article by Po Bronson in the New York Magazine! I just finished it and want to send it to anyone and everyone. It's not even settled in my brain yet but the reverberations I'm feeling are powerful - both as a parent of young children and as a teacher.

I had previously decided that the two tenets of my approach to teaching this year would be EFFORT and BALANCE. This article gives some very clear and specific ideas about the importance of effort and ways to focus on the effort that students make. It also provides a number of results from studies, revealing the positive and negative results of what we say to our students.

Here's the link:

Another link to Carol Dweck, the researcher referred to in the article:

Finally, thanks to this interesting blog for the link to the article:

Time to get to bed early for a change,


Saturday, April 7, 2007

More info for Jimbo

I sense you are a busy man, Jimbo, so I want to thank you for taking the time to leave comments and ask follow-up questions.

Jimbo said:
I really liked the themes you had written for each grade. I think it is the way English in schools should be. In the schools I worked at 中 3 was not the last chance to get the basics. It seemed to me that by the time students reached 中 3 they had absolutely no chance of catching up if they fell behind in 中1 and 中2. Perhaps your school is different from the schools I have worked at.

I say:
I have to totally agree with you regarding the 中3 comment - in theory. It seems to be that the cut off line for English students to either 'get it' or not happens much earlier than 中3. I'm not sure if more students give up on English in 中1 or 中2, but the 中2 theme actually came from hearing too many girls mumbling "Eigo dekinai" (I can't do English) to themselves during class.

I tend to see the glass half-full more than half-empty in most situations, and therefore when I was thinking about a 中3 theme, I wanted to appeal to their sense of "never surrender". Having survived puberty in 中2 and become top dog in the JHS, they start 中3 in an interesting psychological state. They are actually likeable again and almost ready to handle being negotiated with. In the past few years I've gotten more head nodding from the 中3s during this theme presentation than most other classes. They seem to believe that I'm on their side and speaking the truth (i.e. your life will be HELL in high school English class if you don't buckle down this year and make some progress - and I know you CAN do most anything if you put your mind to it).

Your comment makes me want to emphasize the reality of 'keeping up' in 中1 and 中2 even more than before. Thanks a lot.

You said:
In the high school I worked at the theme for 高III would have been "study, study, study for the exam".

I say:
Point well taken. Yes, the university exam takes almost all of their attention, for almost all of the year. For years I felt like I was adding to their stress rather than supporting them during this stressful time. So, a few years ago I changed my syllabus to focus more on 'self-awareness' and 'make yourself the best you can be'. I promised to try and make the two periods a week an 'oasis' from exam study, a place to "enjoy using all the English that you've learned til now". I do many personality tests, Show and Tell, movie scene-acting, poster presentations, impromptu speaking, simplified debating, poetry, warm fuzzies, the enneagram, 100 things about me, You teach a lesson, chicken soup stories, more psychological quizzes, etc.

The 'polish, polish' was a wimpy translation of "migaku, migaku" which has some meaning to most of the students via their mothers or teachers, that the more they become 'polished' young ladies, the brighter their future will be.

My batting average is about .750 using this approach. Happily, about 75% of the girls really do look forward to our class each week. Unfortunately, I lose the other 25% almost completely, either mentally or physically.

You said:
Just out of curiosity, what kind of school do you teach at?

It's a 80 year-old private Catholic girls junior and senior high school. We are not as academically oriented as we are holistically oriented. That being said, we certainly support all the girls - from those who want to go to national public universities to those who want to go to a trade school.

If you look around my blog, you'll find my school's HP.

You said:
Regarding your new theme, what do you mean by the right balance in life? Balance between work and play?

Yes, or risk/safety, excitement/boredom, challenge/comfort, praise/criticism, highs/lows - anything at all that we feel that we want more of or less of in our lives.

The older I get (soon 44) the simpler the formula seems to be. Everything in life works best when in balance. That's not to say that we need to live within a very narrow prism of experiences. In fact, my 'foreign-ness' cringes at the sometimes perceived sheltered life of many of my students in Japan. However, when I compare it to the ugliness of the reality that many Canadian kids have to face at such a young age, I always think the best scenario falls somewhere between the two extremes.

Being in Japan for 18 years, I've also realized few things in life are black and white. For example the differences between Japan and Canada are not good or bad, they are simply different. When we can take the best of both worlds and balance them together, we will be happier.

You said:
I am looking forward to hearing more about your new grading system and how it works out.

Thanks. So am I. I'm convinced that if we reward EFFORT, explicitly and consistently, we can reach the vast majority of the students who are not intrinsically test oriented. If we can then show students the relationship between EFFORT and improvement, the system will begin to feed into itself.

I would love to hear anyone's experience with this kind of approach.

If you're still reading at this point, thanks for your perseverence. I'm realizing I tend to babble...



Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Two secrets to life and learning English

Every year I try to pick a theme for the first day of classes. They are sometimes related to news events, "Welcome to the Major League" when Ichiro first went to the States or "Just Talk" based on a home-made video of a bar full of foreigners all riffing on the word TALK. The past few years I have used one phrase for each grade:

中1- Think Big!,

中2 - Be an 'I can do it' type,

中3 - Last Chance (to get the basics),

高I - A Fresh Start (your turn to lead),

高II - Express Yourself (speaking and writing),

高III - Polish, Polish (step into the world)

This year, I've decided to go with one theme for all six grades. I guess it's the result of all the reading I've been forced to do for the MA TEFL course.

I'm just starting to work on it now but it'll be something like:

In Life,

1. If you make an EFFORT the RESULTS will follow.

2. If you find the right BALANCE in your life, you'll also find HAPPINESS.

In Learning English,

1. If you make a big EFFORT in my class you'll get top marks.

2. If you can BALANCE English KNOWLEDGE and English USE you will be successful. School will give you plenty of KNOWLEDGE about English, but many people in Japan fail because they don't have any balance; you must also USE English in order to improve.

I'm hoping to change my grading system in such a way as to maximize points for EFFORT and minimize points for test results. This is based on my belief that tests are motivational for maybe 20% of the class and de-motivational for 80% of the students. I will claim that if students truly make an effort, the results will come naturally.

Any comments or suggestions are certainly welcome...

What do teachers "make"?

If you were ever in doubt about the value of what you're doing every day in the teaching "trenches", then here's a little test for you:

Watch the following video and and see how it makes you feel...

It's easy to be a mediocre teacher but what a challenge to be the best you can be!


Friday, March 16, 2007

A Response to Marco Polo

Re: Yaruki Points, Marco Polo says...

I've done something similar, but now I'm wondering about it. Why give a grade for participation? Does it make a difference if students know beforehand whether the teacher is grading on a curve (norm-referenced) or not?

My C$ 0.02 - Participation makes a class more interesting, more active and more fun. Participation doesn't often happen naturally in Japan so forcing it at the beginning can lead to a more interactive process. Interaction can be a catalyst for "negotiated meaning", developing Interlanguage, starting or deepening T-S or S-S friendships, confidence building, etc

Are they "participating" because they fear failing, because they assume they are competing with their peers, because they are genuinely interested in learning?

My C$ 0.02 - Could be any number of reasons but I'm not really sure if it matters why they participate as long as they actually get experience USING English and can get used to doing so in a friendly, supportive environment.

It's a tall order for any of us, but if teachers are excited to teach and can create a positive feeling classroom, human nature dictates that most people are often likely "to want to join in on the fun."

Another question I have (for myself) is whether a subjective "participation/attitude" score isn't a cop-out because I can't be bothered (or have failed adequately) to assess their actual competence?

I often wonder about the same thing. I also wonder if my grades reflect anything realistic about their competence or whether grades only reflect students' ability to jump through the hoops I create.

On the other hand, participation can be considered an important aspect of learning, especially in the light of Vygotsky's ZPD theory. (see James Lantolf for further work on this). But... after reading this paper by David Jeffrey, I wonder, isn't this just bribery? You could substitute the tokens with cookies, thousand-yen notes, or sex, and get pretty much guaranteed successful "results". But is that what I want?

My C$ 0.02 - Cookies, thousand-yen notes, or sex certainly work wonders on me. I know I often need to be pushed to get things done. Deadlines, expectations, guilt, flattery, praise, etc., are all motivators that again are a part of the characteristic that all teachers and students share - human nature.

Polo さん - Thanks so much for taking the time to both read and comment. I look forward to continuing to share ideas, experiences and perspectives. There's still so much to learn and to be reminded of having learned at some point in the past.


Wednesday, March 14, 2007

"Yaruki" points as part of a classmark

"Yaruki" (やる気), loosely translated means "one's desire to do something, or one's enthusiasm or drive".

Dave Kees, has cleverly elicited three responses from me on the topic of how and why to use a classmark as part of my oral communication classes. I started calling students' efforts they made in class, YARUKI POINTS, as a way to praise students. Here are my responses linked together:

1) I found this link by Christine Coombe talking about portfolio marking, and plan to try it out in my EFL high school situation in Japan.

2) I've had tremendous success with a simple visual grid with student names on it this year. As soon as they saw me recording participation points next to their names, hands shot up all year.

The courses are "Oral Communication" (about 20 students)and therefore there is a premium placed on communicating. I welcome questions, follow-ups, and comments on what I or other students say in class. I also semi-regularly elicit error corrections and attempt to give non-verbal types the chance to collect points through written efforts. Whenever students participate they get credit for that. The students are told that their tests make up 60-70% of their grade and their classmark is 30-40% (depending on the class).

Of course, there are many ways to calculate a classmark. From objective formulas to subjective opinions, the classmark evolves from class to class. Say a typical class has a 30% classmark. I first present the classmark idea and explain my belief that learning should be a goal throughout the course, not just for the tests. I state in a loud voice that I believe that using English leads to more learning than simply studying “about” English.

Some components of the mark can include how many diaries they hand in (graded at 1 or 2 points each), how many participation stars (*s) they accumulate next to their name on my seating chart, how actively I've noted that they participate in pairwork or groupwork, how much effort I see and feel them making in class, etc.

The calculation can be general (pick a class average, say, 20/30 and mark each student up or down from the average) or it can be specific (using excel, breaking the classmark into various columns, and totaling their efforts). I have used both systems.

The whole classmark concept rests on the premise that you must get to know your students. I'm always trying to find ways to connect with them both inside and outside of class. Each time I get to know them a little more, it pays dividends in terms of classroom interaction, a relaxed, friendly study environment and, hopefully, learning opportunities.


Monday, March 12, 2007

Follow-up on Exploratory Practice

To the prolific Marco Polo,

I met a friendly, approachable teacher, Craig Smith, about a year ago at an ER colloquium at Kyoto Gaidai Nishi High School. He gave a wonderful presentation, complete with live KUFS students, on extensive reading. He also handed out a paper he wrote on his experience with EP at KUFS and Kyoto University. His writing was very clear and meaningful. Here is the link:

If anyone can't access it, and wants to read it, I have it at home.



Dick Allwright's Exploratory Practice

What a wonderful distraction! I first came into contact with Allwright's ideas when researching the topic of classroom interaction for my first essay. He immediately struck me as being practical, wise and accessible in his ideas. I have since read various things he has written about Exploratory Practice (EP) and always look forward to bumping into him again.

Serendipitously, through trying to buy some used books online, I was introduced to Jane Rose, a recent Bham grad, who did her distinction level thesis on EP. One e-mail led to another and I just finished reading her wonderful thesis reflecting her research in an EFL situation in Finland.

I may have been scared to death of EP at the start of my teaching career, but the older/more experienced I get, the more interesting it looks. I hesitate to try to describe it here and now, but encourage anyone who is interested in better understanding 'life in the classroom' to check it out.

Many thanks to Marco Polo for this updated link: