What do I do with my free time and ¥315?

My seniors are graduating. My classes are ending. My days are opening up.

The other teachers will be off, but since I’m a contracted worker, I will be working full-time through the March break (the Japanese school year ends in February and begins in April with a two month break in July and August). Though I will fine tune some of the curriculum I planned last year,  I won’t be able to make any solid changes until I meet the new teachers I will be team-teaching with in April (the teachers I work with also change with the new school year).

So what is an educator to do with no students and virtually no lesson planning?


Make Classroom Tools!


I spent a few bucks at the local Daiso (dollar store) and got myself a black oil marker, some watercolors, and a giant sheet of paper. Six hours later and I had this beauty to hang in my classroom!


What is the difference between a classroom tool and a classroom decoration?

When I imagine a classroom decoration, I think of those rolls of paper for sale at teaching supply stores for taping around the borders of the class bulletin board. They are fantastic for brightening up a classroom and drawing attention, but outside of those functions, they don’t necessarily serve a direct, educational purpose.

A classroom tool is a visual, tangible, or other sensory mechanism by which students can derive educational information. Most classrooms are covered in them, from posters to reminder notes to hanging displays. They are a great method of creating a learning space and giving the students the tools to remind themselves of key learning concepts or learn independently.

Obviously the there isn’t a solid line separating decorations and learning tools because there’s no reason why a classroom tool can’t be decorative. In fact, classroom tools should be decorative! Visually pleasing posters and notices will get a lot more attention from students, especially spacial and visual learners, which is why it is important to make educational tools clear and pleasant.

At all of the four schools I teach at, only one school gives me a set classroom, and it is that classroom alone that is decorated…with Spanish posters. They don’t even offer a Spanish class anymore! These posters are relics of a bygone era.

So that’s what I’m doing with my March. I’m going to renovate my one single dedicated English classroom. It will be beautiful. It started last week with my new Months of the Year poster.

I will keep you posted on my progress.


Getting in the Olympic Spirit!

Here are the hard copies of a lesson I created for my students about the Sochi Olympics at my academic Japanese high school. The lesson plan was as follows:

  1. Make a small introduction about the Olympics. I mentioned the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 and explained that the Winter Olympics this were in a place called Sochi.
  2. Read the Sochi Winter Games passage slowly. I told my students to listen only (no notes, no stress), so they could warm up their ears to the English.
  3. Play Dictionary Race. I handed out the Dictionary Race worksheets and the students and I practiced pronunciation of the new vocabulary with a round of “Repeat after me!”. I directed my students to make teams of 4-6 people and compete in Dictionary Race (basically they race to fill their worksheet out with the correct definitions to the new vocabulary).
  4. Pass out the Q & A worksheet. Read the questions and have the students repeat after you. Ask students if they understand the questions, and clarify meaning where necessary. Direct the students to take notes as you read the passage again.
  5. Read the Sochi Winter Games passage slowly. The team teacher will  check that students are taking notes.
  6. Pass out copies of the Sochi passage. Have students work in pairs or groups and answer the questions on the Q & A worksheet.
  7. Check answers. Haave students write answers for Q & A sheet on the board. Go over answers with students.
  8. Wrap-up. Encourage students to check out the Olympics and cheer for their athletes.

Click to download!

Click to download!

Click to download!


Photos taken from Google Images. Copyright infringment not intended. I do not claim ownership of the photos on the worksheets, only the written content.

Phonemic Awareness: Using Nonsense to Break Bad Habits

First, let me tell you about Miss Caitlin.

Back in California in 2011, not having yet transferred my teaching license from Massachusetts, I was working privately for a tutoring company. About a year into my work there, I had a young student come in whose parents were worried about her performance in class.

Miss Caitlin, as we shall call her herein, was altogether a rather proper seven year old girl. Exceptionally bright and independent, but also very particular, she was the type of student who minded when the process wasn’t being followed. When she noticed that I had forgotten to give certain directions for an activity or to check the homework I had given her, she would quietly but firmly remind me. I tell you, she was adorable.

Despite her obvious intelligence, Caitlin’s grades had stagnated at school in reading and math. Though she loved reading, especially together with her big sister and mom, she had fallen below grade level in literacy at school. Her teacher had noticed. Her parents were worried. Caitlin was withdrawing.

During our first session, I let her peruse our center’s library and choose a book she wanted to read to me. I wanted to assess her reading skills. She chose a 4th grade level book. She was in 2nd grade.

As she worked her way through that first page, I noticed that while she was reading at a decent speed and could read complex words, like “sight”, she was struggling with simple words, like “that” and the flow of her reading was uneven. She tended to skip or speed over relatively simple words and exhibited signs of frustration when  I prompted her to go back and try again. I stopped her at the end of the page and asked her comprehension questions about the text, and she was able to answer them.

Clearly Miss C was struggling with sounding out the words and, being a wildly clever girl, had learned to compensate with a combination of memorization and inference. Unfortunately, one can only get so far in reading without the ability to sound out words.

Learning Theory Note:

A student’s ability to add to his or her personal lexicon, the words he or she understands, begins expanding rapidly somewhere in early elementary school. A major part of that growth comes from literacy.

It is common practice in the United States to teach both phonics and sight words (high frequency words that don’t follow typical patterns of pronunciation, like “have” or “friend”) in second grade. Phonics are a system used to teach phonemic awareness, the ability to attach sounds to the letters. When reading, one typically recognizes some words on sight and has to use decoding strategies, letter-sound relationship rules, for unfamiliar words.

Adults read using mostly their sight word bank, but kids rely heavily on decoding. As a result, early elementary educators tend to devote a lot of energy to phonics in hopes that the students will adopt the decoding techniques that they will later be depending on.

To be fair, phonics are not always the most riveting part of a Kindergartener or 1st grader’s day. Many high functioning students can get away with memorizing words, sentences, and even whole books without using any decoding techniques to sound out the words. While this can work for a while, eventually the number of words a kid is exposed to will outstrip that child’s ability to memorize them, which is where decoding becomes essential.

Back to Miss Caitlin…

Students who tend to skip over small words when reading and exhibit frustration when prompted to sound an unfamiliar word out are most likely students who have been getting away with not practicing their decoding techniques. Miss C was definitely one of these kids.

As I was working with her, it became clear that she had begun associating correction as failure. When I redirected her or prompted her while she was reading, it affected her ability to concentration and generally upset her–not uncommon for students who are aware that they are not performing as well as they think they should be.

So what is a teacher to do?


One Saturday morning, I told Miss Caitlin that we were going to try something new–she wasn’t into that, but I assured her it would be fun (I may have assured her with candy).

I reviewed the more difficult phonics patterns (The Magic “e” and “er”, “ir”, & “ur” vs. “ar” &”or”) with her and then wrote this on a paper.


“Caitlin, could you read that word for me?”

“That’s not a word. Is that a word?”

“It’s not a real word. This is a nonsense word!”

Caitlin clearly did not like this new activity. She stared at the word, as if its existence threatened hers.

“Let’s try sounding it out.”

I covered the -OR and let her sound out the L, which she did, begrudgingly. Then, I covered the L and had her sound out the -OR.

“That wasn’t so bad was it?” Her tiny, noncommittal shrug was better than the brooding that I had been dealing with the past week. “Caitlin, this is what we are going to be doing from now on to help practice your sounding out skills.”

To continue the game I would cross out one letter and replace it with another:


Or add or subtract letters:


(Honestly, the potential modifications are endless with this one.)

In a short period of time, which is a credit to Miss C’s voracious appetite for knowledge and candy*, I was stringing together nonsense and having her separate the syllables and decode them:


Because Miss C was dealing with nonsense words, she didn’t feel the same pressure as she did when faced with words she felt she should already know. Eliminating that source of frustration, her decoding skills quickly improved and were noted by both her parents and her homeroom teacher.

Though not necessarily a requirement for most classrooms, I am a personal subscriber to the magic of nonsense (words) for teaching decoding. It removes the influence, positive or negative, of sight words and rote memorization and pushes students to use decoding as a tool to navigate unfamiliar reading territory.

It is a useful teaching tool to have in the back pocket in case of a literacy emergency!

Thanks for reading! Happy New Year!


*I would like to note that I wasn’t stuffing this kid full of sugar. By the end of each week, she got to choose one candy to take home with her and eat, at the discretion of her parents. If we had had flashy craft store gemstones, temporary tattoos of puppies and kitties, or Popsicle sticks with faces on them, I would have used those; it just so happened that the workplace was jam packed with candy.

That day I taught high school students about Venn Diagrams

Oh, Venn diagrams, you lovely things. I remember learning about you in elementary school.

Much like brainstorm webs, Venn diagrams are the visual learner’s best friend. What better way to make “Compare and Contrast” thinking palatable to young minds?

It might be surprising to learn that students in Japan have no idea what a Venn diagram is. It’s not part of their curricula, but, since Venn diagrams are so intuitive, they took to them like ducks to water.

I first tested this Venn Diagram lesson with students at my technical high school. Students who attend technical high schools are those studying Engineering, Architecture, Mechanics and Computer Science. In short, they are collectively some of the most visual students I have. They really seemed to get a kick out of the diagrams, and the surveys were a good opportunity to get everyone to actively participate and encourage expressive English usage. This lesson was a blast.

I used this Taking Surveys Lesson Plan for the Guide to Backward Design, but here is the worksheet for the main activity! Enjoy!

Click to Download!

How to Write a Lesson Plan for Uber Beginners!

For a lot of fresh faces in the teaching game, especially those who have been thrown into teaching without a formal background in education, making a lesson plan can be daunting. It’s one thing to assist in a classroom and an entirely different thing to have to design and implement a lesson with actual learning goals by yourself!

Here is my broken down guide to Backward Design lesson planning. I am a huge promoter of Backward Design. Traditional methods of lesson planning involve choosing a game, activity or textbook first and determining lesson goals later. Backward Design involves outlining a learning goal first, then choosing a game, activity or textbook that serves that purpose. In practice, I have found that Backward Design allows for a more personalized lesson that caters more directly to the needs of the students.

Use this to help you! It’s as basic as lesson plans get!

Click to Download!

1. First Step: Define your lesson goals

Determine what skills you would like your students to walk away from the lesson with. This can be as simple as “Students will learn to use the period (full stop) at the end of every sentence.” or as complex as “Students will learn to identify and use helping verbs in the present tense.”

In the example lesson plan, I abbreviate Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening to R, W, S and L, respectively, and note them under the Learning Goals.

2. Second Step: Choose a warm-up activity

What basic, previously learned skills will the students be using in this lesson? What foundation do you want them to have going into this lesson? A warm-up activity should involve review of some kind. Students should never be thrown into a lesson where all the material is new to them.

The warm-up should build confidence and re-establish the base knowledge the students will need to learn the new material–this is part of scaffolding (instructional support for students). This can be as simple as flashcard vocabulary review. Personally I like having a short activity that involves physical movement–it helps students wake up and re-focus.

3. Third Step: Introduce the new material

Introduce the new material! Keep it snappy! Make sure to present it to learners of all kinds!

Here I usually provide a handout, in addition to giving a verbal, and sometimes physical, explanation. If your students are old enough, this is where they will be taking notes.

Make sure to clarify any confusion. This is the time for the students to ask questions!

4. Fourth Step: Choose the main activity

The main activity should allow students to practice using the new material they just learned and allow the teacher to assess whether the lesson goals were reached. This can be in the form of a game, activity, worksheet or journal depending on the subject.

The ideal class lesson aims for that “Sweet Spot”, otherwise known as the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). This is the area of development where students need a teacher’s assistance in order to learn. If the lesson is something students can feasibly do on their own, it can be too easy and leads to glassy-eyed kids. If the lesson is too difficult, it becomes frustrating, and the kids will shut down.

So how do you know where your ZPD is? ZPD is dependant on far more than the academic ability of your students. Teacher to student ratio, classroom behavioral traits, resources and time all play heavily into where your ZPD is. The best thing to do at the beginning is to prepare lessons that can easily be leveled down or up during the running of the class. Also, consult teachers who have previously taught the class! After you get to know your students, you will figure it out.

4. Fifth  Step: Think about assessment

Teachers should always walk away from the lesson with a good idea of what was absorbed and what wasn’t for the sake of future lesson goals. This is where assessment becomes essential.

I usually incorporate assessment into my main activity. The most basic assessment is observing your students, and this can be done for any type of activity. Which questions were easy, and which ones were difficult? How are students solving their problems? More formal assessment can involve correcting classwork and administering tests and quizzes.

5. Last Step (You made it!): Make your classroom materials

I like to note what learning materials I will need for each activity, but that’s just because I need the reminder (especially when dusting off a lesson after a while).

Having visual, clear classroom materials will also help visual students learn in class!

Autumn Jeopardy

It certainly doesn’t feel like Fall anymore here in Okayama, but here’s a fully loaded Autumn Jeopardy Power Point for your class!

The categories include: Guess the Monster, Fall Activities, Fall Food, Put It In Order, Monster Quiz, and Spelling. The focus of the game is to practice reading comprehension, spelling (changing katakana to English) and to expand student’s understanding of fall holidays in the United States.

Pick it up! Put it down! Strip it! Make it yours!

Click to Download!

Endangered Species ELL/ESL Materials!

I’m loving the textbooks at my academic high school, especially because they have an eco-conscious focus. During this lesson, we had been reading about gorillas, so I designed a supplemental lesson about endangered species. This is designed for intermediate/advanced ESL/ELL learners.

I jump at any chance to be able to talk about current events and science in these classes, so I went all out on these worksheets. The amazing photos are courtesy of NatGeo and Google Images.

Click to Download!

Click to Download!

Click to Download!


Here are some supplementary materials to accompany the worksheets.

Click to Download!

Click to Download!