Classroom Management Hack

Making Pairs with an Odd Number of Students

This year I started teaching a new version of a course: a second-year extensive reading-based class. The class is an elective compulsory class (so the students have to take it, but they can choose which teacher to take it with, and the teachers have free rein to determine the content of the class).

The new version consists of 35 minutes of silent reading (students can also work on their preparation sheet for speaking during this time) followed by about 35 minutes of speaking and ten minutes of writing.

During the speaking part students talk to each other about a book they read this week. They have a preparation sheet where they have already written about their book which they can use to help them.

My colleague Dan E. suggested I try the ‘speed dating’ format for this, and we ended up with students working in pairs for five minutes, then changing partner and repeating. We usually manage about five iterations. Students can use their preparation sheets the first couple of times, but should try not to after that.

The key to this is to spend as little time as possible making pairs and moving, in order to maximise student talking time. The easiest way I know to do this is to create a map of the classroom on the board (see picture above). The white squares are desks. The yellow rectangles are two desks pushed together.

I number the students, then they move to their initial pair and do the first iteration of speaking. Then I ask the students facing the window to stand up and move 2-3 spaces up to a new partner. Repeat as many times as you want to (although be aware of when students are going to cycle back to the initial point).

This works very well for pairs, but I had 31 students today. Thankfully I found an easy solution. I made a group of three with the extra person, but (this is the key) all three of them were ‘facing the window’. This, combined with having students move up three spaces each time they changed, meant that no one student was stuck in the 3-group more than once.

In fact, the students seemed to enjoy the 3-group for the novelty, so it worked out really well.

This seems like a small, unimportant tweak, but it solved a problem that had been bothering me for a while 🙂

The 2016 That Was

I like the end of the year. I normally have a few days off, and it’s a good time to reflect.

Since 2013 I’ve been doing annual reviews and plans. This is a wonderful habit to start if you’re not doing it already. Really helps you think about what you want to be doing with your hours.

This year has been pretty quiet here at sendaiben. I’ve been putting most of my blogging energy into my personal finance site RetireJapan so there haven’t been as many posts here.

In fact, I only wrote 38 posts this year.

Teaching-wise, 2016 was quietly successful. My university classes are pretty nailed down, but we still managed to come put with some solid improvements for our extensive reading and discussion classes on last year.

The Cambridge Academy developed a lot this year, and next year is looking extremely promising too. We should have finished our homebrew curriculum for 1st-year junior high school students in time for the April start. I will, of course, be keeping you posted.

How was your 2016?

A Smorgasbord of Updates

Life has been very busy in the almost two months since the last post. Here are a number of small news items.


1. Extensive Reading Outreach

I am working with another high school in Sendai, mainly providing advice on which books to buy and how to encourage students to read. The teachers and librarian there are really enthusiastic and open to suggestions, so it’s been a lot of fun so far. Hoping to see their reading program develop.

2. University Classes

Continued to develop classes here at Tohoku University, particularly the new ‘high level’ ones.

3. PELLT Expansion

We’ve made some new pages on PELLT, with more to come soon.

4. Cambridge Academy Development

Some progress, including training part-timers to take the ER classes, getting more books, and working on the fluency program in the output classes.

5. RetireJapan

Lots of new content on the RetireJapan site, and featured speaker at JALT national.

Hope to have some more posts for you soon 🙂


The New School Year

The school year starts in April in Japan, and my university classes start next week.

cherry blossoms

In the first semester I’ll be continuing with the extensive reading classes according to the ER@TU system, as well as trialing the latest version of Dan E’s discussion curriculum. We’re hoping to write a discussion manual later in the year, similar to the extensive reading one. I think the content for this next manual will be even more ground-breaking and useful for teachers.

My focus for the first semester will be to get to know my students better and provide them with more personalized support. Right now I feel my systems are good, so the classes are decent, but the next step is to try to make personal connections with students.

With over 400 students this won’t be easy, but I think it’s worth trying.

What is your goal for the new school year?

Kaizen, the art of gradual improvement

An essential part of program development


I mentioned kaizen (continuous improvement) at the end of my talk on ER program design.

Kaizen is making things better, continuously. Basically finding and solving problems over and over again. Over time, this results in huge improvements and the evolution of programs.

I’ve been very fortunate to be able to work with my colleague Dan E at Tohoku University, who is a master of kaizen. Thanks to this, our extensive reading program is several orders of magnitude better than it was when we started collaborating.

At Cambridge English as well, thinking back to when we started over ten years ago the school and the classes are unrecognizable. Almost everything we do, we do better now.

But kaizen does not happen automatically. It requires teachers to have the desire and the ability to make changes. It also requires a culture of development, where problems lead to solutions that are implemented across the board. Communication is essential and talking about problems with colleagues leads to better solutions.

Some examples of kaizen at Tohoku University:

  • improving worksheets so that students understand them better
  • developing bilingual explanations
  • sharing effective class activities
  • developing protocols to deal with cheating
  • having students write book reports in class instead of for homework

Examples of kaizen at Cambridge English:

  • developing electronic and paper record keeping
  • writing student names in romaji on everything (books, notebooks, attendance cards)
  • developing lesson plans
  • choosing materials
  • organizing the classroom

As you can see, nothing groundbreaking. The main point is that improvements are continuous, problems are dealt with as they come up, solutions are reached through communicating with colleagues and are implemented by everyone.

Kaizen is barely noticeable in the short term, but over a longer period the improvements are staggering.

Do you have any positive or negative experiences with kaizen?

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