Tool #10: Flickr: Pictures with Tags

I convinced quite a few members of my family to subscribe to Flickr, and this is the best way to use it. This site organizes your pictures and shows them to people you know (and some you don’t know). Here’s my personal page.

flickrBy now you know about bookmarks and tags, and the best thing about Flickr is that you can tag your pictures for easy search. You can control who sees your pictures (ask me to upgrade you to Friend status to see some pictures of parties I have been to).

You can get a small “widget,” a piece of software, to insert onto your home page to put up pictures from your account. But you can also use the Flickr pictures to search for images that can help you in teaching. Try an experiment: search for the word frustrated, and see what kind of pictures come up.

Tool #9: Delicious

Originally called, you can find this web site at

Delicious web site for tokyokevin
Delicious web site for tokyokevin

Using Delicious has several advantages over regular bookmarks (or favorites). First, the sites you save are saved to the delicious computer, so you can access from any computer. Once you save a bookmark, you can give it many different tags (for example, my web site here might have 3 ro 4 tags, such as teaching, learning, language, tokyo, kevinryan, japan, computers, and women.  I can then search b any of these terms to find the web page I want.

By far the most important, though, is that you can share your bookmarks and tags with other people. You can find other people that are interested in the same kinds of things you are, and look at their bookmarks.

I often get all my students in my computer literacy class to sign up for delicious, and we make a small group to share bookmarks. When we do a research project, we can help each other find interesting sites. They are shared immediately and automatically. Very simple, very powerful.

Tool #8: Tagging

Tagging is a simple concept with great power. Tags are similar to bookmarks (or favorites, in Internet Exporer), but they are also so much more. Tags are central to the new social media and web pages in the last few years.

Tags are labels. You can put as many tags on a web page as you like. That way, when you search for information, you can get different lists of web pages depending on the key words (tags) that you use.

Email, for example, in Google (called Gmail) is not put into folders to organize. You tag the emails you are interested in, sometimes with 3 or 4 tags, and then you put all your emails into one folder. It is easy to find simply by searching for tags. Tomorrow, I will show you a specific web site that does tags.

Tool #7: Visuwords

Rikai is a great dictionary for translation, but translating dictionaries should only be used if there is not enough time or context to figure out the meaning of a word. Ideally, you should go to an English-only dictionary and use the bilingual dictionary only as a last resort.

So get your students away from bilingual dictionaries by using an online English-only dictionary. Not one with just text, but one with graphic representations of meaning. I’m talking about Visuwords.

Visuwords header
Visuwords header

Enter a word into the box, and a whole sematic web appears below. The connections are coded and you can move them around, get definitions by hovering over the words with the mouse, and use it in many different ways. People remember vocabulary by connecting a word to other words. Trying to remember words in a list is one of the worst ways to learn new words, second only to flash cards. Lists and flash cards help you to forget words. Using words in sentences and linking them to other words is the way to build a vocabulary. This tool works like your brain does.

Tool #6: Portable Storage

typical usb memory stick
typical usb memory stick

During the course of a typical work day, I might use up to 6 different computers, 2 at home and 4 at work. Keeping one set of information constantly updated, and always coordinated between computers is very important. Grades and attendance, for example.

I use a system where I carry a USB memory stick (also called a thumb drive) with all my important data. I always save the newest version to the memory stick when I edit and save a document.  Every 3 or four days, when I save to the memory stick, I then copy everything on the stick to the computers I am using. That means I have 6 backups, but the files I use are on the memory stick.

portable hard diskYou can buy a memory stick now for very cheap. I bought a 2 gigabyte stick 3 years ago for 20,000 yen. Yesterday I bought a 16 GB stick for 4,000 yen. Most people would never use more than 1 GB. But if you start using audio or video files, the sticks can fill up fast. If that is the case, try a portable hard drive. They now cost less than 10,000 yen, and give you 120-320 GB and more. This is a great way to back up your laptop, or carry it instead of the laptop when you visit friends with computers.

A quick note on terminology in English. Memory is usually a computer chip used by the computer to run software faster. It usually stays in the computer. Storage is used for files and data that you save for using later. So when I am typing something in a word program, I am using the computer’s memory. When I save the document, I am using it’s storage. So the name memory stick should really be storage stick. But it’s not.

tool #5: Daily Lit (erature)

Daily Lit Logo
Daily Lit Logo

There are TOOLS and there are tools. The last 4 tools I’ve brought to you have been BIG tools. They tend to do a lot and require some learning. Other tools are simple, quick and really effective immediately. This is one of those tools.

Daily Lit sends you small portions of books to you by email or RSS (see Tool #3) to your computer or mobile however often you want. Many of these books are classics, or are newer ones freely available (through Creative Coomins, another upcoming tool).

I asked Daily Lit to send me a book about cheese. It suggested daily chapters for 20 days after I told it how much time I have to read. So now, each day, I get part of a book about cheese.

You can tell it how often to send you chapters, and how long each chapter should be. This is absolutely great for reading in the train or while waiting in line.

Literature teachers should take note, you could assign homework using this site, and tell students how often and how much, and it would be delivered just in time to each student.

Tool #4: RSS


Really Simple Syndication or Rich Site Summary (RSS) (日本語) is like getting an online magazine subscription to a blog or news “feed”. This means whenever a person updates their web site, blog or adds to their page, it is automatically sent to me. I used to go “surfing” on the web, but no longer. It now comes to me. Some people get this information in emails, but I prefer to use a Reader, a special software that organizes all these.

I use Google Reader. It is free, and works well. I have about 40 different sites registered. Whenever they update, it is sent, within seconds, to my reader. So when Andrew Sullivan posts one of his 59 messages a day, I get them all. Ian Blogost posts about 2 messages a week, I get those too. I organize them into topics, like Learning, Language, Technology, and Fun. I click on the star in the corner to save the ones I like. Best of all, I add Tags to ones I save. This is like giving labels to each post, so I can find it different ways. (I will explain more about tags in another Tool.)

RSS is the biggest change to the Internet in the last 5 years. It is the biggest difference between Web 1.0 and Web 2.0. If you don’t know about this difference, you are  Web 1.0 and are 5 years behind.

Tool #3 Rikai Translator

Rikai is free
Rikai is free

I constantly tell my students they should use their dictionaries as little as possible. They are ultimately frustrating. Far better to find material that students feel is comfortable, where they know about 95% of the words, so they don’t have to use the dictionary, and can still guess the meanings of the other 5% of the words.

But when one is surfing the web, at times, you need quick access to a dictionary because the web is not like a graded reader. The best I’ve found is Rikai translator.

Tool #2: MS Word: Track Changes

MS Word is kind of the standard for word processing (although I prefer a different one).

Teachers correct a lot of papers. They are worried about errors. Even though the research shows that correcting errors does little to improve student writing, teachers still do it. It makes them feel good, like they are doing something.

Instead of only giving feedback to one student, I collect all the written assignments in a Word Processor (students have to send their final version by email or similar). I erase all the names. I correct all the work, and hand it back to all the students. This works better if they have online access to the document, but usually, a first-year writing assignment you can fit about 5 or 6 onto one page.

Select Track Changes in tool menu
Select Track Changes in tool menu

By all means, though, leave the correction marks on their mistakes. To do this in MS Word, go to TOOLS menu, and choose Track Changes. (You should be sure the toolbar shows for this.) There are different options to show the corrections. I prefer to show them right in the document (not in balloons off the the right, or in a window at the bottom).

The best advantage of this method is that students can learn from each others mistakes. I often BOLD the common mistakes and teach a mini-lesson on that point. Timing is everything (do get the feedback in the next class, research shows it is most effective that way).

Review menu in Word 2003. The new version looks different.
Review menu in Word 2003. The new version looks different.

Tokyo: smelliest place on earth lets people warn others of smelly places lets people warn others of smelly places

According to the new Social Networking  website that relies on Google Maps to point out smelly places in the world, Tokyo must be the smelliest place on earth.

That is, until you realize that the site is in Japanese, and that it is almost brand new. Of course, those of us that live in Tokyo, and have good noses, would be the first to post sites. Each flag is color coded, depending on the type of smell.

Google Maps is being used for numerous applications. For example, in San Francisco, they link together the location of searches on mobile phones for key words like flu or disease to try to map out a progression of a breakout and where it might be headed.

Only would the Japanese think of applying it to avoid smells.

Tool #1: Cute PDF

I’m coming to hate paper more and more. You can’t search it, you can’t change it, and it gets lost so easily. I see teachers requiring students to print out online reports of their progress reports, instead of looking at the reports themselves. It seems odd. But some teachers just want to have a permanent record of some event.

So instead of printing it out on paper, why not print it out on a pdf file? PDF is the short name for Adobe Acrobat files. To print from Adobe, you have to pay money. But another software is free.

Cute PDF is a software you can download, and install just like any other printer. Instead of printing a page, it makes a file, an Adobe Acrobat file. You can save them all together. They are searchable. I use this now more than my paper printer. You can then send the documents by email. They are in color, and do not change.  It is as easy as printing a page.

Download the FREE version, not the Pro version
Download the FREE version, not the Pro version

If you have never installed software on your computer, tell the person that usually does it to SHOW you how to do it. After you install 3 or 4 programs, it becomes much easier. This is the first step to controlling your machine instead of it controlling you.

100 days 100 tools

I just realized we have exactly 100 days before April 1, the start of the new school (and financial) year in Japan. Since my department is requiring every new fresh(wo)man to get a laptop, there is a huge responsibility for the faculty of the department to use them in class and as part of the curriculum.

Mark Warschauer, in his book Laptops and Literacy, says that the people most crucial to the success of wireless programs and students using laptops are the faculty.

I’m the IT Committee in our department, and I’ve got a lot of experience in this area, but also realize that you can’t teach this kind of thing. You just have to show how important it is to upgrade from paper and lectures to technology, and allow students to interact more naturally and with a greater variety of “channels” of communication.

So I’ve set myself a challenge. 100 tools in 100 days.

These tools and their explanations are aimed at non-native speakers of English, and those without much computer experience. You would be a typical end-user, able to use email, a browser, and some kind of word processor.

These tools are aimed at language teachers. They should help you teach better. The focus here is on teaching, and adapting your style to what students and administrations are coming to expect. Sometimes they are software, or a web page, or a new technique.

They focus on helping students develop their own language skills, providing autonomy through example.

My next post will be tool #1.

Ministry of Education back tracks

On the backs of babes.

backpack200-bbIt seems since the scores are falling in international tests, and Japanese kids aren’t learning stuff you can test as much, there is a panic to find a solution.

About 10 years ago there was a move to restrict time at school because kids were not very well-rounded. They tend not to play together, or learn about cultural activities. To increase “humanity” among the kids, they were given most Saturdays off (yes, they used to go most Saturdays). The number of school days dropped from about 240 to 210 (the US has about 180).

The drop in scores on these international tests didn’t start appearing until about 5 years after the change. Of course, the first thought on the cause of the drop was the changed schedule. No solid indication of causation here, but everyone thought something must be done.

So what did the Ministry of Education come up with? Reinstate Saturdays, and double the page count of the textbooks. You see, the system here in Japan is incredibly centralized. There is a week-to-week curriculum that everyone in K-12 follows. So a kid could move from Hokkaido down to Kyushu over the weekend, and pick up exactly where he left off. (The textbooks might be different, the content is the same.)

So now the kids will be carrying much heavier backpacks, and the publishers fat and happy. There is a constant outcry when new textbooks are brought out, because of their (non) treatment of WW2 and things like the Rape of Nanjing. Now they will have twice as much room, but we can be fairly certain there won’t be twice as much content.

88 Yen

That is how much a dollar costs these days. Glad I stopped sending money over there about 3 years ago. Sorry I sent over so much in the years before. Then again, things may come around eventually, but I don’t expect a quick recovery. Interesting that the Japanese stock market is tanking because the support for the US car makers is eroding in the US Senate. Just happy to have been saving yen in cash. Lately.

Quarterbacks, Teachers, and Financiers

What they have in common? Skills that cannot be easily measured. This is the point of a very long article by Malcolm Gladwell at the New Yorker: Most Likely to Succeed in the Annals of Education section.

What does it say about a society that it devotes more care and patience to the selection of those who handle its money than of those who handle its children?

Gladwell’s newest book Outliers: The Story of Success is on my list now. Treatment of micro-skills that lead to success in such varied areas of football, education and investing deserve to be looked at with the detail that Gladwell lavishes on them.

Life is what happens…

While you are waiting to be successful. Watch this short clip of Alan Watts, a 1960’s “guru” of eastern religions, recorded with visuals made and produced by the makers of South Park. Very Curious.