New Zealand


12/23✈ Haneda → Guangzhou
12/24✈ Guangzhou → Auckland
1/4✈ Auckland → Guangzhou
1/5✈ Guangzhou → Haneda

20181116.2.NZ.png 2015-07-01.02.New Zealand.png 20181116.1.NZ.png

Homework Objectives


What is the point of homework? I was chatting with my coworkers the other day and learned they were spending long hours grading homework. I asked them why, and we had a fascinating conversation. It turns out they were spending ten times as long on it as I was, because they felt like it was somehow proper or necessary, but on later reflection we agreed that oftentimes it isn't.



The first and most common objective of homework is to practice something. Students studied it in class, and you want them to get some reinforcement, so they do some drills at home. Suppose they are learning to spell some words, and their homework is to write each word five times. The next class, you show up, and collect the homework. Here's an important question: Should you carefully check that they spelled each word correctly? In my view, no. Most of the time you don't need to check so carefully. If you're smart, you'll have a spelling test in class, and tests are the place to find out exactly how good their spelling is. When you're grading their homework, you can take a quick look, see that they did it mostly correctly, and give them an A. Remember, if they were supposed to practice by doing their homework, and they did, even if they were wrong in certain places, then they did what you asked, so give them the A already.

I sometimes feel weird writing "100" or "A" on something that might have errors, so I instead draw a star or use a "Good Work!" stamp to indicate it was done well. Conversely, if students skip sections, copy, or are obviously careless, I write "0" or "25" or "50" and a note explaining why.


In college you were probably assigned to read some pages before coming to class. It's possible to use homework as a way to preview a topic, or to get students' minds primed so you can jump into it quickly in class, either for a project or a discussion. In many junior and senior high schools, this is probably less effective than in college, because some students don't care about your class. You can give it a try, but have a backup plan in case things fizzle out.


Sometimes we assign homework mostly because it's fun, or at least we hope students will feel that it's fun. If you ask students to make an exciting video about something, you'll be surprised how much energy they might put into it.


I don't assign much homework, and most of what I do assign is stuff that we started doing in class and we ran out of time. By making it homework, I'm encouraging students to use class time efficiently. If Jane was focused and finished the paper in class, but Jimmy was sleeping, then Jimmy has to finish up at home. Jane feels happy because she can take it easy later, and Jimmy still learns whatever I wanted him to learn.

Check Answers in Class

Suppose your students do a homework assignment with three parts: a true/false section, a spelling section, and a paragraph writing section. In class, before you collect it, ask them to correct the first two sections themselves. You can say the answers aloud or write them on the board, and students can see what they did right or wrong much faster than if they had to wait until you graded it. Also, if they have questions about why something is what it is, they have a good chance to ask you. Since they can't reasonably check their own paragraph writing, you'll have to handle that later.

You might worry that students will cheat, and either they'll write down the correct answers when you say them and pretend they finished it at home, or they'll pretend an answer is correct even when it's wrong. In my experience, this doesn't happen very often. You can easily see if they are holding a red pen or pencil, and even if they grade their homework erroneously, that won't help them when similar questions appears on the test later. Ideally, your tests look similar to your homework, and you can tell your students this, which should help them focus on properly identifying and understanding mistakes.

Don't Fix Everything

Suppose your students did the above homework, and in the writing section they each wrote a paragraph about their favorite breakfast and why it is or isn't healthy. You're now grading the writing section. Many teachers have a strong urge to fix all the mistakes. This is wrong. It's wrong, and the reasons it's wrong are cool to think about.

First of all, you're a teacher and you're busy with many tasks. If you want to provide detailed writing feedback with lengthy corrections for hundreds of students on a regular basis, you probably can't do that in your working hours. So then you're taking things home and working overtime, for which you almost certainly don't get paid. That makes your life suck, so don't do it. But you might object, and you might say something like, No, no, I agree my life sucks right now, but it's for the good of the students! I have to help out the students, so I'll do it anyway. OK, it's good that you care, but if you really believe that, then it's your duty to go to the boss and tell him you need fewer classes or an assistant so you can handle all of the writing. Don't overwork yourself on a regular basis when the problem is the lack of adequate staff. After all, whoever replaces you in the future might not put in those hours, and if you can fix the problem properly now, future students will benefit too.

Even if we ignore that, and you're OK with doing a ton of unpaid overtime, it's still bad to correct all the mistakes, because it destroys motivation. Imagine Joe writes his paragraph, hands it in, and gets it back with 28 mistakes noted in red pen. What will Joe feel? I imagine he'll feel pretty damn awful, like maybe he sucks at doing English, like maybe writing is pointless because he'll never get rid of all of those errors. Also, if he has 28 mistakes and you corrected all 28 of them, it really doesn't help anyone, because he's not going to read all of it. Understanding why something is wrong takes some time, and Joe might look at the homework for a minute or two, but that's it. So don't correct everything. Choose some mistakes that you think are the easiest to fix or the most important and correct those, and you'll help Joe focus that minute or two on something small and comprehensible.

Sometimes you don't want to correct mistakes at all, because you could just underline them instead. If you find five relatively simple mistakes and underline them, you can ask the student to figure it out on their own. If they already studied that spelling or grammar point, and they can do error correction themselves, it's a great learning opportunity and a useful life skill to develop.

Depending on the circumstances, you could respond to the content and not the delivery. If students are writing about their healthy breakfasts, you could correct the spelling and grammar as described above. But instead you might want to focus solely on the content. You could read their paragraph and put a comment at the bottom such as, The example you gave of bananas with high vitamin value was great. Nice job! and be done with it. This would show the student that you really care about their thoughts, which would raise their motivation for that type of work. It turns out that writing things, even if nobody corrects the mistakes, helps people get better at writing. So although sometimes you definitely want to proofread and mark things up in detail, you certainly don't have to do it all the time, and some of the time you don't have to do it at all.

End at the Term End

Suppose you collect some homework in the last class of the term, right before winter vacation. You could mark it up, grade it, and hand it back in January, but why? If the term test is done, the odds of students caring much about homework they finished a month prior are relatively low. In a situation where you can't return the homework in a prompt fashion, you don't have to return it at all. If it's something special, hold onto it until January, but if it's a fairly standard assignment, just enter the grade in your grade book, drop the paper in the shredder, and enjoy the holidays.


In summary, when you're grading, decide what you think is important. Once you know what the main objective is, you'll get a good idea of what to look for on students' papers. This will allow you to quickly focus on a few key areas, give students suitable feedback, and finish everything in a professional fashion.


Kaburi Pass


Kaburi Pass (顔振峠) is an easy day hike in the outskirts of Tokyo. The starting point is Agano (吾野). From there, it's around 3.6 km to the summit of the pass. It's about half road walking and half trail walking. For most of the walk, you're close to a stream, which is nice for sound and cool air, and near the top there's a view of Mount Fuji if the weather is good. At the pass, you get to a road crossing, and the road crossing has a little restaurant run by an old woman with soba and udon. I had a bowl of sansai udon.

From the pass, you have several options. You could walk down the road either direction, but I kept following the path to the north. After a lot of downhill in thick forest, the trail comes out on a road near Kuroyama Santaki (黒山三滝). From there, it's a very long road walk to Ogose Station (越生). There is also an infrequent bus that goes to the station. I walked down the road until the bus came, took it back to station, and went home.

The popular hiking destinations in Tokyo get crowded. A place like this isn't famous, and that makes it a nice choice for a lazy relaxed hike. The trail is fairly easy. There's some elevation change, but it's nothing too severe, and the forest is quiet. I only met two other hikers over the whole 10 km! At a leisurely pace, 10 km only takes two or three hours, so if you get up late and get a late start like I did, you won't have problems running out of sunlight.

20181102.01.Kaburi.png 20181102.02.Kaburi.png 20181102.03.Agano.jpg 20181102.04.Agano.jpg 20181102.05.Sign.jpg 20181102.06.Walking.jpg 20181102.07.Kaburi.jpg 20181102.08.Kaburi.jpg 20181102.09.Restaurant.jpg 20181102.10.Udon.jpg

USA Flashcards


This is a deck of maps of the fifty states in the U.S.A., plus Washington, D.C. These images are SVG, so they'll scale well to any size screen.

Here's the 51-card package for Anki.

USA/New Hampshire.svgNew Hampshire
USA/New Jersey.svgNew Jersey
USA/New Mexico.svgNew Mexico
USA/New York.svgNew York
USA/North Carolina.svgNorth Carolina
USA/North Dakota.svgNorth Dakota
USA/Rhode Island.svgRhode Island
USA/South Carolina.svgSouth Carolina
USA/South Dakota.svgSouth Dakota
USA/West Virginia.svgWest Virginia
USA/Washington DC.svgWashington, D.C.

If you are planning on traveling extensively within the U.S., learning the states is probably worth your time. I knew most of the states before making this deck, and for me the only tricky places were the tiny states near New York.


Canadian Province Flashcards


This is a deck of maps of Canada's provinces and territories. Canada only has thirteen provinces and territories in total, so it won't take long to learn. These images are SVG, so they'll scale well to any size screen.

Here's the 13-card package for Anki.

Canadian Provinces/Alberta.svgAlberta
Canadian Provinces/British Columbia.svgBritish Columbia
Canadian Provinces/Manitoba.svgManitoba
Canadian Provinces/New Brunswick.svgNew Brunswick
Canadian Provinces/Newfoundland and Labrador.svgNewfoundland and Labrador
Canadian Provinces/Northwest Territories.svgNorthwest Territories
Canadian Provinces/Nova Scotia.svgNova Scotia
Canadian Provinces/Nunavut.svgNunavut
Canadian Provinces/Ontario.svgOntario
Canadian Provinces/Prince Edward Island.svgPrince Edward Island
Canadian Provinces/Quebec.svgQuebec
Canadian Provinces/Saskatchewan.svgSaskatchewan
Canadian Provinces/Yukon.svgYukon

If you're thinking of visiting Canada some day, it might be handy to know the general geography. Also, having some general geographic awareness of a country helps you connect with people who tell stories about the place when they lived or visited there.


Organizing Files


As teachers, we have a lot of data, and how we organize our files impacts whether we can easily share them with other teachers in the future. Here are some organizational tips I've learned over the past decade that I think will help you keep your data organized so you can work smoothly with other teachers to develop excellent educational materials. Let's assume you have a shared drive, such as a local network folder, Google Drive, or Dropbox.


If you think it's useful, and you only have a paper copy, scan it. Some people have physical folders with copies of all the great worksheets they've made or received, but generally speaking, digital is better. Here's why.

  1. You can email it to a friend or coworker.
  2. Your shelf won't fill up.
  3. You can search for it quickly by name.
  4. You can copy/paste good parts and use them in new materials.
  5. You can easily take it with you when changing jobs.

Our school has a photocopier/scanner combo machine with a feeder. It scans stacks of papers and makes PDFs. If you have that kind of device on hand, scanning things is quick, and surely it will benefit you later.


Let's suppose you have a bunch of documents. You might keep them on your computer in folders like this.

Homework ├ 2016 ├ 2017 ├ 2018 ├ Amazing Plants (2).odt ├ Copy of Amazing Animals.odt New ├ Letter to Parents (New).odt Notes ├ Eighth Grade ├ Ninth Grade ├ Letter to Parents.odt ├ Seventh Grade ├ Grades (2017).ods ├ Grades (2018).ods Oral Communication ├ 2012 ├ 2013 Pictures ├ Summer Slides.ppt ├ Summer Slides PDF.ppt.pdf Tests ├ Seventh Grade Term 1 Test.odt ├ Seventh Grade Term 1 Test (Old).odt Worksheets

When we start creating and organizing data, something like this seems like it'll work. But over time, issues creep up. Here are some tips that help things stay sorted.

  1. Make the year folders top-level. If you have file names like Grades (2017).xls and Grades (2018).xls, you're mixing last year's data with this year's. It makes more sense to have a folder called 2017 and another called 2018. Put grades inside those folders.

  2. Don't use parentheses. In the above example, consider these two files.

    Tests ├ Seventh Grade Term 1 Test.odt ├ Seventh Grade Term 1 Test (Old).odt

    The bottom file is apparently old, but next year, both files will be old. What should your file names be then? I don't know! But if you sort the data by year at top level, you can avoid this whole problem.

  3. Remove pointless words. Here's a directory worth cleaning up.

    Homework ├ 2018 ├ Copy of Amazing Animals.odt ├ Amazing Plants (2).odt

    They probably got those names because the user was copy/pasting files, and the system automatically added Copy of and (2). To make the data easy to read, we should go through and rename files, removing the extra text as appropriate. It would be much prettier if it looked like this.

    Homework ├ 2018 ├ Amazing Animals.odt ├ Amazing Plants.odt

  4. Use numbers instead of words. The example has notes for Seventh Grade, Eighth Grade, and Ninth Grade. If you sort the directory alphabetically, it shows up like this.

    Notes ├ Eighth Grade ├ Ninth Grade ├ Seventh Grade

    That's awkward because seventh grade comes last. If you use numerals instead, it looks much more sensible.

    Notes ├ 7 ├ 8 ├ 9

  5. Don't repeat extension information. In the above example, there's a file, Summer Slides PDF.ppt.pdf. The file type is expressed by the end of the file name, so it should simply be called Summer Slides.pdf. Duplicate information about the format makes things hard to read, and it's not needed.

  6. Preserve the original file. In the above example, there are two related files.

    Pictures ├ Summer Slides.ppt ├ Summer Slides PDF.ppt.pdf

    It looks like the user made a PowerPoint file and then generated a PDF of it. There are good reasons to do that — for example, I often copy data onto my tablet, but my tablet doesn't support PowerPoint. As a temporary measure, it's reasonable to make PDFs, but for archiving, it's unnecessary. When you or another teacher is looking at the data next year, the original file is by far the most useful, because it can easily be modified to fit new situations. The PDF doesn't help, so delete it and be happy.

  7. Use the date if really needed. In the above example, there are two related files.

    New ├ Letter to Parents (New).odt Notes ├ Ninth Grade ├ Letter to Parents.odt

    Most of the time, you don't need both files, so you should just replace the bottom file with the top one. However, sometimes you really want a record of something. Perhaps you sent a letter, realized there was a typo, fixed it, and sent a new version. In that case, you could put the date in the file names, like this.

    Notes ├ Ninth Grade ├ 2018-09-01 Letter to Parents.odt ├ 2018-09-05 Letter to Parents.odt

    This works well because the two files are in the same folder, and the file names tell us which was sent when. Always use the format YYYY-MM-DD or YYYYMMDD. This is unambiguous — you don't wonder whether 9/3 means September 3rd or March 9th — and it automatically sorts in chronological order.

  8. Don't assume course names will stay the same. The example has a top-level folder, Oral Communication. That class used to be offered in Japanese high schools, but several years ago the national curriculum was revised, and it no longer exists. Instead, there are two related classes, English Communication and English Expression. If I want to organize everything by course name, what do I do? Should I leave Oral Communication there, knowing that new teachers will never look at it? Should I rename it to English Communication, because the two courses are similar? It's unclear what to do, but if the data were sorted by year at top level, we wouldn't even be asking the question.

  9. Don't assume event names will stay the same. This is similar to the previous point. My school has an event called "International Day", but it used to be called "MECC", and from time to time it's called "Board Game Day". If file organization depends on the name staying the same from year to year, it's going fail.

  10. Video files might need special treatment. If you have lots of very large video files, perhaps you can't just copy them to a new folder each year, because it might fill up your hard drive. You might need a separate top-level folder just for videos. In my experience, only video files are large enough where this is a concern.

    If I'm using large videos that are on YouTube, I like to keep the URLs in a notes file, and I can download the videos again in the future.

    I always take videos of students' presentations. This lets me grade the presentations at a leisurely speed, and when students have questions about why they got a particular grade, we can watch the video together. A month or two after the term ends, I delete most of those files, saving a few of my favorite ones to be used as examples in future years.


If we apply the above rules to the initial example, we get a directory structure that's much easier to navigate. It would look something like this.

2012 ├ Oral Communication 2013 ├ Oral Communication 2016 ├ 7 ├ Homework ├ 8 ├ 9 2017 ├ 7 ├ Homework ├ Worksheets Grades.ods Term 1 Test.odt ├ 8 ├ 9 2018 ├ 7 ├ Homework ├ Amazing Animals.odt ├ Amazing Plants.odt Grades.ods Term 1 Test.odt ├ 8 Summer Slides.ppt ├ 9 ├ 2018-09-01 Letter to Parents.odt ├ 2018-09-05 Letter to Parents.odt


I like to create materials for classroom use, and I enjoy sharing those materials with others. This is particularly important for a school like mine, where we have several native teachers on staff. Every few years, some teachers go, others come, and there's a decent chance that we teach different grades or courses than what we taught previously.

When you're planning for a class you haven't taught before, or haven't taught for several years, the first step is to ask last year's teacher for their data. If that data is organized well, you'll definitely appreciate the work they did to get it that way.

Some teachers are self-conscious about sharing their materials. They might refuse to upload files, or they might upload them but leave everything in a horrible mess where we can't really tell how things were meant to be used. Perhaps they lack confidence, and they are worried that if other teachers see the low-quality materials, their poor teaching practices will be revealed. This type of concern is understandable, but if you're feeling it, here are some things to keep in mind. First, we all make mediocre materials from time to time, and yours won't be the worst. Even if some of your materials are mediocre, there are probably some gems that will excite your coworkers. Second, materials are only one aspect of teaching, and looking at them doesn't give other people enough information to judge your general effectiveness as a teacher. Third, if you're going to continue teaching in the future, then sharing your materials with others is a great way to get their feedback. If they find typos, they'll tell you, and if they make an updated version, just ask them to send you a copy.

Be positive, share your data with other teachers, get their feedback and their data, and work together to create cool stuff.