Squirrel Hill Magazine Interview

My interview with Meg Cummings for Squirrel Hill Magazine has been published:

Author J.M. Varner Sets High School Novels in Squirrel Hill [PDF]


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Blended Learning: 2 Week Reflection

After reading Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools this summer for professional development, I decided to expand on 1.5 years of experimentation in my English classroom with edtech and Google Apps for Education (GAFE) and take a more structured approach to building a blended learning environment.  This post offers a brief overview of my classroom efforts after week 2 of the 2015-2016 school year.

Equipment & Physical Infrastructure

In my classroom I have 5 Chromebooks and 2 PCs (running Windows 7), for a total of 7 computers for student use (average class size is in the low-20s).  The classroom is fairly deep and large.

Blended Learning Model

In the first 2 weeks of school, I’ve implemented a Station Rotation Blended Learning model, with the 7 classroom computers forming Station 1 and Station 2 comprised of independent work in student desks.  After beginning the class with whole-group instruction, we break out into Stations.  I eventually intend to implement a 3rd Station, Small Group, with students clustered around my desk for small group lessons.


The main challenge to date has been the learning-curve my students have had to overcome to adapt to logging in and working independently on assignments.  This is an issue of internalizing the steps of logging in, opening assignments, etc. that in effect can be considered to be classroom ‘routines’, albeit routines of a nature a bit different that we are used to thinking of them.  This challenge was anticipated, and I am already beginning to see students taking on a more independent role.

Another challenge discovered along the way has been determining when it’s best to use what I’ll refer to as Time-based Station Rotation and Task-based Station Rotation.

I originally planned to follow only a Time-based Station Rotation, where students work at their given station on the task at hand for a predetermined amount of time (typically 15-20 minutes).  I have been able to implement this approach a few times, and it has worked quite well.  I’ve used an online timer that plays a gentle-sounding alarm to announce the time for station rotation.

However, given the specific task(s) of the day, it has often made more sense to make use of a Task-based Station Rotation, essentially meaning that individual students will use the computers for the amount of time it takes them to complete a given task (whether that be shorter or longer than the amount of time for a Time-based Station Rotation) and when they are finished, individually rotate back to the other station.  This approach often allows for a more efficient use of the limited classroom computer resources, as they are freed-up as soon as students complete the task.

Efficient use of the Time-based Station Rotation model requires that students have secondary, on-going tasks that they can work on to fill the time remaining once they complete primary tasks.

Looking Ahead

In addition to the 7 classroom computers, our building will soon have a Chromebox lab.  Before the year began, I assumed that 7 computers would be enough to manage, and that they would allow me to eliminate or at least minimize the regular use of the weekly Lab Rotations I used in previous years.  However, I’m quickly seeing that students would benefit from having one day a week in a Chromebox lab as a ‘catch-up / move ahead’ day.  I look forward to working in a weekly Lab Rotation, along with the existing daily Station Rotations, into my implementation of Blended Learning.

A Final Note

I do realize that I have said little in this post about specific technology (hardware, software, web sites, etc.).  This has been deliberate and in keeping with the emphasis placed by the authors of Blended on focusing on how technology is used, and how it can best complement face-to-face teacher-student interactions.

The key to the Blended Learning approach is that it allows students to experience a more student-centered learning experience, defined in Blended as moving in the direction of Personalized and Competency-based learning tasks.  The use of technology helps to provide this directly in the work students use it to accomplish, and also indirectly in the fact that it can free up the teacher to work one-on-one or with small groups to give students the personalized assistance and feedback that is most relevant and useful for their learning.

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Recommended Reading: Modern China

Three excellent books for understanding modern China:

The Barefoot Lawyer: A Blind Man’s Fight for Justice and Freedom in China, by Chen GuangCheng
— A very accessible and engaging first-person autobiographical novel that tells the story of a blind man from China and his fight for individual freedom.

Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon: Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World, by Yong Zhao
— A detailed historical and contemporary analysis of the relationship between Chinese society and education in China.

Dealing with China: An Insider Unmasks the New Economic Superpower, by Henry M. Paulson
— Provides a high-level look at China’s contemporary macroeconomic policies along its path to ‘reform and opening up’ of its economy.  A familiarity with terminology related to economics and finance is helpful for making this book accessible.

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Learning Chinese 301: Vocabulary Building

It’s time to work on building up some Chinese vocabulary.  A very nice set of Chinese vocabulary lists grouped by word/phrase complexity (and prepared as study lists for the HSK exam) can be found HERE.  Individual lists with definitions, ordered in increasing word/phrase complexity, are directly linked below:

Level 1 Chinese Vocabulary
Level 2 Chinese Vocabulary
Level 3 Chinese Vocabulary
Level 4 Chinese Vocabulary
Level 5 Chinese Vocabulary
Level 6 Chinese Vocabulary

The lists are structured as 5 columns:

Screenshot 2015-06-05 at 6.17.07 PM

Column 1 = Simplified Chinese characters
Column 2 = Traditional Chinese characters
Column 3 = HanYu PinYin with numbers representing tones
Column 4 = HanYu PinYin with accent marks representing tones
Column 5 = English definition(s)

(Note that in many cases, as in the image of the partial list above, the Simplified and Traditional Chinese characters are the same.  Can you spot the 2 characters that are different in the above image?)

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Learning Chinese 201: Repetition and Dialogue

Two helpful practices in getting an ear for the sound of a new language are Repetition and Dialogue.


One great way to practice listening Repetition is by listening to music in the target language.  While listening to music in Mandarin Chinese will not necessarily help with acquiring an understanding of the tonal patterns of the spoken language, it will help with recognition of word sound combinations and gaining a feel for the flow of the language.

Here is a simple song in Mandarin Chinese to start out with:

(Note also that this video is captioned with the Traditional Chinese characters that represent the sung lyrics.  One character = one syllable in Mandarin Chinese.  Practice matching the syllables you hear to the sung word-syllables.)

Once you get tired of that song, here is a curated YouTube playlist of more songs in Mandarin Chinese.  (Note that a few of the songs on this playlist are in Cantonese Chinese, which sounds totally different from Mandarin Chinese.  See if you can recognize which songs do not contain the word sounds of Mandarin Chinese — these are the Cantonese songs).


This is where learning Mandarin Chinese gets really fun.  Basically, the principle here is to acquire exposure to authentically spoken dialogue by listening to and watching native speakers speak.  How do we do this?  By watching TV. 🙂

In Chinese-speaking countries, the on-going, serial television drama (a.k.a. ‘soap opera’ — but nothing like American soap operas!) is very popular.  Watching these shows gives the language learner exposure to how the language is spoken by native speakers in a casual, often colloquial manner.

(As a side note, the copyright owners of Chinese-language TV series are often less fickle than their American counterparts about having their material posted on YouTube.  Full length episodes of entire multi-episode series are readily available — if you know what to search for in Chinese.)

One TV series to start with is “Two Fathers,” a show from Taiwan.  Note that the speakers in this show speak Mandarin Chinese with a Taiwan accent, which will differ a little from shows from Mainland China where the ‘Beijing accent’ is more dominant.  Also, this show has one character that speaks almost exclusively in Taiwanese, which, like Cantonese as discussed above, sounds totally different from Mandarin (see if you can pick out this character!).  As this show is from Taiwan, the captions are in Traditional Chinese characters.

Here is the first episode of “Two Fathers”.  A YouTube playlist with all the episodes in the series can be found HERE.

(Note: Don’t be put off by the title or the basic premise/set up of “Two Fathers”.  The show actually represents some fairly traditional family values, with an emphasis on the role of the father in raising his children.  In his desire to marry off his daughter, the Taiwanese-speaking auto repair shop owner is very much like a Chinese Mrs. Bennet.)

BONUS: From watching the first minute of the first episode of “Two Fathers,” you can probably gather that music / sound track is a big element of TV series like this one.  After watching a few episodes of “Two Fathers,” check out the Original Soundtrack on YouTube to circle back around to Repetition. 🙂

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Learning Chinese 101: Word Sounds (BoPoMoFo)

When learning Mandarin Chinese, it’s helpful to start by learning the set of sounds used in the language.  The set of sounds used in Mandarin Chinese is often referred to as BoPoMoFo for the four initial sounds in this standard sequence.  While some of these are very similar or even identical to the sounds we use in English, there are other sound combinations that English does not use.

Here is one helpful video for learning the set of word sounds used in Mandarin Chinese.  Don’t be put off by the fact that this is obviously a video for children — the basic repetition of the sounds and the setting of them to music are very helpful in learning a new language.

Also check out other videos with the BoPoMoFo sequence.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a chart that puts all of these word sounds together into the combinations that are actually used in Mandarin Chinese?  Here is one such chart from Lin Yutang’s Chinese-English Dictionary of Modern Usage: Mandarin Chinese Word Sounds Combination Chart

Note: Don’t worry about memorizing these symbols used in some Mandarin-speaking countries (e.g. Taiwan) to represent the BoPoMoFo sounds:

Screenshot 2015-06-05 at 4.56.36 PM

In the long run, it will be much more useful to memorize the Latin alphabet letters/letter combinations that are used in Mainland China to represent these sounds (a.k.a. HanYu PinYin).

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Tech Tips: YouTube, Distraction-free

Have you ever wanted to play YouTube videos without all of the clutter that appears around and beneath the video on a standard YouTube video playback page?  Well, YouTube actually makes it possible to do this with only a little tweaking of the video URL.

Normally, when you play a YouTube video, the URL will look something like this:

Screenshot 2015-06-05 at 2.52.26 PM

For distraction-free viewing, replace watch?v=

Screenshot 2015-06-05 at 2.55.17 PM

with embed/ so that the URL looks like this:

Screenshot 2015-06-05 at 2.56.10 PM

The video only will now open and fill the entire browser tab! 🙂

Now, to take things one step further, how about turning off those often inappropriate ‘Related Videos’ that display when a video finishes playing?  Simply add ?rel=0 to the end of the URL, so that it looks like this:

Screenshot 2015-06-05 at 2.59.00 PM

Now, when the video finishes playing, those distracting ‘Related Videos’ will no longer appear!

P.S. If editing URLs seems a little technical and makes you squeamish, don’t worry — you can’t break anything!  The worst that can happen is that you’ll mistype something and YouTube will give you an error page.  No worries — just try again!

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