Tech for Teach

Zen and the art of student ID photos with Joe Tomei

JtomeiSince I began teaching in Japan 20 years ago, I have taken pictures of my students. Folks interested in how I used to do it before the days of digital cameras can check out The Language Teacher from June, 1996 (spoiler: ingredients were a disposable camera, a pair of scissors, a glue stick and cards that the students filled out. And I had to walk uphill to classes both ways!). However, I’ve updated what I’ve done a bit, and want to share some of the tools that I use with you.

I started using a digital camera when I first arrived at my current position. (actually, that’s not true. I used one of the first Sony cybershots that had a dedicated printer to used purikura stickers my last year at Hokudai) After two years of doing it in my classes, I was given the job of tannin (quaintly translated as home room teacher) for one of the kumi in my department and and I sweet-talked the other teacher assigned to let me take the pictures of his kumi during the initial orientation. (file this under ‘it is easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission’) 

It went rather well, and the next year, I asked the department to let me do that each year. The usual suspects made several complaints (‘what if the students don’t want their pictures taken?’ almost had me suggest that the department offer masks to students to wear during the 4 years so they wouldn’t be identified by the faculty and staff) but fortunately a few of my colleagues saw the value and let me go ahead. And need I mention that getting the student names linked to the kanji characters is not only language learning par excellence, but can give you the frisson of pleasure when you tell a colleague that he (and face it, it usually is a he, right?) that is not reading a student’s name correctly?

Now, 14 years later, I’ve got the system down pretty well. At the orientation meeting immediately after the entrance ceremony, I help the homeroom teacher by collecting the receipts for the student ids, as I take the student pictures. I then have a set of pictures taken in the order that they appear on the roll. I use an old-ish sony cybershot which has the sony memory sticks for storage and save each kumi on one stick. It’s a bit challenging when I am the homeroom teacher, but the last two times, a colleague has come by to provide backup.

A few hints about taking pictures, use the zoom to make sure that you get a picture where their face fills up the picture frame. Making a mark on the floor where the students stand makes focussing easier, and a tripod set up on a desk can be very helpful.

After I have the photos, I get an electronic excel file of the roll from our kyoumuka. The list is in kanji and katakana, and I want to label the pictures with their names in romaji, so I head over to (though a google search for ‘kana to romaji converter’ will turn up several more) and convert the katakana and paste it into the column in the excel file. One has to double check as some kana combinations come out a bit strange, but the converter does 90% of the work.

I then make a text file and take the pictures and use a file renamer (I use A Better Finder Renamer, which is paid software, but the demo version should provide enough functionality to handle this task) which can go down a list saved as a text file and rename the files. (The first time you do this, you should work from a copy of the files in case you happen to change the order of the pictures) I go for the student number followed by the name, but YMMV.

After that, I use Graphic Converter (another piece of paid software, but one that is worth its weight in gold) to print out contact sheets of the students to give to my colleagues. The interface for printing contact sheets is not particularly intuitive, but if you select print from the Catalogue menu, you can choose catalogue layout (it’s in the pull down menu under Catalogue General) and determine how many pictures you want per sheet. The Catalogue General menu allows you to choose what metadata you want to use (if you just use the file name, your pictures will appear with each student’s name neatly below their picture) Using the save as a pdf option, you can check and make sure that your contact sheet of students is just right before you decide to print them. Sometimes, changing the font or changing the font size is necessary to get all of the name to fit in. An inkjet printer and glossy A4 photo paper produce a sheet of passport sized photos. You can also print them onto no-cut label sheets and cut them out if you still use cards.

Being the digital guy that I am, I don’t print out contact sheets for myself, I keep the student pictures as private pictures in the google online picture application, which then allows me to use them for google contacts. And while students get a bit embarrassed about how they looked as freshmen, it is always nice to realize how much they change over the course of a college career.

I have a pretty good memory for names and faces and the simple process of doing this usually has me put most of them together, but if you don’t, either setting your screen saver to be a slide show of the student faces with the file names can help you put names to faces. Alternatively, an electronic photo frame can do the same.

The key to making this work, as with many other things digital, is getting the first data correct. In this case, taking the student pictures in the order of the list that I will get from the kyoumuka makes everything else work. If a student is absent, taking a blank picture so your picture set has a one to one relationship to the list of names is highly recommended. If you have gotten off by one picture, you can use the student genders to double check your list.

You may be at a faculty that is too big to contemplate this kind of approach (mine has two kumi of about 70 each), but the same process can be adapted to classes, especially for those ‘cattle call’ classes.

attendanceAlternatively you may want to try an mobile app that lets you do something similar. I used the paid app Attendance, which was the subject of an laudatory review in The Chronicle for Higher Education’s Profhacker column, for a while and liked it quite a bit. It has some neat features, like randomly making groups or randomly choosing a student, and the app has gone to version 2.0.


However, since this past year, I have been using the free app TeacherKitBoth are designed more for US primary school teachers, so some of the features may be a bit strange (like emailing the parents or noting positive and negative behavior) but with a bit of thought, you can retask for your own purposes. And if you aren’t interested in the picture taking routine, TeacherKit lets you take a group picture and does face-recognition so you can pull out the faces from the group.mzl.kwakqcze.320x480-75

A quick google search finds several apps for Android, including an attendance app that is part of Android for Academics and another called Attendance Tracker. (If someone wants to make one, I suggest you call it ‘I’m here!’ to separate yourself from the herd) Both of these tout their ability to plug into Google Docs spreadsheets, a topic for further meditation. If you have some recommendations for anything digital that you use in cranking up your classes, toss them in the comments!

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