2018 New Year’s Musings


This is the typical (formal) New Year’s greeting in Japan, and I’ve repeated it—with my strange bobble-headed bows—to many of my coworkers earlier this month.

Many of my students also tried valiantly to New Years greet me in my native tongue. They’ve all been shocked when I say that their minute-long wish translates simply to “Happy New Year,” period, done. Because there is no real translation for the last part. “Take care of me again this year?” “Let’s continue working well together this year?” It’s just not something we say in English; a good language-based example of how collectivist societies (such as Japan) and individualist societies (like many English-speaking countries) differ. Of course, I know that the今年もよろしく is part of the set New Year’s greeting, and it’s often just said out of politeness, but I still love the meaning behind it.

Anyways, I’ve dragged my feet in writing anything lately (this post itself is weeks late), but we are now a full month into the new year.

And for me, it’s the final year on the JET Programme.

My current contract ends on August 2nd of this year, and I didn’t re-contract (despite a handful of coworkers telling me that they’d be very happy if I stayed forever. A few of the women in my kimono class even offered their same-aged sons as potential boyfriends to get me to stay longer).

I am so very happy here, which makes it quite hard to leave. It’ll be even harder to tell my students I’m leaving—they don’t know yet, and they won’t know until June or July. However, I know it is time to move on. Three years teaching ESL in Japan is short in the grand scheme of things, but it’s a long time to stay in a job that has no real job progression.

I have a little over six months left here in Ibaraki, and I don’t plan on wasting them! Here are some of the bigger events I am looking forward to over the next six months:

  • In February: the last Global Seminar meeting of the 2017-2018 program (and a 2-day trip to the United Nations University in Tokyo with the students).
  • In March: the last graduation ceremony for my 3rd-grade students
  • In March-April: a week-long trip across Southern Japan with J and her mother to see cherry blossoms (we are hitting Nagasaki, Hiroshima, Osaka, Kobe, and Kyoto).
  • In May: my college roommate is coming to visit for Golden Week!
  • In June: my base school’s Class Match! Two years ago, I joined one of the teams and played basketball, volleyball, and tug-of-war with the students, so I’m hoping I can do the same this year!
  • In July: packing and a lot of goodbyes
  • In August: a three-week trip through Southeast Asia with J !!

And of course, in between all those big events will be the small little adventures and unexpected moments that I’m looking forward to even more. I need to be better in recording all these moments before I leave so I have something to look back on.

It reminds me a bit of Kazuo Ishiguro’s book “The Remains of the Day.” In particular, I think of one of the last scenes of the book, when the main character is watching the sunset and musing about endings. The end of a day, the end of a lifestyle, the close of a chapter… we all wax reminiscent as things end, don’t we?



Snapshots: October, November, and December in the Classroom

Similar to a post I wrote back in August, here are some funny moments from life in the classroom.

@ my Tuesday school (English Club)

For the day’s English Club activity, I give the students Halloween-themed Three-Sentence Stories to read aloud in pairs. Both Halloween stories followed the same basic structure:

Sentence 1: “One dark night in October, … “

Sentence 2: “Suddenly, … ”

Sentence 3: “But… “

After the students had practiced reading the stories for a while, I have them sit down and write their own three-sentence Halloween stories using the above structure. Five of the students struggle to come up with an idea, but one girl (Y-chan) writes quite enthusiastically, glancing at her friend (H-chan) and giggling.

When it came time to share the stories, Y-chan volunteers immediately.

With a sly smile, she reads, “One dark night in October, I saw Sadako**. Suddenly, I was surprised to see Sadako on the roof of my house. But I look a little closely, and it was…” she pauses, smirking, “H-chan!”

H-chan thinks about the story for a minute, trying to understand it. Then she replies by flipping her long hair over her face and dramatically yelling, “I am Sadako!” in the middle of the school library.

** Sadako is the vengeful ghost character in the famous Japanese horror film, Ring.

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My Favorite Lessons for Low-Level ESL Students, Part II

Today, I’m back with a few more of my favorite lessons and activities for low-level high school ESL students. I’ve only been teaching for a little over two years, so I am by no means an expert at this, but these have been some of my most successful activities; some of the classes that end with students smiling and still talking about the lesson even as I leave the class, or the ones that have really helped improve students’ speaking skills.

  1. Two-Sentence Stories

This activity focuses on: speaking, pronunciation, and vocabulary or grammar (if you choose).

How to play: (10 to 20 minutes)

  1. Write one or two short, silly stories that are each two sentences in length. I try to aim for between 30 and 60 words per story, depending on students’ levels. If you have vocabulary or grammar that you want students to practice, add those words and expressions into the story!! Add a picture to each story to help with understanding. And underline the last word in each story.
  2. Explain that students will read the first story aloud with a partner. However, they have to read in turns. Each person can choose to read 1, 2, or 3 words per turn. The person who says the last word in the story (the underlined word) is the loser!!
  3. Demonstrate with your fellow teacher / with a higher-level student. (This helps students to understand the game, plus it is funny for them to watch.)
  4. If necessary, read the story aloud slowly a second time so students can note pronunciation.
  5. Students find a partner. They rock-paper-scissors to see which partner speaks first.
  6. Students read the story aloud in turns, only saying 1, 2, or 3 words at a time (their choice!). For example, say the first line of a story is “Santa Claus ate a lot of cake and ice cream over the last year, so he has gotten too big for his red Santa suit.” If Student A says “Santa Claus,” then Student B could say “ate” or “ate a” or “ate a lot” and so on.
  7. The student who says the last word (underlined) loses, and writes an X on their paper. The student who wins writes an O on their paper. Both students find a new partner and repeat.
  8. Students should generally play the game 3 or 4 times per story (each time with new partners). After they play with partners 2 or 3 times, tell them to make groups and play! It adds a new dynamic if three or four people are playing!

Why this works: the game is breaking down a chunk of text into 1 – 3 word increments. It’s less intimidating for students who dread speaking aloud. Plus, the challenge aspect (don’t say the underlined word!) adds some fun to speaking. It’s a more interesting way of having students repeatedly pronounce a paragraph / vocabulary words over and over again.

Note: I often use this activity as a warm-up for holidays! It’s a good way of sneaking Christmas / Halloween / summer vocabulary into use. It’s also a good activity for English clubs. After 20 minutes of them reading stories aloud with each other, you can challenge them to write their own two sentence stories!

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My Favorite Lessons for Low-Level ESL Students, Part I

I work at 4 low-level high schools here in Japan, and in the first few months of my time here, I really struggled to come up with lessons that work for low-level (low-English and low-motivation) students. Looking back, I’m a little embarrassed by the lessons that I first cooked up—most were simply way beyond my students’ comprehension and interest.

You see, prior to the JET Program, my teaching experience had been limited to 6 months of teaching high-level college students in France, many of whom could hold a decent conversation on politics if you coerced them… and then I arrived in Ibaraki to find classes of students who struggled to write their name in English letters and didn’t care about much beyond music, friends, and sports. It was quite the learning curve.

Online resources were helpful, but a lot of basic ESL lessons are made with elementary students in mind. Singing “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” with a class of 40 bored teenagers…. well, you can probably imagine their reactions.

So here are a few of my all-time favorite lessons and activities that have worked in my various low-level schools. For any current or future ESL teachers, perhaps this will be of interest!

  1. Where’s Wally? (for Americans, Where’s Waldo?)

This lesson focuses on: listening (part I), writing (part II), grammar

How to Play PART I, about 20 minutes

  1. Split students into pairs. Have them sit together. Give each pair a LAMINATED A-3 sized Where’s Wally picture (with their team number written in the corner). I use Where’s Wally at the Beach. You can easily find pictures online.
  2. Explain that you will describe people in the picture. Students have to find the person you are describing. When they find the person, one student from each pair will bring their Where’s Wally picture to the teacher and show them.
  3. The first 5 pairs to find the correct person will win a point for their team. Announce that the question is finished and point out the person you described. Then, describe a new person, and repeat. I have 15 – 20 questions for each picture.
  4. The grammar rule I use is attributive verbs. Examples of the questions I ask include: “Where is the man wearing 12 hats?” “Where is the woman taking a picture?” and “Where is the person buried in the sand?” It’s possible to use the game for other grammar rules though—for example, for present progressive, you could rephrase questions like “A man is wearing 12 hats. Where is he?”

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Memories of Summer, 2017

Summers in high school were family vacations and cross country practices; summers throughout college were long hours spent at part-time jobs with my best friend; but summers here in Japan have been some of the best I’ve ever had.

Summer, of course, is long past, but here are some of the highlights from my last full summer here in Japan:

* A road-trip across Ibaraki one beautiful day in June. J and I hit Ushiku Daibutsu (that huge, famous Buddha), the Itako Iris festival (so many wilting flowers), and the celebrated Kashima Jingu (a shaded shrine where we discovered ponds teeming with crawfish!) before catching up with 20 or so other Ibaraki JETs for the Kashima Antler’s soccer game! It was a great little road trip across the southern part of Ibaraki.

* My high school’s baseball game. I went to Mito with my commercial school to see the school’s baseball team kick off the prefecture’s high school baseball season! And my school’s team absolutely killed it. In the first inning alone, we racked up 11 points… which was exhausting for the poor students in the stands, because in Japanese baseball, every time a team scores a run, the band has to play a specific song and the supporters have to do a specific celebratory dance. Imagine all of that in 95 degree heat and humidity. The poor drummers, draped in ice towels and beating away at their huge drum, kept shooting me exasperated glances every time our team scored another point. “Yeah, we want to win,” their eyes seemed to say, “but calm down and give us a break here. We’re tired of cheering.”

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Snapshots: June and July in the Classroom

Life as an ALT on the JET Programme is part travel and festivals and new experiences (which makes up most of my blog content) and majority teaching classes and working with students and day-to-day chores (which has been slightly neglected here).

During my February blog challenge, I gave a little glimpse into what I do at work in the Monday: Office Life series. However, I want to go a little further and note some snapshots of recent classroom moments. (Maybe it’s because I’m missing all of my adorable students now that summer vacation has finally started).

So here are a few moments that stuck with me from June and July:

@ my Tuesday school:

There’s a ruckus in the staircase below as S-sensei and I wrap up our 4th period lesson and leave the classroom. As we descend, we see groups of students pointing at the ceiling and whispering.

It’s easy to see what is causing all the fuss: clinging to the white ceiling tile, fast asleep, there is a small brown bat.

One of the math teachers, who had peeked out of the staff office to find the source of the noise, pointed at the bat and explained it to me proudly in English, “New hallway accessory.”

@ my Monday school:

It’s Monday afternoon, and I’m giving a practice interview for EIKEN, a national English proficiency test. The student I’m interviewing is a serious, studious boy who we’ll nickname Y-kun.

I read out the fourth question of practice test 5: “Do you usually wear a wristwatch?”

Y-kun has been answering all of the previous questions easily, but he scrunches up his face in confusion. “One more time, please?”

I nod, “Do you usually wear a wristwatch?”

He pauses again, and then asks “What is a… wristwatch?”

It’s so tempting to answer and help him out, but in a real EIKEN interview test, the interviewer wouldn’t give such a hint. I tell Y-kun that has to try to break down the word, or answer with whatever he can, and we’ll go over the answer after the practice interview.

Y-kun does his best, “No, I usually wear t-shirts and pants. I’m not interested in wristwatches.”

I try my best to keep a straight face through his answer, because it would have been a perfect response if not for one small detail…

As soon as he’s answered the final question of practice test 5, he immediately asks me about the wristwatch question.

I say, “Um… please raise your hands.”

He does so, confused.

I continue, “You are wearing a wristwatch right now.”

His eyes snap to his watch, and I see understanding hit. “Oh….” he says slowly, “….embarrassing.” Then, for the first time in the hour I’ve been practice-interviewing him, Y-kun starts laughing.

@ my Thursday school

I-sensei and I were doing a Speed Dating activity for our lowest-level English class.

For the first part of class, students make up a basic profile – name, age, hometown, job, birthday, hobby. The only rule was that they couldn’t write their own information. They could write their dream job or a celebrity name or they could claim to be 100 years old—any of that was okay—but they couldn’t fill out their profile as a17-year-old high school student living in Ibaraki, Japan.

For the second part of class, students would pair up to practice asking each other basic questions (“What is your name?” / “Where do you live?”) and memorize their partner’s profile answers within two minutes. After the timer rang, they would switch and do it all again with a new partner.

I-sensei and I have two students with severe learning disabilities in this particular class; a girl, S-chan, and a boy, K-kun. For the first part of class, while the other students were writing down their profiles (My name is Anpanman! I live in Neptune!), I helped K-kun with his writing.

K-kun is a sweet, hard-working student; he knew exactly what he wanted his profile to be. The name he chose was faintly Russian; his new hometown was China. When we reached the “Job,” section of his profile, he didn’t even hesitate: “English teacher.” He looked up at me, smiling, “What’s the spell?” and I spelled out the letters for him slowly, one-by-one.

Later that afternoon, after class, I overheard a conversation between K-kun’s homeroom teacher and another teacher. The homeroom teacher was sighing heavily. She said that during her meeting with K-kun to talk about his future job plans, she had finally persuaded him to give up his dream of becoming an English teacher. It was simply unrealistic, she said. He was barely passing many of his classes, including English—getting into college would be difficult enough.

And some logical part of me knows that K-kun will never be an English teacher, even if he keeps dreaming and working hard. He struggles with understanding basic questions in English, and Japan isn’t the most sympathetic country to intellectual disabilities.

But all the same, it was heartbreaking to hear adults discourage a student from their dreams.

@ my Wednesday school:

Wednesday morning with my favorite class in this school: 3-4 conversation class with O-sensei.

Our current unit is giving directions in English, and O-sensei is inspired: he buys two colorful eye masks (featuring huge anime-eyes) from Daiso and announces to the students that they’ll be putting English to use today.

The first task for students is a trust exercise for me. O-sensei and I stand blindfolded in opposite corners of the room, and students have to navigate us around desks and chairs so we can meet and shake hands.

N-chan is the first student to guide me, and her directions are far from perfect.

“Go right, NO. No. Go left. Left.”

I turn left and promptly bump into a chair. The other students giggle.

“Oh. Right. Sorry, go right Karen-sensei.”

Eventually, we made it. But it cemented my decision to never try that particular directions activity with my tech school. I’d end up in the hallway, or going down the stairs…

The next task is students guiding their blindfolded classmates around the room. This time, though, O-sensei announces that the blind students would simultaneously be playing tag. The student wearing the pink eye mask had to tag the student wearing the blue eye mask.

As you can imagine, blindfolded 17-year olds chasing each other around the classroom, listening to imperfect but impassioned English directions is quite a sight.

The funniest blind tag game featured T-kun, who was giving instructions to a blind Y-kun (pink eye mask) to tag the blind N-chan (blue eye mask), who was being led by M-chan.

T-kun kept yelling “Straight straight straight fast! FAST! NO, TURN LEFT!! Fast fast! Yes! Straight straight FAST! TOUCH! No, turn around! Straight~” and M-chan was quietly foiling T-kun at every turn, teasing him by keeping N-chan close and then making her turn in a new direction at the last second, out of reach. Whenever Y-kun was close to N-chan, T-kun would scream “TOUCH! TOUCH!!” and Y-kun would flail blindly, groping the empty air.

As the race became more intense, personal safety was sacrificed. Eventually Y-kun was being led straight into desks and even T-kun—who could see—was banging into stray chairs, such was his focus on the chase. Everyone else was cheering and jumping out of the way as the four students chased each other around the room with erratic movements.

I’ve never laughed so hard during a class.

JET Programme 20 Questions

Name: Karen

Prefecture Placement: Ibaraki Prefecture

Prefecture Requests: No Preference. I regretted this as soon as I had turned in the application, but by then, it was too late. If I had researched earlier, my requests would have been: Yamagata, Toyama, and Nagano.

Teaching Experience: 6 months teaching ESL to university students in Strasbourg, France; 6 months of volunteering in ESL classes for immigrants in Worcester, Massachusetts (while I was in university).

Number of Schools and Age Range: 4 senior high schools and 1 special education school. Students are 15-18 years old, although a few of the students who attend night classes are a little older.

School Level: all low-level (the majority of my students will not continue on to university)

Average Number of Classes per Day: overall, I average 3 classes a day, but having 2 classes or 4 classes per day are also common for me. It really depends on the school.

Closest JET to you distance wise: 30 minutes by train,  or 40 minutes by car.

Best part of the job: the people, by far. Students and coworkers both. I really enjoy the people I work with, and I wrote more about it in my post The Best Parts of Teaching ESL.

Worst part of the job: those one or two classes that are forever sleepy and unmotivated, no matter what fun lesson you throw at them. It’s pretty discouraging.  I wrote more about that in my post My Least Favorite Parts of Teaching ESL.

Best part of living in Japan: learning. I truly learn something new almost every day. Sometimes they are little things, like the kanji for sugar or a student’s dream job. Other days, I learn a little piece of a bigger puzzle, like the intricacies of the Japanese education system or a picture of life in Ibaraki in the 1950s and 1960s. I’ve met hundreds of new people and I love listening to the stories they tell. I’m also learning about myself: how I react to new challenges and what values I hold no matter the country or society I’m living in.

Worst part of living in Japan: the distance from friends and family. I’m rarely homesick, and of course distance is part of the package when you sign up to live and work abroad, but every so often an event back home makes me think, “God, I wish teleportation was real.” I’ve missed things—like my Grandma’s 90th birthday party and my friend’s engagement party—that I would have been there for had the distance been less (and plane tickets cheaper).

Favorite memory so far: 1) In the middle of a mild typhoon last August, a friend and I ran barefoot through the streets and to the park by my house. We sat on the swings, singing and laughing, for an hour in the pouring rain; we returned home soaked to the bone, dried off, and watched a movie with some hot tea. That afternoon was one of the first times in Japan that I wasn’t worrying about what other people were thinking about me “the foreigner”—I felt free. 2) Watching and cheering as two of my students competed in the All-Japan English speech competition in Tokyo, and cheering even harder as they both advanced to the semi-finals.

Hardest time so far: The car I bought from my predecessor is now 20 years old, and it’s needed a bit of work (I’ve replaced the tires, replaced the battery, etc.). All of that was fine, because my coworkers helped with translations at the car shop. However, last June, my car’s oil needed to be changed and I thought I could do it by myself. I wrote out a list of phrases with help from my coworkers, then drove to the shop and asked for an oil change. Yes, so independent. All was fine until the mechanics came back with a list of other problems they had encountered. I could barely understand what the problems were, I was upset that maybe the car shop was trying to rip me off, and all the repairs cost 4x the amount I had expected to pay. The mechanics insisted that all the problems were important to fix though, and since my car is so old, I worried and acquiesced. Even so, it was a frustrating and upsetting experience, and it made me feel like I’ll never be independent in Japan, at least not in regards to the bigger things.

What do you miss most about home? Here are 5: friends and family; ease of communicating with other people; book stores that sell English language books; good cheese at reasonable prices; and MY CAT!

What would you miss the most about Japan, if you left tomorrow? Again, here are 5: students, colleagues, and friends; ease of public transportation (trains!!); the little daily challenges / adventures that make me learn and grow; onsen (hot springs) and sento (bathhouses); and the FOOD!

One thing you wish you brought to Japan: newer suitcases with 4 wheels. The two suitcases I brought are 20-something years old, have two wheels, weigh 4 or 5 pounds each empty, and are a pain to travel with.

Something you brought, but wish you hadn’t: I packed pretty light, just clothes and electronics. The only thing I can think of are a pair of black high-heels (the ones I wore with my suit). I wore them for Tokyo orientation and never again. Maybe if I dressed up more often, or if I went to bars in Tokyo, I’d have a reason to wear them, but right now they are collecting dust in my closet.

Tip for living in Japan: imiwa? and GoogleTranslate apps. Both are lifesavers when it comes to Japanese. Also, the Yurekuru app for earthquake notifications, and Hyperdia for trains.

Tip for being a JET: don’t leave work the minute your contract says you can leave. Yes, high school JETs—at least in our prefecture—can technically go home at 4:15, and yes, you might not have a lot of actual work to do (especially in the first few months of the job), but once in a while, linger around the office for a bit longer and make yourself available to talk. The effect of this is two-fold: first, your Japanese coworkers will notice (approvingly) if you make a habit of staying a bit later, just as they will notice (perhaps a little disapprovingly) if you watch the clock and bolt out the door the second you are technically allowed to leave. Second, coworkers tend to be more relaxed and willing to talk after 5 o’clock strikes, and for me, this has led to friendships and an overall more fulfilling working experience. On Tuesdays, for an extreme example, I regularly stay at work until 7 p.m., chatting in a mish-mash of English and Japanese over tea with the nurse and principal of that school. Yes, that’s three hours past my working hours, but it’s only once a week and I feel more a part of that school because of it. On the other hand, I always leave work at 4:30 on Fridays, and I usually peace out of the office by 4:45 in the summer. It’s all about balance.


Anecdotes 5: An Impromptu Tea Ceremony

I was wrapping up at work yesterday, preparing to go home, when the energetic cooking teacher zoomed past my desk. Seconds later, she flew by again in the opposite direction. Her eyes caught mine, and after a brief conversation about why she was so stressed, she suddenly asked, “Do you have a few minutes?”

“Sure! How can I help?” I replied.

“Let’s have tea,” was her response, then she turned and was zipping back across the staff room. She returned with kinako-powdered walnuts.  “You like matcha, right?”

I followed here to the office kitchen, where she uncovered beautifully painted ceramic bowls, powdered matcha, and a set of tea whisks. She instructed me on how much powder to scoop into my bowl, and how to correctly whip up the hot tea so it froths. After a minute of preparation, we sat down to enjoy our own little office tea ceremony, complete with the kinako walnuts.

“I do this every day,” she confided in me. “It helps me relax.”

When the tea and sweets were gone, we cleaned up and she jumped into action once more. “Back to work, I have to prepare a morals lesson for tomorrow’s open house PTA day!” and she was racing off once more. The whole little tea ceremony had taken less than 10 minutes.

I love these little unexpected moments of happiness.

(Tuesday) Extracurriculars: United Nations University Global Seminar

Henceforth referred to as “UNUGS” or just “Global Seminar” for laziness reasons.

What it is: Global Seminar is a program for high-English-level high school students in Ibaraki Prefecture who have an interest in discussing world issues. Any 1st or 2nd grader from any high school in the prefecture can apply, but their English needs to be about EIKEN pre-2nd level, or they have to be super motivated, because it’s a pretty intense program. There are 6 full-day workshops spread out over the course of 5 months (October – February) and it culminates with the students visiting the United Nations University in Tokyo for two days to listen to grad students present on sustainability.

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(Monday) Office Life: The Best Moments of Teaching ESL

In the Office Life two weeks ago, I talked about 5 frustrating moments of teaching ESL here in Japan. However, the good always outweighs the bad (and if it doesn’t, you might consider switching jobs), so here are ten of my favorite moments of my job on the JET Program.

Be warned, I wrote entirely too much.

10. When a lesson 100% succeeds. This is one of my top favorite in-the-classroom moments. For a lesson to succeed so well, many factors are at play: the students must be in the right mood to learn, the game / activity must be interesting or helpful to them, and perhaps the stars must align. Voila! You have yourself an absolutely stellar class that will make you smile like an idiot for the rest of the day, and fuel you through two or three weeks of okay classes until the next big hit.

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