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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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.

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.

(Wednesday) Photo of the Week: School Festival


School festivals are in the fall, so these two photos are a few months late, but I didn’t want to write a full post about it.

Basically, I just wanted to highlight my Commercial High School’s festival from back in October. I help run the English Club at that school, and the girls all worked hard to create a Harry Potter-themed quiz game for the festival. They decorated this science room and hid clues all around — inside the books and behind curtains — so guests could go on a little scavenger hunt to fill out the quiz. Guests who got all the answers correct won a small prize. Surprisingly, we had about 50 people complete the quiz, which surpassed all of our expectations!

Below are all the quiz questions in English. It’s not perfect English, but they tried really hard! Can you get all the answers correct?


(Wednesday) Photo of the Week: Alone


Hiking alone; Nikko, Tochigi (November 2016).

When I lived in France, I did a lot of things alone. I went to restaurants alone, I went to the cinema alone, I traveled alone, I slept in mixed-dorm hostels alone. Perhaps I was a little nervous about doing these things by myself, but I still went outside and did them anyway.

Whereas here in Japan, I’m not as independent as I once was. I have yet to do any of the above alone here in Japan. Part of the reason is because I have a super awesome friend J who shares many, if not all, of my interests and is always down to go on adventures with me (thanks J!). But another reason is that I lack the confidence that I had in France. My French speaking ability is miles ahead of my Japanese speaking ability, and even though English-speaking tourists can glide through Japan pretty easily, I’m wary to rely on it. It’s so much less nerve-wracking (and more fun) to do everything with a friend… especially when said friend can understand 70% more of the Japanese world around you than you yourself can.

I’ve started doing a few little things by myself, though. At the end of last year, I had a few daikyuu days (substitute holidays) that I needed to take before they evaporated.

So for the first, I popped down to Tokyo for the day to explore the Edo-Tokyo Museum and take myself out for lunch (there’s a great burger place near Shinjuku station).

For the second, I went to Nikko, Tochigi to go hiking by myself.  For the first time in my year and a half of living in Japan, I messed up the trains and took the wrong line, then had to backtrack my way to Tochigi station to catch the correct train. Embarrassing. But I made it to Nikko, then found a mountain to hike.

I swear I was the only person there. I was on the mountain for two hours and I never saw another soul. It was absolutely silent. Birdsong and sunlight. Which was peaceful, aside from the nagging fear that I was going to be eaten by a bear…

Luckily I lived to see another day. And the view from the top was worth it, even if I was alone.


Anecdotes 4: Guacamole

My lovely friend J is a fantastic cook. Sometimes she brings me tupperwares of food on Wednesday nights, when we meet for Japanese class. A few weeks ago, I was excited to receive homemade guacamole, straight from her kitchen!

Having nothing prepared for the next day’s lunch, and waking up too late to run to 7/11, I ended up bringing the guacamole and a bag of tortilla chips to school on Thursday as a last-minute lunch. And this is what happened:

Me @ 12:30: (happily starting to eat lunch at my desk)

Chemistry teacher: (passes by my desk on his way to the photocopier. Stops and stares at the green stuff in my tupperware). After a few more covert, curious glances, he throws caution to the wind and asks me “What’s that?”

Me: “Oh, this is guacamole! It’s made with avocados. Would you like to try some?”

Chemistry teacher: (hesitant but intrigued) “Yes, please.”

So I offer him some tortilla chips and the guacamole, watching as he tried the green stuff cautiously. He seemed mystified by what exactly it was, but he seemed to like it, and he thanked me.

A few minutes later, a JTE also spotted my lunch: “Karen-chan, what’s that?”

Me: “Oh, it’s guacamole. Do you know it? No? It’s a sort of Mexican dip. Here, try some!”

And so began my base school’s discovery of guacamole. No less than 8 teachers taste-tested it (some even asked for seconds!), and then they all gathered around my JTE’s computer and googled “guacamole” in Japanese.  After reading the Wikipedia page, they all seemed more confident about what exactly they had eaten.

And they all confessed that now they felt like drinking a beer to go along with my strange lunch.

2 lessons learned: grassroots internationalization can start with guacamole. And Japan knows very little about Mexican food aside from tacos.

Anecdotes 3: The Question of Shoes

I’m at a lunchtime joshikai (a women-only party) with my colleagues. My mind is wandering due to all the Japanese being spoken around me, when suddenly my JTE translates a question that all my other female coworkers are apparently itching to know the answer to:

JTE: What do you do with your shoes?

Me: (snapping back to reality) Huh?

JTE: In your house in America, what do you do with your shoes?

Me: Oh. Well, in my house, the front door opens to a mudroom. It’s like a little hallway with a closet, where we put our shoes and hang up jackets.

*My JTE translates this, and the other women are fascinated*

Me: It’s not that different from Japan….

JTE: We are surprised! On all the American TV shows, people are always wearing their shoes in the house. So dirty! We thought Americans only take off their shoes to go to bed!

*The other women nod vigorously*

Me: (trying to clear up gross cultural misunderstandings thanks to television) We definitely take our shoes off when entering the house. Most people, at least. Most of the time. Anyways, way before bed!

JTE: You really aren’t that different from Japan! (All the other ladies nod, delighted).

Me: (internally) YES! FINALLY! A moment of bridging cultural divides! We AREN’T so different! SUCCESS!!

JTE: And you have indoor shoes?

Me: (this stops my celebration short) Uhhh….. no. We just wear socks in the house… or bare feet… sometimes slippers in the winter when it’s cold? (Thinking about it a little more) Indoor shoes aren’t really a common concept in America…

*My JTE translates this, and everyone is quiet for a bit*

Finally one of the other ladies throws in her two cents: Oh. Different.

End of conversation.

Anecdotes 2: Do Not Disturb

Background: My first-year students are doing a lesson on imperative commands. My team teacher and I demonstrate the idea (“Stand up. Go to the door. Write your name on the blackboard. Jump three times!”) Then we give students a worksheet so they could create their own commands. The plan is that they will later use these commands in a pair game.

I spend a good chunk of time walking around the classroom, encouraging the students not to copy the examples word-for-word from the blackboard. (“Have fun with this! Be creative! Make your friends sing “happy birthday” or something!” I plead to students who keep writing, “Go to the window. Sit down.”)

Then I come across a boy who has given up.

He can’t handle English right now. He’s bored, or he’s tired. Whatever it is, he’s done. His head is down on his desk, his eyes closed.

I’m about to attempt to wake him when I notice his worksheet, half-visible from underneath his head.

The first line of the worksheet is filled out — big letters, bold imperative: “Don’t disturb sleep.”

It was the most creative command I had seen all day, so I chuckled and left him alone.

Anecdotes 1: Sneezing

Background: It’s a muggy August day in the staffroom of my base school. I’ve been in Japan for two weeks now. All is quiet — everyone is busy working, or at least they are pretending to work. My Kyoto-sensei (my vice principal) — the kind gentleman who doesn’t speak a word of English — sneezes loudly.

Me: [automatically] “Bless you!”

Kyoto-sensei: [curious stare in my direction]

The only JTE/English-speaking person in the staffroom at the moment: [getting up and casually walking over to my desk] “So… why do you say that when someone sneezes?”

Me: “Don’t you say anything?”

JTE: “No, in Japan we don’t say anything. Some people believe that sneezing means other people are gossiping about you, so we don’t acknowledge it. Why do Americans say Bless You?”

Me: [floundering for a response] “Oh! Um… well, in ancient times, people believed that when you sneezed, your heart stopped, and they would say “Bless you!” because you were blessed… because you were still alive!”

JTE: [looking half-amused] “Really?”

Me: [continuing to babble nonsense] “Yeah, and you know, when we are kids, adults tell us that if you don’t close your eyes when you sneeze, your eyes will pop out of your head! So we say “Bless you” because… uh… you still have your eyes?”

My JTE translates all of this for the rest of the staff (who, by now, are all staring at us, trying to figure out what we are saying). Their response is a mixture of  horror and amusement, and laughter can be heard. My Kyoto-sensei looks shocked.

Me: [flustered, clarifying] “But no one actually believes it! It’s just something to tell little kids!”

Too late. The damage is done.

For the next two months, whenever my Kyoto-sensei sneezed (which was often, poor guy), our eyes would meet.

He would pat both his eyes, checking that they were still there, then give me a big thumbs-up.