(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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(Monday) Office Life: Foreign-Born Students in Japanese Schools

No, I’m not talking about international students who do a year abroad. I’m talking about students who moved with their families to Japan sometime when they were in Elementary school or Jr. High School, without ever having studied Japanese before.

One would think that this isn’t too much of a problem as Japan is a pretty homogeneous society — according to the census, 98.5% of the population is Japanese. However, my experience is different. My base school is a Flex school, which is a very special type of Japanese high school for many reasons. As the name suggests, it allows for flexible scheduling, and we have morning classes, afternoon classes, and night classes that run until 9 p.m.

One of the other things that makes my Flex school so unique is that it is much more diverse than a typical Japanese high school — I estimate that about 10 – 20 % of the students at my base school are not ethnically Japanese, and most of those students were born abroad.  The Philippines, Brazil, and Peru are definitely the most represented non-Japanese countries in our student body (probably in that order), although there are a handful of other students from various Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam.

Over the past year and a half, I’ve gotten to know a lot of these students (they tend to be stronger in English than their Japanese classmates, although that is not always true) and I have a few observations on the subject that I’d like to share.

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(Friday) Thoughts from Places: My Predecessor’s Shadow

I knew the name of my JET predecessor months before I was even accepted to the program in April of 2015. I had read intimate details of the little city-town I now call home — even glimpsed into the apartment in which I now reside — long before I found out where, in all of Japan, I would be living.

It wasn’t due to anything paranormal: my predecessor had a blog. And I was one of her readers.

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(Wednesday) Photo of the Week: Alone

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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.

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The 16 Books of 2016

I managed to read 16 books in 2016, which is a little disappointing considering my original goal of 20 for the year. It’s doubly disappointing because I’m sure 14-year-old me would have easily doubled that number.

I can, however, console myself by remembering that most of these books are significantly longer and less “fun” than the fantastical fictions I used to devour in my teens. Case in point: the Complete Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (all 56 short stories and all 4 short novels) totals 1886 pages! Although Sherlock wasn’t any less fun because of it. In addition, some of my choices were a little more experimental in genre, which didn’t always make for quick reads.

Here is the list (and a quick ranking) below.

If the author’s name is followed by a star * (and happily most of them are) it means that I would readily recommend the book to a friend.

Two stars ** means I very highly recommend the book. Something about a two star book really stuck with me after I finished reading it.

And of course, if it lacks a star… it means that I personally had a hard time getting into the book, but I know every reader is different!

The 16 books of 2016:

  1. The Handmaid’s Tale — Margaret Atwood ** 
  2. Cutting for Stone — Abraham Verghese **
  3. The Enchanted — Rene Denfeld *
  4. The Complete Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Volume 1 — Sir Arthur Conan Doyle **
  5. Kafka on the Shore — Haruki Murakami
  6. Me Before You — Jojo Moyes *
  7. The Glass Castle: A Memoir — Jeannette Wells **
  8. The Picture of Dorian Grey — Oscar Wilde
  9. Redeployment — Phil Klay *
  10. Catherine the Great; Portrait of a Woman — Robert K. Massie **
  11. The Martian — Andy Weir *
  12. Assassination Classroom (all 22 books) — Yuusei Matsui **
  13. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (reread) — J.K. Rowling **
  14. How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? True Stories of Expat Women in Asia — Shannon Young *
  15. The Complete Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Volume 2 — Sir Arthur Conan Doyle **
  16. Great Expectations — Charles Dickens *

Now for the “Book Awards”: basically, my top four books of the year — why I chose them, and why I loved them.

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How Far I’ve Come: Reflections on 1+ Year of Living in Japan

It’s been nearly 14 months since I arrived in Japan, and the other day I was reflecting on just how far I have come in a year. It’s easy and it’s tempting to look at certain aspects of my life here and feel like I have miles yet to go…

…but on the other hand, looking back shows me just how far I’ve already come.

Japanese Ability

August/September 2015: Started from absolute zero. At this point, I was slowly memorizing hiragana (and I hadn’t reached katakana yet). My conversational ability only extended to the most basic phrases — good morning, thank you, it’s raining today,  this is delicious,  I’m sorry,  it’s nice to meet you,  大丈夫ですか? and ならほうどう!Visits to the grocery store flustered me, and whenever a cashier asked me a question (such as what I now know to be “Do you want this sandwich heated up?”), I could only stare back with a confused look — and the cashier would just do whatever he or she thought was best. As you can imagine, I wasn’t very fun to talk to in Japanese, and I pretty helpless in daily life.

August/September 2016: When my parents visited in August, we went to Tohoku region. Tohoku region is far enough off the beaten track for a lot of foreigners, though, that most people working in the area’s service industry don’t have a high level of English ability (unlike in Kyoto and Tokyo). So it was up to me to play translator as best I could. I checked us into hotels, translated menus, and asked all the silly questions that my parents forced me to ask, with a decent amount of success! Of course, my Japanese was far from perfect and I had to consult Google Translate more than a few times, but overall, I was pretty impressed with myself. I’d come a long way!

My best moment was at a tonkatsu restaurant in Akita — my parents and I walked in and all the staff freaked (because we look so foreign and they didn’t have an English menu). However, I managed to translate the menu just fine (thanks Google!) and I ordered all our food in Japanese, and from that moment on, the older woman who ran the shop kept stopping by our table to ask me friendly questions. It was also the first time that someone assumed I was actually living in Japan, and not just touring. (My parents, however, were assumed to be visiting, which of course they were). That lunch was a big confidence-boost for me, and I needed it, because when it comes to speaking, I know I’m usually pretty helpless here. Bank transfers are beyond me, and the long list of questions that they rattle off at the post office makes me wary to ever send a letter. And sometimes at work enkais, I just hear long stretches of white noise and I curse my infantile language skills.

I’ll never be fluent, but sometimes it’s good to remember that I’m not always helpless, either.

Teaching

August/September 2015: My first few lessons were crap. I remember that I was literally shaking, and I was very uncomfortable with all eyes on me. I didn’t know how to respond to or how to really interact with students (luckily they forgave me). And I didn’t yet know the personalities or teaching styles of the colleagues whom I shared the classroom with, which makes a big difference during lessons. At my tech school, where I am 100% responsible for making all the lessons I teach, I floundered with a lack of ideas and rather poor execution. The first few months of teaching were stressful for me, with moments of hope and moments of disappointment.

August/September 2016: I’m not going to lie. I still get nervous sometimes (especially when I’m teaching a brand new lesson of my own design), and I still have classes that go rather terribly. Just last week, actually, I left one of my classes feeling pretty disappointed with how that lesson had gone. However, for the most part, I’m so much more at ease in the classroom than I was last year. Experience (and talking with other ALT friends) has given me a long list of activity ideas, and I know for the most part what will work, and what will fail. A really important factor to this is that I know my students and my classes better. I know what to expect. I know what they enjoy doing. And I know my colleagues better. We know what hats to wear in class; we critique lessons afterwards and try to fix any problems that arose for the next class. On top of all that, I’m actively trying to apply what I learn in my TEFL course to the classroom — I’ve been simplifying my instructions so students understand them better, I’ve learned how to speak slower than I used to (still a work-in-progress), and I think I’ve been organizing my lesson structures more effectively. Teaching in itself has such a big learning curve, and I’m finally on the upswing.

There have been so many days where I end the class bursting with happiness, and there are so many lessons that end in laughter. I really love what I’m doing here, and even the moments of failure have been worth it. I’m excited to see what kind of teacher-in-training I am by next year!

Kimono

August/September 2015: On my first day of Kimono class, back in September of 2015, it took me the full two hours to tie my obi once — alongside everyone else, of course — even though the students started kimono class months prior, we were all tackling this new obi style together. In the following classes, I struggled to remember all the steps, and I messed up spectacularly. I was a little terrified to even handle the obi — I knew it was expensive, and I worried about tearing it. Then in October, Kimono-sensei brought out the actual kimonos for us to try on, and class got even more complicated. When Kimono-sensei started floating the idea that I should enter a competition, I thought it was a joke –I couldn’t even tie the obi properly after two months of practice!

August/September 2016: A year later, and I am pretty well-practiced in the art of kimono. I’m proud to say that I can tie my obi in three minutes flat, and I can fully dress and undress myself in kimono three or four times in a row each class.  It’s hard work — harder than I ever thought it would be — but I’m amazed that over the months, I have turned what I thought was impossible — to fully dress myself in kimono and obi in under 10 minutes  — into an accomplished reality — just a few weeks ago, I finally broke the 10:30 record I had been hovering at. I still make mistakes (sometimes one of the ties are visible, or my hem isn’t long enough, or the collar needs adjustment) but I’m much further than I ever expected to be.

And I’m so happy with how far I’ve come.

Making the Effort: Thoughts on the Job of an ALT

When I arrived here last August, almost a year ago, I was informed that my Tuesday visit school had an English Club, and that I would be expected to go to the meetings.

I was psyched. Although I didn’t know how many students were involved, or what activities the club did (my predecessor was vague), or even where my Tuesday school was located yet, I had big plans for English Club. All through the month of August (which is really a desk-warming month in the life of a new ALT) I prepared scavenger hunts, Buzzfeed-inspired taste tests, and international recipes for my English Club. My eyes sparkled with the possibilities.

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My eyes sparkled like this. So much hope.

Flash forward to September 8th, my first day working at that school. After three self-introduction lessons, I walk into my very first Club meeting with high hopes.

They were quickly crushed. The JTE who ran the English Club was repetitive and autocratic in her ways. We pushed 10 desks together and settled down for conversation. The topic of the day was “What did you do last weekend?”

Over the next few weeks, I learned that unless some groundbreaking event occurred, the topic of the day was ALWAYS “What did you do last weekend?”

(And there aren’t that many groundbreaking events happening in Ibaraki).

So I never mentioned any of the activities that I had prepared back in August. I resigned myself to 75 minutes of asking the same questions each Tuesday to my 8 English Club girls with the hopes of different answers, just like my predecessor did before me. When something new came along — “I went to the movies with my friends” — we would sink our teeth into the response, asking as many follow-up questions as we could think of until the poor student had basically described the movie’s entire plot. Then we would move on to the next girl’s weekend recap.

Admittedly, I began to dread English Club. Although I loved the girls involved, I hated the tired routine. I hated how boring it was, and how sorry I felt for the girls that club was always the same. And I hated coming up with answers of my own when the question of the day inevitably fell to me.

Eventually March rolled around, and for two weeks between the end of the old school year and the start of the new one, I was base school-bound. Unbelievably, it took me that long to have the revelation I so desperately needed.

During those days of desk-warming, I examined my own role in English Club… and I realized that I didn’t actually DO anything for the club. My mere presence every Tuesday afternoon wasn’t helpful. It certainly wasn’t inspiring. I just sat there every week, in the circle of desks, and asked a few questions. No wonder English Club wasn’t satisfying! I should have talked privately to the JTE who ran the club back in September… I should have suggested my activities, or at least suggested different weekly topics so we weren’t forever talking about our weekends!

With renewed inspiration, I formulated an English Club Game Plan for the new school year.

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And on the first day back at my Tuesday visit school in April, I handed my JTE a copy. I told her that I wanted to be more involved in the club this year — I wanted to plan real activities for the girls, and I wanted to make English Club fun again.

And do you know what happened?

The JTE I thought was so autocratic, so set in her ways, broke out in a great big smile. She was so happy that I actually CARED. That I actually put some effort in. She gave me full control.

It’s been three months since I reformed Tuesday’s English Club. Since then, we’ve had an Easter Egg Scavenger Hunt on the school grounds (practicing our prepositions!); we’ve played the Famous Person “Who Am I?” game where students have to ask questions; we’ve played a Hot Seat version of Taboo that forced students to get creative in describing words; we’ve played a really funny round of “Never Have I Ever” (although I changed the words to “I Have Never~” because the original confused everyone); we’ve had a club devoted to formulating questions, rounded off by a round of Question Volleyball; and we’ve gone back to our roots, round-tabling it  for a day with the question being “Who is your favorite historical person… and why?”

And only once have we talked about our weekends.

Everyone is happier now that I’m more involved. The JTE who used to hover over us, who used to drag answers out from the girls… now, sometimes, she only pops into meetings for the last ten minutes. Because unlike before, she trusts me now.

And although it’s more work for me to plan everything, I no longer dread going to English Club — and neither do the students, I hope!

This little tale about my  school’s English Club also relates to my thoughts about what it means to be an ALT in general. Sure, there is always the easy way — where you put in minimal effort, sliding through lessons and leaving the moment your contract says you can — but it usually isn’t the most fulfilling. From what I’ve seen, the ALTs who get the most satisfaction from their jobs here in Japan –and the ALTs who enjoy their life here the most — are usually the ALTs who give 110% effort at work.

I’m not saying ALTs have to stay at work till 7pm each night, or join every club in the school, or anything crazy like that, just to feel good about the job. And I’m definitely not trying to preach that I’m a perfect ALT (I’m so far from it. I make so many mistakes). From what I’ve experienced, though, just being involved and engaged — even in the tiniest way, like by learning names, or by really helping during cleaning time — helps form stronger ties to the school and to the students.

Making the effort.

Although I definitely tried my best to do everything when I first got here (especially in lesson planning for actual classes), around December, a few aspects of my job — like English club — fell through the cracks. Now, I’m slowly getting back on track, and I go home feeling much happier on Tuesday evenings.

Of course, my English Club activities don’t always work perfectly, and sometimes the new first year girls struggle a bit with them, as they just don’t have the vocabulary. But it’s better than nothing. And now that they see I’m making the effort, the students are making the effort too.

What more could I ask for?

A Second Education: Thoughts on Learning After Graduation

“Intellectual growth should commence at birth and cease only at death.” — Albert Einstein

For the last few months, I’ve felt intellectually stagnant, as if my mind is slowly deteriorating through a lack of formal education.

Some of this comes from living in a foreign country. In some regards, I feel as if I’m “losing my language” because from Monday through Friday, I’m simplifying all my thoughts and instructions into the easiest comprehensible words,  for the benefit of students and even sometimes teachers alike (although in general, I’m blessed with very English-competent JTEs). So overall, my spoken English has suffered. My vocabulary is, at times, elementary.

This stagnation is more than just a concern for my language skills, though. Upon my graduation in May of 2015, I felt like I had reached the end of the ladder… now I feel as if I have nothing tangible to work towards mentally. Which is completely silly, I know. Because I know I am learning new things everyday, but… for some reason, without being tested, without being graded, without cram-studying, and without homework, I feel… well, I feel stupid. I feel as if my intelligence was once based on a grading scale, and as if I could once know my intellectual position based upon a letter, a number — a B+, a score of 92 — and now, the end-of-semester grades have stopped. And my sense of my own intelligence is lost.

Am I alone in this feeling? Is this what the U.S. education system has prepared me for?  Continue reading