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.

 

Thoughts from Places: On Stage for the 2017 World Kimono Competition

Written (mentally) on April 9, 2017;  written (actually) a week or so later. My parents finally sent me pictures, so now I can share! Enjoy a collection of my thoughts as I went on stage to dress myself in kimono in front of about 800 people.

Act I: In the Wings, Waiting to Compete

Okay, Karen, you got this.

Don’t trip in your zori, stop shaking, all you have to do is put on clothes.

…Put on clothes in front of an audience…while they judge you.

Let’s not think about this. Let’s look at the adorable kids who are competing right now.

Kawaii! Kawaii, ne? This is about as deep of an exchange as I can get in Japanese right now. Luckily, this is a totally appropriate thing to repeat endlessly to the foreign women around me.

Yep, those kids are pretty damn kawaii. Especially that serious little boy with the samurai sword!

How long has it been now? Four minutes? Five? These kids are fast…

That tiny little girl there made such a complicated obi! And she’s only maybe 7 years old… I was not that disciplined at 7 years old. I would have frozen on stage at 7 years old. Well, I never would have gotten on stage at 7 years old.

They’re almost done, only two kids left!

My palms are sweating.

Glancing right and left, the other foreign women are nervous too.

Let’s shoot another panicked smile at the girl from Bangladesh. Kinchou shimasu!  That’s probably not perfect but she understands. Yep, she’s just as nervous. We’re all in this together. Ganbatte!

The curtain is falling, we’re being ushered on stage!

It’s showtime!

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My April 2017: Kimono, Missiles, and a Potato Crisis

Logically, it would make sense to pick up where I last left off—at the airport, flying off to Middle Earth, ready to go hiking in the Misty Mountains… wait, no, no. I’ve got it all wrong. The last part about the Misty Mountains didn’t happen. And… this blog post isn’t about New Zealand. (Sorry! I’ll get around to it eventually!)

Life ever since returning home from NZ has been quite crazy and there is too much to write, too much to say. I’ve been overwhelmed whenever I’ve thought of this blog recently, hence I’ve said absolutely nothing. Where to start, where to start?

Well, let’s begin on a happy note with KIMONO. My competition is over! Here’s a rundown of the hectic week leading up to that big day:

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A “Love Letter” from Kimono-Sensei

My February Blog Challenge has finally wrapped up, with 18 out of the 20 posts actually published in February! Honestly, those are better odds than I was expecting, so I feel rather accomplished… but the challenge was also more stressful than imagined. I definitely could not post something every Monday-through-Friday for an entire year, especially with a full-time job. Plus, after-school extracurriculars like 2-hour jiu-jitusu lessons and Japanese classes eat up my after-work blogging time.

Aside from that, there is one thing that I haven’t shared because of the blog challenge:

At the very beginning of February, during a normal Thursday afternoon kimono class, my Kimono-sensei spoke the very first English words that I’ve ever heard her utter. She sang to me, “Karen-chan! Love letter!” and waved around a huge envelope with a knowing smile.

I’d advanced from the regional Kanto competition in November to the All-Japan Kimono Competition, taking place in Tokyo in April! 

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(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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(Friday) Thoughts from Places: Inside a Kaiten Sushi Restaurant

Written (mentally) as I was sitting in my local kaiten sushi restaurant on Friday; written (actually) a few days later.

In my previous post, I wrote about my weekly challenge of eating in a restaurant alone in my city. After much internal psyching up, I completed the challenge at Hamazushi, one of many conveyor belt sushi restaurant chains that Japan is famous for. As I was, of course, alone, I had plenty of time to ponder life, Japan, and sushi. Here are those thoughts:

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(Thursday) Weekly Challenge: Eat Alone at a Restaurant

This week, I challenged myself to finally eat at a restaurant alone in my town.

Maybe you are an extravert and this challenge seems ridiculously simple. But for me, an introvert who only knows basic Japanese, the prosepect of eating alone can be daunting. Of course, I’ve done this once or twice before in Japan. On my solo adventure days in Nikko and in Tokyo, I’ve eaten alone at restaurants, because the other option is to starve for a day.

However, whenever I am home in Yuuki, Ibaraki, I’ll either cook or I’ll drop by the konbini for a quick meal. I only go out to restaurants in my own city when I’m with friends. Why? Because I’m a coward – I worry that alone, my Japanese isn’t good enough to understand the menu, to order food, to respond to questions. It’s always more reassuring to have a friend alongside who you can figure everything out with.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I ate alone quite often when I lived in France. I would go out to lunch two or three times a week by myself because my schedule didn’t match up with the schedules of the other girls who studied abroad with me. I had a handful of favorite lunch restaurants in Strasbourg, the top three being 1) a Lebanese place called Le Tarbouche, 2) a brew pub called Au Brasseur, and 3) a tarte flambée chain restaurant called Flam’s. Sadly, there aren’t so many Lebanese or Alsatian restaurants in my part of Japan, although there might be a few in Tokyo. Goodness, I want to fly back to Strasbourg right now, just to eat real hummus and spätzle-choucroute…

Anyways, I don’t want to be a coward anymore, at least not about silly little things like eating alone at a restaurant. I’ve lived here for a year and a half, for crying out loud! This isn’t even a particularly difficult challenge! But these challenges are all little things to push me outside of my comfort zone, and I was nervous all the same.

So, I allowed myself some training wheels: I chose to eat at a restaurant that I was already familiar with, a restaurant where ordering food is done on a tablet and requires no Japanese speaking ability—

—Hamazushi.

Yep, I went to my local kaiten sushi (conveyor belt sushi) restaurant after work on Friday.

What can I say? I was craving sushi. Words that I never, ever thought I would say (or write) a year and a half ago.

Anyways, I sat at the counter at Hamazushi, ordered from the tablet (the menu is in Japanese and English!) and ate a few plates of yellowtail with yuzu (my favorite) and duck “sushi” (slices of cooked duck with garlic sauce over rice). Then, I went home. In total, I was only there for about half an hour. All that freaking out for only a half-hour…

My feelings about the whole experience? Well, I was nervous at first—when I’m alone, I’m more conscious of the stares—but I got used to it fast. I wasn’t the only solitary person eating at the counter that night. I also never get sushi unless I’m at enkais or out with friends, so it was a nice chance to switch up my cuisine. And so cheap! Only ~\600 (yeah, I’m clearly not a big eater).

Will I do this again? Yes, of course. I just have to summon up a little courage and ignore the stares. Will it become a weekly habit, as it was in France? I honestly don’t foresee that happening, but I’ll be here for another year and a half, so it’s possible!

(Wednesday) Photo of the Week: Gunma

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Last September, J and I booked an AirBnB in Gunma Prefecture for the three-day Silver Week holiday. This particular AirBnB was a private room (several rooms, actually) in the house of a chatty elderly couple who lived in the countryside and were honestly amazed that anyone wanted to visit the middle of nowhere, Gunma.

One of the reasons I haven’t written about this trip before is because I couldn’t find the right words, even after weeks of reflection. They still aren’t right, but I’ll do my best. That three-day weekend was so unbelievably peaceful, and it was all due to the fact that, for those days, the couple’s historic home — over 100 years old — became our own as well.

We would wake up, roll out of our futons, and the wife would come in with our breakfasts: hot coffee, homemade bread with Hokkaido butter, and a bowl of fresh fruit; grapes from the local orchards and Japanese pear. We would go out for the day — hiking and onsening and exploring — and we’d come back in the evening, returning to this beautiful old house and our cheerful hosts for cups of hot tea and conversation.

On the last morning, we woke up to rain. We sat in the chairs that looked out beyond the sliding glass-and-paper doors and into the garden. For hours, we read our books and sipped our coffee in absolute companionable silence. It was the most tranquil I’ve ever felt.

I think many people visit Japan looking for exactly this. The smell of fresh tatami; the sliding doors and earthen floors of a traditional house; the simple, delicious homemade food; the warm souls; the mountains and the orchards; the quiet beauty of such a place. Something almost out of a Miyazaki film. There’s a magic there. At least, perhaps I came to Japan looking for this, not knowing if it existed.

And I found it in Gunma.