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.

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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.

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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(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.

(Tuesday) Extracurriculars: Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Yesterday was my 18th Jiu-Jitsu class. I choked a few guys, I was squashed by other guys, and I managed surprise a blue belt with the only combination move that I can actually complete without thinking for too long.

What in the world motivated me to start Jiu-Jitsu? Some background:

I’ve been curious about martial arts for a quite a few years now.

I almost started Judo at l’Université when I was living in Strasbourg, France—I filled out the registration forms and paid my sports fee and everything—but unfortunately the school’s beginner class filled up before I had the chance to join. When I was applying for the JET Program a year later, my heart was still set on learning Judo… I hoped there would be a beginner-friendly dojo near my future apartment in Japan.

However, when I found out months later that I was placed in Ibaraki, the home of Aikido, I decided that maybe I would learn Aikido instead. A quick internet search informed me that Aikido was a little less… intense compared to Judo, so it would probably more my speed anyway. (I’m not a badass person, as much as I’d like to be). Then I arrived in Japan to find that Aikido was born in the middle of Ibaraki (that’s where most of the Aikido gyms are) whereas I was living an hour and a half to the west…

Well, all good plans go awry.

So my first year on JET was spent wishing I could start some martial art—any martial art at this point—but doing nothing to accomplish it.

Luckily, back in October (2016), J and I decided to finally do something. One day, after lunch, we poked our heads into the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu gym near her house and asked a few questions. Basically, it went down like this—“We’ve never done jiu-jitsu before and we are both foreign, so our Japanese isn’t great. Would that cause any issues? Oh, and how expensive is it per month?”

We watched a few classes at the end of October, and by November, we had both bought gi (white judo gi, actually) and had started rolling with all the others.

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(Thursday) Weekly Challenge: Take a Walk

This week’s challenge was very very simple, so I won’t spend too much time writing about it (especially since I’m running a little behind on my posts as it is…). The challenge was to walk around my city for an hour or two.

Why did I challenge myself to do this? Well, when I first moved to Japan, I had no car, no wifi (for the first week), no friends, and not much work to do. To tell the truth, I was bored that first month here. And there is only so much reading that a girl can do. So I would spend a few hours after work or on the weekends, taking walks around my new city and exploring.

Then September of 2015 rolled around, and life started catching up with me. I finally bought car insurance with the help of a coworker and my world opened up. I made friends with J, who lived in a nearby city, and we started making plans for weekends. Students came back to school, classes started, and I became busier during the work week. Then the weather started cooling down, and taking my car to the bigger, further grocery store became more comfortable than walking to the little local grocery store.

I stopped exploring my city. I stopped walking as much as I had in that first month.

What happened? Nothing crazy, of course. I just walked around my city after work on Friday. Friday is the only day of the week where I consistently get home before sunset, and this Friday happened to have the added bonus of beautiful weather. I saw quite a few of my students (mostly from my Wednesday school, since I chose to walk in that area of my city), and we waved at each other. I also visited some of the little temples that are peppered around my city — the ones I first discovered back in the very beginning of my stay here.

It was very peaceful, to be honest. It feels wonderful to be outside in the fresh air on such a beautiful day. Such a welcome break from all the other noise — the music and the YouTube videos that I usually fill my free time with. Especially now that we are nearing spring and cherry blossoms, I might have to take a walk around town more often.

(Friday) Thoughts from Places: Flashback to a Year in France

Today I was overwhelmed by memories of Strasbourg.

Summer.

Hot sticky sweltering summer nights spent rolling wineglasses on uneven picnic benches under la Guinguette’s magnificent willow tree strung up with fairy lights and dwarfing all the internationalities who sipped wine and chugged beer and discussed French literature and dared each other to dance with the hot stranger over there, all to the strange wails and guitars of live foreign bands, all by the banks of the Loire.

The greying old man with deep laughter wrinkles smiles warmly at you and begins to sing as he whips up your daily crepe, lathering generous spoonfuls of Nutella and sliced banana onto the crisp, lacy crust and handing it to you, hot and fresh and sweet, with a final hum as you slide two new coins across the glass countertop.

In the lofty white stone halls of the castle-school that you liked to pretend was marble, under brassy chandeliers and around the corner from your gold-embossed classroom with creaking wooden floors, you sit playing chess with Bridget, glass pawns fighting and flickering in the sunlight that pours through the French windows with peeling white paint as your classmates on the balcony call out to friends—in English, in French, in Italian—in the courtyard below.

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(Monday) Office Life: Inside a Japanese Teacher’s Room

One of the first things to know about Japanese schools is that the Teacher’s Room is the hub of activity. Every teacher has a desk in the Teacher’s Room—even the P.E. teachers, the school librarians, and the home economics teachers, although they probably don’t need one. Even the Vice Principal has a desk there. So if a teacher isn’t teaching or managing a club activity, he or she will probably be found in the Teacher’s Room (unless he or she popped out to the bank or the local Italian restaurant for lunch, of course).

This is in contrast to at least my high school in America, which seemed to lack a designated communal office—or perhaps it had one, but I didn’t know where it was and it probably wasn’t put to very much use. Instead, every teacher had their own classroom where they worked and taught and even ate lunch. So all the teachers are a little more isolated, at least to student’s perspective.

In this post, I’ll give you a little tour around the Teacher’s Room in Japanese high schools (aka where I desk-warm during school breaks).

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