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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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.

(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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(Monday) Office Life: The Most Difficult Moments of Teaching ESL

I love my job. I really, honestly do. But that doesn’t mean that it’s always easy.  Here are five of my… least favorite moments of teaching ESL in Japan.

  1. When a JTE (Japanese Teacher of English) says that they understand the lesson you planned…. then you get to class and realize the JTE has no idea and is giving the students false directions. This really isn’t frustrating – depending on the JTE, we usually laugh about it together – but it does confuse the students and waste some class time.
  1. When you and a JTE stare at a silly grammar point in the textbook and try to turn it into a reasonably fun activity for students. This can become a bit of a Mexican standoff. The JTE often expects us ALTs to be bursting with creative ideas. In turn, ALTs often expect JTEs to be full of activities from all their years of teaching experience. In reality, neither of us knows what to do with a textbook that wants students to use the infinitive to begin a sentence. Examples are “To see is to believe!” and “To hear him sing is an experience.” A long silence stretches as we both wrack our brains for activities. Eventually we scrape something decent together, and usually, the lesson ends up just fine. But those long moments of planning a lesson around silly grammar points are not my favorites!

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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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(Thursday) Weekly Challenge: Incomplete

I didn’t complete my intended challenge this week. I debated whether or not to post this admittance of defeat, but I figured that it would be worse to not write anything at all.

Instead, I will leave you with a quick moment from today that made me so very happy.

This morning, I was printing worksheets for a later lesson when a 3rd year student approached my desk. This particular student is extremely motivated in English, and over the past year and a half, he has improved dramatically. He’s also one of the students I know the best, as he often asks to chat after school (he usually drags his friends along, too). When I first arrived in Japan, our conversations were slow and halting as he would pull out his cell phone again and again to look up new words. Lately, however, as we’ve been practicing for his upcoming EIKEN interview test, I’ve noticed how much easier it is for him to express his thoughts in English.

Anyways, this morning he asked me (in near-perfect English) if we could reschedule one of his EIKEN practices, which was easy to do. I also asked him about his driving lessons (he’s a 3rd grader, so classes ended for him in January and in the interim before graduation, he’s going to driving school like many 3rd graders) and he informed me, with a guilty smile, that driving is very difficult for him.

My supervisor overheard our conversation and she was genuinely shocked. She hasn’t taught this particular student for the past 2 years, so she hasn’t heard him speak English recently. She jumped up and praised the him for speaking English so naturally. He was embarrassed, but she continued to compliment him, because his speaking is so markedly improved. Her voice was loud enough to draw the attention of basically all the teachers  around us, and the student received many proud smiles from everyone for his hard work.

Learning a language is a long, slow process, and acquisition usually happens so gradually that the people around you don’t always notice. Therefore, it made me so happy to witness the recognition of this student’s effort. And although he was definitely embarrassed from all the attention, I think he was proud of himself, too.

(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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