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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(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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Summer as a Second Year JET

I’ve heard many people complain that summer vacation is a special kind of hell for JETs. The students are gone (well, actually, a lot of them still come to school, but you aren’t teaching them), classes are over (except if your students are high level… then the poor kids have a few weeks of summer classes or testing), and it’s uncomfortably hot (there’s no getting around this one unless you live in Hokkaido).

Basically, we JETs report to our base schools (or B.O.E.s?) for six weeks in a row, despite the fact that most of us have very little work to be done. The break is a good opportunity to lesson plan for autumn classes and study Japanese, but… you just can’t do that for six weeks straight. As you can imagine, boredom often ensues.

Summer vacation just finished, and of course, I had a few dull days myself. However, for the most part, this summer has been satisfyingly busy for me. Summer as a second-year JET was 100x better than last summer: I was more comfortable here, I knew my colleagues better, and I had more work to be done. Here’s what I was up to:

Vacation and Business Trips

Family-in-Japan: My parents flew halfway around the world to meet me, so I figured the least I could do was take a few days off and be their tour guide and translator in the Tohoku region. Our trip through Yamagata, Akita, and Tokyo ate up 5 days of my paid vacation time and a week of desk-warming at my base school!

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Interactive Forum: This year, along with many other ALTs and JTEs, I was asked to be a judge for the Prefectural Interactive Forum competition. Junior High School division, of course (understandably, I’d be a little biased if evaluating my own students). The Jr. High Interactive Forum competition in Ibaraki is ridiculously intense: basically, three students are randomly selected, assigned a topic, and asked to discuss it for five minutes. They go through several rounds of this too, so it’s an all-day event.

Personally, I found pros and cons to this style of competition. The biggest pro, for me, is that a student can’t just memorize everything. We judges were evaluating the conversation, so students had to listen to each other and ask relevant questions or make comments about what the other students say. However, the biggest con is the time limit. These students have prepped for this competition and they want to score as many points as possible, which you can only do by talking as much as you can and showing off your language skills. But, since there are only five minutes per round, students get a bit cutthroat. During some of the rounds, students were interrupting each other, jumping in while another student paused to breathe in the middle of a sentence… that kind of thing. All in all, I loved being a judge, and I was simply amazed by how fluent these middle schoolers were, but it was a long day.

Daigo & Ushiku Business Trips:  These business trips were created by Ibaraki”s Board of Education to increase English usage outside of the classroom. Small groups of students from various public high schools in the prefecture meet for a day and are assigned to an ALT. Together, we are all bused to one of Ibaraki’s tourist attractions, and students must guide the ALT (who’s pretending to be a clueless foreigner) around the famous site, explaining the significance and answering questions in English. Including the bus rides to and from the attraction, it’s about 5 solid hours of English speaking practice for students, in a more relaxed, out-of-the-classroom environment. These trips are really fun, and it’s a rare opportunity to interact with students from other schools. However, they can be a little draining.

Last summer, I was sent to Fukuroda Falls in Daigo for this business trip. This year, I was sent on two such trips: for the first, I was back in Daigo, accompanied by a pair of hilarious students from a lower level school. My favorite moment from this trip occurred when a passing representative from the Ibaraki Board of Education told my two students to enjoy the waterfall. One of the girls took this to heart — she stood in front of the waterfall, raised her hands, and shouted “Enjoy!” soaking in the site.

For the second business trip, I had the opportunity to visit Ushiku Daibutsu, the 120-meter tall Buddha statue in Ibaraki (accompanied by an adorable group of 5 students whose English levels were much higher than I  am used to). With this group, our conversation went further than the usual surface-scraping talk of hobbies and favorite foods, and I really felt like I knew the students by the end. Also, there is a small zoo near the Daibutsu, and I really enjoyed seeing the students get so excited to see squirrels!! There seem to be no wild squirrels here in Ibaraki, but there are hundreds in my backyard back in the U.S.

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Professional Development Conference: One of my fellow ALTs in Ibaraki organized a professional development conference for JETs over the summer. It was a good opportunity to present demo lessons for constructive criticism, and to share lesson ideas. New ALTs fresh to Japan also joined, and I only wish this conference had existed last summer, because I would have felt more confident stepping into the classroom afterwards.

Of course, I didn’t have business trips every day this summer! These are a few things I did on the days I was…

 Base-school bound:

TEFL certification: I came into the JET Program with only six months’ experience of teaching ESL in a French technical college, and absolutely no training. After a year of teaching here, I wanted to be a little more qualified. Luckily, the JET Program offers grants for re-contracting ALTs who want to become TEFL certified. I applied, won the grant, and am currently working on a 120-hour online course! I know that online courses aren’t as well-respected in the education community because they lack a practical application component, but luckily my job is to teach! So I have plenty of time to implement the advice from the TEFL course during my classes.

Speech contests: one of my highest-level students is competing in a speech contest this fall, so I’ve been helping edit all of his drafts, and I’ve met up with him once or twice to go over pronunciation and pacing. He’s switched topics a few times now, but I’m really proud of where his speech is right now!

On that note, I’ve also had my voice recorded to help students practice for a different recitation-based speech contest. I have quite a few students from my Tuesday visit school competing in October, so after-school is going to be busy this fall!

Kimono class: I don’t think I’ve mentioned this before, but for the past year, I’ve been taking lessons at my base school, learning how to dress myself in kimono unaided. Now, I’m set to compete in a kimono-dressing competition in November (along with one of my students!). Practice didn’t stop just because it’s summer, so every Thursday, for two or three hours, we dress ourselves in too many heavy silk layers (our classroom is not air-conditioned) and time ourselves. I’ll write more about my experience of learning the art of kimono at a later date!

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Lunches out with colleagues: Some teachers are busy overseeing club activities and such, but overall, the office atmosphere has relaxed since classes ended. Time can be spared for some long lunches at local restaurants!

Drama Club Performance: My base school’s drama club had a big performance at a local competition, so myself and a few other teachers went to cheer them on. I had only seen them practice a certain dance scene, so I wasn’t sure what to expect, but my students were amazing! These students — normally so shy in class — came alive on stage, making the audience laugh, and performing their hearts out! I was so insanely proud of them, even though I didn’t quite understand what their performance was about. And after the show, they ran up to us (their teachers) so excited that all of us had come out to cheer them on!

Yep! So that’s what I was up to this summer! As much fun as it was, though, I’m glad classes have resumed. Back to teaching, back to learning!

Graduation

I could list twenty, maybe thirty differences between high school graduations in Japan and those in America, although that list would be based upon my admittedly limited experience with both. In the weeks surrounding graduation here, though, I had quite a few curious teachers ask me about those differences.

Because cultural differences are interesting, aren’t they?

One thing about attire: female teachers, notably female homeroom teachers of the graduating class, sometimes dress in traditional kimono and hakama. I had the honor and the opportunity to wear it as well, which was quite exciting for me!

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Sorry for the sidetracking. Back to the point of this write-up: my students and graduation itself.

So, what really struck me most? The formality of the ceremony here: the gloves, the tailcoats, the boutonnieres, and the pearls. The speeches made by town mayors and other honored guests. And I was particularly fascinated by the way my sometimes rather rowdy students have been trained to move in such a ceremony — jerky, mechanical movements; scripted steps; robotic arms; the deep bows of polite wind-up toys; impassive faces with small, proud smiles threatening to break through.

In contrast, I distinctly remember rainbow inflatable beach balls being tossed around during the valedictorian speech at my own high school graduation.

And what of my Japanese coworkers? What struck them the most, from the differences I relayed to them? Well, they already knew about our caps and gowns; they knew that our graduations took place on football fields in the balmy swelter of June as opposed to being held in freezing gymnasiums of March.

No, what struck them most is that the high school students who weren’t graduating — the freshman, sophomores, and juniors of the American schools — did not attend their senior’s graduation ceremony. Here in Japan — at least, at my base school — even the students who aren’t graduating that year must attend to wish their seniors’ goodbye. Which I thought was rather sweet, even though most of the younger students were probably bored to tears sitting through such a long, formal ceremony.

Enough of the differences, though. Sometimes I think we focus too much on the differences.

What about the similarities? The excitement and the nervous energy predating the ceremony. The smiles of just-graduated students, adrenaline rushing through their veins, freedom written on their faces.. The emotions — the joy, the tears.  The proud parents. The flower bouquets, the photographs, signing of yearbooks.  The shouts of “Congratulations!” (although the exact words sound a little different in Japanese). Wishing favorite teachers goodbye. Hugging friends. Proclaiming good riddance of high school. Reminiscing about all the good moments. Looking towards the future.

All of that was the same, in America and in Japan. And all of that is what matters.

I didn’t know my graduating students for all that long. They were only in my life—and I was only in theirs—for six short months. I really have no right to be proud of them, nor a claim to feelings of loss. Heck, I didn’t even know all their names. But even after all of that, it was still an emotional day for me.

One moment I will not forget: following the ceremony, following the photos and yearbook signings and goodbyes, I changed out of my kimono and hakama and returned to the staff room. One student — a boy I have occasionally worked with since August, a boy who is refreshingly unafraid to laugh at his own mistakes — found me there and announced that he was accepted to a nearby university. Loud and all smiles. He’ll be studying English there, he said, some thanks to my (honestly negligible) help. He declares he will become the best English teacher ever (AND he’ll find a girlfriend). And I laughed, and I shook my head and I did’t know what to say except “Good luck!” and “I’m so happy for you!” even though neither expressed how much joy I really felt in that moment.

Graduations—endings—really get to you.

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.