Archive for November, 2011

Two Follow-Ups

November 26th, 2011 No comments

Today I’ll just be following up on three things from recently posted entries (though most of you will only read two). This post might end up taking the record for shortest of the year.

First, the training of Monday and Tuesday paid off nicely on Thursday and Friday. I implemented a few of the methods and ideas with my second-grade classes and they all went terrifically well with the exception of 2-4, the worst class in the school (though it was significantly less awful than usual). I started off with a much more fun greeting than simply “good morning, how are you?” and got them chanting “good” and “morning” along with me. Instead of asking them the standard “how’s the weather?” and “what day is it?” questions I got them to ask me, and got lots of laughs when I’d look out the window into the bright sunshine and declare matter-of-factly that it was cloudy or rainy. I deliberately gave wrong answers a few times before giving them the right one on all the questions, which was actually my own idea and it worked very well.

The grammar point was “If” so I came up with a warm-up where I said, “If I raise my hand, you clap. If I clap, you touch your ears. If I touch my ears, you shout ‘wooo!’. And if I shout ‘wooo!’ you raise your hand.” I had them all stand up and go through it, writing 90% on the board the first time and if they did better the second time, I’d raise the score closer and closer to 100% before finally giving it to them. This was a technique from initial training I’d forgotten about but was reminded of on Monday, and it worked like a charm. Even students who never participate were going through the motions by the end, not wanting to be responsible for their class’s failure to reach the perfect score.

In order to “entice” the students, before handing out the worksheet I took a 10,000 Yen bill out of my wallet and offered it to various students, asking them “What will you do if I give you 10,000 Yen?” That also kept their attention, as everyone was wondering if I was actually going to give someone the money. Some of them gave such great answers that I was actually tempted to let them have it, but of course I couldn’t do that.

Finally, the newly-designed worksheet went well, though by the time I handed it out (before that there was a quite successful game from the Interac lesson-plan I can’t take credit for) there wasn’t enough time to go through it all. But I definitely left each class feeling good, getting enthusiastic goodbyes from all of them. That was one of the rare lessons that went perfectly well from the first class I did it with to the last.

The second follow-up has to do with Hershey, whom I asked out through Facebook on Wednesday with a very direct and forthright message, very counter to my natural instincts. I just figured that since we live in separate towns there’s no chance of going through that whole phase where you just hang out casually and try to hide the fact that you’re interested until one day making your move. If I wanted to see her again I’d just have to ask her on an actual date. I felt okay about the message when I sent it, but as the day went on and I didn’t hear from her I grew more and more doubtful about what I’d said. I knew she’d been online so I knew she got the message, but the fact that she hadn’t replied at all told me it must have put her off.

So the next morning I wrote another message apologizing for the first and clarifying what I meant by certain things, explaining what I wrote above about not being able to go through the casual hanging-out phase. She responded to that one, confirming my suspicions that the first message had been too direct but agreeing in an apparently reluctant tone to hang out with me and see what happens.

I should note that my emotional state during this whole time was rather flat throughout. I asked her out because I knew I had nothing to lose, and I was also strongly hoping that she would turn me down because my nervousness at going on an actual date would be painful to endure. So during the whole time without hearing from her I was just annoyed by the uncertainty far more than I was nervous about a possible rejection. As much as I knew it would hurt to be rejected, it’s happened to me plenty of times before and I knew I could deal with it, especially when I still don’t even know her.

When she reluctantly agreed to hang out with me, I took note of the fact that this didn’t make me happy at all. The only thing I felt was terrified. Had the tone of her response been a bit warmer, it might have been a different story, but it basically sounded like she didn’t really want to but was willing to try it for the sake of fairness. I replied by giving her some options. I said I could come to her town and meet for lunch or go for a walk, she could come with me and Stephen to Tokyo next weekend and invite other people along as well, or we could just keep it online for now. Her reply was much friendlier than the first, saying it’s probably better to just keep it online for now and that she’s usually not free on Saturdays because it’s her “personal” day (i.e. she’d rather be alone than meet up with me). I have no hard feelings whatsoever—I also like having my Saturdays to myself—and most of what I feel is pure relief.

But it also seems like I might have killed my chances by offering her a convenient way out in the form of “keeping it online”. But it seemed like she wanted an out, and me being me I couldn’t help but give her one.

I also wrote that she could ask me anything she wanted, and I asked her a couple of questions about herself. In her reply she didn’t answer my questions but said her questions for me would be “soon to follow”. That was yesterday morning and as of this morning there’s been no contact since. I’ll give it another day before writing again. I highly suspect this will just fizzle out anti-climactically, but you never know.

Well, once again I’ve written far more than I expected to, but it’s still relatively short. Fortunately for people who don’t like long entries, the thing I really need to write about is something I can’t share.

Categories: Personal Tags: ,

Training Reprise

November 23rd, 2011 No comments

If the Initial Training session we had for orientation week in Narita was like Summer Camp, the “Ongoing Training” session I went to the last two days was like Day Camp. Or perhaps a better analogy would be that Initial Training was In-Patient and Ongoing Training was Out-Patient. Either way, it was almost exactly like Initial Training except that we all went home afterwards.

I had to take the train in to Soga, a town between here and Chiba both in terms of location and size, and there was a direct line in the morning that only took about 30 minutes. A lot farther than my normal commute, but this didn’t start until 9:00 so I didn’t have to get up any earlier.

The two people who did most of the training in Narita, Mike and Cedric, conducted all of the sessions this time. On Monday, Mike started things off by talking about the right way to greet the class, then handed it off to Cedric who talked about warm-ups. There were a couple of sessions about introducing new words, then we broke for lunch. In the afternoon Mike showed us how to make good worksheets (by using the exact same worksheet he’d used in his demo lesson in Narita) and Cedric finished things off with what basically turned into a Q & A session, mostly about how to deal with problem students.

I recognized a few faces on the first day, most notably Ryan. A guy named Jonathan who had been at Narita was also there the first day but we never spoke much then and didn’t even greet each other now. There were also two people I’d met at the bar that one night I hung out with Ryan in Chiba, but other than that all the faces were new. I ended up meeting a few new people including a guy named Ben from San Diego with whom I exchanged contact info, and a girl named Hershey from the Philippines, whom I’ll write more about later.

It was strange to see Mike and Cedric again but not nearly as awkward as I’d feared. Mike and I exchanged pleasantries, and he was his typical friendly, approachable-seeming self. We didn’t bring up our philosophical battles, and kept things pretty much purely professional. With Cedric, he made sure to come up to me and start talking as we broke for lunch. I ended up spending the entire lunch-break with him, heading to a convenience store to pick up a small bite to eat which we had back at the building where the training took place. He told me about the insane amount of work he has to do as the head trainer for the entire company, and that he’s looking forward to retiring at the beginning of 2014 after over twenty years in Japan (not all of them with Interac). He’ll be heading back to South Africa, and says I’m welcome to come visit him there if I like. He’ll show me around and take me on a safari, something I said I’ll definitely take him up on.

The training itself was useful, if only for the reminder of things I should be doing. Almost all of it had been covered at initial training and I’m still putting most of it to use, but it never hurts to go over it again. But for most of the people there, it was their first time hearing it. Interac has only just started to do this kind of training for new recruits. That’s the other major difference between this and orientation week—most of us then were brand new and had never taught a class before, but all of the teachers at this session were experienced, if only for a few months like myself.

The most eye-opening thing about training was actually the questions put to Cedric about dealing with problem students. I have a few kids who sleep through every lesson, but apparently I have it incredibly good by comparison to some of the other ALTs. One kid, named Carl or Karl, said that there’s absolutely no discipline at his school whatsoever, that in a classroom of 25 students he has at best 3 or 4 who are actually paying attention and the rest are sleeping, chatting, or playing hand-held video games. Some actually get up half-way through the lessons and leave the room, and the teachers don’t do anything. Cedric insisted that his attitude is the key to turning that around, even for just the 15-minutes he spends in front of the classroom, and from my experience (especially last Thursday) I believe him, but Carl clearly wasn’t buying it. Either way, I can’t help but once again feel extremely lucky that my students are so well-behaved and willing to pay attention.

Cedric gave us all a homework assignment that night, to make a worksheet for a grammar point we’d be teaching in the near future and bring it in tomorrow to demonstrate. I’ll be teaching “If” to the second-graders on Thursday and Friday, so I revamped the worksheet I’d already made and brought that in.

Demonstrations were only supposed to take up half the morning, but Cedric never stopped anyone even if they were going far beyond what he’d asked for (many teachers went and practically did an entire lesson from beginning to end), and the demonstrations ended up stretching right up to the lunch break and for two of the three remaining hours afterwards. No feedback was given in between the demonstrations, so the final hour consisted of Cedric just going over his notes and hammering into us one at a time. I didn’t get hammered too hard, but neither did almost anybody else. He said he’d have to schedule another training session with us sometime soon.

During lunch the second day, I went to a food court in a mall with Ryan and Carl asked to come along so he came with us. I listened to him talk more about how his students were hopeless, that there’s nothing he can do to make them care, and that he’s just hanging on until his contract is up, at which point he’ll leave the company. I wanted to argue with him and tell him that if he just gave it more enthusiasm, made his lessons more enjoyable, and got the kids involved more by playing games, he’d almost certainly be able to get some improvement in the situation, but he didn’t agree with me and I didn’t want to press him. I really don’t know—I haven’t been in his situation.

I wanted to know what Cedric thought about this, and I wanted to ask him how else I could improve the worksheet I demonstrated, so I wrote him an e-mail last night and he called me this morning while I was writing this entry. It somehow turned into a more than hour-long conversation and I won’t get into the details, and he brought up Carl so I didn’t have to, but he told me a few stories and now I believe even more firmly that he’s right and an ALT is capable of turning things around no matter how bad the situation is. He said he admires Carl for sticking with the contract and if there’s that positive quality in him, there’s probably a capacity to improve his teaching as well, even just for the last few months. He even said he’s going to rearrange his schedule and try to visit Carl and observe him teaching some time next month. I’m glad he was the one who brought up Carl, or I’d feel a little guilty. Carl isn’t going to be pleased when he hears that news—he’s perfectly content to go on not caring or trying and I’ll be shocked (and deeply impressed) if Cedric actually manages to get him to change that attitude.

Finally, I have to mention Hershey. Aside from having an awesome name, she’s also quite gorgeous, and after chatting with her a little yesterday it became clear that she’s intelligent and interesting too. I was too chicken to go up to her and ask her out in person, but I remembered her name and found her on Facebook when I got home. I sent her a friend request and a little “follow me if you want to keep in touch” message. She accepted my friend request but didn’t respond to the message.

In keeping with my pattern of asking one girl out every couple of years, I sent her a message today just putting my cards on the table and asking if she’d be interested in having lunch or going for a walk with me some time. She lives in Mobara which is about 20 km away, so it’s not too far and if we actually hit it off I could see her every weekend. But I didn’t get any signs of attraction from her yesterday so the odds are very much against it, and as much as it will hurt to be rejected—there’s no way around that—I’m mostly hoping she does. Pursuing a girl is just too much stress. Even getting myself to send the damned message today had my stomach all in knots, and I don’t want to have to deal with the nervousness of actually meeting her for a real, actual, no-question-about-what-this-is date. I’ve been on “dates” before but only three times in the last five years, and none of them were officially dates. With Lea it was just meeting for coffee, the prospect of a potential relationship having never been mentioned, and with Elle it was explicitly established beforehand that the two times we hung out were not actually “dates” because she wasn’t looking for a relationship (but they were dates nonetheless).

Anyway, I had to wait until she wasn’t online or else the message would have appeared as a text-message in a chat window (I hate how Facebook does that) and I wanted this to be as non-confrontational as possible, giving her ample time to come up with a nice way of letting me down, of which I’d say there’s a good 90% chance she will. I sent the message just moments ago after checking again, but as soon as I sent it she appeared online and I got off immediately. I just checked and there’s no response yet, so she must be taking her time to think of a response, which means the chances of rejection are more like 99%. So that’s a relief.

In any case, scratch off another mark on the “It’s not entirely my fault I’m single” tally.

Weak Week

November 19th, 2011 No comments

I can’t help but notice the date as I sit down to write this. It’s my thirteen-year anniversary. I wonder how Aimee is doing.

Enough said there.

This week was a bit of a dull one in terms of teaching. The second-graders were off on some work-study project so I only had first- and third-graders, and with the first graders I didn’t have an actual lesson but instead I was just there to administer a speaking test. This consisted of me sitting outside the classroom and having the students come to me one by one, answering five questions, and me giving them two grades on a slip of paper they all bring with them. The first grade was purely based on how many questions they were able to answer followed by a letter grade corresponding to it: 4-5 was an A, 2-3 was a B, 0-1 was a C. The second grade was an A, B, or C in terms of “attitude”, or how hard they tried to answer the questions.

These speaking tests and reading tests which I’m supposed to do from time to time are the only times I as an ALT actually get to evaluate the students, and they’re the only times I get to meet with the students one-on-one. I sometimes find my ethical responsibility to grade them honestly in conflict with my desire for them to like me, but luckily this doesn’t happen often. I did my best to tip the scales to their advantage from the start, as I made the five questions as easy as possible, with the exception of the last one. First was “when is your birthday?” which is something they learn in elementary school so almost all of them know. Then I showed them a picture of something easy like a hamburger or a dog and asked “what is this?” For the “which” question I showed them a picture of a blue tent and a picture of a pink tent and asked “which tent is blue?” I needed a “who” question so I used a picture of the most famous person I could think of: Michael Jackson. But for the “where” question I was supposed to ask them something to test how well they remembered prepositions of location, so I found a funny picture of a cat on a man’s head and asked “where is the cat?” hoping they’d say “It’s on his head” or “It’s on the man” or any kind of answer I could accept.

Almost all of the students could tell me their birthday but some couldn’t. 99% of them got the “what is this?” question, and about as many were able to get “which tent is blue?” I felt a little bad about the “who is this?” question because while almost every student knew who Michael Jackson was, there were a few who had apparently never seen a picture of him before and it didn’t seem right to deny them a point just because of that. This was supposed to be an English test, not a pop-culture familiarity quiz. Finally, the “where is the cat?” question proved to be a tough one for nearly half the students, and I think a good 40% of them couldn’t answer. But I felt like that was more my fault for not teaching it well enough than their fault for not remembering.

But there was that wonderful “attitude” grade that allowed me to give them all an A as long as they put forth some effort in trying to answer the questions. I gave it to a good 90% of them, only giving Bs to a handful of students who didn’t try hard, but none of them really cared anyway. There was one girl who just sat there with a look of incomprehension on her face the whole time, not saying anything. She was so cute and shy and clearly just not understanding me, and as much as it pained me I had no choice but to give her a C on both grades. Her face was as blank and expressionless when I gave her the grades as it had been throughout the test.

I gave out a lot of hints and second-chances to answer, but I didn’t think that was wrong as long as I was consistent about it. Sometimes you can tell the student knows the answer but just needs a little prompting to get it out. They appreciated that and I won a few points with a bunch of them that way. I have no regrets about that, especially when it comes to those who came into it extremely nervous and walked away smiling or laughing.

That was first-grade this week. As for third-grade, I had to do a lesson on giving directions. I wasn’t happy about the topic, as there’s not much you can do to teach that in a fun way. You just make a worksheet with a map and have the students work in pairs to give each other directions to various places on the map. It wasn’t up to me to introduce the material, as it required translating terms like “go straight for 2 blocks” or “turn right at the intersection” to Japanese. So the JTEs did the introduction, I did a brief demonstration with a crude map on the board, and the students spent the rest of the time on the worksheet.

It was slightly surreal to do the demonstration on the board, as this was the exact same thing I did for my video-taped demo-lesson for my interview all the way back last December. Following the example-video that Interac has on its website, I drew a map of 4 blocks by 4 blocks, designated one block as the Hospital and another as the Police Station, then called out directions and asked the students which place I’d just taken them to. One year later and I was doing the exact same thing for real.

But I only did that the first couple of times. The last four times I made two maps and worked with the JTE to make it more of a demonstration of what they’d be doing for the worksheet, as explaining the worksheet was always the most difficult part, at least with Ms. S- who usually leaves it to me to explain everything. Mrs. T- translates everything I say into Japanese so the students always know what they’re supposed to do. It’s much easier with Mrs. T- but probably not as good for the students, and not as good for me as a teacher. I should be challenged to explain things to students so I keep getting better at it. That’s how I came up with the idea to demonstrate the whole thing on the board. When we did that, no Japanese explanation was required.

Still, it was a terribly dull lesson. I knew it was weak material when I did it the first time on Tuesday, but luckily it wasn’t with 3-1 (the class that almost always gets the first-and-therefore-worst lesson). It went slightly better the next time I did it on Thursday, and on Friday I had to do it four times in a row. The first lesson of the morning was with 3-4, a class that I normally have a pretty good rapport with but which just wasn’t feeling it then. Mrs. S- wanted me to come in 15-minutes later as she took the first part of the lesson to review old material, and when I got there and greeted the students it was immediately apparent that they were all still sleepy and dreadfully bored. The fact that the weather was cold and rainy didn’t help either. I was sleepy too, and I stumbled through the demonstration and did a pitiful job explaining the worksheet. When I was walking around the classroom to check on the students, a lot of them were cheating but I didn’t call them out on it. This was my failure.

The very next lesson was 3-1, the disaster class, and the moment I walked in I resolved to try and somehow make this the best lesson I ever gave them. The first thing that needed resolving was the energy problem. Instead of just saying “good morning” like I had with 3-4 I went in and shouted it, then like I’d done back at the orientation session in Narita, I got them chanting “Good! Good! Good!” and “Morning! Morning! Morning!” It worked like a magic spell. The students were all shaken out of their dreariness and giving me their full attention. I kept my energy up the whole way through. When it came time for me to drill the phrases, I used every silly voice in my repertoire and even invented some new ones on the fly. The students love that, and they usually try to mimic the voices when they repeat after me. When it came time for the actual worksheet, I don’t know how much cheating was going on because I was going through it with a student who lacked a partner, but I heard a lot of “Could you please tell me how to get to…” in silly voices across the classroom. When that class was over, it smelled like napalm in the morning (read: victory).

The next two classes went just as well or better, but I was still glad when it was over so I wouldn’t have to keep polishing that turd anymore. Hopefully next time I’ll have some better material to work with.

But there won’t be any third-grade lessons next week, nor any first-grade lessons. In fact I’ll only be teaching on Thursday and Friday, and only second-grade lessons. Wednesday is a holiday, and on Monday and Tuesday I have yet another training session, this one in the city of Soga with a few other Chiba ALTs, though I don’t think it’ll be anyone I know. I do, however, know at least two of the trainers. Both Cedric and Mike from the infamous Narita Training Week will be there, and I’m looking forward to seeing both of them. As I’ve mentioned, Mike and I have been in sporadic contact, engaging in vigorous philosophical debate, some of which will wind up on this blog when I get around to posting it.

As for Cedric, I hadn’t heard from him since he told me he’d check out my website a couple of months ago. I assumed that he got a different impression of me from my writing than he got at training and decided he no longer liked me, so I hadn’t contacted him since then for fear of being confronted with some kind of brutally honest character assessment. His being an opinion I greatly respect (he got so much right about me after just one week of training) I knew that would really bring me down. But when I found out about the training, I sent him an e-mail to explain this, and he called me that evening to tell me I was wrong, that he’s been reading the blog and actually enjoying it, and that the only reason he hasn’t contacted me was to give me some room to settle into this new life on my own. That was good to hear, and a major relief.

Of course I still have to stress about the fact that my teaching technique will once again be subject to his evaluation at the training, and I don’t think it’s remotely possible that it will live up to his high expectations. At least I know we’ll be on good terms no matter what, and whatever criticism I get from him will only serve to help me and become a better teacher.

Then hopefully I’ll have fewer and fewer weeks as weak as this one.

Categories: Personal Tags:

All Things Random

November 8th, 2011 No comments

I haven’t posted in a while because there haven’t been any big events worth writing an entire entry about. There are a bunch of little things worth mentioning, but nothing that ties them all together. Still, most of these developments and anecdotes are things I might want to refer back to later, so I should take some time to get them all written down. This will be a long post [what else is new?] but hopefully a fun one too.


I’ll get the details of my financial situation and its consequences on my near-term future out of the way first. As I wrote before, I look out an initial housing loan from Interac which has to be paid back all at once. That money will come out of my next paycheck, leaving me with almost nothing left over. I did take out an extra 100,000 Yen worth of loan to be paid back over the next four paychecks, and that’s already gone through which means the money I have now will have to last me until December 25, at which time I’ll get only about 3/4 worth of a normal paycheck.

This means that it doesn’t make financial sense for me to return home for the winter holidays. I bought a round-trip ticket with a return date near Christmas to get over here, but that was over $1000 and I’d still have to buy another ticket to get back. Between that and the money I’d have to spend while visiting home on things like a car rental, I’d return once again near bankruptcy and another very small paycheck thanks to the loan repayment and the money I won’t be making over the break.

But even if my family were to chip in and help me out with these costs, it still makes more sense to stay here. I work five days a week so I haven’t yet had a chance to travel outside this one little area of Japan between Tokyo and the Pacific, and there are a handful of people I met at training spread out across the country who I’d love to see. It makes much more sense to use my first vacation to explore more of Japan, especially considering that I’ll only have been here about six months and it was two years before I came home from Germany. I have no intention of letting two years pass before returning this time, but I still feel like I just got here and it feels premature to head back home now. And besides, the winter break is only about ten days, which isn’t nearly enough time to spend back home. It makes much more sense to wait for the semester break or the summer break when I’ll have plenty of time to visit everyone I’d like to.

As for the winter break, I’m currently in touch with my old college friend Myson who is teaching in Seoul, Korea, and he might come and do some travelling me him (or I might just decide to head over there depending on the flight cost). In any case, I fully intend to have some sort of adventure.


Halloween is even less of a big deal here than it is in Germany, but the school still wanted me to do a Halloween lesson for the second- and third-graders. It was to take up half the class, so I only had to fill 25 minutes. I was supposed to begin by talking about Halloween traditions in America, so I asked my parents to find and send me some old Halloween photos, which I then printed out and laminated so I could put them up on the board and use them as part of the narrative. As I was hoping, the kids got a kick out of seeing pictures of me when I was younger than they are now.

I also used the pictures of me in my Halloween costumes to give names to the teams. Rather than just have the typical “Team 1”, “Team 2”, “Team 3”, etc. I had each team choose a picture as its mascot, so there was always a “Team Vampire”, “Team Ninja Turtle” and so on.

Team Vampire Team Ninja Turtle

 Team Statue of LibertyTeam Mr. Nobody

Team Cowboy Just a nice picture of me and my brother on a hayride.

The games consisted of one round in which I had pictures of Halloween things like ghosts, monsters, and jack-o-lanterns up on the board mixed up with the words that went with them. Each team had to send someone up to try and make a match within five seconds, and I gave more points for more difficult words. The second round was a word-search puzzle I made up with the 13 words I’d put on the board, and each team would get one point for every word they could find. It was a fun lesson that everyone enjoyed.

Musical Note

After the Halloween stuff, the third-grade students had to write a short text about their favorite song. I was asked to write a model text about my favorite song which I’d then read to the class, but part of the text had to explain what the song was about so I couldn’t really go with “Comfortably Numb”. I went with “Wish You Were Here” instead. Ms. S- kept asking me to sing some of it for the class but I resolutely refused. Our favorite songs are all about the associations we have with them, and while it’s no big deal to have an association with this school attached to Wish You Were Here, embarrassing memories of me attempting to sing it in front of students would not be tolerated. The interesting thing was when Ms. S-, who is familiar with British Classic Rock, asked each class whether any of the students had heard of Pink Floyd before. Not one of them did. These poor deprived kids.

Awkward Gestures

Last week I had to teach “Do you want to___?” to the second-graders, and I did that by making up a game of charades where I’d divide the classes into two teams and have each team choose which gestures they wanted a volunteer from the other team to make (to be selected from lists I made up beforehand—a different one for each team), and awarded points when they asked “Do you want to___?” with the correct gesture to fill in the blank. It was a bit of a struggle to explain the rules to them, but once it got under way everyone had a blast. Some of the most interesting gesture attempts were riding a roller coaster, flying a plane, and drinking a beer. Somehow the students always pulled it off. But there was one class in which one of the students, whenever I asked for a gesture challenge for the other team, kept yelling “sex!” I laughed at first, but he drew an intense glare from Ms. Y- so I tried not to laugh when he kept saying it.

Pub Quiz Throwback

When I sat down with Ms. S- to plan the third-grade lesson for last week, we were both sitting around scratching our heads. The target structure was “Do you know___?” with the blank being filled by various question words: who, what, where, when, why, how, what kind of, how many, how long, how old. Ms. S- asked me how I taught this structure when I was in Germany, and I had to explain that it was a completely different kind of teaching I did in Germany and I never taught a lesson just for this. But after a few moments I realized that one of the things I did in Germany—having a mock Irish Pub Trivia Quiz for the students—could actually work for this lesson. So we put together a list of five famous people and a quiz answer sheet where we asked four “Do you know?” questions for each person, the first question always being “Do you know who this is?” I made the teams too big for the first lesson so it failed because they wouldn’t stop chatting, but with teams of three or four in all the other classes it actually seemed to work. Feel free to take the quiz yourself!


Person 1


Do you know who this is?

Do you know where he was born? (Mikawa / Nagoya / Edo)

Do you know which battle he won on October 21, 1600? (Azukizaka / Nagashino / Sekigahara)

Do you know how long he was Shogun? (3 years / 10 years / 16 years)

Person 2 



Do you know who this is ?

Do you know where she’s from? (The U.S. / The U.K. / France)

Do you know how old she is? (25 / 30 / 35)

Do you know what her first CD was? (Bad Romance / Born this Way / The Fame)



Person 3 (very difficult)



Do you know who this is?

Do you know when he became president? (2006 / 2007 / 2008)

Do you know how many children he has? (1 / 2 / 3)

Do you know how old he is? (39 / 46 / 50)




Person 4 (also a tough one)



Do you know who this is?

Do you know what kind of music he made? (jazz / pop / rap)

Do you know what his number 1 song was? (Billy Jean / Heal the World / Beat It)

Do you know how many CDs he made? (8 / 11 / 15)




Person 5


Do you know who this is?

Do you know where he’s from? (Funabashi / Tokyo / Fukuoka)

Do you know what sport he did? (Karate / Kendo / Judo)

Do you know how long he’s been Prime Minister? (1 month / 2 months / 3 months)



Answers: Tokugawa Ieyasu, Mikawa, Sekigahara, 3 years, Lady Gaga, The U.S., 25, The Fame, Barack Obama, 2008 [technically 2009, but whatever], 2, 50, Michael Jackson, pop, Billy Jean, 11, Yoshihiko Noda, Funabashi, Judo, 2 months.

Did you get all 20? None of the teams did either. The winning teams always had between 13 and 16 correct, but I’ll bet their correct answers weren’t the same as yours. What percentage of American students know about the battle of Sekigahara? In Japan, apparently, it’s nearly 100%.

The Disaster Class

I’ve written many times before that the first time you do a lesson, it almost never works properly. You have to do it two or three times to get all the kinks worked out. For the first- and second-graders this hasn’t been a problem because I meet the classes in a different order every week, but with the third-graders I’ve ended up having class 3-1 for the first lesson nearly every single time. That means that I’ve almost never done a good lesson for them, and it’s really starting to bother me. Ms. S- assures me that this particular class is just full of bad students who are always chatting and never paying attention, but I suspect that some of that is due to the fact that I haven’t had a chance to earn their respect. The difference between how they react to me and how every other class in the school reacts becomes clearer every week. Just yesterday after a particularly disastrous first-lesson with them I felt I had to say something and told Mrs. T- and Ms. S-, neither of whom were aware of the problem. I’m not sure they’ll actually start taking that into account when they make the schedule—Mrs. T-’s tone made it sound like that might be too much of a hassle—but hopefully one of these days I’ll be able to use some tried and tested material on them instead of just using them for the always-terrible trial run.

That concludes the academic portion of this entry. I’ll now turn to more personal matters.


Awhile ago I mentioned that Mike, one of the trainers from orientation week, had found my website and read some of my philosophy stuff and sent a particularly brutal response which brought me down for several days. I felt better once I finished my response to him, and about a month went by without a reply. I was kind of hoping he’d never respond, as he apparently has no qualms about taking a condescending tone in his arguments and it doesn’t sit well with me, but last week I did get another response.

Thankfully it wasn’t quite as brutal as the first one, but a part of that is that I was much more prepared for it this time. The other part of it is that I’ve already conceded to the things he was right about, and most of what’s left are positions I feel I’ve got strong arguments to back me up. I haven’t written a philosophical post for this blog in quite awhile, but if he’s okay with it I might make a couple of entries out of some of our exchanges. Among the topics we’re discussing are whether logical maxims and mathematical principles are Absolute Truths or if they can vary with circumstance (I argue the former), whether or not consciousness permeates the universe and is all part of one grand singular Universal Consciousness which can be thought of as God (I argue that there is), and whether human beings deserve greater moral consideration than lower animals (I argue—reluctantly—that they do).

Lost and Phoned

So we all remember how one Sunday morning I discovered to my shock and dismay that my I-phone had disappeared from the face of the planet, right? I checked every corner of my apartment several times over and it was nowhere to be found. Either a ninja had pick-pocketed it from me at the 7-11 or a mini-black hole had opened up and sucked it out of existence. I went through a long and expensive process of having the phone replaced, and after a week and a half I finally had a working phone again, and although it was a downgrade from the I-phone 4 to the I-phone 3 GS, aside from the slight difference in outward appearance it appears to be exactly as good as the old phone.

One week later I’m sitting down on my couch and firing up the Kindle for my evening reading-session. I reach down to the I-phone at my feet to press the button to check what time it is, then go back to my reading. A neuron in my brain suddenly fires a thought into my consciousness—the new phone looks almost exactly the same as my old phone. But that can’t be right—the new phone has a slightly different body. But it’s right there on the floor and it does indeed look exactly like the old phone, so my previous perceptions must have been flawed because of course I’m going to trust what my eyes see now as opposed to the memory of what my eyes have seen before. And the phone on the floor does look exactly like the phone I lost, as opposed to…that phone…over thereon the desk!!!

‘Unfuckingbelievable’ is the only word for it. It made zero sense that I lost the I-phone in the first place, but it made even less than zero sense that it became un-lost. And that’s exactly what happened—it wasn’t found. I didn’t “find” it. It just appeared again out of nowhere, as though the mini-black hole that originally swallowed it suddenly opened up again and spit it back out on the floor. Insane.

Out of Place

Two very random things to mention. First, this past weekend at the supermarket one of the songs playing was an instrumental version of “Jingle Bell Rock”. I thought, “Are you kidding?” It’s the 5th of November. In this climate, the leaves haven’t even changed color yet. And I thought Christmas came early in America. Apparently in a country where only about 5% of the population even celebrates Christmas, it starts even earlier.

Second, while I was out for a jog after school last week and waiting at a traffic-light, I noticed the driver in the car in front of me, despite his Japanese appearance, was wearing a German military uniform. It hurts my head to think about.

Left Out

This past weekend one of the male teachers at my school got married, and almost everyone on the faculty went to the wedding. I know this because Ms. Y- showed me pictures of the event from her camera yesterday. I couldn’t help but feel slighted. I know that I’m new here but it would have been a super-nice gesture to invite me to the wedding, especially considering that nearly everybody else who works here was. It would have been a fun and fascinating experience too. From the pictures it looked like Japanese weddings look almost identical to Western weddings (at least this one did), right down to the bride and groom feeding each other the first bite of wedding cake. I would have liked to get a first-hand impression, but now it remains likely that I’ll never get to go to a Japanese wedding.

Not to mention the fact that the last party I went to with my fellow teachers, which I wrote about in my last entry, was so disappointingly lame. I thought I’d get to see everyone loosened up and enjoying themselves, but that wasn’t really the case. From the pictures I saw it looked like this was exactly the kind of experience I’d been hoping to have with my colleagues, to really see them with the mask off. But alas, it was not to be, and now for the first time since I started working here I have reason to feel slightly sour towards my fellow faculty members.

New Pen Pal

But I’ll end on a high note, with the coolest thing that’s happened to me in recent days, which started with an e-mail I got on Saturday. It was from a kid named Kamal who wrote to me because he’d been using the alias “kemstone” since he was 11 and just discovered my website and wanted to know where I was from. I politely replied with the answer as well as a remark about the coincidental nature of the fact that I’d also chosen “Kem Stone” as my alias when I was 11. I also asked him where he was from, because clearly it wasn’t America.

The next day he wrote back saying he lives in Azerbaijan. He’s 14 years old and like me he wants to travel and see the world, but his parents won’t let him, saying he should get a “serious” job with a good salary.

I responded by saying:

I teach kids your age in Japan these days. Your English is incredibly good. I think it’s great if you want to travel and see the world. It’s too bad your parents don’t support you with that, but hopefully they can change their minds. Teaching English IS serious work, it’s a respected profession in most parts of the world, and you can be paid very well if you have a university degree.

Living in foreign countries also helps you grow as a person far more than staying in the area where you’re born, and you learn so much more about the world. Most people just want a comfortable life in a familiar area, but some people want their lives to be an adventure. I’m that kind of person, and if you are too it would be a shame if you don’t follow your dream.

He responded yesterday by telling me that he showed my e-mail to his parents who were surprised by what I said and are now reconsidering letting him go down that path. He also told me that they said I’m welcome to come visit their family in Azerbaijan if I like, which is awesome.

I’d always hoped that would change somebody’s life someday.

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