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Graduation Blues

The school-year never raced by so quickly when I was a student. Granted I started teaching a third of the way through, but it feels like September was just a few weeks ago. I was just getting familiar with the third-graders but now they’re all about to leave.

In Japan, not only does the school-year end in March but it ends earlier for graduating students than others. The graduation ceremony for the third-graders is tomorrow, but the first- and second-graders still have another two weeks to go. After tomorrow, an entire third of the school’s population will have just disappeared.

This is something I’m going to have to get used to as a teacher. You meet hundreds of kids, get to know some of them to some degree, grow pretty fond of a few, and then they go away and you never see or hear from them again. It almost makes me want to write to some of my middle-school teachers just to be the exception.

My third-grade lessons just kind of petered off and died in the last couple of weeks. The schedule got shifted around due to the year-end exams and a bunch of lessons were cancelled so there were some classes I literally didn’t see for a month and never had a “last lesson” with. Of the few I had, I was usually just doing a game for half the class because the JTEs wanted time for test-preparation. At the beginning of this week I found out that the third-graders would be doing pretty much nothing but graduation-practice all week and there would be no more lessons with them. A double-pity, as not only would I not get the closure of a final lesson in the awareness of it being the final lesson, but the game I spent a great deal of time preparing will just have to be shelved until the end of next year.

But sentimental schmuck that I am, I just had to have my last goodbyes. I thought about writing a little note to each third-grader but there being 204 of them, most of whom I’m still not that familiar with, that would be far too difficult. I went to a 100-yen shop (like a dollar-store) in search of some cheap little present I could buy in bulk and give to all the students with a spoken goodbye, but there was nothing that fit the bill. The only bulk-present that seems to work is a CD like I made the students for Christmas. So I decided to do that again. I picked up another load of blank CDs and spent two days and nights pretty much burning continuously. I went in a different direction with the song-selection this time, as instead of just picking things I’m particularly fond of I went with more happy dance-type music. I realized that the first CD was largely made up of very depressing songs, so I wanted to correct that imbalance a little and give the students something they’re more likely to enjoy.

The problem was finding time to actually distribute the things. I asked Mrs. T- about going at the end of the lunch period on Wednesday through Friday (2 classes each day) and she asked Mrs. S- but they said there wouldn’t be enough time, and with the exception of Thursday they’d all be going home right after lunch anyway. Mrs. S- suggested I just say farewell to all of them at the last assembly Friday morning and give the CDs to their teachers to distribute, but that was so cold and impersonal as to ruin the entire point.

But yesterday I just went ahead and took a bag full of CDs to the third-grade classrooms at the end of the lunch period and handed them out to the students I wanted to give them to and anyone else who wanted them. There wasn’t enough time for an individual goodbye to everyone, but this worked out well enough. The students were very happy and grateful to get another present from their ALT and I at least got to say goodbye to each individual class (or groups of students who were out roaming the hallways). Most students just took the CD with a casual “thank you” but some were positively beaming. In any case, it was enough to make it worth the effort.

On Tuesday I was greatly relieved to get a contract from Interac in the mail specifying a new period of employment from March 2012 to March 2013 with the Togane board of education. It wasn’t certain until that moment that I’d be staying at the same school, but now that contract is signed and delivered back to them the deal is officially sealed. I guess the board of education decided they wanted to keep me around. I never had much doubt that they would, but there was always that annoying uncertainty, especially after hearing from other ALTs that Interac likes to move teachers around just for the sake of moving them around. In fact most other Interac ALTs I know change schools rather frequently, even within the same school-year. I’m having a hard enough time saying goodbye just once.

But I don’t have to bid the first- and second-graders farewell just yet. I’m currently going about my final lessons of the year with each of them. Since the textbook work is pretty much finished, I had free reign to do just about whatever I wanted with the lessons, so naturally I went about making epic textbook-spanning review games. It was nice and easy with the first-graders, as the grammar points for each chapter are almost exclusively questions and answers, such as “Where is the book? / It’s on the desk.” and “Whose pen is this? / It’s Yuki’s.” I printed 20 sheets of questions and 20 sheets of answers and made it a matching game. A student from each team stands up and picks a random number for a question and a random number for an answer and I magnetize those sheets to the board. If there’s no match, they sit down. If they see a match they call it out, I remove those sheets from the board, and that team gets a point. It’s simple enough that it requires barely no explanation, and it just happens to be pretty darn educational if I might say so myself. This is all the English they’ve learned all year, condensed into one little game, and as they search for matches they’re reinforcing everything they know as well as gaining confidence that they actually do understand it.

As for the second-graders, the grammar points were not so straightforward so I had to get a little more creative. I made the same game I prepared for the third-graders and won’t get to play with them, in which four teams compete to win programs from the textbook. The textbook has 8 regular programs (some are just stories and so contain no specific grammar points) and three grammar-points per program. I made 5 questions for each program using the grammar points, and the objective was to win a majority of the 5 possible points to win the program for your team. I magnetize a sheet of paper for each program to the blackboard and hand them to the teams that win them. To spice things up I have a picture of a random character for each program like Mario or Hello Kitty (the one for Program 9 is the favorite).

program1 program7 program9

The questions were sentences modeled on the exact grammar points to which I left two words missing, made two deliberate mistakes, or scrambled the words around. The students would have to write the full, correct sentence on the board in order to win the point. I had some difficulty figuring out the best way to pull this off, but I eventually settled on something I thought would work well and which has. After the team that won the previous point chooses which program they want to go for, I put up a printed sheet of paper with that question on the board and have the four students, one student from each team, come up and tackle it simultaneously. I actually printed two sheets for each question so I could put one on each side and thus not give anyone a proximity-advantage.

The first team to finish writing and to have the correct answer would get the point. Determining which team finishes first can be tricky, so I made little laminated cards for each team (designing the graphic was the most time-consuming but fun part of preparation) and said that the teams should put their magnetized card on the board once they finished writing, at which point they couldn’t go back and fix anything. If I stand at the right angle I can almost always tell which team finishes first. Often, the team to finish first won’t have the totally correct answer, which keeps things exciting. I let them check their textbooks for 30 seconds before coming to the board and writing (which they can begin only after the buzzer rings) but they can’t bring their textbooks with them. However—and I think this was my best idea to date—I let them bring one friend from their team to help them. That way even the less confident students could participate and have a fighting chance at winning. Every team had at least one particularly smart student, though thankfully none were dragged to the board for every single question. The boys in particular were more likely to go on their own, but if they needed help it was available to them.

yellow team sun sparkled floral explosion background rainbow sun

This is clearly my most elaborate game to date (I already regret undertaking to describe it here), and even with all the forethought there were still some kinks to work out (that 30-second preparation-time thing is something I didn’t come up with until the 3rd time). The students are confused at first but they quickly get the hang of it. But the important thing is that they have fun, and they definitely do. The inherent fairness of the game, especially with the bring-a-friend thing, results in each team winning a number of points and gets them cheering. The game has ended with virtually even scores each time so far, and I’ve had to use a tie-breaker to determine the winner. (If no team gets a majority of the five questions so you have a 2 and 2 and 1 situation, I give a spelling word from the program and the first team to write it correctly on the board wins). But the major flaw so far has been time. The periods are already condensed to 45-minutes as opposed to the standard 50, and 8 programs with 5 questions each is just too much. We barely finish half, and sometimes only 1 or 2 programs actually get finished and the winner must be determined by points alone. So yesterday I slashed two questions from each program and from now on there will only be three, which I suspect will work much better.

Naturally, this being the final lesson I figured I might as well do the same thing I did with the Christmas lesson and give CDs away as presents. I’m burning up plenty of CDs so I might as well. Only this time I’m not just giving them to the winning team but to any students who clearly exert an effort (and any student who comes up to me after class and asks for one).

That should be the last overly-detailed description of classroom activities for a very long time.

As I mentioned, the graduation ceremony is tomorrow. There was a rehearsal yesterday so I got to see how the whole thing will go down, and it’s not all that different from graduation ceremonies in America. It’s extremely formal of course, but so are ceremonies in America. The uniforms greatly augment the atmosphere of formality, but it’s still basically the same routine of songs, speeches, and the distribution of awards and diplomas.

But I would definitely venture to say that they take this a lot more seriously in Japan. They work the students hard to prepare, and I’ve been shocked by how often they get yelled at and chastised for things like not standing and bowing in perfect synchronization. They’re in the gym every day practicing their songs, and yesterday they even held every single second-grader after school for additional practice. The singing sounds perfectly lovely to me but apparently it doesn’t meet the faculty’s standards. When they don’t sing loudly or enthusiastically enough, they make them do it again. The students were supposed to go home at 3:30 yesterday but they got held until about 3:50.

I’ve been in a substantially melancholy mood all week, complemented by (and partly due to) the weather, which has been non-stop clouds and rain since Monday. Yesterday’s graduation rehearsal was particularly sad, what with watching all of the third-graders walk on stage to receive their fake-diploma from the principal and take their final bow. Junior high school is probably the greatest time of transition in a person’s life. They come in as children and leave as young adults. But for three years, this building and the people in it constitute their entire world. As of tomorrow, they are exiled from that world never to return. Another chapter of life irreversibly transformed into memory.

It makes me reflect on my own life and how many chapters I’ve left behind. Five schools from kindergarten to college, two years in California, three in Germany. There are things I miss about all of them. But time flows in only one direction, and when something is gone it’s gone forever. To beings with an awareness of time, it may just be the greatest tragedy of the universe.

But I don’t want to overstate things too much. I may be sad but it’s a comfortable sadness. This is a normal part of life. You’re supposed to feel sad at times like these.

I’ll just be relieved when the graduation ceremony tomorrow is over. Then all the goodbye-related stress will be over and there will be no more goodbyes to say. At least not until next year when the current second-graders have their graduation, and that’s going to be far worse than this. By then I’ll have spent nearly two years with these students. I’m already terribly fond of a whole bunch of them, and watching them disappear into memory is definitely going to hurt. At least with my students in Germany I could still keep in touch with them (and I have). But that won’t be the case with any of these kids. I honestly don’t know how other teachers manage to handle it, except that it’s something they get used to after awhile (and most are probably not nearly as wishy-washy sensitive as I am).

Interestingly, the teachers in Japanese schools are also just here temporarily. I found out today that teachers here don’t usually stay at the same school for more than 7 or 8 years. I don’t know why, but the government likes to move them around (sort of like Interac does with their ALTs). Even within the school, they don’t teach the same grade from year to year. As for the students, they mix up the classes after first-grade, but they remain with the same group in their second and third year. Mrs. T- couldn’t explain why they do it like that, but she told me it was normal. She said she’ll probably stay at this school next year but she doesn’t know what grades or classes she’ll teach.

Tomorrow evening there will be another party for the teachers, this one at a hotel near the beach. After the initial party some teachers will be going out for karaoke, and regardless of my mood I intend to join them and probably sleep at the hotel. I’m not really looking forward to it as I’m in no mood for a party, but it’s a worthwhile experience that I can’t pass up. I’ll just be glad when it’s over and the rest of the school-year unceremoniously fades away.

There are a few more random non-school related things to mention, but this post is already far longer than I’d intended (as usual) so I’ll save them for next time, once the saddest week of the year is finally over.

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