Archive for April, 2012

Back in Business

April 26th, 2012 No comments

A couple of entries ago I mentioned that one day during the first week of school (in which I didn’t have to go in but went most days anyway) I rode my bicycle to the beach and took a great deal of pictures which I’d post to the blog whenever I had some time to kill at work. Somehow, I haven’t had much time to kill yet, and when I have I’ve been using it to study Japanese. But for the last three days of this week there are no classes in the afternoon, I just learned 20 new Kanji, and now seems like a good time to finally tackle that project. But first, let’s just get the journal up-to-date.

The reason there are no afternoon classes is somewhat interesting. In Japan, all of the homeroom teachers visit the homes of each of their students. The main reason is so that they know the locations of their students’ homes in case of an emergency, but it also gives them a chance to talk privately with the students’ parents, which can be valuable for any number of reasons. I’ve never heard of this happening in America but I suppose it probably does in some places, maybe with certain private schools. In any case I think it’s a good idea.

As for how things have been going for me with teaching so far, I’m happy to finally be back in the swing of things. I’ve met with every class at least once so far and most of the first-grade classes twice. The second-graders have been a little disappointing in their enthusiasm to see me, but there are logical reasons for this. For starters, when they were first-graders I barely met with them at all—it was only about 20 minutes every two weeks. They never really got comfortable with me. Second of all, the teacher for most of those classes, To-sensei, is apparently one of those teachers accustomed to using the ALT as a human tape-recording. She ran the first half of the class like a normal boring “repeat after me” and “please practice writing” English lesson, and only brought me in for the second half by which time the students were sufficiently zonked out. The lack of a warm-up at the beginning really makes a huge difference. My game managed to get them loosened up a little bit by the end, but unfortunately the game wasn’t as strong as I’d thought it would be so the whole first week was a bit of a let-down with them. However, I’ve got what I’m fairly certain is really strong stuff planned for next week, and I’m hoping To-sensei will let me have the entire lesson. She teaches one third-grade class, 3-1 (formerly 2-6, one of my favorites), and that’s tomorrow first-period, the only class I’ve yet to meet with. Because she’s not in charge of third-grade classes she has nothing planned so I’ll get to execute the entire lesson on my own, and hopefully demonstrate that I can do more than just make worksheets and games.

As for the third-grade lessons, I’ve been pretty happy with them. These kids were my favorites even last year, I saw them more often than any of the others, and they’ve been very warm and enthusiastic in welcoming me back. I start with a warm-up in which I teach the kids the English greeting “What’s up?” in a fun way that gets them loosened up. Then I do the presentation phase in which I introduce one of the most annoying aspects of English grammar for foreigners—the dreaded Present Perfect tense—and while I stumbled a bit with my explanations at first, now that I’ve done it five times I’ve gotten pretty good at getting the kids to understand with a bare minimum of help from the JTE, who in most cases is T-sensei. It’s nice to be teaching alongside her again, one of the only bits of continuity with the last school-year. But I also had one third-grade class with K-sensei, which went so well it made me wish I had all my third-grade classes with him. I play a couple of games they really get into and end on a high note, feeling like I actually managed to teach something they’ll remember. In any case, whereas students always used to greet me with just a “Hello” some of them are now saying, “What’s up?” which is pretty awesome.

Also of note, this morning I saw one of the third-grade girls crying to her friend in the hallways before another class. Two periods later when I was teaching her class, I could tell she was still very sad but by the end of my first game I actually had her smiling and clapping. There are few things on earth more gratifying than that.

As for the first-graders, the novelty of me hasn’t worn off on them yet and I continue to be greeted with absurd levels of enthusiasm whenever I walk into a first-grade classroom. This week’s lesson, in addition to teaching “What’s up?” has just been a phonics review, which I found a few fun ways to do and it keeps the kids active and excited throughout the whole class period—sometimes too excited. The lessons with K-sensei have been particularly lively, as the two of us seem to just naturally work really well together.

And so the school-year feels back in full-swing, but it’s going to be short-lived. Next week is “Golden Week”, a week in Japan in which a bunch of holidays just happen to fall and most offices are closed most of the days. We only have school on Tuesday and Wednesday next week, and the rest is free. I’ll be staying after for “Team C” both days, but I have no idea how many students will come. Judging by their reaction when I introduce the club at the end of class, I don’t think very many will come by at first, but hopefully it will build as word-of-mouth spreads.

As for non-academic activities, I might be going clubbing with Trey on Sunday night (I’ll know for sure tomorrow) and at some point during the next long weekend there’s a chance I might be going back into Tokyo to meet a girl that I actually met through Corey, as she met him when he worked at a music store in Santa Barbara and she was vacationing there. They’ve been in sporadic contact ever since and just this past week he recommended I connect with her through Facebook. I did and we’ve been exchanging messages with English and Japanese mixed together for the past few days. She seems like a delightful person and I’m looking forward to hanging out with her, so we’ll see how that goes. Whatever happens, it should be good Japanese practice.

So that’s all for the written portion of this entry. Now let’s journey back in time exactly two weeks and take a look at some pictures I took of my area while riding to the beach and back during prime cherry-blossom season. The cherry-blossoms are almost all gone already, so I’m glad I got these pictures when I could.


This is the view from the parking lot behind my building. Beyond the fence is the elementary school sports field.

The journey begins.

The quaint little Japanese neighborhood I discovered a few weeks ago.

 Typical neighborhood street. One of those strange cats I keep hearing about. That cat stared at me for a solid five minutes while I took pictures. Quaint. Cherry trees along a "busy" road. The river far inland. Lovely yard. Cherry orchard?

The fields are absolutely gorgeous after it rains, as the water remains settled for days and leads to some spectacular scenery. Moist fields. Hard to believe it's still solid land. Japanese flavor all over the place. Sometimes I still can't believe I live here. As beautiful as a German cemetary. Another giant puddle.

Look-out at Kujukuri beach. Beach parking lot on a weekday afternoon!

When I got to the beach, there was almost nobody there but a couple of women and some kids they were watching.  These giant sand-hills were never there before and I haven’t seen them since, but the kids though they were the coolest thing in the world as they leapt about them shouting, “sugoi, ne?” (awesome, huh?)

Sugoi, ne?

Where did they come from?

While at the beach I decided to play amateur photographer for awhile.  Since I’m not quite at that level yet, I suppose you’d have to call me an “amateur amateur photographer”. Looks like Mars to me. Another strange landscape. Grass and sand. Ocean. I'm so brilliant. A dollar in sand currency. Kind of icky, but it looks cool. No idea.

These concrete slabs line the mouth of the river.  There’s a solid concrete platform not pictured where I like to go sit and absorb the atmosphere, which is markedly different between high-tide and this, which was super low-tide.Mossy triangles. Edge of the sea. If a stone doesn't roll...My happy place.

Some garbage washed up on shore made for some interesting picture possibilities, but almost none of them came out very well.

Well-traveled trash. Perspective of an orange. Someone had fun. They do this in Japan too. 

Crossing the river on the way back, it’s amazing how different it is at low-tide.

River craters?

More cherry-blossoms! Awesome shrine. Two kinds of cherry blossoms. Just a shot that came out nicely.

Back in Togane, this is another really nice neighborhood, the scenery spoiled only by the occasional campaign placard. Distinctly Japan. Vote for that guy. More lovely meadows.

Very close to home now, the remaining pictures are all from along my jogging route. For just two weeks, this tree is gorgeous. So pristine. So tranquil.

Back on my street, the cherry trees lining the elementary school playground were a nice welcome home while they lasted. The journey ends.

Categories: Personal Tags: , ,

Year 2, Week 1

April 20th, 2012 No comments

The last day of my first “official” week of the new school-year is almost over, so to free up some time tomorrow I’ll try and bang out a quick blog entry about it right now.

For the first week, I only had first-grade lessons, so it’s been another long week of mostly down-time in the teacher’s room, though I’ve been able to keep surprisingly busy both by studying Japanese harder than ever and preparing for next week’s lessons. This year there are only 5 as opposed to 6 first-grade classes (strange to live in a country where the population is decreasing), so that meant just one class per day, with two this morning.

I’d forgotten how enthusiastic the kids are when they first get to meet you. I was nervous about making a strong first-impression, but as soon as I walked into the classroom for that first lesson on Tuesday, I was greeted with gasps and cheers of excitement which put me right at ease. They were applauding me for half my self-introduction, which was the same thing I did back in September and is thus already practiced and refined to perfection, with a few extra little things thrown in. I had flashcards of all the places I’ve lived—they loved the pictures of New York City and California—and I talked about all the things I like to do using heavily-animated gestures they all loved. Once that was done I opened the floor up for questions and got a lot more from most classes this time, but whenever there were no more questions I had the handy-dandy “sad Obama” picture that never ceases to please. It was great to bust that out again.

The first lesson was with K-sensei and by the end of it I was feeling better than ever about working with him this year, as he’s about as ideal a classroom partner as you could ask for, right on par with the still-dearly-missed Y-sensei. He gave me as much leeway as I wanted, but was right there to translate for me if necessary (though at this point I’m capable of translating most things I say myself) and he got the students more interested in asking questions by asking questions of me himself and letting the students ask me in Japanese. I usually didn’t need his help to translate, but he did when I needed to. It’s usually the same set of questions anyway—what Japanese food do you like, where would you like to travel in Japan, do you have a girlfriend, etc. As for that last question, last year I honestly answered that I didn’t, but this year I told them I had 63 girlfriends, which surprisingly many of them didn’t know right away was a joke.

After the Q & A I did the game where teams had to shout as many things as they could remember from the speech and they’d get one point for each thing. I’ve got that game down to a science now too, so it worked perfectly every time. But after that, there were usually still 15-25 minutes left.

With K-sensei, he had an introduction game where students introduce themselves in English to as many other students as they can within the time-limit, with extra points if they introduced themselves to me or him. So pretty much every student came up to me to introduce themselves, some obviously more excited about it than others. That was very nice.

Two of the five classes are taught by O-sensei, but since neither of us had much practice with that game I made another little game of my own involving matching cards with simple English words (I’ll spare you the details). But I got to go to each student and have them take 2 cards, during which time I asked them all for their names, repeated them, and said “nice to meet you”. So I managed to individually meet just about every student in the first-grade. Now when I see students while out cycling or jogging I’ll be able to safely know that they know who I am. Finally.

As for the other grades, I can’t wait to get back to teaching them next week. I’ve got pretty strong lessons planned for all the grades and I’m looking forward to carrying them out with the new teachers, as well as getting to teach side-by-side with T-sensei again.

Finally, there’s the matter of the after-school conversation practice idea I first pitched to T-sensei at the year-end enkai last month. T-sensei liked the idea, but K-sensei was very enthusiastic about it. He helped me get permission from the Vice Principal to use one of the rooms after school, and helped me translate a written invitation that I’ve made mass copies of and will distribute to every student, teacher, and staff member in the school. I’ll be handing those out during my English lessons all next week and explaining to the students what I have in mind, and if all goes according to plan that will get started the week after next. I have no idea how much interest there will be but the other teachers seem to think a lot of students will take advantage. In any case it feels very cool to be starting my very own after-school club activity, and doing that is what I’m most looking forward to this year.

Incidentally, I thought of a good name for it, as “Conversation Practice” or “English Club” sound too dull and academic. I’m calling it “Team Communication” or “Team C” for short. The whole idea (and I express this in the invitation with K-sensei’s translation) is that speaking other languages and talking to people from other countries helps us understand the world better, and that makes things like international business and world peace possible. That’s the main mission of the club, and why I’m calling it a “team”.

That’s pretty much the philosophy behind my entire English-teaching-in-foreign-countries career. Aside from personal growth, I’m helping to encourage and facilitate cross-cultural communication, which is a pretty damned satisfying thing for a person to be doing with one’s life. I’ve never felt more fulfilled.

Categories: Personal Tags: ,

Prologue Week

April 15th, 2012 No comments

In America the school-year never got into the normal swing of things right off the bat, but at least there were actual lessons starting on the second and occasionally even the first day. In Japan, they don’t have normal lessons for the entire first week. It’s all just preparation for students and teachers. I understand why the teachers need a week to prepare, especially when so many of them are new and pretty much all of them are teaching different grades than before, but it must be pretty boring for the students. They have health checks and other random things to do, and the first-graders have to learn all the ropes about things like their daily cleaning assignments and the proper way to enter and exit the teacher’s room, but I can’t imagine what else they’re doing.

I didn’t technically have to go in to work at all this week, but if I hadn’t I would have had to go in on Tuesday for my first lessons and just wing-it. I wanted to come in and make preparations, as well as sort out the name-cards and talk to the other teachers more about after-school communication practice. These tasks ended up taking longer than I expected, so I ended up going in on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. On Thursday the weather was just too gorgeous, and since cherry-blossom season doesn’t last too long I knew I had to take advantage. I did the bike-trip to the beach but I stopped frequently to take pictures. I ended up taking several hundred, and when I get to the point where I once again have to be at school but have nothing to do I’ll work on a picture blog-entry to post the best ones.

Kudo from Interac wanted to meet me at the school at 1:00 on Friday so he could meet the administrators and other JTEs, but I went in at 8:30 and worked right up until the meeting. Funnily enough, Kudo had waited until the last minute to call and inform my school he was coming, so every single JTE was busy as well as all but one administrator, a guy I’ve had almost no dealings with, and he ended up taking the meeting. I sat between two Interac people and across from this administrator while they spoke Japanese to each other for about five minutes and then that was it. I can’t believe Kudo came all the way from Chiba for that, but I suppose it’s standard practice in Japan to have a face-to-face meeting at least once.

As for lesson preparations, I didn’t even get to the third-grade lesson because T-sensei is in charge of those and she’s been so busy with other things that she hasn’t even thought of it. But I did confirm we don’t have third-grade lessons on Tuesday, so I’ll have more time to prepare.

My first lesson is first period on Tuesday, and I’m a little anxious about it because it’s a first-grade class and therefore a bunch of students I’ve never seen before. I already have good rapport with the second- and third-graders, but with the first-graders I’ve yet to make a first impression. Luckily, it’s just a self-introduction, and I’ll be doing the same thing I did in September which means I’ve already done it 18 times. Furthermore, K-sensei will be teaching 4 out of the 6 first-grade classes and I can tell I’m in great hands with him. He even has a whole game prepared that he’s done many times before, so while my introduction and game only takes about 25 minutes, there’ll be something fun in the second half.

The bulk of my time was spent preparing for the second-grade lesson, which I’m most excited about because I came up with a game I think is going to be great. The target isn’t a grammar structure like it usually is, but rather just 12 common words in past tense. I’ll hold up a card with a question like, “Where did you go?” or “What did I buy?” and all of the students will have picked a scrap of paper with answers like “I went to school” or “You bought a TV.” There are three answers to every question, and the first student to raise their hand with one of the right answers will get 10 points for their team and 5 bonus points if they can spell the past-tense word without looking. The other two students can get 5 points for their teams just for reading the sentence. I made sure to have a few funny answers to, like one of the answers for “What did he take?” is “He took my girlfriend!” Because these are all very simple sentences I decided to translate them all into Japanese, most of which I could do on my own. But I asked O-sensei to correct my mistakes when I was done, and I actually learned a lot of useful tid-bits about Japanese that way.

At this point it seems pretty clear that O-sensei is going to be even more helpful than T-sensei was last year. She seems not just willing but eager to answer my questions and give me as much information as she can. While T-sensei was always very friendly, I always got the vague feeling that I was bothering her whenever I asked her something, and I don’t get that from O-sensei at all.

I haven’t interacted much with To-sensei, the new second-grade teacher, but my impressions thus far have been very good. The “team-teacher” Ka-sensei, is extremely shy and hasn’t said two words to me since the first day. (The first-grade teacher, K-sensei, is also a “Ka-” but to distinguish I’ll go on referring to him as K-sensei and her as Ka-sensei. I’ll let T-sensei remain T-sensei, but refer to the new one as To-sensei.)

As for K-sensei, his coming to the school might be even more fortunate than I could have hoped. He’s an extremely friendly guy, and while I’m sure I could probably coast through all my classes with him and let him do just about everything, I’m almost certain he’ll let me have as much control as I ask for. Like all the other full-timers he was extremely busy this week so he only had five minutes to talk with me about the first-grade lesson, but he simply asked me if I had something planned and how long it would take. It takes 25 minutes, so he has an activity ready to go for the remainder, but if I’d told him it took the full 50 he probably would have given it to me.

And yesterday while we were both making copies in the back-room, he remarked on how strange it was that so few of the other teachers try to communicate with me. In his last school, he said, the teacher’s room was very small so it was a different atmosphere, but he said it was a better environment. I asked him if he was going to the PTA party because I needed to know the details, and he couldn’t believe no one had talked to me about it. I would have gladly gone to that party, which was last night, but I found out from T-sensei later that reservations had already been made and I wasn’t included. I felt a little offended, but not too much because I probably could have gone if I’d stayed all of Monday instead of leaving after the opening ceremony. It’s okay though, because neither K-sensei nor To-sensei were going anyway (both had parties with colleagues from their former schools), and those are the two I’m still not well-acquainted with.

I’ve gotten much more acquainted with O-sensei, whom I learned not only lived in Germany for 8 years, but also in America—Texas for 4 years where her first daughter was born, and North Carolina for 3 years where her second daughter was born. Her husband works for TDK, a company that makes electronics, so she was a housewife for most of her life just following him wherever he was transferred. She only started teaching last year, so she’s much older than most part-timers. Her daughters are now 20 and 23-years-old, which naturally made me think about my grandfather’s advice and how absurdly perfectly it would be to get introduced to a Japanese girl who not only speaks English from having been born in America but can also relate from having spent 8 years in Germany. It’s obviously too good to be true. In any case, I should wait to get to know her better before I start inquiring about the possibility of courting her children. If I’m extremely lucky she’ll bring it up on her own.

But the main thing is that after this week, I’m not just feeling better about the changes but really good about them. I’ll still miss Y-sensei, but the replacements for all the others (excluding the super-shy Ka-sensei) seem like I’ll be able to get all with them even better, perhaps much better.

Of course, this too shall pass. But I won’t have to worry about that for a nice long year.

Categories: Personal Tags: ,

Bizarro School

April 12th, 2012 No comments

When my alarm woke me up Monday morning I couldn’t believe I was actually about to go into school. I went through the normal morning routine with my mind in a complete haze, the effects of last night’s alcohol consumption still far from having worn off. Not exactly the best state-of-mind for meeting a bunch of new colleagues, but at least the bulk of the morning would be spent at the opening ceremony, which would require almost no brain-power at all.

Most students arrive before 8:00 but some don’t get in until 8:30, which is the time I’m supposed to get there. As I was walking in at 8:25 some first-graders were riding in on their bikes. Unfamiliar faces. We’re not on “hello” terms yet. Ever since Friday I’ve been seeing kids in that uniform out and about (I think that was an orientation day) and while I could always exchange a wave and a smile with any kid in that uniform, now I never know until we’re right up close whether or not they know me. I’ve definitely waved to a few students who didn’t wave back and must have been wondering why that gaijin was waving at them.

So the students I saw on the way in were unfamiliar, as were the teachers standing outside to guide them in. When I got inside and into the teachers room, I was confronted with even more unfamiliar faces, a deeply unsettling feeling (especially in my hazy state of mind), and when I saw another teacher’s stuff all over my desk I almost wondered if I’d wandered into the wrong school. Luckily T-sensei was there to greet me and show me to my desk’s new location, now at the corner of the first-grade teachers’ section as opposed to the second-grade section, and facing the window instead of the wall.

The moment I looked to the front of the room and saw a tall and intimidating-looking new vice-principal in Ta-sensei’s old seat, that’s when it really hit me. The last school-year took so long to end that when it finally ended it didn’t even feel like an ending. But this was it. The new year is under way. The old year is gone, over, finished, buried in the past forever. I badly miss Y-sensei already.

The whole morning felt like I’d stumbled through some kind of portal to an alternate dimension and came out in Bizarro World. Everything was the same but different. The building was the same but half the people were different (technically it was only a third, but it felt like half). The teacher’s room was the same but everyone’s place had shifted around. The student’s uniforms were the same but a third of their faces I don’t recognize.

Even my neighbor in the teacher’s room had changed—it’s no longer T-sensei but a new part-time teacher, O-sensei. She was the first new teacher I met, introducing herself as my new neighbor when she sat down. We exchanged brief pleasantries but didn’t talk much because she had other things to do. I was glad to be left alone, considering my terribly cloudy head. Suddenly I was in a position of having to make a first impression all over again, and I wasn’t nearly as capable of making a good one as I would have liked.

At least not all changes are painful: The replacement for Y-, the super-cute young woman secretary, is another super-cute young woman. But unfortunately, my desk no longer faces hers.

At 9:15 I went to the gym for the opening ceremony, which could be described as “bizarro graduation”. Like the graduation ceremony, there were parents seated in the middle, but they were the parents of the new first-graders. The old first-graders were now second-graders and seated immediately behind them, with the second-now-third-graders sitting in the back. A few of the third-grade boys waved at me when I came in. Ah, familiar students’ faces. How refreshing.

I took my seat in the teachers’ section in the front-right corner of the room, and at 9:25 the new first-graders entered ceremoniously and took their seats in the front section. It felt strange to think that three years from now, those same students and parents will be in those same positions for the official ending of what was officially beginning today.

The ceremony itself was pretty typical. Everyone stand up, sing the school song, hear a speech from the principal, speech from the PTA president, someone from the board of education, and one welcome speech from the third-graders to the first-graders, delivered by none other than M- from the Speech Contest. It was nice to see she’d gotten that honor.

After all the speeches, it was time for the principal to introduce the teachers, starting with the homeroom teachers who lined up in the order of their grades and classes in the front of the gym and stepped forward one at a time as the principal called out their names. They’d take a bow and say “yoroshiku onegaishimasu”, the standard formal Japanese greeting. A few of the popular teachers got random applause from some of the students in the back.

When it was time for the part-timers and random faculty members to introduce themselves I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to go up there too, but after they’d all lined up someone indicated to me that I should too so I took my place at the end of the line and scanned the giant group of new faces before me. I was glad I didn’t have to make an introduction speech like I had at my first assembly back in September, but at the same time a part of me wishes I could because I’d been able to hook the students in right away with my jokes and Obama pictures. The students were all clamoring to see me after that, but these new first-graders won’t get to find out how frickin’ awesome I am until our first lesson.

When the principal called my name I just waved and said, “Hello, everyone” then bowed and gave them my best yoroshiku onegaishimasu. There was an amusing murmur of approval from the girls’ section in the back, as apparently a bunch of them were surprised at how good my Japanese sounded. But I have to confess I felt a little disappointed that nobody clapped for me. Some of the boys had clapped for the new cute secretary, which everyone found amusing but I think made her uncomfortable.

But I got a few more smiles and waves as the second- and third-graders filed out while I stood at the side of the gym exchanging a few more words with O-sensei. A lot of these kids had seen me drunk the previous evening, which was crazy to think about. One of them, a third-grader named K-, made the loudest burst of a giggle I’ve ever heard when she saw me.

Once the only people left in the gym were the first-graders, their parents, and a few teachers and faculty members, I left and went back to the teacher’s room. I called Interac because at this point I had no idea what I was supposed to do. They still hadn’t sent me a schedule (even today they still haven’t) so I didn’t know if I was supposed to stay the rest of the day and come in every day this week, or if I was to go home and not return to the school until regular classes begin.

Kono told me I could probably go home, but she’d confirm it with a faculty member just to be safe. She called but at that time everyone was busy and there was nobody available to answer her, so she told me to wait and she’d try again in an hour. I had the most overwhelming desire to go home and sleep off the rest of this hangover, but I had a few things to do on my computer anyway so I stayed and did them.

During this time I met K-sensei, the new male teacher Dan had told me about at the hanami. As Dan had described, he struck me as a very friendly, very down-to-earth and uncharacteristically-for-Japanese easygoing person. He told me he really likes to practice speaking English, and he asked me a few things about my living arrangements and what I think of the Togane area. I knew I wasn’t making as good of an impression as I could, but I think it went OK. I just wasn’t in the frame of mind to ask him anything about what he would expect out of me in our lessons together and how much control he’d be willing to give me. But I definitely got the impression that if I ask for more control over the lessons, he wouldn’t refuse. Most of the teachers who use their ALTs as human tape-recordings are the kind who don’t like foreigners and are bitter about having to share the job they took years of school for with some gaijin who barely had any training at all.

So two out of the four new JTEs seemed OK. I didn’t meet the other two. When an hour had gone by since Kono had first called the school, I decided to give her another ten minutes, but just then T-sensei came up to me and said I could probably go home. I explained about my previous phone call to Kono and that I also didn’t know if I was supposed to come in the rest of the week. O-sensei had informed me earlier that the first week is all preparation and normal classes don’t start until Tuesday (this week school is open on Saturday but closed Monday). T-sensei called Interac and after a conversation that seemed to go on much longer than I’d assumed it had to, she handed the phone to me and Kono told me I could go home and not return to the school until Tuesday, though I had to stay in my apartment until 10:00 every morning and be “on call” on the infinitesimal chance they’d need me for something.

Had I not been hungover and deeply tired, I almost certainly would have stayed anyway and introduced myself to the other teachers and talked about what to expect from our lessons this year, but at that point I just wanted to go home and pass out. Besides, they weren’t serving school lunch and I hadn’t brought anything to eat. So I wished everyone a goodbye and left, figuring that my Spring Vacation had just been extended another week.

But over the rest of the day a feeling of regret began to grow. I’d failed to make a good first impression with my new colleagues, and that could be a big mistake if I want them to trust me with more control over lessons. If I was just the guy who showed up the morning of the opening ceremony and then went merrily back on vacation until the following week, I’d be confirming all their stereotypes about lazy Americans.

So on Tuesday morning I wrote an e-mail to Interac asking if I could go in one day this week to meet the new English teachers and discuss the lessons for the year, as well as make my preparations for next week’s lessons. I got no reply all day, but at 7:00 in the evening my phone rang and it was Kudo, who is now apparently the new Interac contact for Togane instead of Kono. More bizarro crap—same company, different contact. Can nothing stay the same?

Anyway, Kudo told me he’d spoken with my school’s vice-principal (I don’t know if it was the new one or the old one) and he’d said I was free to drop in any time I wanted this week. I wouldn’t be able to meet with all the English teachers at once but I could meet with them individually whenever they had time. That’s all I’d expected anyway. He also said he wants to come with me to the school on Friday at 1:00 p.m. so he can introduce himself to the administrators and JTEs.

So I resolved to make the following day a bit of a damage-control operation, to repair the less-than-stellar first-impression-performance I’d made on Monday. I got up early Wednesday morning and went into school at 8:00—a half-hour before I’m supposed to be there when I am supposed to be there—and marched into the teacher’s room to greet everyone. T-sensei was surprised to see me and I told her what I was doing there. She didn’t have much time because she had to get to her homeroom (she didn’t have one last year but now she’s in charge of 3-5, formerly 2-5, a great class), but told me the first lesson for the third-graders wouldn’t be a textbook lesson but to just come up with some kind of conversation practice game. Very vague, but that’s how I like it. At least with T-sensei I know I’ll have nearly total control over my lessons, and since she’s now teaching 4 out of the 6 third-grade classes that suits me perfectly because they’re my favorites (they were actually my favorites last year too when they were second-graders—don’t know why).

K-sensei was also pleasantly surprised to see me, but he said he had no time that day to meet with me but maybe Friday. I’m glad I was able to demonstrate my professionalism to him by coming in when I didn’t have to, but I won’t know until Friday what I should expect out of lessons with him. He’s teaching mostly first-grade (they’ve actually made him the senior first-grade teacher) but one third-grade class as well, so it should be very interesting to see the differences in his approach to older students.

Going into work when I didn’t have to was clearly an excellent move on my part. The old vice principal noticed and greeted me enthusiastically, obviously impressed. As a bonus I even got a super-warm greeting from the new cute secretary, who gave me the impression that it wasn’t just niceness alone (as it had always been with Y-) but that maybe she likes me. Hmmm…

Naturally, O-sensei was also impressed that I’d come in, and she was the first to have time to talk with me because she’s only part-time and has very little to do this week. This was when I really started to feel better about all these changes, as while I didn’t think it was possible O-sensei might be an even more helpful neighbor than T-sensei. She started off by going through every incomprehensible sheet of paper that had been left on my desk and explaining what each of them were: a schedule for this, a memo about that, etc. One was an invitation to a welcome party being thrown by the PTA this Saturday at 5:00 p.m. I’m not sure if it’s an enkai but I’ll most definitely be going no matter what. I want to get comfortable with all these new people a.s.a.p.

O-sensei is doing first-grade classes so my self-introduction will be the first lesson with her, and I told her what I’d done for that lesson last year and she thought it was fine. The only thing is, by the time I had my intro with the first-graders last year they’d already been studying JHS-level English for four months. These new first-graders know only basic elementary-school stuff like colors, numbers, and a few simple phrases. They haven’t even learned the alphabet yet.

It was O-sensei who showed me the schedule for all the teachers and translated all their Kanji names to roman letters for me so I could see who teaches which class when. She even took a print-out showing the layout of the teacher’s room and where each teacher was sitting and wrote their roman-letter names on that too. There were two JTEs I hadn’t met yet, one part-timer who would be “team-teaching” in all the third-grade classes (I assume that means standing quietly in the back and helping only when needed), and a full-timer in charge of all the second-grade English classes.

I introduced myself to the team-teacher (her name escapes me) and when I asked her if she had some time to speak about this year’s lessons and she clearly didn’t understand me, I realized her English might be the weakest of any JTE I’ve worked with so far. She seems nice though, younger than me and a little shy, but with a really cute voice.

The second-grade JTE is another T-sensei, so from this point on I’ll have to start referring to the old T-sensei (formerly “Mrs. T-”) as Te-sensei and the new one as To-sensei. When I first went up to her at the beginning of the day, To-sensei said she’d meet me during second-period. That meeting strengthened my relief, as she struck me as another substantially pleasant person to work with. She showed me that our first lesson together would be to teach a few words in simple past tense (they don’t start learning past tense until grade 2 of JHS) and asked me if I could come up with a game for it. Music to my ears. Games happen to be my specialty. Perhaps somebody had told her this. But I also explained to her that I love teaching, I plan to be a teacher my whole life, and that any opportunity I can have to do the whole lesson including the presentation phase would be great. She thought that was wonderful.

I also explained a couple of new ideas I have for classes this year, including teaching one useful English phrase at the end of every lesson. I’m getting tired of “see you!” and “long time no see!” as the only English expressions these kids ever say, so I want to supply them with more. And of course, I brought up my idea for after-school communication practice, with thankfully Te-sensei had already told her about. I explained to her exactly what I had in mind because I’ll probably need her help translating for the students.

Finally, I asked for her help with one more thing—determining which students were in which class for the sake of my name-cards. With 600 students, the only way to have the names of every student in a class fresh in my mind is to study the cards for that class before going. Now that the classes are different I have to rearrange the cards. Second to third grade is easy: 2-1 is now 3-1, 2-2 is now 3-2, and so on. But they mix up all the first-grade students and put them in different classes their second year, which presents me with the tedious task of figuring out where all of them went. To-sensei and O-sensei both thought my name-card strategy was fantastic, as they too have trouble learning the kids’ names. The list of which students were in which class this year was easy enough to find, but it was somewhat trickier to get a list of which class they’d been in last year. Both lists had the names in Kanji but with the hiragana pronunciation as well, so I could read them. Matching one Japanese name on a list of 200 to the name on another list of 200 is a tedious task, only made simpler by the fact that I’d already learned these names and knew whether to look for a boy or a girl. Still, I only finished off one class (determining where everyone from 1-1 had gone) before putting that task to the side for school-lunch, my first of the year…another benefit of having gone into work.

I left after lunch, telling everyone I’d be back on Friday at 1:00 p.m. with my boss from Interac, but I actually plan to go in tomorrow morning like a normal day and finish the stuff I was working on. I’d thought I might do that after Kudo’s introductions but I’d rather have the afternoon.

So that’s the start of the new school-year. It was extremely unsettling at first to have new colleagues, new students, a new desk-location, and so on. But after going in yesterday and talking to my new colleagues I already feel much better. It seems I’ve gotten lucky two years in a row, and probably (knock on wood) not have any problems with my fellow English teachers as so many ALTs do.

One last thing—when talking about my self-introduction lesson with O-sensei, she asked me if it was true that I’d lived in Germany for three years. It turned out she spent 8 years in Düsseldorf. I immediately asked her, “Sprechen sie Deutsch” and she said “Ein bisschen” and we continued a brief little exchange in German which I found delightful. I told her we’d have to bust out the German with our students sometime and she agreed. It’s going to be very easy to get along with her.

As for those first-grade students, they are the final hurdle before I can consider myself officially settled into the new school-year. I’m already sick and tired of spotting uniformed students out in the wild and not knowing whether or not to greet them. Though I did discover a way around it while riding my bike on Tuesday: just shout the school’s name at them as you pass by and give them a wave, and they’ll usually wave back whether or not they recognize you. Still, I can’t wait until I’m acquainted with all of them, when I’ve got all 200 of their names onto cards and into my brain. Then the school-year will really be rolling, and this time I’ll have an entire years’ worth of it to enjoy.

Categories: Personal Tags: ,

Chu-hai and Cherry Blossoms

April 11th, 2012 No comments

Togane Lake

A “hanami” is a cherry-blossom viewing festival, a very popular activity during the cherry-blossom season, which lasts for different durations in different parts of Japan but is usually about one month long. The cherries only started blossoming last week, but they were in full bloom by the time of the hanami on Sunday.

I never received my school schedule in the mail from Interac, so all I knew on Sunday was that I had to attend the school’s opening ceremony the next morning. I didn’t know if I’d then have to stay the rest of the day or even do any lessons, but I was pretty resolved not to drink. It wasn’t until text messages from other ALTs informed me to bring drinks that I realized this was going to be that kind of event, so I ended up bringing four tall cans of chu-hai (a sweet alcoholic fruit-flavored beverage which is less expensive and less fattening than beer, but often with a higher alcohol content).

Before leaving for Tokyo the day before, I rang the doorbell of the new Interac ALT for Togane, Kim, and asked her if she knew about the hanami and if she wanted to go. She said yes, so I rang her again on Sunday when I was ready to go. Kim is practically fresh-off-the-plane, having just come from the big Interac training session in Narita, and she’d invited another ALT from training who now lives in nearby Sanmu, so the three of us walked to Togane Lake together while I told them about the area, about teaching Japanese students, and about all the things they learned at training that aren’t exactly true. It felt very weird to suddenly be the experienced one. Up until now I’ve been the new guy in nearly every situation.

There were already a ton of people at Togane Lake when we arrived at 3:00. After taking my first pictures I immediately spotted some of my students and said hello, and felt some more apprehension about drinking at this event. I’ve never had to encounter students in that state before, and there were guaranteed to be many of them here.

Lake entrance.  Along the path.

Japanese loveliness.

We walked around to the back of the lake, taking in the gorgeous and quintessentially Japanese scenery, until we spotted the two giant tarps on the grass swarming with fellow gaijin. Ben was there and immediately gave us a warm greeting, launching straight into introductions with the two new ALTs I’d brought. There were a few other familiar faces, but a whole bunch of people I’d never met before. Pretty much all of them had some kind of alcoholic beverage in their hand, so I went ahead and opened one up myself. They didn’t seem to have any qualms about greeting their students with booze-in-hand when they walked by, so I figured I shouldn’t either.

The gaijin tarps.

I chatted with a few people I haven’t seen in awhile and met a few others. Atsushi, whom I’ve mentioned a couple of times before, was one of the few Japanese people there to mingle with us, but it was nice to have a few Japanese faces among us. Most of us were American, and most of the Americans were from Wisconsin, as apparently Wisconsin and Chiba are “sister-states” and there’s a special program for Wisconsinites to come here and teach English. Kim is Canadian, and as far as I know the only one among us.

One of the first people I ended up in a conversation with is Dan, from the infamous night of Ben’s Christmas Party when he took Diana from me without realizing I’d been interested in her. I naturally hated him at the time but he clearly felt bad about it and even apologized in a Facebook message after-the-fact. We didn’t bring her up at all, but by astounding coincidence she just happened to walk by us right when we were talking, chatting some other foreigner’s ear off. She didn’t seem to notice us and he didn’t notice her, so I didn’t say anything.

What we did talk about was the teachers our schools would be exchanging. His school was getting S-Sensei in exchange for K-sensei, whom Dan told me is a really great guy who loves to chat in English and is really easy to get along with. Apparently they’ve even hung out outside of work. But he also said, “With him you’ll hardly have to do any work,” which made me nervous because having a teacher who does everything himself and leaving nothing to me is exactly what I’ve been fearing most about the replacements. But if he’s as nice a guy as Dan says, I can probably just ask him point-blank to give me more lesson-planning responsibilities.

After a little while, Kim and I decided to take a walk around the rest of the lake and check out the rest of the festival. As we walked I kept passing groups of students and saying hello, eventually no longer even thinking about the chu-hai in my hand. A few of the students’ eyes widened when they saw me with Kim and they asked me if she was my girlfriend, but I laughed and told them in Japanese that she isn’t—she’s just a new ALT. Kim thought it was funny how in Japan, if a guy and a girl are walking alone together it must mean they’re in a relationship. But she was also very excited to see how enthusiastic some of the students can get when spotting their teacher. She’s obviously looking forward to it, and indeed it is one of the best things about this job.

In fact, it turned out to be one of the best things about the festival. Back at the gaijin tarps as I continued to drink and chat with other ALTs about everything from where we’ve lived to places we’ve traveled to our impressions of Japan and so on, students would constantly be walking by and they all smiled and said hello. That doesn’t even happen at school, where the presence of their English teacher is nothing unusual and therefore calls for no acknowledgment. But seeing me outside of the school environment, in my street-clothes, drinking chu-hai, was quite a novelty for them. Some groups would call me over and challenge me to remember their names, which was really difficult having not seen them for a few weeks but I turned out to be a pretty good guesser and they all got a kick out of watching me struggle.

Of course the best part was seeing some of the recently graduated third-graders again. It’s been weeks since they graduated and I got all sad and melancholy about the idea that I’d never see them again, but since then I’ve been seeing them everywhere. The Spring Concert, the farewell ceremony, out jogging or riding my bike, in the supermarket—they’re all over the place.

The one group of recent graduates who were the most amused to see me was the “bad kid” group, Japanese middle-school version of “hoodlums” I guess you could say. They weren’t really bad, just the kind who didn’t care about school and would frequently disrespect teachers (though never me). The fourth time I spotted that group, one of the boys came up and put a chu-hai in my hand. I didn’t understand what was happening at first but one of the other ALTs explained he was giving it to me. I don’t know how he got it, but I thanked him and took it. At that point I was on my third and pretty buzzed, so if there was anything unethical about that I wasn’t concerned. He’s not my student anymore anyway.

Jack's back! I also got to see Jack and Lily again. They’re now back from visiting Jack’s parents in Boston and Lily’s parents from France are now here visiting her. I walked around the festival with them once and got caught up. Jack actually has some sort of job with Interac now, not as a teacher but something else I’m not too clear on. He was actually at the Narita training session, so he’d already met Kim before I did.

As dusk was setting, everyone was told to leave the grassy area and move to one end of the lake from where we could view the fireworks. I spent so much time trying to get good fireworks pictures that I forgot to enjoy the fireworks. The pictures I’m posting here are just a few of the many dozens I took, a waste of camera memory space.

The crowd just starting to assemble. Boom.

Fizzle. Ooh! Aah!

During the fireworks I also somehow managed to finish the chu-hai my former students had given me, which pushed me past that fine line between buzzed and drunk. That made the next part a ridiculously bizarre experience, as with everyone all bunched together I was bumping into students left and right, and my super-enthusiastic hellos must have been highly amusing to all of them. I’m pretty sure a bunch of students had heard I was there and were deliberately coming up to say hello, perhaps just for the fun of seeing me drunk.

I probably shouldn’t have felt too apprehensive about that in the first place. It doesn’t seem to matter at all. All the other ALTs were drunk and greeting students too. I found out later that getting drunk is expected at a hanami, just like it is at an enkai. I’ve interacted with teachers while drunk, and now students as well. No harm, really. All I did was say hello and try to remember their names.

One of about 20 pictures I don't remember taking. Ben invited us all back to his place for an after-party, and at that point I was extremely merry and just wanted the fun to continue, so while I really should have just gone home, eaten something, and drank tons of water before going to bed at a decent hour, I went to Ben’s place, drank my last chu-hai, and got embarrassingly drunk to the point where it wasn’t until the following afternoon that I was able to remember some of the things I did. Thank god my students didn’t see me in that state. I’m embarrassed enough that other drunken ALTs saw me that way too, but after apologizing to Ben through Facebook the next day he assured me it was okay, everyone was pretty sloppy at that point and his memory is pretty hazy too, but that getting sloshed is perfectly appropriate for a hanami.

Eventually I did stumble home and go to sleep, though I have no idea when. All I know is that the sleep I got wasn’t nearly enough. The alcohol would not wear off completely until the following afternoon. And of course, the following morning just happened to be the first day of the school-year.

To be continued…

Spring Break Ends, Spring Begins

April 10th, 2012 No comments

Cherry-blossoms in Togane.

Just as the cherry blossoms start blooming, the new school year gets started in Japan. I’m technically working again, though because the first week of school is just as abnormal as the last week of school, I have no classes and have been told to stay home (but be “on call”) until next Tuesday when the normal schedule begins. The opening ceremony was yesterday and I spent half the day there, and while that was a deeply weird experience and I have a lot to say about it, it’ll have to wait. The last few days of what was technically “Spring Vacation” (though for all practical purposes I’m still on mine) were quite eventful and must be documented. However, because I have no desire to spend another entire day blogging I’m going to break it up into pieces and post the entries over the next few days.

I’d made plans to hang out with Ryan in Chiba on Tuesday evening, but that had to be post-poned because of windstorms. I went to the station at 5:20 to catch the 5:25 and everything looked normal, but the train from Togane to Oami was 20 minutes late and I was nervous about what might happen with the train from Oami to Chiba. My fears were well-founded, as while we got to Oami just fine and the train to Chiba arrived just a few minutes late, it was held on the track for close to an hour before the entire trip was cancelled and I had to take a train back to Togane.

But the weather was better on Friday, and I met up with Ryan at Chiba station at 6:00. He recently quit Interac because he got engaged and isn’t making enough money, and I’d actually met his replacement that same afternoon as she moved into the same building as me and the Interac employee helping her move rang my doorbell and introduced us when she moved in. Though we met on Friday we wouldn’t hang out until Sunday, so there’ll be more about her in tomorrow’s entry.

Ryan first took us to a pool-bar in Chiba, which was the first time I’ve gone to such a place in Japan. You are assigned a specific pool-table and don’t pay by the game but how long you spend there (you’re charged for every 15 minutes). There are phones by the table and you call in your drink orders from the bar. Ryan and I both suck at pool, so we were very evenly matched, with him barely winning the first incredibly long game and me barely winning the second. During that time we compared our impressions of teaching and the whole end-of-the-schoolyear routine. He feels a little bad about leaving his school so suddenly and he’ll definitely miss the students, but he just can’t support a family on an Interac salary.

After that we had dinner at a pretty good restaurant he knows, then went out to a bar where we ran into his friend Michael (also an Interac ALT but in his 40s or 50s) and his Japanese wife who speaks good English. They were fun people to hang out with but I only got to spend about an hour and a half there, as the last train leaves at 10:44 and I had no intention of pulling an all-nighter. I didn’t hang out with Ryan much even when we were colleagues, but now that we’re not anymore I don’t know what will happen. He’s a really nice guy, and one of the only people around who’s as big a nerd as I am for things like Star Trek and Lord of the Rings. I imagine we’ll probably hang out again.

Saturday was a big day. I went into Tokyo where I met up with Stephen and Amy, the two ALTs from my original training that I’d met up in Tokyo back in September (when we went to Tokyo Dome City and Shibuya). Stephen wanted to take us to what he calls his “happy place” but that first meant getting on a train for a 50-minute ride to a town called Fujisawa. It’s practically due south of Tokyo and right on the coast, but Japan curves inward there so the coast is to the south. Our destination was an island connected by bridge to the mainland called Enoshima.

 Hey, it's these guys again!

Stephen had decided to take us there when he saw how nice the weather was in the morning, but by the time we got off the train in Fujisawa it had clouded up significantly. Remembering how the last time the three of us met there’d been a typhoon and I’d jokingly made a comment after the third time it cleared up that it was definitely not going to rain for the rest of the day, it actually didn’t so they said I must have controlled the weather. I said I’d do my best to bring the sun back out with my powers of sorcery. Somehow we’d got into a conversation on the train about what mythical being each of us was, and it was decided that Stephen was a centaur, Amy was a fairy, and I was a sorcerer. I said we could become the new popular anime show, the “Magic Gaijin Trio and that became a running joke for the rest of the day.

As we walked down the bridge to Enoshima we could already see the sun starting to bleed through the cloud cover. Perhaps utilizing the powers of “The Secret” without even meaning to, I told them that if we all believed it would clear up it would, and lo and behold the sun actually did make a big comeback in the afternoon and we had great lighting for pictures the whole time. Maybe I really am a sorcerer.

Stephen waiting. Clouds breaking.

Stephen’s “happy place” turned out to be quite a happy place indeed, especially now that it’s cherry-blossom season. There were three shrines, gardens galore, and lots of little areas with food-stands, shops, and restaurants. Everyone there seemed to be in a good mood, more outwardly friendly than most Japanese. Also, there are apparently a great deal of stray cats who live off the generosity of tourists and are therefore very friendly and willing to let you pet them.

Me and Amy. One of many dragons.

Awesome view.

One of many cats.  Blowfish, blow!

Open mouth = life. Closed mouth = death.

The coolest feature of the island though is it’s view of Mt. Fuji, though this was unfortunately not on full display at the time. It could still be seen through the haze of the distance, but just barely and it refused to come out in any pictures. Still, that marks the third time I’ve seen Mt. Fuji (the first and second being from the shinkansen to and from Kyoto).

To the south. Volcanic rock outcropping.

We had lunch at this incredible place overlooking the bay, and we were able to sit outside and watch the sun descending over the water as we ate. The food was good, but I ended up ordering something too similar to something they serve at school-lunch all the time.

Lunch time! The view from our table.

After lunch we found our way down to an outcropping of volcanic rock stretching out from the island and spent a good chunk of time taking pictures there. It was beautiful, but also incredibly windy to the point of being uncomfortable. Still, there were some lovely images (most of them not adequately captured on camera).

On the rocks.

Some stones do gather moss. Starfish, star!

By then it was already getting late, so we just headed back to Tokyo and went our separate ways. But before we did, we made tentative plans to do a Mt. Fuji climbing trip on the weekend before Stephen’s birthday, the first weekend in May. He wants to camp out on the mountain and go all the way to the top, which sounds good to me but apparently it’s out of season and you need a permit, which is something I found out the following day. But after writing to Stephen this morning he tells me he’s going to try and get the permit. So if that works out, I’ll be standing on top of Mt. Fuji a week before I’m sailing on a boat in the Caribbean. May should be an incredibly awesome month.