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The Explosion of Team C

It felt nice to finally be back in normal teaching-mode this week, though unfortunately I didn’t have any third-grade lessons.

For my second-grade lesson I had to teach future-tense using “will” and one of the things I did was make a class schedule where we’d all stop and do something at 50 past the hour, 5 past the hour, and 20 past the hour. I started the lesson by teaching them “the wave” like we do in baseball stadiums, and the first thing on the schedule was always to do the wave again. For 5 past and 20 past I let the students vote on three options each, the first being 1- Shout “What’s up!” (the first “phrase of the week” I taught them) 2- Chant “Let’s go!” (second phrase of the week) and 3- Dance “YMCA”. Most classes vote for the easiest thing so it was usually “What’s up!” but one class voted for “Let’s go!” and one totally awesome class voted for “YMCA”. For 20 past the options were 1- Make noise, 2- Be silent, and 3- Sing the school song. The students got a kick out of my singing of the first line of the school song to demonstrate, but no classes actually voted to do it. 5 out of 6 voted to be silent—the least fun option—but I made it funny anyway by shushing everyone who made the tiniest peep, thus drawing laughter which would prompt more shushing. The rest of the lesson was also fun, but it would be too much trouble to explain.

For the first-graders I had to teach “Is he/she___?” and I made a gesture game out of it, where a student would come and draw a piece of paper with a gesture-prompt on it (both in English and Japanese) and have to act it out for the class. Easy gestures included cold, sad, a baseball player, a dog, etc. and more difficult ones included bored, a mother, a geisha, a chicken. The student’s own team would get to make the first guess (every student had a Hint Page with all the gestures in both English and Japanese) and then the whole class would chant “Is he a baseball player?” or “Is she a chicken?” or something, and then I’d either point to “Yes, he/she is” or “No she/he isn’t” depending on whether they were right or wrong and we’d chant that. If their team got it wrong, the other team would get a chance to guess and steal the points, 6 for easy gestures and 10 for difficult ones. At first I couldn’t solicit enough volunteers so I used a random number generator iPhone app to pick students, but when I started offering Kyle-dollars, there was no shortage of volunteers. I gave everyone who tried a Kyle-dollar even if they were completely flummoxed and I needed to walk them through the entire gesture. Some students were surprisingly good at it, but most were clueless and needed help. In any case, it was lots of fun for everyone and had them all using the target language enough times to hopefully have it stick.

But the real story of the week was after school. When I handed out the price list for items from “Kyle’s Shop” (カイルの店) I painstakingly explained to the students that they can come to Team C even if they’re in another club, something they clearly didn’t understand before. I drew a line on the board representing the after-school time, which lasts from 4:15 to 6:00 and shaded the time from 4:15 to 4:30 pink for Team C and from 4:30 to 6:00 blue for their other club to drive the point home that even just coming for 15 minutes was okay and then they’d still have 90 minutes for their normal club. And of course, every time they come they’d be able to go shopping AND get an additional Kyle-dollar.

I was not at all prepared for how effective this pitch would be. On the first day, after having showed some of the gifts and handed out the price-list to just 3 second-grade classes, I had about fifteen students show up to go shopping and get their Kyle-dollar. I couldn’t just hand out the money for nothing though, so I’d ask each student a few questions in English like, “How are you?”, “What did you eat for dinner last night?”, or “What music do you like?” and help them give the right answer before letting them have the dollar. The boys just did their shopping, got their dollar and left, but some of the girls stayed behind and we looked through the Sports Day pictures I’d taken from Saturday.

The next day, after making the pitch to two more second-grade classes, about twenty-five students flooded in and it was a little overwhelming. I had my laptop out for anyone who hadn’t checked out the Sports Day pictures to look through while students lined up to have their brief interview with me to earn their Kyle-dollar and go. This is not at all what I had in mind when I envisioned Team C, and I was already starting to think of ways to fix the situation. Once all the boys had left there were still a decent number of girls willing to stay behind and actually try some actual communication, so at least some of the original intention behind the idea was honored.

But on Thursday, after teaching the final second-grade lesson along with two first-grade lessons, there was just this giant flock of boys crowding in and surrounding the table with the gifts, all eagerly waiting to get their interview over with to get their dollar. Some of the girls who’d been there the previous days just looked in and decided it was too crazy in there to even bother coming in.

But the biggest problem is that some of the boys obviously had far more Kyle-dollars than they could have possibly earned on their own in the few lessons I’ve had with their classes so far this school-year. They’d obviously just gone up to other students and taken Kyle-dollars from whoever didn’t want them. I’d known it was possible that might happen but I couldn’t think of a way to avoid it that wouldn’t be a complete pain in the ass. But this sucks because they’re buying up the best items before any other students—particularly the third-graders because I didn’t have lessons with them this week—could have a chance to. I’d thought that after the first day or two they’d run out of Kyle-dollars even from their other classmates, but on the Thursday they were still showing up with enough money to buy all the best stuff, stuff that should take students weeks to earn enough to buy.

Once the shopping and interviewing was over, only two students remained. One is a first-grade girl named R- who has been at every single Team C meeting since the very beginning, the only student who has. She’s an absolute joy of a person and the reason I didn’t despair of the whole Team C idea even during the weeks when it was only one or two students coming. Her English is still extremely basic but she’s totally determined to learn. On top of that, she’s a pretty good teacher on her own, extremely patient with me when I try to speak Japanese and always gently correcting me when I make a mistake and helping me figure out how to say something I’m struggling to say. If R- were the only person to ever come to Team C it would still be worth it. The other student is a first-grade boy who comes occasionally for lack of anything else to do. The three of us played a game with the “Elfer Raus” cards I’d brought back from my dresser-drawer in America and that was pretty fun, but I left knowing I really need to do something differently. I’m getting a lot more people to come, but I’m still barely getting anyone to stay, and if I don’t fix the Kyle-dollar issue the entire store is going to be sold-out before any of the honest students honestly saving their money get a chance to buy anything.

I had three first-grade lessons on Friday and when I handed out the price-sheet I implored them not to give their Kyle-dollars to other students, and the JTE helped me explain why this was unfair. So when after-school time rolled around, at least none of the first-graders showed up with absurd amounts of cash-in-hand. But the second-grade students who’d been buying all the best stuff still came with their seemingly never-ending supply of Kyle-dollars, I had to struggle to explain to them why what they were doing was unfair and that I wasn’t going to sell them any more items for which only one remained. I also told them that next week’s Team C would only be for third-graders, so that should give those students a chance to buy things as well, and I’ll at least be able to explain when I hand out the price-list that they shouldn’t be giving their Kyle-dollars to other students and if any of them showed up with more money than they could have earned on their own, I won’t sell them anything. Just to be sure, I’m going to start making students write their names on the back of the Kyle-dollars when I hand them out and they won’t be able to use any Kyle-dollars unless their own name is on them.

But at least the week ended on a high note, as R- got three of her friends to stay and play a card-game, the same game we’d played the day before and which she really liked. It’s a game called “Dötsch” (I’m unsure of the spelling because it’s just a dialect-slang) which roughly means “stupid” or “fool” but for which the Japanese have a word “baka” which actually translates much better. So we called the game “baka” and spent an entire hour playing it. It felt surreal and pretty cool to be playing a German card-game I used to play as a kid with my grandmother and cousins with a bunch of Japanese schoolgirls who totally loved it.

At any rate, this was a milestone week for Team C and it came with many pros and many cons. Starting next week, I’m going to attempt to do what I’d had in mind for Team C ever since I thought of the idea and bring in a sign-up sheet for each day. From now on if students want Kyle-dollars they’ll actually have to stay and communicate (even if that just means learning a card game and playing for fifteen minutes) and not just answer a couple of questions in English. I’ll have six slots per day, so students in their groups of friends can find a day available and plan to come then. Anyone can still go shopping, but only those who participate in the communication activity will get the Kyle-dollar. Had I done this earlier nobody would have signed up, but with the gift-shop/Kyle-dollar element it stands a much better chance. I’ll make an exception for R-, the Original Team C member, who is always welcome to come and join even if all the rest of the slots are full. She’s earned that privilege.

There’s no doubt that the gift-shop idea has given Team C a much-needed boost in participation, and hopefully once I get a few more of the kinks worked out I’ll finally end up with something close to what I’d intended with the idea in the first place.

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