Archive for February, 2013

A Good Goodbye

February 27th, 2013 No comments

I’ve finished my last lessons with the third-grade students. The lesson was the second half of an epic two-class-period game I created to go out with a bang, and it was as successful as I could have reasonably hoped. I want to describe the game, but more importantly I want to recount the last few minutes with these classes.

With the smashing success of my Mario Kart game, I’d started thinking about how I might be able to put my video-game familiarity to further use, and my favorite video-game series of all time being The Legend of Zelda, that was the first idea that came to mind. In the games, a young hero named Link always has to go through several temples (or “dungeons”) in which he must battle monsters and solve puzzles to advance towards the final goal of defeating the evil villain (usually Ganondorf/Ganon) and rescue the princess Zelda. I started from the idea of making three “temples” in the form of worksheets and took it from there.


That germ of an idea exploded into a flood of creative lesson-planning that eventually took me an entire week’s worth of down-time at school—over 15 hours total—of preparation to arrive at the final product. I’d spent so much time making the lesson for the third-graders that I just went ahead and made one for the first-graders as well, and would have made one for the second-graders but there weren’t enough lessons left. To get through the entire game would take most teams two lesson-periods, and even then many wouldn’t finish at all.

I made three worksheets representing the three main temples: forest, fire, and water. I made an additional worksheet for Ganon’s tower and one last one for the battle with Ganon himself. I found Zelda fan artwork online to print pictures of the temples and put them on the board.

forest-temple       fire-temple

water-temple            ganon's castle

I also found pictures of various Links from various games (one for each team), as well as pictures of Ganondorf and Zelda for lamination. I found a ton of extra pictures as well just for the worksheets.

six-links     ganondorf zelda

I used the three main question types I used for the textbook review game I invented last year and reprised this year with both the third and first-graders: 1- Missing Word, 2- Fix Mistakes, and 3- Scrambled Sentence. The Forest Temple features mostly Missing Word, the Fire Temple Fix Mistakes, and the Water Temple Scrambled Sentence, while Ganon’s Tower was a mix of all three and Ganon himself was a multiple choice grammar quiz.

There were three rooms in each temple plus a room to fight the boss (by correctly translating three of the five Japanese words), and various extra puzzles to earn rupees (which you could use to purchase hints from O-sensei, the “Fortune Teller”) and recover lost life-energy hearts, which you’d lose every time you get an answer wrong. A member of the team would take the page to me each time they finished the room and if all the answers were correct I’d circle the key which allowed them to enter the next room.

Forest TempleFire TempleWater TempleGanon's Tower


As Link always gets a new item in each temple, I also made items in the form of hints for the different types of questions: Bow & Arrow (hints for Fix Mistakes), Iron Boots (hints for Scrambled Sentences), and the Clawshot (hints for Missing Words).

Once a team finished all three temples they’d get the “Master Sword” (a staple of every major Zelda game) which meant they could use their textbook for the rest of the game, something they wouldn’t be allowed to do beforehand.


Finally, to complete the atmosphere I brought in the bonus music CD included in the latest Zelda game release, 45-minutes of music from various Zelda games, perfect for the 45-minute lesson period.

When the lesson began we’d start the music and pass out a sheet with the story and the rules, which O-sensei translated into Japanese to make it easier for the students (it was already complicated enough). Here’s the cute little story I made up:

Many ages ago in the Kingdom of Hyrule, the evil lord Ganondorf kidnapped Princess Zelda and took over the kingdom. Ganondorf hated English and wanted to banish it from the land, so he sent monsters to the three great temples to steal words from many sentences, create mistakes in others, and scramble the rest. Only Link, the hero chosen by the Goddess, could enter the temples and set things right. He would have to defeat all three monsters to win the Master Sword, the only weapon capable of defeating Ganondorf in his true form, the beast Ganon.

Only about a third of the third-graders had played a Zelda game but that was enough to usually have one fan on each of the six teams. For some reason, a higher percentage of first-graders had played (about half to two-thirds) and they were more enthusiastic than the third-graders (they always are) but the third-graders enjoyed it enough once they got the hang of it.

When we ran out of time after the first lesson, I took pictures of the blackboard in order to “save their game” and I used the pictures to set everything up just as we’d left off when the next lesson period began. Here’s what the blackboard looked like during a typical first-grade lesson:

saved game

So far, only one to three teams per class have managed to finish in two periods. Those that finish early are rewarded with a Zelda word search puzzle I made for that contingency. I have no idea why, but Japanese students seem to love word search puzzles. Teams that finish early, while they’re perfectly entitled to just talk amongst themselves, have all worked diligently at the puzzle.

Word Search

For the third graders, I’ve ended about seven minutes early to give O-sensei and myself time for our final goodbye. A few weeks ago I asked O-sensei what an appropriate Japanese expression for saying something like “Goodbye and good luck” to the graduating class would be. That turned into me writing a whole farewell speech which O-sensei translated into Japanese and I memorized.

Having already memorized the school-song in Japanese I figured I could pull this off too, and that this might be even easier seeing as how it wasn’t just a bunch of vague Japanese concepts strung together but actual thoughts and feelings I wanted to express. I had to say goodbye to one of the classes a full week before the others, and only had two days to prepare for that, so while I still managed to get through it I stumbled and struggled quite a bit. Luckily it was 3-1, probably the most respectful class in the entire school, so that made it much easier on me. I had an extra week to get the speech much more solid in my mind before the other final lessons yesterday and today, and I’ve had much less trouble these times.

It’s a very strange sensation to give the speech. First of all, none of the students can believe it when I announce I’ll be giving the speech in Japanese. Suddenly any prior noise in the room stops and all eyes become glued on me. As I deliver the first few lines I get these smiles and nods of understanding from all around the room. The students are actually comprehending everything coming out of my mouth. That’s never actually happened before. They always just only partially understand or simply wait for the other teacher to translate. Now I’m actually speaking directly to them in their own language, and not only that but they’re hanging on my every word.

Some of it inevitably gets lost in the translation, but here is basically what I say in the speech:

—– Junior High School is the first school I’ve taught at as an ALT. For that, I think I’m very lucky. You’ve been wonderful students. I’m grateful for your warmth and enthusiasm. I will miss you all very much.

In my life I’ve been to many different places and met many kinds of people. My advice to you is to meet and communicate with as many different people from different places as you can. What you learn in school is important, but what you learn from other people can be priceless. I’ve learned a great deal from you. If you’ve learned even a little from me, it would make me happy.

Never forget this time. Your lives are about to change in so many ways, but the people around you now will always be a part of you. If I’m even a small part, I consider it a privilege.

Good luck with all of your future challenges. I wish you all success and happiness. Goodbye. Thank you very much.

I take my final bow and the classroom erupts in applause. It’s an indescribable feeling, and slightly different for each class. The first time I was just happy to have gotten through the whole speech, and the reality that I’d never stand in front of that group of students again didn’t sink in until after. My second-to-last class today was 3-6, one of the most unruly classes but somehow the one I’m most fond of. The reality of the impending end—the last lesson in a series of awesomely enjoyable lessons stretching back to September of last year—hit me early on and a lump was forming in my throat even during the Zelda game, making it hard for me to concentrate on correcting their work. Towards the end of my speech I got genuinely choked up, and was on the verge of tears as I said goodbye.

Like I did last year, I burned CDs for all the graduating students and I handed them out after my speech, giving me a chance to say goodbye to each student individually. It was a CD of six classic rock songs including my three favorite of all time: Comfortably Numb, Free Bird, and Stairway to Heaven. I suspect most of the students won’t get anything out of it but if it gets even a few of them to appreciate that music half as much as I do, I’ll really have had an influence on those students. But the music itself doesn’t matter nearly as much as the gesture, which almost all of them clearly appreciated.

My last lesson was the last period of the day. The original lesson had been scheduled for last week but cancelled due to a scheduling mistake. I’d asked O-sensei to ask the homeroom teacher if we could have five minutes during his homeroom or some other time to say goodbye, but he didn’t want to. Instead he asked T-sensei if she’d be willing to give me five minutes of her class time, and she said she’d give me the whole lesson. O-sensei had another lesson at the time, so I got to do one final lesson with T-sensei, my last lesson with the graduating class.

Kids change so fast. Last year 2-4 was the worst class in the school, the most unruly and disruptive by far. This year, as 3-4, they’ve mellowed significantly, and were just as respectful and appreciative of my farewell speech as 3-1. It’s also the class M- from the Speech Contest is in, and having now done the work of memorizing and delivering a speech in a foreign language myself, I have an even greater appreciation for the work she went through. And somehow I delivered the speech 100% flawlessly this time, better than I’d even been able to do practicing alone at home. The students were flabbergasted, and T-sensei could hardly believe it either. By now I had the speech so well-memorized that I was able to study the faces of the students and see their reactions to each line I delivered, recognizing that they understood and appreciated what I was saying.

When I was done handing out the CDs and said my final goodbye, the class president asked everyone to stand up and told me in English, “Thank you for everything,” and the rest of the class chimed in with a chorus of “Thank you”s as well. It was a beautiful moment, as wonderful a last memory of teaching the graduating class—the first and probably only class I’ll ever spend two school-years with—as I could have possibly hoped for.

And when I got back to the teacher’s room, two students from 3-5 came into the room to give me a little present that all the girls from that class had worked together to make for me. It was the word search puzzle I’d given the winning team, completely solved, and in the margins each student had written their own little ‘goodbye and thank you’ message in Japanese or English. That’s a piece of paper I’m sure I’ll never lose.

So now I’ll never teach the third-graders again, but at least it’s not yet the point where I’ll never see them again. The graduation ceremony is next Saturday, and I’ll inevitably see some of them in the halls in the mean-time, and of course during the practice for the ceremony and the ceremony itself. After that, if things are the same as last year, most of them will be back for the closing ceremony two weeks later and many will stick around to mingle afterwards.

And after that, there’s always the chance of randomly spotting them again at some future point. Just this past Saturday, I walked into a convenience store and the clerk there was a girl who graduated last year. She smiled the instant she saw me and when I got there asked if I remembered her. I told her I did but forgot her name, and she reminded me. It didn’t go beyond that but it was a nice little moment, a reminder that even when people are gone there’s no guarantee that they’re gone forever.

Of course, there’s the looming uncertainty of whether I’ll be back next year to contend with. If Interac grants my request to change schools and they relocate me, the odds of ever seeing any of them again go way down. And that would also mean four hundred more students to say farewell to. Hopefully I’ll know before the closing ceremony so I can deliver my goodbye speech to all of them at once, but just in case I’ve prepared a much shorter “In case this is our last lesson together” speech to give at the end of the last second- and first-grade lessons, which will commence next week.

But the class I was most fond of is about to disappear into memory. The ensuing sadness is inevitable, but it’s a part of life. At least this year I’m content that I was able to tell them everything I wanted to say, and that they know exactly how I feel about having had the opportunity to teach them.

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Destroying America with Drones

February 14th, 2013 No comments

As the school-year approaches its end, I have fewer lessons to plan and teach, which means a lot more time at my desk with nothing to do. I no longer have the motivation I once did to write political blog posts, but I have a strong opinion about the drone-policy debate that’s been in the news recently and with such an overabundance of downtime I might as well express it.

My argument against the United States’ use of drone-strikes is two-pronged, the first having to do with efficacy and the second with morality. I’ll start with the claim that President Obama is using drone-strikes in a way that is counter-productive to the goal of weakening the terrorists, followed by the claim that his use of drone-strikes against American citizens violates not just the Constitution but the very principles this nation was founded on.

Drone-strikes harm American interests.

Let me start by clearing up the most common misunderstanding about those of us who are opposed to drone-strikes. Most of us have no problem with the technology itself but with how the technology is being used. When they ask us, “Would you rather put our soldiers at risk by having them fly the planes manually?” the answer is “Of course not.” That’s beside the point. The fact that the drones are unmanned and remotely piloted is only relevant insofar as it encourages more casual use of them. But we’d be just as opposed to what these drones are doing if they did contain living pilots.

Thanks mostly to our pitiful mainstream media, most Americans are unaware of how drone-strikes are actually being employed, believing they are used only to make pinpoint precision strikes against high-ranking members of Al Qaeda. If this were actually the case, only the most radically left-wing lefties would be opposed to it. I would be in favor of them and almost every rational person would, which is why the majority of the American public still expresses support for our drone policy. But this support is based on a misperception which those in Washington and the establishment media are happy to let endure.

How many people know that there are two main categories of drone-strikes? There are “personality strikes” and “signature strikes”. Everyone knows about personality strikes—a drone drops a bomb on an identified Al Qaeda terrorist, something almost no one has any qualms with. But very few people know about signature strikes—a drone drops a bomb on a group of unidentified people who may or may not be terrorists but who appear to be engaging in suspicious activity. “Suspicious activity” could be nothing more than a handful of military-age males standing around together. Our drone bomb might have stopped them from plotting the next 9/11, or it might have just stopped them from chatting about last night’s soccer game.

There’s also a drone-tactic called a “double-tap” which would (or at least should) make most people sick if they knew about it. In a double-tap, after a drone-strike hits and people rush in to help the victims, a drone drops a second bomb to wipe out the responders. The justification behind this brilliant idea is that any people rushing in to help terrorists are probably terrorists themselves. If not, at least it discourages anyone from attempting to help drone-strike victims, thus increasing the likelihood that the victims will die. Maybe you’re just a good Samaritan and didn’t even know that the victims were Al Qaeda, but what could we do? We’re trying to defend our Christian Nation from you Muslim extremists, after all, and I’m sure Jesus would approve of the “double-tap” strategy if it were explained to him.

Those who continue to approve of the drone strategy even with the knowledge of how it’s actually being executed will argue that the United States is at war, and there is always collateral damage in war. You just have to keep killing the bad guys until there are so few of them left that the enemy is forced to surrender. If civilians are killed in the process it’s unfortunate but unavoidable.

This argument might be valid in a conventional war, but it doesn’t hold water when it comes to our operations in places like Pakistan and Yemen. We’re not at war with Pakistan or Yemen. We’re not fighting a nation-state capable of surrender. We’re fighting against an ideology—that America is evil and must be destroyed at all costs—that can either grow and spread or shrink and decline but never be rooted out entirely. It’s a gross oversimplification to imagine a finite number of “bad guys” out there, and believe that if we just keep killing them we keep subtracting from that number until it eventually becomes negligible. If executed intelligently and carefully, drone-strikes could reduce the total number of terrorists in the world, but if done recklessly the strikes will cause that number to multiply.

The question we must be asking is whether the way in which the president is employing the use of drones is reducing the number of terrorists or creating more of them. I believe common sense alone suggests that our current strategy is making more terrorists. All you have to do is imagine yourself in the other man’s shoes. If a foreign military power had drones buzzing about your skies all day and occasionally dropping bombs that occasionally kill innocent people, you’d be in a constant state of fear. Of course you’d be more receptive to anyone preaching that the nation responsible for the drones is evil and must be stopped. Even if you understood intellectually that they were doing it for their own protection, your constant state of fear would trump that understanding. If one of those drone-strikes then happened to kill someone you cared about, perhaps a family member, it wouldn’t matter at all what that foreign power’s justifications were—you’d want revenge.

Also bear in mind that when civilians die in drone-strikes, Al Qaeda gives money to the victims’ families. It’s impossible to imagine that doesn’t have a powerful effect on their thinking.

If common sense isn’t enough to sway you, perhaps you’d be more inclined to trust Robert Grenier, former top counter-terrorism official for the CIA, who witnessed firsthand the counter-productive nature of drone-strikes in Pakistan and is speaking out about it now.

Or you could simply trust the numbers. When Obama launched his first strike in Yemen in 2009, there were estimated to be about 300 members of Al Qaeda in that country. After several years of continued strikes, that number has already swelled to 700. You don’t have to be a military expert to realize that something isn’t working.

Barack Obama once famously said that he’s not against all wars—he’s just against “dumb wars”. I’m not against all drone-strikes, Mr. President, but yours seem pretty dumb.

Drone-strikes destroy American ideals.

The United States of America began as a loose conglomeration of British colonies and remained that way until declaring independence in 1776. In his famous declaration, Thomas Jefferson enumerated our reasons for breaking free of the monarchy.

One of the grievances against the King was this: “He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.”

Another was this: “For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury.”

When drawing up a Constitution for this new nation, the framers considered the right of due process to be sacrosanct, and they made it the sixth amendment to the Bill of Rights: “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury.”

It’s no secret that the Obama administration has used drone-strikes to take out American citizens suspected of engaging in terrorism. Anwar al-Awlaki and his 16-year-old son are the most high-profile examples that we know about, but there are almost certainly many we don’t. Awlaki might have been a “bad guy”, but he was a citizen and was therefore protected by the same constitutional rights as the rest of us. That’s just a fact—whether or not you believe he ought to have had those rights, he did have them and the president knowingly and deliberately violated them. Not only that, but he violated the rights of his 16-year-old son, whom it’s a lot harder to argue didn’t deserve them.

Awlaki was an advocate of jihad against the United States, but there was no evidence that he had ever actually carried out a terrorist attack or even been responsible for the loss of a single American life. We usually reserve Capital Punishment for those guilty of the most heinous murders, but in this case the president handed down the death penalty to a citizen for spouting propaganda the government didn’t like.

Most drone supporters don’t care about the civil liberties issue because they believe it could never happen to them. Any citizen the government decides to execute without a trial must be the worst kind of terrorist scum, an imminent threat to national security. But in a memo released last week we learned that the White House’s definition of “imminent” doesn’t actually mean “imminent”. It means that an “informed” official within the U.S. government has reason to believe that the suspect has recently been involved in activities that might pose a threat to the United States at some point in the future. Basically, if the government doesn’t like you and thinks you’re up to no good, it has all the authority it needs to drop a bomb on your head without consulting a single judge.

Still, most people don’t care as long as the activities the government doesn’t like involve words like “Allah” and “jihad” but once you start stripping people of their constitutional rights there’s nothing to stop the floodgates from tearing apart altogether. Next those “threatening activities” will include selling drugs, buying too many guns, not paying your taxes, and so on. An awful lot of “activities” can be considered “threatening” and if that’s all the executive branch needs to justify murdering you then we might as well just declare the president a King and be done with it.

You might not have a problem with what the president has done specifically in executing American citizens with ties to terrorism, but only the most willfully blind Obama supporters or willfully blind war hawks could possibly fail to have a problem with what the president has done in principle.

Twice now President Obama has placed his hand on the Bible and sworn to protect and defend the Constitution. By depriving U.S. citizens of the right to a trial by jury he has violated that oath and violated the principles this country was founded on—the principles that are a part of the very reason this country exists in the first place. It sounds like hyperbolic rhetoric to call this treason but that’s exactly what it is. If our representatives were men of principle they would be calling for his impeachment.

If President Bush had executed American citizens without a trial, the left would have been in an uproar, but because it’s Obama and Obama is “on their side” they remain silent. If President Obama had executed right-wing extremists without a trial, the right would have been in an uproar, but because it’s been Muslims and those are “the bad guys” they remain silent. It’s a tragically perfect formula for the destruction of the moral core of America.

Concerns over liberty are often in conflict with concerns over security, but the way we’re currently using drone-strikes is diminishing both.

A Change is (Probably) Gonna Come

February 7th, 2013 No comments

My 29th birthday was this past Saturday, and it was a good one. It was pretty much the same group of people and the same routine as my return-to-Japan party. Kim and Enam, their friends Will and Mai, Stacy, Jack, and Jack’s friend John, and Atsushi. I didn’t ask for any presents but Atsushi actually bought a cake with “Happy Birthday, Kyle” written on it. Great guy.

We hung out at my place for a couple of hours as we waited for everyone to get there, then went out to eat at a very small and very Japanese restaurant two buildings down from me. The food was delicious and the servers were happy to have our business, but there were some regulars there who seemed bothered by the presence of a large group of foreigners and quickly left after we got there.

After dinner we went to Sound Plaza, the nearest karaoke bar and the same one we went to for my other party and, coincidentally, the same one my school used for the last enkai. We actually ended up in the very same room as the enkai. And for two or three hours it was just good old-fashioned drinking and singing, an activity I never thought I’d enjoy but which I’m enjoying more and more each time. I think my singing voice might be improving too, but it’s hard to tell when you’re intoxicated. But this time I didn’t go too overboard and the hangover the next morning was mild.

I hadn’t seen most of those people in months, not since the Christmas party, and I have no idea when I’ll see them next. I like them all and enjoy their company but I can’t honestly call any of them friends (“friend” in the German “freund”-sense and not the American “I have 286 Facebook friends”-sense). If I really loved any of them like I came to love Oliver and Lena, it would be harder to consider relocating.

But that’s what I expect will happen for the next school-year. Every year Interac has all of its employees fill out an “intentions survey” and makes placement decisions based on our responses. Last year I wrote that I wanted to keep the same contract and stay at this school for another year, and I was extremely glad when that request was granted. And as recently as a few months ago I expected to want to stay here for another year as well.

But over the course of the last few months a feeling has been growing in me that I could really use a change of pace. I’ve been teaching at the same school for almost two school-years now and if I stay another year, by the end I’ll have lived in Japan for nearly three years having only set foot in a single school. Most ALTs have experience in many different schools, often at different levels. I want more experiences too.

So when I took the survey a couple of weeks ago I wrote that I wouldn’t mind changing schools but I wouldn’t mind staying here either. But in the weeks since, my urge to have a change has grown much stronger and now it’s something I really desire. As much as I love this school, I feel I’ve been here long enough and it’s time to move on. And as much as I love Togane as a location in terms of its proximity to the ocean and to Tokyo, I’d like to get to know another part of Japan as well.

There are a few other factors contributing to this desire. For one, pretty much all of my favorite students are third-graders and they’ll be graduating in a few weeks anyway. The current second-graders have long since stopped appreciating me and I feel like most of them take me for granted. I make the lessons as fun as possible and they enjoy them, but it’s just routine for them at this point. Let them have someone else for their third year and maybe they’ll realize how good they had it. The first-graders this year have been fantastic, but kids change quickly and there’s every reason to expect that if I stayed another year they’d become just as apathetic towards me as the current second-graders are.

There’s also the simple fact that I’ve got all these great lessons but I can’t do them again for the same students. If I go to different schools I’ll get to do the lessons again for different students who’ll find them fresh and exciting. It would be awesome to go into a school full of students who’ve only ever had mediocre ALTs who never put much thought into lesson-preparation, let alone awesome game-designing. (By the way, I’ve designed my most epic game yet for the end of the school-year. Once I’ve done it a few more times I’ll have to write all about it.)

Of course there’s a risk that I’ll end up in one of those “human tape-recording” situations like some ALTs whom the JTEs never let do anything creative. I’ve been lucky to be in a situation where I can plan and execute all of my lessons under what is almost my complete control, but that’s definitely not the case for everyone. I’m just hoping that if I show my lesson-plans to whomever I end up working with, they’ll see how much thought I put behind it and how valuable it could be to have the students learn English in a way that’s fun for them.

Finally, what really tipped things towards my wanting to move is that O-sensei told me last week that she and her husband will be moving to Korea when this school-year is over. She’s been as perfect of a teaching-partner as I could possibly imagine, so that alone would be enough to keep me hesitant about leaving, but since she’s leaving anyway it doesn’t matter.

Today I wrote to the placement department and told them that now I definitely want to change schools next school-year and that I am willing to relocate. I expressed a preference for Tokyo (that would mean I could still easily come back and visit) but said I’d be willing to move anywhere and the most important thing to me was to have a change of some kind.

So that’s where things stand right now. If last year was any indication, I won’t know what the final decision is until the very end of the school-year, but I think there’s a strong chance my request will be granted and this school-year will be my last at this school. I’m sure there are plenty of teachers who would love to trade places with me, to have one school that they live within walking distance of instead of a bunch of different schools spread out all over the place. I know what it is I’m giving up, but I’ve had it long enough and I’ve certainly appreciated it while I’ve had it. There’s just so much more out there to be appreciated.