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More Differences

April 23rd, 2013 No comments

Last month, in my epic entry on the closing day of Togane Chu, I wrote that at the enkai K-sensei told me who the new ALT for that school was going to be, someone named Lola that I hadn’t heard of. It turns out he was talking about Laura-Anne, a girl I actually have met once before, at the beach picnic last spring with Kim and Enam. I got to meet her again this past Sunday, as Kim and Enam arranged for the four of us to go out for okonomiyaki together and get caught up. I was glad for the opportunity, as I got to ask Laura-Anne about what’s going on at my old school this year, a nice way to maintain a connection.

She’s from Jamaica (last time I’d mistakenly thought she was Indian) and came to Japan in the same group of new ALTs as Kim and Enam, at the beginning of last school year so she’s a bit newer than I am. I’m sure the students will like her, though I must confess to some relief that she’s not some super-experienced hot-shot who’ll easily out-do me. I know it’s not a competition, but my ego can’t help but want to be as many students’ favorite ALT as possible.

I also got to talk to Enam about W-sensei, as he worked with her at a different school last year. Unfortunately, what I heard was mostly negative. He agrees that she’s a really nice person, but he said she’s not that great of a teacher and is more concerned with getting the students to like her than maintaining classroom discipline. He also said she’d often try to make him do awkward things like sing songs or wear a Santa outfit at Christmas. I have no qualms about wearing a Santa costume if she’s the one who bought it, but if she asks me to sing I will decline.

I think it has to do with the fact that she was an elementary school teacher before her maternity leave, and hasn’t had enough experience with junior high school to know what works and what doesn’t. I think my working-relationship with her will be a bit different because I’ve actually been at junior high longer than her, and I’ve already established that I’m perfectly capable of planning and executing entire lessons on my own. Enam said that’s probably the way to go, but she also has a tendency to rely too heavily on the ALT and just sit back and not help at all during class, even joking around with the students while you try to give a lesson. That sounds a little frustrating, but I’d still prefer that to a JTE who never lets me do anything.

I also talked to Enam about transportation, as he also has a school that’s 10 km away and instead of getting a car, he found a good deal on an electric bicycle. I’m strongly considering doing that instead of a car because it’s far less expensive, though I still have no intention of giving up on getting the license.

As for school, I wrote that I’ll be meeting with each class at K-chu twice a week but that’s not entirely accurate. This week I only meet with each class once, and I asked S-sensei about it and she said that some weeks I’ll meet with classes more than once and some weeks I won’t. It all depends on the schedule and what’s being taught. Because it’s difficult to squeeze in two meetings with each class here due to my Wednesday and Friday mornings at other schools, I suspect weeks of just one lesson per class will be more common, something I’m a bit disappointed about.

I almost didn’t meet with any classes yesterday, as there was only one lesson scheduled—a fourth-period class with first-graders—and W-sensei was absent. S-sensei told me they would cancel the lesson but I said I was going to do the whole thing myself anyway and didn’t need W-sensei to be there. She asked the administrators and they told her the lessons should still be cancelled. I think it’s a rule that ALTs can’t give lessons without a JTE present, and while the administrators at Togane Chu had been perfectly comfortable letting me break that rule, I figured I hadn’t established enough confidence regarding my teaching abilities here yet.

But apparently there was more discussion on the matter, and at the break after first-period I was told I could go ahead and give the lesson after all. One of the vice principals and a teacher’s aide were present, but I did everything on my own and everything went perfectly well. Hopefully that will establish a firm precedent that they don’t need to cancel my English lessons when the JTE is absent. Teachers in Japan are almost never absent, but if what Enam tells me about W-sensei is true, she might be an exception. I’d hate for my already sparse teaching schedule to be made even sparser.

As for that, I definitely miss getting to do every lesson five or six times, but at least now I can use lessons or variations of lessons I did at Togane Chu that these students have never had before. Today I played the moja-moja game with the third-grade classes to practice the past-participle, and the kids were delighted. It was even better with a smaller class-size, as each student had four chances to go instead of two.

Another advantage of the smaller school and class-size is that it’s much easier to remember all of the students’ names. Keeping 600 names in my head, divided into groups of 30-35 was next to impossible, and I’d undoubtedly forget a few every week. But it took me no time at all to firmly memorize the 100-students here, as I’ve also gotten much better at memorization in general. Since memorizing their names I’ve done three classes and while I needed some hints to get through the 26-student first-grade class, I always got it after a prompt. I had the two 16-student third-grade classes today and I impressed the hell out of them by remembering every single one of their names, and I was even able to think of the name of the one student who was absent. The students are already starting to warm up to me, but that should go a long way.

But one disadvantage of the small school is that it seems every last student is in one of the clubs. I opened up the after-school “Kyle-Store” yesterday and had no participation. One girl came in to see if she could buy anything with just one dollar, and promptly left when she found out she couldn’t. I don’t think anyone is going to stay after and play games like at Togane Chu.

But I might try and check out the clubs and sports on my own. That’s something Interac encourages but at Togane Chu I gave up on it rather quickly. The students would greet me warmly and then go right on doing what they were doing while I stood there awkwardly. Only once did any of the teams invite me to play. The teams here are much smaller, so it’s worth a try to see if things here go any differently.

The only other thing worth writing about are my first actual elementary school lessons which I started on Friday at H-sho, but I’ll wait until I’ve done the rest of them tomorrow at M-sho where the reaction is sure to be different in some interesting ways.

The settling-in process continues.

Update: I just got home from school. The Kyle-store today was significantly more active than yesterday, with about two dozen students popping in to check it out, some expressing regret that they had to go to their club so couldn’t stay and play a game, and three first-grade boys did stay and play a round of Uno. We’ll see how it goes from here.

Categories: Personal Tags: , ,

New School Life

April 17th, 2013 No comments

March was a month of endless goodbyes and April has been a month of endless introductions, though not as many as the goodbyes. I had 18 classes at Togane Chu, and altogether I now have only 10. I’ve done my self-introduction lesson for 9 of them and will do the last one tomorrow. After that, the only introduction left will be the special needs class at K-chu on Friday afternoon, though I think it might just be one student.

Saturday was my first day of lessons at K-chu, and I met four out of the five classes there. First period was my self-introduction to 3-1, and second was my introduction to 3-2. It was interesting going directly from the elementary school lessons the day before straight to third-year junior high students, but the difference wasn’t as great as I imagined. The older students understand a lot more English, but in terms of enthusiasm it seems that it’s the collective personality of the class rather than the students’ age that makes the most difference. Junior high students are generally less enthusiastic and eager to ask questions, but some elementary school classes are the same way. 3-1 was a bit friendlier than 3-2, but 3-2 warmed up quickly enough and got into it by the end. Fourth period was my introduction to 1-1, who were incredibly enthusiastic and excited but nevertheless had no interest in asking questions.

Fifth period was a lot different, as this was the period where parents could come and observe their kids’ lessons. For some reason, very few parents ever came to watch my lessons at Togane Chu, but this time it seemed that more than half the parents were in attendance. Although it was the first time I was meeting 1-2, W-sensei understandably didn’t want my self-introduction lesson to the be lesson they observed, and wanted to skip ahead to teaching the roman letters so the parents could get an idea of how their kids were learning English. I was surprised that she left the entire thing up to me, but I wasn’t going to object.

I started with a short self-introduction—the same routine I did at the H-sho opening ceremony—and that went over quite well. You can’t go wrong with “Yes we can”. After that I jumped right into the letter lesson, starting with the five vowels and the long and short sound for each of them. The students have no trouble at all with the long sound (it’s the same as the name of the letter, which the kids already know) but they’re not at all familiar with the short sound so that was the biggest struggle to teach. I think it also has to do with the accent—they’re used to hearing English from a Jamaican girl so my pronunciation sounds different and confuses them.

I split the class into three teams and had each team try to pronounce the letters on their own, giving them a score from 1-10 based on how well they did (7 being the lowest score I’d actually give). I then put cards of the letters on the desk in front and had students from each team stand around it. I’d make a sound of the letter and the first student to touch that card would get five points for their team. We’d do that until of all the students had a chance, then I’d go on to the next group of letters.

I split the other 21 letters of the alphabet into three groups, but not by alphabetical order. That’s too obvious. Instead I arranged them by similarity of sound, to make clearer the subtle differences between sounds like B and P or F and V, or to show that certain letters can have a sound of their own or the same sound as another letter like K and C or J and G. I repeated the process of giving each team points for pronunciation then playing the letter card game for each group, adding the new cards to cards that were already on the table. The timing worked out well, with the last round of the game finishing up just as the period was ending.

W-sensei had been caught off guard by my not teaching the letters in alphabetical order, but she understood what I was doing and explained it to the class at the end, more for the parents’ benefit in case they hadn’t understood. Otherwise, I think she was pleased with my performance and thanked me afterwards. The students had clearly been having a good time, and I got plenty of smiles and nods from parents on my way out.

I met with 1-2 again yesterday and did my self-introduction lesson then. That leaves only the second-graders, and I was surprised to find out there’s only one second-grade class in the school. It’s strange how that works out. The third-grade classes have 16 students each and the first-grade classes have 24 each. I assume the second-grade class can’t have more than 32 or they’d split it into two.

This morning was my first day at M-sho, the really small elementary school 10 km away. I took a taxi to get there and Interac hired one to take me to K-chu after lunch. The journey is about $30, which four times a month still amounts to less than the cost of a car.

I teach only two classes there, a group of about 20 fifth-graders and a group of about 20 sixth-graders. I was surprised to find the situation flipped from H-sho, where the fifth-graders were far more enthusiastic than the sixth-graders. The fifth-grade class at M-sho was very shy and quiet and barely asked any questions at all, but the sixth-grade class was extremely enthusiastic and eager to ask questions.

I had school lunch with the sixth-grade class, and while I’d thought of a few ways to interact better with whatever lunch group I was with, that turned out to be unnecessary. The students’ desks were all arranged in a circle, and I was seated at the big desk in the front of the class, making me feel somewhat awkward at first. At least there was no pressure to chat within my group. During lunch the class played “shiritori”, a Japanese word-game where you have to think of a word that starts with whatever syllable the previous word ended with. The twist was they attempted to do it with English words only, but that basically just means words that Japanese has taken from the English language and Japanized. It would have been far easier for me with Japanese words, as while I know plenty of English words (maybe even most of them), it’s hard for me to think of words common to both languages. Luckily the game moved slowly enough that I only had to go twice.

I want to finish this entry with a brief comparison of K-chu and Togane Chu. The size is the biggest difference, but there are many small differences as well, the uniforms for one. At Togane Chu all the boys wore a special kind of black jacket over a white shirt with no neck-tie, while the girls wore a blue skirt and blue jacket over a white shirt with a red neck-tie. At K-chu the boys and girls wear the same gray jacket, so it’s not as visually distinct. The only differences are that boys wear pants and girls wear skirts, and the boys wear a neck-tie while the girls wear a bow-tie, though the pattern is the same.

At K-chu they play music over the loudspeaker during school-lunch, just a pleasant melody like you might hear from a church bell-choir. I wasn’t sure I liked it at first, but it grew on me quickly enough and I guess I prefer it to eating in silence.

One major difference in terms of my experience here is that there are only two JTEs and they’re both full-time. The one in charge of the ALT, S-sensei, is also a Japanese teacher so she’s almost never in the teacher’s room. Last year, O-sensei was part-time and taught every class with me, so she was virtually always there in the teacher’s room and available to answer my questions. Now I don’t have that luxury anymore, and have to wait for rare opportunities to be able to ask anything.

But the most significant difference has to do with my lessons. At Togane Chu, each grade had 5 or 6 classes so I’d plan one lesson and do it 5 or 6 times. At K-chu I’ll meet with each class twice a week, so I’ve got to plan two lessons per week and do each of them only twice, and with the second-graders only once. That means a lot more work, but it also means I’ll have much more familiarity with each class than I did at Togane Chu. It’ll be a challenge to keep coming up with fun ideas every week, but I think I’ll be up to it.

And that’s how things are looking as of now. It’ll take me a few more weeks to settle in, but I expect it should go pretty smoothly.

Categories: Personal Tags: ,

Driver’s License Chronicles, Part 4

April 16th, 2013 No comments

Before I took the driving test the first time, the guy at the Interac Chiba office in charge of driver’s licenses told me on the phone that whether or not you pass largely depends on the proctor you get. The first time I took it, the proctor seemed very nice but I automatically failed for driving up on the curb in the S-curve. The second time I took it, the proctor was a young woman who seemed nice enough but who failed me for trivial, nit-picky reasons. I was hoping to get a proctor more like the first one on my third try.

I had to go in the morning this time because the afternoon slots were full. Now that I’m working again it’s hard to find a weekday in which I can go, but because there was school on Saturday (which I’ll write about in another entry) we had Monday off. It wasn’t quite “off” for me though, as these driving test days are pretty much just work days that I don’t get paid for. In fact I have to pay every time, about $15 for train transportation and $22 to take the test itself.

I had to catch the 7:08 train, the commuter line to Tokyo. I’ve never ridden a train during the morning rush-hour before—it gets so packed with people that everyone is squeezed up against each other, like a cattle-train full of businessmen and high school students. Even when you get off the train, it’s still a massive herd of people making their way to the station exits, and everywhere the streets look like a parade of suit- and uniform-clad Japanese people on their way to work or school. As I rode the bus to the Menkyo center I realized I’ve never actually been out in a city during this time of day. It’s like a different world.

When I got to the Menkyo Center and Window 10 opened up, I found myself lining up directly behind none other than my Middle Eastern friend from the first test. He recognized me and took off his headphones, and we exchanged stories about our second attempts, now having both failed twice. He got a nice proctor but hit the poles in the crank. I explained to him about the absurdly strict woman-proctor. We were both hoping it wouldn’t be her.

But of course, that’s who we got. As soon as she walked in to the waiting room I felt my hopes of finally passing this time drop significantly. The Middle-Eastern guy, whom I learned is actually from Tunisia, looked at me for confirmation and I nodded silently that yes, it was her. We’d drawn the short straw.

After she went through her explanation of the course, I found myself talking to the guy who’d be taking the test right after me and thus riding in the back of my car at the time. It was actually a Japanese guy, but he only had an American driver’s license because he’d been living there since high school. He’d actually been living in a town in Long Island close to Huntington of all places (it is a small world), though I forget the exact name of it. We chatted for awhile—turned out he’s a huge Billy Joel fan—and I gave him all the pointers I could about the driving course, as this was his first time and he hadn’t read anything about it beforehand. I figured he didn’t have a chance, especially with the woman proctor, but I wanted to help him as best I could.

I ended up riding in the back of the car with my Tunisian friend yet again. I was really pulling for him this time, and was pleased to see him making none of the egregious mistakes he’d made the first time. He stayed in the left lane, stopped for a full three-seconds at the stop sign, checked all his mirrors before every turn and so on. He made it to the crank, so it was the first time I got to ride in the back for that, and he seemed to do everything properly there as well. He had to back up three times, but that’s allowed, and it looked to me like he sufficiently checked his mirrors every time. But when he got out of it, the proctor told him that unfortunately he’d failed and to take the car back to the dock.

Needless to say, that did not bode well. I stepped out of the car as she gave him the explanation for his failure and I told the Japanese guy I had no idea what happened because it seemed to me like he’d done everything right. The explanation seemed to drag on forever, but when he finally emerged from the car, the Tunisian guy told me she said he hadn’t been checking his mirrors enough. Wow.

I wished him better luck next time and that’s the last I saw of him. I got in the car, went through the whole routine, and began the test.

This being the third time, I felt right at home there in the left-lane with my right-side steering wheel. As I made my way around the outside of the course, I felt like I knew every part of it intimately. I practically live on this driving course.

I made it around the whole course as easily as usual, and came to the first right-turn. I made sure to get close to the center lane because that’s why I failed last time, I did my four-point check and said “yosh” (all clear) and just started to make the turn when she said, “honto?” (really?) and I immediately stopped because there was actually a tractor and a bus coming towards us on the other side of the road. It hadn’t been “all clear” at all—I was just so focused on going through the motions of checking around me that I’d neglected to actually check.

At that moment I knew failure was a virtual certainty. I’d only gone a few centimeters into the turn, but it was clearly a mistake and one that no doubt cost me major points. Even if I hadn’t failed already, I’d have to do the rest of the course perfectly to have a prayer of passing.

But somehow I did. I got through the crank with the least amount of trouble ever, now having the mechanics of that obstacle pretty much down. I only had to back-up once, and I made sure to look around and check my mirrors every few seconds throughout as though I was worried some band of ninjas was going to pop out at any moment. I didn’t want to make the same mistake as my Tunisian friend. And when I got to the dreaded S-curve, I pulled into it at just the right angle to get me through the whole obstacle without having to back up even once.

My heart was pounding heavily as I made the right-turn out of the curve. She’d been marking things down on her paper the whole time for reasons I couldn’t fathom so I knew at any moment she might pronounce my failure. But I went through the whole rest of the course, a couple of intersections and one last right-turn before returning to dock.

When I parked the car and the Japanese guy got out, I looked over and didn’t see my paper with the fail kanji on it, but rather her map of the course. Was this a good sign?

She started talking and the only word I heard was “zannen”, which means “unfortunately”. Yep. That’s right. I failed again. The third time was not a charm.

Why did I fail this time? Well, I’d obviously lost a few points for my mistake on the first right-turn, but that hadn’t done me in. Two of my left turns were not tight enough—she drew a diagram showing how left-turns were supposed to look like 90-degree angles but mine were more like 100-degreees. And on two of my right turns I hadn’t gotten close enough to the center line. That final right-turn, the one after the S-curve, had taken away the last few points I’d needed to pass. Because of a few centimeters, I’ll have to come all the way back here and take this fucking test again.

She was acting sympathetic as she gave her explanation and even wished me good luck next time. All I could think was “the luckiest thing that could happen is not to get you as a proctor.” When I stepped out of the car, my Japanese Long Island-friend looked at me hopefully and I shook my head. “Are you serious?” he said in disbelief. That had seemed like a passing run to him too, but nope.

It’s beyond ridiculous. I can’t have a driver’s license because my left turns weren’t tight enough? Riiight, because every single Japanese driver always takes every left turn at perfect 90-degree angles every single time. I’ve actually been paying attention—Japanese drivers take wide left turns, don’t get close to the center lane when making right turns, barely watch where they’re going let alone check their mirrors all the time, and never even come to a complete stop at stop signs. Watching them drive these past few weeks has been like a constant rubbing it in my face.

The worst part of the ordeal is always going to schedule the next appointment. The line of driving test failures is always long, then you get to the window and they tell you the next available date is about a week and a half in the future. Unfortunately, now that I’m working I can’t just take the next available date. The only time of the week I never have any lessons is Friday afternoons, and because of upcoming national holidays the earliest Friday afternoon session available is the 10th of freaking May. So unless I can work something out with the school, I have to wait almost an entire month before I get my next chance.

I accept the date and take my new form, go pay my $22 to get it stamped, then return to the appointment line to find my Japanese Long Island-friend and ask him how it went. He failed because at one point he’d forgotten to drive on the left side of the road. Ironic for a Japanese person, but he’s only been driving in America his entire adult life. But at least that’s a legitimate reason to fail. I failed because my left turns were off by 10-degrees.

Needless to say, I was not too happy as I made my way home. The only positive thing I can say is that I feel much more confident about my chances next time. Hopefully I’ll get a different proctor, but even if I don’t I at least know exactly what this one is looking for. I’d thought my left turns were tight enough but I now I know to take them even tighter. And I certainly won’t forget to get close to the center-line for every single right-turn, as my mind had been on too many other things before. But most significantly, I now feel like I’ve got the two big course obstacles—the crank and the S-curve—pretty well figured out. The most nerve-wracking part of the test is knowing that no matter what you do otherwise, you can still fail instantly with just one slight mistake in either obstacle, but now I’ve got the technique figured out. The rest of the test is just not making the mistakes you made before, and since all of those mistakes are burned so deeply into my brain it’s unlikely I’ll forget.

In any case, the only daily-life consequence is having to continue to ride my bike to and from work four days a week, and to take a taxi on Wednesdays. I’ve got to pay for the taxi out to M-sho, but Interac will pay for the taxi from M-sho to K-chu. I’ll just walk home for K-chu—it’ll take awhile but it’s doable.

The most negative consequence is simply having to go back to that damned place and go through the whole damned ordeal yet again. I’m sick and tired of it. Hopefully the next episode of these Driver’s License Chronicles will be the last.

Categories: Personal Tags: ,

Elementary Debut

April 12th, 2013 No comments

I finally resumed teaching today. After nearly a month since my last lesson, it felt great to be back in front of a classroom full of kids. To make things even more interesting, these were the youngest kids I’ve ever taught.

My very first lesson of the new school-year was at H-sho, a self-introduction to a group of 35 fifth-graders, making them all about 10-years-old. This is of course significantly younger than I’m used to, and while they’re only two years behind first-year junior high school students, the difference was rather striking.

In elementary school, the homeroom teacher stays with the class for most of the day and teaches most of the subjects, so there were no teachers in the teacher’s room when I arrived. It was just me, the secretary, and the principal, with whom I had a brief exchange in Japanese before spending first period in near total solitude. One of the 6th-grade teachers came in during the break between periods to inform me that I should wait there until some students from 5-1 come to retrieve me for my first lesson.

A minute or so into second-period, two students—a boy and a girl—came to the teacher’s room to ask if I was there. I could hardly believe they were 5th-graders. Are they still that small at that age? Apparently so.

They led me to the classroom and I stepped inside, the eyes of thirty-five cute little kids upon me. The homeroom teacher, a man who looks about my age, introduced me, and the rest of the 45-minute period was all mine.

Having done this so many times before significantly reduced my nervousness to the point where I barely felt any at all. I knew my introduction-lesson goes over well with junior high school students, particularly the younger ones, so I figured if anything the elementary kids would like it even more. The only issue was their almost complete lack of experience with the English language. Fifth-grade is when they start learning English, so I was going to need to use a significant deal of Japanese if they were to understand me at all. The homeroom teachers might be able to help a little bit, but it’s not like they’re JTEs who are trained to teach English.

Despite my lack of nerves, I pretended to be really nervous and to blank on what I wanted to say. I made some funny faces, pounded my head as though trying to remember, then pretended I suddenly recalled the proper greeting is “hello!” This got a good deal of laughter and put me at ease right away. The students repeated the greeting, and then I asked, “How are you?” to see if the students even knew that much. Most of them just repeated “How are you?” so I guess they don’t even know that yet.

Then I said, “I’m going to introduce myself in English. After, we will play a memory challenge game.” No comprehension whatsoever. Of course I made sure I knew how to say this in Japanese beforehand, so I said it in Japanese and they understood.

I proceeded to launch into the same routine as my previous self-introduction lessons, seeing if they remembered the basic facts about me from the opening ceremony: my name, my age, and where I’m from. At least one student always does. I continued to talk about the places I’ve lived and my favorite hobbies and whatnot, with pictures and/or gestures for everything. Still, for many things I found I had to use Japanese or the students just weren’t going to understand, particularly when I opened up the floor for questions. I have no idea how some ALTs are sent to elementary schools fresh-off-the-plane. I can’t imagine attempting to teach elementary school students without knowing a significant amount of Japanese.

The Q&A session was easily the biggest difference between the elementary and junior high school classes. In junior high it’s always like pulling teeth to elicit questions. If you’re lucky you might get more than five, but sometimes it’s just two or three. The fifth-graders wouldn’t stop asking questions, all kinds of things like favorite foods, favorite animals, where I’d travelled in Tokyo, what do I think of Japanese-style clothing, what subjects do I like besides English, how many people are in my family, and on and on and on. I was worried there wouldn’t even be enough time for the memory-challenge game, so I stopped them at fifteen-minutes before the end and broke them into their six lunch groups.

This part always seems to go the same no matter what the age group. I explain that a team gets one point for everything they remember from my introduction. My name is a point, America is a point, sushi is a point, and so on. The first team has a hard time but I give them lots of time, only doing the five-second countdown when they’re clearly out of ideas. Each team (generally) does better than the last until the final team is shouting out answers so quickly I barely have time to mark the points on the board. In this way it gets more exciting as time goes on, and the last team almost always wins.

That game ended with just two minutes to spare in the period, so the homeroom teacher ended the lesson there and I left the class feeling awesome. If that wasn’t the most engaged, enthusiastic group of kids I’ve ever had, they certainly came close. I think I’m going to like this elementary school thing.

There’s only one fifth-grade class, but the sixth-graders are split into two homerooms of about twenty students each, so the next two classes were the smallest I’ve ever taught (not counting Germany). I was surprised to find them significantly less enthusiastic than the fifth-graders at first, but they still got really into it by the end. It was harder to elicit questions with them, but my trustee sad-Obama picture always comes in handy for that.

One question that inevitably gets asked in every Q&A session is whether or not I have a girlfriend. I used to just answer “no” but discovered last year it’s much funnier to say yes and throw out some absurdly high number. I told them I have 152 girlfriends and wrote that number on the board, which always generated uproarious laughter. In the recall-game, teams would remember that exact number.

6-1 is taught by another guy about my age, and 6-2 by a middle-aged woman. For both of those classes, the game ended with about 8-minutes to spare. To fill the remaining time I put all of my flashcards up on the board and had a student from each row come to the front. I’d say something in English like, “I’m from America” or “I like sushi” and the first student to touch the corresponding flashcard would get a point for their row. They’d go twice, then the next student would take their place. This is nice and simple, exciting, and perfect to fill up just a few minutes of time.

When 6-1 was over, a bunch of students followed me out into the hallway to ask me to sign their textbook. Some students even asked me for some of the pictures I’d used in my lesson, and I promised to bring them next week. One boy was particularly adamant that I bring him an Obama picture of his own.

The final part of the day was also a brand new experience, eating lunch with the students. It was 5-1 this week, and it will rotate each week. I wasn’t sure if I should wait in the teacher’s room to be brought there, so I went to the room first and was mobbed by the fifth-graders coming up to ask me more questions and teach me their names. When the homeroom teacher saw me he said I should go wait in the teacher’s room, but by the time I got there a girl was already waiting to escort me.

My lunch is prepared in the teacher’s room, then carried by whichever student is escorting me to the room. I felt bad because this poor girl was so nervous and walking so slowly so she wouldn’t spill the lunch tray, but I thought it might be rude to tell her I could carry it myself.

When we got to the room, the students were lining up to get their lunch-trays filled by fellow students. One would pour the soup, one scoop out the vegetables, one provide the dessert, and so on. My tray was placed at the table that had apparently won the game of janken (rock-paper-scissors) earlier, and I was offered a seat straddling two desks at the end of it.

Once every last student had their trays filled, a group of five kids stood in the front of the room and one girl read a little speech to formally commence their lunch-consumption. I couldn’t believe how formal this was, but found it quite fascinating. This was the first time I’d ever eaten lunch in a classroom, so I suppose that’s how it’s done all the way from elementary to high school. Such a gigantic difference from America where you line up in the cafeteria, go to your table, and dig in as soon as you sit down.

I must confess it felt rather awkward. This particular table was mostly shy students. One girl asked me a few questions as we ate, but most of the meal was in near silence, the students barely even talking to each other. I’d intended to try and learn all their names once the meal was finished, but there wasn’t enough time. I’ll know to try earlier next time.

Also of note was what gets done with extra food. If there are extra desserts, students play janken to determine who gets them. Also, if anyone doesn’t want something they can offer it up to janken winners as well. As the main dish today was a ham-sandwich, I couldn’t eat it. I put it back in the tray with the empty sandwich wrappers, and when it was discovered there un-eaten, janken ensued.

I was just starting to learn the names of the kids at my table when it was announced that lunch-time was over and the desks were put back in rows. I bid goodbye to the students and left, feeling like I need to put more thought into my lunch-time routine, almost as if it’s another lesson. It didn’t feel right to just be sitting there awkwardly after all the excitement I’d generated earlier. If the students are too shy to talk to me, I need to think of things I can ask them myself. As they don’t speak English, this is actually a wonderful opportunity for me to practice my Japanese.

There was practically nobody in the teacher’s room again when I got back, so I had to call Interac to figure out if I could just leave or if I needed to tell someone. After some back-and-forth calling between me, them, and the school, it was finally determined that I can leave immediately after school-lunch every Friday.

A five-minute bike ride later and I was back at K-chu for another long afternoon of nothing. I’ll finally get to do my first introductions here tomorrow, then hopefully these students will start warming up to me.

The elementary-school kids warmed up with astonishing rapidity, and I can’t wait to see them again next week. I also can’t wait to meet the M-sho students on Wednesday, as I’m curious to compare the two elementary schools. It’s great to be able to compare different schools, as it gives me much more insight into the Japanese education system as a whole. After this year I’ll have experienced two junior high schools and two elementary schools, and all of them seem like pretty great schools to experience. I miss Togane Chu dearly, but after this morning I’m more certain than ever that switching assignments was the right move.

Categories: Personal Tags: , , ,

The Absence of Friends and Cherry-Blossoms

April 8th, 2013 No comments

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It’s the first official day of the new school year, and just like the last official days of last school year, I have nothing to do. All week is orientation up until Saturday when I have my first lessons. Since those are just self-introductions and I’ve done that before, most of the work is already done. I’m going to prepare a little something extra I haven’t tried yet, but that won’t take long at all.

It used to take me 5 minutes to get from my apartment to work. To K-chu it takes 25, which isn’t too bad except for the annoyance of trekking up hills. But I’ll be biking it until I somehow get a driver’s license (which apparently requires a miracle), so I might as well get used to it. Luckily it was cold enough this morning that the sweat was minimal. When I got to the teacher’s room, I was immediately asked to give my self-introduction to the faculty, so I went through that again and delivered it without a hitch to polite applause at the end.

The teacher in charge of the ALT here is an S-sensei (not to be confused with Principal S-sensei), and a few minutes after I sat down she asked me if Interac had told me to come in today, because there were no classes and she wouldn’t have time to talk to me. It would have been nice if I’d known I didn’t have to come, but so it goes. It was determined that I should stay until lunch time and then, since I didn’t bring any lunch with me, I could go home. I assumed there’d be an opening ceremony today but it turns out that was last week, though there will be a “welcome ceremony” tomorrow (not sure about the distinction) in which I and all of the new teachers will be introduced to the students, though I won’t have to give a speech.

It’s only about an hour into my first day here, so my first impressions aren’t worth much, but I’m glad S-sensei seems nice and the rest of the faculty was welcoming enough. I’m liking the somewhat cozier atmosphere of this smaller teacher’s room, and the view out the window from my desk is much more aesthetically pleasing than before—evergreen trees as opposed to other wings of the building. Since this is where I’ll be spending most of my time over the course of the next year, that’s no small thing.

I’ve yet to actually see any students, and it’s entirely possible this whole day will go by without encountering even one, but at least tomorrow I’ll get my first look at them and they at me. Hopefully they’ll be just as friendly as at Togane Chu, and I don’t see any reason why they wouldn’t be.

Now let me back-track and tell the sad story of this past weekend, which was supposed to be full of pleasant scenery and social interaction. It’s cherry-blossom season which means hanami festivals, and there were two this weekend. The first was in the nearby town of Toke, organized by Fred. I’d thought it was going to be an actual festival like the one in Togane, but it was just a get-together of a bunch of ALTs and their friends in a very big and beautiful park there.

The event was from 11:00 to 16:00, but I was just finishing up my routine Saturday chores and errands at noon. I texted Kim and Enam to find out if they were going and Kim said it was still pretty early for them but they might go later. So I hopped a train and was in Toke by 12:30, then proceeded to make the long walk from the station to the park.

The weather report said it wouldn’t rain until the evening, but when I was about half-way to the park some drops were already beginning to fall. Luckily they sell umbrellas at every convenience store, and there are convenience stores on just about every block, so I was able to pick one up and have it ready to go when the rain really started falling five minutes later. Now I was just worried everyone else would pack up and leave before I got there. Kim sent me a text asking me about the weather, and when I replied to inform her it was raining I knew that would probably mean she and Enam weren’t coming.

I found the park but couldn’t find an entrance. Everything was fenced off, and I ended up walking half the perimeter before getting in. Now all I had to do was find the group of foreigners somewhere in this giant park. The iPhone made this [theoretically] a much less impossible task, as I could not only check the Facebook event page for the exact location and use the GPS tracking to guide me to that spot, but I could also text-message the people I assumed would be going to the event.

Well, my number for Fred wasn’t working, and neither Ben nor Atsushi returned my text, so I simply posted “Is there anybody here???” on the Facebook event page and hoped someone would respond as I made my way all around the park looking for them. How hard could it be to find a group of Americans drinking in a park? You’d think you’d be able to hear them a kilometer in every direction.

But everywhere I looked, there was no sign of them, even at the exact spot the event page said they’d be. Ten minutes after posting my “where is everybody?” message on Facebook, Fred posted to inform us that because the rain came early, they were heading out. Hah!

Of course not five minutes later, the rain stopped and didn’t pick up again until the evening, but by then it was too late. I’d come all the way to Toke and walked for about an hour and a half, and I never even made it to the event.

Well, I came here to drink sake in a park with other people, dammit, and at least I can still fulfill half my goals. I found an empty pavilion, poured myself a cup, put on some music with my iPhone, and enjoyed my own private little hanami-of-one for awhile. I drank two cups of sake in the pavilion and ate some of the food I’d brought, then migrated over to a very nice lake for another half a cup before journeying back to the station and to Togane. Disappointments aside, it was actually a rather pleasant little outing.

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The next day was the big Togane hanami event, and as last year’s had been so awesome I’d really been looking forward to this year’s as well. When I finally heard back from Ben and Atsushi the previous night, I learned they wouldn’t be coming so I didn’t know who’d be there, but at least I figured Kim and Enam would accompany me.

I wanted to get there as early as possible because I didn’t want to miss anyone. With all of the ALTs and Josai students in the area, there were bound to be a group of them somewhere. On top of that, I knew a whole bunch of my old Togane Chu students would be coming and going all day and this would be my last chance to see them for a very long time.

Kim and I exchanged some texts around 11:30. I said I want to head up there at about 1:00 and she said this was too early. I asked her what time she had in mind, but got no response. Even by 1:30 she hadn’t written back yet so I just sent her a text to say I was heading there now and would hopefully meet her and Enam there later.

Unfortunately, the weather on Sunday was almost as unpleasant as Saturday, though for a different reason. The skies were clear and the sun was shining, but the wind was a total bitch. Gusts of wind were raging to the point where they could almost knock you off your feet, and serve as a significant deterrent to bicycling there.

I spotted Zach on my way up, walking alongside someone who appeared to be his new Japanese girlfriend (lucky him). We stopped and chatted for a moment, and he expressed some sympathy at their having left Toke the previous day just as I was arriving. I asked him if he’d be coming back to the Togane event but he said they were just leaving. He said it was “pretty crowded” so I could probably find someone I knew.

It didn’t look “pretty crowded” when I got there. Compared to last year, it was all but dead. The wind was definitely a major factor, but I think the main reason so few people had come was the near complete lack of actual cherry-blossoms. The weather this spring has been atrocious, with rain and wind pounding at the trees multiple times a week, stripping the cherry-blossoms from the trees weeks earlier than last year. They’re almost all gone now. Last year the lake had been surrounded by magnificent pink—this year it’s all light-green.

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I walked the perimeter of the lake and found no fellow foreigners. I did run into a couple of Togane Chu students who graduated this past year and had a nice chat with them about what they were up to now, but the length of any such conversation is always limited by the limits of my Japanese.

Eventually I just decided to sit on a bench and read my book for awhile, hopefully until Kim and Enam arrived. As I was reading an old Japanese guy came up to me and proceeded to attempt to engage me in friendly conversation. Usually they only approach you to practice their English, but this guy spoke only Japanese. I did my best, but it was the most awkward-pause-filled conversation of all time. After about ten minutes—most of which was in complete silence—he got up and shook my hand to leave.

I texted Stacy to see if she or any Josai students were planning on coming, but she was sick and didn’t even know the event was happening. Kim still hadn’t returned my text from hours earlier. Yet another hanami of one—only this time I wasn’t drinking because the next day was the first day of school and I didn’t want to make the same mistake as last year (going in hungover) especially when it’s a brand new school.

I finally decided to just go home and come back after dinner. There were supposed to be fireworks at 7:00, so hopefully that would draw in more of a crowd.

As I was cooking dinner, I got a text from Kim saying she and Enam were at the lake but nobody else was there. I replied to tell her I’d gone and come back but would be returning there later for the fireworks. A short time later I heard her and Enam returning to her flat, but she never replied to my text.

I got back to the lake around 6:15 and there were indeed more people there but still no fellow English-speakers. I walked around the lake a few times and bumped into about a dozen more students so that was nice, but still far from genuine social interaction.  When 7:00 came around it was clear the fireworks had been cancelled (probably due to the wind), so I just went home.

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The whole thing was a gentle reminder of something I already know: I have zero friends in this country.

It doesn’t really bother me though. I’m well-aware of how overly-introverted I am and that it prevents me from easily connecting with other people. I only made two real friends throughout my entire three years in Germany. I made zero friends in Santa Barbara. In four years of college I came away with only two lasting friendships, and again only two from high school.

I thought I’d made a friend in Trey last year, but that’s in some doubt. The schools I’m teaching at now are actually the schools he taught at when he was here, and I sent him a message last weekend to ask him about the schools but haven’t received any kind of reply yet. The only other person I came close to connecting with was Stephen, but I think I might have opened up to him too much on New Years’ Eve and spoiled that too.

But as I said, I don’t really care. I’ve got six good, true friends in the world and that seems like enough to me. I’m not sure most “normal” people even have that many real friends, it’s just that theirs usually aren’t scattered across the globe like mine are. All that matters is that I’m not lonely, and while I felt a little of that this weekend, it happens rarely. I get enough human warmth and interaction from students and colleagues to keep me going.

Half-way through writing this entry, I had more social interaction than I had over the entire spring break. One of the JTEs I’ll be working with, W-sensei, came to talk with me about our first lessons this Saturday, and afterwards she wanted to practice her English because it was rusty after a year and a half of maternity-leave, so we got into a very interesting discussion about early childhood education in Japan.

I actually knew nothing about it before, but found it quite fascinating. In Japan, parents have a choice between sending their children to nursery school or kindergarten. Nursery schools take kids as young as 1, but when a child turns 3 they can enter kindergarten until their first-year of elementary school. Parents want their children in kindergarten because those are actual schools where they actually learn things, whereas nursery schools are basically just day-care centers. The bizarre thing is that kindergartens finish at 2:00 p.m., far too early for any woman with a professional job to pick the child up. Mothers are forced to choose between becoming housewives or continuing their careers at the expense of their child’s early education.

I remembered how K-sensei at the enkai had said K-chu students were very good because it’s in a rich area, and that makes more sense now. First of all, parents with more money can afford babysitters to pick their children up from kindergarten so they don’t have to give up their careers. Kindergarten is also more expensive than nursery school, about 400 to 600 US dollars a month. There are less-expensive public kindergartens, but there’s usually a waiting-list and single-parents are given priority, so it’s very hard for a two-parent household to get into them.

W-sensei has put her 18-month-old daughter in a private nursery school (it goes from 7:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. —unbelievable!), and will have to decide next year whether to continue teaching, or give it up so she can send her daughter to kindergarten.

I find this rather amazing, as Japanese society in general seems designed to look out for the general welfare of everybody. Why not have kindergartens that offer day-care until 6:00?

So that was an interesting conversation. W-sensei is struggling with her English but is really determined to improve. This is good luck for me, as I love to have control over lessons and it appears she’s going to rely heavily on my help this year. Not only will be I doing a self-introduction lesson on Saturday, but I’ll be returning to the same class again in the afternoon to teach the alphabet.

I now have a much clearer picture of how this year is going to go at K-chu. There are two classes in each grade, and only two JTEs. W-sensei teaches both 1st-grade classes and a 2nd-grade class, while S-sensei teaches the other 2nd-grade class and both 3rd-grade classes. S-sensei also teaches Japanese (she has two teaching degrees) so she’ll be very busy this year. I didn’t have much of a chance to speak with her today, but I assume she’ll also be happy to let me do as much of the lesson-planning as possible.

It also appears as though I might be meeting with some classes more than once a week, though that’s yet to be determined. It would be very cool if it’s the case, but we’ll see.

And that gets the journal not just up-to-date, but up-to-the-hour. The weekend was a bit of a let-down, but the start of the week has been quite promising. Interesting how my life-situation in Japan is now so Japanese-like: Outside of my job I have no life to speak of. My job is my life.

Categories: Personal Tags: , , , , ,

Yes We Can (Again)

April 5th, 2013 No comments

Attending the opening ceremony for H-sho this morning was optional, but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Not only was it a chance to introduce myself to the whole school at the same time and make a good first impression on everybody all at once, but it was my first chance to see a formal school ceremony in an elementary school.

I arrived at the school twenty minutes early and was given a nice welcome by the vice principal, the headmaster, and the principal (who hadn’t been there on Tuesday). I was shown to my desk and exchanged a few words in both English and Japanese with the vice principal, and after a few minutes we all headed down to the gym where orientation was wrapping up and the formal opening ceremony was ready to begin.

It was interesting to see what was the same as my old school and what was different. The gym was smaller, the students were in plain clothes, and there were only about 150-200 of them (making this actually the biggest school I’m now teaching at) but other than that it was exactly like the ceremonies from Togane Chu. Speeches from the top administrators, speeches from students to the top administrators, the singing of the school song, and so on. The students had cushions to sit on, but they stood most of the time in perfect obedient silence, bowing whenever prompted to do so.

My speech was scheduled for the very end of the ceremony. Right before then, there was a brief period in which each teacher’s name and position was called and they lined up in front of the students. My name was called surprisingly early on (I thought the gaijin always goes last) so for a good minute or so before my speech I got a good look at the student’s faces. How unbelievably cute they are. Many were already smiling at me.

When that was over, it was announced that the new English teacher was to give an introduction, and I was led up to the podium to get down to it. Like my other speeches, O-sensei had helped me prepare it in terms of Japanese-translation, but I had a few new ideas of my own I wanted to try out.

“Good morning!” I say in English. Many students echo the greeting—more than I expected. I continue in English: “My name is Kyle. I’m from America.” I hold up my American-flag flashcard upside down, then pretend I made a mistake and turn in right-side up, thus eliciting a chuckle early on. “I’m twenty-nine years old.”

I look out at the audience. “Did you understand?” I point to a few random students and say, “yes? yes? no?” Some students actually say “no”. I then say, “Okay, I will read it in Japanese.”

I proceed to read those first few introductory sentences in excruciatingly slow, poorly-pronounced Japanese, then look up at the students and say “eh?” as though for approval. A few laughs as I’d hoped, but there’s actually a small smattering of applause as well.

I continue in English. “I taught English in Germany for three years. Understand?” Nobody understands that, so I point to my paper and say, “Okay, Japanese” then repeat it in my poor Japanese. Afterwards I hold up a picture of the German flag. Now there’s more applause and some murmurs of interest that they’ve got a teacher who lived in Germany.

In English: “I came to Japan in August of 2011. Wakarimasuka? [poorly pronounced: ‘understand?’ which draws some more laughter]”. I repeat it in bad Japanese.

“Until now I taught at Togane Junior High School.” I don’t even need to ask this time, I just read the bad Japanese.

Now I say, “I really enjoyed teaching there. I think I will enjoy teaching here to.” Now for the big moment.

I look down at my page and pause for a second, then proceed to read those lines in fast, perfectly-pronounced Japanese. As these lines are much more complicated than anything before it, it comes as a shock to everyone. Unfortunately, I botch the second line a little bit, but it doesn’t seem to matter. I say “Nihngo da ne?” (‘Japanese, huh?’) and now there’s lot of laughter and more murmurs as students realize I’d been faking it before.

I do the rest of the speech in fast, flawless Japanese, and soon enough everyone is smiling with the realization that their ALT’s Japanese isn’t nearly as bad as they’d thought.

“I want to teach you English. Do any of you think that English is too difficult? Well, President Obama says, ‘Yes we can!’” I hold up my trusty Obama-flashcard to much laughter and applause. I explain what “Yes we can” means to those who might not know, then say, “Everyone, please repeat after me: Yes we can!”

The best response I ever got at Togane Chu was 70%, and at the opening ceremony it had only been 20%. Granted the set-up was much better this time, but I’m sure the response this time had almost everything to do with the ages of the kids: 100%. Students and faculty.

I repeat the chant, everyone repeats it again with more enthusiasm. I break it down to individual words: “Yes!” “We!” “Can!” and everyone’s loving it. One more big “Yes we can!” and a shout of “Wooohooo!” and everyone is cheering and clapping.

One last line in Japanese: “I’m looking forward to teaching you. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu.”

Not to brag or anything, but I got the biggest applause of the morning. When I stepped down from the podium the vice principal thanked me and told me the speech was excellent. I got compliments from a bunch of other teachers as well.

The students started filing out with their homeroom teachers, and I was led back to the teacher’s room. K-sensei (mother of my favorite Togane Chu student) complimented me on my Japanese before she had to run and go do something. The vice principal said I could leave and he’d see me next Friday. On my way out the door of the teacher’s room, the principal stopped me and enthusiastically thanked me for my speech.

I passed by a few kids in the hallway on my way out. They called me, “Yes-we-can-sensei.”

Seriously, there aren’t too many great things about Obama getting re-elected, but the best thing for me personally by far is being able to keep using that famous catch-phrase. I doubt any of Mitt Romney’s most famous lines would generate quite as much enthusiasm: “Everybody repeat after me: Corporations are people, my friend!” or “Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income taxes!” or “Binders full of women! Hooray!”

So that was my first day at H-sho, and though it wasn’t a paid work day it felt like my first day of the new school-year. If today was a good indication, I think I’m going to enjoy it immensely.

Categories: Personal Tags: , ,

Driver’s License Adventures, Part 3

April 4th, 2013 No comments

I went back to the Menkyo Center today, took the driving test a second time, got through the course almost perfectly, and failed anyway.

I went second again, this time riding in the back as a Brazilian woman failed the test almost as badly as the Middle Eastern guy from the last time. It would be nice to ride in the back during a passing run so I could know what the hell they’re looking for.

I did much better in the crank this time, only having to back up once at the very beginning when pulling in.

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The S-curve was still a bitch, but when I felt my back left tire hit the curb again, this time I backed up before running over it. You’re allowed to back up three times and I backed up three times, so I thought I’d made it through successfully.

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I completed the whole course and parked the car, then turned to the proctor and glanced at my page to see the big fat “fail” kanji (不) on the page. You’ve got to be kidding me. I drove like an expert, never forgot to turn signal, to check my mirrors, to completely stop at stop signs, and I even verbalized in Japanese everything I was doing. I did everything the book told me to do and then some, and I still failed.

I had a harder time understanding the proctor’s explanations this time because I didn’t know what I’d done wrong. As best I can tell, I didn’t get close enough to the right lane when making right turns, and I hadn’t checked all of my mirrors before backing up in the crank and the S-curve.

So now I’m even less optimistic going forward than I was before. I hadn’t gone in today expecting failure—there’s a difference between knowing failure is likely and expecting it—but now that I know you can pretty much do everything exactly right and still fail, I have no idea how long it’s going to take to get this thing. Apparently it doesn’t matter how much time and effort you put into preparing for it—they just want to make it as inhumanly impossible as they can. As though you’re an unsafe driver if you can’t flawlessly navigate an “S-curve”.

Seriously, what kind of sadists designed this test? There are no “S-curves” or “crank”s on actual Japanese roads, but they won’t give you a driver’s license unless you can make it through them perfectly? Meanwhile, they don’t even test you at all on stuff you will almost certainly have to do, like backing up, making a K-turn, or parallel parking. It’s absurd.

Sorry, I had to get that rant out. I’m certainly not the first gaijin with a blog to do so, and I won’t be the last.

As for the actual consequences to my life, we’ll see. I will have to bike to work for the first week, then I take the test again on Monday the 15th (luckily school is cancelled that day).

When I arrived back in Togane, I didn’t go directly home but took my bike on a test-run to the two closer schools: H-sho and K-chu. Adding the 5 minutes it takes me to bike to the train station, it’ll only take about 25 minutes to bike to those schools, and only five minutes to bike from H-sho to K-chu after lunch on Fridays. That also takes into consideration getting off the bike and pushing it during the steepest parts of the hill. I definitely worked up a sweat getting up there, but it’s not overly strenuous. Definitely doable, just inconvenient—especially when it’s raining or in the summer when it gets super-humid.

M-sho, on the other hand, is about ten times the distance over many more hills. When I got home I e-mailed Interac to suggest the possibility of hiring a taxi to take me between schools on Wednesdays only. Since Interac covers 20,000 yen of a car-lease anyway, if the price of a cab for just 4 days a month is less than that (and it almost certainly is), why wouldn’t they cover that as well? I got no definite response today, but I feel pretty good about the chances. They need me to get from M-sho to K-chu between the end of lunch and the beginning of the afternoon periods, and if that’s not feasible by bike then it would make no sense whatsoever for them to refuse to pay for a taxi.

But to end on a positive note, when I stopped at a convenience store up in the hills before heading back down to central Togane, there was a group of four young boys there having a snack by the window. They greeted me as soon as they saw me and asked me if I was an American. I asked them if they were H-sho students. Two of them were, and the other two were about to enter their first-year at K-chu. I told them I was their new ALT and we had a very pleasant exchange. I told them my name and where I was from, and they told me their names which I unfortunately forgot but will learn soon enough. I gave them a friendly goodbye and a “see you next week” and went on my merry way. Extremely friendly kids, very excited to meet me. If that doesn’t brighten your spirits, nothing will.

I also found out today that ALTs don’t actually teach every grade in elementary schools. Apparently kids don’t start learning English until 5th grade, so I’ll only be teaching fifth and sixth graders, which means two classes of 20 for M-sho, and one class of 35 fifth-graders and two classes of 20 sixth-graders at H-sho. That’s slightly disappointing because I’d been curious about the experience of teaching really little kids, but it’s also a bit of a relief because the territory won’t be that unfamiliar—these kids won’t be all that much younger than first-year JHS students.

Tomorrow is the opening ceremony at H-sho, which means barring some catastrophic bombing of my self-introduction speech, tomorrow is going to be a million times better than today.

Expanding Horizons

April 3rd, 2013 No comments

The long month of endless goodbyes is finally over, and the month of abundant hellos has begun. I introduced myself to all three of my new schools yesterday, and thereby quadrupled the number of Japanese schools I’ve ever set foot in.

A woman named Takahashi from the Interac Chiba office picked me up at 9:30 yesterday morning and drove me to the schools. The first school was an elementary school about 10 km away. This school is the reason I really need a car—it’s practically over a mountain. It’ll probably take me about 45 minutes to bike there, and I’ll be drenched in sweat by the end.

The Japanese word for elementary school is shogakkou (‘sho’ [小] meaning ‘small’ and ‘gakkou’ [学校] meaning ‘school’), so I’ll refer to this one as “M-sho”. M-sho is extremely tiny, with only about 20 students per grade. That means it’ll not only be the smallest school I’ve taught at, but the smallest classroom size as well. It should be interesting.

When we arrived, Takahashi-san was more nervous than I was. I’d only done this once before but at this point I’m fairly confident in my ability to make a good impression on people. I was more curious than anything else—this being only the second Japanese school I’d ever been to.

We were greeted by the principal and vice principal when we arrived and taken to the meeting room. Takahashi-san made her formal greeting, then I was asked to come to the teacher’s room and introduce myself to the faculty—only about fifteen people. Takahashi-san had asked me to prepare a self-introduction, but she hadn’t expected me to memorize an entire miniature speech in Japanese.

“People of M-sho, konnichiwa. I’m Kyle. I’m from New York state, America. I’m 29 years old. From 2008 to 2011 I taught adults in Germany. I came to Japan in August of 2011. Until now, I’ve been working at Togane Chugakkou. I love teaching kids. I’m looking forward to working with the faculty of M-sho. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu.”

After my epic mega-speech at Togane Chu’s closing ceremony, this was a piece of cake for me, but it was enough to serve the purpose. The faculty gave me a round of applause and complimented me on my Japanese. The principal told Takahashi-san he was very impressed, and the vice principal gave me a “good job!” in English.

For the next fifteen minutes or so, Takahashi-san and the two top administrators went over a bunch of details of the contract. They asked me if I wanted to order school lunch, and they said they’d like me to eat lunch with the students on days when I’m there—something I’d never been asked to do at Togane Chu but which I’m rather looking forward to.

A little cultural tid-bit: coffee was poured for me and Takahashi-san, and the principal kept gesturing to it with a “douzo” (a word for offering something). I don’t drink coffee because caffeine doesn’t agree with me at all, but I remembered from all the way back in Narita training that you’re not supposed to drink the first time you’re offered something anyway. Japanese people typically wait until the second or third time it’s offered. I was able to hold out until about the fifth time, at which point I figured I might now be appearing ungrateful so I took a symbolic sip.

On the way out, I asked Takahashi-san to find out if there was somewhere I could change into my suit when I arrive, as if I do end up having to bike there I’m going to be sweating like a pig by the time I arrive. She explained my concern and they told me I can have a locker.

When we left, the entire faculty came out of the teacher’s room to see us off. It seems like that’s going to be a really warm and friendly work environment.

I’ll only be working there Wednesday mornings, and the other elementary school on Friday mornings. My main school will be K-chu, the junior high school, which was our next stop.

Our appointment there was for 11:00 but we arrived at 10:40. It’s Japanese custom to be early, but apparently it’s also bad form to be too early, so we sat in the car for fifteen minutes and had a nice chat. Takahashi-san is incredibly nice, and I found her nervousness rather charming. When we noticed someone up in the teacher’s room looking into the car, she took out her bag and pretended to be sorting through things, lest she give them the impression we were just sitting there.

When the time came, we headed up the stairs to the main entrance of the building. K-chu is a much newer school than Togane Chu, and looks almost like a nice hotel from the outside, with balconies outside every classroom. The inside looks much more clean and modern as well.

The first person to greet us when we arrived was S-sensei, my old vice principal. I joked with him that it was “long time no see”, and he brought us into his office. It felt very strange to be in this unfamiliar building but have that very familiar face there the whole time. I could almost imagine the rest of the old Togane Chu faculty just beyond the door as well.

This time, there was no introduction in front of everyone. Only two women came to the room to go over details with Takahashi-san, and she asked me to give my speech to them. S-sensei said, “again?” and told them how I’d also made speeches in Japanese at Togane Chu’s closing ceremony and enkai, so it was no surprise to him that I had yet another one.

I’m not exactly sure whether the women were JTEs or just faculty members. One of them, I was later told, is the teacher in charge of the ALT so I assume she’s an English teacher, but she didn’t speak any English to me so I’m not sure. It’s entirely possible she’s an English teacher who doesn’t speak English—those are apparently quite common in Japan, and the fact that Togane Chu’s English teachers all spoke great English might have been a rare case. Certainly when it comes to the elementary schools I shouldn’t expect anyone to speak English, so that will be interesting, but hopefully at least one person at my main school will speak enough to help me out when I’ve got questions. (Though if not, being forced to speak a lot more Japanese is actually a good thing).

The one question I had at this meeting was regarding my after-school activities: playing games with students and running the “Kyle-store”. I’d told Takahashi-san about it before and she explained it to the teachers there. I’d brought some Kyle-dollars to show them, and my self-made deck of cards. Luckily, S-sensei was already well familiar with the idea and it was agreed I’d be able to do this “when circumstances allow”.

Once that meeting was over they brought us into the teacher’s room where I got my first look at where I’ll be spending most of my time over the course of the next year. It looks just like the teacher’s room at Togane Chu but half the size and more modern. My desk is in the back corner facing the window, and looks like a nice spot. The teacher across and one seat to the left of me is the head English teacher. I met him and exchanged the standard Japanese greetings, but he didn’t speak English to me either. He’s the only person I met yesterday that I know for sure I’ll be doing lessons with, and he seemed like a nice, good-humored guy.

After that, we had just one more school to visit. This elementary school, H-sho, is only a five-minute drive from K-chu and it’s where I’ll be spending my Friday mornings. The faculty waved to us from the teacher’s room as we were entering, and we were greeted very warmly at the door by the “headmaster” (not sure if that’s the same thing as a “principal”) and the teacher in charge of the ALT. They spoke a few words of English but they’re clearly far from fluent.

We were taken to the teacher’s room and seated in some comfortable chairs there. When Takahashi-san told them I had a speech prepared, they actually stood us up and interrupted everyone in the midst of their work, telling them the new ALT would like to introduce himself. I went through the speech again, this time in front of an audience of about 25. The reception was overwhelmingly positive this time as well, and I was complimented heartily by the headmaster.

The rest of the little meeting went just like the others, and I found out I’ll be eating lunch with students here too. The headmaster said they have the best school lunch in Japan, and while I’ve heard every school makes the same boast, they said at their school it’s actually a lunch menu you can choose from, which sounds awesome. I won’t have to pick around the beef and pork at this school!

But the most excellent surprise of the day came when one of the teachers came up to introduce herself to me and told me who she was. K-sensei is the mother of one of my students from Togane Chu.], but not just any student—my favorite student! I could hardly believe it. Of all 600 students (800 if you count last year’s graduates), I’ll actually be working with the mother of the one I liked the most!

She and the two men we’d had the meeting with saw us to the exit and wished us a good day. I’ve been invited to that school’s opening ceremony for new teachers on Friday, which I fully intend to go to even though it’s outside the contract.

I only might not be able to attend if I pass the driving test tomorrow and have to get a car on Friday, though I can probably do both things in one day. (But it’s far more likely I’ll fail the test again anyway.)

So now I’ve seen the schools I’ll be working at this year, and I’m extremely pleased that they all seem so pleasant. Ironically, the one school where I received the least warm greeting is the school I’ll be spending most of my time, but we’ll see how it goes once I’ve given my self-introduction to the whole school.

In any case, I know I made a very good impression on everyone I had a chance to, which was the main purpose of the day. But I think the person I made the best impression on overall was Takahashi-san. She was extremely grateful to me for memorizing that speech, as it made her and Interac look good as well. She found it wonderful that I actually like to stay after school and communicate with students, as most ALTs just want to go home right away. And when we were getting close to my apartment I pulled down my window to call a Togane Chu student passing by on her bike by name, and Takahashi-san found out I’d learned all 600 of my student’s names. Before she dropped me off she told me I should be a real full-time teacher, not an ALT.

I’ve been imagining going back to America and teaching there at some point, but who knows? Maybe I’ll just stay in Japan and become a real teacher here. I doubt it, but it definitely does have a place on my list of possible futures.