Posts Tagged ‘education’

Reading Practice

June 26th, 2013 No comments

I was confronted with a bit of absurdness in the Japanese education system this past week. It started when W-sensei asked me to do a lesson for the first-graders just reviewing how to read the words from the first few chapters of the textbook in preparation for the upcoming exams. She’s been discouraged by the relatively few students who still can’t read English letters, and is holding back the rest of the students on their account.

I repeated a game I played a few weeks earlier to some success, in which I’d divide the class into two teams, put five words up on the blackboard (printed in large font and held up by magnets) and have one student at a time from each team compete to see who could touch the word I read first. Once I’d gone through all the important words from the first chapters of the book, I’d have them come up and try to read the words themselves, giving a chance to the other team if they couldn’t.

Most of the students were perfectly adept at this game, but there were a few who really struggled. Some students would just pick words at random during the listening portion, and make wild guesses based on the first letter of the word in the reading portion (like the word would be ‘and’ and they’d say ‘apple’). Some were really trying to sound the word out but just didn’t have the hang of it yet. And one girl just didn’t get it at all. She’d come to the board each time during the listening portion but not even try to touch the words I called, and during the reading portion she’d stand up and come to the front but just stood staring at the word in painful silence. I could see on her face that she was trying to work out the pronunciation in her mind and at times it looked like she was just about to give the answer, but she was too unsure of herself to try. All I could do was gently encourage her but eventually I’d have to give up and let the other student answer, and she’d go sit down looking crushed. But she never broke down and cried, and she continued to dutifully stand up and subject herself to the embarrassment every time it was her turn, and at least managed to successfully read the word ‘seven’ at the very end.

Afterwards I thought a lot about that game and the students who had trouble with it, and decided to see if I could offer to stay after school and help any students who might want extra practice with phonics and reading. The upcoming English exam is almost certainly a lost cause for them, but if they don’t learn to read now they’re doomed to fail every subsequent English test in the future. I in turn would feel like a failure as a teacher, even though I only get 50 minutes a week with them and there’s only so much I can do in that time, especially when I have to keep moving forward for the sake of the other students.

I told W-sensei my idea on Thursday, and she reacted with her typical skepticism that such a thing could be arranged, but she said she’d ask about it. I didn’t get the sense that she was going to make it a priority, but once I left it must have quickly dawned on her that having students who still can’t read at this point reflects poorly on her, so she should take any chance she gets to help them out. In less than a minute she approached S-sensei with my idea.

To me it seemed like the most obviously doable thing in the world, but apparently that’s just my background in American education. Students who need extra help with a particular subject can stay after school and get that help from teachers who are willing to help them. Such a thing is entirely ordinary in American schools, but apparently not in Japan. In Japan, club activities come first—or at least they’re a higher priority than English. S-sensei explained to me that all of the students have to go to their club after school. Apparently they can’t even stay an extra 20 minutes for study and be a little late to their club.

As if that weren’t ridiculous enough, it gets even more absurd. This week—the week of exams—all club activities are cancelled. The idea is that students should go directly home after school and study. There’s no guarantee that they will study, but it gives them more time to study if they choose to use it. So if students who have trouble reading want to study that, it would make perfect sense for them to have a chance to study reading with a native English speaker who can actually help them learn to pronounce the letters—something a textbook can’t do. But apparently this isn’t possible either. The rule is that the students go home directly after school, so that’s what they must do. Even though the whole reason for that is to give them a chance to study, they can’t study at the school.

The only thing that could be done was to use my “Kyle Shop” time for extra reading practice. Instead of having whichever students from a particular grade come and shop or play a game, we’d make Thursday, Monday, and Tuesday a “special lesson” for first-graders and W-sensei would send the students with the lowest reading scores to me during that 20-minute after-lunch break period.

So what in a rational world would have been a chance for students who really wanted to learn to read to come after school for as long as they wanted over the course of as much time as they needed ended up turning instead into three 20-minute after-lunch phonics cram-sessions for students forced to show up.

I tried to do the best I could under the circumstances. The after-lunch break-time is pretty hectic and disorganized, so students would trickle in at varying times. I’d never know how many would be coming altogether or when they’d show up. I’d start by practicing letter sounds with three students, then half-way through two more would come in and I’d go back and review from the beginning, then three more would come in when I was near the end and so on. It was between six and ten students each day, with only four students coming all three.

I had laminated cut-outs of every letter in lowercase, and I’d start by going over short vowel sounds, then sounds of letters with just one sound, letters with two or more sounds, then combination sounds, and finally how putting an ‘e’ at the end of a word changes the vowel to a long sound. I had to race through all that in less than 10 minutes. Then for 5 minutes I’d play a quick “game” in which I’d call out a simple word like ‘cat’ or ‘name’ and have the students try and find the correct letters to arrange the word, hopefully remembering the rules I’d just taught them. They’d almost never get it on the first try but with a few hints they’d always get it eventually. Finally, for the last few minutes I’d hold up the words I used in the reading game in the classroom and have the students try to read them, helping them sound it out if they couldn’t. They could get the easy words quickly enough but anything over 3 letters remained a challenge, especially when there were combination sounds or an ‘e’ at the end. Some things just need more time and practice to really sink in.

I found a website where you can point your mouse over letters and letter-combinations and hear the sounds they make, so I printed the URL and gave it to all the students. I also found a website that converts roman-letter words to Japanese katakana, always distorting the pronunciation but the best way I could think of to allow them to check if they could read a word. I made a list of all the words from the beginning of the textbook in one column and their katakana version on the right, so the students could fold it and check each word if they were serious about studying on their own.

Other than provide them those tools for self-study, I figured the most valuable thing I could actually do for them would just be to give them some encouragement. I wish I’d had O-sensei to help me figure out how to express what I wanted to say in Japanese, but I did the best I could with my limited vocabulary. Half-way through our second “lesson”, I paused and talked to the kids about how I’m actually a slow learner too, poking fun at myself for having lived here nearly two years and still not being able to speak Japanese without constantly making mistakes (which I’m certain I was doing as I talked to them) or understanding what people were saying when they talk to me. I told them how difficult it was for me to learn hiragana and katakana, that I had to sit and practice many times a day, but I eventually got it and if I could do it they could too. I’m not sure that sunk in but some of them seemed to appreciate it.

Before the third day I remembered a few things O-sensei had taught me to say when I was saying personal farewells to Togane Chu students. Near the end of that lesson I told the kids that I wished them success, and “If you believe in yourself, I know you can succeed.” They responded kindly.

At least one girl, a really sweet girl who loves my lessons in spite of her difficulty learning, definitely appreciated what I was doing. She came every day determined to learn, and always left with a sincere “thank you”. Most of the boys, unfortunately, were clearly only there because they’d been told to come and hardly put forth any effort, though at least two of them did try.

As for the girl who’d had the most difficulty with my reading game, I addressed her in particular at the end of our last lesson. I told her I know that she’s capable of reading English, and she quickly disagreed and said it was “muri” (impossible). I reiterated that it is possible, that I could see it in her eyes. I don’t know if her smile at that comment was one of amusement or appreciation, but it felt like a positive response. I even told her (to the best of my limited ability) that I saw how difficult my game in class had been for her but that I respected how she kept coming to the front and trying every time. I don’t know if my words had any effect at all, but they were sincere. I know a dumb student when I see one and she isn’t dumb—she just thinks she’s not smart enough to read English. If that’s a result of her never getting encouragement from parents or other teachers, then maybe my little bit of encouragement might go a long way.

Unfortunately I doubt it, but that’s just one of the biggest downsides of my current teaching-role. As the Assistant Language Teacher my opinion is not as valuable as that of a real teacher, my time with the students is not long enough to make a significant impression, and due to the language barrier I’m not really able to reach them on a truly meaningful level.

One day I’ll hopefully be able to make a real difference in students’ lives, but I’ve got a ways to go before I get there. At least this experience serves as something of an appetizer of what that might actually feel like. It must be a feeling that’s really worth living for.

Boiling the Middle Class

March 10th, 2011 No comments


We’ve all heard the anecdote about cooking frogs. If you toss a live frog into a pot of boiling water, the shock of the heat will be so great that the frog will immediately leap out to save itself. But if you place the frog in a pot of lukewarm water and then slowly start to boil it, the change in temperature will happen so gradually that the frog will be boiled alive before it can realize what’s happening.

The American middle class was placed in a pot of lukewarm water three decades ago with the advent of “trickle-down” economics, and the temperature has been rising steadily ever since. More money goes to the very top by way of tax-cuts and subsidies for large corporations, and recently through massive taxpayer bailouts of giant financial institutions, and in order to make up for the deficit more money is cut from programs that benefit the middle class. The temperature in the pot has been getting increasingly uncomfortable for quite some time.

When Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker began his attempt to strip public sector unions of their collective bargaining rights, thus effectively removing any last shred of real political power from these middle class workers in his state, we reached the verge of the boiling point. As the national Republican Party celebrated this move and Republican governors across the country got poised to follow suit, it seemed that the pot was beginning to boil nationwide.

Here I have to tweak the analogy just a little, and imagine that the frog in the pot is split-brained. While the left side of the frog realized what was happening and tried to leap out of the pot by launching massive demonstrations against the union-stripping bill, the right side of the frog—being more easily duped by corporate propaganda—was convinced that the other half was over-reacting and that the water was actually too cold. While the left-brain wanted out of the pot altogether, the right-brain wanted even more heat.

But even now the analogy doesn’t accurately reflect reality. You’d have to imagine that the left side of the frog is almost twice as large as the right, as poll number after poll number has consistently indicated that about two-thirds of the American people are opposed to the union-stripping measure. The impulse of the frog to leap out of the pot was stronger than the impulse to stay and boil, and yet…somehow…the frog has remained right where it is.

After waking up Wednesday to the news that Governor Walker actually seemed ready to compromise by weakening the union-busting part of the bill, I thought this might finally be it. The American political left, having been far too silent for far too long as the pot kept getting hotter and hotter, had finally stood up and spoken out and sent a message to the cooks in the kitchen that they were not going to sit around and be boiled. Might the chefs have finally gone too far? Might this finally be the end of the relentless rightward-drift America has been on for my entire lifetime?

Then I woke up this morning, Thursday, to the news that the Wisconsin state legislature had done an end-run around the Democrats and rammed through the union-busting portion of the bill through a sudden stroke of political trickery. Because they needed at least one Democrat to hold a vote on the state budget, they had to remove the union-busting measure from the bill and vote on it as a separate piece of legislation, for which no Democrats were needed. It’s as though the moment the frog was finally leaping out of the pot, they grabbed it, tore off its left leg, and tossed it back in the pot from which it is now incapable of escaping.

Had this draconian anti-union bill been proposed twenty or even ten years ago, it never would have passed. That would have been going too far, too fast. The entire frog—both the left side and the right—would have noticed the sudden change in temperature and leapt out immediately. But the Republicans seem to have paved the way for this just slowly and gradually enough that they felt the time was ripe to deliver this final blow to the middle class and let boiling begin.

Slowly but surely, they’ve managed to get a sizable enough chunk of the middle class to direct their anger away from the corporations and wealthy people to whom all of their money is actually being funneled and direct it instead at organized labor. It’s not the Wall Street fat-cats who are the problem, it’s those fat-cats who work in…public education? It’s the nurses who are to blame for everyone’s economic woes?

Enough people have been fed these lies for a long enough time that they no longer even question them. And while there are definitely valid criticisms to be made about teachers’ unions and the like, it’s a huge leap from saying they may go a little too far at times to blaming them for the budget crises in local and national governments, especially when tax-rates among the super-rich are at historic lows and defense spending is at a historic high.

A recent poll asking Americans how they would balance the budget came back with results proving my conjecture that America is far more progressive than most Americans believe. When asked how they would save money, 81% said they would raise taxes on millionaires, about 76% said they would cut defense spending, and about 74% said they’d end subsidies for oil companies.

Washington just recently voted to keep giving subsidies to oil companies, there’s no talk of seriously cutting defense spending, and as for raising taxes on millionaires…well…hopefully your short-term memory isn’t so terrible that you’ve forgotten Obama’s deal to extend the Bush tax-cuts back in December.

Americans were also asked what would be unacceptable to cut. The three items at the top of that list, each with over 75% of the American people saying it would be unacceptable to cut them, are Social Security, K-12 education, and Medicare. And yet Washington remains poised to make cuts to Social Security and Medicare while local governments—including Scott Walker’s in Wisconsin—are busy slashing education.

Democracy, it seems, is in its death pangs. When you have a huge consensus among the American people that they don’t want labor unions stripped of their collective bargaining power but the people supposedly “representing” them in government do it anyway, when the vast majority of Americans agree on which programs they want to see cut and which they don’t want touched but their “representatives” in government do precisely the opposite, when weeks of grassroots protests across the nation send a message loud-and-clear that what one party wants to do is unacceptable but those “representatives” do it anyway, something is seriously, deeply, profoundly wrong.

When a journalist prank-called Governor Walker pretending to be the billionaire political financier David Koch to encourage him on his union-busting efforts and the governor’s response revealed just how squarely in the pockets of powerful business interests he’s in, that should have been the end of his career. Ten or fifteen years ago, there would have been such an outcry over this transparent disregard of the interests of average citizens that the governor would have been forced to resign. Nowadays, he was not only able to remain in office but to win the political fight he knew the vast majority of Americans opposed him on.

The pot is boiling. Poll numbers don’t matter anymore because it no longer matters what the average American thinks. The average American is broke. The only opinions that matter are those of the Koch brothers and their billionaire-brethren who can afford to finance political campaigns (now without limit thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United ruling). The fact that even in the face of overwhelming public opposition, even in the face of massive, nation-wide protests, the Republicans still feel safe doing the bidding of their corporate masters at the expense of the middle class, is all the evidence you need that they think the frog is pretty much cooked.

There is only one avenue of escape left to the frog, and that’s to not let the momentum of these protests die down. Just because the battle is lost does not mean the war is over. If efforts to recall Governor Walker and the State Senators who voted to pass his democracy-destroying legislation manage to succeed, other governors will have to seriously consider putting the brakes on their plans to do the same things in their own states. The protesters have already succeeded in scaring some of these governors like Chris Christie in my own state of New Jersey (who is, incidentally, much admired by my conservative parents) into backing off for now, but if the people of Wisconsin and their supporters all just pack up and go home now that they’ve lost this fight, we may have lost our last change. If the massive amount of campaign contributions these Republicans will now be receiving allows them to prevail in upcoming elections against Democrats who will no longer be able to look forward to quite as much funding from labor unions, you can rest assured that the same kind of legislation that Wisconsin lawmakers just rammed through their state will be back on the table everywhere else.

It’s up to us, America. We can either let our right half keep our much-larger left half stuck to the bottom of the pot while we all boil together, or we can keep reaching for the rim and trying to pry both halves out in spite of the other side’s misguided resistance.

It’s time that the middle class on both the left and the right realize that we’re both part of the same frog, and that we need to stop fighting ourselves when the real enemies are those who are trying to cook us.

German Politics

May 25th, 2009 No comments

As opposed to last week, this week has been very busy, with five days of work in a row starting on Tuesday and ending tomorrow on Saturday with my 3-hour Mr. Bokeloh lesson. I just got back from my awful Friday lessons, and the last thing I feel like doing now is writing anything, but there are a few things I learned from my students this week that I would be remiss not to record.

On Wednesday I had my first lesson in about a month with Frau Suhr, the big-time controlling department executive at E.ON, and I read through an article with her from the Economist, an article Alan had told me about that criticizes E.ON for Germany’s high and ever-rising energy prices. The author of the article accuses E.ON of fixing prices by controlling the supply, of having a near monopoly over the German electrical infrastructure (E.ON and their top competitor RWE control nearly 80% of Germany’s power supply) and of squeezing their smaller competitors even harder through their control of the power-distribution network which other companies must pay them to use. It was interesting how Frau Suhr knocked down every argument in the article, and fun to see how much pleasure she took in doing so. Apparently electricity prices keep rising not because of any shenanigans on E.ON’s part but because the government keeps imposing higher and higher taxes on the company—not just on the carbon they pollute but on the actual earnings of their employees. In order to stay profitable E.ON and other energy companies have no choice but to raise prices, which they wouldn’t have to do if not for all the political points the politicians can score by taking on the evil energy industry. The power distribution grid, she agreed, gave E.ON an advantage over competitors, but apparently they’ve been trying to sell it since January 2008 and so far nobody has been interested in buying it. And although only two companies control 80% of Germany’s energy, in countries like France and Italy there’s only one company in control and their prices are much higher. Frau Suhr expressed great frustration over the media’s blatant bias and omission of important facts.

It was interesting to hear, as I would have simply taken it for granted that E.ON is an evil corporation that’s raising prices simply to fatten the wallets of its top executives. Sure, Frau Suhr has her own bias, but she has no reason to mislead me and the points she made were quite logical. Apparently the government is much more to blame for the high cost of energy than the energy companies, but the public only hears the government’s side of the story and naturally they shift all the blame to the industry. It makes me wonder if I’ve been wrong about American corporations too, but I’m pretty sure it’s different here where the balance of power between government and big business is not as drastically on the side of big business.

At my first lesson on Thursday, the group with which I normally have good political discussions, only one student showed up but we ended up having a really interesting discussion anyway. It was a woman named Susanne who was born in France but who has lived in Germany for most of her life. We started off talking about an article I brought in by Arianna Huffington, talking about how although everybody is still calling for reform of the financial system it doesn’t look like any real reform is going to take place. But the conversation drifted far and wide and soon enough I was learning more about the German political system than I ever have before. I already knew that unlike in the U.S. where people vote directly for a candidate (or at least for electors who are pledged to vote for a candidate), in Germany they vote for a party, and the party then chooses their leader. The Germans basically know who the chancellor will be for each party, but the idea is for them to vote for the party platform rather than a particular person, the idea being to keep personality politics out of the game as much as possible, considering how well it went with Hitler.

There are more than two parties in Germany but the big two are the CDU and the SPD. Angela Merkel, a very popular chancellor even today, is from the CDU, and most people I’ve talked to agree that having the CDU in power is better for E.ON. The CDU is generally the more conservative of the two parties, but a lot of the governing depends on the strength of the other parties in parliament. For instance, because the Green party was heavily represented over the last few years, the CDU had to work with them in order to get any legislation passed, so as a result the government decided to completely phase out nuclear power by a certain date, I think about 2030 or something. Never mind the fact that there is no alternative source of energy that can keep the German infrastructure operating beyond that date—the Green party is opposed to nuclear power so to get anything done the CDU had to acquiesce, in spite of the inevitable energy crisis their decisions are inviting.

In any case, Susanne said she normally votes for the SPD but she didn’t know who to vote for this time. She said she likes Merkel because when Merkel came into office she was very strong and clear in her positions, but now she’s softened her positions a lot and it’s hard to tell where she stands anymore. I asked Susanne what the big issues were in the upcoming election and what the main differences were between the parties, but apparently that’s also a lot less clear than in U.S. elections. Apparently you can’t quite point to a clear division of ideology between the parties, it’s just that each party has its own specific plans for how to deal with certain issues and the people are supposed to vote for which ever party they think has the better plan. It’s nothing at all like in the U.S. where if you’re opposed to war, sympathetic to gays, and in favour of a woman’s right to choose you vote democrat and if you love war, hate gays and taxes, and think abortion is murder, you vote republican. Things are a lot more subtle with the German system. For instance, both parties say something must be done about the financial crisis, but it’s not like one party is calling for bailouts and more regulation while the other is calling for a spending freeze and more deregulation. Each party has a plan, and the differences between the plans are basically minor details.

One of the issues that’s always touted as extremely important is education. Each party always has a plan for reforming the German educational system, which everyone agrees needs reform, but no plan has ever had a real effect because it’s all just cosmetics and window dressing. What Germany needs is a fundamental overhaul of its education system, as the percentage of uneducated adults in the population is rising quickly. The common vision of both parties is to move Germany from a production society to a leader in science and research. But as so few people actually complete a higher education, that goal is completely unrealistic. Susanne was saying that with the recent boom in the Turkish population things are getting even worse, as many Muslims refuse to put their kids through the Western education system, and as a result you’ve got this huge and growing demographic of uneducated Muslims with no skills to speak of other than basic labour—and Germany already has plenty of uneducated labourers.

Susanne went on at length about the “kids these days” and while half of me felt inclined to dismiss it as the kind of thing that every older generation says about the “spoiled” younger generation, I couldn’t help but think she had a point. I’ve only rarely had a good intelligent conversation with a young German, and to take my class of apprentices as a representation of the German youth I could easily see what her fear was. Every so often I give them a “pub quiz” in which a lot of the questions have to do with science or history and it’s quite often that nobody in the class knows the answer to even a basic question. And these are the smart ones who actually are going through higher education. But Susanne pointed out that in the German system, once you get to the high school level you can either continue on the academic path or simply choose to go to technical school and become a labourer, which many do. Furthermore, you can go through university taking as few classes at a time as you want, so student often bide their time, taking sometimes as much as 10 or more years to get a degree. In contrast with France, student not only attend school from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. six days a week (with a break on Wednesday afternoon—but I still think that’s excessive) but they finish high school at 15 or 16, and are often finished with college and ready to join the workforce at just 20 years old. There have been proposals to send German kids to school for at least a comparable amount of time (like say…9 to 5 for five days a week) but the parents protest that it’s too much for the kids and no serious changes are ever made.

Meanwhile, unemployment is rising while the number of educated, skilled workers is dropping. One of E.ON’s subsidiaries in Brandenburg, for instance, has been looking to hire people for years but even with millions of unemployed Germans they still haven’t found enough qualified people to fill those positions. The system badly needs reform, but nobody is willing to seriously reform it. Susanne is very worried that the basic societal and economic strength of Germany that it has enjoyed since the 50s is slipping away and may be nothing more than a memory once the younger generation, this generation of spoiled brats who know all there is to know about pop music but nothing at all about science or history, takes control of the state. And while part of me still thinks that every generation must feel the same way about the generation following it, a part of me does think that this is a legitimate worry. After all, as the eastern countries continue to get serious about education while the western countries get less and less serious, major global balance of power shifts seem completely inevitable. And as awful as Western civilization may be, it’s not like Eastern civilization (namely China) is much better.

Anyway, after that class I had my lesson with the apprentices, in which I just happened to have another pub quiz prepared for the end of class. While the students did about as well as usual on the general knowledge questions, I thought I’d be making it easier for them by making the second half of the quiz completely about entertainment. There were seven questions where I just gave movie quotes and asked for the title of the movie, and seven questions with quotes from lyrics of songs from the 90s, which I thought would be easy as hell for them. But shockingly they all did terrible. The movie quotes I could understand because all their movies are dubbed into German. The only ones anyone knew were “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse” and “Life is like a box of chocolates.” Absolutely no one had a clue about “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” or “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine” although they had at least heard of the films those quotes are from.

But what really shocked me was the music round. I figured these kids grew up in the 90s like me so they would have heard these songs a million times, like “One Headlight” by the Wallflowers or “Ants Marching” by the Dave Matthews Band. But the only one anyone got was “Come as you Are” by Nirvana. What flabbergasted me was that nobody got “Despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage.” I could hardly contain my disbelief when I was going over the answers with them. “You mean to tell me that none of you have ever heard of the Smashing Pumpkins?! Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness? One of the greatest albums of the 1990s?! What the hell were you listening to all those years!!?” Apparently they were listening to shitty euro-pop the whole time. Before leaving class I let them know they’d all been deprived, and that there was a serious hole in their lives where bands like the Smashing Pumpkins should be.

So that obviously made me more inclined to agree with Susanne. I don’t know what’s going to become of this country when the euro-pop generation takes over, but it doesn’t look very promising.