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Sports Day: K-chu

September 10th, 2013 No comments

Saturday was the third Japanese Sports Day I’ve gone to, the first being last year at Togane Chu and the second also being at Togane Chu when I visited their Sports Day earlier this year. Although this school is much much smaller than Togane (only 1/6th the student population) it was pretty much the same basic things. The students were divided into a red team and white team, but unlike at Togane they were even divided up within their own homerooms. Some competitions pitted homerooms against each other and awards were given to the classes that won those events, but the main competition was between the red and white team.

Most of the events were identical or similar to the Togane events. There were bizarre relay races, classes jumping rope in synch, and of course the obligatory “mukade” race where classes race against each other with their feet all tied together. Before the lunch break all the girls did a dance, but rather than human-pyramid building like at Togane the boys had synchronized vaulting along with the girls’ dance.

The thing most unique to this particular Sports Day were the elementary school events. Most of the 5th and 6th-graders from H-sho a handful of 6th-graders from M-sho (presumably those of them who’ll be attending K-chu next year) showed up and competed in a couple of events against each other. They did a tug-of war and a relay with current H-sho / M-sho students, former H-sho / M-sho students, and parents. So for about an hour, I got to see students from all three of my schools all together at once. It was almost certainly the only time that’ll ever happen, and it was pretty cool. (Incidentally, H-sho was victorious in both events.)

One difference between the K-chu and Togane Chu Sports Day that was not cool was my complete and utter exclusion from the entire event. At least at Togane Chu I got to participate in two events, but I was left out of everything. I wasn’t even assigned to the red or white team, but that allowed me carry out an idea I had to twist my headband so it was red on the left and white on the right, which led to some confusion and amusement of some students.

The best thing about the day was getting to take pictures. I won’t post any here, but because it’s such a small school I was easily able to get one or several pictures of every last student to remember them by.

There was an enkai in the evening which I attended, but it turned out to be the least enjoyable enkai I’ve yet been to. It was at a Chinese restaurant so unlike other events drinks were ordered and delivered pre-poured, which meant teachers weren’t going around pouring drinks for everyone and that meant far fewer teachers coming up to interact with me. By “far fewer” I basically mean zero, as the only teachers I spoke to all night were the ones to the left and the right of me. I’d already been harboring feelings of resentment at being left out of Sports Day, and that just augmented those feelings but I know it’s no big deal. At least it wasn’t all bad—the woman to the right of me had been a teacher at H-sho a few years ago and knew all the current 6th-graders and most of the other students as well, so we were able to chat at length comparing our impressions of some of those students.

She informed me that H-sho has its Sports Day on the 28th of this month, so I’ll get to see my first elementary school Sports Day then. Hopefully M-sho won’t have theirs on the same day, but if they do I’ll drive over there and check theirs out for awhile, though I’ll spend the bulk of the day with H-sho, which remains my current favorite school.

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Summer Semi-Vacation

July 20th, 2013 No comments

Yesterday was the last day of the first semester, and normal classes don’t resume until September. But it’s not quite completely summer vacation yet, as I still have to go in on many days to help the Speech Contest students practice. On August 3rd I’ll head to Germany, and that’s when the REAL summer vacation will begin.

Before my last lesson with each class, I decided to prepare a little speech to say goodbye for awhile. I wanted to say some of the kinds of things I said in my farewell speech to the Togane students, but to let them know now instead of waiting until the very end. It went like this:

The first part of the year is over. I enjoyed it. If you enjoyed it too, I’d be glad. Our time together has been short, but I feel like I know each of you a little bit. I really like you. Thank you for your warmth and enthusiasm. For the next six weeks or so, I’ll miss you. I’ll think about you every day. Have a great summer vacation. Till September. Goodbye.

The first class I gave the speech to happened to be 5-1 at H-sho, my favorite class. They gave me a big round of applause when I finished the speech, the warmest reception it was to get. 6-1 applauded too, but naturally it was less enthusiastic. Although after the following class a couple of girls from 6-1 found me in the hall and gave me a paper crane they’d made as part of the lesson but later decorated and wrote a nice message on later. It’s the first “present” I’ve received from any students this year. I had lunch with 6-2, so I waited for the end of the lunch period before giving my speech to them. The student who likes me the most in that class is a very childish but sweet kid named Daisuke. He’s cried whenever I eat with their class and he doesn’t win the janken tournament to get me to sit at his table, but I was finally sitting across from him that day. He gave me a picture of a train with the words “thank you very very much” in katakana written on the back. The second present of the year.

By the time I said goodbye to the M-sho classes I already had the speech pretty much down pat. I’m not sure how much those kids appreciated it. The 5-1 teacher prompted them to clap at the end and they were pretty warm when I saw them in the hallway later, but I think that as a class they’ll always be shy and quiet. 6-1 didn’t clap, but I had a much more pleasant surprise when a whole bunch of students came up to me afterwards to ask me to sign their textbooks. So apparently it did have some effect.

The first classes I gave the speech to at K-chu were the third-graders. Strangely, the normally less-friendly 3-2 clapped while the more-friendly 3-1 did not, but I didn’t mean the speech so much for them as I’m bizarrely un-fond of this year’s 3rd-graders, especially when compared to last year’s Togane 3rd-graders who were my favorite class of all time.

Neither 1st-grade class clapped, but I made sure to look at all the students I particularly meant it for and most of them were appreciating it.

As for 2-1, they’re my second-favorite of all my classes after 5-1 and naturally I got the second-best reaction from them, applause and all. It didn’t hurt either that I managed to make my last lesson with them a Mario Kart game. I’d done that game with almost every class at Togane and with the 3rd-graders at K-chu, but I’m convinced that this was the best it’s ever gone. I don’t know if that’s in spite of or because of the fact that W-sensei wasn’t there. I had a little help from a young teacher who had a free period, but she’s not an English teacher so I had to explain the entire complex game myself. But somehow I did it, and thanks to them being an excellent group they played the game perfectly. One group finished the race, another got to the second-to-last row, but the other four groups were right there keeping up with them, making for maximum excitement.

That class was the only class where I had any kind of say in who got picked for the Speech Contest. S-sensei picked the two 3rd-graders, a boy and a girl, and W-sensei picked two boys to do the 1st-grade skit. Only one 2nd-grader can be chosen, and while W-sensei had try-outs in one of her lessons without me, apparently the two best were girls who’d gone the previous year and she wanted to give other students a chance. There were two other girls who’d done well, H- and R-, and she had them both do an audition for me.  They’re both great students and I like both of them a lot, so I didn’t want to have to choose. I ended up not choosing and just going with the homeroom teacher’s preference of H-, but I feel like I made a choice by not choosing.  R-’s audition had been slightly better but I couldn’t bring myself to not choose H-, who’s one of the sweetest kids I’ve ever known.  She’s very shy and timid but I think doing well at the Speech Contest would really help boost her confidence.  As for R-, if I have any say at all in the matter she will definitely be picked next year.

I didn’t technically have to go to any schools on Friday— it could have been the first full day of my summer vacation—but I guess I’m becoming more Japanese because I ended up going to two of them. A few days earlier I’d asked Interac to see if I could attend the H-sho closing ceremony. I just wanted one last chance to see those kids and wave goodbye before the long summer holiday. I specifically said in my e-mail that I didn’t want to give a speech, but when the H-sho administrators found out I wanted to come, they were very gratified and wanted me to give a speech to the whole school. I guess no one had told them I’d already given my speech to the individual classes the previous week.

I found this out just as I was getting ready to leave K-chu yesterday afternoon, but since I couldn’t give the same exact speech again for the whole school (what would the kids who’d already heard it think?) I of course had to write a new speech. Luckily I was able to draw most of the material from previously given speeches and include a line about being “grateful for your warmth and enthusiasm” I’d forgotten to put into the original pre-summer vacation speech for H-sho. I just had to write a few extra lines, get Saito-sensei to check and correct them, then spend the rest of the night and all the next morning practicing. I’ve done this enough times by now to find that I’m getting pretty good at it.

When I got to H-sho on Friday morning, I was greeted warmly by the principal and vice principal who both thought it was wonderful that I’d volunteered to come to their closing ceremony of my own volition and give a speech. The vice principal checked my speech before the ceremony and said it was good. The ceremony began very early—just 8:20, so we headed towards the gym very shortly after I arrived.

It was a very short ceremony with just the school song, a speech by the vice principal, the principal, and the 6-1 teacher, and the last speech was mine. I was handed a microphone and for the first time since opening day I stood before the entire H-sho student body.

The first thing I did was unplanned. “Ohayou gozaimasu,” I said. They returned the greeting. “Good morning,” I said. They returned that greeting too, and I said, “oh sugoi!” which elicited a lot of nice smiles and chuckles. Then I got to it.

“The first part of the year is over. I’ve really enjoyed teaching at [H-sho]. I think this is a great school. You’re wonderful students. I’m grateful for your warmth and enthusiasm. Until now I’ve only met the 5th- and 6th-graders. From September, I want to meet all the students, so I’ll eat lunch with every class. I’m looking forward to that. 5th- and 6th-graders, I’ll miss you very much. Everyone, have a wonderfully fun summer vacation. Goodbye. See you!”

Everything but the “See you!” was in Japanese, of course, and I got a lot of nice “see you”s back from the crowd as well as applause.

I stood by the exit as the kids were walking out, and of the kids who I haven’t been teaching more than half of them gave me some kind of greeting on their way out. They all smiled when I returned their greeting, apparently psyched to just have any kind of interaction with the English teacher. So that was quite nice, well worth the effort of memorizing yet another speech.

The principal approached me then and thanked me for my speech and all my work in the first semester. He said something I didn’t quite understand but got the gist of, that the first- through fourth-graders were very excited by my speech, maybe he meant about the part where I said I’d start having school lunch with them.

After that it was off to K-chu to take care of more unnecessary business there.  I was surprised to see students filing into the gym just as I got there. Apparently their closing ceremony happened an hour later than H-sho’s. So even though I didn’t have to go to any closing ceremonies, I ended up going to two. It was interesting to be at one right after the other, the increase in formality from elementary to junior-high rather striking.

After the ceremony each class had a slightly different schedule, so I hung around and waited for different opportunities to go into homerooms and give each Speech Contest student a CD I’d made the previous night of me reading their speeches, so they’ll be better prepared when we start practicing next week.

That was the last thing I did before leaving, and when I got home my semi-summer vacation had officially begun. I’ll be going to Tokyo tomorrow to celebrate Lily’s birthday, and next weekend I’m having a karaoke party with some friends. The following week, it’s off to Germany!

And one final thing of pretty big significance to mention is that I finally applied for a teaching certification program this week and got accepted the very next day. It’s the fastest, cheapest program there is but once I finish it I’ll be certified to teach in the state of Florida. That’s pretty useless as I have no desire to live in Florida but it will be incredibly useful to get jobs at International Schools which is what I want to do after the ALT thing. When I go back to the states I’ll probably need to do some additional work to get certified in the state I do choose to live in, but by then I’ll have been earning a much better salary for awhile and will be much better able to afford it.

So in both the short and long term, the future is looking pretty bright.

Work Day

June 19th, 2013 No comments

My schedule at K-chu is even more sparse than usual this week due to exams. I had no lessons at all on Tuesday, so I was told I could come in if I want to or stay home. Let’s see—come to school and do absolutely nothing for eight hours or stay home and spend time in ways not limited to staring at my computer screen? Is that supposed to be some kind of decision? Yeah, I think I’ll stay home.

Interac lists these days as “Work Days” on your schedule, because the theory is that even if you’re not going to your own assigned school, hypothetically you should still be available to take a substitution assignment if one comes up. I’ve had quite a few of these Work Days and not once have I ever been called to sub, so the name always seemed the height of irony to me. “Work Day” in actuality seems to mean “Day Off”.

I got up at my normal time of 7:00 a.m. and went for a run. Normally if I want to run in the morning I’ve got to wake up an hour early but today I had the luxury of not needing the extra time to get ready. But when I got back from the jog I saw I had a missed call from Interac. Seriously? I’d missed the call by just two minutes, so I listened to the message and found that they were asking me if I’d be able to take a sub assignment for the day.

Let’s see—stay home and do the same things I can do every weekend or go off on an adventure to get a taste of a totally new school for a day? Is that supposed to be some kind of decision? I called Interac and told them I could do it, and they sent me the details in an e-mail shortly thereafter.

I’d be going to an elementary school in a town near Funabashi, about three-quarters of the way to Tokyo. I was surprised they were asking me to travel so far. Even if I could have caught the 8:36 train I wouldn’t have been able to get there until 10:30 due to all the train changes. Luckily the 9:12 train got me there at the same time, so I didn’t have to rush. They said the ALT for this school has been absent five times so they really needed someone to get there without delay. Absent five times this year already? It’s barely been three months. Made me wonder if there’s something about this school that saps the teacher’s motivation to go in.

So there was some trepidation on my part as I made my way there. This school was much farther from my location than any of the four I’ve been to. It’s not out in “the sticks” as many would refer to my area. Around here it’s little pockets of town surrounded by acres of rice fields and patches of woods. But get a little further into the mainland and you enter the gargantuan concrete sea of Tokyo-suburb-world, where there’s no distinguishing where one town ends and the next begins. Perhaps in these parts the students wouldn’t be as respectful, particularly to a substitute teacher. That might make for a particularly difficult day, but at least it would massively increase my appreciation for the schools I’m currently assigned to.

I found the school from the train station easily enough thanks to a little help from my iPhone and the satellites tracking it, but the entrance was a much trickier thing to find. The school was huge and mostly surrounded by high walls, parts of which were even topped by barbed wire (though I’m pretty sure those were not part of school property). I walked around the whole building as the kids were having their recess, immediately getting a sense of how massive the student body is. This was going to be an interesting change of pace indeed.

I couldn’t find anything that looked like a standard entrance to a school, but when I got to an open gate with some people who might have been teachers nearby, I asked them in Japanese if this was the elementary school and where the entrance was. The man gave me directions in English, slowly and cautiously as though dredging up information from English lessons long ago, and I thanked him in Japanese and walked towards where he directed me. I still found nothing that resembled a real entrance, but luckily a teacher looking out the window a few floors up spotted me and told me where to go in and that I should go to the second floor. I found the second floor but didn’t know where to go from there. A teacher walking by eyed me curiously until I asked him in Japanese where the Teacher’s Room was. For a split second he must have been wondering what this foreigner was doing just wandering into an elementary school.

At least when I got to the teacher’s room, the woman in charge of the ALT was there to greet me and tell me what I’d be doing. Apparently in this school every grade gets English lessons, though fourth-grade and under only gets them in short 20-minute bursts once a week. Tuesday is the day for second and fourth grade, so I’d be taking over those lessons. Because I’d missed the first two periods, they’d be combining four second-grade classes into two and I’d be teaching them first. The material was actions—things like “sit down”, “stand up”, “turn around”, “jump”, “spin”, etc—and they had flashcards prepared but said I was welcome to use my own games if I wanted. I explained that I’d never taught students below 5th-grade before, which she naturally found surprising. I asked if the students knew the numbers 1-10 because I’d brought my materials from the other elementary schools and they were learning numbers, but she said they didn’t. So apparently I’d just have to wing it.

I was brought down to the English room, a normal-sized classroom only completely devoid of desks and chairs. The teacher found the flashcards for the lessons I’d be teaching and showed them to me, as I read the Interac lesson-plan they’d printed out telling me in unclear and poorly-written directions how I was supposed to use them.

But before I could even begin to visualize it, the lesson time was starting. One full-size class of second-graders was led into the room followed by another. They sat down while the teacher who’d greeted me explained to the homeroom teachers that I hadn’t taught this before and she used what little English she had to try and explain the game I should play. That was as much preparation as I was going to get. She gestured to the students, indicating that it was time for me to begin.

So this is an interesting moment. I could have been on the couch watching old football games in the comfort of my apartment. Now here I am in front of more than 60 eight-year olds being prompted to conduct a lesson without a moment’s preparation, having no experience or even training with this kind of teaching. Well…nothing like diving straight into the deep end.

I greet the class with an enthusiastic “hello!” Instantly the intimidating sea of staring faces transforms into a beacon of warmth radiating at me as they return the greeting. I say “hello” again in a high pitched voice, and laughter accompanies the repetition. “Hello” in a low pitched voice, and they mimic the change in tone. Taking control of a classroom, it seems, is actually quite simple. “Hello hello,” I say. “Hello hello,” they repeat. “Hello hello hello,” I say. “Hello hello hello,” they repeat with a chuckle. “Hellohellohellohellohellohellohello,” I bellow while waving frantically, and they’re only too happy to mimic me.

So that’s the easy part. Next I have to do a brief self-introduction. Luckily I’ve done this many times and it doesn’t really matter what age the kids are. I tell them my name and have them guess where I’m from and how old I am. All the kids are wearing big name-tags so it’s easy to call on students, and when some kids guess ridiculous things like I’m from Brazil or Africa, or that I’m 13-years-old or 100-years-old, it keeps the students laughing.

Now I go to the flashcards, and find that this part teaches itself. Luckily this is just a review for the students, so they already know every card and the action it signifies. I get them to stand up, turn around, walk, run, jump, spin, and all that stuff, of course joining in and looking as silly as possible in the process. For “hands up” and “hands down” I have them do this with increased rapidity until we’re all flapping our arms, which they get a kick out of. And since one of the actions is “Be quiet” I come up with the idea of first making lots of noise and then suddenly shouting “Be quiet!” to bring everyone to silence as instantly as possible. There might be nothing more that young kids love than being prompted to start yelling and screaming wildly.

I think my best preparation for this wasn’t any kind of training, but my brief stint with improv comedy back in high school. While I’ve recognized before that I’m implementing many of the principles of improv into my teaching, nowhere was it as apparent as this. Throughout the day I’d be coming up with and trying out ideas on the spot constantly, then repeating what works in the next lesson and discarding or altering what doesn’t. One of the best ideas I came up with came in the second lesson, when after I finished the first round of actions with “sit down” I had us run through them all again, doing things like spinning and walking while sitting down.

The game itself was as simple as it gets. I’d show one row of students a flashcard and prompt them to make the gesture, then the rest of the students would guess it. I would never have done such a simple and mindless game on my own, but it was all I could do with a room of that many students and no time to come up with something better. But by that point the students were already having a great time and had an absolute blast even with the most basic, can-barely-be-called-a-game-at-all game ever. Once all the students had had a chance, if there was any time left I’d have half the students gesture for the other but show them three cards at a time, and later I came up with pitting one half of the class against the other by having a volunteer come and do three gestures for each side, which made it a bit more of a proper game only the students were all perfect so it ended in a tie every time.

In any case, those second-grade classes were an absolute blast for everyone involved, probably myself most of all. Being only twenty-minutes, they were over in a flash but I gave it my all every time and the teachers seemed to recognize this. I have no idea how their normal ALT does it, but the students’ reaction to me suggests it’s not quite as enthusiastically. A part of me felt a slight twinge of guilt that maybe I shouldn’t be doing such a good job as a substitute (after all that’s exactly what I was worried my sub would do when I was stuck in America) but I found that I just couldn’t turn it off or tune it down when I was in front of those kids. Their enthusiasm gave me energy and the more they responded the more I wanted to give. By the end of the third and final second-grade class period (which was just a single class so only about 30 students) I was already exhausted, but exhilarated as well. This was about a thousand times more fun than anything I’d have been doing at home, not to mention a massive learning experience.

Next there was to be one fourth-grade lesson, followed by lunch and the remaining 4 fourth-grade lessons afterwards. The physical difference between the 8 and 10-year-olds was noticeable, but the enthusiasm level was practically the same. The “hello hello” opening worked just as well, and the self-introduction just as smoothly. The material wasn’t much different either—just activities rather than actions. Things like “I wake up”, “I go to school”, “I brush my teeth”, “I watch TV” and so on. I’d have them say the activities on the flashcards and repeat a couple times using every funny voice at my disposal, then I’d play the same sort of gesture game only dividing each class in two and giving double-points to the first team to guess their team’s gesture. In the afternoon I experimented with other various things like having volunteers do gestures for the whole class first, letting the first person to guess do the next gesture. And in lieu of or in addition to the gesture game I’d have the students compete by drawing pictures of the activities on the blackboard. The entire experience was filled with laughter, cheers, and students enthusiastically raising their hands with more eagerness to be called on than I’ve ever seen before.

At lunch time, the teacher who originally greeted me came back to the English room to ask if I wanted to eat lunch there, in the Teacher’s Room, or in her classroom. Is that supposed to be some kind of decision? Well, it almost is, but as tired as I am I only get one day at this school so I might as well interact with as many students as possible. She was a 1st-grade teacher so her students were as young as it gets, most of whom still had missing teeth. I’ve actually eaten with 1st-graders once before at M-sho, where they have me cycle my lunch between all the grades and not just 5th and 6th, but there it was a combined 1st-and-2nd-grade class that still had only twelve students altogether while this was a full-on at-capacity 35-student classroom. At least a dozen of the kids were keen on talking to me, so I had to push my Japanese-chatting skills to the limit and still failed to understand much of what they were saying. But with kids that young non-verbal interaction is perfectly fine, as nothing more than a funny face can almost always generate a smile.

The normal ALT doesn’t order school lunch so I had to bring my own, nothing more than a little rice-and-seaweed snack from a train-station convenience stand, so I finished very quickly and watched the rest of them eat and play with their food the whole time. When the lunch period was over I headed back to the English room where I thought I’d get a few moments to myself.

A few moments was all I had, as a handful of students from earlier classes came in to hang out. There were a couple of strings with various flags from different countries hanging from the ceiling, so I played a simple game where I called the name of the country and the kids would have to jump up and touch the right flag, sometimes having to guess a few times before they got it right. Unfortunately I barely recognized a quarter of the flags myself, so this game was pretty limited.

After that it was cleaning time so I did get some relative peace as I did my Japanese flashcards on my laptop and the kids assigned to clean the English room did their thing.

The afternoon lessons started at 1:45 and lasted until about 3:00, twenty-minute lessons interspersed with five-minute breaks in which I’d reorganize the flashcards and see how many of the students’ names from the previous lesson I could remember. Over the course of the day I’d met with 10 classes total, and with about 30 students in each class that made for over 300 students I’d met and known for 20 minutes before saying goodbye forever. I must have made a minuscule impression on all of them, and quite a few of them made a minuscule impression on me. Some students just really stand out no matter what, always raising their hand to volunteer or get called on even if I’d already done so multiple times. I’d always try to call on as many different students as possible, constantly scanning for hands I hadn’t called on yet, but some students were so eager and excited that I couldn’t help but call on them multiple times. Occasionally I’d call on a student who’d make a mistake and embarrass themselves, and I’d always try to remember to give them another chance. One girl seemed absolutely devastated when she got an answer wrong but I made sure she got two more things right over the course of the lesson and by the end she was just as happy as everyone else. My only big regret was when one team lost the game and I let them leave feeling dejected. I made sure to give the next team that lost a nice happy cheer in spite of it at the end to let them leave feeling like they still had a good time.

When I’d finally finished my last lesson I headed back to the teacher’s room and was glad to find the 1st-grade teacher who’d invited me to lunch with her class there and ready to help me get the appropriate form and stamp I needed. I’ll submit the paper with my actual pay sheets at the end of the month but I don’t think I actually need to. It was pretty ironic to think I’d have been paid exactly the same for the day if I’d stayed home.

On my way out the teacher asked me where I was coming from and was shocked when she heard it was as far away as Togane. She told me she heard from other teachers that my Japanese was very good and I was a skilled teacher, which is always nice to hear. After that I bid her farewell and began the long journey home.

Overall, taking the sub assignment was clearly one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, as it wasn’t just incredibly fun but also a tremendous learning opportunity. I got to see what a truly large elementary school—982 students total as I found out—is like, and what it’s like to teach in a more urban area. I got a good impression of what teaching younger kids is like, and while it was undeniably fun I’m not sure I’d want to do it every single day. It’s no wonder the normal ALT—yet another girl from Jamaica as I found out—has called out so many times. It’s exhausting, and if you’re sick it’s got to be nearly impossible to keep up the energy.

But even so, a part of me thinks I might prefer it to my current assignment. The big problem with my current assignment is I’ve only got 10 classes spread across three schools, so most of my time isn’t spent teaching at all but merely preparing for lessons or just finding ways to keep busy. The full-time elementary assignment may be draining but at least you’re always busy, and most of the lessons are quick and simple enough that you barely need to prepare anyway. And while the 5th and 6th grade lessons are the full-period and would require preparation, there being five classes in each grade would allow you to work out all the kinks by the time you’re done. Now I only teach those lessons two or three times each, which isn’t really enough to perfect them.

All that aside, the warmth of the students is still the biggest factor in my thinking. I can’t yet say definitively because as of now I’ve still only set foot in 5 schools total, but it seems that the larger the class-size the better, as counter-intuitive as that may be. Smaller classes tend to be quieter and more subdued, which I’m sure makes for a better learning environment but not a more enthusiastic one. Classes at Togane Chu were all about 30 students and they varied in enthusiasm, but these days I’ve got classes as low as 16 students and those are all the most quiet and least enthusiastic, even the elementary schools. At Togane Chu the 2nd-graders were generally the least enthusiastic but the 2nd-grade class as K-chu is the biggest in the school at 30 students and the warmest class of all. The 5th-grade class at M-sho is only 17 students and extremely quiet, while the 5th-grade class at H-sho is my biggest group—35-students—and also the most enthusiastic by far. The 6th-grade classes at both M-sho and H-sho are 20 students each and all three are about as quiet as each other. The 35-student class at H-sho is my favorite class of all the schools, and almost every class at the school I subbed at yesterday was like that class.

In many ways, the hardest part of the day wasn’t figuring out how to do the lessons on-the-fly, but saying goodbye to the students when it was over. With groups that big, there are always about a dozen or so students who are super excited to meet you and anxious to rush up and shake hands or exchange high-fives at the end. Students wave and make faces at you as they say goodbye, laughing when you mimic them. You want to get to know them better, to exchange those priceless little moments all year long, but it’s a sub assignment and the odds of having a Work Day on the same day their teacher calls out again (and that it would be on a Tuesday) are infinitesimal.

One girl took both my hands before leaving the room and did a little dance with me, delighted when I played along. She kept waving goodbye and saying “See you!” as she walked away and finally “See you tomorrow!” before disappearing out of sight. It nearly broke my heart in half. I’m so sorry, you adorable precious little person, but you won’t see me tomorrow. You’ll never see me again for the rest of your life.

There wasn’t even that kind of finality when it came to this past years’ graduation—I at least still live in the same town as those kids and do in fact run into them all the time. But the kids from Funabashi aren’t likely to be going shopping in Togane any time soon.

One very real consequence of the day, however, is that I’ve now already pretty much made up my mind to request a change of assignments again next year. I’d been wondering whether or not I’d want to stay on in this situation since I started it. About three months in I can already state definitively that I preferred my assignment at Togane Chu. The school was bigger so the students were friendlier and the days were busier, and on top of that the teachers were more helpful. The only thing better about this year is I get the added variety of elementary-school teaching, but 4 of my 5 elementary classes are actually rather cold and dull when I look at them in comparison to the classes I taught yesterday. The only thing I’ll miss when transferring that I was looking forward to is seeing my current elementary school 6th-graders become middle-school 1st-graders. It’ll be tough to say goodbye to some of them, but in the end I’d rather move on to a completely new batch of students, and I’ll specifically request that it be a big school. I’ve already pondered the idea of specifically requesting the school I taught at yesterday if its current ALT switches next year, but I’m hoping to sub at a few more schools throughout the course of the year to get a better idea of where I’d be happiest. Hopefully I’ll get to try a high school or two as well.

This morning I sent an e-mail to Interac letting them know I enjoyed the sub assignment and I’d like to have more of them. I didn’t get a response but we’ll see what happens. I’d never been called to sub before but they sounded surprised when I agreed to, so now maybe they’ll move me up on the list of who to call when they’re in a pinch. I just need more Work Days.

I had my M-sho classes this morning, and I felt compelled to try and tell them about my experience yesterday. I did my best to explain in Japanese that I’d taught for one day at a school of a thousand students, that I taught over 300 students, twenty-minutes at a time, met them, taught them, then said goodbye forever. I tried to convey that I was happy to see them and glad that I had a whole year together with them, trying to express the same sort of message I did in my farewell speech to the Togane Chu students but now instead of waiting until the end of the year to let them know I appreciate them (even if they are rather quiet). I didn’t have O-sensei to help me translate so it was a struggle. Luckily the 5th-grade teacher was able to tell what I was getting at and helped me explain, and those kids at least got and appreciated my message and were perhaps a little warmer today because of it. But the 6th grade teacher was just confused and the whole thing fell flat. I tried one more time with a 1st-grade junior high class this afternoon and the benefit of practice helped me get my first points across but not the important stuff about appreciating the chance to get to know them. Of course I got no help from W-sensei (she seemed perplexed by the whole thing) but I think maybe a few students might have gotten some sense of what I was getting at. Still, the rest of the lesson was cold and almost completely devoid of excitement and a part of me couldn’t help but think that next school year can’t come fast enough.

It was quite an experience yesterday. To meet 300 people in batches of 35-70 each for just 20 minutes at a time, then say goodbye forever. Somehow it was enough that I know I’ll always remember some of them. I wonder if any of them will remember me.

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 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.