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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.

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.

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: , , ,

Driver’s License Chronicles, Part 5

May 12th, 2013 No comments

It had been almost a month since my last trip to the Menkyo center in Kaihinmakuhari to fail the practical driving test, but going there again on Friday still felt like routine. The only difference was I had work in the morning, whereas every other time I’d gone had been on a day off. I greatly preferred this circumstance, as the Menkyo center trip didn’t cost me a holiday but merely an afternoon sitting in the teacher’s room of K-chu doing nothing. Also, teaching a couple of successful lessons at H-sho in the morning made it a good day regardless of what would happen in the afternoon.

I woke up early and decided to go for a run in the morning so I wouldn’t have to bother with it in the afternoon. Success.

I taught a fifth-grade class “I’m from ~” and they greatly enjoyed the games and activities. Success.

In order to accommodate my need to get to the Menkyo center on time, H-sho combined both 20-student sixth-grade classes into one giant 40-student class so I could do my lesson for both and leave after third period. I had to alter the plan a bit, but it worked out well. Rather than having the class arrange the alphabet on the blackboard and then having them try to beat their own time, I pitted one class against the other and had them try to beat the other class’s time. One class won the uppercase battle, and the other won the lowercase. The students loved it. Success.

After third-period I had just enough time to ride home and drop off my computer and excess baggage so I wouldn’t have to lug it around with me all afternoon, stop at the 7/11 to pick up a snack for lunch, and get to the train station with time to spare. Success.

I made it to the Menkyo center with no trouble at all, as by now I know the train and bus routine so well as to be able to sleep-walk through the whole journey. Success.

So by the time I got there, I figured I’d already chalked up enough successes on the day that one little failure wouldn’t bother me too much. On top of that, I now know what the consequences of failure are, and they’re not bad at all. I have to work up a sweat on the way to work four days a week, but that’s no big deal. And on Wednesdays I have to pay for a taxi to M-sho and walk home from K-chu, but the cost of the cab-ride four days a month is less than a monthly lease of a car anyway and the walk home from K-chu is a doable 45 minutes. The worst consequence of another failure is simply having to bother with the whole annoying process of going to the Menkyo center and taking the test yet again.

I got there just as the booths were opening up after the lunch break, and immediately spotted my Tunisian friend at the front of the line. He asked me about why I failed last time and I told him about my left turns not being tight enough for our super-strict lady proctor. He agreed that she was definitely too strict and wished me better luck this time. I thought I’d see him again in the waiting room for the test-course but that was not to be. Apparently he was there for something else that day, or perhaps he’d taken the test in the morning and was still there for some reason. Who knows?

In the test-course waiting room I didn’t even bother going through the course in my head again like every other time. I just took out my Kindle and did some reading, just wanting to get this over with and go home. A Chinese guy sitting next to me attempted to talk with me about the test, but he spoke no English and I speak no Chinese so we could only use our limited Japanese to communicate. I found out it was also his fourth time, and we managed to explain to each other why we’d failed our previous tests.

Our proctor was the first to enter, and while I was immediately relieved that it wasn’t the woman, this guy seemed just as strict and no-nonsense as her. I was hoping for the guy I had the first time, who seemed the friendliest out of all of them and might very well have passed me had I not driven up on the curb in the S-curve. No such luck. This guy just told us the order we’d be going in, explained that the test was very difficult and recommended that we all go to driving school. He didn’t walk us through the course map and explain the rules about backing up in the crank and S-curve like the other proctors had. He was in and out in two minutes.

I finished the chapter I was reading, and very soon after the vehicles were brought around and I went outside. I was to go second again, so I’d be riding in the back while the first person took the test. This time it was a Filipino woman who was taking the test for the second time. We didn’t exchange many words before getting in the car, but I wished her luck.

I could tell she was going to fail pretty early on. She wasn’t staying nearly left enough as she drove around the course perimeter, and she almost missed the right-turn onto the center road. The proctor had to point it out to her as she was driving past it, so she had to come to an abrupt stop and make the turn well past the turn-marker. She did come to a full stop at the stop sign at the end of the road, but forgot to signal her left turns until she was already making them. I was surprised that he didn’t fail her before the crank, but he let her get to it. At first it seemed like she really knew what she was doing, as she made the sharp right-turn like a pro, doing it surprisingly quickly and not hitting the poles. But as soon as she got to the left turn I knew she’d miscalculated and the back wheel was going to hit the curb. Indeed, she not only hit the curb but drove right up over it. Instant fail. She took the car back to the dock and then it was my turn.

Here we go again. I check under the back and front of the car like every other time. Get seated, adjust the seat, the mirrors and all that. Same old routine. I feel like I’ve done this a hundred times already, not merely three. Of course as I take my foot off the break and start to pull out I realize I forgot to disengage the emergency break, but the proctor doesn’t write anything on my sheet so I assume it doesn’t matter.

I don’t bother verbalizing my actions this time. I just make all of my mirror-checks and head-turns as blatant as possible. All I say is “hai” to the proctor’s instructions, all of which I know before he says them. As I make my way around the perimeter I’m only half-focused on the course, thinking about this morning’s lessons and how well they went.

At the right-turn I make sure to get as close to the center lane as possible and make the turn without incident—no other vehicles are coming the other way. It’s not until I get to the series of left-turns before the crank that the proctor starts writing on my sheet. What could he possibly be writing? I’ve done everything perfectly so far. I suppose it’s still just not perfect enough.

At the entrance to the crank I move to the right to reduce my chances of hitting the curb on the way in like I had the second time, and I notice him writing something but I make it in without any trouble, do the right-turn perfectly, and make the left-turn only having to back up once. I’ve got the whole crank thing down.

More easy stuff, then it’s the S-curve. I move to the right again at the entrance to get in a good position to not hit the curb at I drive through it, and for the second time I make it through the S-curve without needing to back up at all, though I make sure to excessively check my mirrors like a paranoid schizophrenic throughout.

The proctor doesn’t tell me to head back to the dock before finishing the course, so that’s a good sign but I was able to finish the previous two times as well and still failed. As I make the final turn into the dock, my old instincts kick in and I accidentally engage the windshield wipers a second before remembering the blinker is on the other side. The proctor doesn’t write anything though, so either that’s not something you lose points for or I’ve already failed and it makes no difference. I park the car, the woman riding in the back gets out, and I prepare to accept my fate.

The proctor speaks in Japanese with a few English words thrown in here and there. “This time was okay” he says. “Okay?” I repeat. What does that mean? “Yes, it was okay,” he says making the OK hand-gesture. He says a few things in Japanese I don’t understand but assume it’s about how I drove well. Then he says, “demo” which means “but”. Of course.

He explains that at the entrance to the crank and S-curve I shouldn’t have moved to the right because there could have been bicyclists or something. I’d blatantly checked the right mirror before doing so for that very reason, but apparently it didn’t matter. I should have just taken the turn from where I was, even though that makes it much harder not to hit the curb. I accept his advice with humility, and wait for him to jot down that awful “fail” kanji (不) on my paper.

But he doesn’t hand me back my paper. He tells me to wait. Confused, I get out of the car and walk towards the other people there. “You passed?” the Filipino woman asks me. “I don’t know,” I say. He didn’t tell me I passed (at least I don’t think so—I’m not sure what ‘you passed’ is in Japanese) but he didn’t hand me back my paper and he’d told me to wait. The other test-takers tell me this probably means I passed, and they congratulate me. I realize that I probably had passed—otherwise he would have given me my paper so I could go make a new appointment—but I’m not quite ready to start celebrating. Not until I know for sure.

The Filipino woman is waiting behind for her friend—the woman going after me—to finish the test, and she asks me if I could give her any pointers on how to make it through the crank. I take her to the map and walk her through the procedure, and she’s surprised to learn that you’re allowed to back up three times. The proctor hadn’t explained that this time, much to her unfair disadvantage. But she was very grateful to me for telling her, and we got to chatting a bit as we waited for her friend to finish the test.

I get to know the other test-takers a bit better. All of them have been in Japan longer than me and have been driving with an international license. They only need a Japanese license because the rule has changed and you can only use an international license for a year. The only other American to go had been renewing her international license for years every time she goes back to Arizona, which you’re not supposed to do. It was also her fourth time on the test and she ended up failing because her left-turns weren’t tight enough, a frustration I told her I knew all too well.

After all of them had left, I sit in the waiting room and eventually the proctor enters and calls my name. He tells me what I now need to do to get the driver’s license, and it is thusly confirmed. Success.

All that remained was the long slow process of getting the actual license. I first had to go to Window 2 to pay for the license, which costs 2050 yen, just slightly less than the 2200 yen cost of taking the driving test. Then it was back to Window 10 to give them the stamps indicating I’d paid. Waited there for awhile, then was taken to another room to go to another window and fill out another form. Waited there for a long time, then was given a receipt for the license and told where to go next. Got my photo taken, then waited outside in the hallway for a very long time hoping I was in the right place and they hadn’t forgotten about me. While I waited, the woman proctor from my last two tests hurried by. I would have liked for her to stop and take note of the fact that I’d passed, but she didn’t acknowledge me. A short while later, a man came out from the back room with my license and a paper with instructions for how to renew it after a year. He explained a bunch of things in Japanese which I pretended to understand (I can find out anything I need to know through Interac), then he gave me my long-awaited license. I took a quick iPhone photo of it for Facebook, then inserted it into my wallet.

On my way back home I called Interac to let Takahashi-san know that I’d passed and got the license. She sounded happy for me, congratulated me, and told me she’d send me an e-mail about getting me a car as soon as possible.

I happened to be riding the train back to Togane at the same time as most high school students journey home, so I had the nice bonus of seeing some of my Togane Chu students who graduated last year. I ran into a lot of them at Togane Station and proudly showed off my new license.

I still haven’t got an e-mail from Takahashi-san, but I assume I’ll be taken somewhere by an independent contractor to get a car one afternoon this week, as I have no lessons on any afternoon. I have M-sho on Tuesday though, so if it doesn’t happen tomorrow I’ll have to cab it one more day. If it does, I’ll be driving to work in Japan for the first time ever in just two days. I’m a bit nervous about driving on these super-narrow windy roads, but I’m sure I’ll get used to it quickly enough.

I’m actually not nearly as happy about being able to drive as I am about not having to go back and take the driving test again. I still don’t really want a car, but I know I’ll be glad to have one to drive to work when it’s really hot and humid or when it rains. It’ll also be convenient in many other ways, some I probably don’t even realize yet. But the experience-factor is probably the best thing, as driving in a foreign country where they drive on the left side of the road is a pretty cool experience to have.

Categories: Personal Tags: , ,

Momentum

May 1st, 2013 No comments

The momentous two-month duo of March and April is over, and everything is fast becoming routine. I’ve had at least two lessons with all of my classes, and as many as five with some. I know most of my students’ names now, with only the exception of H-sho because the administrators there have been too busy to put together a name-list for me. The Kyle-store has transformed from an after-school thing with only non-club-members participating to an after-lunch thing so club-members can come, and as I only eat lunch at K-chu three days a week that allows one day for first-graders, one for second, and one for third. I’ve also expressed an interest in visiting the students’ club activities after school on Fridays, and the first of those experiences might happen as early as tomorrow, before the four-day weekend.

The most interesting experiences now are still the elementary school lessons. After the self-introduction, it was time to get right into actual teaching. As I don’t work at those schools every day and only see the homeroom teachers when I’m in the classroom, all of the planning is entirely my responsibility. I have a textbook which outlines what needs to be taught and the order in which to teach it, but how I teach it is completely up to me. It’s an interesting feeling—in contrast to the junior high school situation where the JTE does most of the teaching and I only come in once or twice a week to reinforce, I’m responsible for all of the elementary school students’ English learning for the year. The feeling of responsibility is particularly strong with the fifth-graders, as I’m laying the foundation for all of their future English learning. Things I could always count on every Japanese person to know are things these students don’t know until I teach it.

Lesson 1 was “Hello, my name is ~. What’s your name? Nice to meet you.” As much as I dislike the textbook and the CD that comes with it, I knew it would be useful in getting these structures into the students’ minds, as there’s a musical chant which sticks in your head and was very effective for teaching them. Because they don’t know phonics yet, they can’t memorize by words, so I reached all the way back to Narita training and used a technique I saw Cedric teaching to the elementary-school teachers: to draw a shape for each phrase depending on how many words. “Hello, my name is suchandsuch” is a five-point star because there are five words. “What’s your name?” is a triangle, and “Nice to meet you” is a square. The students were drawn in with curiosity as I drew the shapes, and when I pointed to each corner of the shape as the CD chanted the words, they understood immediately. Next week I opened the lesson by drawing the same shapes on the board, and the students remembered every word. The foundations of English are successfully being laid. It doesn’t get much more gratifying than that.

With the sixth-graders so far it’s just been counting and letter-games, as this year they learn numbers from 30 to 100 and the lowercase roman letters (I found out they learn uppercase in Japanese class because ‘romaji’ is one of the four writing systems they use here). I’ve been combining new ideas with some old ideas I’ve used in both JHS first-grade lessons (playing games where students have to guess ‘how many’ of something there are) and even some games I used for beginners in Germany (counting to 100 without saying multiples of a certain number, which these kids are better at than the adults were). I’ve found myself short on time a few times, but the students always have fun, and things I know I can always save what I don’t get to for following week, as I’m working with the loosest of guidelines.

One thing that will still take some getting used to is eating lunch in the classroom. It still feels a little awkward, even when I’m in lunch-groups with students who are inclined to think of questions to ask me. They think of a question (usually along the lines of “what food do you like?” or “what color do you like?”), ask me, I figure out what they’re asking, give them an answer, and that’s the end of the conversation. Occasionally I’ll remember to ask them what their favorite suchandsuch is too, but that only prolongs the conversation by a few words.

Yesterday I ate lunch with junior high school students for the first time ever, as W-sensei came up to me at with no warning at the beginning of the lunch-period and told me to come to her homeroom and eat with the students. One student was absent so I could sit at his desk. When I got there with my full tray of food, the students were just starting to get things set up so I had to wait for about ten minutes before the formal beginning of the meal was made, though unlike in elementary schools it was just a ceremonial few words instead of a whole speech. Lunch itself was just like elementary only even less social, probably because I happened to be at a table of particularly quiet students. I asked each of them what clubs or sports they were in, but that was the extent of the conversation. When I was finished with my meal I went to empty my tray, and because they’d served a curry with beef in it I’d hardly finished half of it, and when I put my tray down on the edge of the table to empty something else, it fell over and spilled curry all over the floor. So that was delightfully embarrassing, but it’s not like it was a complete disaster. If I was their age I might get made fun of for it all year, but I’m their teacher and they still respect me. I taught their class today without W-sensei (she was mysteriously absent yet again) and it went really well. They were even more respectful than when she’s present.

Regarding W-sensei, I’m afraid Enam’s warnings about her are turning out to be accurate. While she has yet to impose on me too much, it’s clear she doesn’t know how to discipline the students, and when it comes to teaching itself she’s pretty much just winging it and figuring it out as she goes along. I can’t be too hard on her because that’s been more-or-less what I’ve been doing since I started this job, but last year I noticed a distinct improvement in the first-graders’ reading ability from week to week (thanks to K-sensei and O-sensei) whereas now they seem pretty stagnant. At least it motivates me to step up my own teaching, as I don’t want them to have the disadvantage of not learning phonics at the same rate as the rest of Japanese 11-year-olds.

Outside of school, things feel like they’re picking up in the socialization department, mostly because Enam has moved in with Kim and he’s more inclined to come over and see if his neighbor wants to hang out a bit. We hung out Saturday afternoon, and Sunday evening was his birthday which we celebrated with a large group of ALTs in Chiba, starting at a bar and then migrating to the bowling alley. I got to see Stephen, Stacy, and a bunch of other people I hardly ever see, though Jack and Lily didn’t come. I’m going to try and visit them in Tokyo during the four day weekend.

But the most significant piece of news comes through a conversation I had with Enam on Saturday, about what I want to do in the future. I’ve had it in my mind since I started this that one day I’d go back to America and become a full-time teacher there. But what I learned about the present-day American education system from my own brief experience with teacher education courses as well as articles like this are a major deterrent to taking that path. Enam brought up the possibility of teaching at an international school instead, and the more we discussed it the more it made sense. I could become certified through online courses as I do the ALT thing (which certainly provides me sufficient down-time to work on assignments), then get a job as a real teacher, teaching any subject I want, anywhere in the world I want. International schools are everywhere, they pay well, and they don’t tie their teachers’ arms and legs to standardized test-scores like they’re now doing across America. I could also continue to teach in different countries around the world, but do more travelling as I’ll be better able to afford it. And I don’t think it prohibits me from returning to America either—I’m sure there must be some international schools within the United States.

So over the next few weeks I’ll be looking into online teaching certification programs and see what options are out there. What I’m doing now is the perfect springboard to what I want to do next. My life may appear somewhat aimless at times, but underlying all the shifts and changes would appear to be a steadily forward momentum.

Categories: Personal Tags: , , ,

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: ,

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 Never-Ending Ending

March 16th, 2013 No comments

This March is just an endless series of goodbyes, one after another after another. It started with the third-graders, culminating in their graduation ceremony, and because I’m leaving the school is now continuing with the other two grades as well. This week I had my last lessons with all but three of the first and second-grade classes, and I’ll finish the final three on Monday.

It’s been quite an experience. I’ve never had to say goodbye to so many people at once. The only comparable time was high school (I actually knew less people in college, and most of them I continued to see after graduation), and even then it wasn’t as many, and it didn’t really feel like an absolute ending. I’d see my friends in the summer, and there were always reunions to look forward to (though I missed our 10-year reunion by about a month).

I start every class with a few rehearsed Japanese lines: “This will be our last lesson together. In April I will not return to this school. I will go to another school. It was very fun teaching you. I hope today will be fun too.” Reactions vary depending on the collective personality of each class (a fascinating phenomenon). Generally, the first-grade classes have had a much stronger reaction than the jaded second-graders, but there are usually a few cries of “Oh no!” whether genuine or in jest. Only a handful of students seemed really upset by the news, but I at least got the impression from every class that they would be sorry to see me go.

After I finish, O-sensei informs each class that she would be leaving as well, not just to a different school but a different country. This always elicits a major surprise, and occasionally laughter—which I assume has to do with their disbelief that both of us will be leaving them.

Once the opening is finished, I launch right into our final game, a variation of what was probably the most enjoyable game of the year for everyone—the draw/gesture word-guessing game. I call it “Spell, Draw, or Gesture”. I made three decks of word cards, one for each category. I split the class into two teams, and have students line up at the front three at a time. One student chooses whether to spell, draw, or gesture to make their team guess the word for a point. For spelling, the words are in Japanese and they have to spell the English word correctly to get the point. If they don’t know the word, they can pass to the next person but if the same word is passed three times, that’s three strikes and their team loses a point. Once the word has been guessed the student sits down and the next person gets up to stand in the line, making it progress very swiftly. Each team goes for three minutes at a time, and we continue until about five minutes before the end of the period.

Because of the success of my previous word-guessing game, I knew the students would like this one and they all definitely did. The game moves swiftly enough that each students gets two or three turns in the spotlight before the time is up. It’s a nice structure for a final lesson for me personally, as I get to focus on each individual student for a moment or two and appreciate whatever it is about them there is to appreciate.

Once the time is up, O-sensei gives her goodbye speech, followed by me. I don’t give the speech I gave to the third-graders—I’ll give that during the school’s final closing ceremony on the 29th—but I have a different sort of farewell. I had a bunch of extra CDs I made for the third-graders, so first I tell each class about them and say that if any student wants one they can just come ask me, either in the teacher’s room or in the “Kyle-store” after school.

The next part is my favorite. Signing the seniors’ yearbooks had been such a pleasant experience and knowing I was able to give personal messages to nearly all of those kids motivated me to write messages to every other student as well. Last weekend I went to the stationary store and picked up a bunch of notepads with cute designs—things like Mickey or Hello Kitty or other various characters—and set about writing a little note to every student in every class. Most of the notes are some variation of “I hope you enjoyed my lessons. It was fun to teach your class. Good luck in the future!” but for a great deal of students I made it more personal, thanking them for their kindness or enthusiasm and adding compliments or words of encouragement. With about 35 students in each class and 11 classes to get through, this has been quite a time-consuming process, taking longer than a class-period itself to get through one class.

But it’s totally worth it, and I intend to do the same thing every time I leave a school. The students sincerely appreciate the gesture, and it’s really nice to know that all of them have something to remember me by, and particularly that the best students know I believe in them, that I noticed them, that they weren’t just a face in the crowd to me.

I call each student’s name and they stand up to receive the note, then busily go about trying to figure out what it says, either with a dictionary or asking the closest smart student for help translating. I assume most will ask another English teach to translate the next time they get the chance, but even if they don’t understand the words they definitely just appreciate the fact that I took time to write something just for them.

Once all the notes are distributed, I close with a few lines from my speech along with some extra phrases: “You were great students. Thank you for your warmth and enthusiasm. I will really miss you. Enjoy your Spring Vacation. Good luck in second/third grade.” The students stand up for the ceremonial bow to end each lesson, and I exit the room, usually to a chorus of warm goodbyes from appreciative students.

The whole thing has had a massive warming effect on nearly everyone. The second-graders, whom I’ve mentioned several times had cooled off to me this year, seem to rediscover their friendliness after the goodbye. The first-graders, who were always warm to begin with, are now downright beaming. Most of them have come to me asking for the CD, and a few have come bearing notes of their own they wrote for me, either in simple Japanese so I could understand or adorably broken English. One first-grade girl wrote this: “Dear Kyle, We are very enjoyed your lesson! Kyle is popular with junior high school student. Thank your teaching till now!”

But the best experience by far was my last lesson of the day yesterday, with 1-5. That was always my last lesson of the week, which was great because it was the most spirited, warm, and enthusiastic class in the school. I had trouble remembering all the students’ names in each class, but never with 1-5. Each individual student stuck out enough to me that I never had trouble recalling any of their names. It took me twice as long to write my notes to that class because I had something personal to say to just about each and every student. When I announced I’d be leaving, there was the most genuine reaction of sadness from that group, and one girl even appeared to have tears in her eyes.

The game went better than with any other class, with both teams doing an excellent job. In nearly every other class, students would constantly pass the word to the next player, not even wanting to try to understand the word or make the gesture or pictures. But there was only one pass during that entire class. A typical score for a team at the end of the game in other classes was between 20 and 30 points. With 1-5 the final score was 45 to 43. But the most noticeable difference to me was that in every other class, students avoided doing gestures until the very end when they needed fast points, but the 1-5 students did gestures all throughout. The reason is clear enough—students are embarrassed to do gestures in front of the class, so they want to avoid it. But 1-5 was such a great atmosphere that all the students were comfortable enough not to give it a second thought. They were laughing, cheering, and applauding throughout, even giving encouragement to the most awkward kid in the room. It’s a shame they rearrange the students after first-grade, as it’s a tragedy that this group will be broken up.

After I distributed my notes, I gave my farewell lines and added that I’d especially miss this class because they were my number one favorite. When they stood up to take the final bow, the class president thanked me personally on behalf of everyone just like 3-4 had, and I got more shouts of “thank you” from the students.

But that wasn’t the best part. After the bow had taken place, everyone remained standing. The class president and a friend of hers walked to the front of the room and set up the CD player. All of the students moved to the back of the room and arranged themselves in chorus formation. They then proceeded to sing their class’s song for O-sensei and me, just as a special goodbye and thank you from their class.

The period had already ended. This was during the 10-minute break time between periods, and they were using five minutes of that time to sing a song for just the two of us. It might have been the most moving thing I’ve ever experienced. Such an unbelievably beautiful moment. Most beautiful moments are over so quickly that you barely have time to appreciate them, but their song lasted long enough for me to maintain full awareness that this was one of the most beautiful moments of my life and I should soak in every second of it. As I stood there and scanned their faces, the girls putting their heart and soul into their singing and some of the boys playfully goofing around as they sang, I felt the same beautiful sadness that I’d felt at graduation. I hadn’t known these students as long or as well as the third-graders, but an entire school-year is not an insignificant amount of time. Knowing that I’d never stand in front of this class again, that this class itself would soon be broken up and never exist again—that these voices would never sing together again—I almost lost it again. Some of the students seemed to notice when my eyes watered up and they were pointing it out to others, then when a couple of tears finally did fall and I had to wipe them away, everyone noticed and laughed warmly.

When it was over, I told them that was beautiful and thanked them sincerely. They remained in their formation as I left the room, waving and saying goodbye until I was completely out of sight. When I got back to the teacher’s room I thanked their homeroom teacher for cultivating such a wonderful class.

I only wish that had been my last lesson at the school altogether, as it will never get more beautiful than that. My actual last lesson will be with 2-6 on Monday, who are probably the least warm and enthusiastic class in the school, the least likely to give a damn about my leaving. But that’s just how it goes. Nothing can be perfect.

But it can come close. After school, nearly every student from 1-5 and a few from other classes came to the Kyle-store to get the CD, many bearing notes or little presents for me. A few of them asked me to sign the inside rim of their bike helmets, which is just about the most flattering thing imaginable. They’ll have those helmets throughout all of junior high school, so (assuming they don’t endeavor to wash it off for some reason) those students will have a little message from me at the top of their vision every time they ride to and from school.

I’ve learned so much from these students, and I continue to learn all the time. The most significant thing I learned yesterday is that what you see on the outside is not always what’s happening on the inside. Some students seem cold and distant and you think they either don’t like you or don’t give you a second thought, then you hand them a note and all of sudden they’re coming to see you after school and asking you to sign their bike helmet. You get the impression that many of them are sleepwalking through junior high school, just going through the daily routine without ever appreciating the significance of this time in their lives, but when it’s time to say goodbye they’re the most sentimental people ever. It’s amazing.

I don’t know if all kids are like this (it’s hard to tell when you’re one of them), if it’s just Japanese students, or if it’s just this school, but I’d like to find out. One thing I’m absolutely sure of is that I intend to teach kids for the rest of my life. It’s been rewarding beyond my wildest expectations. I can’t imagine ever doing anything else.

Categories: Personal Tags: , , ,

A Good Goodbye

February 27th, 2013 No comments

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

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

triforce

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

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

forest-temple       fire-temple

water-temple            ganon's castle

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

six-links     ganondorf zelda

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

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

Forest TempleFire TempleWater TempleGanon's Tower

Ganon

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

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

Itemsmaster-sword(3)

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

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

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

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

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

saved game

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

Word Search

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Personal Tags: , ,