Tag Archives: teaching

Eighteen Days Left

As he struggled to think of the word ‘sky’ and then scribbled an incomprehensible version of said word on the board, the student next to him thrust up his hand, straining on his tiptoes as he proudly displayed the word ‘sea’, gaining the first point for the other team.

“No! Sea is green!” the first boy protested.

“Sometimes blue,” I replied, and at that he stalked off to his desk muttering the word “green” under his breath before staring at everything as if he wanted to murder it all with a blunt spoon.

Such is the emotion you can generate from a game of Scattegories apparently, where I summon a student from each of the 7 makeshift groups to the board, tell them a letter and a category, and have them write a word beginning with that letter and related to that category. Cue the noisiest lesson I have ever supervised. I’m actually amazed none of the other teachers came to protest.

There’s a reason for this madness of course; I am doing my last lesson with all my 1st years. This, as it turns out, is proving to be a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Usually, trying to get anything out of the students in two of my classes is like trying to draw blood from a particularly dead stone, yet both of them have woken up a bit in my last two lessons. People often say that you should have no favourites, but classes are so inconsistent anyway that it’s almost impossible for one to be on top the whole time, and others are always moving around the rankings. How well a class goes depends on so many factors, only a few of which you can control. You can only make your lessons so enjoyable (or try, anyway), but in the end you’re dealing with 42 independent personalities who might be tired, run-down, happy, genki, clinically depressed or a mixture of them all. One week you’ll have a lesson filled with joy, hard work, chatter and playful banter, and the next it’ll be like a tramp just climbed into the window, crapped on all their desks and told them to f**k off.

So the usually quiet classes have livened up. What else? Well the great classes have got better. And I mean “better” in the most self-indulgent of senses in that they were visibly and audibly upset when I said that this was my last lesson with them, oohed when I left them my email address, said “thank you Bobby!” in unison, and clapped before I left the classroom. My head swelled up so much I could barely fit through the door.

Outside of school things are moving very, very swiftly towards my departure. The plane ticket is (nearly) booked for the 1st of August, all the furniture in my house needs to be got rid of, I have to fill in a billion forms, send boxes back, practice a Japanese speech for next week, look for a new job, make sure I say goodbye to everyone, etc, etc. Fortunately I have received a replacement passport for the one I lost in January so I’ll at least be able to leave the country.

It’s the life outside work that I’ve enjoyed the most, and if I didn’t need to save money to set up back home I would certainly be staying until the end of August doing some travelling, sightseeing and “famous for” meal-eating. I didn’t get to see Osaka or Hiroshima, and I would have liked to go to Hokkaido again on account of how much I enjoyed it the first time around. One of my goals for the future is to take the train from London to Japan, and on that trip I’ll be sure to visit everywhere I meant to this time around. But that is a long way off. In the meantime I’ll keep as many connections with Japan open as possible. I have many friends here of course, and I’ll be sure to keep in touch with them, but I will have to make efforts while I’m in the UK too.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what it will be like to surrounded by “foreigners” again. The Office for National Statistics estimated that in 2009 there were 34,000 Japanese people living in the UK, which is approximately 0.05% of the entire population. 0.05%! I knew it was going to be hard to stay in touch with the culture but seriously; needle in a haystack. I may have to rely on hanging around major tourist attractions accosting people who, because they are Japanese and hence some of the most efficient people on earth, don’t really need directions, but forcing them to listen to my migis and hidaris like an excitable geographer fresh out of a month of solitary confinement. There are meetup groups in London too, so I’ll try and get to a couple of those.

I really have no idea what to expect when I get home, but I’ll be sure to post my thoughts and ramblings here as and when they come to me.

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Speech Therapy

There are many things that I enjoy immensely about teaching in Japan, and one of those is the plethora of public holidays they have here. Since I arrived we have been privy to Respect For The Aged Day, Autumnal Equinox Day, Health And Sports Day, Culture Day and Labour Thanksgiving Day. This, coupled with the JET Programme’s penchant for business trips and Japan’s for exams, means that a full week of lessons is a strangely irregular occurrence. In the 12 weeks I have been teaching, only 8 have been full, uninterrupted weeks of lessons and that’s not counting all the time off in August. Well, I say “off” but when I wasn’t at English Camp and orientations I was sitting in my office on Facebook all day. Err, I mean planning lessons. Anyway, though it is lovely having all these random days pop up on my calendar it does tend to wreak havoc with my lesson plans and as a result, I have some classes with 3 lessons left until the end of term and some with only 2. Cue conversation with JTE:

“It looks like we have an extra lesson here. Is there anything specific you want me to do?”

“No not really. I mean, if you don’t want to do the lesson I can take it myself.”

Now wouldn’t it be nice just to say “oh ok, thanks,” and leave it at that? God knows I’d like not to have to plan another lesson specifically for just 2 classes; but we all know you’re not allowed to do that. You have to say “Oh, no, no, that’s not what I meant. No, I was just seeing if you had any ideas.”

“Not really. Anything’s fine.”

“Right, so something fun then?”

“Yeah sounds good.”

…and that’s pretty much the level of control the school likes to have over the syllabus that I, an unqualified teacher with the Japanese language ability of a mountain goat, bestows upon the youth and future of its country. I like to believe that it’s because I’ve proved I can do a good job, but there’s always a part of my conscience telling me that I’m not doing enough, that my lesson plans are all rubbish and that there is a very real risk that I will be torn limb from limb, skinned and hung out of the window to dry when the students find out I’m not a real teacher. Until that day I’m treading water, and for this particular lesson I decided there would be no writing at all; only speaking.

You may or may not know that the Japanese have great difficulty differentiating between SH & S, TH & Z, V & B and L & R sounds. River becomes liver, sea becomes she, these becomes a rather Germanesque, zeese and very becomes berry. This is because they simply don’t have these sounds in their language. Now considering English is compulsory from the age of 11 you’d think that by the time they reach senior-high they would have this down pat, but often the teachers have the same difficulties and the class sizes are so large (40/41 usually) that it just tends to just propagate in a never-ending cycle of bad pronunciation. Unless you nip it in the bud at the start then it’s going to be difficult to change the way they speak when they’ve developed otherwise good proficiency in the language.

This is what I endeavoured to do, but how the hell do you centre a lesson around speaking when you have as many as 41 students and only 50 minutes? If you were teaching a class of 15, you could probably mouse around and work with each one individually, have group discussions and constantly have them saying stuff. With a class of 41 you have to perform; you have to be on the ‘stage’ prancing around like a monkey fighting for a banana, playing charades with every word you say, making stupid noises and singing, because if you don’t your students will fall asleep. Some of them will fall asleep regardless.

“Do this,” I yell as I grab my tongue with my fingers and put them between my teeth “and blow.” Showers of spit fly across the room as the students learn their TH’s, and the whole room resonates with the sound of a giant doing a silent fart.

“Now go rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr,” and I’m the only one doing it. I feel like a pillock. One kid, lips tightly closed, glares at me like I’m clinically insane. I begin to believe it but then it dawns on me… How is making a sound that they can’t make going to help them to make it themselves? Time for a drawing, I think to myself.

I draw a (very bad) diagram of a mouth, teeth and tongue and the class laughs at my drawing skills. I argue that it’s contemporary; they have no idea what I’m on about. When I explain to them that they need to keep their tongues in the middle of their mouths and start going “rrrrrrr” again, suddenly I’m no longer the only one doing it. Success! Eat your heart out, Picasso.

After a game designed to have them differentiate between the sounds in each pair we moved onto shortened English; wanna, gotta, gonna, dunno, gimme, etc. I started by getting them to draw lines between these words and what they thought were the correct ‘proper’ English equivalents. Using the phrase “I have got to go” as an example I then had them repeat after me, getting faster and faster each time until we were on “‘ve go’a go”. I did the same for the other words. Though some students revelled in the chance to do this, some of them clearly hated it. I can completely understand this since it was only last week that I was asked to attempt a Japanese tongue-twister and, after failing miserably 5 or 6 times, I simply deemed it stupid, unworthy of my time and ultimately impossible. The Japanese must just be more talented with that particular sound. Genes innit.

Try it yourself if you think you’re hard enough:

Tokyo tokkyo kyoka-kyoku kyou kyuukyo kyoka kyakka.

What’s that? You can’t even read it? Yeah me neither; let alone say it at a hundred kyo’s a second.

Anyway, if they learned nothing else from this lesson, they learned first-hand the importance of being able to differentiate between light and right, and I sincerely hope they had a good time doing it. I’ve adjusted my will to make sure that my skinned, dried remains are deported if they didn’t.

Mack to the Future

This is more like it; weather as predictable as a bull surrounded by Soviet and Nazi flags, stop signs and strawberries. What is one to do surrounded by all this red!? Who knows what his political tastes are? Does he have any respect for the rules of the road? Is he hungry? If so, surely a hungry bull is locked in a state of paradox when faced with a big bunch of strawberries. Does he eat the delicious berries, or does he SMASH THEM TO A HELLISH RED PULP!?

I woke up this morning ready to lament on days of rain and jacket-wearing cold. I rode into school in my fetching new beige rain-suit, complete with removable hood and built-in 80’s-style rain visor. I love it. In fact, I love it so much that I’m going to bring it home with me and wear it around London. I love it so much that I almost want it to rain during the week just so I can wear the thing. It gives me power in the face of adversity; I ride along holding my fist up to the sky screaming “IS THAT ALL YOU’VE GOT!?” while lightning streaks behind me and the roll of thunder all but bursts my eardrums. In reality however, I of course remain a model of English reserve as I sleepily wait for the traffic lights to change, and slowly build up to this granny-transporter’s maximum speed of around 10mph as the rain runs in rivers down my waterproof trousers and into my shoes. Damn it! I think to myself, A weakness! DAMN YOU, SKY! DAMN YOU TO HELL! and I sob gently as I ride into the school carpark, resolving to buy wellies at the next opportunity.

Much has happened since I scaled the Mountain of Pain; most significantly of course, I have finally started teaching English. After a whole month of setting up my life, attending orientations, spending countless hours and yen in Internet cafes, killing time on Facebook and taking trips to here, there and everywhere, I am finally doing what I came here to do. On the 1st September I stood and watched as 1000 students calmly filed into the sports field for a fire drill; whispers and giggles interspersed with “harro”s and “how are you”s. When inside the field, they all sat down in neat blocks and waited, sweating in the baking hot sun while one of the teachers spoke rapid Japanese into a megaphone. I regarded them at a safe distance through the fence in the shade, wondering what they thought of this foreign impostor who thought he was too good to suffer as they were.

Eventually they were allowed to file into the equally hot sports hall for assembly. I swapped my shoes for the provided slippers, the heels of which came up to as far as the arches of my feet, and made my way to the front of the hall. After a couple of introductory speeches I took my cue to walk on stage and performed a speech, once in Japanese, and once in English, and all accompanied by a series of awkward bows. I had been dreading this moment since I was told about it in August but, when I was actually on stage, I thought that it must be one of the easiest things I will have to do during my time here. I couldn’t believe it; there wasn’t even a flutter of adrenaline, and as I walked off the stage I simply thought, too easy.

Since I came back from my year of travels my life hasn’t really challenged me to re-evaluate the way I think; I outlined the main reasons for this in the first post but, in a nutshell, I was in my comfort zone. The very definition of “being in your comfort zone” (and I’m sorry if I’m telling you how to suck eggs here) is that you are doing everything you feel comfortable doing, and you probably run away from things that are different to what you do every day. Here though,everything is outside my comfort zone, and while walking off the stage I had this innate sense that I could do anything. You’re probably wincing and groaning and thinking something along the lines of “what a cliché or, “what’s new?” but the truth is I’ve told myself this many a time, but never really believed it. It doesn’t matter how many times you hear Doc Brown say “If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything,” you still don’t think it applies to you until you’ve done something you always thought would be your worst nightmare and found it to be one of the easiest things you’ve ever done in your life; like standing on a stage and doing a speech in a language you don’t fully understand in front of 1000 adolescent kids or, in my case, creating a time-machine out of a Delorean.

The next day I had my first two lessons. I had spent a good couple of weeks pasting together a PowerPoint presentation about me, my hobbies, my family, where I grew up, etc. and what England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are famous for. England was easy; tea, football, Harry Potter, Stonehenge, the Queen, Cricket, Rugby; you name it, we’ve got most of it. Northern Ireland made the Delorean, Scotland likes men in skirts, eating sheep’s stomachs and throwing big logs around but what about Wales? I racked my brains trying to think of a celebrity that Japanese kids would have heard of. Catherine Zeta Jones? The Stereophonics? Charlotte Church? Lisa from Steps? No, I could see we were going to have to think bigger here.

“What is Wales famous for?” I asked to a carpet of 40 blank faces. Either they didn’t understand me, or they didn’t care.

“Wales is famous for sheep,” I explained. A picture of two sheep spun into the foreground in an attempt to add some excitement where none was present; two or three nearly silent giggles fluttered towards me. I could tell I was going to have to bring out the big guns here.

“Wales is also famous for Tom Jones,” I concluded.

Silence. Faces were either confused, blank or a mixture of the two. Some even expressed outright disgust as the orange-coloured Welshman spun onto the screen. I hurriedly clicked the mouse button and moved onto the next slide.

I performed this self-introduction in front of 12 different classes in one week and for the most part they were very welcoming. In Japan they have a word, genki (元気), which can be roughly translated as a mixture of peppy, full of life, active, fun, well-rounded, good-natured, etc. Instead of “How are you?” the Japanese people simply say “O genki desu ka?” (Are you genki?), to which you simply reply “Hai, genki desu” (Yes, I’m genki). The best teaching experiences are generally defined by the classes with the most genki students and in these, my presentation was accompanied by cheering, ooh’s and once, even clapping! They were not all as wonderfully ego-expanding as this of course; in my first ever lesson, half of the class wouldn’t have even given me the time of day and they continue to be a challenge every week. Other classes are so quiet and shy that I can never get anyone to volunteer an answer or a suggestion, so I have to pick them out myself and watch as the poor things stand up and stare at their feet while they mumble something incomprehensible in reply, undoubtedly wishing that the floor would swallow them whole.

The teaching part is great; it’s a real buzz to have 40 students listening to you and it’s even better when you get all of them shouting “awesome!” or “rubbish!” at you in unison during a lesson on English slang. The hard part is planning the lessons. The onus is totally on me to make the lessons as enjoyable as possible and to get the students to learn as much as possible from them. It is a tough balance to perfect, but given a few more months and a little more trial and error, I think (I hope) it’s perfectly attainable.