Shook

Moving from the U.K. to Japan, one of the first things you might worry about is the likelihood of earthquakes. Having a country sitting on top of four tectonic plates tends to have that effect.

In all my time in Nagoya though, I only experienced one earthquake, and even that was barely noticeable, at least for the people around me. I mean, for me it was still really weird. It took a moment for my brain to wrap around what was happening, and it was sort of like when you stand up too fast and the world tilts a little, except it was actually tilting a little. With no basis for the experience, I sort of realised what was happening on one level, but it took a second for the rest of my brain to catch up. Then obviously I made a foreigner fuss about it being my first earthquake.
There were literally teachers coming into the room a few minutes later who hadn’t felt a thing.

For a while after I first moved to my flat, I actually thought I was experiencing pretty regular earthquakes, but only noticed them when I was in bed because I wasn’t moving around. It took a good month or so before I realised it was just when strong wind shook the apartment building a bit.

The only other earthquake-related experience I had was when there was an earthquake simulation at school. It wasn’t a drill, so everyone just kind of carried on what they were doing while it played over the speakers. It actually took me a while to register that there was something unusual about the sound of the alarm. I can be ridiculously unobservant sometimes.
The oddest part was that, after the alarm ended, they then played what seemed to be an ‘earthquake soundtrack’ over the loudspeakers, which basically was just a recording of shit falling and breaking all over the place.
Suffice to say I now feel as though I have the full experience of a medium-scale earthquake.

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Elementary Dynamics

English teaching in elementary school here is focused mainly on the last two years: fifth and sixth grade. Intensive English learning and testing doesn’t really kick off until students move up to junior high school, where they have two English classes, one taught by their Japanese English teacher and one with an ALT. This is set to change by 2020, with English becoming a much more intensive subject in efforts to pull Japan up from the bottom of the Asian rankings for TOEFL scores in English speaking ability. The main roadblock for this is the lack of Japanese teachers qualified to teach English. It will be interesting to see how this effects the role of ALTs in Japan.

In elementary school, as the teachers generally speak minimal English, there is generally no designated Japanese English teacher, so its pretty much down to the ALT. ALTs in elementary school have textbooks that we work through for the fifth and sixth grades, laying down the foundations of structure for English learning.

The majority of my classes were with the fifth and sixth graders, who were mostly great, but the dynamics are very different from the lower years. The higher grades in elementary are at that point where they are the oldest in the school, and are a bit too cool for ‘fun English lessons’. On the edge of adolescence, they are all of a sudden much more afraid to make mistakes in front of their peers. One of the big reasons adults are so much slower to pick up a language than children.

I still had great classes with the higher years, and they were sometimes absolutely hilarious, but most often the energy was coming from and being directed by me.
During the summer months this was, to be blunt, absolutely fucking exhausting.

With the younger years, though, I was able to get caught up in their energy and just had to channel it rather than provide it. These years are so excitable and much more fearless about trying the language, and it is much easier to create a fun lesson for them.

It is always dependent on the types of personalities in each fifth/sixth grade class, but you work out the best way to engage them as you go along. Throughout the year, one of the most failsafe ways to get them into a lesson that I found was to get them competing, be it in pairs or groups, or against me.

At the end of the day, the faster you get them interacting with each other, moving around and using the language, the better. If they are sitting still for too long, they are going to get bored and uncooperative. Can’t really blame them!

Sports Day Olympic Ceremony Style

When I returned to school after the summer break (way back in September ’16, with the worst of the summer heat abated, thank goodness), I found that my number of lessons had been cut in half at what was normally my busiest school. It turned out that this was to make time for the sports day preparations. As one of the biggest events of the school year, a huge amount of effort goes into making the day memorable, which means hours and hours of practice – not just for the events, but for the opening ceremony.

I’ll just say, based on the rehearsals I was able to watch at MS2, I can’t wait to see what the organisers pull out of the bag for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics opening and closing ceremonies, because damn.

I got pretty emotional just watching the sixth grade rehearsals (okay, yes I get emotional at things like this very easily), it was so poignant and beautiful. To give you an idea of the feeling, these are the songs they danced to in order.

One Summer’s Day – Joe Hisaishi (Spirited Away soundtrack)
This started with all the kids running from the corners of the sports ground into their places, and it was so quiet all you could hear were their bare feet hitting the ground.

Hero – Amuro Namie
This involved a lot of complicated and amazing balancing acts that I am almost certain would not be allowed in the U.K. because of Supreme Overlord Killjoy, Health & Safety.

Minna ga Minna Eiyuu – Yuna Shirayuki
This is the song that got me – it still gives me goosebumps. The kids danced with red, blue, yellow and green flags, in four blocks. It’s really hard to put into words how emotive it was. Just like at the beginning, everything was silent apart from the snapping of the flag material as they all moved in sync or in canon.
The funny thing is the song is actually from a commercial for AU – a Japanese phone company…

Near the end of the school year, at the goodbye ceremony for the sixth graders at MS2, a couple of the younger years performed the same dances for them.
Safe to say I wasn’t the only one crying that time.

A Day in the Life: Mountain School 2

A while back I had a particularly eventful lunchtime at my second mountain school which I thought earned the time to type, which I did, and then promptly forgot to edit and post. Shocking.

I get assigned to various classes for lunch time, to share around the ‘foreigner experience’ and to practice English in an informal setting. This only works well with some classes, as most of the time the older classes are too awkward to try and the younger classes don’t have nearly enough English to communicate much effectively. It’s hard to ask/explain everything you are trying to ask, and eat at the same time.

So a few months ago now, in MS2 (my favourite school for reasons I will link here later), I was assigned a second grade class for lunch.

There’s always the general milling about as everyone waits for the bell to go and everyone’s food is set up, then the kanshashite‘s and the itadakimasu‘s, and everyone tucks in. The principal always comes round with the surplus food, triggering a heated round of janken (janken – rock, paper, scissors – is law).

I had a particularly big portion (this fluctuates a lot, and I really prefer not to have so much to eat at lunchtime), and it was one of the few days where I wasn’t so keen on the food. While I was forcing it down, I also had to contend with the kids eating. If you’ve never seen a second grade Japanese student eat, let me tell you, it is not good for the appetite.

Most of the kids were messing about amongst themselves, but the little girl sat right next to me had taken it upon herself to stare blankly at me, while eating extremely slowly.

When the kids finish, they have to wait for the bell to go again before cleaning time starts. This time is generally filled with small productive activities that can be worked on intermittently.

It was at this point that things began to go downhill.

Several of the kids fetched out recorders and began playing random notes as well as one tune repetitively.
A couple of boys next to me were reading through a book on what looked like graphics of mythological creatures. Fairly inappropriately drawn mythological creatures.
Silent Girl next to me had resumed her staring routine in full force now that she no longer had to break it up with eating.
The homeroom teacher, who up until then had been practicing his golf swing(??) decided to join in with the recorders. Joy. Moments later, Silent Girl hopped up looking inspired, and came back with her own recorder. I watched with badly concealed fear as she raised the Devil Whistle with purpose – and began to play one single note over and over. Right in my ear.
Meanwhile, other kids had started arguing loudly with each other, and one boy had gotten hold of a flag bigger than he was and started waving it like he was auditioning for Enjorlas in Les Mis.
I actually started laughing in despair at how awful it all was. Silent Girl’s single blasts on the recorder were becoming shrill and my fear for my eardrums was real.

Then, slowly, the classroom fan turned towards me, wafting someone’s fart directly at my face. And that was the point at which my soul left my body.

When is an ALT actually an ALT? Basic Differences between ES and JHS/HS Teaching

Here’s the sticking point. The role of an English teacher in Japanese schools is affected by so many factors that there isn’t really a catch-all term for the job (hence my disclaimer on my homepage). But in many cases ‘assistant language teacher’ is a complete mislabel.

At elementary school level, students have only one point of English contact – the ALT (me). I generally have complete control over my lessons: planning, preparing materials and conducting them. In class, the homeroom teacher occasionally helps me out by clarifying more difficult instructions in Japanese, but more often they act primarily as the disciplinarian.

The bulk of my classes are fifth and sixth grade, but when I do have lower years, sometimes the teachers will prepare the lesson and materials for me, but will still leave me to it in class.

Granted, the lessons cover basic English (e.g. the highest level lesson the 6th graders get to is ‘What do you want to be?‘/’I want to be…..‘) but rather than the language being hard, the challenge is more to teach the language while getting the students to have fun. The aim of an elementary school ALT is to get the students to enjoy English; to set the precedent that learning English isn’t awful (a lie), and that the students are capable of doing it (true). The kids really need this belief as they move up in school, because it will impact their motivation to learn, and get the grades they need to get into both high school and university.

[This is something that native English speaking countries take massively for granted, as our futures in education generally do not depend on learning a second language. We are extremely lazy in our second language learning.]

The ALT dynamic completely changes at the junior high level. At this point students begin to have English lessons taught by a Japanese teacher of English (JTE), and the lessons with the ALT act more to reinforce these lessons through conversation practice and the example of a native speaker. Ditto for high school. Increasing numbers of students at this point will be also be taking extra English classes outside school, at English language schools (eikaiwa).

One very important difference, and one that is set to change soon, is that elementary students are not graded on their English. It is seen more, as Nelson puts it, as: ‘Super English activity fun now time! (screaming Japanese accent)’.

In the Japanese education system, school is only compulsory up until age 16. At which point students can leave school and begin working. To get into high school, students must take exams – the better the high school, the harder the exams (go figure). The same goes for high school students hoping to go to university. So ALTs for these levels have that much more pressure to help the students through that, and there are a number of other things they might be responsible for, like marking written work, assessing spoken English tests, and judging speaking competitions.

So, here’s the problem that lies at the root of many bad reviews from ALTs. In some junior high schools and high schools, JTEs are reluctant to give ALTs the opportunity to prove their abilities. Some JTEs simply use their ALTs as ‘human tape-recorders’ while they teach the lesson. If you want this to change, it means working hard to get the JTE to trust your ability to come up with good lesson ideas and teach a high quality lesson. This might mean a building up from a small suggestion every now and then; the more of which are successful, the more input the teacher will afford you. Sometimes it just doesn’t happen, and yes, it is incredibly frustrating. Being put on a placement like this is a risk all ALTs take because it is completely luck of the draw, and depends on the impression the previous ALT made (which may have been someone from another company as the contract with the Board of Education in each area is renewed or changed frequently).

The number of lessons a day is also quite different between the junior high/high school and elementary levels. Teaching at elementary you can expect between four and six lessons a day, whereas for the others this is much lower, leaving a lot of free time in which you need to occupy yourself usefully. This often has the result of dramatic downward spirals of keitai data.

Good Days

There are some days when teaching elementary here is a struggle, like most jobs really. It can be hard to be motivated for the day, students can be difficult, lunch can sometimes be superbly unappealing…the list goes on. There are so many factors making the difference between a bad, mediocre or good day.

Today was a good day.

My sixth grade students did great presentations, didn’t act up (much), and asked good questions after class (which isn’t very common); I managed to avoid having to eat what appeared to be a veritable slab of konnyaku at lunch, the rest of which was delicious; and even though I was pulled out of my free period, it was into a first grade class to help with making pop-up Christmas cards and act as a human Christmas jukebox – which I thoroughly enjoyed. It’s hard to not have a good time when you’re surrounded by tiny humans that go ape shit over a little paper-cube present and act like you are the best thing since PPAP.
I found myself easily happy, with a lot of things giving me reasons to smile.

Often, small as it sounds, just having a student call out to me is spirit-lifting. There is something about having “Megan-sensei!!” invariably shouted enthusiastically at me that makes me feel kind of glowy (even if I know I’m not quite a real sensei).

This is a fairly self-indulgent post, but it’s not often that I catch myself in the moment when I’m happy amidst busy-ness and consciously stop to appreciate it.

Walking out of school today into winter cold air and bright sunshine, I was able to wrap that happiness around me and enjoy it. To top it off I got out of school bang on time and managed to catch the express home. With extra time in the evening I’m on course for an intensive gyoza-making session. The blog is named this way for a reason!

((P.S. Look at this, a post about a day on the day itself *gasp*! Watch this space, I’m improving! ))

T-Shirt Tuesday

The strange messages that manage to find their way onto the kids’ T-shirts bring me no end of entertainment. Most lessons involve trying not to laugh at, or trying to work out what the person who chose the weird combination of words was aiming for. Most of them look like a dictionary has been sick on them.

So to share this confusing brilliance with you all, I am introducing T-shirt Tuesday!

To kick this off, here are some of my favourites so far:

Listen To The Music At A Comfortable Volume 

Sensible advice really.

Flush Glitter / Hear The Hope Rendezvous Songs / And I Love You / Skipping Everywhere / Poetry Mind 

You’d be shocked at how much incomprehensible writing they manage to fit onto one T-shirt.

To Affect You Message

I don’t know about you, but this strikes me as a butchered version of ‘-insert touching message here-‘. Lazy.

I will keep my eye out for some more good ones for you all!