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!

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.

Thrown to the (Little) Lions

So, several months later and about to start my second term, I’m finally getting round to telling you about the start of my first term at school.

With so many schools I had three days of ‘first days’ in one week (with two of my mountain schools on the second). For these days my trainer (C-san) co-attended to help me settle in.

The relationship between my schools and the last ALT wasn’t brilliant and she’d had to leave in the middle of term, so it helped to have C-san there to smooth over any issues. From then on it would be up to me to repair and strengthen the relationship with the schools. It’s lucky that years of experience in the service industry plus patriarchal expectations of women has me set on default smile.

Having C-san co-attending was a great way to get me used to things through example (as I’m a visual learner), despite being slightly intimidating as he is a very good teacher. However, it’s important when first starting…anything, really…to remember that there are always going to be people better and worse at it than you, which I tried to keep in mind for those few days.

It’s a very different dynamic teaching as a duo, but it definitely helped to get me used to the classroom environment! It was also great fun, and not something you get to do most of the time as an ALT (at least, not with another ALT).
C-san uses a comedy style to teach, so the kids have fun and relax enough that they feel comfortable trying to use the language. He uses the Manzai comedy style, which generally has two performers – a tsukkomi (the serious one) and the boke (the funny one) which has a long history in Japan but is now largely associated with the Kansai region and Kansai-ben – the Kansai dialect.
Sometimes C-san leads the kids to say something in the style of the boke so he can react as the tsukkomi, but more often he plays the boke (this also happens a lot unintentionally because he is quite accident prone) and the kids are generally on point about laying into him as the tsukkomi. I enjoyed working together with him using Manzai because I got to play the tsukkomi!

It’s interesting to find out just how many factors influence teaching style: your own personality, the way the society views you, your perceived gender, the way you look…it goes on. My trainer is male and an American Asian, he has a great understanding of Japanese culture and comedy, and is able to use it very effectively in the classroom. For him this works brilliantly, but for me it’s not always an option. As a foreign woman, they expect me to act cute (*throws up in mouth*). In the time I’ve had teaching so far, I have found I can be silly with them, partly because I am a massive klutz and therefore often accidentally comedic (I managed to get my trousers hooked on the chalk drawer once and got loose chalk all over my bum) – but it still has to have that element of cuteness to go across well.

Luckily I am British and have perfected the ability to smother my self-loathing in layers of sarcasm.

Meeting the Rabble

I was back in the office the day after the move (Saturday), leaving my apartment in the barely-moved-in shambles you might expect (or just expect anyway if you know me).

All the Seto ALTs had been called in for a refresher training day, as we were mid-way through term, which gave me the perfect chance to get to know a few people in my area right off the bat.

The training was focused on getting an experience of each other’s teaching styles and bouncing around ideas for activities. The main focus was geared towards helping us experience how it feels to be the student in an immersive language context, and to learn to put aside awkwardness in front of the students: learning to ‘stay in character’.

Seeing the others in character was excellent – especially the way Macky (Jamaica) switched between her very blunt (and wonderful) natural delivery, to the hyper-enthusiastic fun-generator needed for class. It was magical, not to mention funny, to watch.

A lot of the others were pretty annoyed at having to go into the office on a weekend, especially as many of them live way out in the Seto ward, so it’s a bit of a trek (it takes me 2 trains and just over 30 mins and I live mid-way!). Once we were finished, spirits were much improved by the decision to go for sushi afterwards.

There are some really good kaitenzushi (conveyor-belt sushi) places here, good quality and much more reasonably priced than the sushi-ya (sushi restaurants).

This one was unfortunately not one of the better ones.

The staff, no doubt mightily alarmed by the huge group of gaijins that traipsed in, decided it was for the best that we were seated in two groups on opposite sides of the restaurant…can’t blame them all that much to be honest.

Despite the so-so sushi and the division of the group, it was nice to get to know the others, and to be surrounded by such a variety of people: American, Egyptian-Canadian, Australian, Jamaican, Filipino, Irish – quite the mix!

After sushi we split up, and I headed into Sakae accompanied by Nelson (America) and Mai (Canada/Egypt). Phone was once more spectacularly not sorted. But we did do some wandering in Osu and found a fantastic okonomiyaki place!

IMG_0812The road we generally take into Osu from Sakae.

IMG_0821Okonomiyaki arrives!

IMG_0826After six years of okonomiyaki deprivation, this was the perfect reunion!

IMG_0828The staff here were incredibly nice and gave us little booklets about the area (weirdly narrated by the local idol group). 

I can’t remember the name of the restaurant but I will find out and update here when I do!

Choosing my Home for a Year(ish)

Having not had much info about apartments, it turned out the process was a simple one. I sat down with one of the Interac OL’s (office ladies) who showed me several options to choose from on a map.

One of my options was a shared accommodation arrangement in a Freebell apartment. I went to check it out and met the girl I would potentially be sharing with, but in the end I decided I would much rather have my own space.

This was before the 110th change to my placement, after which the Freebell option wouldn’t have worked anyway. *sigh*

I ended up going with a well-known company for individual apartments across Japan: Leo Palace. From my experience and what I’ve heard from others, the Leo Palace is 100% worth the little bit extra you pay to be living alone. Judging by the other place I saw, the quality is definitely better than the Freebell apartments.

Rather than get a place close to my schools but far from the city, or vice versa, I chose an in-between area. Though I didn’t realise it at the time, it was a good choice regarding the trains, as it’s the last stop for the express train into Sakae (the main entertainment district).

The express/semi-express (or rapid in some cities) stations, as well as the distance from your apartment to the station, are big things to bear in mind when choosing your apartment. It takes me around 10 mins to walk to the station, which would normally be fine, but in the summer heat it has been killer – especially when I’ve had to rush to catch the train (often).

The upside of living a little bit further from the station is that I’m surrounded by allotments and rice paddies (and the frog chorus!), with a balcony to enjoy it from.

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