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.

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!

Non-Apology of a Terrible Role Model

I’ve apologised a few times for not updating regularly, so I’ve found a solution. I’m going to try and do more regular little snippet posts in-between my longer ones from now on. So, to start:

MS2: The other day I was assigned to eat lunch with the 1st graders. We were given sweet potato mochi (pictured) for dessert (a strange combo, but surprisingly not unpleasant). The thing about mochi is that you have to chew it for ages before you can swallow it, it’s a bit like some chewy sweets that you aren’t quite sure if they’re sweets or gum.

And so…I convinced the kid sat opposite me to eat the whole thing in one. She did.

It was way too much for her tiny face and she looked like an upset hamster for a concerning amount of time while she attempted to chew it.

I felt bad, but was also really proud that she accepted the challenge. I am a terrible adult.