the nikku

reflecting on ESL/EFL and its relation to faith

Monday, October 15, 2012

long overdue reflection

I haven't reflected on my own teaching for quite a while now, and feel
like I really need to. Especially after going to the JALT conference
for English teachers in Japan on Saturday, I have a lot of ideas to
filter through. Many of these ideas have also been inspired by the book
"Group Dynamics in the Language Classroom" by Dornyei and Murphey.


For starters, my students were great for the most part last semester.
So I assumed these junior high students could handle seating themselves
- and a few classes could. But even when you let good students sit next
to each other, they turn chatty. So I've been pulling in the reigns
this last month.

At first, I thought letting kids seat themselves would be great to see
who is friends with who. And that was a bonus, but I think the benefits
were rather minimal. I also thought that friends sitting next to each
other might feel more comfortable speaking English together. There were
some pairs that did really well, but I feel like most pairs were too
comfortable and just chatted in Japanese. A big side effect of all this
chatting was that it made it hard for me as the teacher to concentrate
on what we'll do next.

I was also surprised at how nearly every classroom tended to divide
themselves into three distinct sections of quiet but somewhat interested
(in the lesson), very interested but somewhat loud, and very loud and
uninterested. I think certain student personalities also tend to be
ringleaders in groups of friends. However, simply because of how
unbalanced this made the classrooms, I will never let junior high
students here pick their own seats again.


Do you know the saying "be strict at first, then you can always be nice
after that." or "never smile until Christmas"? This is some anecdotal
teacher advise. At the conference, I read and also heard some
presenters dismiss this as being overly simple. I have to admit that I
have a hard time being strict for no reason when I don't even know the
students yet. And I'm not entirely convinced that that in itself is a
problem per se. At least now I know what kind of students we generally
get at this school and how they tend to act, so I can be a little more
prepared for next year.

I've also been having a small problem with students writing on the desks
in the multipurpose room which is of course against school rules. I
rarely see them doing this, but it makes be feel bad that my lessons
aren't interesting enough, but then again, I also don't need to be an

Also, how to discipline or at least correct students who are chatting is
something I'm not sure to do because no matter what happens it never
seems to fully end. This is part of teaching at a girls' school that I
am still getting used to. At the conference, I learned that even
college profs in Japan have this problem. There were many ideas I would
not have thought of such as not giving the students eye contact (i.e.
the attention they are looking for) or even standing right next to them
but not looking at them.

The other side of discipline is, of course, community. Humans are
social and care about each other. If the class can center around
"getting to know you" times, and working together on a task for a
purpose, then students should get the interpersonal interaction they
crave and patrol each other without needing to chat off topic. Some
teachers at the conference called this "teaching with humanity".

I have noticed that the textbook we are using almost purposely avoids
personal expression. This somewhat undermines community formation and
group solidarity. I didn't notice this at first, but it does seem to be
a downfall of the text. I'm looking for ways to add more personal
exchange into the course.


There has been a little complaining, and I myself am worried that my
activities are not fun. I feel bad for my first classes of the week
because they are often my guinea pigs to see how well an activity will
work out and if it is interesting. Not that things always have to be
interesting, but there should be time for both learning and fun,
especially if you can do both at the same time.

On the other hand, students also sometimes lack the focus to get through
the preparation for the game or activity. Recently I've been looking
for ways to adapt the standard activities from the textbook activities
and make them more interesting.

I'm worried about all these things, but I guess the important thing is
to keep trying. Slow and steady, I never give up! I'll let you know
how it turns out!

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Nicest bank teller ever!

So today I went to transfer some money back home to payoff my student loans. I got the same teller I had had a few months ago, and she remembered me! My job, how long I had been in town, how I might make regular transfers, everything I told her last time!

She even made small talk after making the transfer! I was surprised I almost didn't know what to say. It was maybe the first and only caring conversation I've had at a business in Nagoya. I was expecting a transactional conversation, but I got a genuine conversation instead!

That was a great surprise today. :) Hope I get the same teller next time!

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Advanced English Seminar

So, last Wed I taught an "advanced English seminar" to junior highers. It was a voluntary class, and you had to have about a B+ average to get in.

My lesson was basically test-prep reading, and that was popular. I had no idea how advanced these advanced students would be, so there were four short readings from fake flyers about finding an apartment.

After some initial macro and micro reading questions, I gave them roles like, I'm a college student without much money or, I work full time and have a car. I intended to put them into groups with these roles and have them choose a place to live together.

As it turns out, not all the students like each other, and insisted on making groups across the room instead of with nearby pairs. So grouping ended up taking too much time, and I ended up scrapping that and giving roles by row and randomly choosing one person to announce which place they had chosen and why.

Apparently a few students complained that the class was too easy - also our goals of learning were a little different - but I also met a student today who said it was just the right level of challenge.

It was a little scary only teaching one lesson to "advanced students". I learned a little about their learning styles - besides picky groups they also seem to question why i would mix other skills with their reading and writing. I'll readjust my strategies for next time.

Friday, June 22, 2012

A stressful day at work

So, this morning at work was more stressful than I was expecting.  You would think that junior high students would be the most stressful part of the job, but in my experiences here so far, it's usually got more to do with the adminstration.

Today, after the typhoon on Wednesday, there was a storm warning announced on TV at 7:45am.  Evidently, we have a policy that when there's a storm warning issued we'll have a two hour late start.  The problem was, it was totally sunny (and remained so all day, seems the weather report was wrong), and when I got off the train at 7:30, there were already about 60 students who had gotten off. 

So teachers were not allowed to teach during the first two hours of the day because not all students had arrived, but we had to supervise the students in homerooms who had already come to school.  In the classroom I supervised, 30 out of 40 had come to school on time.  It was great time for the students have a two-hour study hall, but I have to admit that it seemed like a needless waste of time.  I wished this policy was a little more flexible, and I wondered who ever came up with it in the first place.

On top of that, my co-worker and I are co-writing the final listening tests this week to be proofread by next week, and recorded and ready for students in two weeks.  It's my first time doing this at this school, so I'm fairly unsure of the format.  My co-worker told me that we should make five sections of five questions each for a total of 25 questions at two points each which will give us a total of 50 points which is the weight of this test on their final grade.  So I wrote my half with 5 questions per section.  When I got her half to combine with mine she said that she didn't want to correct that many questions, so she had only written 3 questions per section.

I'm not quick with math any more, so I told her I'd try and make it work with the point total.  As it turns out, there's no total of 3 parts 5 questions and two parts three questions that equals 50 points.  I even tried deleting some of my questions and it didn't work.  Basically the only way to do it is 10 questions worth five points, or 25 questions worth 2 points.  I told her this and asked if we could change her half of the test.  She said yeah, I could write more questions for HER half of the test.  So basically she left more work for me to do - knowingly or negligently I don't know. 

And to top it off, it looks like she didn't proofread it before she gave it to me.  I found about five semi-major mistakes - just the kind of stuff you do when you're writing fast.  This didn't take that long to fix actually, maybe 30 minutes, but it was frustrating none the less. 

Every day takes grace and strength from outside myself.  It kind of takes you by surprise sometimes.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Open Campus Day

It's been a long time since I've had time to reflect. I feel like I've been busy since I started at this school in April. Maybe I just haven't taken the time I need.

Today was "Open Campus" at our school. It's a day when potential students and their parents come to visit. With the help of three co-workers and two of my regular students, I get a lesson on sports, likes and dislikes.

Even though they were only 5th and 6th graders. One on one they were fairly confident in their English, but with parents and other students they didn't know they room got quiet really quick.

At first, I tried to use some of the kids as examples, but that didn't work so well, so my co-worker stepped in and said, "use me!".

I have to admit that we haven't always gotten along, and she didn't particularly look thrilled to be there, but she really saved the day!

Later on when I thanked her, she said, "no prob. That's what we do around here, teamwork." I'm learning her definition of teamwork, and today I liked it. :)

After that, all in all the lesson went well. I used to work with elementary kids until this April, so I thought it'd be a snap. Things are not usually as easy as you think, and maybe that's a blessing in disguise.

In hindsight, I think I could have talked a little slower and included people more. I was surprisingly nervous being there in front of parents and new students. I need to stay calm and focused even in new situations, and stay flexible too.

I had an interview a year ago where the interviewer told me, "it doesn't matter so much what kind of a job you do. What's more important is what kind of person you are." At an interview that confused me, but I am finally starting to see what he meant.

Maybe I focus too much on tasks and not enough on people. Maybe next time we can try working more together on something. We'll have to make time for that.

Coming up already next week: writing final tests together! :) Wish us luck!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

on discrimination

Wow, it's already May! I started my new job in April and haven't had
the will to put my thoughts down until today. More to come later. :)

So this year, there is a new English curriculum at my school and things
are being shuffled around. Second and third grade junior highers are
being taught by the other foreign teacher and I while the first graders
are being taught by the Japanese teachers of the English department.
There was a discussion at the English department meeting that went like

"Ok, so the first graders will have Japanese teachers for their 'English
conversation' classes, but these lessons will not really be 'English
conversation' as much as they will be listening, vocabulary building and
pronunciation practice lessons. This is because we Japanese teachers
are not really good at speaking English."

The reality is actually that I am blessed to work with eight Japanese
teachers of English who are all quite able in English and may in some
ways speak better English that I do. I already felt that way at that
time, and I said told them that I felt any of them were just as able to
teach an English conversation as I am. This is the reply I got:

"Oh, we know. It's just that the parents wouldn't see things that way,
and they would think that their children were getting an inferior
education and we'd lose enrollment."

In Japan sometimes we talk about self-censorship. This seems to be more
self-discrimination in the fear of what others might think. I wasn't
quite ready to deal with this from the onset. My American half really
wants to stand up and fight this. I think it'd be much better to
explain our situation to parents than to fear what discriminatory
reactions they might have. I hope that most parents are more
understanding than that, but I guess this is where the money really hits
the road. However, things for this year have already been decided.
We'll have to try to do better next year.

God help us, this world really is unfair.

Monday, April 02, 2012

End of my Elementary School Era

Time for reflection! It was short, only 3 months, but I was surprised
how much I loved my job teaching elementary school students in rural
central Japan!

Here are a few things I noticed in my three months:

1) teachers set the mood for elementary school students

If you as the teacher say something is hard, students think it's hard.
If you say something is fun, they think it's fun. Don't start yourself
off on the wrong foot with a bad attitude.

2) the best teachers are ordered and methodical

This doesn't mean they're inflexible, but they are methodical. Good
teachers know how to present material in logically ordered and
understandable chunks. Even elementary school teachers who are not
necessarily good at English have this skill for presenting material.

The best of the best teachers I met went so far as to have their lesson
plan listed on the board in plain form.
- Today's goal is:
- Today's review:
- Today's topic is:
- Today's practice
- Today's activity:
- Reflection (did you, the student, meet today's goals?)

This way students know exactly what to expect and can prepare.

This sort of presentation was actually encouraged by the public school
district through a special "educational research, development and
training" elementary school (kind of like a charter school for
teachers). Even before this experience, I agreed with this sort of
presentation, and I want to incorporate this style even more directly
into my teaching from now on.

3) practice makes perfect

If there's only one bit of advice I could give to new teachers both
Japanese and foreign, it'd be this: practice MORE! I watched many
beginning teachers (and even did it myself sometimes, opps!) jump right
into a production activity from presentation. It was like grinding
gears. When you jump too fast without enough support, students get
nervous rather than confident.

4) students are always more involved when both the foreign and the
Japanese teacher are involved.

There are simply things that the Japanese teacher does and knows better
than the foreign teacher, and sometimes vice-versa. :) Students love to
interact with a "real foreigner", but they also love to be appreciated
and supported by a Japanese native teacher who knows their name, ability
and background and who can explain things to them on their terms. I
also learned that "explaining" to children doesn't at all work in the
same way explaining to adults does. :)

5) Confidence / Motivation is a major factor

I recently had a friendly debate with a co-worker over whether
motivation is THE most important thing in lesson planning, but we both
agreed that lesson plans and presentations have to make students
confident in their English ability. If the lesson didn't at least do
that, it missed the point.

6) a final note about managers and administrators

The schools I went to that ran the most smoothly were the ones where the
principal and administration trusted their staff, supported them, and
stood back and let them work. The schools that were actually the most
disorganized were the ones where the principal was a micro-manager,
disciplinarian (of other teachers), or totalitarian. At these schools,
the teachers were afraid of the principal and even each other. As a
result, communication was generally lacking around the school. How can
the students be confident when the teachers aren't confident?

Out of my seven rural schools, two were administered by authoritarian
micro-managers. At other schools, the teachers were happy, worked well
together, and seemed to generally care about the students. At the
micro-manager schools, teachers seemed to be more concerned about time,
making sure students and classrooms looked orderly, or even
paper-usage. The focus and atmosphere was completely different.

My time in rural elementary schools was truly an honor and a privilege.
It was a great experience! In a short amount of time, I too learned
many things that I hope will enable myself and the other teachers I meet
to improve ourselves. Hopefully in some small way, this will improve
the quality of education for everyone.