Sunday, July 10, 2011

I’m Fine, Thank You. And You? - October 2010

I haven’t talked much about school life in Japan, and now might be a good time to do so. I teach junior high school, which is to say grades seven through nine. Unlike in Hong Kong, the school year begins in April, which means that I arrived at the beginning of the second term. Like Hong Kong students, Japanese students all wear uniforms, but only from junior high on; my elementary school kids all dress like normal people. Unlike me when I was a teenager, the students generally stay in one classroom while the teachers move around. You may have heard that Japanese people always take their shoes off when going indoors. That is true; all the students and teachers wear one pair of shoes to school and change into a different pair when they enter the building. You may also have heard that Japanese students are responsible for cleaning their own classrooms; that is also true. Every day ends with the students sweeping and mopping the classrooms. They also take turns serving each other lunch. One thing I’ve heard that hasn’t proven true is that discipline at Japanese schools is rigid, and the students rigorously well-behaved. As a matter of fact, the atmosphere here feels as relaxed as in a Canadian school. Perhaps more so: I don’t remember when I was growing up students routinely poking their heads into the staff room to ask teachers questions. My students are fairly well-behaved, but they may be the exception; I’ve heard some quite scary stories from other ALTs about students at other schools.

As far as English goes, second language acquisition clearly isn’t stressed as much here as it was at my Hong Kong school, or even at my own high school growing up. Formal English instruction doesn’t begin until junior high school. Recently, elementary schools have started setting aside time for foreign language activities (for "foreign language”, read “English”), but it isn’t considered a proper course. English classes in elementary school are lead by the regular teacher, with the help of an ALT (i.e. me). Junior high schools have designated English teachers, but the classes are still conducted mainly in Japanese.

This month I had my introduction to regular high school English classes, and it was a nasty surprise. I work along side the local teachers, who usually do most of the planning and teaching. Sometimes one of them will ask me to do a warm-up or prepare an activity to practise the grammar point, but my biggest role in the classroom seems to be modelling pronunciation. There’s nothing wrong with that in and of itself; I am, of course, the expert on pronunciation of English words. But some of the things we do in class are truly appalling.

Here’s how the teachers teach “reading”: First the local teacher has me read the passage to the students. Then they have me model pronunciation of the difficult words. So far so good. Then I read the entire passage again, sentence by sentence, and the students repeat after me. Then we do it again! Then the students practise reading the passage in pairs. Finally the teacher has some of the students (usually the five or so brightest in the class) come up to the front and write the passage translated into Japanese, then explains the difficult grammar points to the class.

That’s it. No engagement with the subject matter. No attempt to work out for oneself what the passage means. No comprehension questions. No skimming, no scanning, no circling the difficult words and looking them up in the dictionary. Fifteen minutes of each class are devoted to speaking the text out loud. Which is a great way to kill time while making the students suffer enough to feel like they must be learning. But it teaches them nothing. I’ll admit I’m not a professional teacher, and it’s always possible (though unlikely) that the students do much more productive activities when I’m not present. But all the teacher’s training I’ve had, not to mention my own second-language learning experience, tells me that this is a waste of time, and that there are a dozen more useful things – and at least a half-dozen more fun ones – the students could be doing.

The most frustrating part is my own culpability in all this. I have, of course, heard lots of stories about foreign teachers in Asia feeling like “human tape recorders”, but I naïvely assumed that a well-established institution like the JET Programme would know how to make good use of its teachers. Unfortunately, I don’t work for the JET Programme, I work for a Japanese junior high school, and evidently there are junior high schools in Japan where backwards teaching practices still persist. It’s hard to see how the students can learn anything under this system, and except for a handful of studious ones they don’t seem to be learning much. Most of them can barely string a sentence together, and I’ve more than once asked a student, “How are you?”, only to get a reply of, “Huh?” To a friend: “’How are you?’ wa nan desu ka?”* This despite the fact that every single English class begins with the teacher asking, “How are you?”, and the students chorusing, “I’m fine, thank you. And you?”

I’m going to do what I can to alleviate this situation. Truth be told, it in some ways makes my job easier; the bar has been set so low that almost anything I try feels like it must be an improvement. Since I get asked to prepare warm-ups and activities, I’m doing that with an eye to filling in some of the gaps in what the students are learning. Speaking practice is the biggest one; most students are reluctant to speak in English, and when they do they use as few words as possible.

Me: “What does the magic box do?”
Student: “Three wishes!”
Me: “What do they wish for?”
Student: “Big dinner!”
Me: “What are they going to do now?”
Student: “King!”
Me: “Yes… it has something to do with the king… Could I possibly trouble you for a verb?”

It didn’t help that the first time I ever did a model reading, it was of a passage about the bombing of Hiroshima. Nothing ruins a poignant story like hearing thirty students parroting the words, “…but the girl never moved again.”

I suppose there are really two ways I can look at the situation. If I think of it in terms of my own work ethic, my duty as a teacher, and my responsibility to help the students learn, then clearly I’m a failure, and part of a failed system. Much as I might like to think that I can make a difference and inspire the students and teachers to change their attitudes, I know that my school had an ALT before me. And one before her. And one before that one. And none of them managed to change anything.

The other way is to think in terms of my own experience, and what I hope to get out of my time here. From that perspective, I’m doing really well. I’m getting paid good money to do a fairly easy job, while living and travelling in a foreign country. As long as I can focus on that, I know I’ll enjoy my time in Japan.

I am enjoying myself, too. At the beginning of the month I went to a work party for the “fourth year” teachers. That is to say, everyone on the staff who isn’t a first, second, or third year teacher: the principal, the vice principal, the school nurse, various support staff, and me. I was afraid it would be frightfully awkward, given that none of those people speaks much English, but it ended up being a good time anyway.

Later in the month we had a weekend given over to school sports competitions. Since nobody told me how to get to any of the events, I spent several hours sitting at my desk making work for myself before someone had pity on me and offered me a ride to a baseball game. It was nice to be able to cheer for my students, and the game was interesting enough, although I don’t know much about baseball.

I’ve put up a new English board, the subject of which is emotions. It’s designed to give the students some more options for answering the question “How are you?”. I’ve also been going around the school asking students that question and demanding an answer other than “Fine.” I’ve started making coffee in the morning with my coffee maker, and am now bringing my lunch milk home to have with it.

For Thanksgiving, I invited a bunch of the other Canadians over for a potluck dinner at my house. It was nice to be able to celebrate the holiday despite being so far from home, and since two of the Canadians are vegetarian (not including me) it ended up being an all-vegetarian Thanksgiving.

Shortly after that, one of the Singaporean ALTs invited me to go to a Domoto Koichi pop concert. It was my first ever Japanese pop concert, although I don’t exactly feel inspired to go to more. The songs were up-beat enough, but I didn’t go home humming any of them. I couldn’t understand most of the lyrics, except for the few lines in English, and those tended to be super cheesy. Still, it was a good experience to have at least once, and now I can tell my students I saw Domoto Koichi live.

Another day, we went on the “Loople” bus, which goes around the interesting sights in the city. The first stop was the mausoleum of Date Masamune, revered as the founder of Sendai. Then we went to the site of Sendai Castle, which is to say the hill where Sendai Castle used to be. It wasn’t much to look at, but there was a statue of Masamune and a small gallery. Then we spent an hour or so in the museum, looking at historical artefacts, including old suits of armour. The person I was with told me a story that Darth Vader’s look was supposedly modelled on that of Date’s armour, and the more I looked at it, the more plausible the theory sounded. We finished up the day with “gyu-tan” (beef tongue) at Sendai Station. It’s one of Sendai’s signature dishes.

I went to a Japanese tea ceremony workshop, where we were shown the art of making tea. Then we participated in a tea ceremony where we sat on tatami floors and were served green tea and Japanese sweets.

My Japanese neighbours took me on a day trip to Matsushima, a coastal town famed in song for the beauty of its island-studded bay. As with most over-hyped attractions, Matsushima suffers something of a backlash, and I’d been warned that it was a big disappointment. I went with an open mind though, and found it quite pleasant. Besides walking along the water-front and seeing the islands, we also took a stroll through the garden of a Buddhist temple, which was lovely. Then we went to visit Ishinomaki and other neighbouring towns. Ishinomaki’s attractions included an intriguingly random replica Statue of Liberty, and an old Japanese church with an absurdly steep staircase.

My school’s tea lady and another teacher invited me to go with them to Jogi-san temple, a Buddhist temple a short drive out of the city. The main building is a beautiful wooden structure with gilt decorations and stained glass. Compared to the stone work of a lot of traditional churches, it was a very warm-feeling place to worship in. We attended the service inside, which I didn’t understand, but which was still interesting. We had to kneel through the whole thing, but fortunately it didn’t last too long. Afterwards we walked around the complex. I tried sankaku aburage (a kind of fried Tofu) for the first time, and also dango (a kind of mochi) with miso sauce. Both were quite nice. We looked at the five-storey pagoda, and fed the koi.

When we were done at the temple we paid a visit to the Nikka Whiskey brewery. Alcohol doesn’t much appeal to me in general, but it was interesting to tour the facility and learn a bit about the whisky-making process. The tour was mostly in Japanese, but they had a pamphlet in English, Chinese, and Korean, so I could at least follow some of it. At the end of the tour we got to try free samples. Ironically, since I was the only one not driving, I was the only one who could drink anything. (The blood-alcohol limit for driving in Japan is zero.) I had some apple wine, which tasted quite nice, and tried some of the candy in the souvenir shop.

On the way home we stopped at a fruit and vegetable market, where I bought six normal-sized apples for $3.80. I was so happy I wanted to cry.

The hot weather left us at the end of August. September was a cool month, but now that we’ve gotten into October it’s turned downright cold. It’s not that the temperature is unusual for the time of year. But here’s another way in which Japan is reminiscent of Hong Kong: they don’t believe in insulation here. Despite the fact that this part of Japan gets four seasons, including occasional snowfall in the winter, I feel like I’m living in a cardboard box. Every evening I come home to a freezing apartment and sit here shivering. I’ve turned my summer blanket into a floor-rug and piled all three of my fleeces onto my bed. If it gets much colder I’m going to have to pull out my winter comforter. Fortunately, I have three heaters plus my air-conditioner, so hopefully even when it gets colder I’ll still be able to keep warm.

* “… wa nan desu ka?”: Japanese for “What is … ?”

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