Friday, February 10, 2012

Atsui desu ne!* - July 2011

Summer’s back and so is the heat.  I already discussed it in last summer’s post; suffice it to say it’s really hot here, as my teachers are fond of pointing out repeatedly.  One of them asked me if Canada gets this hot.  I told her that yes, on occasion, we get some pretty hot summer days, but that’s why July is summer vacation.  Here the teachers and students are forced to sweat it out till the end of the month.

At the end of June I agreed to go to another ALT’s school to help at his culture day.  Since it was so close to the beginning of July, I teamed up with another Canadian and we taught a lesson on Canada Day.  Our topic was food.  We taught the students the names of popular dishes and asked them to guess their countries of origin – because as everyone knows, we don’t have food in Canada; we just borrow everyone else’s.  I also talked a bit about Canada Day with my elementary school students, and handed out the Canadian flag stickers I’d gotten from my sister.  I realised it was my first ever Canada Day spent outside of the country, and I’m glad I got a chance to commemorate it even a little bit.  At church I was invited to talk about my favourite part of the summer and ended up going off into a long description of Canada Day and how I usually celebrate it.  One of the members said he’d never seen me get so animated about anything before!

At my own school, the students had their “Chorus Contest”, in which each class sings a set of songs and a prize is awarded to the best class in each grade.  The students spent the better part of the last couple of months rehearsing and preparing for the competition, though from my perspective it was just a chance to get out of school for a day and enjoy some music.  The highlight of the competition was actually a half-time show where the new English teacher played his guitar for us.  He’s really good!  It was unlike any guitar playing I’d ever seen before, and I sat mesmerised through the whole thing.

I’ve had some success recently introducing new ideas for activities into my classes.  I convinced the third-year teacher to let me do rebuses with the students, and despite the lack of language arts practice they usually get they handled them quite well.  I also filled up some of my free time making pronunciation trees for some of the minimal pairs Japanese speakers usually find difficult.  “R” vs “L”, “B” vs “V”, “A” vs “U”, “S” vs “Th”… the list is quite long, actually.  I’ve started using them in both my second- and third-year classes, and I think I’ve hit on the perfect activity to make me, the students, and the local teachers happy.  Pronunciation is something we can all agree is important; it’s practical in a really concrete way that’s easy for the teachers to understand; and it’s one of the elements of English that I, as a native speaker, am genuinely an expert on.  I’m probably going to make this activity a regular one throughout the rest of the year; we’ll see how many pairs I’m able to get through.

Another activity came about when my second-year teacher asked me to do a special lesson with one of her classes.  I was as thrilled as I always am to be suddenly tasked with doing an entire lesson on my own (which is to say, not at all), but upon checking out my favourite websites I came upon the brilliant idea of doing a MASH game with my students.  Do you remember MASH?  It’s a game I remember playing as a pre-adolescent, the point of which is to try and predict what kind of a future you will have: whom you will marry, where you will live, what kind of job you will have, etc.  I quickly realised the game would be a great opportunity to give the students a lot of speaking practice while hopefully having fun.  The demonstration took a long time, but once the students understood the activity, they basically just ran it themselves.  For the most part they looked like they enjoyed it, and the teacher decided to do it with her other three classes as well.

There’s one new activity idea that recently came to me all the way from Canada.  Back at the beginning of June I got an e-mail from someone in the JET Programme about a bunch of letters the Japanese Embassy in Canada had received.  The letters were from Canadian elementary school students expressing their condolences in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami.  The Embassy had apparently passed the letters on to the JET Programme, who in turn wondered if I would be interested in having some of them.  I was a bit hesitant to take them, given that few of my students had been seriously affected by the disaster, but I talked to my head teacher about it, and she seemed supportive of the idea, so eventually I accepted.

The letters didn’t arrive until the end of July, just before the start of summer vacation, so I haven’t had a chance to do anything with them yet.  I have, however, read them and shown them to my teachers.  They’re quite touching.  There are twelve in all, written by grade three and four students from a small town in eastern Ontario.  The language is simpler than an adult would use, but still much more natural – and therefore challenging – than most of the reading material my students work with, besides being full of spelling and grammatical errors.  I don’t know how optimistic I should be about getting my students to read and understand them, but the teachers seem to agree that I should at least try to share them.  That’ll be something to work on in the fall.

At the end of the month, my head teacher, who also teaches second-year English, came to me with the news that she was going to be giving a presentation on teaching practices.  As part of her brainstorming, she asked me what I thought of English education in Japan.

I was like, seriously?!

I stalled for a couple of minutes as I desperately tried to think of something diplomatic to say.  I mean, I doubted that, “I think English education in Japan is a joke, why do you ask?” would go over too well.  Eventually I hit on the idea of framing everything as a comparison between the Japanese method of teaching English and the Canadian method of teaching French.  I stressed repeatedly that second language education in Japan was very… different from what I had grown up with.  Not wrong… just… different.  I tried to avoid giving the impression that I thought everything about French education in Canada was perfect – I don’t!  Indeed, I might have enjoyed French a lot more if it had been more like English in Japan.  But the comparison gave me a chance to air a lot of my pet peeves: the use of Japanese by English teachers; the emphasis on rote memorisation; the lack of authentic speaking practice.  More than once I touched on the fact that the focus in Japan is mostly on passing exams, with very little emphasis placed on practical English skills.  She seemed to agree with me on the last point, and asked me for suggestions on how this could be improved.

I’m not very good at hedging, and I’m afraid that despite my best efforts I may have offended her.  I’m also afraid that I may have dug myself into a bit of a hole, because she probably thinks it’s my job to fix the problems I mentioned.  I kept trying to remind her that I’m not actually a trained teacher, and not in a position to say what would be best for the students.  After all, it’s very easy to find fault with someone else’s teaching style; it’s a lot harder to improve upon it.  And if the teachers here suffer from the disease of underestimating their students, I know I have the opposite problem.  I tend to make activities that are too challenging, forgetting what a struggle learning a foreign language can be.

She listened very politely and seemed to take most of my points well.  An idea I stressed a few times was that the students would learn more if the English teachers spoke English in class.  Interestingly, she suggested that her poor English skills were a barrier to doing this, and I found myself contradicting her.  Her English is pretty poor, but it’s adequate for the class she’s teaching.  The problem is that she doesn’t use it enough.  She has the same lack of self-confidence that plagues her students and prevents them from improving their speaking skills.

She latched onto the idea that students need more speaking practice, and actually made one suggestion I think has a lot of potential: every class, one student has to give a short speech about some topic.  I made the point that it could be a very short speech, as long as it got the students into the habit of talking about themselves in English.  We won’t be able to try out the idea till the resumption of classes in the fall, but I’m looking forward to seeing how it goes.

One other interesting thing happened at school.  My tea lady has adopted a baby sparrow.  Apparently it fell out of its nest and she brought it inside and put it in a box of paper shreds.  It’s currently living in a cage in our school office and I visit it sometimes to help feed it worms.  She’s named it Piko-chan.

It’s the end of the JET contract year, and we had a “Leavers Party” to see off the departing ALTs.  Most of the ALTs I know are coming back next year, including the one from Singapore, but the Australian one’s going home.  I’ll miss her.  I guess I’ll have to go to Australia some time to visit her!

The Singaporean ALT and I went to the park one evening to see the fireflies, which are supposed to be a famous summer attraction in Japan.  It was in fact my first time to see fireflies in action, and I have to admit they were very pretty to watch.

Although the aftershocks have gotten pretty infrequent and mild now, we actually had a big one at the beginning of the month.  It measured 7.0 on the Richter scale, making it our biggest event since I was shaken out of bed at the beginning of April.  Fortunately it didn’t do much damage or even disrupt life in Sendai significantly.  But here’s the amazing thing: I completely failed to notice it!  When people mentioned it to me afterwards, I had no idea what they were talking about.  Turns out I was walking to church when it struck, and I guess I was so focused on getting there in a hurry that I didn’t feel the earth move under my feet.  To be fair, earthquakes are less noticeable when you’re outside, but I still find that remarkable.

I got to celebrate my birthday a few different ways.  I went over to my tea lady’s house on Saturday and she had a little party for me and one of her nieces, whose birthday was around the same time.  I also went out to dinner with the Singaporean ALT, and got birthday cards and e-mails of well-wishes from my friends.  So over all it was a cheerful celebration away from home.

I also received one really nice gift, though not a birthday present exactly.  As an anniversary present to celebrate the fact that we’d both been in Japan for a year, my church gave me and the English teacher each our very own yukata!  A yukata is a light summer kimono.  I’d been wanting one for a while, and thinking that it would make a very good souvenir of my time in Japan.  And now I have one!  I was surprised and thrilled by my church’s generosity.  I mean, I can understand that they’d want to give a thank-you gift to the teacher who works there, but to give one to me too seems extravagant.  It’s quite nice, too, and fits me fairly well despite my uncommonly tall stature.

I got to wear the yukata that very day to a festival that was happening downtown.  It was actually a combination of several festivals; as part of the effort to improve post-earthquake morale, Sendai decided to host six festivals at the same time, one from each of the prefectures in Tohoku (north-eastern Japan).  I’ve had other opportunities to wear the yukata, too.  A lot of festivals take place over the summer, and my tea lady has taken me to see them with her family.

One other thing happened this month to mark the passage of my time in Japan: my watch battery died.  Which meant that I had to go and get it replaced.  And when I did, I found that, naturally enough, the people at the watch counter had set my watch to the correct local time.  Up to then, it had been fixed on Eastern Daylight Time, regardless of my location or the time of year.  I thought of setting it back, but since it had been set for me, and since I intended to stay in Japan for at least another year, I figured I might as well leave it there.  So now, after almost a year in Japan, I am at last functioning on Japanese time.

In the news this month, Japan won the Women’s World Cup in Germany.  Considering the rough times that Japan has been through recently, the victory has been something of a national morale-booster and a source of national pride.  In the United States, New York has legalised same-sex marriage.  And the world has a new country: South Sudan has seceded from the north to become its own sovereign state.

In grimmer news, the normally peaceful country of Norway suffered two coordinated terrorist attacks, one a car bombing, the other a shooting at a youth camp, that have left over seventy people dead.  Have I mentioned how much the news this year sucks?

Movies I’ve seen this month:

Super 8 – A sci-fi action-adventure told through the eyes of a group of adolescent filmmakers.  The film is almost worth watching for the kids, who are funny and engaging in a way that took me back to an early Spielberg movie.  Plus, it’s nice for a change to have teenaged characters actually played by teenaged actors.  The downside is that nothing else about the movie really works.  The story is confused, the ending doesn’t make sense, and the special effects threaten to overwhelm the film.  Oh, and cool though they may look on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, lens flares do not automatically make everything better.  (Two and a half stars)

Inception – I was really impressed with this movie, which is well worth all the hype it’s been getting.  I was expecting an action-packed special effects show, and was pleasantly surprised to find that it’s actually much more of an idea movie, as reminiscent of Solaris as it is of The Matrix.  The premise is fascinating, to a degree where I almost wish that there could be sequels or even a T.V. show based on it.  The story is basically that of a heist film, and is as fun as any other movie in that genre, with the twist that the fortress is someone’s mind, and the goal is to put something in rather than take it out.  Any ethical issues this presents are completely ignored by the characters, which is just as well, as there would be no way to justify them.  I’m not sure it all makes perfect sense; I have a suspicion that once I go back and re-watch it a few times I’ll start finding all sorts of plot holes.  But on first viewing it worked really well.  (Four stars)

Lilo & Stitch – A troubled orphan girl adopts a belligerent alien and teaches him the true meaning of family.  Quite unlike any other Disney movie, it’s set in the present, has protagonists with genuine flaws, and lacks a clear villain.  While these departures from the traditional formula could have made the movie weak, they actually create a fresh and interesting story that’s just a little bit gritty but still heart-warming.  I even liked the soundtrack, which might just turn me into an Elvis fan yet!  (Four stars)

Ratatouille – This Disney film was more disappointing.  The premise of the rat who becomes a master chef is cute, but the main characters were a little too annoying, and the plot took a few too many twists.  (Three stars)

Grave of the Fireflies – Tragic story of two young children struggling to survive in the decline of World War II.  It pulls on the heartstrings fairly unsubtly, and I couldn’t help wondering if it wasn’t over-doing it at times, but I’ve never had to live through wartime deprivation, so I probably shouldn’t judge.  (Three stars)

Books I’ve read this month:

The Silver Chair by C. S. Lewis – Still slowly re-working my way through the Narnia books.  This one has a tighter story than its predecessor.  It also contains some of the more blatantly didactic passages of the series.  As a child I think I liked the book less for that, though as an adult I find the religious allegories interesting.  I do have to say that I’m uncomfortable with the ending, which has always struck me as strange and I still don’t understand.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J. K. Rowling – Why did I ever think this book was badly written?  I guess it depends on what one’s comparing it to.  It’s not The Lord of the Rings, to be sure, but it’s not exactly Eragon either.  Reading it as an adult, obviously, I find the characters a little flat and the plot a little over-determined, but I’m sure it would make a perfectly enjoyable read for a child in the target demographic.  My only two major complaints are that the magic isn’t well explained, and the humour feels a trifle mean-spirited in places.

Shame by Salman Rushdie – Yet another abstract and satirical tale about the Indian subcontinent, this one focusing on Pakistan.  Unfortunately I don’t know much Pakistani history, and I think a lot of the allegory was lost on me for that reason.  It’s the kind of book that makes me wish I was back in school, because I’m sure it would be fascinating to deconstruct and discuss in a classroom context, but I found it a little hard to interpret on my own.  Vaguest of all for me was the title; the book is explicitly and self-referentially supposed to be about the damaging effects of shame, but I couldn’t see how that theme played out in the actual story.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J. K. Rowling – The second book in the Harry Potter series, and probably one of the weaker ones.  One point against it is the introduction of Dobby, a character whose sole function is to annoy.  Another is its reliance on the adults being useless.  One sort of gets the impression that the story could have been wrapped up within the first six months if the kids had only discussed what they knew with one of the teachers.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling – My favourite of the Harry Potter books so far.  It’s considerably longer than its predecessors, with some interesting twists and a likeable new character in the person of Prof. Lupin.

* “Atsui desu ne!”: Japanese for “It’s hot, eh?”

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