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About 英語ノート

It is not that I dislike teaching elementary school children. Nor is it true that I hate the Japanese elementary school system. In reality, it is the total opposite. Teaching at elementary schools has always been my favorite part of being an ALT. Sure, after teaching 5 or 6 classes in one day (a full load) as opposed to the usual 3 at a junior high school, I am tired and ready for a long nap. Sure I get tired of gesturing and making a total fool of myself all for the sake of my students understanding my lessons using nothing but English. Sure, it is hard as hell to do that sometimes. Sure the kids have too much energy for their own good. But, despite all that, teaching at Japanese elementary schools has been the most rewarding experience out of any other teaching position I have ever had. Teaching elementary school students allowed me to stretch my creativity beyond where I thought it could go just to create my own lessons with new and interesting games and activities. As a result, it enabled me to find my own individual teaching style and helped me fall even further in love with teacher. However, I find now that some of that spark, the passion if you will, has lost its luster.

Some people will say that this is because I have been teaching in Japan for over half a year now and I am just getting into a teaching routine. I don’t agree with that. I put a lot of my blame on the introduction of “foreign language activities” in elementary schools as enforced by the Japanese Ministry of Education in the form of “Eigo Noto” (英語ノート). Right now the new “textbook” is not mandatory, but rather an option for elementary schools to use before a new version becomes mandatory in 2011 for all elementary schools in Japan.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I am by no means against teaching English to elementary school students once a week. Nor am I against there being an official textbook. What I am against is the methodology presented by “Eigo Noto.”

①Where is the English?!

From the moment you first lay eyes on the book, you know it is a Japanese textbook. If you were an ALT who knew no Japanese, you could not even read the title of the book on the cover. Furthermore, looking at the teacher’s book (all in Japanese) gives no help to the ALT (I can read it thankfully). It is therefore pretty clear that “Eigo Noto” was designed to be used without an ALT (which is to be expected I guess because not all schools have ALTs). Not only is the title of the book in Japanese (why they cannot call the book “English Notebook” is beyond me) when you flip through the book there is little to no English on each page – yes, you are not mistaken in thinking that this book’s target language is English. Not even the key English is written in the textbook – which is going to get sticky when I have to start teaching the expression “I study English during first period on Monday.” When I asked the Kawagoe Institute of Education about students not being able to read or write and if I could include some of that in my lessons, I was told that I was not allowed to do so. Sorry for trying to give the kids some more confidence for when they enter junior high school.

② My name is SUZUKI KEN.

The way that names are written in this book kills me. Not only is the name order reversed, but everything is in caps which is not how English speakers write their names. The entire first lesson is all about self introductions, but the book lists each person’s last name first and their first name last. Now, I don’t like telling a group of children, or an entire school there over, that the textbook their government created is wrong, but if a child goes to America and introduces himself as Smith John (a Japanese example would be Suzuki Ken), Americans will either think they are trying to be cute and imitating Bond, James Bond, or start calling the student by their last name when that person is thinking they are calling them by their first name. Westerners have a different order for names, and the Ministry should have taken that into account when creating “Eigo Noto.” So, sorry, your book has a semi-big mistake Japanese government.

③ Let’s NOT Chant!

As I mentioned before, I am totally fine with making a fool of myself in front of a group of students. That should be written in your job description as an ALT: “Must be willing to make fool of self in front of students.” Heck, I’ve made a fool of myself in front of large groups of people by dressing up as Sailor Moon and performing dances from Sera Myu at Sakura Con in Seattle. Therefore, singing songs in front of kids is no biggie. However, I hate the chants and songs in “Eigo Noto” more than is healthy. It may just be personal tastes, but I really find the chanting and singing to be the most painful part of the lesson – I think the students feel the same way. Sure, they laugh at first, but the kids get tired of the songs really fast and it becomes a task for the homeroom teacher and myself to keep the kids motivated. Not always the easiest thing to do. My biggest complaint is the way the alphabet song is sung. I understand that the “LMNOP” part is fast and a little difficult for Japanese people to pronounce…but did the entire country really feel the need to change the beats of the song to make it easier to sing? I have broke the letters off where you take a breath or a long pause while singing.

English Version:
Now I know my ABC’s
Next time won’t you sing with me?!

Japanese Version
Happy happy I’m happy
I can sing the ABC’s

I think the “happy happy” part gets me more than the LMNOP part actually.

④ I don’t known Korean.

And chances are neither do you (if you do, my apologies). My first lesson of “Eigo Noto” was titled “Let’s Learn the World’s Greetings” which seemed kind of appropriate until I started the lesson. Now, this may come as a shock, I am only fluent in one language (English) and I have studied Spanish for 10 years and Japanese for 5 years now (being fluent in neither). I have never studied Russian, Chinese, Korean, Portuguese, or Swahili. You can then imagine my shock when I am asked to read the greetings for these 5 languages so that students can listen and repeat after me. I look at the page and see things like здравствулте and realized that having me pronounce that made about as much sense as asking me to jump off the top of the school and flap my arms so I could fly to America and bring back each student an American McDonald’s hamburger – it was not going to happen. The textbook I was given, and by textbook I should really say a colored photocopy version, does not show how to read anything. Seeing as I can’t read several of the greetings and I have no idea how the pronunciation scale is for the languages outside of what I have studied, I hardly felt qualified to tell students how to pronounce здравствулте!

⑤Games that are not games.

The whole point of “Eigo Noto” is for children to enjoy learning a foreign language and gain an interest in learning English (before that joy is destroyed in junior high school). The philosophy is really close to the philosophy held at Santa Cruz Soccer Camp (where I worked before moving to Japan) we liked to call “learning through enjoyment.” With that in mind you would think that the games in “Eigo Noto” would be really fun. Sorry…my kids would disagree a little. My students did not enjoy the games and activities as they were, so I had to change things up a little. My first class of the day, I am sad to say, is kind of my guinea pig class where I do each lesson as it is written without any changes. After class, I quickly scribble all over the lesson to create a semi-new lesson to use the rest of the day.

Most of the games, and it could just not be a match with my students, do not provide a solid enough goal for them to attain. For example, there is a game where students are supposed to greet (in English) as many classmates as they can. The student who greets the most classmates wins. Problem with this was students just got into a group and greeted only their friends or dinked around. I changed it to the “Evolution Game” where all students start out as cockroaches and have to greet other cockroaches. After greetings, students do rock paper scissors. The winner becomes a rabbit, the loser stays a cockroach. The scale went cockroach to rabbit to monkey to human to angel. When you became an angel, you sat down. Kids were so much more active and excited because they all wanted to be the first person to become an angel and did not want to be the student left as a cockroach. Another game involved exchanging name cards with classmates. The instructions said that the student with the most cards wins. Problem was…all students make the same amount of cards and you are supposed to play until everyone has given away all of their name cards. Therefore, wouldn’t all students have the same amount of name cards? What I did was made a point system. If you exchanged cards with someone of the same gender as you, you got one point. If you exchanged cards with someone of the opposite gender, you got two points. If you exchanged cards with the ALT, you got 3 points. Definitely more interaction between students with this one.

⑥Who is the main teacher?

It says specifically on the official website and we were told (the ALTs that is) that the main teacher for these language activities is not the ALT. This is definitely not how it plays out for me and most of the other ALTs I work with. I went into my first elementary lesson in March with the assumption that I would be taking the back seat and essentially be like the tape recorder that I am at junior high (I would like to think I am a little above tape recorder though). I mean, I was told that “you are not the main teacher” by my boss, so I think it was a fair assumption. So, you can imagine my surprise when my first started and the homeroom teacher just stood in the back of the room watching and waiting for me to do something. Call me the fish and the front of the room my bowl. Well, guess it is up to me to teach.

I teach four classes at the elementary school in any given day and more than 90% of the lesson is taught by me. I try to get the homeroom teachers involved, but some are less responsive than others (for me, three out of four jump in and do more co-teaching). What the Ministry is hoping to accomplish is that the students see their homeroom teacher speaking English and they think, “Hey, that’s my teacher. They’re Japanese, but they can speak English! So, I can speak it too!” If only we lived in a perfect world where there really was a leprechaun at the end of every rainbow giving us pots of gold. Alas, we don’t. For the most part (and I am lucky because my elementary school teachers can speak ok English) elementary school teachers’ English ability is limited if not non-existing. This creates several problems. One is that if a teacher has no English ability, and this happened to me last term, they cannot understand the ALT and therefore harvest a sort of fear of English. This fear then transfers onto the students and it makes teaching a class nearly impossible because the class is in such chaos. The other problem is that students quickly doubt their homeroom teacher’s ability and tease their teacher. It has happened to the teachers I work with on several occasions. “先生、本当に英語が話せるの?” (Teacher, can you really speak English). It is always done in a playful and sarcastic fashion, but it can’t be good for that teacher’s self esteem. My teachers actually asked me to be the main teacher so that students can learn proper pronounciation instead of their katakana way of speaking English.

⑦Teaching Materials

I have already mention that this is just a trial run and there will be a finalized version of “Eigo Noto” to be used all over Japan in 2011, but that does not give the Ministry the right to not provide teachers with proper teaching materials. The picture cards found on the CD that accompanies “Eigo Noto” are nothing more than poorly-scanned-low-quality-blown-up images of what is found in the textbook (not only that…but it was just a word document…). Personally, I was embarrassed to use them and instead hand drew and collected clip art from all over the internet to create my own picture cards for the lessons.

⑧Puberty Sucks

Ok, so maybe you don’t hit puberty when you are in the 5th and 6th grade, but close enough. Until now I had been teaching all grades (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th) and I loved teaching each grade because each grade provided a different aspect and a break from teaching the other grades. The higher grades were not as fun because by then kids are starting to get attitudes and do not listen to directions as well as they did when they were little. With “Eigo Noto” we are only allowed to teach 5th and 6th grade. In some areas, I have heard, the school board becomes furious if the other grades get English activities. I guess this is part of the Ministry’s plan to equalize all of Japan. I don’t have to like it though. I miss my 1st graders.

I am glad I was not a totally new ALT when “Eigo Noto” was born. If I had been, maybe I would have not enjoyed my experience as much and I would have been more stressed because the method of teaching is very unclear and unorganized. I am thankful that at the elementary school I teach at the teachers explained to the students that “Eigo Noto” was a kind of experiment and that the lessons were not lessons that I made. Therefore the students keep an open mind (kind of) and it makes teaching a little easier. After each lesson I write a review about how things went, what students liked and disliked, and finish things off with how I changed the lesson and how I think the existing lesson can be improved.

I know I have bashed “Eigo Noto” so much that it is practically six feet under now, but it is not such a terrible thing. Until now, only school boards with money could afford an ALT to come and teach English lessons at elementary schools – typically once a month. Now English activities are once a week and if they have an ALT they get more face time with that foreigner and can foster more cross-cultural communication. But, like I said, we don’t live in a world with leprechauns. “Eigo Noto” has a long way to go before all 5th and 6th graders are getting real “English” exposure.

I would like to finish off with an article I found online about “Eigo Noto” because it made me laugh and I totally agree with their opinion.

Primary Advice / ‘Eigo Noto’ fails to hit mark
Helene J. Uchida / Special to The Daily Yomiuri

Q: I hear a lot about the upcoming Eigo Noto (produced by the Education, Science and Technology Ministry) to be used in fifth- and sixth-grade primary classes throughout the country. Could you please share your thoughts on them? How well do they match the needs of learners of English here in Japan?

A: The Danish writer Hans Christian Anderson wrote a delightful fairy tale titled The Emperor’s New Clothes. The emperor hires two tailors to make him the finest garments. They tell him the cloth is only visible to the intelligent or elite; to all others it is invisible. When the emperor parades in public wearing the “new clothes,” everyone exclaims how fantastic the clothes look. But one little boy shouts out, “He has nothing on!”

I may be stepping on some toes here, but I think it is clear Japanese administrators and teachers are not questioning the book. I would not be surprised if, at some point, a Japanese child asks, “Where is the English in Eigo Noto?”

Teachers are being told that they do not have to use the books, but since it was created, compiled, published and endorsed by the ministry, a prominent and influential organization in the education community, teachers trust their superiors and think that they should adopt them.

I have reviewed Eigo Noto’s first and second volumes and am opposed to their adoption and usage in primary schools. Because of limited space, I will focus on the first volume today. The problems are:

— The title is in Japanese. If the title “English Notebook” were used, children could learn those two important English words right away.

— The book looks Japanese; there is nothing especially English about it.

— Names are written in Japanese order: family name first.

— All the names are written in capital letters. In English-speaking countries, this is generally the habit of uneducated people.

— The manga characters look like third-graders. The oldest kids in primary schools want to look older, not younger.

— There are no English model sentences for the children to look at, wonder about or try to imitate. I can see a lot of kanji, hiragana and katakana in the book, but far too little English.

— It appears that activities encourage the use of Japanese by the teachers to explain what to do and how to do it. I can envision a lot of Japanese being used to complete activities as opposed to the use of simple English.

— The song Head, Shoulders, Knee and Toes is appropriate for preschoolers. I know for sure the oldest primary school students would feel babyish singing that song.

— There are little people at the bottom of each page, which is confusing.

— I wonder when and how students will be transported into the English zone with such a book.

— This book is not user-friendly for teacher or students. Teachers do not understand how to use it, which will lead to confusing lessons and a dislike of the subject matter by students.
In a nutshell, the emperor is wearing no clothes.

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