Culture Shock · Education · Elementary School Education · Japanese Language · Lesson Plans · Living in Japan · Teaching

Another Day of Elementary School

Today was another day at the elementary school complete with a semi-revamp of the Eigo Noto lesson plan. This weekend is the school’s sports festival (運動会・undou kai) so I had fewer classes than usual. My typical day is teaching the two sections of 5th grade, then a break with teaching the handicapped kids’ class, and then finishing the day with 6th graders. Today, because of the practice I ended up teaching both sections of 5th graders at the same time and both sections of the 6th graders at the same time. That makes for about 60 children at the same time. Thankfully, the kids respect me enough that when I am talking, they listen. Really though, I think they just enjoy watching me make an utter fool of myself as I try to help them understand what I am saying in English without using any Japanese. Sure, that takes a little longer, but it is better than just giving them the answer in their native language – my language teachers never did that.

Eigo Noto (英語ノート) textbooks and CDs
Eigo Noto (英語ノート) textbooks and CDs

Anyway, today’s Eigo Noto lesson went a lot better than I expected and I am thankful that I am done with the “Hello Song” until the next group of 5th graders. Anyway, today’s lesson revolved around (once again) feelings and gestures. Now, I know I bashed the hell out of Eigo Noto in another entry, but it is an OK starting point for lessons. I am not sure if all the schools who have Eigo Noto are using the same lesson plans that the Institute of Education provided us, but whoever made the lessons really needs to spend some time at Santa Cruz Soccer Camp to understand the philosophy of learning through enjoyment. Today’s “games” where for students to sit in rows and greet the person behind them with the following dialogue:
A: Nice to meet you. My name is OOOO.
B:Nice to meet you too. My name is OOOO. How are you?
A: I’m OOO, and you?
B: I’m OOO.

Yeah, I know it is not the most fluid conversation and perhaps is a little unnatural for a first meeting, but at this point I have kind of given up on teaching real “American” English since the goal of this new book is to just build children’s communication confidence. Before class, I made sentence cards to put on the board (A-san was yellow and B-san was blue) and a lot of the kids freaked out because “they could not read the English” and “it was too much English!” Well, students quickly discovered that after doing a “repeat after Katherine-sensei” of the dialogue, that they already knew everything and now they could kind of read in English. Please not that I was told by the Institute of Education that I am not allowed to teach children how to read or write – let’s just ignore the fact that students are asked to do some reading and writing in their textbook. I had not made sentence cards until today and I am kind of upset at myself that I had not done so previously. Live and learn I guess.

Anyway, back to the game that isn’t a game idea. I hate the idea of kids just sitting in rows repeating the key English (unless we are playing Telephone – that is an entirely different story). So I quickly made up enough small cards with all the emotions the kids had learned and handed out one to each student. They then had to use the dialogue to look for people who were feeling the same way – hey, they are supposed to learn how to make friends using English, right? Since I had such big numbers today, this activity actually went better than it would have with 30 students. It is because of the large numbers that students had to talk with a lot of other students and got a lot of practice. I almost never let my games go more than 15 minutes because, and this is from my soccer camp experience, if you let kids play one game too long, their energy level gets too high and they become unable to focus. My boss, Bill, was always telling us “stop it at its peak!” I suppose it has become my sort of mantra. I did stop this game at about 10 minutes and the kids were disappointed and wanted me to let it go longer. Score one for the ALT!

One thing I forgot to mention in the previous post about Eigo Noto: the voices are terrible!! More specifically the voice of Ken Suzuki is terrible. Every time he speaks, the kids burst into fits of laugher. I have to admit, I do too. The voices sound almost unreal and are more along the lines of someone tweeting with a computer voice than having a real person speak…I hope that the new version at least has better voices.

I am going to completely change subjects now and move onto teaching handicapped children. When I first started teaching at this particular elementary school, I never imagined that they were going to have me teach the handicapped children. As ALTs, we get zero training on how to teach English. In fact, my first real job when I came to Japan in August was teaching other elementary school teachers how to teach English. I remember telling the teachers I worked with that I was new to this whole being a “real” teacher thing, so we would be learning together. Being all wide-eyed and bushy-tailed as I was, teaching an entire class of children something in English was more than a little nerve-racking. When I learned that I would also need to teach the handicapped children, I turned to the only source of information I had: my boss. He told me to just do the same lessons I do with my 1st graders. So, with that in mind I went to my first class and quickly realized that even a 1st grade lesson was not going to be easy enough for this particular group of kids. I am being totally serious when I say that about half of these kids cannot even say their own names without being told by a teacher what their name is. I felt totally helpless during my first lesson because I had no clue how to teach them. It took me a few lessons, but I have figured out how to best approach this particular group of students, but I think it is almost ridiculous to expect an ALT to teach any lesson without some sort of training.

This is one of the problems with the way Japanese approach English education: they assume that native speaker means a good English teacher. I am sure it is clear from my writing they my English is not perfect (I don’t even want to get into grammar mistakes), but here I am educating Japanese youth on how to speak English. I cannot tell you how many times students have come to ask me about grammar while I am in the teachers’ room and I can offer then no concrete explanation – it makes me feel terrible. Even pronunciation sometimes does not “match” what is written in their textbooks because my accent (the way I was taught to speak from listening to my parents and such) is different. Sometimes the way words are pronounced in the book they use is the British pronunciation or the eastern regions of America. I had to explain to one of my teachers several times that the way many Americans pronounce “water” is not “waTer” but more like “waDer” and it nearly drove him mad because the book said it was “water.” Sorry?

I guess my point is that any other teaching profession requires that you have some sort of teaching credentials. All I can say I did was work as an English tutor for Japanese students at my university for 3 years and I coached elementary school soccer for about 6 years. Nothing that really says I am qualified to be a language instructor. I really wish that I had been given some training the first month I was here instead of just sitting in the office taking up space. I am not saying that I am terrible at my job. The schools I work with have told me that I am one of the most dedicated, creative, enthusiastic, and “powerful” (sorry, my English fails me on the translation of their words there) ALTs they’ve had. It makes me feel good to hear this, because it means I am a natural at teaching (sorry to be tooting my own horn here). However, I cannot help but wonder how much better I would be at this if I had been provided some sort of training. I always assumed that when you entered a new working environment there was some training involved.

Despite some hard times, I really do love what I am doing and I really hope that I am contributing positively to my students’ English education.


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