Culture · Culture Shock · Education · Elementary School Education · Lesson Plans · Living in Japan

First Lessons at Elementary School Number One

yes, these are colored photo copies...
yes, these are colored photo copies...

So, one thing that I need to re-explain is that Japan is trying to enforce a new English program in Japanese elementary schools across Japan. The book itself is called 英語ノート(which translates roughly to “English Notebook”) and is more of an English activity book than a textbook. When I say “English” what I really should be saying is “pretend English” because the goal is not to teach Japanese elementary school students English, but rather “encourage an interest in communication and foreign countries while increasing children’s communication ability while using English.” Last semester I, and several of my colleagues, got chewed out in front of our classes for just writing English letters on the board – seeing English letters is for Jr. high school, not elementary school…blah blah blah. May I point out the the 6th grade textbook of these pretend English classes require students to be able to spell using the alphabet and actually write English words and expressions? Not to mention that several of the activities just have the names or places written in English with no picture to help. Therefore, students are expected to be able to read and write, but we are not allowed to teach them… I am confused as to the real intentions here. I have ranted about this stupid textbook a lot, and probably will continue to do so. What makes things worse is that the Kawagoe Board of Education took it upon themselves to make lessons plans – which are terrible for the most part – and asked us to teach accordingly. After looking through the first lesson and actually doing it, my elementary school’s teachers and myself decided that we would make up our own lessons from now on and use the provided ones as a general outline. The problem with the lesson plans provided to us is that the flow of the lesson makes little to no sense (for example, students do an activity using words that they don’t know. The next activity in the lesson is teaching the words. WTF) and often students are sitting in their desks and not being active enough – no much for communication.

the lesson
the lesson

Allow me to explain what the lesson was supposed to be for today. In 5th grade they are “learning” (aka I already taught them this stuff last year before the book came into existence) 【Do you like —? I like —.】based conversation. Here is how the lesson was originally planned:
① Greet the students
② Sing “Sleepy John” – I do not know the song and it is not listed on the CD for the textbook…
③ Learn how to ask about likes and dislikes – students listen to a conversation between the homeroom teacher (HRT) and the ALT. Note, the dialogue listed is only saying “I like—.” and not asking.
④ Listen to the CD and match what each person says the like – students have no time to practice the dialogue themselves and no practice with new words.
⑤ Play Karuta with the new words – oh, so now we are going to learn the vocabulary! There are no cards to be used for kurata in the textbook and it tells us to use the cards…
⑥ Chat “Do you like apples?” – would have been better earlier on for students to practice the expression…
⑦ Finish class & say good bye

To those of you who have never taught or attempted to teach a lesson before, allow me to explain that the above lesson would be very difficult to teach as it as students would get lost very easily. Also, the lesson does not have students moving around at all, so chances are they would also get very board just sitting and listening without being given the opportunity to express their own feelings.

one of the 4 different interview cards
one of the 4 different interview cards

Here is how I changed things:
① Greet the students
② Teach the new vocabulary
③ Play “Key Word Game” – students are in pairs and put an eraser over a picture in their textbook as instructed by the ALT (for example: apple). That word is not the key word. Next, students put their hands on their head and listen to the ALT. If the ALT says a word that is not the key word, students repeat. When students hear the key word (in this case apple) students try to grab the eraser before their partner does.
④ Learn to ask about likes and dislikes – students listen to the conversation between the HRT and the ALT. I hand drew picture cards for this and put them up on the board as we talked.
⑤ Listen to the CD – I figured that since students heard the conversation and repeated after me a few times that they could listen to the CD and understand what was being said.
⑥ Interview activity – students are given a card (see picture) and have to ask 5 friends about their likes. If their friend likes the thing in question, the student colors in the heart. If they don’t like it they color in the X.
⑦ Chant “Do you like apples?” – the pace of the CD is really fast for the kids, so I always have them listen once, repeat after me once, and then we “challenge” the CD

my drawings for the dialogue
my drawings for the dialogue

Things went pretty smoothly today with the changes that the teachers and I made to the lesson. The only problem I had today was with my 6th grade class. Usually I teach the two sections of 5th graders and the two sections of 6th graders separately, but today was “Parent Visiting Day,” so I had to teach both sections together. So, first period I had the 5th graders to test run everything, and fifth period I taught to all the 6th graders (about 60 kids) plus some 30 parents who came to visit the class. It was a little nerve-racking and the kids were nervous because their parents were watching. However, after we played the “Key Word Game,” the kids seemed to forget that their parents were there.

Sorry, I didn’t get any pictures of me in action or of my class in action because I was too focused on keeping the room of 60 kids happy and understanding what was going on while acting more professional than usual in front of the parents. My teachers at this elementary school are all awesome. They are all very kind and open-minded in terms of how to use this new textbook. They are also really good sports when I suddenly put them on the spot during class to help me with a dialogue or demonstration – sometimes they are not even sure 100% of what’s going on, but they still jump in. I guess I am a little bias though…I just love teaching elementary school and I feel that it is here that I belong. As much as I enjoy teaching at Jr. high, being the living-breathing tape recorder gets very tiring after the first few weeks.

Jr. high school English is taught for the sake of passing high school entrance exams and not so much to encourage communication – 90% of the class is reading and writing base while the remaining 10% is just repeating after the ALT or answering textbook questions orally. There is very little in the communication department and any love students found for English in elementary school they quickly lose once they get to Jr. high school. I find this hilarious because the goal of this new English program (whose official name is “Foreign Language Activities”) is for students to “not hate English” – I quote my boss and several other people. The problem is not that students hate English when they are in elementary school, it’s that they start to hate it in Jr. high school – of course, this is not every child, but more than enough evidence points to this conclusion. Several of my former elementary school students are at the Jr. high schools I teach at, and they have told me that they used to like English (in elementary school), but now it is not fun and it is really boring and they hate it.

While I understand that this is school and not everything can be fun, I don’t remember my language classes in elementary school and Jr. high as boring. We did all sorts of activities and games to make learning fun and to encourage our curiosity about the culture. On top of this, my classes were all taught in the language we were studying (in my case Spanish). The teacher hardly ever spoke English even if we did not understand. We just kept trying and thinking about the words coming out of our teacher’s mouth until we understood. Even in elementary schools, the Board of Education wants the HRT to be the main teacher and the ALT to be the assistant. This roughly translates too less English in the classroom and more Japanese as the HRTs know English about as well as the students. Tsukigoe has told me that they reject the idea and want me to be the main teacher so students can hear more native English as opposed to their broken English. Of course, when we do demonstrations and what not, the teachers’ English is not perfect, but it is then that students see their teacher communicating with a native speaking and the native speaker understanding their English – no matter how broken it may be.

*sigh* I am kind of just babbling right now, but I get very frustrated when a system that is supposed to encourage one thing is imposed and a system that does the opposite is still in existence. Maybe I am too close to the source to see the benefits of what is currently going on, but I somehow doubt that. I understand that Japan wants to encourage its children to become “global citizens” and all that jazz, but these ridiculous foreign language activities matched with your everyday Joe American “teaching” are not the answer to Japan’s xenophobia problem.

2 thoughts on “First Lessons at Elementary School Number One

  1. 1) I love your pencil case — I have the same one!
    2) I love hearing your stories about teaching English! I wanted to be an English teacher in Japan for a while but I recently was teaching Art-in-English at a summer English camp and I think I changed my mind. I love building curriculum and actually teaching, but I felt under-appreciated and taken advantage of.

    I planned out my whole curriculum before arriving to Japan and brought all the supplies and things that I knew you couldn’t get in Japan (or as cheap) and other teachers didn’t have anything planned at all! Also, our compensation was ridiculous. I actually ended up paying to go there instead of them paying me because “they weren’t allowed to pay me” so I just got partially reimbursed for plane fare and the exchange rate was horrible when I returned to America. And I was out all the living expenses and travel and food as well, which was a real shock.

    Luckily I had a great experience studying/living in Japan the year prior and so I don’t have any resentment towards Japan.

    I’m happy to hear that you seem to be very very appreciated at your school and that your English department allows you to have some free reign with the curriculum. Obviously the curriculum was made by people that weren’t trying to teach or learn the language, which is a shame. These books seem like they should be workbooks or summer-work something to keep up the language, supplement another book, or fill extra time.

    Good luck and keep the stories coming!

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