Sunday, December 31, 2006

About Ferries in Northern Japan

Every New Years my wife, son and I go to Hokkaido from Iwate. Usually this entails driving from Morioka to Hachinohe (about 2 hours) and then taking a 6 hour ferry from Hachinohe in Aomori to a city called Tomakomai. We then drive from Tomakomai to my wife’s hometown, Kuriyama. We always take our car to Hokkaido.
This year, because of bad weather our ferry from Hachinohe on December 28 was cancelled. So we decided to take the ferry from Aomori City (about 2 and a half hours by car) to Hakodate (about 3 and a half hours) and then drive from Hakodate to Kuriyama (4 hours). We made a reservation for December 28 and it seemed as if the ferries were running. On December 27 we received a phone call saying that the days ferries for that day had been cancelled because of bad weather so they were canceling all reservations for December 28. Instead, we could show up to the ferry terminal on December 28 and take a number. When our number was called we could go on the ferry. They predicted that there would be a bout 100 cars ahead of us ( a ferry could take about 50 cars). Because the weather was scheduled to get worse we decided to leave on the 28th before the weather got really bad. We got to the ferry terminal at about 6:40 AM on December 28 leaving our house at 4:00 AM. We were told that there were 110 cars ahead of us and that we would not be able to board the ferry until after noon. My wife and I estimated that we would be able to board a ferry between 3 – 5PM. The ferry parking lot was full and there were trucks parked on the street. There were also a lot of people sleeping in their cars as they had probably been waiting for a ferry from the previous day. Most passengers on the ferry our truck drivers carrying goods from the main Island to Hokkaido and vice versa. The ferry terminal reeked of cigarette smoke as many of the truck drivers were drinking and smoking. Everywhere we went there seemed to be cigarette ashes and ash trays. Outside, most of the hundreds of cars and trucks had their engines running so the people inside could keep warm. So the air outside the ferry terminal wreaked of automobile emissions while the inside of the terminal smelled like a bar. This was no place for a 2 year old to hand out so my wife and I went sightseeing around Aomori city.
We went to a beautiful hot spring (onsen) at a hotel called Jogakura (城ヶ倉) in Hakkouda Mountain (八甲田山). My son and I went into the bath together. The hot spring had an outdoor batch and my son and I sat in the bath with me staring at the snow covered trees and falling snow and my son playing in the bath. It was one of the most serene and peaceful moments I had experienced in years. Unfortunately, the clock was ticking and we decided to go back to the terminal to check on the ferry. We arrived at the terminal at about 1PM. There were no fewer cars, people were still partying in the ferry terminal, and it seemed that few numbers had been called since we departed for the mountains. So, we decided to go into Aomori City and eat lunch. For lunch we went to a big shopping mall. In the restaurant, the waitresses were very impolite, my son was crying and refusing to eat, and everyone around us was smoking. It seems like there are a lot of smokers in Aomori city. We saw a grandmother and a mother with her infant daughter enter the restaurant. They sat down and then the grandmother and mother lit their cigarettes up. The food was not so good either. It was a pretty lousy lunch but my son cheered up and ate so the lunch ended well. The shopping center also had a children’s play space where my son could entertain himself.
We got back to the ferry terminal at about 3:30 PM. Few numbers had been called and some of the truck drivers were starting to get a little restless. In the span of 20 minutes there were two outbursts directed towards the ferry ticket clerks. While the truck drivers insulted them, the ticket clerks bowed their heads and said “moushiwake arimasen” which translates roughly to “How can you ever forgive us.”
I took my son on a 30 minute walk and we observed to boats and the trucks. I put him on my shoulders and ran along the edge of the dock. My lungs started to burn a little and realized that it probably was the result of the exhaust coming from all the trucks (please see the picture). My son saw a ferry docked and insisted that we go on. I had to explain to him that it was not our turn. I do not think he understood the specific reason but he accepted the fact that we could not go on the ferry for a while.
We spent the next two hours hanging out in our car and going into the ferry terminal to see if their were any other developments. At about 5:30 PM we drive to a super market to buy dinner. When we got back to the ferry terminal at 6PM I realized that out number had been called and our ferry was boarding. I drove the car to the ferry as fast as I could and we were the second to last car to board. Once we were on the ferry, the voyage was fairly pleasant. We were in the economy cabin which consists of a carpeted floor and some pillows. Every passenger stakes their own territory and then tries to sleep. We staked our own territory, my wife and son slept, and I read in peace. It was very nice. The ferry arrived at Hakodate at about 10PM and then we arrived at Kuriyama at about 3AM. Altogether, it was a 23 hour trip. That is about as long as it takes us to go to Boston. The moral of the trip was that if you can avoid waiting at a ferry terminal do so.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Learning Styles of Japanese JHS and SHS according to the Teachers

Today, I held a two day workshop on Task Based Language Teaching with 2 junior high school English teachers and 5 senior high school English teachers. For one of our activities we read an article by Jerry Call called "Expanding the Learning Styles of Japanese Analytic Learners" in the book Understanding Learning Styles in the Second Language Classroom by Joy M. Reid. As a task, we made a list of the characteristics of learning styles Call had given for Japanese learners and then discussed whether we agreed or disagreed. We ended up discussing about not only the characteristics that Call gave but also many other characteristics the teachers themselves gave. It was an interesting discussion. The main reason why was that each teacher worked with learners of differing learning characteristics. This reinforced my belief that it is difficult to make generalizations about a society of learners; even one as homogeneous as Japan. Below, I have written some of the characteristics Call and the teachers gave as well as the teachers' opinions.

Characteristic 1: Japanese learners are quiet

Opinion: The teachers were not sure about this characterization. Teacher M, a junior high school teacher, said that her students were not quiet and were especially enthusiastic about speaking English with foreign teachers (ALTs). She added that girls at her school tend to be good at writing but they cannot speak well while boys tended to be stronger at speaking.
Teacher C, a high school teacher, said that her students were quieter but it depended on the situation. In interview test students are very quiet but in class they are very noisy and like to imitate the ALT’s or Ms. C's English.
Teacher Min, a high school teacher, thought that Japanese learners, especially young learners, are very energetic to learn English. However, she said that in Japanese settings, students are supposed to be quiet and listen to the teacher. So, she believes tha that Japanese think that they are supposed to be quiet in class always.

Characteristic 2: Japanese learners are reflective, not impulsive (They tend to think things through carefully before they speak.
Opinion: Teacher K, a high school teacher, reported that an Canadian ALT at his school understood the phrase “The noisy whale gets the oil” but not "The peg sticking out gets hammered"(出るくいが打たれる). He added though, it is hard to know whether Japanese students are really quieter than western students because he has never been to the west to compare.
Teacher R, a high school teacher. said that her school divides their English classes by student ability. In the higher level classes, students are more reflective but in the lower level they tend to be more impulsive.
Teacher Min concluded that Japanese people try to avoid risks, especially in public. They do not want to be embarrassed.

Characteristic 3: Group work tendencies - boys and girls in JHS and SHS do not work well together (Thought of by us)
Opinion: When Teacher E, a junior high school teacher, makes pairs she makes either boy/boy or girl/girl pairs. She said that to communicate fluently, boys cannot talk to girls and girls cannot talk to boys. I, JH, added that I have had similar experiences. Teacher MI, a high school teacher, said that she is very careful when making groups because the wrong combination of learners can have bed consequences for the class.
Teacher K said that in his school he has not seen such problems between boys and girls (except for one class). Teacher Min said that there was not so much tension between boys and girls at her school. She said that one reason could be is that when teachers read classlists or take attendance in some schools, they call boys names and girls names together. In many schools, boys are called first and then girls are called (or vice versa) when attendance is taken.
Teacher C said that she teachers a class where there is only one girl. She commented that the boys behaved differently when the girl was present compared to when she was absent. When the girl was present, the boys tended to be more reserved.

Characteristic 4: Japanese learners are Reticent
Teacher M (JHS) said that she does not think so, because students at her school like to speak English. In JHS, the like to play games. They speak English naturally when ALT comes to the classroom. But, in writing they don’t try to write. I don’t think they are good at making sentences.
Teacher C (SHS) said that her students like to read English or repeat after her but when she gives them activities where they have to write about themselves they do not want to do it. She concluded that students can write about other things but not about themselves. She added that maybe JHS students are not reticent but as they become older they become reticent.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Teaching Debate to Adults

At the beginning of this month I was asked to teach a class at a "correspondence university". This is a university in which most of the classes are done through viewing lectures on-line or reading books and sending reports via the mail. Students also have occasional "intensive lectures" which last for about 10 hours over the span of 2 days. I was asked to give one of these intensive lectures and decided to do a class on debating. Of course, I was planning to create my own mini-curriculum and eventually do a debating class at the university. Unfortunately, I was so busy that I had very little time to actually prepare for the 2 day class. I found a great article on debtate by Daniel Krieger and it really saved me. The article proposes gives a six-class unit plan for debate. I used Krieger's curriculum as the outline for the course and then filled it in with my own activities. I recommend that all those interested in teaching debate read the article.
About the class, there were only 6 students. To my surprise a few of the students could not really read or write English so the first hour I was very worried that the class would be a total flop. I then reminded myself that the focus of the class was learning about debate rather than learning English. We would be doing debate in English but I thought that with a little translation here and there and support from the learners who were very skilled at English all the students could learn a little about debate and experience it. In the end, everyone participated, worked hard and had fun. These learners were all adults ranging in age from 25 to about 70. They had little inhibitions and the difficulty of the task did not deter them from trying. I think that is one of the differences between teaching adults and adolescents. In my experience, adolescents tend to give up a little faster when they think a task they have to do is too difficult or requires too much effort.
By the way, we ended up debating about the following resolution:
"Japan is not a good place for foreigners to live."
A summary of the argument can be seen here.