Thursday, December 13, 2012

Impromptu Advising in "Class Conferences" and "Speech Contests"

The past few years I have been frequently asked to be a judge at a speech contest or an "advisor" for an "open class conference".  A speech contest is fairly self-explanatory. Judges will evaluate the contestants and before announcing the winners, one judge will speak for 5 to 10 minutes offering advice to the contestants about how they can improve their speeches. Occasionally, I am nominated to be this judge.

An open-class conference, on the other hand, might not be so clear to some of you. Schools in Japan will periodically conduct conferences for which they publish some kind of journal about their overall educational mission as well as the specific objectives and research agendas of each subject.  In the conference they conduct one open class per subject and this open class is then followed by a meeting between the class instructor and those who came to see this class. The meeting can last from 60 to 90 minutes. The instructors will present their overall objectives for their subject and then talk about their class specifically. This is followed by questions and opinions from the audience. Lastly, a university professor and/or a teacher supervisor from the Board of Education will speak for 10 to 20 minutes each offering their advice to the instructors.  They are fulfilling the role of an "advisor."Advisors' roles are usually to meet with the instructors a few weeks before the class to give them feedback on the lesson as well as speak at the conference. I am not a big fan of "the open class conference" because the advisors are treated as an authority and their opinions are never questioned (Of course, if people do not agree with the advisors, they can just ignore them). Nevertheless, if you work at a university or high school, at some point you might find yourself being asked to speak for 10 to 20 minutes in English or Japanese about English teaching or students' speeches. So, I thought I would write about my tricks of the trade.

First, my presentations are actually not impromptu. For open class conferences, I have seen the lesson plan and talked to the teachers beforehand so I already have an idea about the topics I can discuss: for example, teaching reading, writing, conducting group work, a specific grammar point, task based language teaching, etc. I also might think about the jokes I might tell or the analogies I might make before the conference starts. Before the conference, I will sometimes put information I have on these topics onto my IPad which I bring to the conference to use for recording field notes. With speech contests, usually I do not have this kind of luxury to predict what kind of topics I might discuss. 

Second, when I am watching the speeches or classes, I am not only concentrating on what I am observing, but in the back of my head, I am also thinking about possible talking points for my impromptu presentation. If I think of a talking point, I will immediately write it down. I try to write various talking points throughout the class or the speech. For example, the awful handwriting below shows the talking points that I wrote while watching an elementary school English class. I ended up discussing the HRT/JTE/ALT role, how to encourage more authentic communication in the class, and pronunciation tips. 

Third, after the class, I will try to speak to the other advisor to find out what he/she plans to discuss. The reason for me doing this is that one, I do not want to talk about the same thing and two, if my opinion is different, I want to consider how to present my perspective in a way that contrasts with that of the other advisor but does not put us in an awkward situation. In a speech contest, after the judges have decided the winners, I will ask the other judges what they want me to say in my feedback to the contestants. I will either add the other judge's advice to my talking points, make new talking points, or not include the judge's advice.

Fourth, in a speech contest, I speak soon after talking to the other judges. In an open class conference, I have more time to consider what I will say. I am usually adding smaller details to my main talking points while listening to the discussion in the meeting following the open class. If I hear a teacher speak his or her opinion and find it interesting, I might try to incorporate it into one of my talking points.

Lastly, when I speak, I sometimes tell the audience how many talking points I have. It makes it easier for the audience to take notes, of they so wish. I might say something like, "I want to talk about four conditions necessary to conduct group work smoothly" or "I want to discuss 4 areas of pronunciation that are difficult for Japanese students" etc. 

I should add that when I speak at elementary schools I usually do my presentation in Japanese and at junior high schools or speech contests I give my presentations in English. If I am to speak in Japanese, I find that I have to prepare more. When I speak in English, I find that I can make more rudimentary notes and get away with ad-libbing. When I first started doing this I was REALLY awful at it. I still do not consider myself that good, but I have found that I can, for the most part, give acceptable presentations. Maybe the most important thing is to smile, look like you are happy to be there, be in good spirits, and try your best to say something that will hopefully be useful to the people who have the unenviable task  of listening to you.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Taking Japanese Student Teachers to Thailand to Teach English

Building a lesson from scratch includes choosing the content, thinking about how to present the content to the students in a way that is comprehensible and interesting, conceiving of communicative activities related to the content for students, and determining which language points and vocabulary to highlight to the students. I believe that this is what the best English language teachers in Japan can do.  I have written about this many times, but at my university, we have a teaching internship in a few secondary schools in Thailand where our students try to do exactly this. We tell the student-teachers that they are not teaching English but rather teaching about the Japanese culture in English. This year, a colleague and I will accompany the student-teachers to Thailand for two weeks in January. We have been helping the students prepare since October and we have done up to meeting 5 so far:

Meeting 1: Write profiles to send to host families and schools. Overview of the participating schools.
Meeting 2: History of Thailand
Meeting 3: Culture and customs of Thailand
Meeting 4: Classroom English practice and students receive a description of the kind of lesson plan we want them to conduct.
Meeting 5: Student-teachers present proposals for lessons and receive feedback
Meeting 6: Student-teachers give demonstration classes. More meetings: Student-teachers make appointments to consult with the internship supervisors about their classes.

I wish that we could meet more, but considering all the other work both the student-teachers and my university teachers have, even the above schedule is very hard. In meeting 4, I introduce many different ideas for ways to present material and tasks that encourage the use of all four skills. However, student-teachers probably did not learn anything from this. I have found that student teachers grow when they try demonstration lessons, receive feedback, and fix their lesson. It is only by actually teaching that student-teachers develop the know-how to teach. As I said before, this program enables the student-teachers to do some thing that would be more difficult for them to do as teachers in  a school of Japan: design and develop their own teaching materials and activities to accomplish the English learning goals they have for the children. It is my hope that this experience will  inspire the program participants to develop their own materials when they become teachers.

In a few weeks, I will blog about the themes and lessons of the student teachers.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Doing a Task at an Elementary School

On October 31, my universities affiliated elementary school had an "Open Class Conference" (公開授業研究会). As a "collaborative researcher" I teamed up with teachers in the "English study group" (英語班) to plan two classes. The first class was a picture book class with the third grade and the second class was a class using "tasks" with the fifth grade. With all modesty possible, I have to say that both classes were much more successful than I anticipated. In this post, I will talk about the task based class and (hopefully) in a future post discuss the picture book class.

Last June, I went to Sendai with the head of the English study group (Hereafter T Sensei) at the elementary school and a graduate student. We attended a lecture by Dr. Natsuko Shintani about TBLT (Task Based Language Teaching) for young learners. This was a great opportunity for both me and T-Sensei to get on the same page about what TBLT is and understand the types of tasks used with young learners. We left the workshop with a common understanding about the principles of TBLT. However, the tasks that were shown in the workshop were designed for a small group of children at an English school. We had to think how we could design a task for a large group of children (+30 students) with limited command of English and lower motivation to study English.

The four features of tasks introduced in the workshop are below and based on the features we designed two tasks.
  1. A task involves a primary focus on message.
  2. A task has some kind of 'gap"
  3. The learners choose the linguistic and non-linguistic resources needed to complete the task.
  4. A task has a clearly defined outcome.
The tasks we did were information gap tasks which are very typical and might make you wonder why I would write a blog post about doing such a ubiquitous activity. Although the type of activity was far from innovative, I will say that the way we adapted the information gap task to their textbook "Hi, Friends 1, lesson 7  What's this" and thought of a way to make it interesting for the students was creative.

The modest success of this lesson was a result of the collaboration between me, the elementary school, and my graduate students. We met two times for about 90 minutes each time (to plan the task and picture book class, not just the task class). By sharing ideas with each other and combining our strengths, we were able to think of original lessons that we could not have done by ourselves. It made me realize how important collaboration is. I will talk about the two tasks we ended up doing:

Task 1: The Locker Task

The words for the unit of Hi, Friends were

Apple, cap, shoe, bat, glove, flower, fish, eggplant, mat, bird, frying pan, cup, tomato, triangle, recorder, piano, microscope, beaker, brush, map, globe, triangle, ruler, notebook, Japanese/science/history/English textbook, eraser, pen, pencil, marker, water bottle.

These are fairly dull words and our challenge was to think of a situation where children could use these words meaningfully.

The first task we designed was called the "locker task". It was a kind of "find the differences task."Students were in pairs, and each had a different picture of a locker. The goal of the task was to find the number of differences in two minutes. The words were words from the unit of high friends (I acknowledge that there was a BIG spelling mistake on the first set of cards). For the first two sets of cards, the teacher performed the task together with the students (the teacher had the card for Locker 1A and the students had the card for Locker 1B). After this, the students did the task twice using the next two sets of cards. It is important to note that the students were familiar with these words.

Locker 1A

Locker 1B

Locker 2A

Locker 2B

Locker 3A

Locker 3B
35 of 36 students report that they were able to communicate the contents of their locker. When asked what helped them, 31 of 36 students wrote that the teacher's demonstration helped them. What was interesting was that the teacher demonstrated how to do the activity but did not explicitly teach which language to use.

Task 2: The Magic Bag
First, I will say that task 2 was the far more innovative task and was the original idea of the elementary school teachers.

This is a little more complicated. The teacher said that all the students had a "magic bag" like Doraemon and they could put anything inside of it. The children had the above worksheet which featured a daily class schedule. The children then had to choose a day, and then based on the class schedule for the day, put objects in their bag.  For example, if the day was Friday, the classes were Japanese, social studies, science and music. A student who chose Friday would then have to put a Japanese textbook, globe, beaker, and piano in their bag. After the students had chosen the days and the corresponding contents of their bag, they made pairs again. They would ask each other, "What do you have in your bag" and write down their partners answers. After writing down what their partner said, they would try to guess the day. The goal of the task was to guess the day of the week their partner had prepared for. As in the first task, 35 of 36 students wrote that they were able to express the contents of their bag and ask their partner the contents of their bag. Twenty-seven of 36 students wrote that their teacher's demonstration was helpful although the teacher did not explicitly teach language.

Both Tasks

Again, tasks are supposed to have the following characteristics:
  1. A task involves a primary focus on message.
  2. A task has some kind of 'gap"
  3. The learners choose the linguistic and non-linguistic resources needed to complete the task.
  4. A task has a clearly defined outcome.

Both tasks featured a focus on the message, there was a clear gap in information between the pair of students, the teacher did not explicitly teach language and students were expected to use their own language, and each task had a clear goal.

We did give questionnaires to the students to find out the techniques they used to accomplish the tasks but I have no idea when I can get around to actually analyzing them so I thought I would write about this experience before I completely forgot about it. If you would like to use these ideas for your own contexts, please feel free to do so. If possible, I would also appreciate it if you contacted me to tell me how it went.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Issues with textbooks and reading/writing assignments for pre-service teachers

I am in charge of a teaching methodology class for second year students university students. Most of them are English majors and about half of them aspire to be English teachers. This year I have 43 students in the class; this means giving them any kind of assignment also gives me a lot of work. Checking 40 + long writing assignments adequately can take over 7 hours easily, and really make it hard for me to prepare the week's lesson. Because the class is conducted mainly in English and the content, theories and practices in TESOL/TEFL, is new to students, it is essential that they read the textbook and do the writing assignments every week.

The textbook that we use is titled 英語科教育の基礎と実践 (An approximate translation is "Basic theory and practice of English Education"), the book is a good introduction to basic theories in TESOL/TEFL, teaching techniques, and teaching English in junior and senior high schools in Japan. Of course, the book cannot go into very much depth, but I think it points students into the right direction for learning more about their field.

Anyway, back to the reading and writing assignments. As you can tell, the book is written in Japanese, but I have the students answer questions about the reading in English.  I think that it is important for the students to be able to explain concepts about English education in English. I hope that they will be able to build off this experience to one day be able to explain their pedagogical choices to ALTs or be able to discuss English teaching with other educators throughout the world.

We have a class blog and students make their own blogs which link to the class blogs. Students put their assignments and reflections of their practice teaching on their personal blogs. These blogs are supposed to serve as portfolios of students' work. I am actually not sure if I have chosen the appropriate technological tool for students' portfolios, but that is a story for another post. Students evaluation is based on whether or not students can explain the concepts written in the textbook in English. I grade them by giving them one of the following marks:

✓- means that a student was not able to explain the concepts in English.
✓ means that students were mostly able to express the concepts but there were some mistakes which made the writing difficult to understand.
✓1/2 means that they were able to express the concepts well with perhaps a few minor areas where the meaning was not completely clear
 ✓+ means that they were able to express the concepts very well 

A couple of weeks ago, I encountered an unexpected problem with these writing assignments. In the first assignment there were many sloppy mistakes. Sloppy mistakes are spelling mistakes, mistakes in plural/singular, mistakes in with subject-verb agreement, etc. Basically, sloppy mistakes are mistakes that students should be able to catch by themselves. To my surprise, well over 50% of the assignments were littered with these sloppy mistakes. For example, some students spelled the word learn as "lean" throughout their whole assignment. This gave me a sense of deja vu as something similar happened to me last year in the same class. On top of that, many of the assignments were full of global errors or awkward English, I was not sure what the students were trying to say. Becoming an English teacher at a public school is very competitive and these days one needs strong English skills to pass the teacher's examination and interview test. For the sake of the students, I cannot accept mediocrity. They have to all work hard to improve their English if are serious about becoming English teachers.

I underlined all the mistakes they made (this took well over 10 hours), and told students that they had to fix their mistakes as an assignment. I also transformed myself to the stern Jimbo and told students that they made too many careless mistakes and this was intolerable (Of course making mistakes because you are experimenting with new and difficult language is a good thing. Also, I should not that I make spelling mistakes all the time and a few mistakes in an assignment will not bother me. In fact, for me to get mad at a few mistakes would be very hypocritical).

As I said before, in addition to the careless mistakes, there was a high amount of unintelligible prose written by the students. Therefore, after the stern Jimbo had said his peace, I decided to give the students about 40 minutes to start the next assignment in pairs and I walked around to observe how there were doing the assignment. One of the most typical strategies was this: they would find the answer to the question of the textbook in Japanese and try to understand it. After grasping the meaning, they would write the answer in Japanese. Lastly, they would translate the answer into English. I realized that the textbook in Japanese was not necessarily clear-cut for them. When I read and summarize parts of the textbook, I understand the concepts already and can use my background knowledge when the language of the book is unambiguous or clear to me. The students, however, do not have the background knowledge that I have. It seems like that when students are unsure what the Japanese is actually saying, they tend to just directly translate it into English. The result of their effort is unintelligible English.

On this day, we ended up working on writing the answers into English the whole time and after the class had ended, I felt that I had just conducted my first grammar-translation class ever. I would not call it a waste of time, students worked very hard and I think they understood better what I expected from them and I understood better the demands that the assignments placed on them. Nevertheless, I did not think this was an ideal way for us to spend the precious little time we have to learn the basics of English teaching. I am now starting to question whether these kinds of assignments are appropriate (Reading in Japanese and answering questions in English). There are textbooks written in fairly simple English such as the TKT Course Module 1,2,3 which I think does a good job of explaining all the basics about English language teaching and learning that teachers need to know. The TKT is a teaching knowledge test for teachers of adult learners made by Cambridge University Press. I would prefer to use a book that also specifically discusses teaching at schools in Japan. In other words, I want a book that will contextualize the knowledge better.

I will say that most of the students in the class are working hard. I hope that this experience will push the students to become better self-monitors of their writing and also help them realize how hard they have to work to improve their English. I hope that I can choose the right kind of textbook and the right way of using the textbook that will help the students learn the basics of English teaching and improve their teaching. I really want to help them realize their dreams. For the next few weeks, we will be preparing for a teaching practice at a local elementary school. Hopefully during this time, I will be able to think of a better way of using the current textbook.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Giving a Workshop at the ALT mid-year Conference

Well, October was a busy month and really flew buy. The new semester started at my university, I started a PhD program, I went to the JALT conference in Shizuoka, I had to write a laboriously tedious grant application, and I planned and conducted an open "research class" with my university's affiliated elementary school. I would actually like to write about all of these but today, I want to tell you about giving a talk at the Iwate ALT mid-year seminar in early October. At the seminar, there were about 25 ALTs and 15 JTEs (Japanese teachers of English). This was a very workable number. I only had 90 minutes and I wanted to do some thing that hopefully would be of some use for the ALTs. I know that no matter how amazing an educator you are (and I am a pretty mediocre one), after 90 minutes you are not going to reinvent the way someone teaches.

When planning for the seminar, I thought back to the days when I was an ALT in Hokkaido for two years in the late nineties. I came to Japan knowing zero Japanese, having little experience in education, knowing next to nothing about Japanese schools, and no formal knowledge of the English language itself. I was about as unqualified for a job of teaching English as possible. I was stationed at a rural junior high school and usually my job was just to stand in class and do nothing but recite the textbook to the students when asked. Sometimes the JTE would give me 20 minutes of the class to teach. I would be very grateful for this opportunity but usually my activities were either too difficult for the students or not interesting. These days, the JET Program (the name of the scheme that brings people from abroad to assist in the teaching of English at Japanese public schools) seems to be much more selective and most of the ALTs are much more knowledgable about Japan and teaching than I was.

Nevertheless, I thought about something I could have learned that would have made me a little better at my job. Coming to Japan, my understanding was that I was supposed to assist in making English more communicative. However, what exactly does that mean? The national curriculum for English in public schools is called the gakushuu shidou youryou or the Course of Study and all English textbooks in Japan follow these guidelines. To be honest, I sometimes intuitively feel a little bit of resistance towards it because all schools MUST follow it (Whenever someone tells me I HAVE to do something, I tend to automatically NOT want to do it). However, the document itself emphasizes that English be taught as a means of communication and I believe that if more schools actually DID follow it, English education would probably be a little better.   In my two years as an ALT, though, I never heard of the Course of Study. In fact, I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing rather than "making my classes more communicative." I think now that if I had a better idea about the national curriculum (or what I was supposed to be doing) then maybe back then I could have reached an agreement with the JTE about what our goals were and tailor the activities to try to accomplish these goals. With this in mind, here is how I conducted the workshop:

Part 1 - Icebreaking: We played four corners. The signs agree, disagree, I don't know, and I don't understand are each posted in a corner of the room. I give the participants a statement and they go to the corner which best reflects their feelings. Here are the questions I gave them:
1. I think Japanese food is better than the food in my country.
2. The goal of English Education in junior and senior high schools is for students to become high level communicators of English...
... and others......

Part 2: Introducing the course of study for English education. On Powerpoint I showed them the objectives and recommended content for JHS and SHS English classes. This was written in English but I left blanks in the text and read every thing in Japanese. The ALTs, consulting with the JTEs if necessary, had to try to guess what filled in the blanks.

Part 3: Challenges: Next, I discussed obstacles for achieving the objectives in the course of study based on my experience as an ALT and the limited knowledge I have about English education in Japan. The challenges I discussed were:

I System and Environment
1. High school and university entrance exams
2. Teachers' workloads
3. The communicative goals of the course of study are a little ambiguous.
4. Teachers have to follow a curriculum made by their department.
5. The total number of hours spent in the English classroom in JHS and SHS are insufficient (see a previous blog post)

II People Factors
1. Unmotivated students
2. ALTs lack of knowledge of Japanese, Japanese schools, education, and English teaching (I am talking about myself!)
3. ALTs unwilling to cooperate
4. JTEs do not want to work with ALTs (I think this is a big problem)
5. JTEs cannot or do not explain to ALTs their schools situation, the ALT's role, or give the ALT guidance.
6. JTEs can lack understanding of how to make classes more communicative
7. Some JTEs have insufficient command of English (only a few!)

Part 4: Ways to achieve the goals: In Part 3, I was kind of hoping that someone would try to argue against me but no one did. In Part 4, I took a more optimistic view and said that actually most Alts and JTEs care very much about their students' learning and are very innovative. Also, relatively speaking in very general terms, Japanese JHS and SHS students can be easy to work with. My suggestions were that 1. JTEs and ALTs discuss how they want students to get out of their classes; 2. JTEs and ALTs discuss the kind of teachers they want to be; 3. JTEs and ALTs make plans to routinely conduct a small repertoire of activities to push students and themselves towards their goals. Lastly, I discussed my own goals for my students and the kind of teacher I aspire to be (but am not). Then, I conducted a learning activity I had designed to try to meet these goals. The activity was a task-based activity. I read a picture book in Japanese (showing the pictures on the computer). This was perhaps the most well-received part of the workshop.

Overall, the content of my workshop was probably something that the Japanese English teachers had heard many times: The Course of Study and having thinking about a goal for your students before planning your classes or curriculum. However, when I was an ALT, I never heard any thing like that. I hope that they found it useful.

Epilogue: After the workshop, I went to Hanamaki station to go home. To my surprise, who should I meet in the station but the former K-1 kickboxing champ Ernesto Hoost! He was in Iwate to film an NHK television special. He was nice enough to take a picture with me:

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Are the number of class hours for English study in junior and senior high school enough?

Note: I first encountered this information a few years ago on a blog called on ikuma's log. Since the JHS and SHS curriculum has changed, I thought the information should be updated so I decided to write this post.

According to the Foreign Service Institute in the United States, to gain "General Professional Proficiency" in Japanese, a native English speaker would have to take 2200 hours of Japanese language classes and also live in Japan for a period of time.  Someone with "General Language Proficienct" means that a person can "speak the language with sufficient structural accuracy to participate in most formal and informal conversations of practical, social, and professional topics." Considering that learning English for a native speaker of Japanese would be equally difficult, this number can give us an idea about the time necessary for Japanese speakers to become highly proficient in English.

 Of course, the goal of JHS/SHS English education in Japan is not nearly as high as "General Language Proficiency.". This is the overall goal for senior high school English in Japan:
To develop students’ communication abilities such as accurately understanding and appropriately conveying information, ideas, etc., deepening their understanding of language and culture, and fostering a positive attitude toward communication through foreign languages.
 How many hours do students spend in English class in junior and senior high school? In junior high , students have English 4 times a week for 35 weeks and classes are 50 minutes each. This amounts to about 116.66 hours a year (35 x 4 x 50 minutes) and 350 hours for the whole three years.

Calculating senior high is a little more complicated.
A senior high school student who attends an academic high school (rather than a technical high school) will take the following classes. One credit is 35 class hours.

Basic English Communication  (2 credits)*
English Communication I (4 credits)
English communication II (4 credits)
English Communication III (4 Credits)
English Expression I (2 Credits)
English Expression II (4 Credits)
English Conversation (2 Credits)

Overall, a senior high school students will have 612.5 hours of English class in their three years (21 credits x 35 class hours x 50 minutes = 612.5 hours).

If you add the JHS and SHS hours, it means that secondary school students in Japan will have 962.5 hours of English class. Considering that the Foreign Language Institute is assuming that it will take highly motivated learners 2200 to become high level speakers of Japanese, it seems that 962.5 of English class for questionably motivated JHS and SHS students will not produce fluent speakers of English. I think that when teaching at the JHS and SHS level, we need to have realistic expectations on how well our students will learn how to use English. If a JHS or SHS student is a poor speaker and really labors to express herself, we should perhaps consider one reason to be the lack of time she had to learn English. Japanese are notorious for not being able to communicate in English after 6 years of secondary school study but this criticism might be unreasonable considering how much time it takes to master a second language which is might different from your own.

I am writing this with droopy eyes and am falling in and out of sleep. I hope this post has been readable! I will post now without proofreading, I'm too tired...

Friday, September 28, 2012

Getting New Ideas for My Teaching Methodologies Class

The new semester starts in October and I will teach an English Teaching Methodologies class to about 30 students. I will teach these students from October - February and then from April to August. To try to get some fresh ideas I read the book プロの教師の「初伝」から「奥伝」まで  (EFL Teacher Education for Professional Development)by Takahashi Kazuyuki is seems to be a pretty well know figure in the English education world in Japan. What I liked about the book was this:

1) He gives a fairly frank appraisal of problems with Teacher Education in Japan.
2) He gives a sensible and realistic proposal for teacher professional development in the Japanese context which I think can be a good reference for teachers and teacher educations.

Regarding 1), he writes about the teacher certification system in England which has clear criteria for novice teachers to met and where universities and schools collaborate to develop teachers. He is critical of the Japanese system in that education universities and boards of education or schools have never come to a common understanding of professional criteria novice teachers should meet. I think that he does have a strong point here but I also think that criteria should be flexible and broad enough so that education universities and schools can create professional development programs for their particular contexts.

He bases his process of professional development on what is written in Burns and Richards' (2009) Cambridge guide to Second Language Teacher Education. Below are the stages written in Burns and Richards as well as what Takahahsi called them: 
  1. Input of necessary knowledge and skills (初伝)
  2. Application to the Classroom Context (中伝)
  3. Self-development in Professional Career (奥伝)
  4. Social Context (エピローグ)
初伝・中伝・奥伝 refer to the beginning, middle and advanced levels that apprentices of a Japanese traditional art or sport pass through. He calls social skills (Epilogue) . Each chapter of the book is given the title of a specific stage.

In 初伝, he basically gives a list of techniques, skills and knowledge that beginning teachers need to conduct a class. He also gives a lot of practical advice. A lot of this is stuff that most experienced teachers know but may not realize it. I think that this chapter is useful when thinking about what the bare essentials are that a novice teacher needs to know to be able to survive a class.  

In 中伝, he gives a couple of lesson plans, includes tasks asking the reader to evaluate parts of each plan, and then gives his own analysis. The point of this section is for the reader to learn how to visualize a class by looking at the lesson plan, and, through this visualization, determine which parts of the lesson will likely work and which parts will likely be problematic.

In 奥伝, he discusses three views of teacher development: Teaching as a craft (people learn to teach by imitating a mentor),  teaching as an applied science (from SLA theory and teaching methodologies, we learn that there is a right way to teach), and the Reflective Model (The third approach - developing through experience and reflecting on the experience). He then discusses an all Japan English assessment test given to secondary school students which showed that they lacked skills in writing and speaking. He says that teachers must shoulder some of this blame. Then, he gives a couple of case studies of experienced and very accomplished teachers and shows how through a reflective approach, they were able to improve their classes and get students who had little interest in English to enthusiastically speak and write in the language. The point of this is if that if teachers do not take the initiative to improve themselves, they will not make much progress professionally.

In the epilogue, he gives an overview of how social context can affect the English class.

How the book impacted me:

Last semester (April - August), my Teaching Methodology course consisted of the following routine: lecture (for example, teaching vocabulary, teaching reading, etc..) with learning activities → micro teaching → student reflection. I think this is close to a reflective approach. However, students would hand me their reflections and then maybe look at them once again to see my comment. I realized that by not having the students keep a portfolio in which they collect all their work which includes their assignments, lesson plans, teaching artifacts, and feedback from peers and teachers so that they can track their own development. Therefore, this semester, I have decided to have students make blogs on edublogs and record their learning on the blogs as well as display their teaching artifacts. I hope that they can use the blogs to record their growth over the next 10 months that we will be working together. When this project picks up some steam, I might include the link on this blog. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Giving a Workshop about Thailand at a High School in Akita

This was a while ago but in late August I visited a high school in Akita. I was asked to give them a university style lecture so that they could get a taste for higher education and develop interest in applying for university. On the day that I went, there were actually 14 or so different professors representing different institutions. I gave two 90 minute workshop style lectures and was fortunate enough to be one of the more unpopular "lectures" only having 14 students sign up for each one. I call myself "fortunate" not because I like being unpopular but that 14 is an easy number to work with and I can get a chance to talk to all the students. 

Since my area is English teacher education and the students attending the workshop probably had some kind of interest in English, I decided to conduct about half the workshop in English and half in Japanese. To make the workshop stress free, free discussion between me at the students was done in Japanese and the English parts of the workshop were mainly the kind where students listened to English and reacted. 

The topic of the workshop was school life in Thailand because my department has a teaching internship in Bangkok and I had some material I could readily adapt. Here is what I did in the workshop.

Part 1: Ice Breaking: Four corners
This was surprising successful. I gave the following statements one by one on Microsoft Powerpoint. In each corner of the room, I posted one of the following signs: I agree, I disagree, I don't understand, I don't know. When the students saw a statement, they went to the corner of the room that best expressed their feeling. When the students went to their respective corners, I then called on a few students to explain their reasoning. Of course, this activity was done in Japanese. This activity and the statements came from a social studies teacher I know, and the students were eager to tell their opinions. What was interesting was that in the first workshop, most students agreed with the first statement but in the second workshop most students disagreed. Those students who agreed said that they felt it was important to pretend you agree with people even if you might not so as to not make others feel uncomfortable (I think the Japanese translation is slightly different from the English). Those that disagreed said that you had to be true to yourself.

Anyway, I have tried four corners using different statements in a variety of workshops and usually this has been very successful.

Part 2: Introducing My Department

When introducing my department, I gave an overview of a students' four years and tried to emphasize that students' involvement with English shifts from studying English itself to learning about the world, their area of specialty or undergoing new experiences using English as a means of communication. Here is the slide (I apologize if there are mistakes with my Japanese):

After this, I said that we would learn about Thailand and English would be the language we would use to study it. 

Part 3: Basic Information about Thailand

When I gave the basic information about Thailand, the right hand column of the table below was blank. I included the information about Japan so students would have an idea what the heading of each column meant. I read the information fairly quickly and told students that the goal was not for them to get all the information correct but rather to see how much of the information they could successfully record. At the ending, I showed students the information about Thailand so they could confirm their answers. There were, of course, some words I taught before hand such as "constitutional monarchy, Buddhism, etc..." Because this information appeared in the Japan column, I could teach these words without revealing the answers about Thailand.

Part 4: A Thai and Japanese English Class
I showed a short video of an English class in Thailand and an English class in Japan, both of which I had filmed. I asked students to write the similarities and differences between the classes. This was done in Japanese. Similarities included students' greetings at the beginning and ending of class, uniforms, and the high status of the teachers. Differences included textbooks, the noise level of the classes, and the activities.

Part 5: A Profile of a Bangkok Family
I showed the students a DVD about a family living in Bangkok from the Families of the World series. I have found that if I turn on the English subtitles and pause the DVD frequently asking questions that students can follow the story. I gave students the questions in the left column and every minute or so, I would stop the video and ask the students to answer the questions.

Unfortunately, we did not get to finish the video but the point of the workshop was basically for students to experience university English and maybe leave the class with rekindled curiosity about the world outside their high school and increased interest in pursuing university study. Students supposedly did write their responses to my workshop but I have yet to receive them. I had been waiting for the responses to write this post but I realized that if I do not write soon, I will completely forget what I did. 

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Observing my Students Teach

Third year students in my Department have a four week teaching practicum at this time of year. In most teacher education programs in Japan, student teachers are only required to undergo a 2 to 4 week practicum to receive their license. This short period for a teaching practicum has been a target of criticism but I will have to save this topic for another blog post.

Right now, in my Department we have 10 students teaching at 3 junior high schools (JHSs) and another 10 students teaching at elementary schools. This week I have been observing some of the students' classes to 1) provide them with encouragement and 2) see if my English teaching methodology class might have helped them for their teaching practicum.

This year, I spent a lot of time remaking my "English Teaching Methodologies" class curriculum. Students take this class before their teaching practice. This year, I cut out a lot of the theoretical content, and we devoted more time to practicing how to teach lessons using the junior high school textbook adopted by most schools in my prefecture. My goal was to help students develop a repertoire of techniques they could use at the junior high school for practice in reading, writing, listening and speaking as well as give them sufficient practice with using English in the classroom so that they could stand in front of 40 children and conduct the class in English with confidence. So, what did I observe?

Well, first, I am happy to report that all my students have received praise for their hard work. Secondly, so far, student teachers who are in charge of teaching first and second year JHS classes have really made an effort to use as much English as possible. I will say that I do not think it is enough but I am appreciate their effort and the more they get used to teaching the more English they will use. Third, the teachers have shown that they can present a goal and sequence activities to try to accomplish the goal. Fourth, the student teachers have shown that they can make visual materials to help supplement students' understanding. Fifth, the student teachers make an effort to conduct pair and group work and walk around the class trying to insure that each student stays on task. These are points I emphasized in my classes, however, these are also common sense in English teaching and it is likely that the student-teachers learned this by observing their supervising teachers at the JHSs or by advice received by their supervisors.

There were also some problems. Here are some of the problems I observed:

A student teacher designs a class to teach a particular grammar point. He over-explains the grammar point, over-practices the grammar point, and then conducts some kind of artificial communicative activity where students use only the grammar point. He speaks English when using the grammar point but uses Japanese for everything else. I think he focused too much on the grammar point and temporarily forgot that students need constant exposure to a variety of English. This is probably one problem with "Presentation, Practice, and Production"

In third year junior high school classes, the textbook content becomes more difficult and the readings much longer. As a result, I have observed that student teachers who teach these classes use much less English and most of the classes tend to focus on confirming the meaning of the texts in Japanese (basically translation). For example, I observed a class where a teacher said that the goal would be to write a title for each paragraph in a reading about Sadako which is a famous story about a girl who died from radiation poisoning caused by the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. When she was in the hospital, she thought that if she made 1000 paper cranes, she would be cured of her sickness. Unfortunately, she was unable to finish before she passed away but her family completed the task for her.

Anyway, there were 5 short paragraphs in the passage. The teacher put the students in groups, for each paragraph, she would call on a student to summarize the paragraph in Japanese. She then asked some students to give a title to the paragraph. She repeated this process 4 times and there was also some reading aloud. After this, she had the students complete a print where the entire passage was written in Japanese with some blanks which the students would have to write. Although this is a sad and moving story, somehow this emotion was lost. It is my belief that when the content becomes difficult, teachers (not just student teachers) become so worried about the students not understanding that they use entirely Japanese (I think I have done this too!). In my English teaching methodology class, I realized that I needed to work with my students a little more on how to handle challenging reading passages. I also need to consult with the local teaching practice schools to make sure that we are on the same page about how to handle difficult texts. 

Monday, September 03, 2012

Labor Law for Public School Teachers in Japan

Today I went to a junior high school with 19 sophomore students at my university who were about to start a week long "School Experience Practicum" where two - three university students are matched with a teacher and observe their classes for a week as well as mingle with the children. When we got to the school we had to listen to a lectures by the principal, vice-principal, and head English teacher. The lectures were actually all interesting. The vice-principal talked about the labor law for public school teachers who have the same status as civil servants, and I learned some new things. Here is my translation of the handout he gave us:

I Occupational Duties of Civil Servants (職務上の義務)
Article 31: Employees must take an oath of service (服務の宣誓)
Article 32: It is the duty of employees to follow work-related orders.(職務上の命令に従う義務)
Article 35: Employees have a duty to devote themselves to their work (職務に専念する義務)

II Duty to Protect the Integrity of Civil Servants (身分上の義務)
Article 33: Employees are prohibited from doing anything that violates the trust of the public (i.e. getting arrested for driving under the influence, fighting, etc.) (信用失墜行為の禁止)
Article 34: It is the duty of employees to guard their clients' secrets (a teacher cannot share the problem of a particular student with people outside the school) (秘密を守る義務)
Article 36: There is a limit on political activities (Teachers cannot tell students that they support a particular political party) (政治の制限)
Article 37: Labor disputes are prohibited. (争議行為の禁止)
Article 38: Employees are prohibited from working for private industry (A teacher cannot work at a cram school every night as a second job) (営利企業等の従事制限)

III Working Hours
  • According to article 32 of the Labor Standards Act, workers are not allowed to work more than 40 hours a week or 8 hours a day. 
  • If a worker works more than 7 hours and 45 minutes in a day, they are required to take an hour of rest and this hour will be included in their working time.
  • Teachers do not have official working days on Saturday and Sunday (However, most teachers go to school on these days to supervise club activities. They do not get paid for this work, though.)
  • Teachers will get paid if they work on a holiday.
What was interesting to me was that while rules I and II seem to be followed very strictly, rules concerning the working hours were not adhered to. Most teachers work much more than 40 hours a week. For example, at the school I visited, the official working time is 8:10 to 16:40 but most teachers come to school about an hour early and leave much later than 16:40. This school is the norm, not the exception. From the way the teachers spoke, they seemed to take pride in the amount of time they spent at school and they came across as extremely dedicated to their students. Nevertheless, as a father, I would want to get home every day at an early enough time to play with my kids and would want to have the weekend to spend with my family. I wonder how teachers feel about this.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

JACET 2012, TBLT, Focus on Form, and Teacher Education

I attended the JACET (Japan Association of College English Teachers) Conference in Nagoya City. I presented in a symposium titled  "Considering the feasibility of TBLT based on “Focus on Form” approach in the Japanese English classroom" with four friends. I also went there with the purpose of getting some ideas for English teacher education. 

My friends and I may have had slightly different interpretations of TBLT with Focus on Form but this is how I defined it:

In a TBLT with Focus on Form (FonF) class, adequate attention is paid to both meaning and form. Students learn language through exposure to language, producing language, and instruction. Instruction takes place in either a proactive or incidental way. 

I discussed TBLT/FonF from the perspective of student teachers in Japan. I argued that a strong version of TBLT/FONF might not be appropriate for them but there are things that they can learn from it. I tried to illustrate my point by showing a class in a high school in Thailand which was taught by students from the English Education Department at my university (We have an internship program where our students teach at Thai secondary schools in either Ayutthaya or Bangkok for two weeks). I showed that they are capable of doing a TBLT/FONF type of class. This class featured a listening task where the teachers presented about Iwate's history of tsunamis. This was followed by a fill-in the blank task which could be interpreted as focus on form. However, the dominant communication pattern in this class between teachers and students was Initiation response feedback and asking display questions. In other words, the teachers asked the students factual or language questions about their presentation language questions In some CLT textbooks, this is not considered authentic communication. However, Thai students were able to follow this class and understand the main message. Also, this class was conducted in 100% English. This means that we need to do encourage student teachers to do what is possible for them and their students rather than try to adopt a method 100%. Although this class had little free communication, I believe it was appropriate for the context.

Overall, from attending various presentations at this conference, my belief that good teaching is about experimenting with different methods and learning to apply the appropriate method based on your students' needs, desires, levels and personalities as well as the school context was reinforced.  It is important that we enjoy ourselves teaching (because we have to do it almost every day) and work hard to continuously improve our linguistic knowledge, cultural knowledge, and world knowledge as well as our teaching expertise. Students should also enjoy the classes but we also have to make sure that they are also actually learning something.  English class does not always have to be fun, but it should be interesting. These are my beliefs about teaching English as a foreign language that I would like to share with the student teachers.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Questioning Education for International Understanding

I just read the book Imperial Subjects As Global Citizens by Mark Lincicome. It describes the international education movement in Japan from 1910 to the 1990s. I read it after judging a speech contest in which junior high school students spoke in Japanese about their ideal kind of international exchange. The top 6 students in this contest would get to visit a junior high school in Canada as representatives of the city I live in. All the JHS students I heard speak were remarkably mature for their age and were able to articulate their thoughts enthusiastically and well. When I was a JHS student, I was not even close to their level of maturity nor would I have been capable of making such appealing speeches. Nevertheless, there was something about the speech contest bothered me but I was not sure what. The book had been sitting unread on my bookshelf for about a year and I finally decided to open it up and see if I could figure out what was bothering me.

In  a nutshell, the book argues that throughout modern Japanese history, there has been conflicting purposes in international education. One purpose of international education has been to bring up creative, compassionate and independent thinking students who can contribute to world peace. On the other hand, another purpose has been to bring up patriotic students who will respect their country and share Japan's wonderful culture with the rest of the world.

Of course, I think that there is a lot to like about Japan. If I did not think so, I would not be here. Every year, I help run a program that brings students in the English Education Department at my university to high schools in Thailand for for a two week teaching internship. At these schools, the intern teach Thai students about various aspects of Japan. In the past, we have done such topics as seasonal events, high school life, ghost stories, origami, toys, and Iwate's history of tsunami. Usually after the teacher trainees have finished their classes, the Thai students have a very positive image of Japan. Now, before I go any further, please don't get me wrong, I am happy that the Thai students have a positive image of Japan, they should.

Nevertheless, every country has history which they regret. Japan's colonization of Manchuria as well as the Korean peninsula and the human rights violations accompanying this would most likely fall in this category. This history is a big contributor to the resentment that many Chinese and Koreans have towards Japan and definitely affects relations between these countries. I think that this resentment makes disputes over the Senkaku Islands with China and Takeshima Island with Korea that much more difficult to resolve.

In the speech contest I judged, most of the students talked about aspects of regional culture or Japanese culture that they wanted to show the Canadian students. Few talked about what they wanted to learn in Canada or what they knew about the place they would be visiting.  It seems to me that a lot of what is emphasized in "international understanding" is showing positive aspects about Japanese culture to non-Japanese. Furthermore, it seems that the image of "non-Japanese" that many students have are anglo westerners. Nevertheless, the largest foreign populations in Japan are China and Korea, respectively.

An important part of understanding other people is to try to look at things from their perspective and learn from it. In my daily life here (I cannot speak about Japan as a whole), this seems to be missing. In Thailand, in addition to having the Japanese teachers teach about Japanese culture, we need to ensure that there is a component where the Thai students teach us about their daily lives and customs.  Of course, giving students these kinds of experiences won't immediately solve tensions between Japan and its neighbors. Nevertheless I think that it could be a start.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Cycling from Morioka City to the Aomori City Ferry Terminal

My route from Morioka to Aomori City

On August 11, the day after a one week business trip I set off on bicycle from my home in Morioka, Iwate to Aomori City. My plan was to do the trip in one day and take the ferry from Aomori City to Hakodate. After that, I planned on cycling to my wife's hometown which was about 300 kilometers from Hakodate. To make a long story short, although I did make it to Aomori city on the first day, cycling 185 kilometers, I got a heatstroke and had to finish the remainder of the trip to my wife's hometown by train. This was my fourth time doing this trip and I have cycled longer distances on hotter days so it was kind of a shock for me to be knocked out on the first day. Anyway, this post is for anyone who is interested in cycling in Japan or the cost of emergency room treatment!

Details of the route

My planned route was to take route 282 from Morioka which would merge into route 7 in Aomori. Route 282 is a very up and down road and there are three parts which feature substantial climbing. However, I think it is the best route to Aomori City. The other way, going on route 4, is about 30 kilometers longer. Although there are less mountains, you feel as if you are going uphill the whole time. I prefer the long ascents followed by the quick descents where you can actually go faster than the automobile speed limit (50Km and hour)!

Anyway, if you take Route 282, the difficult climbs are
1. Before the Appi Highlands (安比高原)

2. Before and after the Tayama Area(田山)

3. And by far the worst climb is in Kosaka(小坂), Akita. I think this is Akita prefecture's way of telling you not to leave. Kosaka is after Kazuno(鹿角) and features a particularly vicious mountain road called the 坂梨峠. After riding uphill gradually for 20 or so kilometers, you arrive at a steep winding mountain road. When you reach the top of the mountain, a sign welcomes you into Aomori prefecture. I averaged about 6 to 8 kilometers an hour going up the mountain and since I was riding so slow, the bugs could also keep up with me and my sweaty body seemed to be quite an enticing feast for them.


After merging with route 7, I decided to not go through Hirosaki but rather take route 13 through Hirakawa City (平川市) and Kuroishi City (黒石市)because it would decrease the trip by about 7 kilometers. This was about the last 40 kilometers of the trip. However, there were a lot of traffic lights and I got frustrated with all the stop and go.

Details about what happened to me
Basically, I left my house at 5:30 AM and my goal was to make it to Aomori City by about 4PM for a 5PM ferry to Hakodate City. I felt great all the way to Kazuno which was about 80 kilometers or so into the trip. I stopped at the "road station" (道の駅),  had some well-deserved ice cream and snack and stocked up on water and sports drinks. I was confident that I would make it to the ferry on time. After that, I knew I would have my biggest challenge which was Kosaka and the dreaded mountain. Since I had already conquered two mountain roads though, I felt fairly confident.


Soon after leaving Kazuno, I started feeling tired. My pace slowed down. My plan was to keep on cycling until I got to the top of the mountain and into Aomori prefecture but I actually had to stop three times to rest. All of a sudden, my energy seemed to have been lost. Despite not feeling 100% I conquered the mountain road. Although I planned to rest on the top of the mountain, the bugs would not leave me so I had to continue until I had descended the mountain. The video below shows me about to accomplish my conquest of the mountain.


After my descent, I finally found a place to rest at the Ikari ga seki Road Station (see below). At this time, I did not feel hungry but I ate anyway. I also realized that it was 1:50 PM and I only had 2 hours to travel 50 kilometers. All of a sudden, I realized that I was behind schedule and would have to hurry to make my ferry.


If I had been 100% I could have made the ferry. Although there was some stop and go, the road between Ikari ga seki and Aomori City was mostly flat with some modest hills and sometimes me going against the wind. Nevertheless, by this time, I was definitely weaker than usual. I also started to experience pretty strong muscle cramps in my legs.  I had to stop about 6 times to stretch and massage my legs. The good news was, each time I was able to recover. The bad news was, each time I lost A LOT of time.

Another problem I experienced was getting my foot out of my petals. A week before, I had bought the kind of pedals which your shoes hook into. Every time you get off your bicycle, you have to detach your shoes from the petal by twisting your feet. If you do not do this before stopping, then you will fall with the bicycle. For some reason, in the last 50 kilometers, I forgot to detach my shoes from the petals 4 times. Two times, as I was falling my shoes some how dislodged from the pedals and I landed on my feet. Two times, though, I fell together with the bicycle.

Going to the Hospital

I made it to the ferry terminal and 5PM and I missed my ferry. Fortunately, there were later ferries I could catch. The problem was, I noticed that I really did not feel well. I felt thirsty, nauseous, dizzy, and had bad muscle cramps. Usually, after a long ride I feel good to rest no matter how strenuous the day was. This time, though, I did not have the energy even to stand in line to get a seat for the next ferry. Some people behind me in line were nice enough to let me sit down and call me when it was my turn to go to the front. After getting my ticket, I lied down on the floor of the ferry terminal but after an hour I felt about the same. At that time, my wife called me and when I explained to her how I felt she told me that I was probably having a heat stroke. After I got off the phone, by chance some motorcyclists approached me and asked me if I was ok. To my surprise, they recommended that I go to the hospital by ambulance rather than take a taxi because if I go by ambulance I can get treated immediately and the ambulance will choose the hospital for me. I told them that I knew I should see a doctor quickly but I did not think I was in a life or death situation. They were emphatic in insisting that it was fine to call an ambulance even if you were not near death and persuaded me to do so.

The staff at the ferry terminal called the ambulance, took care of my bicycle and bags, and let me rest in one of their back rooms. The paramedics came and put me on a stretcher and whisked me to the nearest hospital. They were very nice, they seemed to understand my situation, and hearing them explain everything to the hospital on the phone while we were riding there gave me a sense of security. In the back of my head, though, I was worried about how much this would cost, especially since I did not have my health insurance booklet with me.

I got to the hospital at about 7:30 PM. They gave me a blood test and then started giving me an IV to get me hydrated. They confirmed my wife's diagnosis. After about 45 minutes, I started to feel much better. However, the doctor said that my blood test results were bad and I had put a big strain on my kidneys. She said that I should not continue my bicycle trip because I could do more damage to myself with super-strenuous exercise.

By about 1:30 AM, I had had two bags of fluids put into me and I asked to be discharged from the hospital rather than spend the night because I really wanted to go to Hokkaido and see my family whom I had not seen in almost two weeks. When leaving the hospital, I had to give the hospital a 5000 yen deposit for my hospital bill and they said I should call them on Monday (it was Saturday night) so that I could settle the bill. In Japan, health insurance is nationalized and patients have to cover 30% of the costs of their treatment unless the treatment is above a certain amount, then the government pays everything. Also, it turns out the ambulances are free! My bill turned out to be 6500 yen or about $80 US.

I checked out of the hospital and was back at the ferry terminal by 2AM, August 12. I took the 5AM ferry to Hakodate and arrived there at 8:45AM. After arriving in Hakodate, I rode my bicycle very slowly to a friend's house where I spent the whole day sleeping. After resting on August 13, I took the train from Hakodate to my wife's hometown along the route which I should have rode on my bicycle. I felt like a defeated man and very embarrassed but I will do this trip again.

What I Learned from this ordeal:

  • Bicycle trips should never be rushed. If I had not been in such a hurry, this would not have happened. Next time, I will only go about 100 - 140 kilometers a day and try to enjoy the sites and scenery more. I have actually learned this lesson before but forgot. 
  • I need to take better care of myself before going on a bicycle trip. Up until the day before the trip, I have been on a one week business trip where I was dining out almost every night and probably not living a very health life style. I believe that attempting a 185 kilometer journey less than 12 hours after I arrived home from my business trip contributed to me getting a heat stroke when I should not have. 
  • Before the trip, I spent a lot of money buying a bicycle carrier for my car so we could transport the bicycle from my wife's hometown to Morioka using our car. However, when I was in Hakodate, I learned that I could actually ship my bicycle by takyuubin to Morioka for 3450 yen which is much cheaper than the cost of a bicycle carrier. Unless, you're going to use the bicycle carrier frequently, I realized it can be more economical just to occasionally ship it home.
  • Bicycle bags are expensive but they are good to have. Putting my bicycle in its bag, I was able to ship it home to Morioka. I also could have carried the bicycle in the train with me by putting it in its back but this time I just sent it home.
  • Next time, it would be better not to cycle alone. Anyone want to join me?   

Monday, August 06, 2012

Using Vocabulary Notebooks Part 5

Well, I just finished presenting about using vocabulary notebooks (VNs) at the annual Japan Society of English Education Conference in Aichi. I will summarize how I used vocabulary notebooks and what I learned from using them. Again, as I have written before, I introduced vocabulary notebooks as a tool for students to learn how to use the words they were exposed to in class.

First, I tried Process A for using vocabulary notebooks:

Process A
  • Students record words into their VNs for homework→
  • Students share their VN entries with each other at the beginning of class (They exchange sheets and quiz each other) → 
  • Speaking, reading or writing activity using the VN words 
  • Students update their VNs with new knowledge
Below is the sheet I ended up using. In "Using vocabulary notebooks part 3" I explained each item on the sheet in detail. 
As I explained in the last post, in the first quiz we did after Activity A a total of two times for 15 words in the textbook, students struggled to write important information and example sentences. In the quiz, students were supposed to choose 5 words for which to write "other forms", "important information," and "example sentences." I told students that they did not have to learn to use all the words productively. Rather, they should choose which words to use productively based on their frequency and whether or not the word is related to their fields. Below, is a student's quiz. I have written the overall class averages for each item. The student got the fourth best score in the class but as you can see even she struggled to write "important information". Additionally, she only used the "important information" to make one example sentence. Eleven out of the 21 students who took the test left the "important information" field completely blank.

After giving the quiz, I thought that students must not have written the "important information" into their vocabulary notebooks, but the student above actually wrote word information for 9 of the words. The word sheet from her vocabulary notebook is below.

What happened? Students wrote action logs about their quizzes and I categorized their comments into the following:
Action log comments about the quizzes N=19
Category Number
Did not study 6
Confident with their performance 4
Could not write example sentences 3
Could not understand the English definitions in the quizzes. 3
Wrote comments, but not about the quiz 2
no comment 2

Obviously, one reason that students did not do so well was because they did not study. However, they also wrote that they could not write example sentences. No one said anything about important information. I decided to introduce a new vocabulary notebook process into the class and hope that students would do better on the next quiz after experiencing the first one.
For the next unit of the textbook, we did Process A and Process B. Process B was:
Process B
  • Speaking/ writing/ reading activity → 
  • Students record words that they learned in the activity → 
  • Students change sheets and quiz each other →
  • As a class we choose which words to have on the quiz
We had the following set of words from the two processes:
Process A: Textbook words (Theme = Landmines) Process B (Words from class activities)
Words A
landmine, ban, burn, poverty, explosion, victim, injury, medical care,  treaty, blindness, valuable, conflict, cluster bomb
present, distinguish, laziness, confidence, introduction, demand, aim

To make a long story short, the students did a better job using the Process B words productively in the test. However, one of the reasons for this was I had given the students "important information for words like "distinguish" (e.g, distinguish A from B). However, this got me thinking that maybe students would do better learning the words they chose to learn rather than the words. 
After the quiz, I gave students a questionnaire, where they had to write whether or not they agreed/disagreed with the below statements and why:
  • It is easy for me to find a word’s “important information” (Agree/Disagree)
    • Result: Agree 7/ Disagree 12
  • It is easy for me to learn a word’s “important information”  (Agree/Disagree)
    • Result: Agree 2/ Disagree 17
The students who disagreed with these statements wrote that there were so many kinds of "important information" that they did not know which to learn. For example, if students looks up the work "introduction," they will find the following collocations, "introduction of," "introduction to," and "make introductions." There is a lot of information and they do not know whether to learn all the information or which of the information they should learn.  

At this stage of the semester, we had about four weeks left. For the last unit of the textbook, we did "Process A" for using vocabulary notebooks and then I tried "Process C" two times:

Process C
  • Students complete an adjective with preposition worksheet (1st time)/ verb with preposition work sheet (second time) → 
  • Students write 4 words they want to learn in their VNs (students are instructed to make REAL sentences)
  • Students change sheets and quiz each other
At the ending of this cycle I gave students one more quiz. For this quiz, students had six words from the textbook (land mines) and I asked them to write other forms, important information, and example sentences for two of the words. Then, they had to choose any 4 adjectives and 4 verbs they learned from the grammar practice and write all the information into their quiz. Here is one student's quiz:

Other forms
Important information
Example sentences
Overall average
Quiz 1
Quiz 2
Quiz 3

I think students probably did best on Quiz 3 because:

  1. They did not have to discover the collocations for the verbs or adjectives themselves, they learned the collocations from the grammar sheets.
  2. The verbs and adjectives that students chose to learn were high-frequency, common words.
  3. Students had written meaningful sentences about the verbs and adjectives and perhaps this left a bigger impression on their memories.
  4. Students reported that they "studied hard" for this quiz because it was their last one.

Overall, based on my experience so far, I will end this post by making the following recommendations for using vocabulary notebooks:
  • Understanding parts of speech, collocations, and dictionary skills is essential for effective VN use. This can take students a semester or more to understand, and teachers will have to vote significant and valuable time to practicing this. I realized that if I had done an activity like Process C at the beginning of the year, students might have learned how to write "other information" sooner. Nevertheless, on their evaluation of vocabulary notebooks, students wrote that "important information" was helpful to learn a word.
  • Students should use the VNs to produce meaningful language (Having students write true example sentences about themselves is better) . Sometimes students copy sentences they don't understand from dictionaries. The drawback for having students write their own, original sentences, however, is that many times they write incorrect sentences into their vocabulary notebooks (approximately 25% of example sentences that students wrote in their VNs was incorrect).
  • Students might do better remembering more frequent words or words that they choose. 
  • In a questionnaire, some students wrote “The word sheets were too big to use in the train” as a minus for using vocabulary notebooks. This means that students were likely studying for the quizzes on their was to university right before class started. For remembering the breadth of information on the vocabulary sheets, some kind of learning schedule should be introduced so students can plan adequate time to learn the productive information of a word.
  • Students should not learn the productive information for all the words in their vocabulary notebooks! They should choose which words they think they should learn to use! I think this is important for autonomous learning.
  •  Notebook sheets can become disorganized. Have a place for students to write the topic on each sheet. 
  •  If you require that students write certain words in their notebooks, it is best to post the list on-line so that students who miss class can catch up. 
  • Quizzes motivate students to update their VNs but they can be time consuming to grade for the teacher and time consuming for the students to take.
  • The teachers should periodically collect students vocabulary sheets to see whether or not they are writing them correctly. It is impossible to examine the sheets in detail, but writing a comment or giving the students a check I think will motivate them to continue to write their sheets.
  • Students should also write their own words into the sheets and they should be evaluated on the words.
The following issues with using vocabulary notebooks remain:
  • It is very time consuming to make and grade quizzes as well as collect vocabulary sheets. Is there anything I can do to speed up this process?
  • Students only write words in their sheets because I tell them too. Am I encouraging autonomous learning?
  • Students often write wrong information into their notebooks and it is impossible for the teacher to point out every single wrong piece of information.
  • Vocabulary notebooks take time away from other activities we could be doing.
  • I thought the averages for the quizzes, although improved, were low. Was the level of difficulty to high? Were the students not putting out enough effort? Or, is the VN program I have fundamentally flawed in some way?
  • How can I introduce a memory schedule for learning words and would students really follow it?
Overall, I am glad that I tried it this semester and the students were generally positive about the intervention. I think that the students and myself learned how to use dictionaries better, what constitutes productive knowledge of a word, the importance of learning high frequency word, and strategies for learning to use words productively. I will continue this next semester, but from now on I should probably start blogging about what I am supposed to be researching full time: jr. and senior high school English teacher development in Japan.

Lastly, if anyone out there actually dared to read this monstrosity of a long post, I thank you.