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.