Thursday, March 30, 2006

How can we succeed in teaching English in jr. and sr. high schools?

On March 26, I gave a workshop titled "How can we succeed in teaching English in jr. and sr. high schools?". The workshop was sponsored by Iwate JALT and the Iwate University Faculty of Education. Althogether there were 20 people including me. The participants consisted of 6 American(to my knowledge) teachers, 2 teachers and research fellows from the Philippines, 2 graduate students from China, 7 Japanese university students (most of them had experience teaching), a translator, a Japanese teacher of English, and a Japanese Univeristy Professor. It was an excellent mix of people from different backgrounds and the number of participants was just right.

The goal of the workshop:
As the title suggests the goal of the workshop was to discuss how we can improve English education in Junior and Senior high schools. We were to do this by sharing our own teaching stories and learning from them.

I tried to make the topics of the discussion concrete. To do this, I gave the participants the following information at the beginning of the workshop:

According to second language acquisition theory the following two conditions are necessary for language learning:
Condition 1) Learners should have plenty of exposure to the target language and the language that they hear should be comprehensible for their level of proficiency
Condition 2) Learners need the opportunity to use the target language to communicate meaning and test their knowledge either by speaking or writing.

These conditions, 1, providing learners with written or spoken input that they can understand, and, 2, encouraging learners to use the target language in speaking and writing so that they can test and develop their understanding of the language, seem easy to provide but in reality can be difficult in the Japanese junior and senior high school classroom.

I hoped that the participants would share some of their strories of successful or non-successful language learning activities they designed so we could come up with conclusions as to how we could provide conditions 1 and 2.

What did we do?
1. Spanish Lesson
After the ice-breaking, I gave a demonstration Spanish lesson to show how condition 1 might be met. I used mostly Spanish during the lesson. I used English toward the ending to confirm the meaning of the new words and talk about the masculine and feminine word rule in Spanish. At the beginning of the lesson, I showed a video to the participants. The video was of my trip to Thailand. It showed the following images accompanied by the following captions: a train station (esta es una estacion), a train (esto es un tren), a street (esta es una calle), a boat (esto es un barco), a man (esto es un hombre), a woman (esta es una mujer), a very female looking man (esto/esta es un/una ?), another very female looking man (???), a school (esta es una escuela) and a market (Esto es un mercado).
(The video can be viewed by clicking here. I was introduced to an amazing site to upload your videos on. You should be able to watch the video soon after clicking on the link. )

I read the captions while we watched the video. We watched the video twice. Next I showed pictures of each image accompanied with their original captions. I confirmed the meaning of the sentences. Then we practiced saying the sentences, but as we did this I gradually took out words from each sentence as we practiced saying them. The purpose of doing this was to make the learners aware of the masculine/ feminine word rule in Spanish. The power point file I used to do this can be seen here.

The purpose of this exerice was to show how pictures, creativity, and a low-key atmosphere can make a foreign language comprehensible to learners who have never studied it before. In other words, it served as a suggestion as to how condition 1 can be supplied.

2. My story of a lesson that did not go well:
Secondly, I shared an experience where I taught a "demonstration class" or 研究授業 to 40 junior high school students. The goal of the lesson was to get them to use English communicatively by conducting a survey to find out the classes favorite television show. In other words, the goal was to provide the students with condition 2. The class did not go well and I learned the following lessons:
1) Never do too many new activities at one. If a teacher wants to try something different and the students are used to a particular learnings style, he should make gradual changes. My lesson was too drastic.

2) The class group should be cohesive meaning that members have to feel accepted by their peers, not necessarily likes. The teacher also should be an accepted member of the group. I was not an accepted member of the group.

3) Quite often a class will have norms that make it difficult to conduct communicative language activies. An example of detrimental norms are:
•"We are not good at English."
•"We will not speak in front of our classmates. "
•"A class is where a teacher speaks and the students listen."
The teacher must negotiate new norms with the students but this is done over the span of weeks or months.

3. Group Discussion:
After my presentation we took a break and then broke into 4 groups of 4 to 5 people. We had about an even number of teachers and students per group. It was a great mix! I gave groups the choice of one of two very specific topics:

  1. Please discuss some of your experiences with each other; what listening-focused activities have been easy (or difficult) for your students to understand. Why?
  2. Do you have any stories of successful lessons or unsuccessful lessons where the goal was to get students to use new language communicatively? Why was the lesson successful or why was the lesson not successful?
The topics were a little too specific and many of the group members shared their English teaching stories irrespective of the topic to which they were assigned. After the four groups had shared what they had discussed by dispatching a "diplomat" and "official recorder" to the other groups, a few of the participants said they had learned or been reminded of the following through the discussion:

MB, an English teacher from the USA, said:

  1. Music can be useful in relaxing the class and changing the atmosphere for the better. It can also help students pick up and understand vocabulary. A combination of music and movement can help children learn English.
  2. (quoting what she heard in a previous presentation) “the basic building block of English lessons is building relationships
Mr. C, an English teacher from Japan, said:

  1. Music can be effective but we have to remember that some of the songs that children like might be too difficult. We need a balance between what children like and what is possible.
  2. Establishing human relationships with students is most important.

RC, a Mathematics teacher and research fellow from the Philippines, listed the following important points:

  1. Teachers should give importance to motivation and materials
    - the needs of students
    - the capability of students
  2. Teachers should make the lesson lively by showing pictures, songs, and establish rapport (good relationship)
  3. Teachers need to unlock difficult words, which means provide a means for students to understand difficult words.

J, a graduate student from China, said:

  • There is a saying in China that if we really want to win the war you have to understand your own strengths and weaknesses as well as the enemy's. To be an effective teacher it is not only important for the teacher to understand his students but also his own strengths and weaknesses. The teacher when choosing his teaching style should make his decision based on what style will work particularly for him.
My Reflection
Good Points:
The atmosphere was great and almost each group had an American speaker of English, a Japanese speaker of English, either a Philippine or Chinese speaker of English. I thought this combination of different perspectives made the small group discussions work well. As a teacher, it was very rewarding to see my students from the university participate actively in the discussion. Each one of us on that day met someone new and that also made the experience very memorable. One of the main messages from that came from the workshop was that knowing and building a good relationship with your students is one of the most important elements in creating a good language learning environment. Personally, knowing the importance of establishing a good, trusting relationship with the students and maintaining it through the inevitable ups and downs will have an influence on how I teach my university classes. It will also influence how I do my future "demonstration classes" at elementary, junior, and senior high schools. Perhaps the foundation of effective teaching is establishing trust and on top of the foundation comes technique.

Points of Improvement:
The workshop was a little disorganized on my part and I think that I could have done a better job in relaying to the participants what the purpose of the demonstration lesson and my story telling was. I also spent too long talking and should have given the participants more discussion time. Lastly, the discussion topics seemed to be a little difficult to talk about because they were too specific.

To the Participants,
If I have left out something important, made a mistake, or you would just like to say something please write a comment!

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Congratulations Class of 2006

Congratulations Hope, Bonsai, and YuS

Today Hope, Bonsai and YuS graduated from Iwate University. Although I am very happy for them I am also sad to see them go. Hope, Bonsai and YuS had been furiously working on their graduate theses after November and had little time to update their blogs. I also worked with each of them on an individual level and I think they they should be proud of their papers. Below, I will briefly summarize their papers:

YuS (Top Right) Wrote about "Why do students fail in English and how can we help them?". He gave a questionnaire to students at a nursing school and asked them to answer questions about their experience in their junior and senior high school English classes. Among his manydiscoveries were that students evaluated their classes lower and lower as they advanced in grades and many students found their classes montonous. This did not mean, though, that students did not want to learn English; many students did. Citing Nakajima (1997) he recommended that teachers create activities that emphasize the pleasure of learning English, teachers should meet and try to strive for similar goals in their classes (e.g. students can become frustrated when one teacher one year emphasizes speaking and another teacher the second year emphasizes grammar) and teachers should encourage cooperative learning among their students.

Bonsai (Bottom right) wrote about "What are the roles of ALTs and HRTs in effective English teaching. Bonsai read a lot of books and made a list of what the roles of ALTs and HRTs should be according to the literature. Below I have cited the roles Bonsai listed from her blog

(The roles of ALTs)
①To teach the pleasure of English
②English shower
③To improve students' communication skills
④Motivation for understanding other cultures and Japanese culture
⑤To praise and give confidence

(The roles of HRTs)
②Class control
③Model as a learner for students
④To remove the students anxiety and relieve
⑥To connect the knowledge and skills to other subjects

Afterwards, Bonsai gave a detailed questionnaire to 8 ALTs designed to see how concious they were of the above roles. She found that for the most part they were but she added that for team teaching to be effective the ALTs and JTEs should meet before class and confirm their roles and pland the class together. Unfortunately, she discovered, this was rare.

Hope (bottom left) wrote about "The future of English education in Japan - What is the best cooperation between elementary schools, junior high schools, and high schools." She read a lot of literature on the topic and concluded that it was highly likely that English would become a subject in Japanese elementary schools in the future. Because of this, she argued, a cohesive English curriculum from Elementary to High School would be necessary. Thus, in the future the three levels of school will need to cooperate more to strive for common goals. To determine how schools can do this Hope conducted a few case studies and showed how junior high schools and elementary schools can cooperate by inviting junior high school students to elementary schools as guest teachers.

(The barbarian-like creature on the top left is yours truly!)

Monday, March 13, 2006


As I have gotten older, I have become less tolerant of the cold weather. Last week, I took my family to Maui for 5 days. At first, my son was petrified of the water either at the pool or on the beach. He remained petrified until his mother took him down the water slide in the hotel pool. The excitement of the slide made him forget about his fear of the water. In the picture to the left, my son and I are going down the water slide at the hotel. To the right is the path I walked down every day to go to the beach.
After living in Japan for 7 years, my stomach has told me it has decided it prefers Japanese food to American food. When I first came to Japan I thought the food was bland and unfilling. Now, though, rice is a staple and when I go to the states I find the food either too oily, salty, sweet or just too much.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Cops and Foreigners in Japan

This morning I became very bothered by an e-mail I read. The e-mail came from David Arudou, a naturalized Japanese citizen who is active in defending the rights of non-Japanese residing in Japan or Japanese citizens who are of a different ethnicity. In the e-mail, he shared the following article in which a Japanese woman was mistaken for a South East Asian woman and arrested and detained for 14 hours for refusing to show the police her passport.
This reminded me of an experience I had with the police last December 27. I was driving from the city of Morioka, where I live, to the city of Hachinohe in Aomori prefecture with my 1 year-old son and wife. We were going to Hachinohe to take the ferry to the Island of Hokkaido where my wife's family lived. The drive to Hachinohe was about 150 kilometers. Usually we take the highway and it takes us about 2 hours. Our ferry was to leave at 7AM on December 27 and up until then we had had about 3 days of constant snow fall. The major highway was closed so we left our house at 2:30 AM and took the back roads to Hachinohe. At about 5 AM we were passing through the outskirts of a small city called Ichinohe. We were hungry so we stopped at a convenience store to get breakfast. One thing that really impressed me when I first came to Japan was how polite convenience store clerks were. When you enter the convenience store you are usaully greeted with an "irasshaimase" which means something close to "welcome" and after buying something the store clerk will thank you. When I entered this convenience store the clerk was very quiet and seemed to avoid looking me in the eye. It did not bother me because I was with my one-year old son and had my hands full as I was trying to let him walk around the convenience store to stretch his legs while prevent him from touching the convenience store merchandise.
We bought our breakfast and ate it in the car outside the convenience store. While we were eating, a police car drove by us in the parking lot. The car was moving at an extremely slow speed and I noticed that the two policeman were looking right at me. They stopped, backed up and parked their car. They came to my car and shined their flashlights at me and knocked on my window. I opened the window and one of the policeman asked me what I was doing at the convenience store at that time at night. The other policeman was shining his light at the back seat of my car and they soon realized that my wife and son were sitting in the back seat. Once they saw that I was not alone, their tone became much more polite. They told me that they were surprised to see me because they never see foreigners in that area, especially at that time of night. They then asked to see my driver's license, wrote down information about my license in their notebooks and left.
I was tired after driving 2 and a half hours through a snow storm and just wanted to get to Hachinohe in one piece. When we were actually on the ferry, I started to think about the incident and became very disturbed. If I had an Asian face, there is no way the policemen would have questioned me. So, me being a foreigner made me a suspect. My son has both Asian and caucasian characteristics and is also a Japanese national. Will he also be considered a suspect based on his ethnicity when he stops at a convenience store in the early morning?