Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Cycling from Morioka City to Kuriyama, Hokkaido: Part 1

Ever since I moved to Morioka (Iwate Prefecture) from Hakodate, Hokkaido, I had wanted to bicycle from Morioka to my wife's hometown Kuriyama which is right in the center of the Island of Hokkaido. After 4 years of putting it off, this year I decided I was going to do it. My wife and son went to Kuriyama ahead of me and I was to meet them there. My plan was to bicycle from Morioka to Aomori City (200 kilometers) take the ferry from Aomori to Hakodate. Cycle from Hakodate to a town called Oshamanbe (93 kilometers) and then from Oshamanbe to a city called Muroran (about 90 Kilometers). Lastly I planned on cycling from Muroran to Kuriyama (about 100 kilomters). In Kuriyama, I would stay with my in-laws and then put my bicycle in our car and drive/ take the ferry back to Morioka with my wife and son.

I left Morioka on August 10 and had made it to Date, Hokkaido, a town 30 kilometers from Muroran city by August 13. In Date, I called it a trip and had my wife come pick me up. I was about 120 kilometers from Kuriyama. Although I did not make it to my final destination, it was a fantastic journey and I would recommend traveling around Japan by bicycle to anyone who is game for it. In the following posts I will talk about my journey and I hope that anyone interestecd in taking a cycling trip in Japan will be able to learn from my mistakes.

Preparing for the Trip

On August 1, I had asked a local cycle shop, Nakahata Cycle Shop (サイクルショップナカハタ), who I was friendly with whether or not they could find me a bicycle that I could use to go on a long road trip. At the shop they only had the prototypical Japanese urban basket bicycles (Mama chari) but the proprietor asked me what my budget was and said that he would make me a mountain bike out of a used frame he had in the scrap yard at his house. By August 5, I had a mountain bicycle complete with a bell/compass, rear blinking light, front light, front basket, a rear mount which I could tie a tent and sleeping bag onto, and a speedometer. I had originally told the repairman that my budget was 20,000 yen but when I saw the bicycle I assumed that it would be more because they had thrown all these accessories onto it. I was surprised when they only asked for 20,000 yen. Here is a picture of my bicycle resting at a campsite in Oshamanbe Hokkaido. As you might tell, I became quite attached to it. As it was originally a women's mountain bike, I think I will call her Sheila.

On August 8, I bought the Touring Mapple (ツーリングマップル) map of Hokkaido and Tohoku (Northeast Honshu). These maps also provide information about road conditions, restaurants, camp sites, youth hostels, rest areas and tourist sites for their regions. They proved to be immensely helpful.

On August 9, a day before I was to leave, I borrowed a tent from a colleague and intended to go shopping for gear that I would need for the trip. Here are two web pages that recommend what kind of gear to bring for a long cycling trip: Adventure Cycling Association: "How to pack and what to take"; REI: "Cycling Expert Advice".

Before I left my house to go shopping, I suffered my first setback: I learned that the ferries from Aomori city to Hakodate were completely booked on August 11! My original plan was to take two days and one night to go to Aomori city from Morioka. The people at the ferry terminal told me that I, myself, could ride the ferry but it would be impossible for me to take my bicycle. Bicycles are classified as motorbikes and must ride with the cars on the ferry. Although they are classified as motorbikes they only cost 900 yen to bring on the ferry which is considerably less than a motorbike. When I was told I could not take my bicycle on the ferry I panicked because my trip to Hokkaido was now in jeopardy. In the midst of my panic, I remembered that I had read something about a bicycle bag called a rinko (輪行) on the Cycling Japan website and immediately called the ferry company asking them if I could carry my bicycle on the ferry if it was put in a bag. Their answer was yes and my next challenge was to find out where I could find a rinko in Morioka.

I decided I would kill two birds with one stone and buy my camping goods and rinko together. A friend of mine recommended that I buy my camping gear at either Homac, Takeda Sports or Sunday. Homac and Sunday are big home amenity stores that sell everything from hardware to wood to bicycles to camping gear. I ended up buying a 1000 yen sleeping bag at Homac and a flashlight. At Takeda Sports I bought running shoes and something close to cycling shorts. Takeda Sports also had almost the exact same camping gear as Homac for the same prices. I learned that you can get a lot of cheap camping gear at big stores such as Homac or Takeda Sports. I was disappointed, though, to find that these stores had a very poor selection of bicycling gear and I worried that I would not be able to find a decent cycling helmet or the rinko. I asked the clerk at Takeda Sports what the biggest bicycle shop was in Morioka and he told me that it was Sasaso Cycle Shop (佐々宗輪店) on chuuou doori (chuuou road). When I went to the cycle shop, I was happy to find a rinko and a good helmet (Although combined they cost more than my bicycle!). With the rinko, sleeping bag, tent, and bicycle I was now ready to begin my trip!

Because the ferries were going to be so full on August 11, the beginning of Japan's Obon holiday, I decided I should make it to the ferry terminal in Aomori by August 10. There were 200 kilometers between me and Aomori city. I thought that if I left my house at about 3:30 AM, August 10, I should make it to Aomori city by dusk (about 7:00 PM). I had cycled 50 miles with my father with relative ease when I was in high school. I reckoned that 200 kilometers was about 125 miles and I thought that if I could cycle 50 miles with ease then adding another 75 miles would not be so bad. Of course, Japan is a heck of a lot more mountainous than my home state of Massachusetts, and I would soon learn that mountains are much more difficult to tackle than long distances.

The night before I was to leave I was awake until about 1AM trying to take care of some last second work and did not get out of bed until 5AM. Along with my tent and sleeping back which was tied to the back of my bicycle, I had originally planned to take a small backpack, place it in the front basket of my bicycle and tie it down with a cord. When I attempted to put my belongings (a change of clothes, rain gear, maps, spare tubes, a bicycle pump and tools for my bicycle) into my small backpack I soon realized that it would not all fit. So I abandoned the small backpack idea, took out my big camping rucksack, stuffed my belongings into it and strapped it on my back. I knew that it was not wise (very dumb) to carry such weight on my back for a 200 kilometer trip, but I was in a hurry to get out of the house and any more delays would prevent me from reaching Aomori city that day. Besides, the rucksack was designed for trekking and had all kinds of straps that kept most of the weight off my shoulders. To the right is a picture of me wearing the rucksack and standing by the bicycle with an empty basket in Yakumo, Hokkaido. It was a big mistake not buying side carriers for my bicycle but I did the best I could carrying the backpack.

At 6:30 AM I left Morioka for Aomori city. In my next post I will talk about my 200 kilometer adventure and what happened to me along the way. Stay tuned.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Getting Strict: Changing my teaching style

It has been a long time.

I got a little burned out from sitting in front of the computer and reduced my computer time. For the past couple of months, I have used the internet only to keep up with my beloved Red Sox. At work, of course, it seems like I spend the majority of my day writing e-mails and when I get home at night I prefer not to look at a computer screen.

Well, a couple of months ago I had a very shocking teaching experience which has affected my teaching and personality in the classroom. First, let me give you a little background. I teach full time at one institution, a teacher's college, and part-time at a liberal arts university and a nursing school. At the teacher's college and liberal arts university I am pretty much myself in the classroom: I don't get angry at my students for not doing homework or skipping class and sometimes will share things about my personal life such as news about my son, what I did over the weekend etc. I find that this approach works well and for the most part the students are very diligent. If I was a tougher teacher who got angry at students for falling asleep in class (I tease them instead), punished students for being late or missing homework, or did not flash a smile in class I do not think I would get any more effort out of these students.

I had tried this approach at the nursing school where I teach a class of 40 students. About 25 are girls and most students are either 18 or 19 years old. A couple are in their mid twenties and one or two are close to my age. The content of this class is English for nurses. We study some medical English and dialogues to use with English speaking patients. I started teaching this class in April of 2007 for 1 and a half hours a week and the first few months went well. The students seemed interested in the class and always participated enthusiastically. Their quiz scores were also decent which meant that they were studying outside of class. There was one student who openly rebelled and went out of her way to show me that she was not going to try but I was confident that she would eventually change because I knew that she was better at English than she was pretending to be.

Well, last July after a few bad weeks I had one terrible class with this group and it changed the way I conducted class with them. Because I had missed a previous week's class, the nursing school asked me to teach two consecutive periods (about 3 hours). I thought that this would be a great opportunity to focus on speaking because it seemed like our speaking activities were always rushed. I designed a slightly redundant speaking activity that was supposed to take about an hour where students would do a role play. One student would play a clerk at a registration desk in a hospital and the other a patient. The clerk had to ask the patient about her insurance policy, etc. and write the information on a form. For these students the grammar for asking questions in English is incredibly difficult. Most of the students can ask questions using the be-verb (ex. Are you sick?) but struggled to ask questions using the do-auxiliary (Do you have a fever?) or wh-questions (What is your temperature?). I had designed this task so students would be asking a lot of do-auxiliary and be-questions so that they could get used to the difference. I has planned the pair work so that each student would do the role play about 5 times with a different partner. I realized that 5 times to do the same role play was a lot but I thought that students really needed the practice and that changing partners constantly would make the activity more fun for the students. I planned on giving the students 5 minutes to do the 1st role play and then to reduce the time limit for each ensuing role play. I was hoping to build on students' fluency. Before the task we reviewed how to make questions in English and had done some exercises. Let me tell you what happened.

From the very beginning about half the students acted like doing such an activity was about as exhilarating as a colonic exam. Like after you have run 15 kilometers and every step is a burden, for these students every time they opened their mouth was a tremendous effort and every time they moved their pencil on the paper to write a piece of information required extraordinary strength. As I have to wake up at 5:30 AM every Monday morning to catch the train to go to the city where this gosh darned nursing school exists and I had not had much sleep the night before so I could plan the day's activity, I was ready to throw these miserable students out the window and relieve their suffering (I am just being literary). To make a long story short, most of the students did not do a damn thing. The class became more like a social hour and after 40 minutes I called on a couple of random pairs of students to perform the role play in front of the class. The students who were called on looked at me with an expression that said, "How dare you?!" Their effort and performances were pathetic. I called on a second pair who did an even worse job. I stopped the second pair and told everyone in the class to shut up. At this point I was very frustrated. I told the class that I could not bear to watch them any more. I added that I considered them adults and not children. I told them that I am a busy guy and did not want to waste my time being their baby sitter. I then said that I was very disappointed with them and if they were not going to give me any effort I would not give them any effort. Then, I left the class (there was 20 minutes remaining).

I departed the nursing school as fast as I could. The nursing school teachers asked me how class was and I lied and said fine. If I had told the teachers what had happened, I am sure that they would have disciplined the students severely but I wanted to keep this matter between me and the students. I returned to my full time place of employment and was surprised that day to receive a class from the homeroom teacher of the nursing school students. She apologized and told me it would never happen again. One of the students had told the teacher.

The next week I had a class at the nursing school which would then be followed by a month-long summer vacation. I went to the class and did not prepare anything. Usually I had students use name cards in the class and I would call them by the nicknames written on their name cards. For this class, I did not use the name cards. Rather I used the seating chart to identify students and called them by their last names. For boys, I added the suffix -kun onto their last names and for girls I added the suffix -san. I did not smile once. I entered the class and told them to open their textbooks. We did the textbook and a handout I had made for that chapter a year before. I did 95% of the class in Japanese. I only used English to read the textbook. I called on individual students to translate certain sentences from English to Japanese or from Japanese to English. The class was quiet and everyone worked hard. Even the perennially rebellious girl had brought her textbook and was actually writing in her notebook. In this class there was no pair work, it was a teacher-centered class and English was not used communicatively whatsoever. Also, there was a great distance between the student and teacher in this class. Instead of me being Mr. Hall, the father, husband, wanna-be sportsman and diehard Red Sox fan living in Morioka, I was Mr. Hall, the teacher. The students were also just the students I did not care about who they were individually; I just looked at them as names on the seating chart. At the end of the class I asked students to write what kind of class they liked better. Did they like the style of the previous classes or did they like the style of today's class?

15 students said they liked the style of that day's class. 10 students said they liked the old way better. 15 students said they wanted a combination of both lessons. I was very interested to read the reasons of the 15 students who like the strict class the best. One student wrote that she liked the strict class better because she did not have to worry about working with other students or fighting with other students. Another student wrote that she felt nervous in that day's class but she liked that feeling of nervousness. Yet another student wrote that she felt that day's class was best because all her classmates could pay attention. Even one of the more energetic students wrote (in English) "I am sorry. I like today's class the best."

What does this mean? I interpreted this to mean that most of these students preferred to have a stricter teacher. They want to be taught more and want everything explained to them in Japanese. Many of them don't care about me or my personal life so I should not talk about it. Also, I should probably not ask them questions about their personal life.

Before I end this post, let me just say that I had been already using a lot of Japanese in this class and this class already included a lot of metalinguistic explanations (grammar rules) in the students' native language. I also felt that interaction, listening to a lot of English, and experimenting with using what you have learned was important for learning English. So, I had tried to make a class that gave students 1) a lot of exposure to English, 2) the opportunity to use English and a comfortable environment to use it in, and 3) the support they need in Japanese to be able to use and understand English.

Well, I did not succeed in doing the above. From now on I have decided to be an all-powerful teacher when I step in the classroom and forget who I really am for an hour and a half. I will use more Japanese and provide more explanations. I will do mostly the textbook and make supplementary handouts but not spend so much time planning activities. Perhaps for 10 minutes in each class students will have some kind of very controlled pair work activity where they have to read a dialogue or translate something into English or Japanese. For this class, I think it will work the best. I do not think it is the best way for these students to learn language but it is better for them to learn something than nothing at all.