Friday, May 02, 2008

The MMCE Blog

This year I am teaching an "international understanding class" at the university. I call it the "Meeting of Multicultural Educators" or MMCE. In years past MMCE members have formed 5 to 6 "common learning groups" with each group studying a different country. The highlight of MMCE is the "Breaking Down National Stereotypes Discussion" where members of each country being studied come and we have a big discussion about the validity of the stereotypes of the various countries. In the last MMCE meeting (we do not call MMCE a class), the different groups teach each other about their countries of concentrations. In MMCE, we have also spent time studying Geert Hofstede's 5 Dimensions of cultural values as a way to consider the root of misunderstandings between members of different cultures and ways to prevent them.

One of the weaknesses of MMCE in previous years has been that most of the knowledge that we have accumulated has been superficial or trivial information about countries. Rarely did we focus on serious issues we and other countries face and how we can perhaps cooperate to solve these issues. Thus, this year I have added a "global issues" element to MMCE where each CLG focuses more on studying a global issue than a country. Tim Grose's Global Issues in English textbook has served as an invaluable reference for how I can encourage MMCE members to teach each other about their global issue of expertise in English. MMCE has a blog where I write the minutes of each meeting as well as post materials and video of the meeting. MMCE members write comments on what they learned/experienced. If you are interested in the blog, please have a look here.

Challenges in Using English Picture Books for Japanese Primary School Teachers

In the Cross Cultural Understanding Using Picture Books CCUP project, altogether, 27 pilot lessons were conducted in 20 elementary schools in Iwate during the Period for Integrated Study. Twenty-one of these lessons were taught solely by a Japanese elementary school teacher and six were team taught by a Japanese homeroom teacher (HRT) and a non-Japanese Assistant Language Teacher (ALT). In 15 of the 27 lessons the book was read in English while in the other
lessons the Japanese translation of the book was read. After the pilot lessons teachers completed a questionnaire. In one of the items, they wrote about the obstacles they faced in trying to use the picture books in class. In this post, I will write about the obstacles that teachers who read the book in English faced. I am interested in adapting the CCUP materials to use to teach English in elementary schools so I will consider the implications that the teachers' responses have on using picture books for English activities in Japanese primary schools.

Below is the question to which the teachers responded. The numbers in parentheses next to a selection indicates the number of teachers who chose it. I have also translated and included teachers' write-in answers to "other". Altogether there were 15 teachers who responded.

What are some challenges that you faced or will face in implementing lessons like these ?
a. lack of time (11)
b. limited ALT availability (6)
c. English (7)
d. lack of interest from the students (1)
e. administrative problems (having more than 1 teacher hold a class and coming to an agreement) (1)
f. Other ______________ (8) (Below are translations of the answers teachers wrote in)
  1. "The amount of work a practitioner must do in order to determine how to use the book is substantial. Also, sometimes it is hard to know whether the events a book discusses are true. Perhaps it would be best to use the books with a whole class." <<Jimbo's note: This teacher used a book called "Parade Day" which presented a parade for each month. Some of the parades, presented though, were not real parades. Also, when the teacher says it would be best to use books with a whole class I think that she means it would be best to use the books with several homerooms at once so the homeroom teachers can cooperate and share the work.>>
  2. "It helped to have a Japanese translation" <<Jimbo's note: I don't think this is a problem.>>
  3. "The book was small [and it made it difficult to use]. Also, there is not an ALT [Foreign Assistant Language Teacher] at my school so it is hard for students to see the necessity of studying about different cultures. [When I did this class] it was not necessarily easy to invite the ALT here, negotiate with him and arrange multiple meetings. The children's interest was very high so I definitely would like try this [again] but unfortunately the picture books do not fit in well with the school curriculum because international understanding is not in the fourth year curriculum."
  4. <<Jimbo's note: This was written by a junior high school teacher who tried one of the picture books>> "First, JHS English instructor's energy is taken by student guidance, clubs and homeroom management. It is hard to make a picture book project manageable [for the typical teacher]. I wish the universities could help... Second, [our ALT played a primary role in helping to plan the picture book lesson], I think that we need [support] to use the picture book even if there is no ALT. At many schools this is expected."
  5. <<Jimbo's note: This is not necessarily a problem.>> "If we have a sample class and [lesson plan] we can continue to build on it and use it to exchange ideas [with other teachers(?) or schools()] Thank you for the precious materials."
  6. "We have to study very hard about the country [which the book is discussing]."
  7. "If there are not more opportunities for seminars teachers will [not feel confident in reading the book in English] and [CCUP] will not spread."
  8. "At the elementary school level, I am not sure how accurate I should pronounce the words [to the children] or how much English activities I should include."

Jimbo's Analysis:

Let me start with the good. Of 15 teachers, only 1 said that children's interest in the book was a challenge. Also as substantiated in comment 3 of "other", even when the book was read in English, most children in CCUP were interested in the story and lesson. Thus, student interest does not appear to be an issue when using English picture books. Also, only 1 of 15 teachers wrote that it was difficult to plan and conduct a lesson using an English picture book with another teacher (Of the 15 English lessons, 7 were taught by more than one teacher). Thus, teaching with a colleague did not appear to be an issue and as mentioned in comment 1, team teaching a lesson can reduce the amount of work required to plan for the lesson.

A lot of the obstacles teachers answered (limited English proficiency, lack of ALT availability) are to be expected. Teachers' responses show that the biggest obstacle was lack of time.

In CCUP we tried to lessen the burden of the teacher by supplying useful background information and teaching materials in addition to the teaching guides for each book. The teaching guides gave teachers a series of activities they could use for a lesson and expected teachers to choose the ones they felt most appropriate. In the lessons I viewed, I personally saw teachers use many activities that were in the guides and I thought that we had given the teachers sufficient support.

At the ending of the project, however, we had a meeting with many of the teachers who had conducted pilot lessons. Similar to what was said in comments 3, a few teachers said that they needed more concrete lesson plans. In other words, it was my impression that teachers wanted a step-by-step guide as to how to conduct a lesson using a picture book. To be honest, my first reaction was dismay that the teachers would want to be told exactly what to do. After thinking about this for a couple of days, though, my opinion of this began to evolve. I put myself in the shoes of a typical Japanese Primary School teacher. If they are to conduct an English activity using a CCUP picture book they must

1) learn background information about the culture and country which the picture book is showing
2) practice reading the book in English or learn necessary English
3) plan a novel lesson and make necessary teaching materials
4) (optional) meet with an ALT and negotiate/confirm roles

As comment 4 indicates, teaching classes are just a part of teachers' job. They simply do not have a lot of time to plan for classes. Also, many Primary School teachers do no have any formal education in teaching English nor practical experience. Thus, to use an English picture book they must plan a new unit of study and also teach a subject they are not familiar with, English. I understand why teachers would want a detailed lesson plan which tells them exactly what to do step by step. A detailed lesson plan can help them get started and as they become accustomed to using picture books for English activities they can start making more original lesson. Perusing through Primary School English activity guides published by Japanese publishers, the lesson plans are very detailed. In conclusion, I think that if we are to make CCUP books and guides more user friendly for English activities we will have to present teachers with a detailed, demonstration lesson plan that they can model when planning their own lesson. This detailed lesson plan will have to be based on the lessons we have observed or have ourselves done.