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.