Monday, November 29, 2010

How to simulate Amanda’s television watching experience

So, in order to get a feel for what it’s often like for me to watch TV in Japan, follow these easy steps.

1. Pick a show or a movie you are unfamiliar with. Your best option is something you have never heard of and know nothing about.
2. Mute the TV.
3. Begin to watch and try to understand the program.
4. Every now and then unmute the TV so that you pick up on a single word or phrase, but then mute it again.

And that’s pretty close. For bonus points, make it a drama with lots of dialogue. One where the conflict is all internal with people crying and talking about their problems a lot. Try to figure out what the heck is going on. For more fun, pick a kids show or game show with lots of visual action! Anything with physical comedy is also a winner. For an extra challenge pick a sci-fi, medical, or crime related show that likely has TONS of specialized vocabulary, and unmute the TV less (as the dialogue as a whole contains less words you might know).

It’s not quite fair, as I still get music and tone of voice to be able to pick up on things, but then again there are a lot of actions onscreen that are highly cultural based that make little sense even if I do pick up on some of the words.

This is pretty much what it was like in my first year, although I’ve improved a lot since then.  I love watching TV in Japan and will probably write up something later about all the great shows I watch.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thinking about the past and the future

Not my past or future mind you. The past and future of my schools. For some reason today I was struck by the fact that in a few years the school I work at two times a week will be an empty building. And it made me really sad. I really started to look around and wonder about things. Some were practical like “Where will all the teachers go?” and “What will be done with all of the school’s resources?” Others were more sentimental such as “What will be done with the artwork of former students that hangs in the hallways?” and “What will happen to all of the school’s history?” This is Japan so I’m sure that there are protocols for these sorts of things. My school won’t be the first to close down, and not even the first in Amakusa thanks to rapid depopulation.

But I started to wonder about my school and how old it was and all of the students that had come and gone over the years. I found some pictures hanging in the entry way that I pass by every day and have never taken notice of. They are wonderful aerial views that must have been taken from a helicopter. They help to show how my school has grown and changed over the years. I now know that at least the elementary school is definitely older than I am. Here is a very short visual history of my school.

This first picture is from 1980.  It seems that at the time, only the elementary school was located here.  I don't know if there was another junior high school on the island if they went to school on another island, or if the junior high is in this picture and they are simply not mentioned in the photo credit.  Be sure to look back at this picture after you see the others to see all the changes.  The two big white buildings are the gym and the elementary school and both are still in use today.  At least as far as I can tell they seem to be the same buildings.  It's really hard to see in the picture (if you click on it you might get a bigger view) but the kids are standing in front of the right building in the shape of the kanji 北 小 which mean north and small (because this school is called North Goshoura and the small because they are elementary students). At the time of this photo there were 81 students at the elementary school. 

Now we flash forward a mere four years.  This picture is still older than I am.  This picture is zoomed out a tiny bit more than the one above.  The major edition here of course is the new road that runs along the sea.  That road runs all the way around the island now, which it clearly did not in the above picture.  There is a small new building on the left hand side and this sort of gives you a perspective of how much land was reclaimed from the ocean since in 1980 the third building looks like it was right on the coast.  This time the students spell out only north and they are down to 69 of them.

A larger jump this time and wow, things have changed!  If I'm right about it being the same gym, it at least got a new roof.  The three buildings from the left side of the previous two pictures have moved to the right side, or rather the bottom in this view.  I guess they must have been portables.  I could be wrong and they could be new buildings, but they look awfully similar.  But of course the big news here is the addition of the junior high school, which Eric pointed out to me looks kinda like a boat.  This time the kids are standing in a circle around kanji written on the ground, this time 北中 which is north and middle to represent the junior high.  During this year of the junior high school's history there were 53 students.

And finally we reach the most recent picture, taken in 2005.  And this is still pretty much exactly how the school looks today.  You'll notice that those other buildings are gone, but we've added a pool.  They also paved the paths from the main road down to the schools.  This picture did not have a helpful note telling me how many students there were, but I zoomed in and can count about 43 of them. 

Today my junior high school has 41 students, although next year the number will drop to 30 since I have an abnormally large graduating class this year (my first year we had 7 graduates, last year 9, but this year we have 19).  The elementary school has only about 32 students with most years having only 4 or 5 students.  I heard last year than in 3 years or so the junior high will be shut down and combined with the school on the other island.  Three years after that the elementary school will close as well.  I'll of course be gone by then, but I can't help but wonder what will happen.

Monday, November 22, 2010

I made a student cry today

Yeah…it was one of those days. Several ALTs have told me stories where they have had entire classes close to tears, and luckily I’ve never had anything that bad. I’d only made one student cry before today and that was in junior high.

Today I was at elementary and was teaching my fifth grade class. I’m not a huge fan of this class as they can get really rowdy and difficult to handle. We had a ton of extra time today so we started reviewing the vocabulary for the next lesson. I went around the room and had each student name a flashcard. I have 2 students in this class that I never know if they are going to participate or not. I’m fairly certain both of them have slight learning disabilities and I know English class is difficult. Usually we help them along as best we can. Well I got to the second of these boys (the first one answered fine) and I was met by a blank stare. I gave him a few moments to look at the card, and when I got no response I asked the whole class to say the word together. This is my normal protocol for kids who hardly ever speak in class.

Anyway, I moved on and finished the kids and we decided to play a game. It wasn’t until the kids started moving their desks for the game that I realized that the boy was crying at his desk. The home room teacher was with him and I didn’t know what else to do, so I went on with the game with the rest of the class. He cried the entire game and was still crying when class ended. -_-;

I feel really bad about the whole thing. I’m honestly not sure if he was mad at me or just frustrated with himself (as was the case with the last boy I made cry). I feel bad, but there wasn’t a lot of time left and I didn’t feel I could stand around and wait until he decided to answer, if he even did. Anyway, I’m now worried that I have scarred a child for life and that he will hate English class from now on. Way to go Amanda-sensei.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Small Teachers

This year we tried something new with my second grade class (8th grade) at one of my junior high schools. The class has 11 students, and there is a huge gap in how they are currently doing in English. Five students are doing very well, but the other six are doing rather poorly. And there is no one in the middle. My teacher made a chart for the kids using their scores from the first test they took to demonstrate this to them and what should, in theory, be a bell curve was an M. My teacher realized that he could probably work with one of the lower scoring students for the whole class and they might understand the day’s lesson, but the others would still be lost.

So we started the small teacher program. My teacher paired all the kids up with one strong student and one weak student to a group. He did this based on who needed the most help (the lowest scoring kids are with the highest scoring kids) as well as based on personalities that we hope will work well together. Now we have 5 strong students, but one I believe is severely autistic. She’s very smart and does very well on written activities, but we can’t get her to say anything in class. So she is included in a group of three but works mostly on her own. Honestly the kids probably know how to work with her better than any of us teachers since they have been with her since elementary school and know what she can and won’t do. So that leaves us with only 4 small teachers for 5 groups. The last group works with the teacher when they are discussing what new grammar means, so he can check their understanding and help them along.

The students were a little hesitant at first. The kids we designated as small teachers were nervous, except for one who was absolutely thrilled. But as class went on things fell into place a little more. And by the second class it was as though we had always been doing it that way. We had introduced a new grammar point and had written an example sentence on the board. After repeating it a few times we had then discuss the meaning in their groups. I was amazed by what I saw. Every student in the room was smiling. No one was zoning out or staring blankly at the textbook. My students who normally fall behind were engaged in the lesson and seemed to be enjoying class. I was thrilled with the atmosphere we created.

The girl who used to be the second or third weakest in the class has skyrocketed in skill. Although I can’t claim that this program is solely responsible for that really since the teacher has informed me that she is greatly improving in everything this year from her school subjects to sports. Last year when I would work with her, she would read out of the book so quietly that I could barely hear her while standing next to her. I was ecstatic when she was reading something for the other teacher and I heard her from a good three feet away using a loud, clear voice. And she just seems happier and more self confident this year. She’s really been applying herself and it shows.

One pair is a set of rivals. When we made the pairs the students were probably the lowest scoring small teacher and the highest scoring underperforming student. But oh my goodness. Now the small teacher is applying himself to his work in class much more and his partner is moving up steadily as well. They have great chemistry and compete against each other in a very healthy way. We hit the nail on the head with that pair.

But it isn’t without problems. I know that my best student is REALLY frustrated by the small teacher program. I have confidence that he could help a student who was a little less behind, but his partner is the weakest student in the class and its difficult trying to help him to understand. It’s the same frustrations we often feel, but he’s just an 8th grader, so it’s hard on him. His partner does seem to be improving a little, but he has a really long way to go. Perhaps it would have been better to put the two weakest students in the teacher’s group, so that the small teachers were working with students who would be easier for them to help.

We did a survey of the class after first term to see what the kids thought of the program. My two best students said they didn’t like it much, but ALL of the weaker students said that they found it really helpful. It was hard to break up the program when the half of the class who really needs it appreciates the help and wants it to continue.

Clearly this couldn’t work in all of my classes, but it certainly seems to have done some good in this one. We used to have this set up for every class, but we’ve been doing it less often these days so that our smart kids have a little less pressure. I know that it’s a frustrating situation for my teacher. There is one bit of really good news. At the start of the year two students in that class said on a questionnaire that they did not like English at all. We recently gave them another survey and none of the students picked the lowest option. So at the very least we’ve improved the atmosphere of class, even for those who are struggling. And that’s a start.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Drugs are BAD!

So I saw this story while researching for my Mid Year Seminar presentation on Japanese Pop Culture (also known as the coolest presentation topic EVER) and thought it was interesting enough to repeat. I also think that it provides an interesting contrast to the post I made before about drugs.

So there was a Canadian actor who played a pretty small role on a Japanese drama called “Rymoaden,” which is a dramatization of the life of a legendary samurai named Sakamoto Ryoma. He played a British seaman who is killed by samurai in Nagasaki. The episode aired on October 31st. After it aired a concerned viewer contacted NHK and informed them that the actor had been arrested on September 10th for possession of marijuana. The episode had been filmed in August and NHK had not known a thing about it. The episode will air again on Saturday, and, when it does, the actor’s name will be removed from the credits.

That is how serious drug possession is here. No one wants to be associated with you in any way, and you don’t even get credit for things you have done. Why anyone would take a chance on something like this is beyond me.