Breaking: English in Japan is pretty useless.

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been here for 10 months. There are 20+ other blog posts I should have commited to finishing writing about this time, but here’s what’s coming and some background story is likely needed.

One of the courses I have been teaching these 10 months in Clark High School is Culture Course. We have watched videos, took part in an online exchange project with teenagers from South Korea, Russia and Canada, learnt to explain Japanese phenomena to non-Japanese people, read about what constitutes cultural differences in general (the boring part they didn’t really care about all that much). All that has hopefully been coming under the big important umbrella of learning to speak and think of cultures beyond stereotypes. One activity that we all enjoyed was reacting to common generalizations of Japan, its culture and people (the concept was borrowed from an activity I witnessed in Mike Griffin’s class over a year ago). All students without exception were highly responsive and keen on discussing the many common images of the Japanese that are shared in the world. (Sidenote: when compiling that list, I did some research online but also relied on my own friends’ and family’ s ideas, that are probably exactly exemplary stereotypes. In fact, I might have said “My granny/ parents think this and that” n number of times in class… Every time meaning well.)

The part coming below is responses of third-year students to a task in their final test on the course. The task was to give a clear comment on three statements, which happen to be stereotypical ideas about the Japanese. As I was grading the tests, I couldn’t help it but be moved to blog their thoughts, accompanied by my own comments. I wish I could spend more time in class with these students. I wish we could talk about these things, among all others. Instead, I am offering the typed version of the conversations that never happened. Enjoy.

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Statement:

English in Japan is pretty useless. A lot of people, even young people, don’t speak English. Even if they can, they will be too shy to speak when the chance comes.

get along

Student —> Anna

Yes! Yes! Yes! Actually, Japanese study English since they are junior high school students, but many people can’t speak English. Even if we can, we tend to not speak. I think Japanese hate to make mistakes. So they are afraid of making mistakes. We should be confident. We should adapt to globalizing society.

Me: As hard as I might try in my class to help students feel more at ease about making mistakes, I know what you mean. There might be additional, contextually Japanese reasons intensifying the fear but maybe most learners are prone to that sort of reaction? Well, I myself certainly am. One of the many excuses reasons for my profound lack of Japanese speaking after a year living “immersed” in the environment is the fear of being misinterepreted, misunderstood, the fear of using a wrong phrase, sounding too casual, too incoherent. It’s little of a consolation, I know, but it is my way of offering empathy as a fellow language learner.

*****

I agree with this. Many people think so, including me. In my opinion, people think that Japanese English pronunciation is so bad to speak. English is still a “foreign” language for us, because we don’t use it much.

Me: This comment made me cringe on the inside, feeling so sad and yet grateful to this student for spelling it out. Who are those people thinking so, saying so, instilling such thoughts in learners? Is Russian English pronunciation any “better”? When I was in Thailand, I took pains to understand Thai English, but not because it’s “bad” – it is just so different. It offered variations of sounds that my ear was not accustomed to.

I wouldn’t want it for any of my students, Russian or Japanese, or wherever else I might go to teach, to feel ashamed of the way they speak English.

*****

I agree with these statements because I am shy to speak. Also, at first we learn English grammar. It causes us to feel “we have to speak English with correct grammar”. It also causes us to feel nervous and tense when speaking English.

Me: Again, I just want to reassure you that both nervousness and tension while speaking any foreign language is such a natural, human reaction… The way I see it. It is a teacher’s job, to a great part, to make that stressful experience less so. I’m truly sorry we don’t always manage, or explicitly show that we care to manage.

*****

I agree with this stereotype. Japanese people usually start studying English when they are 11 years old. That’s why Japanese people are not good at English and speaking.

Me: Russian people usually start studying English when they are 6-8 years old. Many of them still don’t find themselves to be good at speaking English when they grow up, even after 20 years of learning. I’m not sure what it proves.

*****

I don’t think that English in Japan is pretty useless because over 80% companies in Japan use English and in 2020 we’ll hold Olympics in Tokyo. At that time, many foreigners will come to Japan. So English will be considered to be an important skill. I do agree with the second sentence, because I do become shy when I speak English. In Japan people don’t use English in daily life so people tend not to speak English, even if they can.

Me: I am with you and thanks for pointing out that good reason to keep motivation up for learning to speak English. As for the last sentence, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that people in most countries around the world don’t use English in daily life! What I am saying is that we’re all in the same boat here, and it’s good, and there shouldn’t be pressure to necessarily speak the language!

*****

I agree with this comment. As I wrote, Japan is an isolated country so we don’t have an opportunity to speak another language, not just English. We will be too shy when we try to speak other language.

Me: It’s a most interesting idea for the background behind that stereotype. I wonder what sort of isolation you have in mind…

*****

I have to say yes to this stereotype. To be honest, Japanese way of teaching English is horrible. They are looking at English as a tool to get a good grade on exam but not as one language. I think this is a reason why Japanese can’t speak English very well. This is one of the reasons why I didn’t go to a normal Japanese school.

Me: Now this is analysing the “problem” on a whole new level! I am constantly left speechless at the amounts of testing that is happening throughout the term, as well as at the worksheets for English classes that I catch sight of in the staff room. All I can do is sigh, and yet you’re saying this is not a “normal” Japanese school..!

*****

I agree with this sentence. Japanese feel shy to speak English in front of other people because they have a little opportunity to talk with other people in English. Moreover, Japanese character is passive so they hesitate to express themselves.

Me: This comment struck a cord with me. Is that so true? Is there something I could do in my class, in those few hours a week we spend together, to unlock the expressive side of that character (that I am certain exists in every teenager at the very least!)..? Or is that being too bold?

*****

I think Japanese people have no interest in foreign countries and if Japanese people spend their life in Japan, they think “I can live if I use only Japanese.” That’s why they don’t try to speak English so much. Even if they can, they try to be same with other Japanese people. Maybe they pretend to be shy.

Me: In my first months here I used to feel the very same way, that Japanese don’t care about travelling abroad. That was an opinion I heard a lot in class, that was the attitude that used to bother me so much. Now that I’ve grown to be more accepting, I think I see more than when I was overly focused on these opinions. As an example, this weekend during a party/informal meeting for the parents in the school, I was approached by a couple of parents. Both Japanese, very polite, their kid not being in the International Course (which is where I primarily teach), they used all English they had at their disposal to ask me…. about tips for arranging a visit to Saint-Petersburg! It turned out they are planning a vacation there, and they would like to visit the Hermitage museum, go to a concert of classical music, enjoy the architecture of the city. Needless to say how happy I was to share my ideas and recommendations with them, as well as finish our conversation by thanking them for their interest in the culture of my country. …On second thought, I wonder how far English is going to get them in Russia (I honestly don’t know). I hope they join a tourist group ;)

*****

I agree with this sentence. First, in Japan people don’t have a lesson in which they can communicate in English. School teaches us how to write perfect grammar. So, a few people can speak English and during speaking are too shy.

Me: There’s nothing I could add here… wait, no, I have a question. Don’t Japanese junior high schools have ALTs? I don’t have experience working as one or working in a school with one, so obviously my knowledge is limited to the stories I’ve heard… but it was my understanding that they were there in school to ideally produce some sort of English-speaking environment, or an impression of such. Just as a sidenote: Russian schools don’t have an equivalent of that position.

*****

I think so, too. These days a lot of foreigners visit Japan, so there are many chances to talk in English, but the way of studying English in Japan really focuses on writing too much <…> Japanese are shy to talk with strangers in English. I think it comes from the historical reason. Once upon a time, Japanese people used to keep distance from foreigners. I think that reason made people these days think they can’t get along with foreigners.

Me: I’d argue that focus on writing is not the cause of trouble in itself. It is the kind of writing that matters. Regarding the final thought, it was thought-provoking to read… Can it be ingrained that deep in the culture to transfer from generation to generation through the subconscious of a whole nation?…

*****

Finally, a ray of light in the grimly painted picture of English language education for the shyest nation of all:

That’s not true. I speak English every day no matter where I am. I partially agree with the idea that Japanese are shy though. It really depends on each person’s personality. If you are good at English, you can go to a good university, so it’s not useless at all.

 

*****

All of these students have successfully passed the test. Moreover, they sort of nailed it, making me really happy with their language improvement and clever reflections, well-put in what they say is still a foreign language to them. Thank you for inspiring me to face the blank “draft” page on this blog, too (and for effortlessly filling half of this page with your own writing!)

 

Thank you, reader, for reading. Make what you will out of this post.

 

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… and they lived happily ever after.

*** Prologue ***

I had my doubts. Thirty-five teenagers in a mixed group of levels from low B1 to near-native language ability jam-packed in a stuffy room, listening to me reading a Russian folk tale about the frog which was, in fact, a princess – I just was not so sure. Many things could go wrong. The text is long, the room is small, the kids are probably expecting games as the tests are over and holidays are near. I don’t know how big the interest of teenagers for a tale about a frog could be (I mean, I might not be too excited about it myself if I were them…). The text, even after my amateur adaptation, still has words like “a spindle”. It’s after lunch. I’m not at all good at storytelling or even story-reading. I don’t believe my reading could engage 35 young active minds and make them follow a long story and keep quiet.

So, entering this class, as any other for that matter, I was filled with concerns and assumptions. Yet, I wanted badly to try have this class my way and see what happens.

*** Class ***

Here’s a dry step-by-step run-down of this 45-minute class proceedings:

1. Instructing the students to organize themselves into pairs of mixed levels (Level 5 and Level 4 students within our course system). This took about 10 minutes and did not result in exactly all pairs consisting of students of both levels. All of them sit facing the whiteboard (and me).

2. Distributing the text. Below you can see the PDF version, but note that the kids only had 5 pages out of ten. As it goes, the office printer had got out of order and I could not print out those extra illustrations to the story. Please also note that I had adapted the text from this webpage, keeping the images and adding a super simple half-picture half-text glossary for the weirdest sounding words in the tale. I’d also divided the text into 4 parts.

3. Explaining to the students what is going to happen. Only half of the group sitting in the classroom are familiar with the practice of reading in class in this way, with an ideal objective of enjoying the text (aka extensive reading class). So I explain and write on the board the following, aiming at bringing some clarity:
– Part 1. Anna reads –> students talk
– Part 2. Anna reads –> students talk
… repeat till the end of story.

I split the text into four more or less logical sections for the reason of giving students a break while processing the long narration, too long (I feared) for many to handle. So my plan was to read the part and then give students 3-5 minutes to discuss it in their groups, in Japanese. Clarifying meanings, discussing, rereading parts, etc. There is no real task as such for this time, it is more like space to take a breather and probably “connect” with the tale.

4. It took around 30 minutes to do as I’d planned, reading and providing the talking time. In that talking time I also gave some extra cultural notes (Ivan’s clothing-related; my random thought that Yelena the Fair in the image on the second page looks much like an image of a woman saint in the Orthodox icons; the explanation of the Little Hut in the Russian woods that always greets the main character with its back).

5. The students are given a piece of paper each to write their impressions of the tale.

*** Students’ impressions of the tale ***

“I want to read many tales like this!!”

“I know that it is just a story and it can’t be reasonable and realistic sometimes, but it feels funny that Yelena changed her mind so easily, though she was going to marry another, to go back home with Prince Ivan.”

“I was surprised with the end of the story. The frog is so amazing!”

“I thought Prince Ivan is so poor. However, it wasn’t like that. Finally, they obtained happiness. I like this story.”

“Prince Ivan looked for his wife but she almost married another. I think it is very bad.”

“The story told me not to lose chances to marry a girl.”

“I can’t imagine life with the princess frog… This horrible story gave me shivers. I know the princess frog is a perfect girl (?) because she can do needle work, dance and cook, but she is a frog!!! OMG!!!”

“There were many scenes that made me confused. Such as the part when the prince’s wife was decided with a bow…. I wonder why it took over one year for Prince Ivan to go look for his wife, because if I were him I would go straight away to find her.”

“I think they are emotional people and Prince Ivan often cried. That’s too much for me. He is a man, he shouldn’t cry too much.”

“I think Prince Ivan was impudent, because soon after going into the house, he asked them to serve him food and drink, put him to bed. I couldn’t empathize with him.”

“I think the story is very interesting. The people in the story and their acting is so unique, as in many tales. I’m glad the prince and the frog became happy finally.”

*** Teacher’s impressions ***

1) I realize I probably never thought that the frog is amazing. In fact, I might have not given the frog a single thought in 20 years.

2) There’s no point (or sense) in asking a group of 35 Japanese teenagers “What do you think is gonna happen next in this story?”

3) While making a choice to read this particular tale I did not consider the message, values and the moral of the story. In fact, I did not think of it at all, maybe because the story and its plot are already too deeply ingrained in my consciousness through my cultural background. And so I was taken aback (in the best of senses) by the students’ reactions, their raw emotions, true and unaffected by comprehension questions and vocabulary gap fills. A single read was enough to spur a wide range of feelings, wonders and judgements… Yes, very humanly so, judgements of the characters and their actions. I had to do exactly ZERO lead-ins and ask exactly ZERO questions to bring up the topics of moral values, quirks of behaviour, relationship struggles and challenges, life choices. Just one read of this tale, that to me to tell the truth is already rather “flat”, was deeply emotionally affective for them. Which coursebook text could provoke any more sincere reactions from students?? It is a rhetorical question.

4) Can we just imagine a school in which we teach by reading?… just for a brief illusory moment.

5) Teens believe in the permanence of love. Why did they expect Yelena to wait for Ivan? We don’t get to learn much about that other man, but if she chose (?) him, he might, for all we know, be a good fella)))

6) The frog tale to my surprise left no one untouched and unconcerned.

7) I did not ask if they liked the story.

8) A student did use the word empathize all on his own, with no prompts OR dictionaries involved.

9) Bookclub. After winter break I am organizing a bookclub in our school!

*** Epilogue ***

This class made me feel so passionate that I couldn’t help but sit down and blog for the first time in four months. The students’ sincerity and genuine emotions was a spark that inspired and energized me. They are fantastic. And I, well, I just love my job.

When we finished I asked them to read something during their winter break.
Read. Just read.

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Drafted to be written

***** Abrupt beginning *****

Time dragged on … And then I had an idea. If I ever come to actually realize one of my deeply held aspirations to become a contributor to a magazine or a columnist, I need to learn to write on demand. So here’s an unnecessary test, consciously self-inflicted pressure: below are the original, unedited titles of my 44 (!) drafts currently saved on this blog, with a few words of an explanation of what I initially had in mind for this or that idea. As it goes for drafts for me personally, they largely hang out in the “Drafts” section. To change that, I appeal to you to choose one blog post idea that you might be interested in reading about and leave it in a comment below. In my turn, I will do my best to write up those posts, which otherwise might just stay neglected, and thus lost forever.
Game on.

1. going, going, gone – reactions of others to my decision to go to Japan and my own emotional storms regarding the same thing

2. in japan, notes – more random culture observations (part I to be found here)

3. Look at my food – lesson plan on Instagram

4. about Peter – what I have to/ want to say about my boss (brave post))

5. answering Sandy’s questions – responding to the questions Sandy Millin left for me in her comment to one of my recent posts

6. read an essay, give it a thought – there’s a quote copied and pasted from somewhere, which obviously sparked an idea in my mind back then but was never followed up on

7. 4 months in Japan. Classroom challenges. – a post based on my presentation at EFL Teachers’ Journeys conference in June 2015

8. things I learnt from my students today – a focused day reflection, an idea which might have been inspired by one of Anne Hendler’s posts

9. Why and how English teachers Instagram – just letting the word out

10. A post-training listicle, or … things I thought about – notes I took during my training days at school

11. TTT (and not what you think) – on my first experience team teaching

12. classes gone wrong – really terrible classes that I whined about on Facebook in May, I guess

13. A paragraph letter to my older teacher self – an inverted response to a popular blog challenge

14. message to students – about how I don’t want to play games in class

15. things my colleagues taught me this week – results of a conscious, focused reflection

16. things my students taught me this week – read above

17. Fanselow training notes – first training in my current job and my thoughts on it

18. 9 towns of Russia – a video my students took for me to share with Japanese students (shame on me for not sharing it months ago!!..)

19. on losing it – on losing confidence and motivation for teaching (after my Asian trip of 2014)

20. Let’s forget it is a lesson. – trying to formulate my belief for this type of class when students study/ learn but don’t feel they are being taught

21. teach travel write about it – my desire to continue travelling, teaching online, visiting classrooms, writing about it

22. Ridiculous vocabulary for EFL learners – examples of such vocabulary items I encountered in textbooks and materials (are now still sparse, collection in progress)

23. something else – about teachers writing something other than ELT-related things

24. 2 countries, 8 classrooms, 8+ teaching ideas – pretty much covered in this post for iTDi, but there could be more to say

25. intro into any post – a template! But it might have already been partially used))

26. challenges ahead analysed when over – challenges I had outlined for myself before going to Asia in the fall of 2014, analysed upon return

27. how Skype classes fail – based on experiences from that same Asia trip

28. learning from spam – classes we could teach using junk mail as material

29. communicative aptitude and emphatic listening – contemplating on my personality flaws in those areas

30. random thought post-holland trip – culture and laguage related notes I took on a trip to the Netherlands in the summer of 2014

31. teacher face – on how I sometimes struggle to maintain a “serious” teacher face and behavior

32. Japanese 9 months – should be born and breathing now – much outdated idea, but there is still a post I could write on my studies and progress in Japanese, or rather a devastating lack of such

33. Focus – rambles on how I sometimes find it hard to keep the focus on, and what it leads to

34. Google doc for building up syllabus – this is one area that can’t already fit into one post since it’s become a prevalent part of my teaching … anyway, this blog post was promised to be written for a joint project with a wonderful lady you all know but the promise came at a wrong time (for me) and was, to my big regret and shame, never fulfilled… With conference presentations on this topic approaching, it just makes sense to finally do it.

35. Camp memoirs – notes I made during the three days I spent in the forest near Ryazan, doing workshops for kids in UP!Camp (June 2014)

36. creativity – paragraphs that did not go into this post for iTDi

37. As teachers, we need/ should/ must… – supposedly my thoughts on these, but the draft is merely a blank page..)

38. superficial elt – another blank draft page! But sounds so promising

39. blog about reflection (possibly doing challenge) – I was honestly determined to participate fully in the reflective practice blogging challenge.

40. withdrawing self – learning to be less of an “I!” kind of blogger and teacher.. failing miserably!

41. annoying words in elt – buzz words that at some point started to seem almost empty to me

42. good school stories – trying to remember bright moments from my two years of working in a school in Moscow (to balance out the blue feelings brought about by this post)

43. making excuses for my expertise – musings on the way I seem to make excuses for expressing personal opinion in my posts, provoked by a discussion of my most recent post with my boss

44. excerpts from tips on writing – processing and summing up the multiple tips and advice from writers

***** Abrupt ending *****

Thanks for reading (and participating, if you choose to). AND for believing I will have enough will power to pursue this! If …

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New is the old forgotten. The coursebook.

Back in the sweltering (even if somewhat less so) heat of Tokyo, there is an urge to publish something. Jet lag is still on with all its effects, paired with a cold, which naturaly prevents one from typing anything new from the drafts. I know there have been blog posts, discussions, comments on the topic of coursebooks recently, so I guess coursebook is the word.
That’s why I decided to share something on the topic that I wrote 18 months ago for the TeachingEnglish Blog (original here), unedited but with my sidenotes below. Revisiting it now, when my teaching situation has changed so dramatically, looks worth a post on a lazy summer day.

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Coursebook is a promise.

Many times I’ve heard teachers say “Look! These new coursebooks are so good. I don’t understand why our students are not thrilled to open them, marvel at colourful pictures on these glossy pages, soak up every task and exercise! I wish I were a student myself and had to study with this textbook on my desk.”

There’s something slightly unhealthy and even obsessive about the relationships of English language teachers and bookstores. I’ve been in this team buying up armfuls of hot-off-the-press books for classroom use myself for many years. Undoubtedly, a coursebook is more than its content, clear layout, friendly guidance, and those nice on the touch pages that teachers cannot resist. A coursebook is always a promise. Every NEW(!) version of a coursebook is always a promise of something better, of something more.

A NEW Coursebook has better CD recordings.
A NEW Coursebook has authentic dialogues in many more accents.
A NEW Coursebook has a NEW e-book.
A NEW Coursebook has a DVD with a set of videos selected for each topic, and maybe even extras.
A NEW Coursebook offers a broad-minded view on many issues.
A NEW Coursebook comes together with a helpful grammar guide.
A NEW Coursebook Teacher’s Guide supplies plentiful extra ideas and photocopiable worksheets.

An app to accompany the next NEW Coursebook would be great. And surely more, much more to come to fulfill the ongoing, reassuring promise of a coursebook.

Coursebook is change.

This story sends us back to my years of working in a small private school on the outskirts of Moscow. At that time around 50 pupils constituted the whole body of those who I and my colleague, my university groupmate at that time as well, got to teach. The story in a nutshell would be us setting a goal to change over for the “foreign” coursebooks for the children in that school. I’ve recently shared in my blog the full story of this brave endeavor we took on, so I’ll just say it was successful and change that happened was greeted with support from parents and lively enthusiasm from children. At that point we managed to break away from an outdated methodology, pervasive in the textbooks, omnipresent in the libraries.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but my guess is that the majority of Russian people who have ever learnt or taught English in the recent 50 years know a handful of English language coursebooks with mentions of “comrades” in the texts. These have gone through several editions in the years of the new history of our country, but even now, buying books from Russian publishing houses one can still feel a subtle scent of that unexciting for language teachers past. Books in a library in one renowned university look sad and still very much Soviet, even if they were published in the 90s or this past decade. To students, who learn English reading about the adventures of some professor Ivanov accompanied by grammar and vocabulary exercises that follow his gripping experiences, these books are no harm. Rather an explicable reason for snarky comments and general sneering. To some teachers, who have to use the afore-mentioned adventures to teach the changing and ever transforming language, these books may cause frustration. Indeed, flipping through the yellow faded pages one can see any coursebook of a modern format, design and style as a very welcome change.

No coursebook is liberation, choice and effort.

I don’t teach with a coursebook and I haven’t for quite a while. Luckily, I’m in no situation when I’m pressed to blindly follow a particular one. There’s some good sense present in the places where I teach, which I’m really thankful for. Interestingly, adult students that I get to teach exhibit a similar kind of common sense… and maybe even more than that. It won’t be an exaggeration from my part to say that not a single adult student I’ve had in my class in the recent 3 years wanted to have coursebook based classes. I don’t have to look more than 4 days back for another example of this attitude. The student I just started teaching last week in his expectations for the course ahead expressed and clearly argumented his position. He doesn’t see the use of a coursebook necessary, but at the same time he wants to be aware of the steps we’re going to take, be able to track his progress, and have a balanced language diet regarding topics and activity types. This attitude and precise understanding of goals resonate with my own view of teaching I’m most comfortable with. So, once our students are so aware of their needs, isn’t it time for teachers to be getting more flexible and let our teacher selves off the hook of that coursebook we have so comfortably got used to?

It’s quite true that I’ve developed a certain apprehension towards being imposed with a rigid system of any sort. For me coursebook-less teaching is a selfish conscious choice. It’s a challenge, it’s a continuing mental activity, it’s a practical reason to be observant, it’s an excuse to be always in search for learning opportunities. It is simply more attractive for my *active* mind. Coursebook-less teaching certainly adds hours of preparation, but in another, more enjoyable and creative way. It teaches me to react to the world around me. It forces me to be looking deeper into my students’ learning, analyze it and always be ready to adapt. Teaching from my students’ needs, negotiated, immediate and emergent, allows me to have the whole weight of responsibility for my class and share it with my students.

I don’t feel knowledgeable or in any way “expert” to give tips and advice on how, why and what you should be doing in your classroom with your students. As long as it’s clear in your own mind why you’re doing this or that, how materials you use impact learning and get reflection in the actual progress your students make, I strongly believe you know better.

*****

Obviously, context dictates its rules, which you abide by, find loopholes in, adjust, or disregard completely, vent and rebel against. With the transition I made (am making) came new reality of facing textbooks, not the first time but over again. One term of school year being over, I feel ready to share my thoughts and impressions about teaching students both with and without a prescribed coursebook.

1. Out of the eight types of classes I teach, three follow a given syllabus. The coursebooks (two levels of Go for it! and Engage) were absolutely new to me so at first I was excited to look at how they differ from the titles that are commonly used in Russia. I found them at times more ridiculous and cluttered than I’d known coursebooks to be, inconsistent, too. I can’t think of a reason why “salsa” should be given as a unit vocabulary item for music genres to modern Japanese teenagers, no offence to salsa lovers. Anyway, none of that came as a shocker. As I tried to find my way around those pages to make sure my students would learn the material in a natural and somewhat enjoyable way, I doubted my choices so many times. It suddenly got hard to link lessons and make it a flow, even though coursebooks are supposed to make it exactly easier, right? More importantly, I felt the weight of responsibility for the students to be learning (as opposed to covering) certain things within a certain number of classes, but that amount is just not enough. Some students cannot possibly cope. An unsurprising, chronic problem a teacher faces again and again. Bottomline: I was rarely sure last term my students went out of class with a solid piece of learning.

2. Out of the eight types of classes I teach, two are the courses I design myself – Culture course and Social Media course, with an emphasis on safety and privacy issues. I am lucky to be given absolute (within common sense) freedom as to which materials to use and how to structure the courses. No coursebooks are involved in those classes, and that is still both liberating AND demanding at the same time. The responsibility is there, and tripled by the fact that what students are exposed to in our very limited classtime ultimately comes down to what I, as a teacher, see right. We can approach the same material from different angles, do more in-depth work on improving our writing skills, devote time to error analysis and correction, notice weaknesses/ strengths/ points of interest and modify the rough syllabus I have prepared. All this time I should be careful we don’t overdo and overdrag it. This whole process of working together to help the course emerge is challenging but it brings so much colour to my routine. By writing lesson summaries in our Google Doc we keep track of lesson topic progression and development. I think students trust me to make the decisions that would ensure they are learning something new and relevant every class, that I will do my best to make our time meaningful. I hope.

When talking about the use or uselessness of coursebooks, I want to remember to put students themselves into the picture. That, in fact, should be true about anything we discuss that concerns teaching. I will put myself in this picture now, because I can. As a mostly unsuccessful student of Japanese, but one owning a couple of black-and-white coursebooks, I can admit that the realization that you have a book and structure *of whatever sense and quality* to guide you is reassuring. The initial interest and excitement, though, do not progress smoothly into actual learning time, for me personally. In other words, I like having a book, but learning with it is a chore I am trying to avoid.

By no means is mine an example to lean on to in making judgements and conclusions. This post is also going to lack a logical wrap-up. Thanks for reading.

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It will get better, it always does.

***** Part 1. Frustration. *****

  1. Write.

  2. Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.

  3. Finish what you’re writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.

 

This is the procedure I haven’t been through for quite some time, at least in a way I would find satisfying, for the writing I would consider coming from my heart. And I want to know why, because it is devastating to my soul and literally makes me feel sick. In these months, everytime I traced a thought worth being expanded in a post, I opened the blog and saved the notes, or more often the title, in a draft. I then stared at the blank screen of the new post, blankly. The right word would not be found. One word would not follow another. My mind would drift away, unwilling to witness the shrinking of self-esteem. For whatever excuses my mind would gratify me with, paragraphs would simply not form. This fact undoubtedly adds to my adjustment to living in Japan, and by “adds” I mean aggravates it. Writing in the staff room is not possible as I cannot hear my thoughts. Writing at home is not happening as I am exhausted of the heat and mental pressure of the day, so all I can force myself to do is mindless cooking, watching endless shows on ororo.tv, or colouring mandalas. Considering my *ridiculous* dream to one day wake up a regular contributor to a magazine, a columnist, and/ or eventually a writer, the situation I’ve landed in, well, in one word, sucks.

WRITE. The word keeps ringing in my head. It is unbearable as I know I will suffer through the process and with every minute I will spend racking my brains for words, I will hate myself more and more.

 

***** Part 2. Drowning. *****

The term is over, students are gone, school is empty, my day at work is anything I make of it. So I started reading, as I see it one of the major reasons why my wrtitng does not tick anymore. First, I got back to reading The Tale That Wags but I can only read at home in the comfort of my bed, which seems to be the most welcoming area in my apartment. At work I turned to reading the blog posts I missed, the iTDi Blog issues, and the brainpickings. A more thorough look through my Facebook feed led me to this page. Reading Malcolm Gladwell’s essays got me all warmed up inside once again, as I returned to imagining my own writing on the digital pages of The New Yorker some day. Laugh all you can and scoff at the daring, one can dream.

The most extraordinary, shocking thing happened- I realized my eyes slip line over line, not concentrating, drifting further and further away, hands clasping mobile phone suddenly and unnecessarily. What is happening??! Reading brings about just as much pain as writing. Trying to balance the unbalanced, reading to revive writing, I ended up drowning.

 

***** Part 3. Questionable wisdoms. *****

Desperate in my search for reasons I fall through with my attempts to write successfully in Japan, one click after another and I found myself on this page, where Stephen King details everything one needs to know to write successfully. So here’s what disturbed me:

 

4. Remove every extraneous word

You want to get up on a soapbox and preach? Fine. Get one and try your local park. You want to write for money? Get to the point. And if you remove all the excess garbage and discover you can’t find the point, tear up what you wrote and start all over again . . . or try something new.

5. Never look at a reference book while doing a first draft

You want to write a story? Fine. Put away your dictionary, your encyclopedias, your World Almanac, and your thesaurus. Better yet, throw your thesaurus into the wastebasket. The only things creepier than a thesaurus are those little paperbacks college students too lazy to read the assigned novels buy around exam time. Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule. You think you might have misspelled a word? O.K., so here is your choice: either look it up in the dictionary, thereby making sure you have it right – and breaking your train of thought and the writer’s trance in the bargain – or just spell it phonetically and correct it later. Why not? Did you think it was going to go somewhere? And if you need to know the largest city in Brazil and you find you don’t have it in your head, why not write in Miami, or Cleveland? You can check it … but later. When you sit down to write, write. Don’t do anything else except go to the bathroom, and only do that if it absolutely cannot be put off.

 

The questions I asked myself and found my answers unsettling:

Would my writing have a point after the excess garbage is removed?

Would I “impress” anyone (most importantly myself) should I choose to not look for better, more suitable words in thesaurus?

Will I ever be content with my vocabulary?

What’s my problem with sitting down to write and just writing?

Why is it that my brain hates me so these days?

 

***** Concluding complaints thoughts. *****

I feel hurt by my own self. Not same as guilty, but causing myself true pain – all because I can’t seem to do what my whole being craves. I struggle to transform my daily classroom and life experiences into letters and words on page.

I feel jealous of people blogging incessantly. I feel down I cannot find the right words.

I keep losing faith in myself.

I am not publishing this post to attract attention or fish for head-patting. I am not finding more excuses, rather spilling the heart and pain in it (which is real and tangible) on the page, in no hopes it cures or magically causes catharsis.

It is so different now, and while I’ve certainly settled down in my routine both at home and at work, this one aspect is my daily torture. I do not clear the bar I set myself.

 

Yeah, it will get better.

 

Thanks for reading.

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A day that felt different

What does it take to feel warm, welcome, belonging, excited about your job being a teacher in a high school? I am feeling just that right now and it’s a sudden overwhelming emotion that needs to be outpoured. Hence this impulsive paragraph blog post. So what did it take this time? Over a hundered teenagers gathered in a room; three university undergads (Japanese studying abroad) sharing their experiences, highlights, concerns and tips about studies overseas – from making this choice and preparing applications to managing your life all by yourself, enjoying college life and facing racism. I’m once again reminded that nothing leaves a more powerful impression than a personal story shared from your heart.

It takes leaving that obnoxious teacher’s platform and taking students’ side, that is, sitting on the floor next to them.

It takes talking to them naturally even knowing their English is low and they most likely struggle to understand what you’re saying. They do make it out, though, even if I can use that level prejudice as a barrier and thus limit my own communication with them.

It takes smiles which are more sincere than morning greeting requires.

It takes a hearty laugh about something together.

It takes months, too, but this moment and these bubbles inside feel special and precious.

 

Also, on a more material/ physical note, today I guess I got closer to the Japanese culture in that I “touched” students (well, rubbed a few shoulders wishing well and expressing appreciation) for the first time, and was “touched”, too. I shared (or created?) some personal moments with students, just by being myself, showing interest, asking simple questions and showing care – because I do care. Finally, today it felt natural to express it.

 

Thanks for reading. I am happy today, or right now, and I wish you the same. :)

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A bizarre case against nice colleagues

I was wandering around a park in Tokyo today and my mind was filled with … nothing. It was, in fact, not a bad feeling since I could enjoy the moment, uninterrupted. This is what I’ve been facing lately, still much to my regret and frustration – absolute lack of a connected stream of thoughts in my brain, a trace of something that could lead me to writing. I’ve written two blog posts since I got to Japan, which is more than 2 months already. As it goes, I’ve given myself excuses:

(1) This new life is exhausting to both my body and brain. I simply cannot muster up enough energy for writing, much as I want to.

(2) Speaking English all day long, as well as actually being social all day long, is way beyond my endurance. I want to seal my mouth (figuratively) as I step out of school.

(3) I’m getting less and less confident of my English speaking, let alone writing ability. I don’t read much, which also has a negative effect. I’ve often felt down for those reasons.

(4) With this new lifestyle I can’t afford nighttime writing anymore. Since that type of writing has been found most fruitful and fulfilling for me, the shift of regime for writing, a new habit has not yet developed (to be honest, I don’t even know where to start building it).

Today I’ve been hit by Excuse number 5. It can be an interesting and unusual answer to my pains and struggles, an unfair treatment, or  just a nonsensical supposition that tomorrow will look bizarre. In any case, I’m going to blame my colleagues.

Did you just sniff? Raise your eyebrows? Did you jump straight ahead into judging me? That’s understandable. Yet there is some truth to what I just typed.

 

As I’ve written before, I consider this new job to be the first real experience of working in a team, shoulder to shoulder with colleagues. I used to teach a class and commute to another one, replaying scenes from the lesson in my mind, typing out my thoughts on the phone, talking to and questioning myself. I had long stopped labelling myself as a “lonely teacher” since I have this astounding and precious online community on Facebook, Twitter and blogs. It’s more support and wisdom than any staff room could offer. Actually sometimes more than I can handle without being overwhelmed, but that’s the beauty of the online staff room – it hurts no one if you shut it down (since it is literally just the browser closed). Anyway, here, this blog used to be the place to talk teaching and life for me.

Now what? I teach a class, go down the stairs, flop into my chair and … talk about this class. Out loud, to my colleagues, who listen and empathize, nod and join me in breaking the lesson down to little pieces. I vent, speculate, describe, reflect, and think of alternatives for my next class. I share funny moments and uncomfortable moments. I think out loud and learn to listen. And in the evening, as I walk home, all that fills my mind is … nothing. All that is left on my blog is the titles of drafts, those clever paragraphs I could have written.

About classes which went wrong and made the teacher shrink inside.

A letter to this teacher’s older teacher self.

A message to students about the things the teacher will not promise to do.

About n things that the colleagues (who we are still blaming)) taught me this week.

About n things that the students taught me this week.

About a training day with John Fanselow.

About 9 towns of Russia.

About my decision to go to teach in Japan and people’s reactions to it.

 

 

 

Of course, I don’t seriously blame anyone. I do feel bitter about missing the mark.

If you can, give me 5 counter-excuses, powerful enough to send me to face the keyboard…

 

Thank you for reading.

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37 days of my new life

It’s a fact tried and true that time can fly past fast. You can only experience once the anxiety, frustration, liberation and thrill of moving into a different country to start a new life of your own from scratch. While I am contemplating whether I’m through with this period or not quite yet, here are the 37 notes I’ve made in these 37 days of my new life. In no particular order they cover my observations, musings, questions, experiences, assumptions and whatnots. Enjoy.

 

*****

1. I enjoy my walk to work and part of it is through a narrow street along the train tracks. The little street is all bars on top of karaoke places squeezed between restaurants offering Japanese, American, Indian, Turkish, Burmese and other types of food. On Monday it is easy to say where a bar is as there’s vomit next to an entrance on the road.

2. On with the theme of parties, I am amazed at how abruptly the Japanese stop to have fun, be loud, clink glasses and laugh when hanging out. When it happened at the official school welcoming party, I was taken aback – a round of clapping following the Japanese tradition, and we suddenly, very responsibly were done with the fun and gone. What takes Russians literally hours and drags them into the early hours no matter what day next day is, is efficiently a matter of 5 minutes here.

3 The Japanese people are organized and disciplined, there’s a minute-to-minute instruction and guidance for any type of action. Any event is scheduled to the minute.

4. Patterns of social interaction here are amazing to me, in how radically behaviour changes depending on the situation and people involved in it.

5. I love train tracks up there with the view of the roofs. The feeling of space and sky is more tangible in Seoul if I were to compare, but even in Tokyo it is still true and still breathtaking for me.

6. I can’t brush off the feeling that the Japanese are easily thrown off their emotional balance (or easier than me?..). Examples are due here, in later posts.

7. From what I’ve seen so far, these people seem to be great at managing people, with announcements, directions and instructions.

8. It’s been over a month since the school year started and we haven’t yet begun proper classes. It was new and somewhat baffling to me at first, but now I see the point of spending the first month in activities, home rooms, meetings, events, school trips and such. Getting students interact outside their natural little groups, in and between grades seems like a wise thing to do for these teenagers. And, to be honest, for freshly recruited teachers.

9. I still don’t know why on out-of-school-campus events students are not allowed to go to convenience stores or buy water from vending machines.

10. Kids wave to (or almost at) you saying hello and goodbye. That could very well be from the modest distance of 1 meter away from you. By “you” I might actually mean foreign teachers…

11. This must be a silly thing to be excited about and devote a whole point in my culture notes to, but the fact that change at supermarket registers comes out of the machine automatically after the cashier drops your money into a hole was pretty fascinating to me.

12. Thank you for waiting. Please wait for a while. So said the announcement on the train from the airoport to my station last Wednesday, the last evening of the Golden Week. An unexpected problem… Cause: passenger injury. I hadn’t experienced it on my way yet and I didn’t know then that “a while” would take two hours. To my amazement, there was absolutely no, positively zero sighing, swearing or grumbling from my fellow travellers.

13. I must confess there’s no great love for cooking in me, expect for cases when I want to try out an interesting (and simple!) dish or treat my family and friends. Other than that, I never thought of myself as of the cooking type. However, this past month I did manage to learn and enjoy cooking udon soup, yakiudon, chicken curry, fried squid, omuraisu, mentaiko spaghetti and some dish with tofu and Japanese spinach that I don’t know the name of. I’m getting a fresh perspective on my culinary abilities (and thanking friends, Google and absence of my mother in this apartment).=)

14. I have experienced the Silent Classroom.

15. With a few prominent exceptions, the voices of my students when in a class and speaking are so quiet that I find it hard to make out what they are saying even when I’m bending over them or kneeling beside. That adds to my general embarrassment and confusion when adjusting to the Japanese pronunciation of English sounds.

16. Linguistic landscapes being the recent buzz and my personal long-time interest, here are a few of the images I’ve taken around Tokyo.

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17. Whether you are at work or in a shop or hanging out, cuteness is never too far. Kawaii is the word that applies (or, more accurately, is applied) to nearly any imaginable thing, person or action. This part of the world is cute.

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18. I have long stopped paying special attention to people wearing masks, but I still have an urge to ask my students, when and if the rapport is good, why exactly they would wear them in a language class. I have heard a view that many teenagers stick to their masks as they are embarrassed about their faces.

19. It’s the first time in my whole 9 years in this profession that I actually spend 8 hours a day 5 days a week with colleagues. The learning for me exceeds the teaching so far.

20. At the end of April I had a unique opportunity that my job offers – a full day of training with John Fanselow. I have just finished my third online course with him through iTDi (speak of addiction..), and that face-to-face time was truly special. There’s still a blog post to be put together from the many pages of my hand-written notes… Some day then.

21. I’ll never regret getting emotional on a beach in South Korea on a nice October day in 2014, which led me to writing this post. The beaches in Osaka and Kobe took my breath away in an almost similar way. They reminded me of where my heart wants me to be.

22. The little time spent with friends in Kansai area took my breath away just as much and reminded me that I am not alone, even if I often feel like I am.

23. I whined in my previous post about the language frustrations that brought me down in the first week here in Tokyo. Truth be told, I’m still affected by that undoubtedly exaggerated shock I got in a bank, and it manifests itself in that I resort to the simplest words and phrases I already know again and again. My learning has been sparse and unworthy of mention. I find comfort in making excuses of the first month being the hard adjustment period. Sad as it is, there is truth to the fact that language and culture immersion do not equal language learning. But I already knew that)

24. In November of this year I’ll be presenting for the third time at JALT conference in Shizuoka! This is exciting because JALT is more than just a regular conference for me, it is anything but regular. It is one of the reasons why I am here where I am. 

25. Ueno Zoo is a wonderful zoo and I’ll be visiting it over and over.

26. One Saturday I went grocery shopping in my neighbourhood. As I was on my way home, loaded with 5 heavy bags and leek sticking out happily from one of them, a few elderly Japanese ladies came up to me and asked (in Japanese) what I assumed to be “Where’s the bus stop here?”. I smiled and shrugged my shoulders, they smiled,excused themselves and asked a Japanese lady standing at the traffic lights next to me. The moral of this story is that grocery shopping makes you look like a knowledgeable local, even if you’re so obviously a gaijin as I happen to be.

27. For the first time in my life I faced a classroom of 40 teenagers.

28. No public wifi is still depressing to me. A few times I’ve tried, in what I take to be a Russian way, to guess the password to a network at a place, but failed were my attempts.

29. I wish I could get myself a Snoopy credit card.

30. Working from 8.30 to 5 is, as I mentioned above, new and challenging. I know I can and will make it, as so many people around the world in this and other jobs do, but I admit it is hard.

31. One of the exciting things at work I’ve done so far is suggesting writing journals to some of the students. Three girls have already shown interest and handed in their *cute* notebooks with first letters to me! I’m going to spread this initiative around to other groups of students.

32. One of the two special courses that I’ll be teaching at my school is Culture Studies course. Originally designed to focus at the Russian and Japanese cultural phenomena, it now looks more appealing to me to open it up and include any cultures outside Japan. We’ll be looking for partners to do cultural exchange projects on the blog that is yet to be created, so if you teach teenagers and think this experience could be up your/ their alley – please let me know!

33. The other one is the Social Media course centered around privacy and safety issues, so critical in Japan. A short pre-course activity showed to me the startling truth that ALL students feel insecure in social networks (all being 99 out of 100), but all the same use them extensively. I only hope I’ll do a good job and by the end of the year the percentage will be different.

34. Messages that I regularly recieve from my family, friends and former students from back home are heart-warming. Thank you, it means a lot to me especially now.

35. Belorussian restaurant “Minsk” in Roppongi is run by lovely and friendly Belorussian ladies. I’m going to buy frozen (Belo)Russian food there (they promised pelmeni and cabbage rolls aka golubtsy soon!).

36. I like my new life and I’m working on adjusting to what’s new and unusual. I have found myself to be flexble enough.

37. I wish I had the energy back to write more often… It makes me happy to put my thought and heart in this post, finish it now and publish.

 

Thanks for reading.

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On the courage of losing sight of the shore (or lack of such)

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So I’ve moved to Japan, like I dreamed to, like I made it my Goal to, like I planned to. Yes dreams do come true once you stop thinking of them as of dreams. Now it’s time to find out how it feels to have made your dream come true, how to live that dream. That’s what they don’t prepare you for. How to remember why you aspired for this in the first place.

And if you can ever get close to regretting your choice of dream.

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Inspirational quotes tell us in powerful phrasing to be strong and aim high, yet they don’t mention how many tears there would be shed after you’ve made it. Because that’s where and when you’re most fragile. Having a goal you believe in and smashing everything on your way towards it (or taking each and every step with care and due precision) is like running your distance. As you cross that long-awaited finish line, you’re thrilled but out of breath and your heart aches. Well mine does.

It’s all good to have the courage to lose sight of the shore, yet in order to actually cross that ocean you need more than just that. You need all that courage to keep going all the way you have so bravely planned, plus a whole lot of other supplies.

 

*****

The following part of the post was typed at various times during my first days in Japan – in the street, on the metro, at my workplace (more about that in future posts).

 

***** First day things *****

As soon as I’m out in the street or even better on the subway, I start smiling involuntarily. That’s when I remember what I loved about this country in the first place and why I’ve come here at all.
Everything around me so far seems right and close to heart, like I got to know it and knew it to be. Streets, neat houses, pavements, cleanliness, small private businesses, trains with their warm seats that make you drowsy any time of day, people who I’m not afraid to address for help, shop windows, little details I pay attention to, like a bronze owl placed on top of a very ordinary tiled column at a metro station. The language that I want so much to learn as soon as possible so that I could belong to this place more. Because I want to.
It is now more home-like in my apartment thanks to the things I brought from home, but it’s cold and lonely.
***** First week frustrations *****
When the initial shock of being away and alone wore off a bit and with the day spent at school, for a couple of days life got down to almost normal. However, Friday brought me back to tears in a new way. Frustrations that came out were about me not being able to communicate in Japanese. For the first time out of all my time in Japan I felt an alien, clearly an outcast.
In a nutshell, I went to a bank to open an account but the lady refused to deal with me because I could not speak the language. She kept repeating the same thing over and over again and it just did not help – besides, I got stuck, paralyzed and couldn’t utter a word in Japanese, or English, or even Russian. My face must have looked dumb and eyes welled up with tears. When I was out in the fresh air and about 3 minutes passed, I knew it was all fair. I am a foreigner, they don’t have to speak English, I should have taken care of this communication issue myself as opening a bank account means you need to discuss important points and security. I felt low for the rest of the day and it even rubbed off on my English as I felt unconfident while talking with colleagues.
This unpleasant situation made me feel sorry for students who struggle understanding English in class if it’s the only language spoken by teacher. I’m sure I’ll have more to say about it in my future posts, as soon as I get into an actual classroom and lessons begin.
*****
I would like to thank all those people who have wished me luck, supported me and keep doing so with their good words in public comments or private messages. I appreciate it ever so much. I would like to give a mostly useless but 100% sincere digital hug to the people who tell me they know it must be a hard time. It is.
Bottomline: a week and many tears past, I don’t regret my choice of dream yet.
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Thanks for reading.
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Celebrate well-wishing

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with the leek

It’s easy to get self-critical in/ after an English class where you (teacher) are a non-native English speaker and they (students) are active and hungry for learning as many words as possible on any topic that randomly emerges during classtime. One of my classes is exactly this type and you never know which vocabulary you’ll end up doing, the fact which I, in fact, enjoy 93% of the time. It’s been mentioned before that this teacher suffers from occasional memory blackouts in class in all kinds of situations. On sunny carefree days I, generously to myself, let these moments pass by without significantly rubbing off against my sensitive teacher skin. On another type of days, bleak and gloomy, the fact of “losing it” may backfire, and students’ reaction to my passing forgetfulness can become crucial. Reactions that don’t necessarily help my self-esteem are these:

– “You don’t know this word?”

–  “Ok, it doesn’t matter.”

–  rushing into opening dictionary apps

– sizing me up and looking with what looks like contempt *for a while longer*

Well today there were cards to revise vocabulary that came up last class and this student wanted to say she loves all kinds of pies. She started enumerating actual fillings: salmon, cabbage, meat, cheese, fish, лук-порей… I am racking my brains, I know it’s there, it must be, it was…. The other student opens Google but it takes time. This pie-loving student opens Google Translate app but it won’t load. Mine loads faster though and there it is, of course, the leek. I can’t explain why but this leek failure really upsets me in those fleeting 90 seconds that we struggle with getting the word, and so I mention it in passing, more like a remark to myself. The picture in my mind is a pot of shabu-shabu that I ate not once in Asia, and enjoyed so much. With lots of leek.

She smiles such a warm caring smile and says with genuine well-wishing, “It’s not a necessary word, it’s fine, don’t worry”.

A moment in class out of a million similar moments in hundreds of similar classes, I know. And I wouldn’t have devoted a whole blog post to it had this memory of a warm considerate student’s line not stayed with me for a few hours after the lesson, made me smile and appreciate the good attitude. I might forget the leek again, as well as may other necessary and unnecessary words. I want to celebrate the students’ well-wishing when it’s here and touching my heart.

Thank you to all students who care to be kind.

 

Thank you for reading!

 

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