Dialogic journaling. Part 2, dialogue.

If you had a lot of time on your hands and read all 2500+ words of my previous blog post, you also read this line: “That’s what I asked Matt, my helpful journal companion. In my next post you can read quite a few of his questions based on the notes you’ve probably just read above.”

So, here goes… (note: maybe you want to read my previous blog post to know what we’re talking about here. But maybe you can very well do without it. Your choice.) Matt’s selected questions are presented here chronologically, so they refer to my class notes from October to December. I wonder if the connection to the actual lessons is traceable OR important at all, for you as a reader.

 

***** PART 2. Q&A. *****

You said that one of your goals was to nurture a sense of community, how do you think that setting class and task expectations could reflect this?

I’m not sure. It seems at the moment they don’t have a strong sense of community/group goals. Maybe I should try setting peer goals for tasks…? I’m scared to try certain things, as I’m afraid it will (a) take time, which is even more precious in this class than in others; (b) confuse students more.

 

What is your definition of connecting on a personal level? Is there a particular time and place for it in each lesson, or should there be a sense of connection in every instruction that you give?

Interesting question, and the very first one may actually be the crucial one for me in this particular case and many others! I need to give this more time to give a thoughtful answer. Thanks for asking.

I guess I want them at least to look at me without me asking them to do so. That would be a nice start. Some do. Lisa, for example, seems to hardly ever look anyone in the eye, though (just realized that!!). She has a somewhat bored look and always at materials or her lap or nails, something. Interesting observation which I’ll check tomorrow.

Maybe during the first few classes the group sort of shocked me so I did not talk to them on a more personal level either. Like I assumed they were not following me or not interested. I fear that.

 

To what extent do you feel that your learners are also looking to connect with you?

That is another excellent question! And why should they?) I feel that some of them are ready to listen to my “teacherly” explanations, to take in what I am there to sort of give. … I don’t know how to answer this question! I guess it is another one to mull over (which is good).

 

Where do you think the problems derive? Is it their lack of motivation, their level or English, or your delivery of instructions? How do other classes respond to your instructions?

Other classes face no problems with instructions, for the most part. When there’s confusion, either partners come to rescue, or I help the pairs who struggle. When you ask “Where do the problems derive?” I wonder which problems exactly you mean, because it looks like there are plenty.

I honestly don’t think their motivation is significantly lower than that of other classes. “Motivation” is a word too vague in any case, and for each student in that class especially  often a matter of many aspects coming (or not coming) together – being late, being sleepy, partner, topic, mood, etc. Their level of English in itself maybe is not a problem either BUT their confidence is another matter. What bothers me the most is maybe oftentimes the lack of response to me. <…> And I am more relaxed in other classes. Maybe part of the problem is my tension over what their weaknesses generally are.

 

Have you considered the concept of ‘Willingness to listen’? This is closely related to willingness to communicate. Perhaps one follows the other – if they are not willing to communicate, arguably they may not be willing to listen either.

I should research that, thank you!

 

Do you feel that your sense of relaxation lead to the students asking you for more help?

I think that’s a possibility. Maybe I didn’t appear so concerned or tense as in our previous classes. But that’s honestly just a speculation. <…> On a separate yet maybe somewhat related note, I wonder (not the first time in this journal?..) if my labeling them as not interested in each other affected their communication. I could be intentionally avoiding situations that I saw as “challenging” for them – and uncomfortable for myself.

 

You mentioned that you were more comfortable with silence, and more comfortable to wait. This was an interesting observation. What role do you think more waiting time on your part could have on future classes? How long are you prepared to wait without any intervention?

It was an interesting observation and realization for myself, too. I think there are types of waiting, and I need to try the useful types. For example, in the beginning of fluency they are silent because they are looking for the ideas in the text (my fluency questions refer them to the text), getting ready. They are not the type to easily jump into speaking. Then I could wait for them to understand/clarify with each other the structure of a task. But once I see they are stuck OR clearly wasting time, I would interrupt.

My feeling is (and has been proved by previous classes) that they realize what they are supposed to do through doing it, not from me telling them (modeling helps, but not always – sometimes some of them are not following).

 

Flow is an interesting idea too. Do you think that your flow as a teacher is sometimes at a faster or slower current than that of the learners? Or a different stream altogether?

Absolutely!! That is something else I would love to find some reading about. Maybe under a different term?… Though to me flow applies perfectly. I think a case of a mismatch is potentially detrimental – to rapport in the first place, and to the learning as a consequence. Also it would add to anxiety, both learners’ and teacher’s. I believe (now) it is a teacher’s job to adjust our flow to that of the learners’. Hopefully I have been trying to do that… Nice question!

 

You made me think about the role that timers play in discussions. Are you hoping to build in a separate planning stage so that they can organize stuff before you start the timer? How could the preparation activities be used more effectively so that they can just jump straight into the discussion when the timer starts?

It is an interesting thought to include a separate step before starting the timer. Last class I just asked once again if everything is clear, but I think I should come up with better ways ensuring they are all aware of the upcoming discussion flow. Especially relevant for the review class and discussion test!! If you have any ideas,I would love to talk about them…

As for the prep activities, their content should mirror CLEARLY the discussion questions, that is one of the points that causes confusion. I think transferring ideas from a more detailed prep to rather generally worded discussion questions is something that causes the trip-over. Helpful question, thank you! They could benefit from clear options in the questions, repeating the topics they just discussed in prep.

PLUS they need a reminder of what phrases to use to start. – on the board as a gap-fill?…

 

I’d like to know how the topic of the class fits with what you learnt from Sarah Mercer’s talk and your student profiles that you created. Will this have any bearing on how the content of the class or how you organize groups?

Well the topic did not really overlap with Sarah’s ideas. However, students were surprised to hear that Ken (and Lisa) consider themselves to be introverts. I was quite surprised myself.

As for the groupings, I think it is my intentional decision to have them always mix partners. At this point I can see they are all interacting well and reacting well to each other. This is very nice to see! I see now that there is no need really to guard them against each other under the subjective  impression that they don’t match or that they would feel uncomfortable. Even if it is so, through communicating, they improve it AND thus build rapport. It would certainly have been a mistake to split some students apart!…

 

I’d like to ask something more summative. There have been a number of micro-observations in this journal, but is/has a bigger picture emerged? Are there any definitive things that you could say you’ve learnt from this experience?

Certainly I will gather the bigger picture in a clearer way when I read through all of the entries again and make sense of them. I was too overwhelmed in the beginning of the course, and then many factors I think affected the picture. As in gradually some things became less of a problem, some things (=concerns I had) seem to be less of a problem than I originally imagined. I will try to make sense of what happened through blog posts on my blog and then my paper. Can I use some of your questions?))

What I learnt, I think, among other things:

  • A classroom is more complex than we imagine or are used to thinking (especially vivid when many issues surface);
  • Emotions play a big part;
  • Teacher is the one more responsible for establishing good rapport. Students, at least here in Japan, might be happy to follow the teacher’s lead but will likely not initiate it.

And other things I guess!!

 

I want to ask, do you think this form of reflection has been constructive for you? Has your insights helped to reveal where issues lie and how to respond the them?

Absolutely! And I believe questions added to the experience. Writing it down was beneficial by itself, of course, but an extra pair of eyes probably gave other directions to my thought. In the end, I have my tendencies to think of my classes. Even when I write reflections, I do it in my own way. But your questions added different perspectives and made me consider aspects I would not have considered otherwise.

 

*****

I thank Matt for going through this experience with me, being open and open-minded, patient and helpful. I can say without a doubt that this kind of dialogic journaling is a great format of engaging in reflective practice. Reflection certainly comes in many different ways (and my blogging has long been the way number 1 for me), but I recently feel like I want a partner for my reflection. A group. A community. And I am lucky I have one now 🙂

Yet no one will write my article for me.

 

Thank you for reading!

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Dialogic journaling. Part 1, notes.

I would write about why I am not blogging anymore and how guilty that makes me feel deep inside. I would write how every day I choose other, less painful and effort-demanding hobbies. I would write how I keep finding ways to escape doing writing of any sort. I would make a good case for support and understanding (“We’ve all been there, hitting that writer’s block”). I can easily picture myself writing that.

Instead, for what it’s worth, I will use this space to help me consolidate my ideas for another semester project paper. Purely practical reason, a writing I can’t delay any longer.

This past semester I had to identify “an issue” in one of my classes and keep a reflective journal registering my observations and/or any changes I brought about regarding it. I wanted to experiment with the format and try a dialogic journal. Every Friday after the lesson with the group in question I would write an entry in a Google doc. Then my colleague, co-creator of Reflective Practice Tokyo group and friend Matt Turner (known as a TEFLologist to some of you) would read my notes and leave his questions in relation to what I’d written before. Since for my article I need to make sense of the 20+ pages of that document, I will write two blog posts trying to sift through to the bottom. Mostly copy-paste from that Google doc, with a few comments from now in italics, here and there.

 

***** PART 1.  MY NOTES. *****

Some time in early October, the beginning of the term.

Goals for semester 2 project should be related to my teaching beliefs from the previous project (do I act on that? how?)

  • More reflective dialogue with students, among students
  • Micro-writing (for reflection and/or self/peer assessment)
  • Nurturing a community
  • Attention to individual students

Focus of my journaling will be ***** class. The class has multiple issues that make it challenging for me to feel comfortable teaching this group. Group dynamics, low level, low motivation, individual students’ problematic areas, lack of active response to teacher instructions and to teacher in general, etc. It seems like a perfect chance to apply the ideas from my teaching beliefs stated above. Nurturing a community seems a priority. A community that would ensure mutual support and understanding. A community responsive to each other and to the teacher. —> I need to think of ways to reach that level through (a) attention and help to individual students; (b) dialogue with students through micro-writing? (c) class reflections. My concerns: too many concerns in that class, too many issues that I want to “fix”.

 

General issues that seemed like “issues” and prompted the journaling in the first place:

  • Slow to understand instructions for activities; sometimes have to stop Presentation stage in the middle of their “discussion” time to explain the task again or model with a student;
  • The use of Japanese in the first 2 classes was overwhelming;
  • Uneven in terms of English level;
  • In group discussions – limited interactions (very few follow-up questions, weak communication skills in general);
  • Need constant clear reminders of the goals (to use the function language, for example);
  • Need more time for practice and prep activities;
  • Don’t greet each other as enter the room, nor chat;
  • Take time to figure out tasks and even interpret discussion questions – seem lost and don’t ask me for help;
  • Don’t look at me unless I ask them to, sometimes multiple times.

 

Measures I noted down as possibly helpful/necessary:

  • Help them in discussion time as needed;
  • Short fluency (2-1.5-1 instead of 3-2-1);
  • Set simple clear goals in the beginning of class, get back to them at the end;
  • Reduce instructional TTT to a minimum – have them DO more and help in the process;
  • Increase attention to individual students;
  • Provide clear structure;
  • Work on checking understanding (communication skill we practise as part of the course);
  • Focus of the day;
  • Be firm about Japanese use;
  • Find a wake-up activity for the beginning of class (always a slow torture!);
  • One step at a time, don’t overload;
  • Slower pace, change certain tasks from regular classes.

 

A selection of my own entries, written once a week on the day of the lesson. I can be diligent as needed.

*** Lesson 4 ***

Lesson goals on the board – speak 100% English and be interactive (drew a scheme of an interactive discussion, with a mess of arrows and questions). Got too wordy/passionate explaining that. Sometimes spoke when some students were not looking at me. Felt frustrated to have to call their names and ask them to look at me. Did that A LOT in the first half of class.

For the Deep End (presentation of target language) they did not start their discussion for a minute, looked at me and did not know what to do, so I had to stop and model the discussion with Sean. Then just explained the phrases.

There were 6 students present, so group discussions consisted of three people. By the end of class the students grew more responsive to me. At the end of the lesson asked them to write on sticky notes what was easy and difficult today in class.

Easy: only two people discussion; good reactions; speak in pairs; discussion with Brian, very interesting; talk about ways to learn English; talk with classmate, use communication skills. Difficult: giving different viewpoints; giving opinions; group discussion; ask questions; group discussion.

Important note to self: remember to always ask your students.

 

*** Lesson 5, Discussion Test, October (here I introduced a structure for the entries, that I followed till the end of the project) ***

What happened (my action, their action)

I didn’t make any changes to my original lesson plan and had students have a pair discussion (5 min) before a longer group discussion 1 with the same question. As I could hear, they were doing a fine job and discussed different viewpoints. Before discussion 1, I brought their attention to the fact that they each should ask at least 5 questions (and wrote them on the board). In group discussions, they almost never used reactions and didn’t ask many questions. We did a raise of hands on the questions asked. I opted out of doing a self-check so this was it for feedback.

Right before discussion 2 I asked everyone to stand up and sit down only after giving me 3 reactions they would use in the next discussion. In both the following discussion and especially in the test everyone did great with reactions, to the point of exaggerating and causing laughter. Most students did well on the questions in the test as well. When students were discussing in Japanese which questions to choose for the test, they seemed comfortable with each other (laughing). Nobody spoke Japanese during the test.

I try to remember to speak less and clearer. But after I explained to the second test group that they can take their time to choose good questions for the test, Lisa asked Tanya in Japanese what was it they were doing (I assume).

How we felt about it (my emotions, speculation about their emotional response)

I felt we’re warming up to each other (all). Especially so when we did reactions standing. They felt more relaxed. I’m never sure if Lisa understands what I’m saying and I don’t know how to check (when it’s not the task). I feel I should start speaking activities for them as soon as possible. Cut my talking and explanation time to an absolute minimum. But then how do I connect, get through to them in that case?…on a personal level. I mostly felt good in this class and about them, too. It took them longer to do things, but they were/seemed to be less confused than usual.

What does all that mean? (speculation about the causes)

It seems like recognizing by themselves what they are doing and not doing (through, say, counting) is helpful (when they see the evidence). Probably self-check sheets are not as helpful. A short, different kind of activity to lighten up the mood is helpful for the good class atmosphere, too (like with reactions). Their recent success with not speaking Japanese transferred into today’s class, so performance maybe was so good for that reason. That makes me think that they should have a feeling of SUCCESS. And 1-2 clearly and easily achievable goals for each class. But they are not the same for all of them, these goals, so setting the goals on the board for everyone maybe is not such a good idea…

What comes out of it? (ideas for future changes based on this class)

  1. 1 goal for all, 1 personal (give out sticky notes?)
  2. Short, different kind of activity in FB time to illustrate the point and practice straight away; no ticking the boxes in self-check sheets
  3. Stats – count something (that matters at this particular lesson).

 

*** Lesson 7, November ***

What happened (my action, their action)

In other classes I start the lesson by asking students if they checked any media in the morning and what they saw there and also share my own story. In this class I decided not to do this – on second thought, I should have done that. They could benefit from starting to talk from the very beginning of class. Other than that, I did not really change my lesson plan nor did they have any struggles! They were reasonably active and engaged in discussions, didn’t use Japanese! In fact, they performed really well and followed instructions straight away for almost every task. <…> At the end of class, I asked them to write easy and difficult points about the class again. One “bad point” Lisa’s discussion group mentioned in feedback was “slow discussion.” <…> I can notice that the dynamic of a group discussion, even if it is just 3 people, is significantly different from pair work. Slower and confused, indecisive as to who speaks and when.

How we felt about it (my emotions, speculation about their emotional response)

I never noticed or thought today that this class is “problematic.” When there was some confusion, I interfered and helped as possible. They figured out what to do quite quickly today and there was a nice feeling in the air, friendly and respectful.

What does all that mean? (speculation about the causes)

Some factors I’m thinking about:

  • Ken (the confused guy from last class) was absent;
  • I wasn’t scared of their failure (or rather did not expect it);
  • Function language was clearly presented on the board as a dialogue.

What comes out of it? (ideas for future changes based on this class)

  • Activate schemata for the lesson – by asking them questions or asking them to discuss some questions related to fluency and lesson topic.
  • Include group work for stages other than group discussion (for example, Practice).
  • Structure the discussion flow more clearly, especially the beginning.
  • Write their good language on the board!! They often referred to the board today, where the key language was written.
  • Think about the “slow discussion” – together??

 

*** Lesson 8, November ***

  • Before the bell I tried to talk to them (“How are you?” for the most part). Lisa said she was genki, and in general there was some positive energy. Even though it was as quiet as ever before the bell.
  • Next step was having them do the functions review. I said, “You can discuss and try to remember together” – nobody discussed, everyone worked individually.
  • One more interesting point about Lisa today: the student she’s most likely to talk  to in Japanese is Kim. Today in fluency she reminded him to speak English when he switched to Japanese. The same thing happened in discussion later.

How we felt about it (my emotions, speculation about their emotional response)

I felt relaxed in today’s class, for a change. There still was the same confusion as ever, but I didn’t react so negatively to it. It didn’t stress me out. There was some energy in this class, and even though discussions were slow, I talked to them about their strong points (many questions!!!) and weird points, HONESTLY, and we could laugh together.
What does all that mean? (speculation about the causes)

  • Coming to class ready for “something challenging or different” changes perspective.
  • I wonder if I was more scared of them than they were of speaking English.

 

*** Lesson 10, December ***

During fluency, the speakers were completely silent for a long time. Same was true for the Presentation (30 seconds in silence), so I came up to each group and asked “What’s your opinion about this topic?” <…> They started with “I don’t know” but then slowly got the energy and spoke about America and Sweden. <…> As the class progressed, they could start the activities quicker.

How we felt about it (my emotions, speculation about their emotional response)

I felt relaxed for the most part. When they were silent, I just waited and realized that I didn’t feel as frustrated as before. They need more time to start. <…> Students seemed more on board with the lesson flow, even if confused at times, mostly at the beginning of class and at the beginning of tasks.

What comes out of it? (ideas for future changes based on this class)

Starting the timer does not mean start of discussion in this group. They take it as a start to organize themselves. So maybe…(1) We should clarify together what we’re going to discuss now and how we go about it (prompt them to the first few questions in discussion flow); (2) Start the timer when they actually start their discussions.

 

*** Lesson 11, December ***

Target language presentation created a big confusion. One group for 1 minute looked at the handout and in Japanese said the names of the people in the picture there. I came up and drew their attention to the question to discuss and asked, “What’s your opinion, Haley?” – but nothing happened after that. Finally, Sean began talking. In the end, I didn’t use the timer in the presentation at all, but rather waited for them to get where I wanted them to get… For the practice stage, again I gave them more time than planned originally.  

How we felt about it (my emotions, speculation about their emotional response)

It was a very energetic class, we felt comfortable and laughed and understood each other (even if they didn’t always understand the task!…). They listened to me more, looked at me when I was talking, engaged with me, responded when I elicited ideas from them. At the same time they were still confused in the first part of class, often confirming with each other. My current thought – what is wrong with them confirming with each other?? They are obviously more comfortable with each other than before. Isn’t it what I wanted?

What does all that mean? (speculation about the causes)

I can’t wrap my head around the reasons for their repeated confusion over tasks in the presentation and practice stages (which, honestly, resemble one another from class to class)… Do you have any ideas?….

 

*****

That’s what I asked Matt, my helpful journal companion. In my next post you can read quite a few of his questions based on the notes you’ve probably just read above. What a long post!.. And no conclusions drawn… I hope you don’t feel like you’ve wasted your time reading it, and I will secretly hope that some day somebody can find this post useful, whichever way that may be. If you have any questions or comments, please do leave them below.

Bottom line: I don’t feel like I’ve wasted my time on the beach. On the contrary, I finally feel the burden slightly lifted. The tugboat is at work now, slowly picking up speed.

Thank you for reading – and always supporting me.

tugboat and barge

 

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#JALT2016. Notes on the highlights.

Sarah Mercer and Relational Pedagogy

  • Sarah Mercer feels passionate about the importance of the teacher. I feel passionate about it, too.  She also says our well-being comes first. I believe in this, too.
  • When we praise some students in front of the whole class, what are the implicit messages for all other students of that class?
  • Sarah shared the VIA classification of character strengths and I am most thankful to her for that. For one thing, I’m glad the classification, the list already exists. And then this:

Each one of us possess all 24 of the VIA character strengths in varying degrees making up our own unique profiles.

That means all of our students possess those strengths. That said, my most challenging class this semester, which also happens to be the main subject of my journaling, gets another angle to look at. What makes each of those 8 students special? How can I build up on their particular strengths? And then we could start feeling better about our time together in class, maybe.

  • Sarah shared some research which showed that teacher-student relationship is 11th out of 138 most influential factors for learning. Isn’t it quite important, then? Doesn’t it mean that we should invest in this relationship more – notice it, care about it, talk about it, work on it?…
  • Then there was this idea. Just as being around positive, happy people might make you feel happier and more positive, the opposite is also true. The vicious cycle of disengagement:

dsc_2565

And since WE are the adults in our relationships with students (well, when we are), it is up to US to take the effort to start the positive relationship. Ultimately, it is good for US as what we do, the way we do it, will travel that loop and come back amplified.

  • Offer choice no matter how limited.
  • What qualities are important for people in relationships? she asked us. The one that immediately came to my mind was reciprocity. Sarah’s list included that, and also appreciation, equality, empathy, mutual respect, trust, feeling comfortble together, and more… So logic suggests these same qualities should be nurtured between students and teachers, too, as ours is a social relationship just as important, as we’ve seen.

 

John Fanselow and iTDi

  • How many people you know and/or communicate with who are NOT teachers or former students? Talk to non-educators about what is important in their jobs and lives. Take in what they say and relate.
  • “I don’t consider what I do my work,” he said. I share the feeling.
  • Ask your students – What would be great to have in your class and in your classroom? What could make the class better? Quite possibly they have some ideas.
  • Ask them also  – What annoys you about this class? And makes it a pleasant experience?
  • Question everything – How is what you’re doing good? How is it not good? What are the alternative options? Along the same lines… I might think, “it’s a good idea!”… But what if it’s not?…
  • And finally, this: Textbooks leave out the one important skill, which is emotional development.

 

There was much more about JALT, and as usual the most important and memorable was about the people. About our emotional relationships. That’s what stays for me, conference after conference, and likely class after class for our learners, too.

 

Thinking of all the people this past weekend… we hugged, talked, laughed, took pictures, worked in pairs in workshops, shared meals and drinks, shared plans, presented together, tweeted together, learnt together, got tired, felt ignorant and/or knowledgeable together, played games like young learners do, helped each other out… Then we were sad to said goodbye. And now we’re here, at the end of this blogpost.

If you’ve never been to a conference, I hope you do go. I hope you’ll keep an open mind and welcome connections that will flow your way, and then I hope you’ll feel the way I do.

 

As ever, thank you for reading.

 

 

 

 

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The Chuck Effect

I was reading a collection of essays by John Steinbeck and one on literary criticism had this simple idea that hit home with me:

“Here’s a thing we are most likely to forget. A man’s writing is himself. A kind man writes kindly. A mean man writes meanly. A sick man writes sickly. And a wise man writes wisely.”

After I wondered for a minute about how I write, I thought of different ELT blogs I’m most familiar with and the people behind those blogs that I met. It just made perfect sense. Steinbeck’s was instantly the clearest, most logical explanation of why I feel drawn to some blogs while others leave me indifferent (or even repel me) and where this connection comes from when we meet for the first time offline. Their writing exposes their character, whether they intend it or not.

Today’s post is the effect of one man’s writing.

 

Chuck Sandy writes here about the importance need for listening to each other, and this couldn’t have come at a better time. I’m deeply bothered by the fact that students are not talking to me or interacting with me in a genuine, personal way, the way I know it, the way my job works for me.

I want to tell them about my day, about my life, about what makes me not just “sensei” (oftentimes nameless). It’s invariably painful when I’m addressed like that, even if I know it’s in the culture. I want to find words to reach out to them so that they know how that feels.

I want to tell them that I took an online sketching course and felt so excited to see I could have a little success, one at a time, and create something. I want to show them those photos of my sketches I shared on Instagram, because that’s something that gives me energy for teaching, it makes me myself now.

I want to tell them I started doing yoga and swimming regularly, and that I feel proud of myself for taking my own baby steps and carrying on with it for about a month.

I want to tell them about the book I’m reading and how interesting it is (or not).

I want to tell them about my dreams and hear theirs and talk about them together.

I want to tell them about my desire to travel all across Asia. I would tell them that I spend many of my evenings watching travel shows and taking mental notes of where I absolutely need to go in my lifetime.

I want to complain that it’s tough for me, too, to get up early 6 days a week, but that spending time in class together with them makes me feel better. That I relish their smiles (it is true).

I want to do this and yet I can’t, or I can but I don’t – because I’m shy, because I have a plan to follow and this would be wasting time. Because I heard student-talking time should be maximized. Because after the bell goes, they pack up their things and rarely say goodbye to me unless I say it first.

I want to tell them that I feel distraught and lost when sometimes they come 15 minutes before class starts and sit together in silence, not uttering a word to each other. At the same time I want to tell them I understand that this is just another class, and I understand they don’t have to actually like the people they share a class with.

I wish I could tell those things. I wish I felt comfortable telling those things, and it mattered that I shared them.

 

As I’m writing this, believe it or not, there’s a lump in the throat and tears welling up (which I stopped as proceeded typing feverishly).

I guess it’s true what Chuck wrote about becoming part of their lives. I want us to be part of each others’ lives, even if a little, even if for a short while, but genuinely so.

The teachers that I have warm memories about were the teachers who were empathetic, who said I was special, who genuinely praised me, who were real people above all. The teachers I didn’t want to upset by not coming to class or cheating on homework. The teachers in whose classes I felt comfortable sharing my views, even if contradictory to most others’, openly. I knew that they would accept and recognize me for me.

 

I started by the wise words from wise Steinbeck. As reading Chuck’s post drew me to the keyboard in a way I couldn’t resist or delay at midnight, I conclude and confirm for myself yet again that Steinbeck was right. A man’s writing is himself. So I call this post The Chuck Effect, because inspiring me to be pulling out the uncomfortable truths and writing from my heart is this man’s effect.

 

Thank you for reading.

 

 

 

In my high school…

I teach a discussion class. One of the most recent topics for discussion was comparing the English classes my students had in their many different (are they..?) high schools across the country and discussion classes at university, i.e. our classes. As the 13 groups of students I teach were having their discussions, I was making notes.

The aim of this post is to share students’ views that probably build some picture of what an English learning environment in many high schools around Japan is. If the words of 110 kids are anything to trust and go by. While one might not like the picture, it may or may not be representative of many, many classrooms in other countries. Or is it? Your comments are very welcome.

In my high school…

… I only hear the teacher talking.

… textbooks are too difficult.

… I didn’t have to think in class!

… no group work

… my teacher says, “Be quiet!”

… we sit all the time.

… purpose is grammar.

… students are quiet.

… silent class (teacher talks)

… “Repeat after me”

… we have paper test.

… we are only taught by teacher, passive.

… teacher is the main person.

… teacher teaches me one way, we can’t interact, no communication.

… teacher uses Japanese all the time.

… I speak only textbook! I don’t say my ideas.

… teacher says, “Don’t mistake grammar.”

… teacher always speaking, students always listening. This is not fun.

… I see target every day – memorize new words!

… teacher and students are far, students are not interested in teacher.

… we studied English.

… perfect English is important.

… we don’t have opportunity to listen to other people’s opinion.

… students face front.

… makes me sleepy.

… I only write English.

… teacher doesn’t talk to students, sometimes “Do you know…?”

*****

I wonder if what strikes me as powerful does the same for you. It’s obvious from these notes that the picture is far from happy. Yet… I don’t want to make this post a triumph show of a speaking class so I won’t be sharing my notes from the other side of their discussions talking about our class. In fact, it’s not even fair to be comparing classes that have dramatically different goals. What’s important, students seem well aware of these goals, so that is a good sign. I will, however, share the disadvantages of Discussion Class that I heard pronounced by the same students. And then I’ll leave you to decide if there’s something to it or not.

The disadvantages of Discussion Class…

I forget grammar and difficult words (I learnt many words in high school but couldn’t use them).

Morning is difficult to wake up, and think and speak English.

I can’t memorize new phrases.

When I make a mistake, nobody tells me.

We can communicate only by words, so grammar is broken.

We are all Japanese people, so we can’t hear native English, it is fast and difficult to understand.

I’m worried that I can’t speak to foreigners.

I can’t tell my opinion completely.

I don’t “study” English!

A little hard, after class I’m tired.

I am very tired because I talk more compared to daily life and other class.

I get very sad when I can’t convey my idea.

*****

Listening to students is always so much fun. I don’t share the opinion that we can’t learn from teenagers or kids who we teach because they don’t have anything to offer to us. I believe if you listen, you will hear.

Here are some random gems, fun or funny or smart or interesting, that I picked from those same discussions. Someting there made me smile and/or put it down to paper.

  1. I want to eat another country. 
  2. Foreigners are cool, tall, face is cool, blond hair, long nose.
  3. In the world, speaking skill is most important. Even if I forget grammar, I can still speak.
  4. Most of Japanese teachers think that grammar is most important, but when you speak it’s not. I can communicate without correct grammar. Important is our thinking, our ideas, our feelings.
  5. Is it good to speak only English in class?

 

Really, is it?…

Thank you for reading.

 

*****

And now, my turn. In my high school (Moscow, 2001-2003) my English classes were very boring. The teacher always sat down at her desk, called our names from the register, and then we checked our homework. We read and translated boring texts, we translated boring sentences from Russian into English, we probably did some grammar exercises but I can’t be sure. It’s all a blur. I barely learnt any English at school. And the teacher… well, she looked so bored and tired and miserable all the time. I feel sorry for her now, I don’t think she wanted to be there in the first place.

 

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Articulated beliefs

“Methods are of little interest” 

L.G. Kelly

I entered my current job with what could be called an average (for an English teacher in Russia) academic background – 5 years at an English Philology department of a pedagogical university – and approximately ten years of teaching experience. In those years, I taught in a variety of classrooms, from General English courses in a small private comprehensive school to an ESP course for Physics majors at a renowned Russian university. Yet, in that range of contexts, over the years, I did not deliberately consider the principles of Communicative Language Teaching when planning my classes. What I did in the classroom was not determined by any particular methodologies but rather by course goals, suggested materials (in the more rigidly structured workplaces that I had to work), and, more recently and importantly, by my students’ needs.

Were I to discuss the “best” ways to teach, I would state without hesitation that these ways, if they even exist, are not wisdoms encapsulated in methods. In fact, methods are nothing without contexts and the teachers and students that constitute these individual contexts. In this way, I am ready to confess that my teaching has been, knowingly or unknowingly, method-free. My teaching beliefs do not originate in methods but rather have developed from my own experience learning foreign languages, from my teaching experience, from professional discussions with colleagues teaching English in various contexts in different countries, and from attending and presenting at ELT conferences.

Below I would like to introduce and comment in a little more detail on the teaching beliefs about learning languages that I value the most, hold true, and attempt to apply, in this or that form, in my lessons. 

  • Language learning should be centered in human nature. Language learning, above all, is a social activity. The people in a classroom are the most significant elements to the learning and teaching that takes place and their interaction determines the quality of classroom experiences. The emotional “bridge” of a connection between students and a teacher, the rapport that is gradually and mutually established, both students’ and teacher’s motivation and involvement in learning process and class activities – these are top priorities and necessary conditions underlying successful learning environments.
  • A language classroom should have plenty of room for flexibility and spontaneity. I see language as more than an entity encompassing combinations of vocabulary chunks and grammar structures, but rather as our interaction with the world in real time. Dogme as sort of a teaching philosophy, in which the central idea is teaching from students’ emergent needs and limiting the reliance on ready-made materials, has been one of the most beneficial influences on my teaching style for the past four years in all of my classrooms.  
  • Writing is a necessary, even crucial skill in language learning. Writing helps and reinforces speaking as it provides sufficient time and focus for organizing thoughts, structuring language both in form and content. Overall, consistent and varied writing experience improves language learning in aspects other than writing itself.
  • Language learning should be a conscious, reflective process and it is a teacher’s job to equip learners with tools for reflection, such as portfolios, learning logs of different types, a chance to co-construct a syllabus, etc. Students need to be aware of what they are doing for their learning in and out of the classroom and why, as well as consider the ways to improve their learning experience and results. Reflection in a systematic way may ensure progress and consistently high levels of motivation.

It might be argued that a few of the aforementioned beliefs could lead to somewhat unstructured classes in which it would be an additional challenge for both a teacher and students to chart progress. While this has sometimes been the case, I have always managed to find balance, remain on track, or adjust initial study plans. I consider myself fortunate to have taught in working environments that allowed me, to a large extent, to practice what I preach and experiment with new ideas. Consequently, my view of language learning as a social, emotionally engaging process that benefits from being, in a sense, unsystematic was confirmed time and again through positive feedback from my students.

During the FEELTA-AsiaTEFL conference held in Vladivostok in July 2016, in his presentation “What drives your classroom teaching?” Dr. Philip Chappell suggested a framework for interrogating teaching beliefs for all practicing teachers. His studies have shown that what teachers believe to be true about language learning and teaching and what teachers really do in class can either converge or diverge. For me in my current position, the dramatic change that this new teaching context brought about for my behavior in class makes more transparent than ever the converging and especially diverging nature of my current teaching practices and my own beliefs. For the sake of clarity, I will classify the beliefs I’ll be talking about into the following three types:

  • converging beliefs – previously held principles that match with my current teaching practice;
  • diverging beliefs – previously held principles that clash with my current teaching practice;
  • emerging beliefs – principles that arose from my current teaching practice.

Converging Beliefs

Language learning should be a conscious, reflective process. From the first lesson in my new job, I could see the significance and potential of using suggested self-assessment lists. The idea of allocating time during class for students to make a reflective pause, analyze their performance, and set their personal goals for the next stage in class (or future lessons) accordingly appealed to me. For every lesson in the term I was using my own variation of a self-check list with every group of students, redesigning it as needed, and developing it to suit my students’ needs as I saw them. New versions of self-check lists incorporated more than the original ticking of the boxes for the used target language: the reflection included gap-fills to assess their own strengths and weaknesses, questions to ask and answer in pairs, and questions to reflect on group discussion performance.

Although the implementation of this way of self-assessment has proven to be quite effective with the majority of students, in the future I would like to bring this reflection to a new level by experimenting with a more extended reflective dialogue. It might include open-ended questions for student-student discussion and/or micro-writing reflective activities for a teacher-student dialogue.

Diverging Beliefs

Language learning should be centered in human nature. In his book “50 Ways to Be a Better Teacher: Professional Development Techniques” Chris Mares suggests that “…we should not only be sensitive to each student in their individuality and entirety, but we should also treat the class as a community that requires nurturing. In this way, the teacher is an integral part of a shared experience, rather than simply a director of activities… Last semester, for what could be the first time in my teaching career I felt very strongly like a director of activities. This “director” leads students through the stages of any given lesson towards expected results step by step, task by task, without an odd minute to pause, breathe, acknowledge the people in the classroom, their moods, needs, real-life problems, and their possible impact on the performance. By the middle of the term I realized that I had failed to establish the quality of rapport that would be satisfactory and in accordance with the expectations that I have of myself as a teacher. A relationship between a class and a teacher takes time to develop (especially so here in Japan, to my observations), but with the rigid plan to stick to at all costs, the very notion and necessity of building a relationship slipped from the area of my priorities, which had quite a negative emotional influence on me. In the first half of the semester there was a significant shift of focus for me, both intentionally and unconsciously, from the people in the classroom to the plan to follow to the letter, from the learning that was taking place to the plan I was/am to follow to the letter. In the next semester I plan to pay more deliberate attention to the process of building and nurturing a community with every group of students that I teach. I will try to remember to communicate more openly and willingly. I will try to remember to acknowledge my students as individuals to empathize and connect with, not merely as recipients of instruction, no matter how student-centered it is.    

Emerging Beliefs

Consistency breeds success. The idea that for most teachers must come as a self-evident matter of course was quite a powerful realization for me: language learners benefit greatly from learning with consistency, learning within a clear system. I have mentioned before that one of the ways my personal teaching beliefs affected my teaching practice in the past was a rather fluid, unstructured, emergent nature of the courses I taught. Last semester, teaching in the *very structured* way I had not taught before, I could observe a tangible, huge improvement most students made in meeting the course goals, and I was convinced.   

While I still hold on to my firm belief that methods are secondary in the success on the path of learning a foreign language, the past four months of teaching gave me an important opportunity to reconsider my beliefs by “doing it another way.” It has certainly been a most eye-opening experience to teach against and in spite of ingrained beliefs. Such an experience, as I have learnt, can be liberating given the right attitude and perspective. Beliefs are not or do not have to be postulates rigidly regulating our teaching behavior and choices for the whole length of our careers. In fact, a lot more can be learnt from the exact opposite context of what we are accustomed to than from persisting in teaching the same way for years on end.

*****

Thank you for making your way through this article to the end. What you’ve read is about 73% (also slightly edited) of my self-reflection “paper” that I was preparing myself for writing in the previous blog post. It was not easy to identify those beliefs but I can recommend anyone to sit down and do so.

And I am thinking now… it is true that we as teachers should be open to change and learning what we can from it. But we should also stay true to who we are, no matter what conditions we find ourselves working in.

Thank you for reading.

 

 

 

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Articulating beliefs

By 9 am next Monday, August 1st, I should turn in an article. In this article I should be examining how my teaching beliefs have (not) changed during the first term of working in my university. To set the scene and probably give more perspective into how one semester at a new workplace might very likely lead to some changes or clashes in one’s belief system, I should say that my new teaching context involves teaching within a unified curriculum. That is, teaching the same lesson 13 times a week to 13 groups of students in the way that is handed over to me (and 42 other instructors).  It is a course in English Discussion and I see it as a good course that does get the students speaking the way we expect them to speak.

Throughout the term I had numerous conversations with a few colleagues (hey, N., H., A. and others), basically discovering and “examining” my beliefs on a daily basis. I realized I had a few. I realized I could not articulate them well (I doubt I can now but that’s what this post is for, in part). I realized it’s a choice to feel frustrated or liberated and challenged by not being able to teach the way you’re accustomed to.

I still don’t know what the article will be about or what my beliefs are, and so this blog post is to help me see it. The notes below were typed at various points over the past 4 months with the aim to help me figure out what was happening and capture any changes. Some of those might not make much sense to you as I’m contemplating certain stages of my lessons, as stages are what I must have and follow in my plan. You might sense that I feel uncomfortable with this idea. Parts in red are what I see as important, for now or the future, for the article or my own thinking.

Please do ask me questions about things.

Also, enjoy.

*****

April 11th (Lesson 1)

First classes! Feel fussy asking students to change seats (I have no system or idea how to do that) and it’s not clear at all how to ensure rotation of partners for a 9-people class. Timing for practice discussions is random (note: discussions are supposed to be 10 and 16 minutes long). Hard to focus on feedback – what do I monitor for? How do I make it thorough and structured, especially for tracking progress for each individual student? Forgot to introduce “How do you say… in English?”

All in all, I’m quite satisfied. Concerned about lower level students – I should remember to give them time to prep/note down their ideas! (note: this didn’t happen)

April 12th

Significantly shyer, less talkative students. I forgot certain points that I aimed to mention and my monitoring and no grouping strategies are bothering me!

April 20th

  • Weird, not smooth, or no transitions between lesson stages at all
  • I need to find a way to talk less
  • Don’t elicit from some groups

April 21st

Left books open for the second, long discussion – for ideas and questions – I think it helped, especially lower level students! (note: it is amazing to me how in this context every little change in class seems to matter and make a difference… or maybe it’s like that in any context, but I never had a chance to see it because I rarely, if ever, taught the same thing again and in the same way – or paid attention enough!..)

April 27th

The idea of not having to correct or work on grammar or vocabulary is liberating!!!

May 5th

It’s interesting to see my opinions change.

These 2 days of Review Lesson I’m having problems with managing/fitting in Discussion 2 and subsequent feedback. I need to stop rambling at some stages of class! I should also be more ready to cut prep time (note: there are prep activities we do before each of the two discussions).

May 31st

INCIDENT.

I am really worried AND, again, I’m in a situation when I’m uncomfortable being too distant from students as per rules. Am I a teacher? What’s the definition of me as a ‘teacher’ in this course? How is ‘instructor’ different from ‘teacher’ and why does it have to be so different (or seem so for me)??

June 16th

I’m considering ideas for my reflective paper.

  • Students’ awareness of their own learning, why I feel it’s needed and is currently missing, how I could achieve that
  • Students and teacher in reflective dialogue

The first half of the term I was so focused on and anxious about my PLAN – teaching all I have to teach, correctly and well – that I forgot to connect to students. Make personal comments, greet the way I would and have small talk, engage in simple conversations unrelated to my ‘teacher talking script’, rehearsed and acted out time and again. I think now I am getting better.

I want to be involved.
Some time mid-July

Some of my unarticulated as yet ‘beliefs’:

    • L1 is OK
  • (1) Writing is necessary in language learning. Writing helps and reinforces speaking.
  • (2) There should be plenty of room for flexibility and spontaneity in *my* classes. 
  • (3) I need to feel at ease with time and syllabus to teach ‘unplugged’. Dogme, teaching from students’ emergent needs is beneficial for students (and comfortable for me).
    • Reading is just as important as writing, ideally they should come together, in a meaningful combination. 
    • Technology has been part of my teaching for about 5 years, every time assisting in various ways depending on the context. I don’t rely on it but I feel its benefits very strongly.
  • (4) Connecting emotionally (building rapport, being involved in class) is one of top priorities in my teaching. I can’t feel good or motivated to teach if the connection is not there.
  • I believe in co-creating the syllabus of a course together with students, which means different goals, different materials, different approach every time. 
  • Vocabulary is of crucial importance. 
  • Everything I’ve written above happens through communication in class. Does it make these classes CLT-type classes or the opposite of such? I don’t know, neither do I care much. Maybe I believe in non-labeling.   

 

Many of those beliefs might have led to (?) unstructured, for the most part, classes in which it was often hard for me and students to chart progress.  

Are my teaching beliefs influenced by my own language learning preferences?… I’m not sure. But I wonder what was it that formed those beliefs in me over time.

***** end of notes*****

 

 

I would appreciate any comments, thoughts, links, criticism, support, likes, or other. I wonder if any of you have experienced teaching in a similar context. I wonder if you have recently “examined” or stated your teaching beliefs and what happened. I wonder if you think it’s important to stick to your beliefs.

Thanks for reading.

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#RPTokyo, May 27th

One of the things I took for myself out of the Reflective Practice meeting (#RPTokyo being the unofficial hashtag used solely by me *so far*)  that we had today is that I can write every day. I’ll set the timer for 10 minutes and just write. Write those blog posts I want to write. Write NOW and not expect myself to have them clean and perfect and ready to publish.

So here I am, just back home from an RP meeting on a Friday night, dying (metaphorically) to put on the screen what this meeting was all about. Setting the timer for 10 mins and…

 

Below is my plan (annotated where necessary) for the second RP meeting that we held today. I post it as it is, copied and pasted straight away from a Google Doc I have created for that #RPTokyo purpose. Afterwards I will walk you through what actually happened and how.

*****

Second Meeting

May 27th, Friday

LISTEN (note for myself to remember to keep it a priority for us to listen to each other)

Plan

  • Quick intro (Who are you? Why are you here? What’s your experience with RP?)
  • “Fluency” warm-up. Talk to a partner for 3 minutes about the questions. The listener should ask questions.

Remember one or two challenging moments in class: What happened? How did it make you feel? How did you respond to it?

  • Whole group recap of the ways people respond to challenging, stressful situations.

(?elicit and write on board adjectives to describe emotions people felt?)

  • ELC as one of the tools to learn to reflect on our teaching in order to make changes.

(discuss the cycle in pairs?). Any comments? —> “experience” that we look at doesn’t have to be a negative experience. It can be any stage of class or a success. (my own note I wanted to remember to say)

  • Let’s explore the ELC together. In pairs, go through a moment you shared before (or a different moment?) with the help of the Cycle.
  • Wrap-up. Share what you’ve learnt today (if), any thoughts before leaving?

Give article to read just FYI. About RP groups in Korea.

Resources to share in the group:

Zhenya’s posts

https://wednesdayseminars.wordpress.com/2014/02/27/elc-or-the-art-of-experiential-learning/

https://wednesdayseminars.wordpress.com/2014/03/21/elc-questions-and-answers/

*****

Lessons learnt, Lesson one

Trust myself to plan and organize, trust the group to follow and adjust.

13315561_10209742786912620_8491406298836510561_n

You might notice in the rough plan I shared above the many question marks I used. Thinking of how to facilitate a meeting to the benefit of all proved not at all equal to planning a workshop, as the underlying thoughts I had were, “Does it help us feel a community? Can we open up? Will we listen to each other? Who has control?”

One of the main concerns I had in anticipation of the first meeting was that, as an organizer,  I’d risk coming across as knowledgeable. That my role of an organiser and facilitator would have me pushing people to do what I think RP meeting is about, what I saw it to be (in Daegu, Korea, in the autumn of 2014). I sweated  and panicked over this. Two meetings later, I realize that being a facilitator is a package deal – it goes with those concerns and responsibilities in hand. Fear of the unknown, anticipation of negative reactions, unclear set-up, unmet expectations – those were some factors that triggered a massive lack of confidence in me. And while to a certain extent they still do, now I know I’m not alone. In this second meeting, it did feel like we were a group. We were making choices together and it proved painless to trust each other and share the reins. It was painless, too, to get the reins back and ensure we’re on track.

 

Notes, thoughts, practicalities

There’s a mental trap it’s easy to fall into – to consciously or subconsciously expect to come out of an event/presentation/workshop/meeting with real take-aways. Well, when I’m present and listening, it’s easy to. Here are the notes I took which count as take-aways.

1. I did take notes of the emotions that were named during the 5-5-5 activity during our group recap of our stories. Challenging situations left the teachers feel frustrated, confused, overwhelmed, helpless, frozen, ignorant, grateful for students’ good communication skills, guilty, caring, angry… Feeling like they’re not doing enough. I’m glad we looked at the bright side, too.

2. Two out of six teachers present at the meeting were Japanese, and it was from them that I heard the following idea: Japanese teachers are culturally more inclined to be negative towards their teaching experiences. In the same way, Japanese students might not be used to praise.  But then, is it really so culturally exclusive? Aren’t we all too obsessed with dwelling on the negative sometimes?…We’re probably more likely to revisit in our minds a tiniest classroom failure than a little classroom success.

3. … And that was when it dawned on me that, in the short time in the very rigid structure of my class that I have for feedback and potentially connecting to the students, I should aim at making my class a more positive experience. Limit the points to improve, extend the praise. Today was the first day when I drew smiley faces in my students’ self-check sheets.

4. I will use a timer for my own writing! I have. We’re reaping the fruit.

IMG_1807

5. In connection with the same idea of obsessing over the negative, I remembered a plenary I attended three or four years ago at a conference in Turkey. The speaker asked us to write down the answer to the question – What am I good at as a teacher? – and tell about it to the partner. Is it an easy question to ask yourself? I struggled to do it back then, I’m not sure I’ll easily do it now. The plenary speaker was Chuck Sandy.

6. During our discussions at the meeting I formulated a couple more things that teaching at Clark taught me. (A) Have students busy with a task all the time; (B) Minimize teach-talk to students – what is an important message for me is likely a mere noise for them. (C) Do not fear to show strength and character, do not fear to not be soft and friendly. (D) I hadn’t realized before teaching in Japan just how much code-switching from Russian to English and back I was doing in my classes and how big the impact was. I never had to think about it!

 

Final thoughts

I have said it many times, to myself and others, that I’m good on my own. I have said it so many times that I believe it to be true. Indeed, imagining me spending a Saturday night alone sketching, colouring, reading, writing this, one might agree that there’s a lot of an introvert in me. Yet there’s no denying the fact that reflecting in a group for two hours gave me so much energy that I nearly finished this blog post in an hour’s time. After struggling for months to get my momentum back.

Maybe there’s something to it, even if it only were a once-in-a-month kind of effect.

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What Clark (school) taught me.

It’s time to stop whining about not having the time to write and just make this time. It’s time to stop worrying so much about not being in good shape (was I, ever?..) for a long, thoughtful and well thought through piece of writing. It’s a perfect night for nighttime paragraph blogging, and maybe I can be back in the saddle.

*****

It’ll be a month in a few days since I’ve been working in a university in Tokyo, which, when I come to think of it, is exactly the kind of job I aspired to do in Japan in the first place. Actually, this job so far looks even better than what I could expect, but that could be too soon to say, or an entirely different post anyway. This paragraph is about what a year in a Japanese high school taught me, and here goes:

  1. I shouldn’t expect myself to miraculously connect with the students in a different country/culture simply because I seem to do so quite easily back home. It took me around four months to establish and feel their trust. In those first months I was desperate, angry, frustrated, and scared. I couldn’t adjust my teaching style so easily, I had to let go of some of my beliefs, I had to open up myself and be sincere.
  2. I realized instructions matter. I think I no longer mumble and ramble over what’s got to be done, expecting students to “be smart and get it”.
  3. I realized students do not necessarily understand whatever it is I am saying. It can be unfair to assume they should easily all do so.
  4. Working true Japanese style, namely doing morning, evening, and 3-hour monthly meetings, requires stamina annd patience. I seem to have those. But then I don’t have the energy to read the blogs, or write myself. I feel drained.
  5. No matter how wildly you may believe that TOEIC and other exam scores focus is detrimental to learning, students will stay aimed at those. They will ask for practice and exercises and more worksheets, and it’s not their fault. That’s not even what they believe to be right, but rather the system they have to get through.
  6. Working with people requires soft skills that I found out I need to have developed. It’s not an easy ride even with the best of intentions.
  7.  I possess character traits that I am ot proud of. I can get too forceful with my opinions, too direct, snappy, or even careless with my remarks. While I’m trying to hold these off and watch my act, it’s both painful and good to recognize my flaws. I think with this increased awareness, I am getting better at communicating. It is a process though, and I’m sorry for the times I might’ve hurt people on the way.
  8. I remember a conversation I had with my friend Kevin Stein a while ago, before I moved to Japan. He’d been a high school teacher for some time and I’d been a university teacher for 5 years. We discussed how different these jobs are in terms of emotional connection to students they offer. My students only saw me maximum twice a week, and most often for one semester only. No matter how much we enjoyed our classes, it seems like we all knew I’m just another teacher, one out of dozens they get to meet through their years at the uni. It seemed to have struck Kevin that the bond between me and my students, due to the very nature of a university class, was  so weak. And I could not picture what kind of other bond he meant. Now I do. I cried when my high school kids went on stage to get their graduation diplomas. I cried and felt terrible to tell other students that I’d not be teaching them anymore. Being around these kids every single day just flipped the whole teaching experience for me, turning it into one of extreme emotional vulnerabilty as it approached the imminent logical ending.
  9. Cultural differences play such a big role in a classroom, and I have to get familiar with them as much as possible before I go and teach. An example off the top of my head is silence in response to my questions, or the challenge that spelling poses.

There certainly are more, many more things that Clark (school) taught me, but this blog post is already too long. Thanks for reading and I hope to give you a reason to return here soon.

I’d like to express my sincere gratitude to whatever is in charge of all the good luck I’ve had for giving me a most amazing boss in my school. Were it not for Peter, his constant assistance, understanding and great attitude, I might be less positive about all the things Clark (school) taught me. Thank you, Peter, you will never be forgotten. =)

 

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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.

 *****

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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