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Part XXXVIII Adventures in Teaching

December 13, 1999

In today's episode, we'll see a very different aspect of my job.  Usually, I teach using  activities lasting a single class period at one of my junior high schools, but occasionally I am able to escape the humdrum of everyday life and do something a little different.  So, today I'll talk about a different kind of JHS class, a visit to a local school for children with disabilities, and a three-day English camp with about 40 high school students.

About once every year or two, every teacher has to give a "demonstration lesson."  That is, they have to open up their classes to the other teachers in the school, the principal, the vice-principal, and even representatives of the board of education.  These demonstration lessons are very important in determining whether or not a teacher will be promoted, transferred, etc.  Not surprisingly, the teachers are pretty damn nervous when it is their turn.

One of the English teachers with whom I work had to give a demonstration lesson on November 8th.  She told me about it on September 20.  She was definitely planning ahead.  She wanted to do a Team-Teaching lesson because, first, there would be a little less pressure on her with two teachers, and second, it looks really good to be using the expensive ALT.  We are kind of like prized baubles to the BOE, and they like to see us shine.

It was the teacher's idea to have the students give presentations on that day, because then there is even less pressure on us.  The project we wanted to do was to have the students choose a famous person and give a 5-7 minute presentation, in English, about that person.  They could use videos, pictures, CDs, posters, props, anything to make it interesting.  These were first-year students who had been studying English for only six months, so we didn't know how well (or poorly) they would do.  We realized that the key to success was getting them interested in the project.

So, about a week before the class we gave our own demonstration to the students to show them what we wanted them to do.  The famous person we chose to give our presentation about was, surprise surprise, me.  They already knew a lot of stuff about me because I gave a self-introduction when they first arrived, so they could follow our presentation really easily.  I wrote a skit in which two people are talking about Rafi, and we slipped all of the necessary information into the skit.  To get their attention, however, I decided to pull an ace out of my sleeve -- I showed them part of the video from the sumo tournament I was in.  It worked like a charm.  Those kids were buzzin' with excitement, and they couldnít wait to get started on their own projects.

Over the next week the kids got their stuff all together, and when the day of the demonstration class came they were ready.  I think we were more nervous than they were.  The presentations went off almost with a hitch (except for the group that hadn't put their video in the right place and ended up showing us the wrong person).  The audience liked it, and everyone was happy.  I was even invited to the enkai (drinking party) given in honor of the teacher.  Two days before the party, someone finally realized that maybe I did some stuff, too.  It was fun, but I'm glad I wasn't the one being observed and rated.  The students are so unpredictable, we really had no idea how well it would turn out.

Next up is the special school visit.  Last spring, a group of ALTs went to a school for hearing impaired students in Maebashi (prefectural capital), and it was a lot of fun.  Those students rarely see foreigners, and they certainly don't see them at their schools.  So, this year we decided to try to schedule some more visits to schools for children with disabilities.  We got in touch with a school which is fairly close to my place that teaches mentally and physically handicapped students from elementary through high school.  We visited the school twice this past fall, and both visits were great.

We worked only with the elementary school students, about 30 of them.  Many of these students are orphans, for two reasons.  First, when parents have a disabled child they sometimes just put them in an orphanage and try again. I don't know whether this happens in the US or not (anyone out there know?), but when I heard about it happening here I was shocked.  Second, nobody ever adopts children in Japan, much less children with disabilities.  Blood is the most important connection, so for centuries it has been considered better to have children with a family member, or not to have children at all, than to adopt.

In any event, the kids were very sweet.  We didnít work with any of the more severe cases; the ones we worked with were only mildly mentally handicapped.   Some of them, especially the orphans, love to be hugged and held, so as soon as we walked into the room, about half of us found ourselves holding a small child.  One little boy was tired and decided to take a nap.  On me.  At first he just latched onto my waist, but he kept sliding to the floor as he nodded off, so I finally picked him up so he could sleep safely (one of the teachers soon took him to the nap room).

We didn't exactly teach English, but we did sing some children's songs (Old MacDonald, etc.), and we played some games involving animal names, etc.  The second time we went, one of my friends played his cello (which he used to do professionally).  I think the teachers appreciated the Bach more than the students did, but it was still very cool.   After the group activities, we split up and each ALT went to a different classroom for games with 3-4 students.  Some of the students were painfully shy, but all were very nice.  After we split up, one kid wouldnít talk to me, but he stood up and gave a very credible solo Taiko performance (traditional Japanese drums). We are definitely looking forward to going back.

It seems I'm fresh out of witty segues.  So, without further ado I'll go on to the next subject -- English Camp.

Every high school in Japan is unofficially "ranked" academically, and the high school you attend basically determines which college you can attend, which in turn determines what kind of job you can get, etc.  Kiryu Girls High School is in the second tier of this ìsystem,î meaning that it is still quite hard to get into (you have to apply and take tests to get into high school in Japan), but it is not  one of the top high schools in the prefecture.  Basically, instead of having regular, honors, and advanced classes at each high school, they separate high schools for students of different abilities.  This is an ìhonorsî high school.

Anyway, in Kiryu Girls High School, or Kirijo ("Kiryu Joshi Koko"), they have  a special English program that only the top 40 students at the school can get into.  One of the perks of this program, aside from more attention from the ALT, is a special three-day English Camp for the first-year students (this corresponds to sophomore year in a US high school).  This is basically an intense three days in which, ostensibly, only English is spoken.  Until this year the camp had been held at the high school (they have some places to sleep), but the environment was found to be too distracting.  This year, they decided to hold the camp in a secluded convention center.  It is in a very beautiful part of Kiryu, up in the mountains, and there were certainly no distractions -- even cellular phones, which many people have (even students), were out of range.

These were, without a doubt, the best students I have ever met.  I couldn't possibly say whether they were the _smartest_, of course, but they all had so much energy, and they all tried to speak English so hard, that the whole experience was a joy.  Several of our activities ran into meal times, shower times, etc., but none of the students wanted to stop.  It was amazing -- we had to make them stop working and go eat.

The activities were mostly bent towards making their own conversations, rather than following a model.  For example, in one activity I was a train station person, and the students had different problems written down, in Japanese, on cards.  One student had left her bag on the train, another couldn't find her husband, another saw a man steal another woman's purse, etc.  They had to read the Japanese and then explain their problem to me in English.   I, of course, acted dumb and asked a lot of follow-up questions.  The students, by the way, worked in pairs, so if one person went completely blank they weren't just left standing there in a panic.  Most of our activities were in pairs or groups, which worked great.

We also had a debate about which is better, cats or dogs.  The students were split into teams of 4, half arguing for dogs, half arguing for cats.   We gave them an hour to come up with arguments, and then we had two 15-20 minute debates (against different opponents), including rebuttal.  One of the rules was that you HAD to respond directly to something that the other group said, which is very difficult.  Again, the students were amazing.  I couldn't believe that some of these students (three, to be exact) had been my junior high students until last April.

Basically, this camp restored my faith in the Japanese education system.  I know that it doesn't work for a large number of students, but at least there are some students who can take advantage of the system and do good things.  Not only that, but these girls were so nice and sweet, they became like friends.  After the initial shock ("hey, that guy's hair is gold!  No, wait, orange! No, wait, what color IS that?"), they were very comfortable talking to us in English, and we did our best not to let Japanese slip into the conversation.  In fact, some of the students were so sad when it was over that they started crying.  We gave the students our addresses, and I have already received a letter from one of the students.

The best part of the whole camp, however, was the dance performance.  On the last night, each group of eight had to make some kind of presentation or performance using English.  My group decided to sing "Top of the World" by The Carpenters.  However, they were told that they couldn't just sing -- they had to do something else as well.  So, having learned on the first day that I practice Shorinji Kempo (that martial art that I do), they asked me to teach them some of it.  We then choreographed a very simple Shorinji/dance routine to do in conjunction with the singing.  At the end of the song, I came out from the back and did an "ukemi," which is literally a forward roll, and finished upright with my arms stretched out in traditional "that's all folks" pose.   The applause was thunderous.  (Well, OK, not quite, but it was about as close to thunderous as 40 people clapping can get.)

After we were finished, one of the other ALT's summed it up by saying, of the our performance, "That was maybe the strangest thing I have ever seen.  Good, though."