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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Importance of Being (Responsible)

Today is actually about yesterday.

     After having been so utterly frustrated with 5th period class on Monday I took to the internet and left a message as oft senseless and fleeting as those of a skywriter on blustery day. It was only two sentences and it went like this:

That was the worst lesson I've been a part of. 
I have never been so unequivocally disappointed with an entire class

 -Me, in a bad mood. Circa yesterday.

     Here's the story for those of you who want the scoop: My third years are going on a school trip to Kyoto and Nara. In fact, I think everyone's 3rd year students are going on a school around this time of the year, usually right after Golden Week as I hear. In any case, one of my JTEs asked of me a "worksheet" that would help prepare the students for talking with a foreigner. As a brief aside, I hate that word and the way it pops up in my daily life these days, but another post; another day. I set out to make a guideline of sorts that used a mock conversation (minus the English speaker's parts) in a flow that would allow them to politely greet a stranger, ask a few questions, then politely excuse themselves.
     I made a first draft of this that was quickly rejected, as it always is because I never receive explanations of what to do until I do it wrong first. Upon receiving some remarks as to what I should do, I fixed it and left it alone until the class came, about a week later. On the day of the lesson the JTE who requested it, asked to see the worksheet once again. She then showed it to another JTE (also a 3rd year teacher) who produced a worksheet that she had made. I didn't know at the time but this other JTE was coming to the lesson as well. Now it is fairly commonplace for me to be asked to make something, only to have it rejected, or worse, not used at all in the lesson because said JTE actually made a worksheet for herself as if she didn't believe I was going to do what she asked. I already felt like this was going to be one of those situations.
     The three of us move up to the 3rd floor and we start up. From the beginning my students seem completely unenthusiastic, knowing well in advance what I was there for. JTE1 tells me to explain what we were doing that day and I lead off with a speech about my first time in Japan. Let me retell it for you here:

When I first came to Japan in 2007, the first people I talked to were a group of elementary school kids. They were maybe 6 or 7. Maybe older. I can't remember anymore! Anyway, they came up to me and started speaking a bit of English. At the time I had only been studying Japanese for about a year or so, so I couldn't say very much. I introduced myself. I said, 'my name is Joshua' and stuff like that. One of them, a boy, told me that he liked soccer. I remember that part so well. I told him that I liked music. I was so thrilled. That's what made me excited to learn Japanese more. We had a small conversation. I spoke something that they understood, and I could understand them.

I pause.

Now you guys have been studying English a lot longer than I had been studying Japanese at the time. I really hope that you try speaking English if you can, even just a little bit, because it's going to feel amazing. You'll be so excited, and so proud of yourself. So, please, try to talk to someone!

I finish up and we move on.

     Now you might be thinking to yourself, Come on! You expected your students to understand all of that? Of course I did not. I have been reprimanded by JTE1 for speaking Japanese in the classroom - a topic incidentally that I could write a whole book on. I've stopped, because I have trusted JTE1 to translate what I say. It should please to you know that she translated approximately 0% of that entire speech. Her reaction was, "Yeaaah....". This is a supreme point of discontent. I don't mind the FCC blocking the waves so long as the kids are getting the information, but they're not. This happens time and time again, and I'm made to stand there like a jackass for spouting off English that I could translate (poorly no doubt) on my own if I were allowed. I apologize for breaking into tangents quite often, but quite often there are tangents to break into.
     Next, we played English Shiritori,* which they clearly demonstrated was unabashedly lame for kids of their age. Maybe my kids are just too cool for school, but I guess it simply doesn't jive with them anymore. After this, we started the conversation practice. I tried to start the conversation practice. None of the kids paid attention. They all talked over me. When I tried to help translate their practice sentences out loud (because FCC wasn't going to do it) one boy thought it wise to suggest 「トイレへ行きたい」 (I want to go to the bathroom) as the English for each of the sentences I was trying to help them understand. Most of the students were turned in their seats, talking with a neighbor during this futile attempt at what was quickly becoming a disaster. I got through all the practice sentences, just by bull-rushing through them. I didn't care that they weren't listening, or that the JTEs were saying nothing during all of this. They asked for my help and I was going to say my piece before backing down. After I explained the sentences we cut them loose(r?) to come up with some questions that they would ask on their trip. This is when I circled the room. Upon asking, nearly every student said not only were they not going to ask any questions, but that doing so would be 「めんどくさい」which is a Japanese word that means "bothersome" only it's a bit rude. I wanted them to ask me questions. I wanted to be the "foreigner" they encountered in Japan so we could test how much they would be able to talk with someone they met. I had hoped for them to practice their conversations amongst one another. I had hoped for a lot of things.
     This was when they interrupted what apparently was supposed to be a very short segment by me and handed out their worksheet, an activity to interview tourists they meet. I was thoroughly pissed off by this point and I wanted nothing to do with the rest of the day. I was on the tail end of a sore throat, with a pounding headache, and now the taste of a horrible class. They didn't care. 

And by they, I don't just mean the students.

     On all fronts that was pretty upsetting. That was an emotional upset though. I went into this program much like my peers with a smile on my face and hope in my heart. The rate at which the system grinds out the last ounce of moxie from any given ALT seems to run like clockwork. Now that the disillusionment has passed I could try to figure out what I really wanted to do, as well as reevaluate my purpose here. If anything I'm just trying to be a guy that the kids can talk to, and maybe be a person that sparks some curiosity for learning. As much as I hate to think about it in these terms, I might just be a person whose job it is to let them know that foreigners are not all scary. I thought I could do that by talking to them, but many of them rarely wish to converse with me. That might be a bigger issue altogether though.
     Conversation is something that's quite tricky. I can understand why one would want to hand-wave past it. By necessity it's a different breed of communication than the written form, or what one finds buried in their textbook after blowing dust off the cover and cracking it open as though it were a magical tomb of knowledge and early 80's George Lucas. More often than not I see stale conversation in these textbooks and stiff wording like first two sentences of the following:

Apparently he's got three reasons.

     An instance of stiff wording like this came up in one lesson I had a while back with a teacher who is not here anymore. We were getting the students to write a letter (something that should not be done in lieu of conversation practice) about their favorite time of year as well as a few reasons why. I was asked to make the structure exactly like the previous picture. Here's how it read:

"I like winter vacation better than summer vacation. I have three reasons."

     I told my JTE that it sounded a bit rough. I further explained that there was a simpler (and more pleasant) way of saying the same thing, which goes, "I like winter vacation better than summer vacation for three reasons." This was received with a warm reception but I was told that we should just leave it alone for the kids. I did so without paying it much mind, but what I now know to be true is that acts such as those are the seeds for what happened to me yesterday.
     Let's look at these next three pictures for a minute. Each one depicts conversation practice from the current textbook we're using at my school. What do you notice about these three?

There's a lot to be said about these.

Really inadequate direction instructions

A small french fries.

     Now what I noticed is that most of the conversations that occur over the course of these Sunshine textbooks immediately drop into a situation. The set up presumes that someone else has already asked them a question. It doesn't seem designed to give agency to the students for their own conversations. There's no introduction, meeting, or greeting. There's no ice breaker. I've seen many of the "Basic Dialog" sections (which are seriously anything but) include polite phrases such as "Could you" and "Shall we" but never have those popped up as actual grammar points to study. I imagine the writers predicted that the students would absorb this information if it were just dropped into a conversation they were asked to repeat with no knowledge of what it means or how it's used like some form of really cool linguistic osmosis. 

The bold words 
are the current "grammar" point for these particular chapters. I've looked and not once are useful things like "Could you" or "Shall we" covered in any kind of detail.

     The larger point I'm trying to make here is that they don't teach anything that would be useful for starting up a conversation, or at least ways to fill in the holes of a conversation that text printed on paper is not able to cover. And to circle back to my original point, maybe the kids feel like they just don't know where to start in a conversation. I put myself in other people's shoes constantly - I've got average sized feet so I can get a good spread - and I thought about what it must be like for my kids with only these textbooks and the instruction they get from school. When I talk to someone in Japanese, there's a bit of a dance you do to bring up a topic. I'd never just turn around and ask someone if they wanted to join me on a fishing trip. But think about it, is that any different from English? I don't think so. We have dances as well, and someone's dropped the ball on the moves here.
     As you might I imagine I talk about this a lot with friends and family. That being said, I tend to keep most of these ramblings in my brain because I like having friends. One of the things I'm very keen on doing however is making sure I present whatever I have to say within the proper framing. When I'm complaining for example I make sure to not generalize all of Japan or worse, let them leave the conversation thinking such things. I can easily be upset about a lot of stuff here but I have enough sense to know that what I experience is just that, my experience. It's a challenge when we all complain about similar things but us ALTs are in an extremely dangerous position when it comes to cultural representation, which is a two-way street by the way. How we inform other people about Japan is just as important as how Japan receives information about where we're from. As hard as it is, I always try to be responsible with the portrait I'm painting of Japan.

Yesterday made it really fucking hard though.


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