Monday, August 22, 2016

Where is Big Booger now?

So previously I had been working for a private company in Fukushima.  I loved the job, the benefits were great (free apartment, free car, free internet, utilities paid, and a nice salary.  I was able to bank a lot of cash each and every month mainly because I lived so far away from anything to be able to do things that cost money.

The downside was exposure to radiation.  Daily Cesium and other elements were being measured with numbers like 0.289, 0.558, 1.309, etc... with normal exposures in non-radiated areas being like 0.0005 or less.... It was clear I had to leave the area as my wife was feeling uncomfortable.  The government claimed that it was safe but who knows.

So I left Fukushima and moved to Osaka.  I taught for the Board of Education there for about 2 years.  Not wanting to deal with the bureaucratic nonsense of 3-year contract limits and having to reapply to the same job every three years I decided to go back to private teaching at a private company where I could be a homeroom teacher again.

And so there is where my story is now.  I am teaching 4 year old classes in English using a proprietary curriculum that in my opinion is seeing results.  Students are being exposed to a lot of repeated vocabulary, expressions, sentences and dialogue through stories, poems, songs, and daily classroom English.  It is a challenge being a homeroom teacher with 30 students teaching an English course 40 minutes a day five days a week with all kinds of other activities and responsibilities going on.  However I have to say, it is loads of fun and I feel  my job is rewarding now more than ever.

Monday, September 08, 2014

School Tests: Privacy, Scores and Competition

In Japan, tests typically come 3 times a semester, with 3 semesters.  Typically kids will have a test at the beginning, middle and end of a semester.  Testing takes on something of a militaristic drill here.  The first sign of testing comes out one week prior to the test coming down.  There will be a notice posted on the teacher's room with a NO ENTRANCE for students the week before and after a test.  Tests have something of a religious overtone and are treated as if the will of the spaghetti monster has tossed down a testing meatball with is holy noodly appendage into each and every classroom.

The tests have to be made by each and every teacher.  Tests have a test booklet and answer sheet that must accompany it.  The test booklet and answer sheet are all prepared by the teacher and kept locked up tightly like a bank vault.  Teachers in fact are banned from taking USB media to school and all computers used at the school belong to the school and are locked down tight with both a username/password and physically with a wire lock that latches it to the desk.

The USB rule stems from careless teachers who in the past had all their students' data on the USB that was subsequently lost.  Losing students' data is akin to killing the Pope in Japanese schools.  Teachers can be fired, re-assigned or reprimanded for losing data of students as this is a potential breach of privacy.  Privacy, especially students' privacy, is the sacred cow of Japan and must not be violated under any circumstance.  So any potential to do so like a lost USB, lost computer, etc... are nipped in the bud by the board of education and administration.

Scores are also closely guarded with as much vigor as students' data.  Scores are not posted in classrooms, read aloud or anything like that.  In fact many teachers when passing back tests dog-ear the tests with the score hidden underneath the dog-ear.  Scores are taken with the utmost seriousness quite unlike my own experience in the states.  I can remember rushing to my teacher's door to see scores posted and my own rank.  It gave me a lot of motivation to top my classmates and do better.  In Japan this is forbidden and in fifteen years I have never seen a single score posted in public. 

In a way I can understand why scores are not broadcasted like they are in the states.  Competition can leave the lower tier students feeling even worse, especially when posted publicly.  However, at least in my own experience, it motivated me to try harder, always do better and was sometimes the source of great consternation for me.  However, I consider that a good thing.  If I hadn't had my classmate's scores to use a baseline I would never know how well or how badly I was doing at least in terms of the class average.  I know these days competition in schools is a big stinker but for me I feel it is the essence of life.  Sure cooperation, helping and supporting are all great aspects but competition above all motivates many to do better. 

Monday, September 01, 2014

Summer Wrap Up: English Day

Over the summer as I have said I didn't have much to do. In the first of August we had a workshop, seminar and some preparation events for working on an all-day event for elementary children. We put together a plan for an English Day event for kids ages ten to twelve and theme was based on countries. So the group I work with represent over 10 countries and is roughly around 120 teachers.
 We worked for three days non-stop putting together bits and pieces for English Day. We were given materials, support and supplies to make and create anything we desired for the special event day. Groups were chosen based on our nationalities though some volunteered to work with groups that had few members.

I wound up working with the Scottish group and we put together a miniature Highland Games themed activity complete with caber tossing, sack dragging, sheaf toss etc. It took the better part of the three days to make the materials, come up with the ideas and get it all organized. We worked rather diligently and were given leeway to do whatever we desired. By the end of the summer, we had sorted all our ideas, gotten everything ready and were set to put on the English Day event in the middle of September.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Manual Labor In Lieu of English Teaching in Japan

This summer I don't have a heap of things to do at school.  Most of my lessons are planned for, most things are printed out and ready to go, I have already decorated the English room and gotten my newsletter written for the remainder of the school year.  I'm not saying I don't have anything to do but lets just say in an 8-hour time span boredom can set in quickly like concrete shoes the mob use to sink someone to the bottom of a river, ocean or quarry.

So last year I was asked to help paint the 2nd and 3rd stories of my school.  Japanese schools typically have 1 or maybe 2 custodians who take care of the grounds and structure, whereas kids and teachers help keep the schools kind of, sort of, well, barely clean.  So any kind of big project like painting an entire floor of a school takes a lot of labor.  So the school that I work at has a volunteer program for anyone who wants to come and help to make the school look nice. 
So I volunteered last year and enjoyed myself a great deal.  I wound up ruining my pants, shirt and shoes last year from the painting experience. ( I didn't know we'd be painting so I wore work clothes which turned out to be a disaster and wound up destroying a brand new shirt and slacks.)   Learning from that epic failure I was again asked to paint but this time I came strapped with working clothes and again I had a great time.  We painted about a 400 feet of corridor from one end of the building to the other.  We started with the top section, using brushes and rollers and painted the top portion a chalky white. 

The next day we removed the masking tape that created a border with the bottom section, and masked again the top line.  Then we continued with the painting of the bottom portion of the wall in a cream colored paint.  By we, I mean the two custodians, 3 junior high kids and myself.  We worked for two days and really got the majority of the hallway finished so when the third grade junior high kids return from summer holidays it will look like a new school.

It was a lot of hard work but it was fun.  I enjoy painting though it takes a toll on the lower back and hamstrings.  I can say without a doubt that I prefer doing that as to sitting at my desk twiddling my thumbs with not much to do.  And now every time I walk down that corridor I know that I helped contribute to making it look better. 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Cicadas: The Bane of Summer

When summer comes to Japan there are three things that suck.  The heat, the humidity and the cicadas.  It gets quite hot in Japan sometimes, albeit rarely, hitting 40C (104F), but generally snuggling between 30-40C.  The humidity gets up to 95% and you just start to feel like a pulpy mess of human flesh drenched in liquid stink, grease and sweat.  The humidity makes it difficult to breathe and leaves you feeling lethargic and just out of it.  And then there is the triple whammy of the cicadas.  These overgrown horseflies swarm any trees in the general vicinity and screech and whelp all day long.  They generally start up when the sun comes up and get their loudest in mid-day.  

Now to say it's loud is an understatement.  Recently a friend used his decibel meter to measure it and it was hitting 90 decibels.  90 decibels is like hearing a train whistle at 500 feet away.  It's quite loud and it's constant.  If there is a tree near your place you are going to be inundated by cicadas.  Now you might think Japanese people hate them, but actually I've heard from lots of people here that they sound pleasant and remind them of summer.  They even have onomatopoeia for the different types that debut throughout summer.  

Personally I hate them.  I think they are noisy and I am driven mad by their deafening sounds.  In fact I have gotten so irritated that at one point I took a 4 meter laundry pole and started banging it against all the trees in my area to get the cicadas to leave.  And they did leave for about 30-minutes after which they returned and started again with their annoying sound.  Until you experience cicadas in a Japanese summer you just don't know how close to the edge of madness these pests can drive you.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Extensive Reading

This summer I plan to roll out a new idea for my school.  Many of the junior high kids I work with asked me how to pass tests for their English ability. I told them of course to study for those tests and train using the materials available as well as getting used to the format of the tests they want to take will all help them to improve their scores.  And I have been preparing a lot of things that are useful to achieve these goals.  But one area where I feel they could really benefit is reading.

Japanese kids hate reading English, they absolutely loathe it.  Out of the 20 or so kids in my club all of them said they hated reading English when I asked them.  That surprised me because many Japanese kids love reading Japanese books.  You can see kids at lunch time breaking out books, comics and the like and jumping head first into a story.  So what was it about English that they hated?
Well it boiled down to why they were reading in the first place.  So I asked them, "When do you read English material?"  They replied, "In class of course."  So I asked, "Do you like the material you study in class?"  And they all said, "Nope."  So I said why do you all play video games.  They answered that they liked them.  I said why do you read comics, and they answered because they liked them.  So I said why don't you read English?  One kid says, because it's too difficult.   It was the "aha" moment.  I told them the difference between intensive and extensive reading.  We talked about the 95/5 principle, and about the 80 words per minute rule. 
Basically intensive reading is reading for studying or assignments to cover grammar or vocabulary.  And extensive reading is reading for pleasure or fun.  I asked the kids which was important.  They said intensive reading.  And I shook my head.  Then they said extensive reading and I shook my head again.  They finally got that both are quite important.  I said without learning grammar, vocabulary and sentence patterns they can't grow their English ability.  And only doing that makes it dull and uninteresting.   We went on for some time about reading techniques and so on.

And then I gave each of my members a CD with some penguin readers on it with different topics and different levels.  I told them to take the techniques I taught them and select a book that interests them and then read it.   I also gave them a pamphlet written in Japanese that explains reading in great detail and how to be a better reader.  I hope through the summer they grow to love reading in English.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Orphanage Visit Part Deux

Yesterday I visited the orphanage in Osaka that I have started volunteering at.  Several native English teachers come to the orphanage, donate their time and skills to teach kids English.  These kids are the victims of domestic-related issues at home and/or those without parents.  We visited from 1:30-3:30 and had a really nice time with the children.  They all came and had a wonderful time.  Kids listed and played many games and activities in English.  We had a funny rock-scissors-paper game that utilized different actions instead of the typical rock/scissors/paper.  Instead we played Warrior/Monster/Cutie using the same rules as rock scissors paper.  The kids loved it and so did some of the teachers who had never seen the activity before.

We played the Japanese card game "karuta",  well I say we did, but truly the kids ran that show all their own.  They laid the 100 cards out on the ground and then took turns reading the poetry cards that give you the hint as to which of the 100 cards to choose.  Kids have to match the first sound in the poetry to the matching sound on one of the cards.  I wonder if there is an English version using the alphabet that this kids could try.  I think I will try to look for an English version so that kids and teachers can work together during this time.

We watched a youtube video as well.  It was about a 15 minute video using the characters from Hello Kitty to tell the story of Jack and the Beanstalk.  The kids knew the story from the Japanese version but this version only had English and yet they sat in front of the screen captivated like little foxes slowly creeping toward the chicken coop.  The level of focus was amazing considering this program was completely in English and they were at age ranges from 4-9. 

The rest of the day we played lots of games, coloring, and just horsing around with the kids.  They really crave attention and are quite happy to run around joking and playing with teachers.  They feed off newness and interesting activities.  So I am thinking what to do next time for the kids.

The last thing we did after the kids left was discuss donating clothing, toys and games to the children so they have interesting things to do.  Many of the kids don't have much clothing and it's tragic because they are such good kids.  So we are thinking about some activities to raise money and get donations to buy these kids much needed items.  I hope this can be achieved and the kids can have a great time despite their circumstances.