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.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Kids Will Tear You Apart

If you ever thought about teaching English in Japan you better be ready.  In Japanese schools, kids are pretty rough.  Classes can range from super orderly to utter chaos, depending highly upon their homeroom teacher, the neighborhood or area you teach, and/or your own personality.  For the most part the first few months teaching in public schools in Japan is pretty good.  Kids are genuinely interested in you because you are the new thing at school and you take away from the monotony of the daily grind.  If you are an energetic teacher kids feed off that energy and typically have a good time.

But at some point kids take off the mask of kindness and can get damn near rude if not super aggressive.  You'll get kids sticking their fingers in your bum hole, grabbing your penis, breasts, buttocks and just about anywhere else on your person.  You'll be swarmed by kids between classes because they are lounging about in the hallways.  In Japan it's typical to see several dozen kids running around the hallways and going in and out of the playground between lessons. 

Kids will rip you apart if you have any chink in your armor.  For me, it's male pattern baldness.  Kids often call me baldy or whatever.  I really don't mind because I'd rather be bald.  It's a pain in the ass to wash my hair, comb it, cut it, keep it neat and all that.  And in Japan with the humidity in the summer it is a nightmare to have hair in all honesty.  Now don't get me wrong, I'm no chrome dome, but I am headed that direction.  It doesn't bother me when kids single that out at all.  But for some colleagues it's a rough row to hoe when dealing with kids' cruel and vicious behavior.

One female teacher I know got pounced on because she wears perfume to school.  Kids would tell her she stinks and things like that.  Another colleague is overweight and kids call him tubby or hurtful words about his rotundness.  Japanese teachers also face this but often out of resentment or rage by the kids.  They often tell teachers to die, buzz off, or call them stupid or ugly.  Most Japanese flare up and get angry with the kids only making more fuel for their insult fire.

I think that kids try to find the thing that they can use to penetrate you and get you upset.  If you just let it buzz right by and not take issue with it, the teasing lasts about a day and then it's back to business as usual.  If you try to tackle it, by forcing kids to stop the behavior you will succeed but in doing so you will alienate the children from you and it will be tough to teach them.

That said, one should never tolerate harassment and aggression if it is making your life intolerable and you feel defeated.  I have never felt that way luckily and am always glad to hear kids calling me baldy.  I think it's kind of their way of letting me into their circle and making me one of their group.  And I don't care about being bald or not.  I just love teaching them.

Thursday, July 10, 2014


The EIKEN is a standardized test that many Japanese take to evaluate their English ability.  The tests cover reading, writing, speaking and listening and have many elements to contend with including grammar, vocabulary, spelling and punctuation. 

My junior high students have asked me to prepare materials and content to study for the EIKEN test in Japan.  I was asked to prepare test booklets, study resources and materials that will help them achieve good results.  I have about 9 students who are studying for it and they are all looking to target different levels.  4 are going for the 3rd level exam, 3 are going for the pre-2nd level, and 1 is going for the 2nd-level exam and one for the pre-1st level.

So I spent about 2-3 hours yesterday during my free time printing up loads of materials for the kids to study.  I got them all the past year's tests as well as speaking activity, booklets, and a word list of 2000 commonly used English vocabulary that kids should know by the time they graduate.  For the pre-1st, he'll need to know about 8000-9000 vocabulary words so I plan on upping his to a level more appropriate next week.
I also am going to assign each kid reading material, specifically graded readers from the penguin and Cambridge reader selections to be completed over the holidays.  I have about 2600 readers that  have gathered over my many years as a teacher and will assign them books to read based on their levels.  I plan to give them a CD with the PDF books to read on their computers, tablets or smartphones over the summer holiday.
I hope that by giving them good quality, interesting stories that use the 95/5 principle to get them excelling in reading as well as prepping them to tackle the EIKEN. The 95/5 rule is basically that children should know 95 percent of the vocabulary in a text with 5 percent unknown to grow and excel.  Any less than that and it is too difficult, any more and it is too easy and children will lose interest.  Of course I also plan to tackle the speaking and listening parts as well.  We will have a mock test in August to assess their weaknesses and strengths.  Preparing for the EIKEN is a tough job.  I hope they do well.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Old School TV Show For New Age Elementary Kids

It's mid-July and in Japan that doesn't mean midway through summer vacation. Summer vacation starts about the third week of July and ends the third week of August, roughly a month to a month and a half. As it is the last lesson I will teach this term I decided to take a break from the book, the worksheets, and give kids a rest with an audio-visual.

I choose last week to show the animated film "The Iron Giant" to my junior high students. The film is 90 minutes or so and fits comfortably in a 2 lesson block. That left me with what to do with my elementary kids. I thought I could show them the same film but their lessons are 45 minutes and with greetings, roll call and so on that gives us about 35-40 minutes of useful time to watch something.

So I scoured the web and found a good youtube video of the series from ALF. If you are unfamiliar, ALF is a 1980s sitcom about an alien life form ALF that crashes on the roof of a garage of a family. The family then take the ALF in and he becomes part of their home. I got very lucky and was able to find the pilot episode and some English subtitles to match. I looked everywhere for Japanese subtitles but couldn't find anything. It would help kids to understand the plot better.

But after showing the program and hearing all the laughter, watching kids sit fixated for the full 22-minutes I was pleased and impressed. Kids really enjoyed this throwback from the 80s and many said they would try to find a rental or youtube video in Japanese to watch at home. After the film I asked many questions and kids that answered first and correctly got a sticker. It was a great break from the humdrum of studying and I think kids genuinely liked ALF. I'm glad I got to share a part of my childhood with them.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Typhoons: Nightmares For Teachers in Japan

Typhoons thrash Japan from typically the end of June to the beginning of October.  There are typically between 15-20 typhoons a year in a season and unlike the rest of the world that names the typhoons anthropomorphically, Japan just numbers them.  So now we'd have Typhoon 12, and the next one will be typhoon 13.  Kind of boring, easy to forget, and I think that's due to the frequency and relative lack of danger/damage caused. 

That's not to say people don't get injured or homes and businesses don't get destroyed.  Oh to the contraire, every year several dozens are killed not due to the typhoon itself but lack of forethought.  Someone will be walking close to the ocean, a giant wave comes in and sweeps them out to see.  An older person is out riding their bicycle and a huge gust of wind sweeps them off into a fast death.  These types of deaths are not necessarily due to the typhoon's destructive force but instead due to lack of forethought and caution on the part of those killed or maimed. 
Teachers in Japan have to often confront these forces due to the nature of the work ethic in Japan.  What I am talking about is during a dangerous typhoon or any inclement weather that could likely injure children, school is cancelled and children are asked not to come due to the risk of bodily injury.  However, teachers are not exempt from work.  They must come to work regardless of weather conditions as a public teacher.  Often during some of the biggest storms of the year as a teacher you must brazenly venture to work, often at the risk of personal injury.    Only if public transportation is unavailable can you possible get off due to inclement weather.

If the trains, buses, taxis, etc. are in service you are required to be at work.  If they are not in service you still have to visit the stations and get a certificate from them to excuse you from your work duties.  It's an insanely bureaucratic system but it's Japan.  Often times when I cycle to work, I have to do so in typhoon conditions, snow, ice, sleet, and have grown accustomed to it, however, it's still a risk and many of my colleagues and cohorts just take a day off from work during these times rather than taking the risk of injury or death.  Typhoons are teacher's worst nightmares when commuting to work! Ping Google

Thursday, July 03, 2014

The Mimic

I have a kid in one of my junior classes that mimes and mimics everything I say or do.  He is a nice kid and always smiles but his behavior is disturbing.  He often mimics not only actions but words, instructions, mannerisms, coughs and any other thing he can.  I have told him to stop and often the homeroom teachers do too but I have come to the conclusion he has a mental issue.  He often mimics his classmates too and he has ostracized himself and built a wall between he and his classmates due in large part to this weird mimic issue he has.

It's like he's trying out for a Hollywood role or something like that.  I don't know how to stop him so I have resigned to ignoring it and trying to flow along with the lesson as best I can.  He knows he is disturbing everyone but it's an obsessive behavior that he can't control even after being lectured, scolded or punished.  The other teachers just tell me to pretend not to notice because that's the only thing that seems to work.  But it sure does make for an odd lesson.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Banshee Girl Screaming Fits of Death

Today I taught 4 classes back to back in the morning.  I enjoy flowing along from one class to another and today was as smooth as a baby's backside.  The kids in my classes enjoyed the lessons a lot and we seemed to have a good time singing, learning new vocabulary, and practicing pairing adjectives to nouns. 

So after lunch, I come to the teacher's room to catch up on some paperwork and take my break for the day.  When suddenly in comes this wailing, crying girl who looks like Hell Boy because her face is so red from crying so loudly.  A couple of teachers and the school nurse come dashing up to her and ask what's wrong.

She says, "My stomach is hurting."  And she goes back to crying like a banshee.  Well the teachers looked worried and they started asking her if she got injured, fell down, was hit, etc... Every answer came back no.  They then asked did she eat breakfast, lunch and dinner yesterday.  The replies were all yes.  So they started probing a little further and one teacher seemed to get what was going on.

She asked the little girl, "When was the last time you went to the bathroom?"  The little girl replied, "Before lunch."  So then the teacher asked, "When was the last time you made a poo?"  The little girl didn't reply.  So the teacher asked again.  Finally she said, "The other day."  The teacher needed more clarification so she asked her for a specific date.  The little girl said, "On Monday."

It had been 4 days since she had pooped.  Her system was backlogged, and was in dire need of a flushing.  So the nurse took the girl to the toilet with orders for her to sit there and push, grunt, and squeeze until a big one plopped out.  And off they went.

I don't know if she managed to relieve herself but I can say I didn't hear anymore crying for the rest of the day!

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

1st Grade Hell Cats

Today I had to teach at a school that is really tiny and was told to teach the 2nd grade and 1st grade classes.  Each class has less than 15 students with 1 class per grade level.  I love teaching at this school and enjoy every day.  Normally I teach 5th and 6th grade kids here but this week they wanted me to try to teach the younger kids.  I didn't have much time to prepare as I am rarely at the school and usually my materials are geared toward the older students.  But I always have some backup lessons ready to fall back to in case of situations like these.

So I teach the 2nd grade class first today and everything went smoothly.  The kids listened well, we sang songs, practiced flash cards and had a really fun time.  Another ICT teacher videoed my lesson for some reason.  I really thought the class went well.  Kids left in high spirits and so did I.

Then I went to the 2nd period class with the 1st graders.  Oh man oh man oh man.  These kids were little hell cats.  It's like someone shot sugar straight into their circulatory systems.  They were jacked up and roaring to go.  Kids couldn't sit down, couldn't listen, etc.. They were standing on chairs, jumping around, acting silly to the point that I couldn't teach.

So I stopped class for about 5 minutes and gave them a stern talk about following rules, listening, not standing on chairs and so on.  The kids listened but I could tell I wasn't getting it through so I pitted them against another school I teach at.  Those 1st graders at the other school are well-behaved, proper and good children.  The moment I told the hell cats that the other school was better, they quickly straightened up, listened, and followed all rules with vigor.

Sometimes you just have use a little psychology and competition to make kids toe the line.  These hell cats turned into kittens in no time and our lesson turned out fun, exciting and great.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Volunteering at an Orphanage

On Sunday I visited an orphanage with about 12 other foreigners.  This orphanage houses kids who have been removed by court order due to abuse, neglect, violence, or other mitigating circumstances.  We visited for 2 hours in the afternoon and admittedly I was a little nervous about being at the orphanage.  I had never volunteered at an orphanage before so I had no idea what to expect.  I was worried the kids might be timid, shy and anti-social.  I was worried they would have visible scars and be afraid to talk with us.  Boy was I wrong.

From the moment we walked in to the moment we left, kids swarmed us with hugs, punches, horse play, and a barrage of jokes.  They really were some of the warmest sweetest kids I've encountered in Japan.  They took to us like a duck to water despite having only met them that day.  I was really taken aback because most Japanese kids are really shy and quiet especially in public and around strangers.  But these kids were amazing and they kept us moving and grooving the entire time.

We were there as a sort of emissary to teach English as well as brighten up their day.  We played lots of games, read story books, colored, and just horsed around with the kids for the full two hours.  It was piping hot in the room we visited despite having an air-conditioner  that was blasting us with cold air.  But in all honesty it was the funniest time I have had with kids since being in Japan.  I look forward to the next time we visit them at the orphanage.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Toilet Invasion

Yesterday I was sitting all by my lonesome working on a steamy hot number two.  I seldom use school toilets because teachers share these with kids.  But at this school luckily there is a teacher only toilet that we can use.  Once in a while a special education student will use it as well.  Why I say this now becomes relevant later in the story.

So I am sitting on the porcelain throne working up a deuce when suddenly I hear yelling.  I am wondering what's going on but I was in my element at the time and pretty secure behind the locked door of the men's toilet.  Suddenly, a female staff member busts in the toilet yelling a student's name.  I remained silent because I thought this person was off their rocker.

It was the school nurse, and she is known in this school to be a bit mental.  She is extremely obsessive-compulsive, quite erratic and has fought in our teacher's room with varying staff and administration.  I steer clear of her as much as I can but she had me trapped.  She was frantically searching for the special education student and her target was my toilet stall. 

She lunged at the toilet door hand so ferociously that the locking mechanism jumped out of the slot and the door swung open.   There I sat, pants down around the ankles, in eternal bliss after squeezing out a hot one, with her gawking at me.  I stared back at her and squeaked out in Japanese "I'm in the middle of toileting."  She recoiled, bowed deeply and said, "Sorry, Sorry.  So sorry.  すみません.  So sorry.  Sorry."  Then as quickly as she entered she was gone.  It really was the craziest thing that has ever happened to me at school.   From now on I think I will take my deuces at home, I don't want to risk another invasion.