Getting Students to Write Fan Letters

(Written back in September 2019)

I frequently find that my main responsibility as an ALT is simply to motivate the students. The majority of my junior high students don’t feel that their future lies with English or in a foreign country. When a student’s dream job is to be a “salaryman” because “it is interesting”, it puts things into perspective.

Getting students to write English is an increasingly frustrating process for everyone involved. But the “Fan Letter” section of the third grade textbook has become a source of motivation and genuine surprise for both teachers and students. Instead of writing a letter and it ending up crammed in the bottom of their backpacks, the JTE and I have made it our mission to actual send the students’ letters. Of course it means extra work to check their letters, find the addresses and write a cover letter explaining why random Japanese students are sending letters to the likes of J.K. Rowling and Brad Pitt. But we felt it would encourage the students to take it a bit more seriously.

The fruits of our labour has been a steady trickle of replies from various celebrities. It might not be the surge we dream of, but the JTE and I are always excited to see who the responses are from. We’ve received replies and postcards from Pixar Studios, Disney World, and various soccer clubs. There have been handwritten replies from the Miffy Museum in the Netherlands and a number of Olympic medalists. Benny Andersson (ABBA), Milla Jovovich, and Johnny Depp have even sent “signed” photos back to our students.

Unfortunately not everyone gets a reply. But at the end of the day, every student manages to willingly do the work and seeing the students’ faces of surprise that “so-and-so” replied to their mail is a great feeling. It seems to puts a smile on the JTE and principal, which is always a plus.

It’s not all DOOM and GLOOM

(Written back in November 2019)

It is pretty amazing how much a student can change in the space of a couple of months. High school application season is about to start, so the third graders are starting to get their act together. Meanwhile, the first graders have finally adapted to junior high school life and the second graders are… well… typical second graders.

But there’s a particular second grade student who has shown a massive improvement in her studies and confidence. I taught her older brother who graduated earlier this year. He was very studious but had crippling anxiety issues leading to long stretches of absences from school. During his sister’s first year, she had found it difficult to fit into her class and follow the lessons.  So naturally the teaching staff had started to worry about her.

However this past week, during the semesterly English interview test she really showed an improvement. She answered the questions perfectly and with real confidence. She even managed to show a smile. I was a little taken aback by it all. The last time I attended this school was back in early October. Was this the same student? Or was the cold weather getting to me? After the test, I talked with her English teacher who confirmed that other teachers had been similarly surprised with her dramatic change. I hope she continues to build on her newfound confidence going into the next academic year. And I hope she’ll inspire a few of her classmates to do the same.

Junior High School Recitation Contest

(Written back in October 2019)

My area’s annual JHS recitation contest took place in the second week of October. Nine students  from my three assigned schools participated in the competition. During the past couple of months my lunchtimes have consisted of scoffing down my lunch and then tutoring students.

Each student has a different way of learning. But my “process” is to start off with them reading the text, checking their pronunciation and slowly building their confidence with the material. Then moving onto memorisation and intonation. And then finally progressing onto conveying emotion and body language. My assigned schools rotate on a weekly basis, meaning that I sometimes have a three week gap in-between visits to particular schools. But it’s always interesting to see how far students have progressed after each visit. Admittedly some take it more seriously than others, but on the actual day of the contest they all managed to give their best performance.

It’s a highly rewarding experience watching a normally quiet student dramatically perform Malala Yousafzai’s UN speech in front of a sizeable audience. That particular student managed to claim the top prize in the third grade competition and will be participating in the prefectural contest later this year. Her family and her school’s principal let out a hushed cheer as her name was announced. The win means that her school will retain the trophy and continue its winning streak. In fact, I actually tutored her older sister three years ago, whose name is still adorned on the trophy. Her mother thanked me and the principal shook my hand while enthusiastically saying something along the lines of “Same again next year, please”.

Out of the nine students that participated, four of them managed to get a prize. In fact all the top spots in the third grade contest were awarded to my students. Naturally, a few tears were shed by those that had missed out on a podium spot. But I was very proud of them all. And while their JTEs excessively thanked me for my contribution and tutoring, at the end of the day it’s the students’ own effort and determination that got them on the stage and speaking English.

My High School Experience

Across Japan, junior high school third graders have started their three years of high school education. And with all this talk about the students entering an important part of their lives, I got back to thinking about my high school days. England’s educational system is structurally different from the likes of America and Japan as you can tell from the table below;

England’s Education System

Grade

School

Age

Nursery

Nursery

3

Reception

Reception

4

Year 1-6

Primary School

5-11

Year 7-11

Secondary School

11-16

Year 12-13

Sixth Form / College

16-18

Anyway my “high school days” found me at a completely new school, surrounded by new teachers and new classmates. Those stressful two years were a nightmare of examinations, coursework and social toxicity. After five years of studying at my secondary school, making close friends and building an attachment to my teachers, I found myself unable to study the subjects I wanted to at a Sixth Form level. My parents were also deterred by the school’s underwhelming test averages and university prospects. Thus we decided that it would be best if I changed schools for my A-Levels. And so it was decided that I would go into private education for two years.

I was overweight, my GCSE grades (Year 11) weren’t as high as everyone else’s, and I didn’t drive to school in a Mercedes. Though these never presented a direct problem for myself, I could tell that there was a divide between those students that were overly-privileged and those who weren’t. My friend was constantly ridiculed for being sponsored to study at the school, as his parents couldn’t afford the fees. And this underlying fact that a private school meant money, was ever present in every facet of school life. BMW cars, Swiss watches and lines of coke in the bathroom definitely didn’t make me feel comfortable. This even stretched to the school’s financial dealings. The Sixth Form building had been funded by some gentlemen whose name I can’t recall. Anyway, he had returned to the school for a visit and had witnessed an impromptu water fight. We got a prompt scolding from the principal who stated that “we should be ashamed” for losing funding for the school’s future projects. None us really gave a f**k.

What particularly stands out was that Sixth Form was a period of adult themes and hurried “maturity”. This wasn’t the group of classmates that discussed The Simpsons or the weekend football scores. Instead sex, booze, calculus and rugby were common topics of conversation. A confusing mix for me. I’d never had sex, drunk booze, studied calculus or even watched a game of rugby before entering high school. Talking about sex was always an incredibly nervous experience as an overweight individual. My innocent minded couldn’t grasp the terminology or justification for bragging about it. Under-age drinking was prevalent throughout the school. In fact the school grounds were surrounded by two pubs, one in particular was the “drinking hole” for many students. I’d never touched a beer or a shot of vodka before and the peer pressure was incredibly persistent, even on school trips.

In terms of actually studying. My teachers were a mixed bag, all possessing unique personalities and foreign teaching styles to what I was used to. I had two history teachers. I always looked forward to my English History lessons purely because of the teacher. She was kind and understanding. Lessons wouldn’t be a lecture, but a discussion of opinions and ideas. Meanwhile, I loathed studying about Bismark and the Russian Tsars. Not only was it uninteresting but our teacher was an traditionalist and eccentric who had studied at Oxford University, something he was overly proud to remind us of. I loathed going to his lessons or handing in homework for the fear of being ridiculed.

In the end all that mattered was that I got the grades I needed to go to the university. I made some friends, enjoyed studying some of the material, but I never felt any connection to the school. I hated the over-privileged atmosphere of under-age drinking, drugs and pampering that was ever present. The phrase “you are an ambassador of this school” was thrown around by the principal, but it wasn’t something I was proud to be associated with. I was very fortunate to have been brought up in a family and I’m grateful that my parents were willing to invest in my education to that degree. But my high school experience wasn’t something I’d like to repeat.

Junior High Graduation

Last Friday was the Graduation Ceremony for the third graders. Throughout the course of the week the students had been practicing the songs and routines. The second and first grade boys had been causing problems and rage-induced rants from the teachers, as per usual. Anyway, on the day it was a mixture of emotions. There were tears, cheers and words of inspiration from students and teachers. Parents all showed up in suits with their camcorders at the ready. I received “Thank you” messages from students and was asked for numerous selfies. I’d only known them for a year but it was a pleasure to have taught them. I wish them the best.

Pikotaro Sabotaged My Students’ Tests!

For most schools in Japan, this week is “Final Test Week”. One thing that I’ve been in charge of conducting is the Interview Test. I’ve chosen a selection of questions from the past couple of months, and have been assessing each student’s responses. One of the grammar points that I’ve included is “I have ____”; “I have a cat. I have two CDs”. It’s pretty simple and it’s taught early on in the curriculum. But about fifty percent of student responses have been frustratingly ruined by a chart-topping song. Continue reading “Pikotaro Sabotaged My Students’ Tests!”

The Annual Migration of ALTs

The month of March marks both the end and beginning of the Japanese school year. As a result some ALTs (Assistant Learning Teachers) will decide to leave, meaning that new recruits will soon start to arrive. Understandably, various companies’ Facebook pages have been flooded with question about visas, training and suggestions on what to bring. But amongst them, as always, have been some bewildering questions or statements; Continue reading “The Annual Migration of ALTs”