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.

Saving my 500s

I remember owning a football-shaped “piggy bank” when I was a child. I’d save my weekly allowance, birthday money and loose change in order to fund my video game addiction. The last time I checked it, I think there was still a fake diamond earring that I’d found in Las Vegas, some badge pins, and a few football coins from an Alan Shearer World Cup. I think I had three Nicky Butts and two Terry Sheringhams. But as soon as I had a bank account, my days of hearing the “ding” from coins hitting my tin “piggy bank” were over. Instead it was all about that magic “virtual” money, baby.

Yet starting this year, the piggy bank has returned. I’ve been saving my 500-yen coins in a glass jar. Strawberry jam, if you wanted to know. Essentially whenever I buy something and receive a 500-yen coin in my change, I hold onto it and stick it in the jar. And that’s it. With 500 yen equating to about £3.35, it’s a good amount to be saving and not something that you worry about.  Plus they’re gold in colour, so it’s like real treasure.

It seems to be a fairly common way of saving money in Japan as most people here still use cash over card.  I paid for my wife’s engagement ring with a wad of cash, like some cockney geezer. In fact, there are still a large number of shops and restaurants that won’t accept credit and debit cards. Even online purchases can be paid in cash when delivered, which is a fantastic service.

Anyway, in a couple of months I’ve easily managed to save 25,000 yen from saving my 500-yen coins. My Irish mate who introduced me to this way of saving cash, actually used his coinage to fund his trips back home. It’s a simple and effective way to save a little extra each month, and one that can be a little addictive.

Miyajima in Autumn

Autumn is my favourite season. It’s cool enough to leave the house, baseball season is thankfully drawing to a close, sukiyaki is the dish of choice and Japan looks beautiful in the autumn colours.

My wife and I decided to head off to Miyajima for the day. It’s not quite the time when the leaves have turn their autumn shade, but we just fancied a day out.  It’s 15 minutes on the train then 10 minutes of the ferry, so it’s fairly close. And as has become the norm over the last couple of years, the train was rammed full of tourists and backpackers. 

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