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.

Damn, it’s hot!

My daily walk to the shops has become somewhat of trek through the Arabian Desert. A scene reminiscent of Lawrence of Arabia. A sort of Lawrence of Hiroshima, if you will. Yep, the sun has been set to “Incinerate” mode as Japan experiences a historic heatwave with record-breaking temperatures reaching 41.1 degrees. After the recent devastating flooding and landslides in Western Japan, which left 225 people dead and more than $6 billion in property damage, it seems that “Mother Nature” refuses to let-up. More than 70 people have died and more than 22,000 have been hospitalised due to the persistent heat. And it doesn’t seem as though it’ll get cooler anytime soon.  That’s a slight concern seen as though August is usually Japan’s hottest month, and it’s still July.

Air-conditioning is the almighty saviour. Yet not everyone has it. Those living in cooler regions of Northern Japan don’t usually experience these insane temperatures and thus haven’t seen the need for one until now. Meanwhile, only around 42% of public elementary and middle schools have air conditioning. I previously worked in schools that had no AC, and instead had a set of ineffective fans attempting to cool the students. Those particular schools insisted that as long as the students suffered from the heat, then the teachers would too. So the staff room’s air-conditioning wouldn’t be turned on until the students had left for the day. The reasoning may be economic and/or environmental, but there’s a distinct mindset in Japanese society to improve one’s moral resolve by enduring. In this case, blistering temperatures. But I’d rather they just install AC so students wouldn’t complain all the time.

Experts have warned that this could well be the “new normal” for the country. A truly terrifying thought for the future. 

Saying “Hello” in the Work Bathroom

It’s gotten to the point where I have to write something about it. Talking at the urinals, is it a faux pas?

I have no issue with continuing a conversation with a friend or someone I really know, while taking a piss. Whether I’m drunk or livid about how the football match is going, I don’t have a problem. But for some, visiting the restroom is a hellish nightmare. Strangers unzipping and aiming, the foul stench from the stalls, the long line of people waiting and the crusty, bearded man making unwanted eye-contact. Every…bloody…time.

Anyway, at school it’s become a slightly awkward endeavour. Is it normal to greet someone while in the bathroom? Some teachers will say “Hello” or “Good Morning”. Other teachers will do a casual bow. And others will avoid eye-contact altogether. I wouldn’t say I go into a panic, but it’s an uncomfortable situation. Are they striking up a conversation? Are they simply saying “Hi”? Do I need to talk about something?

Unlike everything and everywhere in Japan, there are no signs on how to deal with this sort of situation. No FAQ or Troubleshooting sheet explaining the correct procedure. No anime character cheerfully demonstrating how to deal with a talkative stranger. It’s up to you on how to proceed. I know these teachers on a professional level, but I wouldn’t say I’m at that whole social, “converse while using the urinal” level. So I tend to follow what the other teacher does. 

There’s one interaction that often makes me chuckle. Japan has a phrase “otsukaresama desu”, which loosely translates into “Thank you for your hard work/ effort”. We say it when we’ve finished work, when we’ve helped each out or after we’ve listening to some long-winded lecture. Now, in some cases teachers have said this to me in the bathroom. It’s obviously referring to work. But I can’t help but feel that it sort of fits with the act of using the toilet. “Thank you for your effort in correctly and efficiently urinating”.

……Damn Jet Lag

I’m currently writing this at four o’clock in the morning with the sun yet to rise. I got back from a three-week vacation last Wednesday and the jet lag has unfortunately set in. As I’m not blessed with the ability to sleep on planes, the eight hour difference between the UK and Japan was been made even worse. Adapting to UK time wasn’t a problem three weeks ago. But getting reaccustomed to Japan Time has been increasingly frustrating. I just about managed four hours of sleep yesterday, but it’s still been a stressful mess.

A friend once stated that the general rule of thumb is that for each hour of time difference between destination and starting point, that will roughly correlate to the number of days required to get over the jet lag. Well, it’s been nearly a week and while it’s certainly getting better, it ain’t over yet. School starts this Friday, so I shouldn’t have any trouble getting up. But whether I’ll be able to stay awake in class is the real question. We’ll just have to wait and see.

School Alert: Watch out for BEARS!

After finishing class, I received a “Public Announcement” letter from the local Board of Education. Using my limited kanji ability, I was able to decipher that I definitely needed to improved my kanji ability, and that there was a bear wondering around the local area.

Being from the UK, the only animals that “terrify” the British public are either the rogue foxes attacking babies or false widow spiders, both making “appropriate headline news” for the tabloid press. Here in Japan, mother nature seems a bit more hostile and sinister. From giant huntsman spiders to hissing centipedes, or the abundance of mosquitoes and the occasional venomous viper, Japan isn’t all kimonos, cherry blossom and cutesy characters. In fact recently, Japan’s population of bears has made the headlines, and not for doing something adorable.  Continue reading “School Alert: Watch out for BEARS!”

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.