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.

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”.

And the award goes to…..

During the graduation ceremony at one of my schools, the principal handed out student awards ranging from “Highest Attendance” to “Best Group Leader”. As we clapped and cheered, I started to reminisce about my academic days. And that’s when “it” reared it’s ugly head again. I left primary school with a bitterness that still inanely lingers some sixteen years on; I never won the school’s “Music Award” during my six years there. Continue reading “And the award goes to…..”

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”

Correcting the Teacher, as an Assistant Teacher.

As an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) at junior high school level (JHS), I work with a Japanese Teacher of English (JTE). There really are too many abbreviations in this job. Anyway, this invites a “team teaching” approach to our lessons that thankfully doesn’t make me just a human tape player reciting from the crappy textbooks. We’ll prepare activities, present dialogue to give students a better understanding of “naturally” spoken English, and attempt to create a more involved learning atmosphere. But like anyone who is studying or teaching a second language, mistakes are bound to occur. The students present their own range of challenges, as I’ve discussed, but the teachers also can create some unique situations in the classroom. Continue reading “Correcting the Teacher, as an Assistant Teacher.”

The Joys of Checking Japanese Student’s Schoolwork

The core fundamentals of teaching English at junior high schools in Japan are writing, reading and listening. You’ll see that “speaking” is strangely missing as it’s not assessed through established tests, stupidly. But I think that students tend to find that writing English is the most difficult aspect of learning the language. Anyway, one of my responsibilities is checking students written assignments, which is something that can sink you further into depression or provide comedy gold.

Continue reading “The Joys of Checking Japanese Student’s Schoolwork”