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Aug 1: Arrived in Aomori. I was met at
the airport by Ohwi-Sensei (my supervisor), several of the English teachers
(Konn-Sensei, Itoh-Sensei, Kamata-Sensei <Kelly's supervisor>, and
Tateda-Sensei <head of English Department>), and the Kyohtoh-Sensei
(vice-principal). We dropped some of my stuff off at my apartment and then
went out to dinner at the top of the Aspam building (the big Triangular
building on the Bay). This is a top-priced restaurant. Since you are the
guest-of-honor, it is a very big deal. The teachers like to splurge on
a nice dinner. It makes for a very nice welcome.
Realize that this money is coming out of a budget provide to get your from your host country to Aomori City. Typically, the money that is left over from the total cost is given to you a few months later. That amount (the remainder) has been steadily decreasing. Three years ago, JETs often got around US$3,000.00. I ended up with about US$900.00. Unfortunately, everyone had lead me to believe that I was going to get three to four thousand US dollars- so I had begun to count on that money. DON'T! Every JET's allotted amount depends on your individual position. Some JETs have a lot of start-up costs (buying a phone line, hooking up water and utilities, etc.). Some JETs don't.
First week of August: NEBUTA. We were given Yukatas and shown how to dance in the parade. This makes one hell of an impression. Realize that this is not how Aomori City will always be. It is a great way to start off. Take a lot of pictures. Nebuta is the emblem of Aomori. As long as you are in Aomori, you will be reminded of Nebuta stuff.
Second week of August: Got situated and settled in my apartment and in Aomori City. Take this time to do what you need to make yourself feel at home. Read-up on stuff. Try to memorize the teachers' names. Write letters. Study Japanese. Watch TV. Do whatever you want. Take good care of yourself.
Aug. 26: First day of School. There
was an opening ceremony which doesn't last for very long. I made a speech
during the teachers' meeting in Japanese. I was very nervous. I wrote it
out in hiragana and in romaji and I still stumbled over it. That's OK because
your a new ALT. Relax, you will be forgiven of a lot at first. Don't try
to abuse this aspect because regardless of your previous experience with
Japan, you will make mistakes and will be embarrassed a little and learn
to laugh at yourself a lot. I also made a speech at the opening ceremony
in English and in Japanese. Remember this:
1. walk on stage.
2. stand a few steps behind the podium or microphone.
3. someone will say, "Kiritz!"
4. Then they will say, "Re!" Bow when they say "RE!"
5. Now you may approach the microphone and say whatever.
6. When you're done, step back.
7. Repeat steps 2-4 and go off stage.
*I was a little confused, had no idea and looked pretty foolish, but se la vie!
During the first week of classes, the students need to study for their "Welcome back to hell" exams, so you won't have that many classes. They need to do some heavy reviewing and don't have time for oral classes.
September: This is when you will start teaching. You will basically go into every class and do a self-introduction. This is more your time to have the students get to know you better, since you are coming in the middle of their school year and they don't know who you are. Be aware that this is probably the only time you will have a class with most of the second and third year classes. My best advice is to tell them something that sparks their curiosity. Make them want to get to know you better because in one hour or fifty minutes you're not really going to be able to make them totally comfortable with you. Try to bribe them into coming to see you and introducing themselves to you outside of class. I gave out US Dollars with my face on them that could be redeemed for prizes: 3 for a candy, 5 for a postcard (I took stacks of free post cards whenever I could find them from my home country), 10 for a poster. It gave them something to think about. I tried to get them to ask me as many questions as possible. Just remember, this may be the last time you have a chance to address all of them and really set-up the foundation for a relationship with them, but you will see them around school all the time. If you've made yourself approachable, you can get to know them better outside of class.
Mid-September: I started going to Kita Kohkoh. At Kita, you teach only the first year classes. It's difficult to figure out their level. They are shyer than you are used to because by this time, people know who you are at Nishi High. Starting back at square one can be a pain, but you get to fix anything that might not have gone so well the first time around. The speech I made at the Teachers' meeting went much better, but still not flawless. At Kita, they split each period in half, so you spend 25-30 minutes with one group of students, and then run to finish off the hour with another group of students. It's a little hectic at first and I have yet to get the timing down, but it's interesting. It's a real switch having only half the time that you do at Nishi. Of course, the classes are smaller. It's just very different. It takes some adjusting to.
End of September: Sports Day. Very interesting. Nishi had been buzzing for the last few weeks trying to get ready for this. Basically, you just sit and watch. There are races and various events. It's pretty fun. You may be asked to do a caterpillar race with the teachers. It's not a big deal. 3-5 people wear one shoe-like piece of wood and they have a relay race. Oh! And there is a national warm-up at the beginning. Everyone does some basic stretching exercises. Everyone knows the routine. You won't, but do your best to follow along and try not to laugh very much.
Beginning of October: More tests. Less classes.
October 9: I started the English Club with the idea that I would
get pen pals from other countries over the Internet. They would write letters
and I would send them through my e-mail account. At the first meeting,
starting at 3:40 after school, a surprising 40 students turned-up for pen
pals. I had planned on about 15-20. I showed them Netscape on my laptop
and the idea of e-mail. I explained the Internet briefly with the idea
that it is an instant network all over the world. I showed them a picture
a friend had sent me via e-mail from Greece. I think it worked fairly well.
I set-up pen pals with a school in the USA and in Israel, explaining that
the English used by the Israelis will probably be easier to understand.
I told them to write a letter and give it to me by the following Monday.
That week, I was flooded with letters, which I typed by myself into my computer so that I could send them via e-mail. It didn't take long for me to realize that this wasn't going to work very well. I had to get them to type the letters somehow. There is a computer in the teachers' room with Windows 95J that would accept disks formatted both for NEC standards or IBM standards. They are different. But the students aren't allowed to use that computer. There is a computer room, but the computers are really archaic pieces of machinery.
I realized that if I had them use a simple word processing program and save the files as .txt files, they could be used as attachments of e-mail, using the Win 95J computer as a mediator between my computer and the school's (since my computer can't read the disks). The next meeting (October 23), we crammed everyone into the computer room and had them write a self-introduction on their very own floppy disks. Everyone was horrified of the idea of computers. (They can be scary things). The students learned the basics of how to boot-up the computer (using system disks), how to start the word processing program, how to write with English letters on the word processor, how to save, how to quit and how to turn off the computer in about 40 minutes or so. All of this was explained by a very kind Japanese English teacher at my school who is a light techy. My Japanese could never even begin to tell them how to do all of this and if I had done it in English, it would have terrified them even more.
It was rocky at first. Students couldn't remember how to do various things, they were too shy to ask for help. Many didn't turn in their self-introductions. They didn't know how to load their documents to make changes. But after sending students a few notes and writing-out full instructions in Japanese that they could keep with them, things started going more smoothly. Students really liked the idea that they were learning how to use computers and how to type. These are marketable skills, and computers are "cool."
As more students became comfortable with computers, more of their friends wanted to join in on the fun because it seemed easy enough, and all the printed-out letters were given to them in home room, so the other students got to see that their friends really were getting letters from other countries. It was pretty exciting for everyone. Students could use the computers at lunch or after school and give me the floppies when they were done. I'd copy the file and give it back in their home room. The students started teaching each other how to use the computers and helping each other with the English . This was a very inspirational thing for an English teacher such as myself. It has also given the students a good reason to approach me, the "gaijin," or exotic and mysterious foreigner. More than anything, however, it demonstrates the practicality of learning English, even for people who will never leave their hometown, and it gives them an excellent motivation to study English and to pay attention in class. They realize that these are things they can use in their letters.
I wish there were more boys in the club. I have tried to target them and have even made a plea specifically for boys. As of December, there aren't any boys in the English Club. A few showed up at the first meeting, but never returned. There is a new Net Café in Aomori where you can use a computer with Net access for 450 yen/hour or 3000yen/month. Someday, I would like to have a field trip to the Net Café so they can get some hands on experience, which is always much more exciting.
The troubles would be transportation, money, and apparently the e-mail system doesn't work very well. Replies apparently show up on different computers at random, so there is no way of receiving e-mail. One possible alternative would be to have my address in the Reply-to header and I could distribute the letters as I do now, but very few experienced Internet users pay attention to those headers, let alone students who are just learning about computers.
Mid October: Nishi Kohkoh's Bunka-sai (School Festival). Several booths, handicrafts, lotsa food. It's a lot of fun. It's a lot of work. If you plan ahead of time, you may have your own booth. I would like to get the teachers to do a dunk tank. It would make so much money!
End of October: I dressed up as
a cat for Halloween. I brought a jack-o-lantern to school. On the bulletin
board, I had a short reading passage about the origins of Halloween with
reading comp. Questions. The student with the most correct answers won
the jack-o-lantern. In class, I explained Halloween and told scary stories.
Some teachers taught while wearing funny animal noses that I brought. It
was fun. There used to be a Halloween festival at Nishi Kohkoh. It would
be fun to get it started again.
I came to the realization that it's really impossible to hold meetings of the English Club with 50 members and decide to divide them by the country or school of their pen pals. By the way, the students pick the country of their choice of the 5 or more that I have listed (depending on my contacts). I give them a second pen pal. I try to make sure that every student has at least one pen pal that is a native speaker of English and I try to give each student a variety in geography. For example, I might give a student a pen pal from Mexico and from Sweden (Sweden, Israel, USA, Australia, and Canada are regarded as native speakers in my system- some because of their high proficiency in the language). The country-specific meetings go a lot smoother and students feel more comfortable asking for help, giving feedback or expressing concerns. Also if a student can't make it to one meeting on one day, they can often make it to their other country meeting on another- then I can tell them what they missed in the other meeting.
Beginning of November: Mid-Year
Block Conference. This was hosted by Aomori City, with ALTs from Hokkaido,
Aomori, and Akita participating. This may be the last year they do that
because there are so many ALTs and there are less isolated positions than
before. I wish it would continue- but oh well. It was pretty poorly organized
by our Prefectural Board of Education and AJET wasn't very "with it"
either, but there was a cool disco one of the nights. I learned a lot from
the ALTs from other prefectures. It gave me a lot of ideas and was very
One ALT speaks at a normal speed in the classroom. I was really scared because it seemed that the students wouldn't understand. She showed us a video from the beginning of the year. None of the students understood and no one raised their hands. Then she showed us a video of the same class a year later. These students had the best listening comprehension and spoken ability I have seen in Japanese high school students! I was amazed. I had heard the argument for speaking at a normal speed before, but it never seemed like a good idea because it seemed like the students wouldn't understand. This class was pretty impressive. SO, I decided to speak at a normal pace in the classroom. After only a month of speaking this way, I have seen remarkable improvements. The students rarely don't understand because of speed. It's usually because of the vocabulary or something else. My own students aren't as shy about speaking to me because they've seen that you don't have to be as careful when you speak. Just get your point across.
I also learned some good tips on lesson planning. A lot of ALTs are seen as activity or game machines. The ALT comes and everyone plays games. Games are great, but you should structure the games around the lesson, not the lesson around the games. It should follow the pattern Easy-Hard-Easy. Easy stuff at the beginning and end because that's what they remember. Difficult stuff in the middle so that they forget- also the "easy" at the end is usually good as a review game. Also, the warm-up should be fast and get them thinking in English- it should also be something they are familiar with. It's not really a warm-up if you spend the first 5-10 minutes explaining "how to play." My favorite, "The Stand-Up Game", takes 2 minutes when it's done right, you speak to every student and get a response, get them moving around, blood pumping, and English flowing. Write 2-5 questions on the board (good for review- or basic). Demonstrate with the JTE. Explain that all the students stand-up. When you ask them a question, they need to answer as quickly as possible so that they can sit down. If their answer doesn't fit or they answer too slow, they get a big batsu and can't sit down yet. The idea is to move fast, pick students at random (we divide the room in half and each take a side), and get them to feel good about laughing. Sometimes, BATSU a genki students or the teacher, just to show that it's ok (say it was too slow). Try to make sure that the last student left standing is usually a genki student. You can really give them a hard time-it's more fun that way. If there is a shy student, try to ask a question you know they'll know the answer to.
I start every class with this now. The students know what to expect. They can do it fast. There's minimal preparation (Just think of a few questions- I usually have the same 2-3 questions and add a new one until they become way too easy), It only takes about 5 minutes, and it really does work- the students become instantly genki! These are the best things I took away from the conference. After talking about all this at the conference, it might be weird coming back to the real world where your students are shy, they still don't speak English, and the teachers still don't seem to team-teach quite right (and neither do you). Hang in there and do your best to use what you learned. That's why they have these conferences.
Early December: End-of term Exams. These are nasty. I actually helped review the grammar in my oral classes (they can write it, but they can't say it) and the teachers were pretty blown away. I made the suggestion that we try to incorporate more of the grammar patterns they are learning in the grammar classes so that oral and written develop together. They were pretty surprised with the idea, but they liked it. From now on, we are going to try to incorporate more grammar patterns into the oral classes- instead of them listening to flight announcements and writing down cities and flight numbers. It's useful, but I would prefer that my students could execute a simple greeting or talk about their lives. That is when English is useful- when it's personally relevant. I'm looking forward to more constructive classes next year.
Mid December: Winter vacation starts and goes through Mid January. I gave the students of the English club (Now over 70 students writing to over 15 countries) the addresses I could get for their pen pals and suggested that they send a Japanese New Year's Card to their pen pal via airmail over the vacation. Suggestions: Make Christmas/Hanukkah Cards in the English Cards. Write X-mas/New Year's Cards in class. Holiday Party: Have a special focus: i.e.: British X-mas or Hanukkah. Organize your stuff for the new year and Have a great Break!
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