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Flying Solo

Communicating with JTEs

What works and what doesn't

Setting Classroom Rules


Starting Over

Back to School ALT Conference Lenore's Home Page 1997 Summary

Flying Solo

     The first few days of January, you will probably still be on vacation. January 3-6 are national holidays in Japan. On January 7-9, I taught an English Class for UNESCO. This is an eikaiwa type class that is offered free of charge to Junior high students. Despite my experience of teaching English by myself for so long, I had forgotten how to teach without a JTE! During those three days, I taught 2 one-hour classes a day. By the last day, I was quite pleased with the progress the students seemed to be making as I got back into the swing of things, teaching English by myself. The biggest difference between these classes and those which are taught in the schools is the fact that I teach grammar and conversation at the same time. For example, if they learn a grammar structure in their grammar or written class at school, they usually could never understand if you said the same structure to them in their oral communication class- not to mention actually being able to use it to communicate. All-in-all, the classes went very well.

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Communicating with JTEs

Classes started at Nishi High on January 16th. I spent the week before classes organizing my desk, my thoughts, my lesson plans, and my life in general. I highly recommend re-evaluating what you've been doing in all the classes. I took this opportunity to pour over my notes on each class and to try to set some goals for each class.

I have a notebook with a section for each of the classes I teach for any given school. After each class, I write down what we did in this notebook with the date. I don't write the lesson plan, but I write down what we actually did in the class. After that, I write down the class' attitude: whether they were tired, genki, silent, bored, etc. Then I write my evaluation of the class: what went well, what went badly, why something might have happened and recommendations for how to make it better next time. Then I write down the goals for the next class. This takes me about 5 minutes after each class and it helps me to keep track of how each class is doing or how I'm doing in each class, as the case may be.

This way I have a chronological log of what's going on in each class with pretty minimal effort. Then, every time I sit down to make the next lesson plan or talk to the teacher or a student from the class, I can do so with a better idea of what's going on. It helps me see the forest through the trees, if you know what I mean- Especially since EFL classes seem to go up and down so quickly (a roller coaster ride). Ideally, you could do this with the JTE, but realistically speaking, with time constraints being what they are- it's difficult. If anything was outstanding (good or bad), I usually try to mention it to the teacher- either then or before the next class. Which brings me to mention some things I've noticed about communicating with JTEs:

1) For some reason, there seems to be this war between ALTs and JTEs as far as how an English Lesson goes. Many times, it seems to me, that the ALTs and JTEs actually have the same goals, but they have a hard time communicating them to each other effectively and so it seems like they are always working against each other. Both "sides" have been beating the issue to death to such a point that now, the arguments have become hyperbolic and exaggerated. As far as I can tell, these are the two sides (in their extreme cases) :



The textbook is the antichrist. You must avoid using the textbook as much as possible and at all costs The textbook is the way English is supposed to be taught. The textbook is what the students must know in order to perform well in school, on exams, and in life.
Grammar is the antichrist. You must avoid teaching grammar at all costs. Grammar is boring and dull and the students know too much as it is. Grammar is what the students must know to perform well in school, on exams, and in life. Since we can not spend the Oral classes teaching anything useful, ALT's classes are often wasted time.
The JTE doesn't know what they are doing because their spoken English is not as good as mine is and their classes are boring. The JTE obviously doesn't understand the students. The ALT is often young, inexperienced, has never studied English as a foreign language, let alone taught it, does not know grammar and usually does not understand the students. Therefore, the ALT does not know what they are doing.
The JTE constantly avoids discussing any real issues with me regarding the class. He/She is unwilling to cooperate with me in trying to discuss any real issues surrounding the class. The ALT is always very demanding and overbearing. The ALT never listens to what the JTE has to say with regard to a class. ALTs are typically pig-headed and stubborn.
The most important thing that the students must learn is how to speak English. The most important thing that the students must learn is how to pass the entrance examinations.
This system needs change and it needs it now. I'm here to implement that change, despite the JTEs. The JTEs baby the students too much and are usually stuck in the past: with archaic methods and ancient lesson plans. ALTs usually move too fast for the students. They assume the students' level is higher than it is and they scare the students away from English by being too aggressive and pushy about speaking and understanding English. Their ways are often hapharzard, unorganized and they are very careless about what expose the students to.

I think that the first step to better communication is realising that these are both extremes and to recognise when you are falling into one argument or the other. The most difficult way to learn a language is the grammar-translation method. This is the way most monks learned a foreign language and it requires saintly motivation and dedication. Monbusho knows this. That is why they have changed their policy to encourage communicative teaching of English.

Students should be studying the same or similar material in all their English classes. You both want students to perform well in BOTH written and spoken English. One doesn't develop easily without the other and is often useless if it does. If you study some grammar in the oral class and USE IT, it makes the written grammar that much easier to master and faster to produce- a skill essential to test-taking. If you are able to comprehend and to produce the structures presented in a grammar class, your speaking ability will skyrocket. Most students do not KNOW all of the grammar that they study. They learn it for the test and then promptly and quickly forget it. The oral class can be used to review quickly and effectively the forms and structures that they are likely to forget.

2) When presenting a suggestion or new idea to the JTE, try to be as organized as possible. Try not to simply state it. This assumes that either your Japanese or their English comprehension is flawless. Also, even among native speakers, many details are missed when they are simply spoken. Try to have the materials you would use already made- or at least a sketch of them. If it involves strange pattern formations with the students- referring to desks or rows in the classroom, try to draw it on a piece of paper or to show it with yen coins for each individual student or something.

In fact, you should try to have a suggested plan to present to the teacher that is open ended and requires some feedback. This makes a minimal amount of work for them, will facilitate some communication and team planning, and it makes a minimal amount of work for you. Nobody likes to plan a lesson by themselves. If you make the sketch, it gives the two of you a place to start talking about the plan. If you don't get to meet before the class, you can fill in the blanks yourself if they don't show up with a plan. If they have a plan already made, then you can try to show them some of your ideas. After the class or when you are planning. This will demonstrate your enthusiasm for being a part of the teaching process while not seeming overly pushy or arrogant. Emphasize the desire to have their input or insight into the class. Physically leave the blanks for them to fill-in.

3) Part of being well-organized involves getting to know each JTE and really listening to what they might be trying to tell you. For a westerner, it can be very difficult trying to pick up the signals that they think of as being obvious... especially at first. In order to try to better "get a clue," I keep a file with all of my first draft "suggestion plans" or the skeleton plans that I referred to in #2. On these, I write the changes that were suggested to me by the JTE. If they decided to nix something, I'll have it written down. I work with so many different JTEs, that it's difficult to remember each JTE's teaching style and preferences. This way, I have a record I can refer to that will show me pretty clearly if a teacher is consistently saying "no" to something. If I wasn't aware of the fact that they kept saying "NO!", I would soon seem like quite a nuisance.

4) If they keep rejecting one of your ideas, even though you've tried it with other JTEs and you know that it works like a charm and you *really* want to do it. I suggest that you give it a rest for a little while and then mention it again later as, "I know that you are nervous about trying this, but I've been thinking about it a lot and when I try it with other JTEs it works very well. Would you consider trying it?"

5) As you may or may not know, when stating causal relationships in Japanese, you state the reason, purpose or cause and THEN the conclusion or result: " (reason) ...kara... (result)" Note that this is the opposite of English: "(conclusion) ...because... (reason)" as in "I like ice cream because it's sweet." The same is true for persuasive essays. In English, we often state our conclusion or thesis first, and then go on to support it. In Japanese, they give the supports and then offer their conclusion. Because of this difference, I have noticed some confusion when trying to make suggestions to JTEs, albeit in English. If I say "we should do this. The reason is that 1...2... 3...," they often look at me a little confused. I believe that they think my reasoning is backwards. I'm not making sense. I'm not being logical. Many times they ask me several questions and I end up repeating my thesis or suggestion again before they are satisfied. To save time and trouble, I've adopted a more Japanese way of presenting things. When making a suggestion, try telling them WHY first, then make the suggestion. SO, many times my suggestions sound like this:

reason 1: Maybe the activity went too slowly in the last class.
leads to: I think they didn't understand the instructions
*Accept some responsibility: I probably should not have spoken in English for so long without checking to see if they understood.
reason 2: But if I just ask them to raise their hand if they understood, they won't respond.
reason 3: Of course, the only way for them to all understand everything is for them to hear it in Japanese.
reason 4: If you simply translate, the students may begin to expect the Japanese translation and thus will not pay attention to the English.
reason 5: We need to make it so that all students must listen to the English and so that they all understand it.
Conclusion: Maybe for this reason, we should ask a student to translate what they think I said for the rest of the class. If the students do not know who we will pick, they will all have to try their best to understand the English. You (the JTE) could tell them if the translation was close and add anything they missed. Maybe the instructions would become more like a kind of guessing game this way and then it would be more entertaining and faster than trying to figure out if they understand.
***And then, to close the sale, elicit a positive response. The Japanese language is structured so that you do not have to contradict people. Premeditate a problem they might have with the idea (and a rebuttal for afterwards, of course) and then give them an easy way out of it to put them at ease about giving their input:
       Do you think this would be too embarrassing for the students?

Notice how I made very small steps in my logic. This way they can follow you in your thought process (although it may be backwards) and can agree with you step by step. This way, if they don't agree, you can both tell where you lost them and try to work something out. If you state your conclusion right away, it might seem like a radical jump to them so they will either totally disagree or blindly agree (not a good thing either because they are not helping you with what they know best... Japanese culture and mindset).

...I know it seems really long-winded and like you're NEVER going to get to the point, but how often have you felt this way about something a JTE was trying to tell you? This is the clearest way to get your point across to them. Now that you are doing your best to make yourself easier to understand for them, maybe you can start to show them how to do the same for you. After all, they are English teachers and should learn how to present their ideas in English (this means in the English order). I recommend using the above style at first with your JTEs to make them feel more at ease and to open the lines of communication and slowly moving into the western way of presenting things.

6) Be willing to accept responsibility if things don't go well and don't be suprised if they don't want to try it again. If you think of some improvements, present them in the form of suggestions. Why didn't it work? How do you resolve them?

7) Never ask a direct question in which they will have to openly contradict you if they disagree. Instead of asking "Do you think this is a good idea?", phrase a question such that it places the focus on the students and such that if they disagree, they can say "Yes." If you ask if something is a good idea, they will never say "No.", because they are straight-out , directly and flatly contradicting you. So, try saying something like, "Will the students think this is too boring/difficult/embarrassing/silly, etc.?" If you want input or responses, you have to make them feel that it's OK to give it.

8) Be patient and try to have some perspective. Many ALTs want to see changes and results quickly and so end up seeming very pushy and childish. Realize that although you may have been here for a whole 6 months, you may have only met with the same class 5-10 times, if you're lucky. Changes can happen in your classes, but if you make radical jumps, they won't be able to follow you and the only change you might see is them getting more and more frustrated (as well as you) or more and more despondent and distant.

9) The other thing that will help you work efficiently with JTEs is to have a set structure for a class. This will minimize your planning time and allow you to concentrate your efforts on how to make that day's class the most productive as possible.


I just hope that these small observations on my part might help you *both* achieve your goals. Again, these are my personal observations and suggestions. They are not empirically correct, nor are they guaranteed to work for you. If you have any suggestions, please let me know.

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What Works and What Doesn't...

So, while looking through my notes on the classes that I'd taught, I came to the following conclusions about what works well and what doesn't for me and my situation:


1. Bribe them!

I use "L Dollars" (Lenore Dollars). It's not the most original idea, but it seems to work fairly well. I take a US Dollar bill (because I'm a US-American) and instead of good ole George Washington's face on the front, it's mine. I just photocopy mass amounts of these and put my hanko on every one of them. This way, they cannot be easily reproduced. I give these L dollars out in class to students who volunteer answers, answer correctly or just generally are active and participate. I make it harder for outgoing students to get them and easier for shy students to get them. This gives everyone a taste for success and they will hopefully continue to try to get more. It can't be too easy nor too hard.

Then, they come to Lenore's Trading Post. Here, they can trade L$3 for a candy, sticker or US Postal Stamp (get cool ones like Marilyn Monroe or James Dean). In Japan, they have picture stickers, where you get your picture taken at a photo booth and they are printed on little stickers. It takes about 2 minutes. Here, they are called "purikura" and I know that they have them in Korea as well. Anyway, these things are all-the-rage with girls in Junior and Senior High School. They collect stickers of their friends and have little books full of them. I'm getting a whole Lenore purikura set with me in strange, embarrassing, funny or sexy poses (hey- gotta make it worth their while) which they can "buy" for L$3. The things sell like hot cakes. Everyone wants a purikura of their beloved ALT! Give them a goal- let them collect the whole set!

For L$5, they can get a postcard. Where do you get all those post cards, Lenore. Here's a hint. Go to a record store or somewhere where they have those free Postcard Ad Racks in your home country. You know, where you can get free postcards that companies make to advertise themselves... Grab handfuls of them (they're free! And you're giving them international advertising!) I know that they have them at places like Tower Records in the USA and coffee shops and "cool" places like that in the UK and most of Western Europe. They are hip, in style, in English, and the Japanese seem to have this thing with postcards that I haven't completely managed to understand.

For L$10, they can get a poster. I got the posters for free from Tower Records in California, but I'm running low and I haven't been able to get my hands on any more free posters... Any ideas?

2. Recognition by their peers

Whenever I give away an L$ at first, I always make a big deal about it. I make them seem really cool and really precious (and I kind of take the piss out of the whole thing at the same time). I point out the BEEEAAAUUUTTIIIIful picture on the front, I clap for them, I scream, I jump. I turn into super-genki ALT from hell. Needless to say, I calm down pretty quickly and soon the L$ become more of an integral part of class.

At the end of the semester, I posted a list of the students who had turned in the most L$ at Lenore's Trading Post. I listed the top three separately and then provided a list of everyone. This I posted on a bulletin board in the hall of our school. All the students usually see it at one time or another. I'm going to present the top 3 with a special certificate at the next English Club meeting.

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Warming Up

This is my favorite activity for warming up a class and it has always worked in every class. It takes 2 minutes once you get good at it, you get to talk to every single student (a big deal in my classes of 40 students), every single student gets to speak, they learn to think quickly in English and their blood gets pumping. However, the preparation for the teachers is an absolute minimum. What, you might ask, is this miracle activity, Lenore? I call it the stand up game- others have been known to call it the sit-down game. I guess it just depends if you drink a glass of water that's half-full or half-empty...

Write 2-5 questions on the board, depending on their English ability and their experience with the game. Make it so the answers will be quick. Demonstrate the right and wrong ways to answer these questions with the teachers. Demonstrate that they must answer as fast as they can and as correctly as they can and only in English. Here is an example from a class I did today- where it was their first time doing the warm-up:

A: Hello.
B: Hello.
A: Very good, sit down.

B:How are you?
B: (BUZZ) WRONG! The right answer is "I'm fine, thank you."

A:What's your name?
B: (actually "wagane" in Aomori)... nani?
A: (BUZZ!) WRONG! The answer is "My name is..."

B:What's your name?
A: ........ (hesitate) .......

So that's your demo. Basically, you've explained and demonstrated the rules. Ask how many don't understand and point to someone who isn't raising their hand and ask them to explain in Japanese. They should get a dollar for a correct translation- what the hell. SO the idea is this: All the students stand up. Each teacher takes care of one half of the room. You will ask each of the students one of the questions you've written on the board. They must answer quickly, correctly, and in English so that they can sit down. Since there are two of you, their blood always starts pumping because they down know which one of you will ask *them* the fatal question. It's fun!

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Getting them to raise their hands

Many times I auction off the number of people who are raising their hands. I tell them to raise their hand if they wrote ANYTHING- be it a picture, katakana, or even-god forbid, English. They don't quite get this idea at first because normally, you only raise your hand if you *know* the answer- like 100% certain. I tell them that if only 10 out of a class of 40 can raise their hands, either the material is too difficult and they should go back to learning the alphabet, the material is not hard and they are just stupid, or I am a bad teacher. They don't want any of these to be true. I tell them that I think that they are smart and that they do understand the material and that they can attempt to do it, but they have to show me that by raising their hands so that I know. Some material is meant to be hard- so if only a few people can even begin to guess, that's ok- but not all of it. Anyway...

Then, when I asked who wrote something... ANYTHING and ask for hands, I count them off:
          "Do I see one person, one person's hand- one person who has an idea- oh! very good- I have one person- do I see two- two- two people- two people who can guess- anything-two people going once-two people going twice- Ah-ha! Two people- now I'm looking for three- three people-very good- what about four- four people-four people going once -four people going twice- four people going three times- and TIME OUT! (pointing to one student)... What did you write?"
     I try to get as close to the speed of an auctioneer as possible. They're probably amused just watching the crazy gaijin rattle off endlessly and look like a fool. I know it sounds crazy, but it works and somehow it seems to keep the students awake as they try to see who's DARING to raise their hand. In some classes, I have about 40% of the students raise their hands (I don't always start counting at one). I figure that when I hit 50% someday- there will be no real need to auction them off anymore.

When the student says their answer, I ask if they wrote it in katakana or in English. If they say English, I always throw in an "Oh! That's Great!" and then... "How do you spell it?" This is more for the other students to check their papers than anything, but it's also good practice I think. If it's in katakana. I write it on the board and then I ask if anyone can try to write it (to guess) in English. Usually you can end up with the whole class trying to figure out the puzzle. The one who gets it right gets the dollar- and of course the original person who volunteered the answer gets one, too. This way, I hope to stress that the attempt is more important than the correct answer.

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Group Activities

When the students work in groups, their Japanese custom of relying on each other for help and support and fear of being singled out both work to their advantage. You will notice that the groups tend to be noisier, more active and vocal and more willing to participate. This brings up a number of things:

1. They have a tendency to be less disciplined. Group activities are the most enjoyable when the class is controlled and everyone is focused on the same task. Everyone should be on the same wavelength. This is where you need some serious inshin-denshin! Institute some rules and ways of enforcing them every time the students go into groups. All students and groups should be well-aware of these rules and not only willing to follow them, but also willing to enforce them. I do a count-down to silence. Whoever is talking after I say zero gets a point taken off for their group. (heh-heh-heh) It works! Many times it's the quietest I've ever seen a class.

2. You might get a lot of little social idiosyncrasies going on if you're not careful. You can try letting them make groups with friends so that the group will be stronger, but too many times people are left out and you end up making weird amendments trying to appease everyone. Maybe doing it by the way they sit would be best. It depends on the culture of the individual class. Many times, even the home room teachers aren't aware of the latest dramas in the class, so try asking a student. I did this in one of my classes and I've noticed that the students are more receptive to me now. I've expressed an interest in them.

3. Every time I do group activities it takes them about 5 minutes for them to decide that understanding what I'm saying (get into groups of 5 people) will not be considered showing-off. I think they have to wait until they know that most people get it. If you do an activity with groups once a day, they'll catch on pretty quickly.

4. I've made set groups in my classes. I tell them to get into groups of 5 people, and then I give them a piece of paper upon which they write the names of the 5 members and a name for the group. As they finish, I write the group names on the board. When they are done, I have each group stand as I call their name so that they can be acknowledged/applauded/bowed to by the rest of the class. I find that this helps establish group solidarity. Also, this way, they meet with the same group every time I tell them to go into their groups and they don't have to decide who is the cool person to be in a group with that day. Plus- this helps me remember names faster. When I need individuals from the groups, I just call out whichever name I want from the list.

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