Monday, September 29, 2008

The "Internationalization" crutch

I'm pretty sure I've said it before, but I'll say it again: I think having "internationalization" as a stated aim of JET is a crock. I'm fine with it being a desired outcome, but as a goal, I think it's too easily used as an excuse or crutch for indifferent teaching.

When internationalization is there to fall back on, ALTs can tell themselves it's OK if they're not actually teaching students English, as long as the kids are having fun (interacting with a "foreigner").

Again, fun is great for an English class, but it's not the point. If fun was the main goal, teachers could play Bingo, karuta and fruits basket variations all the time and students would have tons of fun. But would they actually learn English?

I think the role of an ALT is to help students learn English. We do this, for the most part, through coming up with fun games and activities to reinforce learning. That's the key point here: learning.

Honestly, if all teachers needed was games, they could spend a lot less money and invest in Genki English or something. Why do they want us, as people from different countries, to help the Japanese English teachers (or homeroom teachers for elementary schools)? Because we were educated differently and thus bring a different perspective to English education. Besides, the Japanese teachers have other concerns (making sure students do their homework, pass tests, understand concepts, behave properly, etc.) whereas we, as assistant language teachers, are free to focus solely on engaging the students in learning. (And the advantage we have over curriculums/resources like Genki English--great as they may be--is that we can adapt and create new things to suit the needs of our classes.)

So yeah, even though it's difficult when you only see a school once a month or once or twice a term, I believe it is our responsibility to help kids learn English. This means diversifying our methods/games to appeal to different types of learners (bodily kinesthetic, verbal/linguistic, etc.), targeting games to develop specific skills (listening, speaking, reading, writing), and etc.

Basically, I think it means we need to start thinking of ourselves as actual teachers and not just "(international) circus performers." True, there is no teaching experience requirement to become a JET, but teaching is the job, so I think the expectation should be there that for ALTs to develop and carry themselves as teachers.

I think the fault here in not setting such expectations lies with the JET Programme as well as the individual ALTs, contracting organizations/school boards/teachers, etc. (Here's where I go back to my first point.) By leaving such a fuzzy crutch of a goal as "internationalization" in the mission statement of JET, the Programme is setting the wrong tone right from the get go. It's not surprising, then, that teachers, schools, and even ALTs don't necessarily expect ALTs to do more than "making interacting with people from different countries (using English) interesting and fun for students."

And I think that's doing a huge disservice to everyone involved:
- to the students who, at the end of the day, still need to pass the English portion of various entrance exams;
- to the teachers who have to accomodate ALTs periodically coming in and "disrupting" the usual flow of classes;
- and to the ALTs who are sometimes paid to do nothing more than sit around the office or to be human tape recorders in classes.

The responsibility for rectifying matters, I believe, must necessarily fall to the ALTs, who arguably have the most free time out of all parties involved.

I have seen the incredible results a little bit of initiative (and probably a lot of tact) from ALTs can create. Admittedly our city has had the advantage of a veteran (five year!) ALT and supportive supervisor/Board of Education, but I sincerely believe it's within the powers of all ALTs to effect changes, even if they are only small and slow in coming.

So yeah, at the end of my time on JET, I want to be able to look back and honestly say that I worked "isshokenmei" (with all my might) to leave the state of English education in Towada a little improved from when I started.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Voting overseas

Luckily I took some time earlier last week to catch up on friends' blogs, since I learned from one of them that the election was actually set. Since moving to Japan I've been pretty out of the loop in terms of news (Japanese, Canadian--everything, really). To my defense, I did know that there was probably going to be a federal election called soon, I just didn't know when specifically. But yeah, reading about prompted me to get on the ball and to find out what I needed to do be able to vote from Japan.

Thankfully the process for obtaining a special ballot to vote while overseas doesn't seem to be too difficult. The Elections Canada website has a convenient "Get the special ballot voting kit" page which took me through a quick survey to determine my eligibility for the special ballot and then led me to a page to download the registration form. Now that I've gotten and printed out the scans of my driver's license from home, all I have to do is mail the form and documents (making sure it arrives in Ottawa by 6pm local time on October 7th).

Other than going through the information available on the aforementioned site, however, I didn't really give much thought to how I would vote until I read another friend's post on "Who to vote for?" After reading about how she emailed the candidates in her riding to ask about their specific plans for poverty reduction and environmental sustainability, I decided I would at least check out the websites of the candidates in my riding (Mississauga-Erindale).

Maybe I'm just lazy, but simply doing that was enough for me to decide: I'm going to vote for Omar Alghabra (Liberal) again. I was impressed by the fact that it only took me a single click to find exactly the information I was looking for on his website: information about election issues and his plans for addressing them (in the "Your TOP Priorities" section). Admittedly it's a little lacking in details/specifics, but at least it shows that he is aware of more issues than health care (a perennial Canadian concern) and the environment. I was particularly reassured to see that he had immigration (and specifically the accreditation of foreign trained professionals) and affordable housing in his list of priorities. I wish I had seen something there about education, but I think I recall some things I read in his newsletters before...

At any rate, I think that if I spent just a little more time going through the website--reading past newsletters and press releases--I could probably find more detailed information about his policies.

When I looked at my Conservative candidate's webpage, however, the first thing I saw was stuff about Stephen Harper vs the Liberals which immediately gave me a bad impression. I mean, sure party stuff is important to consider in a federal election, but I'm voting for the candidate in my riding, not for a party. I don't need mudslinging propaganda-ish rhetoric: I want to know what the candidates think about specific issues and their plans/intentions to address them.

Along those lines, I couldn't find anything beyond the bio for the Green Party member, and nothing at all online for the NDP candidate. I suppose the Marxist-Leninist candidate could have a great website, but I decided it would probably be OK for me to just avoid researching that one altogether.

I guess I could be a bit more active and, like my friend, email the candidates to ask them their thoughts specifically, but I rather think that the type of information candidates make available, as well as how easily they make it available to the public says something about the character of the candidate and the type of relationship s/he intends to have with her/his constituents.

Just from spending 5 minutes on Alghabra's website, I felt like he actually cares about what his constituents think and that he tries to anticipate as well as address our concerns/needs. On the other hand, I felt mildly insulted (not to mention frustrated) that all I could find on the Conservative candidate's site was links to other Conservative websites and pro-Conservative, anti-Liberal propaganda.

I mean, if you want me to vote for you, could you at least tell me what YOU have been working on and what YOUR thoughts are on key issues? I'd like to think that I'm not completely biased against the Conversatives, but I admit that I don't think their policies are in line with what I want to see happening in Canada. So, it's not a good strategy to try to convince me to vote for you when the only real reason to do so that I can see from the website is that you're a Conservative candidate. I need to know why I should vote for you in spite of the fact that you're Conservative!

So yeah, maybe I'm not examining the different candidates' policies as closely as I should, but I nonetheless feel satisfied with my decision to vote for Alghabra (again).

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Ping Pong!

So this weekend was the Chuutairen again (apparently called the Shinjinsen for fall) and it was super tiring but exciting.

Part of the reason it was super tiring is that I was stupid and ended up staying up late both Friday and Saturday night (until, respectively, 2am and 1am) so I felt like I zombie when I got up around 5:30am to prepare lunch and get to the school by 6:45am.

At any rate, it was exciting because this time around two of our students got certificates! An ichinensei girl got 5th (along with three others) and a ninensei boy got 9th (again, along with three others). The Japanese ranking system seems strange to me since rather than competing for a definite ranking, they award multiple prizes/certificates after 1st and 2nd. For example, the two semi-final losers were both awarded 3rd place instead of having to compete for it. Similarly, the four quarter-final losers all got 5th place, and the four losers from the round before that were all awarded 9th place.

But anyway, despite my confusion over the ranking thing, I was really happy that the ninensei boy, Maiya, got 9th! He's my favourite student from that grade, and he's also the one who had a really tough loss during the summer Chuutairen. It was probably a little bad of me, but I made it a point to follow his games. Even though I was on the other side of the gym cheering for another student at the time, as soon as his game was announced, I left and went to get a better view of Maiya's game. (The student I had been cheering for was well on his way to winning, but still...)

This particular game (his second) was particularly stressful to watch because it was eerily similar to his last heart-breaking match. His opponent was, like last time, from the strongest school, Tomari (although it was a different guy this time). And, once again, he won his first two sets without too much difficulty and lost by a fairly small margin in the third. Even though I could see from his play that he had gotten a lot stronger (he made some really spectacular plays throughout the first three sets), given his past experience, I thought that this game would be the biggest test of his character growth. Would he be able to brush off memories of the past and regain his composure to win?

He also lost the fourth match (this time, though, by a fairly small margin) and I got really nervous by this point, thinking it was going to be a near-total replay of that unfortunate game (where he lost his composure and the match), but he managed to keep his cool to win (albeit by a fairly small margin) the fifth and final set for the match. As one of the Kirita students who was cheering with me described it, it was a "giri giri win" (meaning he just barely made it). I can't be sure, but his expression of happiness and relief after winning the match made me think that he also felt he had overcome his disappointment from the last Chuutairen.

Although his third opponent was also from a strong team, he was able to win fairly convincingly (with only a few bad moments in the final set) in three straight sets.

His fourth match determined whether he would be able to go to the quarter-finals or not. Unfortunately, he lost in a hard fought match, but he definitively showed his character growth when he came back up to the gallery after the loss.

He had looked a little upset when he lost (another ninensei boy--one of his better friends--commented that he was probably crying), but when he came back up he was very composed. I told him "otsukaresama" (an acknowledgment of someone's hard work/efforts) and, a little later, "yoku ganbarimashita" (you worked really hard). To the latter, he gave me a bit of a puzzled look and said something along the lines of (roughly translated): "Not yet. I can't (or won't) cry because I still have a match." In my confusion over the ranking system, I had thought that he had either already earned a certificate or was completely out of contention for one. It turned out, though, that, like last time, he still had another match and if he won that, he would get a certificate for placing in the "top ten."

When I realized that he was in the same situation as last time and how focused on the next game and calm he was, I felt this huge burst of pride/satisfaction/happiness at seeing how much he'd grown since the summer. The fact that he went on to win that "top ten" match was really just icing on the cake. ^_^

Anyway, apart from the performance of one of my favourite students, there were a few other interesting things at the tournament. I noticed during the practice this morning that even if you knew very little about table tennis, you could tell by watching the practice which students were considered "top dogs." Since there aren't enough tables for all the students to practice on at the same time, the way practice work is that four students practice at a table at a time: the two pairs rallying make an X-pattern across the table. Four other players (two other pairs) await their turns behind the players using the table. When a pair's rally ends, the next pair steps up to the table while the original pair chases down the ball. This means that there are typically six to eight players at a table.

When I looked down at all the tables, however, I could see that there was a table with only four players practicing; it was occupied by two pairs from the top school, Tomari--they took first, second, and one of the third prizes for the guys' individual games in the summer, as well as first place in the team competitions. I saw a couple of pairs wandering around looking for tables, but rather than joining the Tomari table, they went to tables that already had eight people practicing!

Next to the Tomari guys' table, there was a table with seven girls. Four of the students were doing the normal switch off, but the other three girls were different: one girl always stayed and the other two practiced with her. Even if that girl missed the ball, the girl partnered with her would go chase after the ball (usually the person who misses retrieves) while the waiting person would step up to allow her to continue practicing. This girl, as you could guess, was the girls' first prize winner from the last event.

So yeah, even though I was really tired, thinking about the table dynamics helped to keep me awake and interested during the practice.

The last (well, chronologically the second, since all the stuff with Maiya was at the end, and the practice stuff was first) interesting thing was an incident during another of my ninensei boy's match. This particular student is quite a character. He's really tall, but he never stands or sits straight. Even when he's walking, his shoulders and slumped and he's hunched over! Apart from his posture, he also doesn't speak clearly. He speaks in a mumble and uses improper Japanese (not to mention English). For example, when calling home after an event to ask his parents to pick him up, he won't identify himself or greet them properly but instead just says "ittekoi" (a rough, dictatorial way of saying "come")! My JTE has described him (and I agree with her descriptions!) at various times as "an alien," "an injured soldier" and "an octopus." It's hard to explain, really, but he's the most unique character I've ever encountered.

Anyway, so this student, Takumichi, won his first match. I was a little surprised because his style of table tennis play is similar to his normal carriage (kind of boneless and lethargic), but it was understandable since he was against an ichinensei student. In his second match, though, he was pretty thoroughly outclassed. He lost in three straight sets by very wide margins each time. But yeah, during one of the sets, I happened to turn to watch him (another Kirita student was playing at a table in front of me, whereas Takumichi was to my right) as he made a rather desperate shot.

Apparently he assumed the shot wouldn't go in, so, for reasons unknownst to me, he turned around and started walking away from the table (even though it wasn't a set/match point!). But the thing is, the shot DID go in, and his opponent returned it! So of course Takumichi gave up the point. In fact, he only turned around when his opponent's return shot bounced off the table past him! I was so shocked that he would just walk away from the table like that, I actually YELLED "BAKA! Saigo made akiramenai, Takumichi!" (Idiot!! Until the very end, don't give up!) After I got over my surprise, though, I immediately saw the ridiculousness of the situation--not only his play, but my own behaviour in calling him "BAKA!" so loudly in public! =P

So, all in all, it was quite a memorable Chuutairen!

And, on a random, but related note, I highly recommend the Ping Pong movie! It's based on the manga (also excellent!) by Taiyo Matsumoto. It's an entertaining but...thoughtful? (don't know if that's the right word) story about friendship and the search for a hero in the competitive world of high school ping pong!

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The novelty factor...

One thing that's definitely better in Japan than in Canada is Baskin Robbins (also known as "31 Ice" here). They not only have the standard ice cream, shakes and floats, but they also have crepes and fabulous looking sundaes!

But for me, the best thing is the variety they offer. Every month they have at least two or three "new" seasonal flavours. This month, for example, they added Darjeeling Tea, Ringo (apple) Sorbet, Tiramisu and Baseball Park (a nutty flavour). And of course, to keep the number of flavours constant, they also have flavours discontinued every month, so the seasonal flavours are only available for about 2-3 months.

They're also smart about their advertising for new flavours. They have pamphlets (Ice Cream Flavor Menus) showing all the flavours to be released and discontinued over a period of three months, as well as all the standard flavours. And the strategy of appealing to people's love of novelty seems to work: everytime I go by the Baskin Robbins, I always see at least one or two (if not more!) people buying ice cream--all year round!

At any rate, I know the marketing strategy works on me. It's actually a wonder that I've managed to lose weight since moving to Japan, considering that I buy ice cream from Baskin Robbins at least once or twice a month--I've even gone as often as four or five times a month!--and I almost always get one of the seasonal flavours. This may change now that I've been here for a year and I'm starting to see repeats of flavours from last year, but still, there's usually at least one flavour that's completely new to me. I've also got a collection of all the Flavor Menus that have come out since I came to Japan--with the flavours I've tasted checked off. =P

When I finally move back to Canada, I'm definitely going to miss Japanese Baskin Robbins! (But it'll probably be better for my health. ^_~)

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Friends, Burgers, Assumptions & Sneakiness

Apologies in advance, since this is going to be a rather lengthy post covering many different topics. The first one, as you can probably guess from the title, is friends.

When I went to the Kirita Matsuri on Monday, I realized that one of the things I really miss from home is having friends (living in the same city) I know I can call on the spur of the moment to see if they want to hang out. I invited the ALTs in Towada and Shichinohe to come to the Kirita festival with me, but they were all either busy or not interested. (Admittedly, I did a poor job of talking up the event to entice them to come.) Apart from the Kirita teachers I get along well with, I have made some Japanese friends, but I don't feel that I know any of them well enough to call/email them the day before or day of to ask them if they want to do something with me. I guess if Yukiko wasn't in Canada doing her working holiday, I would've been comfortable inviting her, but she is, so of course I couldn't.

Anyway, even though it was a bit lonely going on my own, I still really enjoyed the Kirita Matsuri. I saw a lot of my students there--performing as well as just attending. The Shimokirita students and teachers were especially happy to see me, I felt--which was nice. I thought they (the Shimokirita students) were only doing two performances--a dance by the girls and a unicycle routine--but they actually had four! Along with the two I knew about, they also had a dance by the guys (there weren't enough ES students, so four of my junior high students--alumni of Shimokirita--also performed!) and some sort of "genki" exercise/dance routine. (See pictures from the festival in my Facebook album.)

Apart from the fun stuff, there was also a very weird moment towards the end of my time at the festival. I was standing with the JHS ninensei girls when an older man approached us. At the festival there was this thing where you paid for a small piece of gum (like from old school sports card packs) with a design etched into it. Then you had to try to carve the design out using a push pin/thumb tack. (Harder than it sounds--all of my students broke the design at some point before they finished.) So anyway, this man tried to give us money (1000 yen) to all go and do this thing. Even though my students all refused and backed away, he was really persistent and spent at least 2-5 minutes trying to convince us to take the money.

It was extremely awkward, to say the least. At the time I really wished my Japanese was better. I mean, I was the adult there (and their teacher, to boot) but because I didn't know what to say, I couldn't help them at all! Plus, the guy thought I was a student as well. ^^;; (Actually, the brother of one of my students had already asked earlier, pointing to me: "Ano hito, nan nensei desuka?" - What grade is that person in?) But yeah, my students ultimately managed to convince the guy to give up and go away.

Weirdness aside, I had a good time. I definitely want to go again next year, but hopefully I'll be able to find someone to come with. =P

After I came home, I finished making my burger shop stuff, and I've got to say, I'm pretty proud of the finished products!

To match the ichinensei textbook menu, I made chicken burgers, hamburgers, cheeseburgers, "cola" and orange juice (large or small), and shakes (vanilla or chocolate). The students had a lot of fun with it on Tuesday, so it was worth all the work. ^_^

As chaotic as the hamburger shop activity was, it was definitely one of the highlights of an otherwise very long week. Tuesday I stopped by the office after I finished at Kirita (5pm) to pick up my lesson plans. Both the Friday and Monday plans required revisions, so first I had to figure out what I wanted to do and then I had to get Tomabechi-sensei to help me compose the faxes to the schools. (I had to write them in Japanese, since they were for elementary schools.)

(Apparently I wasn't very clear in my Chitose fax since Andy had to call me this morning to get a clarification, but that's something I'll get into in a little bit.)

And this was all on top of the prep I had to do for my jishu gakushu classes!

On Tuesday I also had dance practice. Then yesterday and today I stayed late at Kirita. Lately some of the sannensei students who have a bit of difficulty with English have been staying after jishu gakushu (they no longer have club activities since they're supposed to be studying for their high school exams) to get help with their English homework. Of course it's not something I have to do, but since I especially love the sannensei, I've been staying to help them (along with Tomabechi-sensei, naturally). As a result, I've been leaving school around 6:30pm.

Yesterday I had the Wednesday eikaiwa, and then today I went to the office to prepare lesson materials for my school visit tomorrow. (More on that later.)

So yeah, I've been super busy with work.

Unfortunately, even with all the prep work I do, there are still times when I screw up. When I saw the Chitose lesson plan, a little warning bell sounded in my head since it had the topic of "school subjects" for the rokunensei (sixth graders). I knew Aaron had done a school subjects lesson for one of the higher grades at Chitose last week, but because Chitose is generally a well-prepared school, I chose to assume they were re-using the lesson for a different grade. But when I talked to Aaron tonight, it sounded like they actually did give me the same lesson for the exact same classes. ^^;;

Luckily I found out tonight so I could plan to go in a little early to sort things out with the teacher and check the materials, but still, it was really something I should have looked into as soon as I got the lesson. I mean, I KNEW Aaron had taught the topic at the school last week. I should have called him to double check the details, rather than making assumptions. (You know the saying: "To assume makes an 'ass' out of 'u' and 'me'.")

Oh well, I also called Andy (to see if the teacher had realized the mistake when I asked them to make game cards) and he gave me some ideas as to what I could do if it turns out that I'm right and they accidentally gave me a repeat lesson plan.

Worse comes to worse, I can always use the game as a review and then just use the lesson I'm doing with the gonensei (fifth graders) with the rokunensei. I spent enough time preparing the materials, so I might as well get as much use out of them as possible.

As I mentioned earlier, I went into the office after school today to prepare the lesson materials for the gonensei (topic: seasons). Even though the computer at the office is super slow and it takes a long time to send big files to print, I think from now on I'm going to try to do more of my lesson prepping there instead of at home.

For one thing, it will save me money on printer ink, among other supplies. It's also a lot faster to make cards when I have the use of a paper cutter rather than having to use scissors! Besides, I think it's good for the people at the office to see how much of my personal time I spend on lesson planning. I mean, the teachers at Kirita know how hard I work because they see me preparing for and teaching classes (jishu gakushu) during the day and after my regular hours. But I don't really have office days during the second term, so people at the office only see me for the fifteen or so minutes I spend at the office, once a week, picking up lesson plans and doing paperwork, etc.

Though I'm not doing all this extra work for praise but for the sake of the students (and out of professional pride), I've got to admit there are times when I really wish I received more acknowledgment of my efforts from the office. I guess it's times like now, when I'm tired and stressed, that I feel that no one really knows or appreciates all the time and energy I spend on lesson planning. And I guess it's human nature to want acknowledgment for our efforts.

So yeah, going to the office to do my prep work is my sneaky way of ensuring that the office is aware of the work I'm doing for my school visits.

Anyway, like I said, I need to go a little earlier to my school tomorrow to make sure everything's ok for the lesson, so it's time for me to go to bed!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The first thing...

Before I get into my main post, here's the link for my photos from Saturday at the Aki Matsuri:

So I (re-) learned today that when shopping for clothing, the first thing you should always do is check/ask for the price. For some reason, I decided this weekend that I was definitely going to buy another yukata. (I suspect part of it was the desire to not be seen wearing the same yukata twice in one weekend--albeit at different festivals.) Of course yukatas are summer clothing, so most stores no longer have them on display. I actually saw yukatas still on sale at the Jusco in Shichinohe last weekend, but I didn't want to drive out there just for that, so I decided to go to the place I bought my first yukata from: a store called Tasei.

They didn't have any on display, but I asked about yukatas so they went into the store room and brought out a selection for me. The first batch they brought out were all 1000 yen, but they were also all pink. I'm not a pink person, so even though the price was tempting, when they asked how I felt about seeing some slightly more expensive ones, I responded favourably.

In the next batch they brought out, they had a really cute red one with a rabbit and moon pattern. I liked it immediately, especially since it had yellow/gold in it, so it would match the obi I already had. Then I tried it on and I liked it even more.

So, without even asking the price, I was like "I'll take this one!" Well, when I got to the register I saw the price tag and had a bit of a shock. Luckily there was a 30% discount, but even then, it was a lot more than I had budgeted for in my mind. I'm embarrased to say how much exactly it cost (although, I like it enough that I still feel it was worth it), but suffice to say it cost more than twice as much as I paid last year for the yukata, obi, himo (things to tie it with), and waist thing (so the obi doesn't get bunched up) combined. ^^;;

Definitely should've asked the price before allowing myself to think that I really liked it and wanted it!! Ah well. I'm cheap on food and I don't go out that much, so I guess it's OK to splurge on something like this every once in a while.

Next summer, though, I'm definitely going to start looking at yukatas earlier! (Assuming that I'm going to want another new one next year too...)

Anyway, other than buying a yukata (forgot to mention, I'm going to wear it tomorrow at the Kirita area festival), I also spent a lot of time today making hamburgers, cheeseburgers and chickenburgers out of newspaper and coloured paper. I also made apple pies and am planning on making "colas," orange juice and shakes. The ichinensei at Kirita are going to be doing the burger shop dialogue on Tuesday, so I figured I'd do the burger shop role play activity with them for jishu gakushu. (I'll post pictures of all the stuff tomorrow, once I've finished making everything.) I'm really looking forward to the lesson, and I hope the students will have fun with it too!

At 4pm I went to a BBQ at Nori's farm. (Nori is Andy's brother-in-law.) I was the first person to arrive--people trickled in between one and two hours after me!--so I had a lot of time to eat and eat and eat. ^^;; I probably ate more meat tonight than I would eat in one or two months (not counting school lunches, but just my own cooking or meals eaten out)!

It was very relaxed and fun, which is not how I'd usually describe drinking parties. I guess a lot of that was because it was a small gathering at someone's home, rather than a huge event in a public place. Then too, given the nature of the party and the type of people there, I didn't have to feel responsible for anyone's behaviour.

After comparing the various types of drinking parties I've attended this month, I think I'm probably going to become more of a hermit this year and stay away from the big drinking events. I'm not a very social/out-going person, so large events aren't my thing to begin with, and then too I'm starting to get tired of being the non-drinker surrounded by drunkenness. I don't mind when everyone's just happy drunk, but when people get out of control, it starts to tire/stress me out. (That darn over-developed sense of responsibility to/for others at work again!)

Friday, September 12, 2008

Chibi Komadori

Well, today was finally the day of the Chibi Komadori (the children's horse dance)! For the past three weeks all of us ALTs have been practicing (some more regularly than others ^^;;) taiko on weeknights at the Chuo Community Center from 7:oo-8:30pm to take part in the Chibi Komadori.

Unfortunately I don't have pictures of the entire setup, but basically there were city workers (like our supervisor, Mukainakano-sensei) walking in front with some signs. Then there were children dancing behind them. We were behind the children on a float (being pulled--it was also motorized though, so it's not like they had to do all the work--by some of the male city employees) playing three big taikos (there were also flute and small drum players on board). Behind us were more children dancing. People dressed in Towada mascot costumes (Komatsu-kun and his girlfriend--I don't know her name) also walked alongside the float and stopped to greet parade spectators every once in a while.

I could be wrong, but I think the Chibi Komadori (along with a bunch of other floats/dancers) was part of the Aki Matsuri kick-off parade.

Anyway, it was a lot of fun. I'm not sure if it's because it wasn't as sunny and hot as last year, or if it's because I've got more experience behind me now, but this year it seemed to go by really quickly. My arms weren't even tired at all by the end of it!

But yeah, I was glad everything worked out well. This morning I woke up well before my alarm clock to the sound of heavy rain. I lay in bed just praying "please let the rain stop!" (Last year our performance was moved to the Sunday because of a typhoon or something.) When I checked the weather report later on, I saw that it was supposed to be cloudy (and no longer rainy) by 3pm, but I was still a bit worried that they'd cancel.

Obviously, they didn't, and the weather forecast turned out to be correct, so it was all good. ^_^ My only regret is that I couldn't (for obvious reasons) get any pictures of myself playing the taiko. And since I don't look like a foreigner, I rather doubt that anyone would have bothered to take my picture. (Of if they did, that it would get published anywhere or find it's way to me otherwise.) =( One of the disadvantages of being Asian and blending in.

Oh well, I had a lot of fun and I look forward to participating again next year (assuming I stick around for a third year)!

Ah, I forgot to mention it, but this year us girls actually got to wear the yukata instead of just the half coats! I think we definitely looked cooler this year than last! (See more of my Aki Matsuri photos on Facebook.)

Thursday, September 11, 2008

What JET Needs

There have been some messages posted in the Aomori Listserv in the past year about JET positions being cut in various prefectures to be replaced with private ALTs. Although that sucks for JETs, I can understand why cities would choose to do so, particularly from a monetary perspective: JETs are extremely well paid; we earn probably the same amount (or more than) as a public employee who has been working in a position for 5-10 years and our hours are significantly fewer than said employee! And if a city happens to get a JET (or string of JETs) who don't perform at a standard to justify such high pay, well, it's easy to understand why a city would want to get rid of JETs.

I've been thinking for quite some time about the JET Programme as a whole and the selection of ALTs in particular, and though my ideas are constantly changing, these are a couple of the things I (currently) think would benefit the JET Programme and the reputations of JET ALTs:

- a minimum 2-year contract: it takes almost a full year to start to get into the groove of working in Japan, so I think that first year ALTs get a lot more than they put in, but I think in their second year ALTs can really start earning their keep

- focusing on teaching rather than internationalization: I think that having internationalization as one of the explicit goals of the JET program is silly; internationalization is a natural result of honest communication and genuine relationships between people of different cultures and the development of those relationships and communication come from earning the trust of coworkers &etc. (usually through demonstrating a commitment to one's work!)

- pre-departure teacher training: I think it would behoove the different embassies world wide to provide some sort of teacher training to ALTs before they come to Japan; this would also strengthen the point that coming to Japan on JET is a JOB and not just a means of exploring Japan and Japanese culture

In my personal experience, the biggest problem with JET ALT program is the perception (among some ALTs and Japanese teachers) that the job of the ALT is to “make English fun.” I mean, I think making English fun is important, but only as a means of teaching English. Teaching English, after all, is what we are hired and paid to do. Making English enjoyable is a good strategy to increase the intrinsic motivation of students, but it has to be accompanied by solid learning, e.g. games/activities that practice and/or reinforce key vocabulary/grammar.

Junior high schools and senior high schools have a set curriculum to get through, so it always surprises me when a junior high school sends a "play some games for 50 minutes" lesson plan rather than a "please think of a game related to the passive voice" lesson plan. I also think a lot of JTEs don't realize that it is possible to cover new grammar AND play some sort of a game when an ALT visits. Maybe it's just me, but I think that most ALTs are more than capable of planning a game to practice a new grammar point if given sufficient notice. Then again, maybe that--"sufficient notice"--is precisely the problem. I haven't discussed this with other ALTs, but I suspect that Towada ALTs are rarely blessed to get lesson plans faxed to us ahead of time. (We're supposed to get them at least one week early, but some schools leave it to one or two days before, which is still better than nothing!)

For elementary schools, "making English fun" is an OK mentality right now since there's no set English curriculum, but by 2011 English will be on the elementary curriculum so I think it'd be a good idea for schools to start planning for that time now. I know that when I was teaching at the Woodlands, the English department had its own "continuum of learning/skills" document that outlined precisely what type of knowledge/abilities/skills students should finish each grade/class with. If elementary schools could start putting something like that together now (e.g. grade 1: learn fruits, colours, sports, animals and basic question pattern "What ~ do you like?"), they'd be in good shape for when mandatory English cames are implemented in 2011.

I guess overall what I'd like to see is schools and ALTs working together in thinking about and planning for is the direction of English education for a school as a whole, rather than always just working on a class-by-class, grade-by-grade sort of basis.

But I guess I've kind of gotten off track from things that JET can control and into the realm of things I'd like to see more of in Towada specifically... (Although I suspect this could be equally applicable to a lot of towns/cities with ALTs.)

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Why my Japanese has barely improved...

As I was thinking over various things last night, I realized that the reason why my Japanese has barely improved after a full year of living in Japan is mostly due to four characteristics/traits of mine:

1) I learn better through reading/writing than listening/speaking
2) I have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility to/for others
3) I have an underdeveloped sense of responsibility to myself
4) I'm lazy

The first is pretty obvious. Even though I'm surrounded by people who speak Japanese, because I'm not much of an auditory learner, I pick up relatively little from conversation alone; I need to study (i.e. read about or write things down) to really retain information.

And the reason why I haven't been studying Japanese is related to the other three characteristics. The overdeveloped sense of responsibility to/for others means that I am willing to expend a lot of energy on things that I feel will impact others. It's the reason I will stay up late making materials for classes, or will go to Kirita or the office after other school visits or on weekends (i.e. on my own time). If I feel that I am accountable to or have a responsibility to someone else, I will push myself to live up to (and hopefully exceed) expectations.

Conversely, I don't really feel much of a sense of responsibility for my own health, mental well-being, etc. So I often work late and skip dinner, or stay up late getting things done in spite of fatigue. It's a rather deadly combination, actually. The first two weeks or so after I came back from Canada, for example, I was at Kirita helping the students prepare for the speech contest until between 6:00 and 6:30pm. (If I had other school visits I was going to Kirita on my own time afterwards.) Then I would rush straight to either an eikaiwa, Japanese dance class, or taiko practice. I'd get home between 8:30 and 9:00pm and be too tired to bother eating dinner. But then I'd stay up late working on lesson planning or the junior high school newsletter or other work related stuff. (Japanese dance seems like a personal thing, but the main reason I joined is because I was told there has always been an ALT in Japanese dance, and the teacher is one of my student's mother, so I felt like I should join.)

So basically I put a lot of time/energy into things I feel are obligations/responsibilities at the expense of eating and sleeping properly and taking care of personal things. And since the level of Japanese I have right now is sufficient for teaching/getting along in life, improving my Japanese falls into the easily neglected category of "personal things" (i.e. a responsibility only to myself).

Throw in my final characteristic of laziness and you can see that when I actually do have free time, I'm too lazy to study and choose to do things like reading books/manga or watching TV series/movies instead.

Well, now I know why it's so difficult for me to study/improve in Japanese, but I have yet to figure out how to change things. Maybe I'll have time to figure something out next (school) term when it's not so busy. ^^;;

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Japanese Pumpkin (Kabocha) Recipe!

On Thursday I got a pumpkin from Kirita that was grown as part of a science class/project. ^_^ (Fresh produce is definitely one of the joys of living in rural Japan!) I love pumpkin, but I didn't know how to prepare it--good thing for the internet!

So, if you ever find yourself the recipient of a kabocha (Japanese pumpkin) and haven't a clue what to do with it, here's a simple recipe for "kabocha no nimono." It's super easy and quite tasty!

If you like your pumpkin more sweet than salty, though, you may want to opt for water instead of dashi. Maybe I just made my dashi too strong, but my kabocha ended up a little too salty for my tastes. I also kind of forgot about checking the liquid level towards the end, though, so I did (as warned) end up with a bit kabocha stuck to the bottom of the pan, but all in all I think it worked out pretty well.

I didn't take a picture of the final result, though, because I cut the kabocha too small and thus it didn't look very nice. ^^;; (The picture in the recipe looks much better!) If I get another pumpkin, though, hopefully I'll be able to correct my mistakes on a second try.

Edit: September 20th: Took a picture of my second attempt! This time I paid careful attention to the fluid level, so it didn't end up getting stuck to the bottom of the pan! I also cut the pieces bigger so they didn't end up as mushy! It also wasn't as salty as the first try. Overall, I'd say it was a successful second attempt!

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Two years ago

It's kind of weird to think that at this time two years ago I was working at Scotiabank while diligently checking the Peel Board of Education's job posting site every day for a teaching position. Then some days (a week or less) later, I got the long-desired English teaching position at the Woodlands which--unbeknownst to me at the time, of course--started me on the path to where I am now: teaching English in Japan.

How did I go from my dream job (teaching English at the high school I attended) to teaching English in Northern Japan? Well, it turned out that I was absolutely horrible at classroom management. I had two grade nine academic English classes which went OK (although, due to my inexperience I still felt I did a mediocre job with them at best) and a grade ten applied English class which was an absolute disaster.

The Ontario public high school system streams students from early on into academic tracks based on their perceived future career paths: university, college, or workplace. (A practice I have serious issues with, but I won't get into that here.) Thus, the applied level is for those who are perceived to be going to college or the workforce, i.e. NOT university. Basically, it is distinguished as NOT being the academic track.

Anyway, my particular class had a lot of students with various learning or behavioural difficulties and since I only started teaching them after a week into the semester (before that, they had a supply teacher), I wasn't able to set the classroom tone properly from the beginning. Although I tried, I was never able to get the class on track after that poor start. (And to be honest, even in my practice teaching it was clear that classroom management was going to be an issue for me.)

I realized too that I had led an extremely sheltered, one-track life. Throughout my entire school career I was a serious, academic student who behaved well and got good marks. Although I did a short stint working at a chain family restaurant (Swiss Chalet), I'd never had the common teen experience of working retail or fast food. As a result, I felt like I had very little by way of life experience to offer students who weren't model, academic students.

So, two weeks into the job, I started seriously considering quitting teaching. People suggested that I might want to change to a lower age group (junior high or elementary) or try teaching in a private school instead of public, but I never really considered those options. Maybe I was (and am) too idealistic, but I have always believed that good public education is a cornerstone for an equitable society. So it would have gone against my personal principles to teach at a private school. (I know that private schools have their role and place, but I'd long decided that the private system wasn't my place.) Also, I didn't want to be a teacher if I could only teach the model, academic students. I thought (and still think) I couldn't rightly call myself a teacher if I couldn't effectively reach the so-called "lower-level" learners.

But even though I wanted to quit my teaching job, I wasn't quite ready to give up on teaching altogether. By October, though, I was nearly positive that I couldn't continue teaching in the Peel high school system, at least not as I was. Then I remembered my university thoughts of teaching in Japan with the JET Programme. I thought that if I could go to another country and teach English as a second language, not only would I gain life experience and become a more well-rounded person, but I would also have a good explanation for the break in my Ontario career if I decided to go back to teaching when I came back.

Ironically, I applied for JET in the hopes that it would save my (Ontario) teaching career. I say "ironically" because, if anything, teaching in Japan has convinced me that I can't go back to teaching in Canada. If classroom management was my weakness in Canada, well, Japan was probably the place where I would get the least experience to improve it. I know that not all schools in Japan are this way, but it just so happened that pretty much all of the schools and classes I've visited in Towada have extremely well-behaved students who barely need any managing on my part. (This is, of course, due to the good classroom management of all their native teachers from elementary school and onwards.) I suspect that if I went back into a Canadian classroom now, I'd probably find that my management/disciplining skills have diminished!

Then too, even though I work long hours relative to many other elementary/junior high ALTs, my workload is nothing compared to a native teacher's, or even that of a teacher in Canada. I doubt that I could go back to the "no life outside of teaching" lifestyle I had as a Peel high school teacher after two (and possibly more) years of being an assistant language teacher.

So where does that leave me?

Loving the job that I have now, but worried about the future direction of my life. As great as the work is, the ALT position can (and indeed, should) only be short-term at best. Even if I could continue at my position after the five year maximum term granted to JETs, out of fairness to the students, I don't think I would. After all, it's a job meant for the young and enthusiastic, and I think that would be difficult to push after five years.

But even though JET has pretty much ruined me for teaching in Canada, it has confirmed my love for the education field. If at all possible, I want to find work related to education when I go back to Canada. Of course, the problem will be finding a job that will be related closely enough to teaching to satisfy me but that won't require a lot of (Canadian) teaching experience.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Jam Packed Weekends

Weekends have been busy since coming back from Canada.

Last Saturday, August 23rd, Allie, Aaron, Bryan and I drove to Akita Prefecture for the big national fireworks competition in Omagari. (See my Facebook pictures here.) Thankfully Joe and Sam also went, so we were able to follow them. Before going into Omagari, we stopped and set up tents up a camp site at Lake Tazawa. Then it was to the train station and Omagari.

Even though it was raining pretty hard up to the start of the fireworks, it lightened up once they got going, so it was bearable (if not the best weather). I didn't take a lot of pictures, so I don't really have anything to show you how amazing the fireworks were, but believe, the were totally awesome.

When we got back to the camp site, everyone else wanted to stay up and drink in the tents, so I decided to sleep in my car. It ended up being the right choice since the 1000 yen tent Allie had picked up at the Hard-Off (big used store in Towada) wasn't particularly water resistant and ended up letting in a lot of water.

Sunday was just driving back.

Then this past Friday we had a one week delayed Payday Friday where I finally got to meet the new Shichinohe ALTs (due to various circumstances I ended up being their "official" Big Sister, even though I wasn't around for their arrival and Courtney is their de facto Big Sister), among others.

Even though we had 17 people at the brewery, only 9 made it out to Pilsen's and Festa. But the small numbers didn't diminish the karaoke enthusiasm by any means... (See my Facebook pictures here.)

On Saturday I had to wake up early to catch the bus going from Kirita to Iwate for the PTA arranged trip to the Morioka Handiworks Square. I had paid for the trip in mid-July, and had actually nearly forgotten about it until Tomabechi-sensei reminded me at school during the week! Anyway, it turned out to be a lot more fun than I expected!

We arrived in Morioka around 11am and the first thing we did was make reimen for lunch. It was fun and delicious! Then we had some time before our pre-selected handicraft workshops, so we walked around the various shops. During that time, I made my own senbei (all I had to do was roll out the dough and turn the grilling thing) for 100 yen.

The workshop I selected was pottery, so I got to make a small plate (I could have made a cup or bowl, but figured the plate looked easiest). Unfortunately I didn't think to bring a design reference (I wanted to do Totoro but didn't want to screw up my plate with an ugly design), so I ended up drawing Doraemon from a sample they had there. I thought the unbaked piece looked pretty good, so hopefully it will turn out OK. (Since it takes time to bake, they'll send the finished pottery to the school.)

Then we had a little more time before heading home, so Tomabechi-sensei and I tried the Nanjera?--senbei ice cream sandwiches! It was OK, but I prefer cones, I think. (See my pictures of the day here.)

Sunday I got up early-ish so I could go to the travel agent and book my trip to...Hong Kong!! Yes, I'll be going for the October long weekend (11-13). Of course, with the amount of time it takes for me to get from Aomori (Prefecture) to Tokyo, then from Tokyo to Hong Kong, I only actually have two full days in HK, but I think it'll still be a great trip. I'll be staying with family friends whom I haven't seen since I was maybe in elementary school (although I guess they may have come back to Canada for a visit once when I was in junior high or high school?), so I'm looking forward to seeing them.

Anyway, after booking the plane and train tickets, I cleaned a tiny bit at home and started some laundry. Then I went by Andy and Rie's place to drop something off and stayed for a bit to have tea and cake and to chat.

At 3pm Tomabechi-sensei picked me up at the Max Value to go to a small local festival near her house. It had been raining all day, and even though the forecast said it would clear up by 3pm, it ended up raining through the rest of the day. But all the participants (dancers and taiko players) just soldiered on through the rain. (See my pictures of the festival here.) After the festival, I was invited to Tomabechi-sensei's house for dinner. They had a TON of food and a lot of family members gathered there, but both Tomabechi-sensei and I were pretty tired, so we were pretty quiet.

When I got home I did more laundry, took a shower, and started watching "The Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi" (a great anime series, by the way!).

And that was it for my busy weekends, so far. This weekend also looks to be pretty busy with the Shichinohe Welcome Party (for new ALTs) and the taiko dress rehearsal the next day.