Archives for category: In the Classroom

I know how you all love my stories about funny cultural or language differences, so here’s my latest.  In my kids’ class this afternoon, we were learning the conversation, “Are those your new sneakers?”  “Yes, they are.”  “They’re nice.” We were substituting other clothing items, like boots, shoes, and of course pants.  It seemed like every time we got to pants, though, that the students would kinda laugh.  I really couldn’t figure out what was going on.  What’s funny about pants?  The picture was just plain old blue pants, so they couldn’t be laughing at that.  I gave up and just plowed ahead with the lesson and just chalked it up to one of those many little things that I just miss.  Then the helper, Mrs. Taniguchi, walked in and heard what was going on.  She looked at my confused expression and kindly explained that in Japan, “pants” is the word they use for underwear.  I felt really sorry for the little girl that got stuck with the pants card in the game we played.  No wonder she looked so embarrassed!


I don’t know if you remember, but I told a story a while back about how I tend to overpronounce things to my youngest class (Teaching Emphatically, March 2008).  It resulted in one of the boys (Kaito) saying, “Don’tchi forget your bag!  Don’tchi forget your jacket!”  Well, recently I was teaching this same class the “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” song.  Remember that one?  Yeah, it’s catchy.  In class, we sing it faster and faster and they just LOVE it.  But do you remember the part that goes, “And eyes and ears and mouth and nose”?  Yes, well now the students are all convinced that they each have 2 eyesands, 2 earsands, a mouthand and a nose.

Dan and Amy came with me on Saturday to visit my high school class.  The sudents were happy to meet them and even seemed to enjoy being forced to ask questions in English.  But the best part was a lesson at least one of the students learned.  The oldest boy, Ren, told his mother afterward, “Mom, a lot of times me and the other students talk in class and we know that Jen can’t understand.  But when Dan and Amy and Jen talked to each other, we couldn’t understand them.  So now I know how Jen feels.”  It’s so cool to know I’m not the only one learning lessons like that!

My Friday morning ladies’ class is fairly advanced.  We can have conversations about a lot of different things.  So as a challenge, we are reading books in the class.  After we finish the book, we watch the movie version.  The first one we did was Amistad last semester.  Yes, I know, Amistad was a movie first.  The book we read was adapted from the screenplay, which I normally hate, but these are Penguin Readers for Beginners, so what do you expect?  Besides, it’s a great movie, and an interesting story in American history.  Anyway, this semester we are reading Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck.  Most of you probably read it in school, so you probably remember that it has some language in it.  The Penguin Reader for Beginners, however, only contains one swear word.  Not that I was worried – these are women who would hardly go around swearing, so an English curse would mean nothing to them.   Yes, well.

So here we were on chapter 3 and the word pops up: “‘Curley’s a bastard,’ George said.”  The students read it and it passed without comment, just as I expected.  But then we got to the questions.  I asked the class, “What’s Curley like?”  I expected them to quote the sentence, “a thin angry young man with brown eyes.”  But no.  They proudly said, “Curley’s a bastard!”  Consequently, we had our first lesson on what not to say to people 🙂

As a side note, they asked me how to spell “ghostbuster” so they could look it up.  I quickly realized they thought “buster” sounded very similar to that other word.  I had to explain it was ghost buster.

You know, I HATED geography when I was in school.  But now I find I actually have to teach it in my English classes.  One of my children’s classes was learning country names and we were playing a trivia game.  I asked them “This country is very close to Japan.” The choices were China, Taiwan, Australia, Mexico, Korea, Spain,  the U.K. and the U.S.  They all shouted, “The U.S.!”.  Then I asked “This country is very close to the U.S.”  and they all shouted, “Taiwan!”   I guess next week I will be bringing in maps.

It’s exam week. You know, as a teacher, I’ve found that you really want all of your students to do well on the test. Even the ones that drive you nuts in class. You want to see them succeed and you want to see that smile they get when they see a good grade. You can just imagine them going home and showing that test to their parents with pride.

Unfortunately, not all of them do well. Most of my students have done pretty well so far. I even had a 100%. But there are a few scores that just made my heart sink. I found myself looking over those tests again trying to find a way to add a point here or there. Not that that would be fair to the other students. And I didn’t change any grades, but oh I wanted to! How can I give a student a 55%? Or a 40%? But that’s what the student earned. I just hope they aren’t crushed.

I’m in the middle of preparing the semester exams for my classes and it got me thinking about something: What is the deal with these students being so stressed over this exam? I mean, they really are. The ones that are old enough to comprehend that they’re taking a test, that is. The little ones just think it’s another activity 🙂

I guess part of the issue is the attitude toward education here in Japan. They take it much more seriously than Americans do (as a whole – there are plenty of serious American students out there, as well as a few “lazy” Japanese ones). For them, there is a right answer for everything. Any other answer is unacceptable. And for things like grammar, math, science, this can certainly be true. 2 + 2 is always 4; you can’t debate about it. But what about the rest? What about learning how to have a conversation? In America, I think we learn from an early age how to express what we think. That’s how adults speak, so we learn to copy them. The freedom to express ourselves is very important to us, so it’s natural for us to learn how to do it, even at the expense of good grammar. Granted, sometimes we Americans don’t censor ourselves as much as we should, which makes us seem outspoken and rude at times. But what is conversation if it isn’t about making yourself understood to someone else? Having come from this way of thinking, I find that when I learn a new language, I want to learn the basics ASAP so that I can convey my meaning. So what if I conjugate a verb incorrectly? If I say “Can I have drink water?”, someone is bound to understand I’m asking for a drink of water. I don’t get embarrassed if I don’t say it properly. Besides, that’s how you learn – by practicing and being corrected.

I’m definitely not saying that Japanese people don’t know how to express themselves. They certainly do, as long as it’s in their own language. But when it comes to learning a different language, I think they get so concerned about speaking properly, that they fail to say anything at all. I think they feel that if they can’t say it properly, they shouldn’t even try. Why risk a “wrong answer”? So they don’t try. I’ve observed this sort of uncomfortableness and unwillingness to speak English several times since I got here. It’s not at all a desire to be rude; it’s actually the opposite. I think they’re afraid I’ll think they’re ignorant. Which, of course, I never would.

So my dilemma is this: How do I teach confidence? I can drill them and drill them on grammar all day long and they’d be perfectly happy to answer me. But that doesn’t help them learn how to converse. What, are they going to write notes to foreigners? Do they plan on only using the dialogues in their textbooks (Do you like Latin music? No, I don’t. Is that your bag? Yes, it is)? One way or another, they have to learn how to speak. I’m sure God didn’t intend for us to have fellowship in silence. The trick is finding a way to help and encourage them overcome their anxiety.

I do want to say that I am so very thankful to all the people here who HAVE tried their hardest to speak to me in English. There are many of them – translators, co-workers, students. They’ve been an invaluable source of encouragement as well as information. My hope is that they are the example that these students will follow.

For homework last week, I assigned one of my classes to make a list of adjectives that can be both negative and positive, depending on the usage. They then had to use it in one positive sentence and one negative sentence. One of my students chose the word “smart.” Her usage was absolutely correct, but I had to chuckle at her negative example sentence:

Positive: His son was very smart.

Negative: Don’t get smart with me.

I love being an English teacher!

Well, the inevitable has finally come to pass: some of my students have figured out that I don’t understand Japanese. Not that this is a very interesting revelation in itself. But if you follow a certain train of logic (which, mercifully, not all of my students are capable of), you will come to the horrifying conclusion that I have no power to control the class. Yes, it’s true. While I may have been an imposing, if not a little short, figure to the NSC Youth Group, none of it matters if you can’t speak the language. Consequently, I lost COMPLETE control of my class last week. And I truly mean complete. It happened the moment the Japanese helpers (Nozomi and Mrs. Taniguchi) left the room. The students had been a little feisty even with them there, but as soon as they walked out, all hell broke loose. They were shouting. They were chasing one another. They were hiding behind the movable bulletin boards. One of them, I kid you not, was jumping up and down on a table. And there was absolutely nothing I could do. I didn’t know how to reprimand them in Japanese, and they pretended not to understand my English. All I could do was stare around the room slack-jawed and disbelieving. It was like something out of a movie.

Rest assured, Mrs. Taniguchi came back in, quickly assessed the situation from the hallway, and entered the room shouting in an extremely commanding voice. I have no idea what she said, but it took only seconds for them to sit down and close their mouths. She was pretty frightening. Most of them looked more than a little scared.

I think I will ask Nishikawa sensei to teach me some basic commands during my next Japanese lesson. Maybe even some not-so-basic ones, such as “Stop jumping up and down on that desk right now!” or, “Don’t make me get Mrs. Tanaguchi!”

Sometimes, the urge to goof around in class is overwhelming. For instance, when we are repeating sentences like, “Brush the dog. Pet the cat. Pick up the hamster. Feed the fish,” I just want to say, “Kick the dog. Slap the cat. Step on the hamster. Flush the fish.” I mean, I would never actually DO those things, nor would I encourage anyone else to do them. The ASPCA does not need to put me on a 10 Most Wanted list or anything. But I just want to see if they’re listening, or mindlessly repeating. The adults are easy. I slip things into the dialogues with them. For example, we were working on apologies one day, so the conversation sounded something like this:

“I’m sorry for setting your house on fire.”

“That’s okay.”

“This is the first time I’ve ever set someone’s house on fire. I feel terrible.”

“Don’t worry about it. These things happen.”

The class really liked that one. I just hope they don’t think that it’s common in America for neighbors to go around setting one another’s houses on fire.