Lately my wife has been kind of worried about me. We usually have a drink after we finish up our after-work-work and the other day she said, “You know, the way you talk lately, it seems like you’ve hit some kind of wall in your teaching.” Which is exactly how I feel. I’ve hit a big wall. I think if I could step back a little and look at that wall, it would be covered in graffiti. Maybe a nice red, green and black color scheme. And once the colors came into view, if I took a few more steps back, I would probably be able to read the words, “reflective teaching can hurt!” in giant loopy letters.
But right now there is no wall. There is only my computer. And if I finish up in the next hour or so, a drink with my wife. On Valentine’s Day. A rainy valentines day. It rained all day today. It rained all day yesterday as well. So I was pretty sure that my students wouldn’t stick around for the STEP interview test practice. But two students did. They were waiting for me in room 403. They were flipping through the notes from their last practice session. Flip, flip, flip. And right off the bat I felt guilty. “Sorry guys, the answers aren’t in there. I made a mistake,” I wanted to say. But I wasn’t sure. So I sent Mi-Chan outside so we could do a run-through of the test and see what happened.
Now the STEP test is made for the Japanese market, so I’m not sure how much teachers in other countries might know about it. The written part of the test is pretty standard, with some vocabulary questions, dialog transcript based questions, and reading and comprehension exercises. There’s also a listening section which is actually pretty
uselessinnocuous as it only tests students ability to listen for specific information. But my students rarely break a sweat when thinking about the written test. It’s the interview portion of the test that makes them crazy. And why? Certainly not because of the content. A typical STEP test question for the pre-2nd level (high school second year) might be something like, “Do you think Japanese young people watch too much TV?” or “Are Japanese people losing interest in traditional arts?” And basically you only need to put together two grammatically correct sentences to receive a passing grade for each question. But Japanese people have been told over and over again that they just can’t speak English. If you Google “Why are Japanese people bad at English,” you will actually find page after page of articles which deal with this issue as if it is an issue. Whereas if you type in “Why are French people bad at English,” only the first two hits actually have anything to do with French people’s perceived English deficiencies. And if you type in “Why are Chinese people bad at English,” none of the first page of hits has anything to specifically do with Chinese speaker’s inability to handle English. So while there might be valid reasons for lower level ability in Japanese learners of English (which I’ll take up in another post some day), there is undoubtedly the very real issue of self-confidence, or complete lack thereof.
Knock, knock, knock! That was Mi-Chan banging on the door. So I cleared my throat and doing my best impression of an official STEP test tester invited her into the room. Mi-Chan had diligently studied her notes and answered every question I asked as if orally dotting a series of ‘i’s.
Then I asked her, “Do you think people in Japan work too much these days?”
Mi-Chan thought for a second and said, “Yes. I know many people who work too hard. They are working for 10 hours a day.”
This was exactly the kind of answer I had been helping my students put together over the past week. I looked at Mi-Chan. Her shoulders were up. She was looking over my shoulder. When she finished her answer, she didn’t relax her pose. She didn’t lean back. It was like she was waiting for the next tiger to pop out of the door in the arena or something.
“Mi-Chan,” I said. “I’m sorry. I made a mistake when I was teaching you how to answer these questions before.” I explained that I didn’t want perfect answers. I just wanted her to tell me how she felt and what she really thought.
Mi-Chan hesitated, but finally she said, “My father works too much.”
“He works every day. I never see him.”
“People need relax time. Seriously, I think everybody need more relax time.” Mi-Chan looked at me, waiting for the next question of the test.
“I think so too. I’m sorry your father has to work so hard,” I said.
And then it happened. Mi-Chan leaned back in her chair. Her shoulders drooped. And we talked about what it means to work too much. I recorded it all. We went over how to use the phrase “time to ~.” We practiced three more sets of questions. And Mi-Chan used language that she rarely has demonstrated in a classroom environment. Probably my favorite answer of the day was in response to the question, “Do you like to stay in luxury hotels on vacation?” Mi-Chan thought for a moment and said, “I can’t stay in luxury hotels. I don’t have enough money. If I were rich I would stay in a luxury hotel. I think everybody wants to stay in a luxury hotel.”
The other day I wrote that even standardized testing can be an affordance. I still believe that. But more than that, practicing for standardized testing can be a humanizing endeavor. Maybe, as teachers, that’s our job, taking the dehumanizing machinery of a standard test, and making it human, teacher to student, question to question. I know that with the three students I practiced with today, just by giving them a little more space to express what they wanted to express, their English ability as measured by richness of vocabulary and complexity of grammar showed marked improvement. And maybe more importantly, they laughed or sighed or shook their heads in a way that wasn’t just about answering a question.
It’s 11:00 PM. It’s Valentines day. Time to have a drink with my wife. She’s right. I’m bumping up against a wall lately. But it’s probably a wall I should have bumped into a long while back. And it’s only the first of a long series of walls I’m going to have to find my way over. But tonight is Valentine’s Day. Hope yours was filled with love.