Lessons Learned in 2014 (…as a homeroom teacher)

My ChartI am a homeroom teacher.  And this was a year of being a homeroom teacher. No adjectives.  It was just one day.  And then another day.  And sometimes one of those days ploughed into the next day, the way cars can smash into each other on an icy Michigan freeway after just a moment of carelessness.

This was the year I spent a lot of time trying to figure out if a student had dyed their hair (because it was my job to send them home, call their parents, and make sure they dyed it back to black before they could take another class), or calling mothers and fathers and explaining that yes, technically, eyelash extensions are a form of makeup.  It was the year I realised that having enough time to talk about how it’s a waste of time to use lots of time to write lesson plans was, now that I think about, also a huge waste of time.

This was the year I read other teachers’ blogs and thought, wow, here are all these new voices–to me–saying all these things I admire and helping to keep me going (Hana Tichá, you are amazing; David Harbinson, I am a huge fan, please keep doing what you are doing).

This was the year I would get  a mention on FaceBook (Sandy Millin), a trackback on my blog (Anne Hendler, Anna Loseva, Ljiljana Havran), or see a Tweet (that’s you Colm and Mike) and think, oh, I have not disappeared from the world, I am not transparent.  And all of you who worked to keep me connected, I thank you.

It was the year I took class notes and more class notes and maybe, once a month, I snapped at my co-workers and hid out in an empty classroom and tried to catch up on what was going on with my students when it came to English.

But for all this, it was not a bad year.  In all those days piling up one after another, I learned some things.  Some things I want to share as the New Year starts, because they were small gifts that my students and their parents and my coworkers and friends gave to me.

Parents know about their sons and daughters, they want to talk honestly about their sons and daughters, they appreciate when you give them that chance.  This year I sat down with a handful of parents and told them that I was worried.  I was worried that their child could not screen out the normal noise of a classroom enough to concentrate.  Or that their child could not get half way through a short sentence without forgetting the first two words of that sentence, in either Japanese or English.  Or that their child felt so much pressure about studying, that they didn’t want to leave the school when it was time to close the shutter at 7PM.  I had a lot of hard talks.  I was met with a lot of tears and shed tears of my own.  And almost every single time, the mother or father sitting across from me said, “Thank you for noticing what is happening with my child.”  Honestly, it might be kind of nice to work in a job where there were less tears, less sudden intakes of breath like the whoosh of someone losing their breath after being punched.  But now I know that honestly and clearly providing the small details of a student’s life, to both a parent and the student themselves, is part of what it means to be a teacher.  And when the conversation is hardest, when I would rather be doing anything than sitting down with a mother or father to say what I am about to say at 7 PM on a Friday night, I can feel grateful that there is no way to run away from this moment.  That this is my job.  That this is what it means to be a homeroom teacher in Japan, and probably in the rest of the world as well.

– There are an infinite number of ways to be right about something.  There are also an infinite number of ways to be wrong about something.  When listening, thinking about any of those rights and wrong is nothing more than jamming fingers into your ears.  Keeping track of all those rights and wrongs is, very simply, a way to NOT listen.  How strange, to finally understand at the age of 43, 15 years into teaching, 10 years into a marriage, 7 years into being a father, that before I can expect someone to listen to me, I must first listen to them.

– The space needed to grow as a person often feels exactly like the distance which leaves you cut off from others and standing alone.  This year, when I was overwhelmed, when I needed one more day to get a spreadsheet of student grades completed or a new version of a vocabulary sheet printed out, if I said something, my coworkers were immediately there for me.  They stayed late and helped me punch in data.  They made photocopies.  They made sure that my students, our students, never felt cheated because their homeroom teacher was a little too green at his job, a step too slow to get done what needed to be done.  But for all their help, my coworkers never jumped in and tried to save me when I didn’t ask for help.  They never crowded into my space.  They respected me and believed in me.  There is a difference between being cut off from others and finding the room needed to grow.  It is a difference in emotional nanometers, a difference that can only be measured in the response that comes when you finally ask for help.

* * *

This year I am a homeroom teacher.  Next year, if I am lucky, I will once again be a homeroom teacher.  If I am, I am sure that there will still be days upon days that seem to plough one into the next.  But perhaps there will be just as many days that are each a moment entirely in themselves; days startling in their clarity.  And I will see them for what they are because of the lessons that my friends, co-workers, and students took the time to help me learn in 2014: watch carefully and share what you notice honestly; listen more than you speak; try to do the best you can, but don’t hesitate to ask for help.  And maybe one more: every step on the journey is one more chance to say thank you, one more chance to practice gratitude.

Thank you for reading and may your 2015 be filled with health, happiness, and learning.

Kevin Stein


What Kind of Teacher…

hibachiLast week I was in Tsukuba for the JALT international conference.  The sun was out, and the leaves, red and yellow, hadn’t yet started to drop in earnest from the trees.  But now, winter has suddenly arrived here in Nara.

I’m sitting around the hibachi with Anna Loseva and Mamico.  We’re waiting for the water in the heavy cast iron pot to boil so we can make tea.  Anna has suggested we take a few minutes, maybe hours even, to just think and write about teaching.

When I was in Tsukuba, I saw Tom Farrell present on reflective practices.  During his plenary presentation, he asked us what kind of teachers we were.  He asked if we were open minded, if we could heed facts and admit we might be wrong.  He asked if we were responsible, if we thought about the choices we make and the impact it has on our students in and out of the classroom; finally, he asked if we were wholehearted, if we continually reviewed our own practices.  The #KELTCHAT-ers had a slowburn chat today which was loosely connected to a workshop Professor Farrell also did at the conference.  As I sip the tea (the water heating over the charcoal finally came to a boil), I’m answering a few of the pre-chat questions posted on the #KELTCHAT site.

▪ “Good teaching requires more than application of methods; it requires self-knowledge.” What does self-knowledge mean to you in this case?

Self-knowledge, I think, first means taking the time to step back from a situation and make sure you aren’t just reacting based on old data.  It means seeing the student in front of you, the situation that is unfolding around you, and being able—at least partially—to mitigate the biases that might prevent an authentic interaction from taking place.

▪How can we go about acquiring this knowledge?

I think there are an infinite number of ways to acquire this knowledge.  Blogging about your classes, taking notes as class is happening, recording and transcribing a class.  But I don’t have time for any of that right now.  The best I can do is simply take a few moments to think about what I am going to say to a student before I open my mouth.  And I just need to ask myself, honestly, before I talk if what I am about to say is going to help this student, or do I want to say it to meet a personal need which might have nothing to do with the person in front of me.  And then, after I do say something, if I can take a moment to look at how the learner reacts, their facial expression, body language, how they participate or don’t participate in class after our interaction, I can learn something about how I am behaving and how it impacts the people in my classroom.

▪How can knowing about ourselves impact our teaching?

Knowing about myself is how I can make a better choice the next time I’m in a similar situation.  But to do that, I need data.  That means I need to be aware of what’s happening in class.  I need to know what my students are thinking and feeling.  When I can tie how I behave in class directly to how my students experience class, I can start to make changes in my behaviours that lead to better outcomes for my students.  I don’t have time to do a lot of the blogging and video taping that I did last year, but I do have enough time to say something like, “During the activity today, you weren’t really participating, so I wrote the first letter of each word of the dictation on your paper.  What did you think about that?”  I do have enough time to chat with my students about what they thought happened in class and how they felt about it.

The #KELTCHATers also put up a list of sentence stems to finish and help us think about our own ideas about teaching.

1. To me, the word teacher means…

…someone who helps learning take place.  Sometimes that means by actively taking part in the learning process.  Sometimes it might mean almost removing oneself from the process entirely.

3. I believe teaching is a calling because…

…I don’t believe it is a calling.  I believe it is a job.  And we can get better at it.  We can learn how to relate to our students.  We can learn how to be empathic.  We can learn how to make people feel safe.  It’s not a calling.  It’s hard work.  Hard work with moments that are touched by the ghost of truth.  But perhaps all work is so touched.

4. When I first started to teach I…

…thought I could be a great teacher by knowing the right activity to run and understanding how the English language worked.

7. I enjoy going into school each morning because…

…I don’t have to follow a manual.  I don’t have to have all  the answers.  I can learn from my students as they learn from me.  We can muddle through a class period together and probably all end up in a better place than if I ‘knew’ how to teach the hell out of English.

12. The worst aspect of my life as a teacher is..

…I will never have enough time to do everything I want to do.  I will not even have enough time to do the things I should do.  In fact, I probably, regardless of how long I do this job, rarely have enough time to do even the things I need to do.  So every choice I make as a teachers means that some student, sometime during the week, is not going to get as much individual attention as they need.

14. My students believe in….

…each other.  They rarely if ever get frustrated while waiting for another student to answer a question.  They believe that their friends and classmates can and will learn.  They are a constant reminder that, more than anything else, my job is to believe in them as well, and have the patience and the compassion to make the space where that learning will happen.

* * *

For the past few months I’ve been feeling incredibly guilty that I don’t have the time to engage in reflective practices.  No teaching journal.  No regular blog posts.  No video recordings of lessons and transcriptions.  But answering these questions, I’m starting to think that maybe those things, while an important part of reflection for many teachers, are not sum total of what it means to be a reflective teacher.  6 months into being a homeroom teacher (and 3 cups of tea into this blog post) I’m thinking that this year, in learning how to take a breath, make a space, and be in the moment with my students, I am finding a new way to be ’open minded’, ‘responsible’ and ‘wholehearted.’

The Best (and yet still mostly useless) Lesson I’ve Taught This Year

After 14 years of teaching, in one form or another, the Physical Description Unit, I finally have found what might be the perfect set of 3 priming activities and a task-based consolidation lesson.  You know the Physical Description Unit, don’t you?  Sure you do.   It’s the unit one where you get to teach fun stuff like:

– low frequency body-part vocabulary such as ‘eyebrows’, ’cheekbones’, ‘forehead’, and ‘earlobes.’

– the use of ‘has’ vs. ‘be’ (“She is tiny, but she has really huge ears!”)

– adjective order (general descriptor, size, shape, and then colour as in, “She has gorgeous, long, wavy, brown nose hairs.”);

– review of negative structures for ‘be’ and ‘has’, especially useful for people who have no defining characteristics (“Well, he’s not tall, and he isn’t short and he doesn’t really have long arms or legs.  He is just kind of normal looking.”)

– cultural norms and their influence on how we describe people (As in, “She has really cute, big ears.”  Big ear-ness being a ‘cute’ thing in Japan.)

– vague ways to describe age (“He is over 50, I think.”)

This is THE unit for non-stop conversation if the students in your class all have friends or family members who lean more to the Steve Buscemi side of the memorable-people-spectrum.  It is not, however, the very best unit for Japanese students who sometimes tend to think that all other Japanese people look the same.  Still, I put together a series of exercises for the unit which seemed to do the job and the students, according to their feedback, were satisfied with it. So here it is:

Activity 1: make a slide show of famous people who are chosen more for their distinct features than their fame.  I recommend Simon Rattle, Meghan Trainor, Angelina Jolie, and Lyle Lovett to name just a few.  Give the students 30 second between slides to write a short physical description of each celebrity photo that flashes up on the screen.  Wander around and pick up a few sentences that students produce.  Write the sentences up on the board, but leave a blank in place of the target language you want students to focus on.  Have the students form pairs, fill in the missing words, and then generate some rules around the target language.  My students produced the following rules:

– Use ‘is’ when describing a person’s whole body.

– Use ‘have’ when describing a part of a person’s body or something connected to their body like hair.

– Use ‘look’ when using an adjective such as ‘friendly’ or ‘crazy’

– Use ‘looks like’ when comparing someone to something or someone else.

Activity 2: have students get into groups of 3 or 4.  Each student picks one photo from their cellphone.  They all lay their cellphones down in the centre of the table and together they chose one and only one of the photos to work with.  As a group they write a physical description of the person in the picture.  Then it’s quiz time.  They show the pictures on their cell phones to another group and then read the descriptions out loud.  The second group listens, discusses, and guesses which photo is being described.  If the students show a decent command of the language at this point, you could turn it into a fluency activity by structuring it as a 4/3/2 exercise in which students have to present their descriptions in successively shorter amounts of time.

Activity 3: This activity starts off as a homework assignment.  I instructed the students to ask one of their family members to be a model.  Students were told to take a decent amount of time to really look at the family member and write a detailed description of him or her.  To help ensure the students weren’t slacking off, I included a few completely arbitrary rules such as: when writing about a person’s hair, you must use 4 adjectives; when writing about a person’s mouth, you must use at least two adjectives; when writing about a person’s earlobes; you must use 316 adjectives and 11 adverbs .  Here is an example of a description one of my students produced:

example 1

Consolidating all those physical features in one lesson composed of 6 easy steps:

1. take all those fantastic descriptions of students’ family members that the students did as homework and tape them up all over the walls.  Label each one with a number.  It should look something like this:

example 2

2. Have all the students wander around the room and read the descriptions.  You can give them a task to make it all a bit more focused.  For example, I gave my students the following two tasks: 1) correct any errors you find in the written descriptions.  2)  try and guess who wrote each description.

3. Students each pick one description which they like.  They then have to draw a picture based on that description.  I set it up in the same style as a running dictation.  The students can read the description as many times as they want, but they have to return to their own desks to draw the picture.  This ensures that students have to hold the language within their working memory which can help facilitate retention (Craik and Tulving, 1975) .  And in addition, they are transforming the language into images, which John Fanselow believes helps, “our brains make more connections than if the mediums remain the same.”

4. Now hang up the pictures on the white board and label them all with a letter.  It will look something like this (quality of artwork will vary):

example 3

5. Have students form small groups and discuss which picture goes with which description and why.  My students were producing excellent sentences such as, “I think picture I is #4, because she has beautiful, long, straight, black hair and she looks like a TV announcer.”  They should write the numbers directly on the picture.  It will look something like this:

example 4

6. Then comes the big reveal.  Hold up the picture and ask who drew it.  Once the student has proudly shouted out sheepishly raised their hand, ask them what number description their picture is based on.  Give both the picture and the description to the person who originally wrote the description.  So now you have a student holding a description of someone in their family, mostly likely their mother, and a picture based on that description.  This alone is often enough to cause a few giggle-explosions.  Ask the student who wrote the description to look at the picture and tell the class some of differences between the picture and their actual family member.  This ends up producing such sentences as “My mother doesn’t have long legs.  And my mother doesn’t have giant hands”

I wrapped up the lesson by asking my students to take the pictures and descriptions home and show them to their family members.  It hadn’t been part of my lesson plan, but as you might have noticed from the above descriptions, the students wrote extremely positive and warm descriptions and I thought it might be a nice gift to the family members.  I also really wanted the students to share the pictures as well.  I thought they would generate a lot of conversation.  And it turns out they did.  One student, M-Chan, told me her mother cried when she read her description.  And K-Kun said his family couldn’t stop laughing when he showed them the picture of his younger brother.  They finally decided to hang it up on the refrigerator door.

So there you have it, the very best series of activities for physical descriptions I’ve ever run in my class.  There’s only one problem. This weekend, I was hanging out with some friends at a professional basketball game in Nara, Japan (yeah, I didn’t realise that professional basketaball was a thing in the Japanese countryside either, but it is)photo-11 and one of my friends said, “So, does your brother look like you?”  And here was my chance to use all that language I had just taught my students.  But you know what I actually did (and I bet you do know.  In fact, I bet you might even be touching your cellphone as you are reading this, thinking, ‘God, Kevin is so slow, I’ve been thinking about cellphones since the second paragraph’)?  I took out my cell-phone and looked for a picture.  But there wasn’t one!  So, do you think I actually used that language I taught my students?  Of course not (and I bet here you might be thinking about opening an SNS app just to see how easy it is to find a picture of your brother, or sister, or mother).  I just looked at my brother’s FaceBook account and flashed everyone his picture.  And everyone agreed, by the way, that my brother did look like me, only he’s much more handsome (true that).

So what am I left with here?  I guess you could argue that, in the odd case my students witness–or worse are the victims of–a crime, they might need this language of physical descriptions.  But even if that happened, I think they would be a little too flustered to rely on the English they learned in this lesson and would be using an electronic dictionary or, perhaps more likely, their cell phone translator apps as they talked to the police.   I guess you could also break down the unit into smaller components and find some useful language points in there.  Knowing specific body part vocabulary might come in handy in the case of an injury; and ‘has’ versus ‘be’ as a comparison of an overall state versus a specific characteristic such as, “The house is big and has wonderful views of the mountains,” might be useful in other contexts.  But the fact is, I wasn’t focused on ‘other contexts’.  I was focused on teaching students how to make physical descriptions.  I’ve been teaching this material for 14 years.  During those 14 years, I haven’t stood still.  I’ve changed it up, tried out new activities, even revisited the underlying assumptions I have about how language acquisition works.  But in the end, I’m left wondering if I only really taught physical descriptions again this year because I’ve taught it for the past 13 years.  It’s especially ironic and disheartening that this lesson utilised so much tech (power point, the internet, cellphone pictures) and yet I somehow failed to recognise how those same changes in technology had mostly done away with the reason for teaching the lesson in the first place.

So here, in this blog post, I have shared with you the very best lesson plan that I will never use again. But before I end this overly long post, I’d like to share 3 questions that have been haunting me lately.  How much of what I teach is truly necessary language? If what I teach is not justifiable based on usage, but I teach it well, and it helps students generate and develop their own language system, does that make the lesson viable?  And perhaps the question that bothers me the most, how can I be sure that with these eyes clouded with experience, I’m able to clearly see the language needs of my students in the here and now?

My Friend, Marco

The following is a short story I wrote for my high school students.  Lately in Japan, there is a lot of talk about bullying.  But to be honest, I’m not really sure what bullying is.  And when I asked my students about it, almost all of them said something along the lines of, “Bullying is when someone feels like they have been bullied.”  But this way of defining bullying seems to put all the responsibility on the victim of bullying.  What happens if the victim doesn’t realise they are being bullied?  Does that really mean that there’s no bullying taking place (in Japan, that actually does seem to be the case).  Anyway, I wanted to discuss these issues with my students, for both my own understanding and to maybe help make a safer school environment.  That was the main impetus for writing this story (as well as to exorcise a few of my own nagging demons).  We used it in class, it generated a fair among of conversation, and even led to the illustrations that are scattered here and there in the text.  It’s a 984 word story and 98.47% of the words fall within the NGSL (New General Service List) so it should be appropriate for intermediate level students and above.  I’ll try and follow up with a post about how I used it in class and some more details of the students’ reactions.  But for now, I hope you will give the story a read.  Thanks in advance for your time and also any comments you might have on how to recognise bullying or to get students to talk about the issue in general. My Friend, Marco (a short story for ELLs) (all pictures by Clark International Course students)

* * *

photo 5 When I was seven years old, I knew everything about everything.  I knew the names of all the people who lived in my 32 house neighbourhood.  I knew which dogs would bite and which wouldn’t.  I knew which trees you could steal apples from and which you couldn’t.  I also thought I knew this boy who lived across the street.  His name was Marco.  That’s not a great name to have as a child.  The other students all called him Marco Polio and ran away whenever he walked towards them.  Marco wore eye-glasses with heavy black frames.  Sometimes Marco would start swinging his head back and forth really quickly for no reason.  A few times his glasses flew right off his head and broke against the wall of the school. photo 3 I used to sit with Marco during lunch.  He didn’t say much.  But when the lunch room got too noisy, he covered his ears with his hands and started singing the children’s song Row Row Row Your Boat to himself.

Anyway, Marco loved ants. He had a jar full of big black ants.  During the summer, Marco used to sit in front of his house and stare at those ants for hours.  He didn’t wear a hat.  He didn’t move into the shade under the big tree in his front yard.  He just sat there in the summer sun, his hair sticking up here and there, and stared at those ants. photo 1-2 One day, I went out and filled up my own jar with ants, only I collected the red kind. Red ants are terribly mean.  They will bite a person for no good reason.  And boy are they fast.  I went up to Marco and said, “Want to try an experiment?”  I said that the red ants were fast and good at fighting, but the black ants were big and strong.  I said we could mix them together and they would have babies and the babies would grow up to be a super red-black ant combination that was big, strong, fast and good at fighting.  Marco wasn’t really listening to me.  He was still looking at his own jar of ants, with his mouth kind of half-opened.  So I grabbed Marco’s jar and took the lid off.  Then I poured the ants out of my jar and into his.  And those red ants just started attacking the black ants.  They tore the black ants’ heads right off.  Marco started pulling at his own hair and swinging his head back and forth so hard I thought that maybe his head was going to fall off too.  He kept saying, “This is a tragedy.  This is a tragedy.”

photo 4Marco also had the best tree to climb in the whole neighbourhood.  But whenever I climbed the tree in Marco’s yard, Marco always stayed down at the bottom.  He never exactly said he didn’t like climbing trees, but he never tried to climb a tree himself.  One day I decided Marco really really needed to climb a tree.  I thought it would be good for him, maybe help him to see the world in a different way.  So I got under him and started pushing him up the trunk.  Marco was saying no, no, no, no, no, no.  And I kept saying, just go up, just go up, just go up.  Then it was like an engine got turned on in Marco and he started climbing.  He dug his hands right into the bark and pulled himself up and up and up.  He climbed all the way up to the first branch, about 8 feet above my head.  Then he just froze.  He didn’t say anything.  He just sat up there with his eyes closed, his arms wrapped around the branch.  I asked him to come down.  I said I would give him all the money I had in my pocket, $1.42.  Finally, I started screaming at him, “come down here right now!  Come on down you idiot!  Come down!”  I don’t know how long I was out there screaming like that.  But then I heard my mother calling for me to get home for dinner.  And so I left.  When I turned and looked back, I could see Marco still up in that damn tree.

I know it sounds like I was a pretty terrible child.  But in my experience, all children are terrible.  And anyway, I don’t do things like that anymore.  I have my own car shop. I’m a father.  I have a seven year old daughter.  I drive her 45 minutes to piano lessons.  I read her books before she goes to sleep.  Sometimes I tell her about what I used to do when I was her age.  I tell her about the snowball fights we had, but not about the blood dripping from Marcos’ nose.  I also don’t tell her about those red ants.  When I remember the small neighbourhood where I grew up, the white houses and cracked sidewalks, I can see Marco out of the corner of my imagination.  He’s still there, still up in that tree.  He is still waiting for me to help him down.  But I’m stuck here.  On the other side of time.  There is no way I can get back there.  There is no way for me to say I’m sorry for all the things I did.  Even worse, there is no way to say thank you. photo 2-2When I watch my daughter walking to school in the morning, always by herself, always with her head down, I realise that Marco was the closest thing I had to a friend then.  When I was seven years old, I thought I knew everything about everything.  But really, I didn’t know anything at all.  I didn’t even know that without Marco, I would have been alone every day of that long empty summer.

* * *

A PDF version of the story is available for download as well: My Friend, Marco

Vocabulary Profile: If the words ‘jar’ and ‘ant’ are pre-taught or glossed, 98.47 of the words fall within the NGSL (New General Service List) as profiled on the VP-Complete-Input Vocabulary Profiler (http://www.lextutor.ca/vp/comp/) on Tom Cobb’s Lextutor site (http://www.lextutor.ca).  The specific breakdown is:
984 words total
NGSL_1 (first 1000 lemmas): 91.20%
NGSL_2 (2nd and 1st 1000 lemmas): 96.22%
NGSL_3 (2nd and 1st 1000 lemmas plus additional 801 lemmas): 98.47%

Seeing the Student in Front of Me

Hegel looking like he'd like to invert himself out of an uncomfortable situation.

Hegel looking like he’d like to invert himself out of an uncomfortable situation.

The other day I was teaching a standardized test prep class.  For anyone interested in the nuts and bolts of of this particular standard test, the way perhaps some people are also interested in how water-boarding simulates drowning, you can check out the finer points of the STEP test here.  Usually, I use the test as a jumping off point for more traditional language classroom activities.  You know, things like:

– Communicative activity: take a dialogue from the standardised test and have the students personalise it and practice it in pairs.

– Vocabulary work: Have students run through a series of multiple choice questions, identify unknown vocabulary words, and working in small groups create new sentences using the vocabulary words.

– Negotiation/language awareness: Have students solve a set of questions (usually 3) and then, in English, discuss the answers they chose and why they chose them before doing to a group consensus and checking their answers.

– Language Awareness: Pass out a batch of questions compiled from previous tests.  Students try and find two or more questions which are testing knowledge of the same grammar point.  Answer the questions and generate a grammar rule which can help them quickly solve similar questions in the future.

But before I have the students study, I like to take a baseline of where they are.  So last week, all the students took the listening portion of the test individually on their own computer in the computer lab.  I wrote on the board that they were supposed to take the test from beginning to end.  They were not to stop the audio or rewind it.  And when they finished, they were to correct their own test and provide me with the scores.  I walked around and just made sure that they had found the correct files on the server and were moving along.  One student, lets call him Mr. M, seemed to be progressing slightly slower than the other students.  After about 40 minutes, when all of the other students had finished the test and were checking their answers, Mr. M had just started answering questions on the last part of the test.  I sat down next to him and tilted my head in that way that signifies I’m curious about something (and which lately so infuriates my daughter…and perhaps has always infuriated my students as well without me ever noticing).  Mr. M raised his eyebrows and his mouth formed this small circle of surprise.  Perhaps you know the look, the one that usually follows an accusation like, “God!  How, in one afternoon, could you have possibly eaten that whole jar of guacamole dip which I was planning to serve on Saturday?”

Mr. M’s look of guilt mixed with surprise led to this conversation:

Me: Mr. M, did you pause the recording while you were taking the test?

Mr. M: (looking like he just jingled a prison cell door and found it unlocked) No, I didn’t pause it.  I never paused it.

Me: Did you rewind the questions and listen to them more than once?

Mr. M.: I couldn’t understand what they were saying.

Me: Hmmmm…. (and I am sure my head tilted a bit more, which, according to my daughter means I am angry and which only serves to infuriate her further)

So here I was looking at Mr. M and thinking, “How could he have simply ignored everything I had instructed him to do at the beginning of class?  What is wrong with him?  What is wrong with all these students that they justcan’tfollowdirectionsanddotheonelittlethingIaskthemtodosoIcangetabaselineand…”  And in the middle of my crazy-anger-James-Joyce-has-infected-my-though-process mental ramble, I stopped thinking and looked at Mr. M.  He was now kind of slumped over and looking at his shoes.  I’m pretty sure that guilty ‘o’ shape of his mouth had been replaced by a ready-to-be-reprimanded frown.  And then I felt this kind of sudden weightlessness.  As if I was floating just a few centimetres above my chair.

Me: So the test was pretty hard?

Mr. M: I didn’t know almost any of the answers.

Me: Yeah, I know how that feels.  I hate it when I can’t understand things in Japanese.

Mr. M: I didn’t feel like I was learning anything, so I rewound the questions until I could understand them.

Me: That’s great.  I’m so glad you’re keen to learn.

Mr. M: (Looking up at me)

Me: You know, if we can get your score on a listening test without you rewinding your answers, we can find out which answers are the most difficult and then we can make a really good study plan.

Mr. M: (nods)

Me: How about this, tomorrow will you take another test.  This time do you think, even when you can’t understand a question, you can keep moving along with the test until the end?

Mr. M: (smiling) Yes.  I can do that.

There’s no real big lesson here.  I’m sure that there are many many teachers who don’t struggle with seeing the student in front of them.  I’ve had mentors who just instinctively knew where a student was at and were always willing to let go of their teacherly expectations and do what was best for the student.  I’m not one of those teachers.  But the other day, for at least one moment, I slipped into that space.  I realised that making Mr. M feel bad for not following directions was going to serve no practical purpose.  And I wonder, how can I find my way back to this kind of space more often.  Because being a teacher isn’t about trapping students like Mr. M in a box of guilt, but showing them how each and every step, the stumbles made out of anxiety as well as the confident strides of understanding, are all part of the journey of learning.

9 Tanka

BooksI often use tanka, short Japanese poetry, as a warmer in my class. Mostly I do this because my school has a strict policy that teachers must begin each class by taking role call.  But not just any kind of role call.  We have to say every student’s full name, complete with the honorific Mr. or Ms. and wait until each students responds before moving on.  So it takes a bit of time. About 5 minutes in all. Which is just about enough time to read and understand a short poem.

Anyway, I thought I would share some of the poems I’ve used over the past few years in my classroom. All except 1 are translated from the Japanese.  Which is actually pretty cool because it allows for some nice L1/L2 comparison action.  Before class starts, I jot the poems up on the board and usually, alongside the tanka, I write a few questions or suggested activities students can answer or do to better understand the poem.  So here are 9 tanka and questions/activities along with links to the books where I found them:  


On the swings

I kick myself up toward the sky

trying to find

enough strength to make 

even god afraid of getting hurt

—-Kei Amano, Tanka No Kibun


– How old is the person on the swings?

– How is she feeling?


because I thought

it was the girlish thing to do

I pretended

until my 2nd year of high school

to love strawberries

—-Mayumi Satou, Kitto Koi no Sei


– Have you ever pretended to like something?

– Do you think there is a way to act like a boy or a girl?

– Why does the poem end with the word strawberry?


only good

at running away

I realize

I’m the last one left

in this game of dodge-ball

—-Kei Amano, Tanka No Kibun


– What is a metaphor?

– Is dodgeball a metaphor in this poem?

– If it is a metaphor, what is it a metaphor for?


from the outside

you would never know

my tongue

could really be burned 

just as badly as this 

—-Hiroshi Homura, Linemarkers


– How many people are in this tanka’s scene?

– Where are they?

– Make a line drawing of these scene.


you say

this tastes great

and so

the sixth of July becomes

our salad anniversary

—-Machi  Tawara, Salad Anniversary


– Is this a sad or happy poem?

– Can you write a similar poem about a special day you have had?


buying up

all the music and books

in the world

knowing I’ve somehow got to

make it through this one night

—Chie Katou, Happy Ice-cream


– When do you like to listen to music?

– What music do you listen to when you are sad?

– Are there books that help you deal with difficult times?


parent’s say

they raise their children

but in the garden

the tomatoes grow red

just as they please


 —-Tawara Machi, Salad Anniversary

– Instead of asking a question, I leave the last line blank in this poem and students can fill it in themselves.  Most of them actually get pretty close to the intent of the poem.  Best answer so far, “even if the gardner is noisy!”


do they

really belong to me

these tears

falling into the empty

egg tray of the refrigerator 

—-Hiroshi Homura, Linemarkers


– Who is the narrator of this poem? (how old?  man or woman?)

– Make a line drawing of this scene.

– Change any three words in this poem to make a new poem.


my cat’s tail

wrapped around his body

a language

that only I and

my mother understand


– This poem was written by one my student two months ago.  She is a 16 year old, second year high school student.  It wasn’t an assignment.  It was just something she did because she wanted to.  It was nice to think that 5 minutes of what could have just been wasted time at the beginning of class led to this.  I haven’t used it in class yet, but she’s given me her permission.  Maybe if you have some ideas for questions/activities to go along with this tanka, you would be kind enough to leave them in the comment section.  I know Y-chan would be very happy to think that teachers from other schools were reading, thinking about, and maybe even using her tanka.

You can’t grow without it

The kanji for yoyuu.

There is a word I simply adore in Japanese, ‘Yoyuu.’  It’s kind of a fuzzy, all purpose word which means time, mental capacity, margin, monetary ability, elbow room, and the list goes on and on. If I want to buy a cool new bicycle with a banana seat, but I’m already over my monthly budget, I might say, “God, I want that bike, but I have no yoyuu.” Or, after a long stretch of working overtime, I might say, “I finally have enough yoyuu to spend some quality time with my family this weekend.” It’s a word I use regularly in Japanese. It’s also a word that I grope for in English lately when I talk about teaching.

Starting this year, I’m a home room teacher. On paper, things don’t look quite that different from what I was doing last year. I have 22 scheduled teaching hours a week. I’m in charge of the standardised testing classes, the lower-intermediate communication skills classes, and I manage the extensive reading program. The only real difference is that every morning, when I stand in front of 28 first and second-year high school students, the ultimate responsibility (at least in the eyes of the Japanese education system) for whether they stay in school rests on me. Sometimes the students are a bunch of wilting flowers. Sometimes I’m sure that Walter White has dropped a little something in their morning cup of tea. I take attendance, make the daily announcements, and then I have ten minutes left to do any old thing I want. But mostly, what I want is to find a way to flip a switch and help my students get to a place where the rest of the day is going to be about learning. Over the past few months we’ve:

  • used the Newsmap.jp internet site to explore how different countries perceive and report on various news stories.  For example, last week we spent two morning homerooms discussing how the U.S. and Australia’s take on the new U.S. CO2 emission regulations differ (U.S.: Largest attempt to combat warming in Amercan history; Australia: Europe demands U.S. do More).
  • watched the video for Michael Jackson’s new song and compared how it is similar to Off the Wall and some of the reasons for those similarities.
  • discussed the fact that Japan had its steepest population decline of the modern era, and brainstormed the reasons why people aren’t having children (students opinions included: it’s a pain in the ass, adults don’t have any money, there’s no ’yoyuu’.)

Because it’s a mixed homeroom of all the 1st and 2nd year students in the school, the students’ English levels are vastly different, their basic study skills are…yada yada yada. There’s a lot of reasons for why these short morning lessons are challenging. But I find a way to make them primarily in English and (I hope) mostly understandable. Sometimes I pass out a copy of a Japanese article I’ve taken from my daughter’s Japanese children’s newspaper. These print papers target elementary school students, use only the most crucial vocabulary, are written in clear sentences, and are short. A student who has quickly read through one of these articles is very much primed to listen to a short talk on the topic in English.  To make everything a bit more comprehensible, I’ll often list up key vocabulary/chunks of language on the board with the Japanese equivalents, have the students form a stronger/weaker pair, and hope that the chemistry between the students is just right so what I’m talking about gets students talking to each other.

I guess I’m trying to say there’s a lot of stuff I’m doing in my classroom. Sometimes it works. Sometimes, not at all. But the thing is, even when it does work, the fact that I taught my class and it went well is one of the smallest parts of my day. Now I finish that morning homeroom class and make notes of who didn’t make it to school today. Who didn’t bother to take out their notebook. Who seemed to be angry with whom. At the end of the day I call parents, I plan how to rearrange the seating chart, I talk to the other teachers about students who had a better or worse day. And I hope and wonder and pray that these students will spend the next year moving forward more often than they move back.

There’s a lot of about this whole teaching thing that I still don’t really understand. And maybe I never will. But right up until this August, there was one thing I was pretty sure about. Being a better teacher meant taking time to reflect on my classes, plug into my social and professional network of educators, and make sure I was finding a way to see the prism of my classroom from as many angles as possible. I was in fact, so positive that this was essential to developing as a teacher that I wrote articles and blog posts about it. I encouraged and cajoled and perhaps to some people, even crossed the line into that depressingly colourless world of proselytisation. I don’t exactly regret doing any of those things. It’s just that, now, I realise the only reason I could do those things, from classroom reflection to being a Twitter-pusher, was because I had ’Yoyuu.’

I still talk to my co-workers about what’s going down in my classroom…sometimes. I still read blogs…on occasion. But when it comes to what makes my classes better (whatever that means), I’ve found that a teacher pulling up a chair and helping to correct the weekly vocabulary tests, or a spontaneous offer to cover my weekly study-hall, or even a cup of steaming coffee unexpectedly waiting for me on my desk all seem to impact my classes more directly than what I used to believe was the one and only way to develop as a teacher.

It’s a humbling experience, this struggling to teach without any ’yoyuu’. I wonder if I didn’t come off as a kind of jerk over the past few years, thinking that I had found the magic key to professional development. If I was a little (or maybe a lot) condescending at times, I’m truly sorry about that. I’ve kind of got it now. The next time I’m talking to a struggling teacher, I’ll put my ideas of what they need aside. I’ll maybe cover a class for them, help them grade some homework, or just brew up a fresh pot of coffee. Because while RP, PD, and all the other things that I used to think meant being a serious teacher are important, none of it’s going to matter until you can find just a little bit of space—to catch your breath, get a chance to look around, and maybe, if your lucky, begin to set down some roots.

Addendum: over the past few months I realised that there are many superstars in my PLN who really are all about making ’yoyuu’ for other teachers. I just wanted to say thanks for the great example. I’m a little embarrassed I never noticed just what you were up to before.  But I’m watching now.  And recently, I’ve even found a bit of time to take down a note or two.

Yoyuu is the space where we remember to look up at the moon, framed between tree branches
Don’t worry, I have enough yoyuu to take pictures of the moon.

Extensive Reading, bring in team qualitative

I promise that this seemingly random image of a tank has something to do with this post.

I promise that this seemingly random image of a tank has something to do with this post.

I’m getting ready for a presentation on Extensive Reading for Nara JALT and don’t have much time to blog (or do anything really, except write and put together PP slides).  But I thought I might share a bit of what I’ve been thinking about as I put together my presentation.  If you’re going to be joining me in Nara on April 6th, I highly recommend that you stop reading now, or things might be a little dull as you wait for me to finish talking so we can all head over to the park, enjoy the cherry blossoms and get our drink on.

In my experience, Extensive Reading works.  I have numbers to back it up.  Over this school year my students average reading speed went from 128 words per minute to 185 words per minute.  The average number of words they could hold in working memory based on a read/think/write exercise (see my T-Dad post for more info) jumped from 4.21 to 6.63 words.  And total words produced in a…

Is that enough yet?  Are your eyes totally glazing over?

I had a friend who was a pretty normal guy.  He worked with me at the local deli.  He could fry a perfect Reuben sandwich, could fix a broken meat steamer, and was, in general a great guy to hang out with.  But if you got him talking about tanks, you were in trouble.  He knew the tread width of all the German Panzers; could compare artillery casing thicknesses; and got extremely excited about power to weight ratios. As he would talk on and on about tanks, he became less and less aware of whether anyone was listening to him.  More often than not, no one was.  But I was.  I was mesmerised by his ability to amuse himself with the minutia of tanks.  I sometimes wonder if when I talk about ER, whether I’m engaged in the same kind of self-amusement that Tom was wrapped up in.

You see, there’s an ever growing body of research showing that ER really works, but as popular as ER is becoming, it’s not an integral part of every, or even most language programs.  Probably in part because the best way to convince teachers that something is worthwhile is not by throwing a bunch of numbers around.  If you are talking to other researchers (or other tank enthusiasts), that might work.  But teachers know that there are individual stories behind that data.  And that in a real teaching situation, it’s probably those stories, the individual encounters of teachers and students, the actual engagement with a learner, a text, and a teacher, which is most important.  So pull out as many numbers from your magic bag of I’m-gonna-convine-you as you want.  It’s not going to work.

And let’s say a teacher is slightly moved by all those stats, and they go and look at some of the articles.  What do they find out, aside from the numbers?

From Mason and Krashen’s (1997) treatment section of an ER experiment: “The experimental classes in each institution read from graded readers.”

From Bell’s (2001) method section of a ER paper: The experimental group (n= 14) received an extensive reading program consisting of class readers, a class library of books for students to borrow, and regular visits to the library providing access to a much larger collection of graded readers (up to 2000 titles).

Even Richard Day and Julian Bamford’s Extensive Reading in the Second Language Classroom, which I think is a brilliant book and pretty much lays out everything you need to know to start an ER program, can only go so far in preparing a teacher for what’s going to actually happen in an ER classroom.  Basically, all of the advice out there for ER, is like the instructions for building IKEA furniture.  It looks simple enough on paper, but it leaves you (or at least it leaves me) with the sneaky suspicion that the most important part of putting it all together has somehow been left off the page.  And of course it has!  As good as designers are at making universal symbols, a set of directions for putting together a mishmash of 83 separate nuts bolts and planks which uses no words and only arrows, is by it’s very nature going to be leaving out the most important part of building anything.  How tight the screws have to be.  Whether once you put a bolt in place, will you be able to take it out again (often the horrifying answer is no).  How loud you will curse once you realise that the very middle shelf has been put in backwards.

So what am I trying to say with this mild rant about ER articles and people who talk about ER?  Not much, really.  All I’m trying to say is that instead of focusing on the big picture, we need to be spending more time presenting individual stories, small grain case studies of what students are doing in an ER classroom, and what role a teacher takes on with an individual student.  Because while you need some basic instructions to get going (see Bamford and Day’s Extensive Reading top 10, neither the big picture basic instructions, or the hard data of successful ER programs is going to convince teachers that they might want to implement ER in their own classes.  I think we have reached a moment in the development of ER and it’s penetration into the ELT community, where qualitative information has become much more important and valuable than quantitative information.  And as a case in point, I would like to share a short story of one of my students, Karin.

My school doesn't allow us to share photo's of students, so I asked my daughter to draw an image of Karin to help you visualise what's going on in the following case study.

My school doesn’t allow us to share photo’s of students, so I asked my daughter to draw an image of Karin to help you visualise what’s going on in the following case study.

Filed under: reads too fast

Karin is not a traditional reader in that she likes to sit down with a book in her native language and lose herself in the story.  But she reads huge amounts of material in Japanese every week because she is training to be a professional MC/announcer.  And not only does she read huge amounts of materials in Japanese, she also reads them out loud.  Probably with an eye to her future, she actively volunteers to read materials out loud in English class whenever she gets the chance.  So it’s not surprising that her reading speed is a much better than the class average at 210 words per minute.  In fact, at one point she was reading so many words per minute (almost 300), that I decided maybe a little intervention was in order.  I took her aside, complimented her on having a reading speed as fast as a native speaker’s.  I told her I was interested in hearing if she was able to use her “narrator super powers” when she read in English.  I had her select an early intermediate level text (800 headwords), pick a page, and gave her a minute to read it through one time.  According to the vocabulary test we had given at the semester break, Karin had a receptive vocabulary which covered about 90% of the first 1000 most frequent words in English and 70% of the second most frequent words in English.  So asking her to read out loud from an 800 headword text should have been quite a stretch for her, even after having read through it once.  I told her I was going to be timing her and asked her to read as clearly and quickly as possible.  She read smoothly, with inflection, at a rate of just under 200 words per minute.  Just blazingly fast.  And I think that most people listening to her would have thought she really understood what she read.  But when I asked her, “How much of that did you understand,” she shrugged and guessed 60%.  So we talked about why we measured words per minute (WPM) in class, and how extensive reading WPM score was pretty different from what an announcer was aiming for when it came to speed.  We kind of hit upon a bargain.  She would alternate between keeping track of two scores.  Her AWPM (yep, announcer’s words per minute) and her regular WPM.  When she was keeping track of her regular WPM, she would focus on enjoying and understanding the story.  When she was doing her AWPM thing, she would read out loud in a quiet voice and focus on speed and pronunciation clarity.  After our talk, both her WPM and AWPM fell below her feverish 300 mark and became a more accurate reflection of her reading speed.

Any Conclusions To Be Found Here

Now I realise that Karin is not your standard student.  But, when it comes to how and why students read, I pretty sure there is no such thing as a “standard student.”  Every student is going to have their own goals, problems, and successes.  When Bamford and Day explain that in ER, “Teachers guide their students,” they are giving us the IKEA instructions for what we need to do.  But I think it would be nice to have a centralised place to collect the stories of how that guidance played out in a real classroom.  A repository of case-studies, tagged with the issues or main features presented by each student, would go a long way in helping to provide a better picture of what is happening in ER classrooms around the world.  At the same time, it would provide the kind of detailed advice that teachers in an ER program often need when dealing with individual students.  And best of all, it’s just these kind of stories of real life problems and real life success which can help show interested teachers just what ER is all about.  Because marshalling an army of ER effectiveness data has only gotten us so far.  It’s time to let the individual stories of our students carry us the rest of the way.

P.S. If you are interested in ER, and would like more information, I highly recommend:

The Extensive Reading Foundation 


The JALT Extensive Reading Special Interest Group

Shaken not stirred: 8 ways to start your class different

These bears are eagerly waiting for their English lesson to begin.

These bears are eagerly waiting for their English lesson to begin.

Last week I took part in the #ELTchat on “Entering and Exiting: The Importance of Beginning and Ending Lessons Well.”  There’s a fantastic write up of the chat by Sue Annan on the ELTchat blog.  After the chat was over, I spent a little bit of time thinking about how I’ve started my classes over the years.  It dawned on me that some of my warm-ups and class starters might be illegal in some countries less than typical.  I also realised that I haven’t done a listicle blog post in a while.  So here, in listicle form, are 8 relatively novel and potentially dangerous ways to start a lesson:

8. Don’t do much of anything (just listen): I have 50 minutes in which learning can/might/might not take place.  It’s not a long time.  Sometimes I feel like I need to squeeze out every second of learning that I possibly can.  That means I often start off class as soon as (or even before) the scheduled time.  A few years ago I and some of my coworkers were watching a video of the start of one of our lessons. As soon as the chime rang, Trent, the teacher in the video, started telling students to get in their seat so he could start class.  The students shuffled towards their chairs and settled down.  After the video, one of the other teachers turned to Trent and asked him what the students had been talking about before class had started.  “I don’t know, I was too busy trying to get them to quiet down,” Trent said.  “Why not let them talk and just listen in on what they are talking about,” the teacher suggested.  There was a moment of silence in which years and years of missed opportunities rose up and swept over all of us.  So now I don’t see (or try not to see) students chatting at the beginning of the class as a behaviour problem or stealing time from learning.  Instead, I let them chat and listen in and take notes.  Often what they are talking about provides the focus for the rest of the class.  In one of my last lessons of the year, a group of students were talking about just how cool they thought Pope Francis was.  Which led to an impromptu lesson on how Popes are selected, what they do, and religion in general.  So I guess what I’m saying is don’t rush the beginning of class.  Getting all the learning juice out of your fifty minutes might require a bit of peeling (which in this case means patience and listening…never mind, this is a terrible metaphor).

7. Not all students are ready to start the lesson at the same time or in the same way: we usually start off lessons with an activity which involves the entire class.  But in the real world, people often drift into a conversation (and sometimes drift out as well).  Instead of forcing everyone to jump into an activity, if there are two or three students who are ready and willing to go, just walk over to them, or call them together in a group and start the warm up with the students who are ready.  One of my favourite activities in this kind of situation is a simple pattern recognition game.  I might say, “2, 4, 6” and then point to the student next to me.  They will usually say “8.”  Then I point to another student, who invariably says, “10.”  Once all the students all seem to know what’s going on, ask one of them to say what the pattern’s rule is.  You can do any kind of pattern.  “Apple, banana, cat, diary,…” (each word starts with the next letter of the alphabet) or “I love cats but I don’t like apples…I like bread but I don’t like alligators (things you like start with consonants while things you don’t like start with vowels).  If they are really into it, you can let a student come up with their own pattern and the other people in the activity have to guess the rule.

6. Mystery learning goals: Don’t write up the learning goals on the board.  Instead, write up something like

In this class we will learn: _____________, _____________, _____________

Tell the students that as the class goes on, their job is to write down the three learning goals for the class (even if you only have two learning goals, still make three spaces.  Trust me, it all works out in the end.)  Maybe it’s the overwhelmingly chaotic and disorganised fairly opened-ended way I teach, but I find that what I believe to be the main points of a class are with depressing frequency sometimes different from what the students chose to focus on.  By starting the class in this way, you not only encourage students to develop the metacognitive skills needed to take note of their own learning, you get a bunch of valuable information about just what each of your student is focusing on in class.  It also leads to a fantastic closing activity where students get a chance to discuss just what they learned.

[Side note: at the end of this presentation by Diane Larsen-Freeman, she shares a story about teaching 8 Chinese learners of English.  The entire presentation is amazing, but the way this anecdote highlights how students develop their own syllabus throughout a course is one of the best examples I’ve ever seen of how, regardless of what you want to teach, students learn what they want to learn.]

5. What the heck is that: bring something novel to class and plop it down in plane sight of the students.  Sometimes, in a language classroom, it’s easy to get memorising mixed up with learning.  Just because our students remember all kinds of English after a class is finished, doesn’t mean that there was much learning going on.  If we want our students to learn, there should probably be a moment of confusion mixed with wonder.  Giving our students a reason to genuinely ask, “What?” or “Why?” or “HUH!?” at the beginning of class helps create an atmosphere where learning can take place.  I once brought my folding bicycle into class, unfolded it at the start of lesson and sat it up at the front of the room.  It was the most successful lesson on modes of transportation I’ve ever had.

4. Be the magician who explains the trick: If you have a detailed lesson plan, pass it out to the students at the start of class.  Let students rank the activities they want to do from most to the least.  If they don’t want to do an activity, have them write a reason in the margins.  While teaching the class, use the marked up lesson plans from your students to modify the class.  If you alter the lesson, take a moment to explain how and why you are changing things based on their feedback. I sometimes do this with my more advance classes.  Not only is it a great way to get student input, I also think it’s a nice way to model how communication is a continuous act of negotiation.

3. Where is the teacher today: just start teaching class in a place and position different from your routine.  This is an idea I’ve lifted from John Fanselow and tweaked to take it to the extreme.  If you always start class by standing next to the board, start by standing at the back of the class near the window.  If you start class sitting down, stand up.  If you start class by sitting with your students in a circle, put your chair in the middle of the circle and start that way.  It’s an easy way to shake things up, get your students wondering about what’s going on, and changing the dynamics of the lesson.  I once connected this trick with “What the heck is that” by bringing in a huge box to class and starting the lesson by sitting in the box with the lid closed.  I couldn’t see the students, but I could hear them.  I started to tell a ghost story and just when things got their scariest, I jumped up, breaking through the top of the box.  One of the students, an older man named Yuichi, actually fell out of his chair.  I haven’t done it since.

2. Group lesson review: Give every students who walks through the door a whiteboard marker and instruct them to jot the most important thing they learned in the previous lesson up on the board.  Not only does this provide you with an opportunity to review what happened in the last class, it also gives you a chance to learn just what your students are most into learning now.  If your school isn’t rich in whiteboard markers (or chalk), you can have the students just write in very large letters on one sheet of paper and then tape their “most import thing” onto the board.  I have rarely (maybe never) been able to move on to new material after using this activity at the beginning of class.  Which is great because it not only helps highlight the importance of reviewing previous material, it also helps show the learners that they are all focused on different things and moving at their own pace.

1. Secede your position of authority: when a student walks through the door, hand him or her your pointer or whiteboard marker or whatever symbol of “teacherness” you might use and ask him or her to start the class off for you (In my case, I sometimes take off my glasses and perch them on top of the student’s head).  This is a high pressure situation and I don’t recommend just picking any old student.  But if you are willing to hand over authority like this–and the student is game to give it a try–it’s pretty amazing what a learner can do with a few minutes at the beginning of class.  In my classes, students have: orally quizzed the other learners on vocabulary; taken role-call; given a brief summary of what they learned last week; and engaged the class in small talk about what they did during the weekend.

We often say that the first few moments of a class are the most important, that they set the tone for all that follows.  This might be true, but I also think that it’s an awful lot of pressure to put on ourselves and our students.  Sometimes the first few minutes of class are just that, the first few minutes of class.  If things go wrong and we are honest with our students  and simply say, “Hey, I tried this new thing at the beginning of this class, and you know what, it didn’t really work out,” your students will be willing to forgive you and move on to the next moment of learning.  Besides, like a conversation filled with false starts and sudden shifts in topic, playing with class openings gives our students a chance to deal with oddity, novelty, and even failure.  So instead of using the first few minutes of class to get all the students to move in lock-step, perhaps our learners would be better served by creating a space to improvise, to create a kind of communicative jazz in which everything might fall apart at any moment.  Because that’s probably a bit closer to what is actually happening as our students work together, while struggling individually, to grab ahold of this things we call language and make it their own.



Today, March 4, 2014

It suddenly got cold again here in Osaka.  I woke up this morning to find a thin skim of ice on the basin into which our rainwater collects and the sunlight reflecting off the ground frosted white.  I was happy to grab an empty seat so I could sit down on the warm train ride into town.  I was reading over a research article by Nick Ellis on working memory and its influence on language acquisition.  I was trying hard to keep track of the running dialogue I have with an article when deciding how any particular piece SLA research is transferable—or not as the case may be—to my classroom practices, when the doors opened and a young man with stubble on his chin and the hint of a mustache shuffled over to the seat besides mine.  He sat down heavily and thunked his backpack down on the ground in front of him.  I looked at him and slid the Ellis article into my bag. 

     I turned to the man.  He had bags under his eyes.  “Michi?” I said.

     He looked at me.  He smiled.  “Kevin?”

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Today was my school’s graduation ceremony. I was kind of surprised to find eight of my old students waiting for me outside of the ceremony hall after the graduation ended. They handed me a bouquet of flowers. I was a little confused and asked why they were giving me flowers. “Because you’re graduating, too,” Junchan and Nanae said.

I realized they were right. Next year I am moving to my new campus modeled after an AmericanSchool. The International Program I helped coordinate, the one they graduated from, was officially ending. Today. This very evening.

I was a little chocked up. So I tried to change the topic. “So who did you come to see graduate,” I asked. I figured they had come to see one of their friends receive their diploma. “For you. We came to say congratulations to you.” They said it at the same time. Some in English. Some in Japanese.

So I gave up and cried. And said thank you. And, like I did at the end of so many classes I looked them in the eyes and said, “I love you.” And today all that love came back to me. Today, too, I feel blessed to be a teacher.

Today, March 4, 2014

I noticed that around Michi’s eyes, there were flecks of sleep.  His hair, just as it was when he was my student, was a mass of wild tangles. 

              “What are you doing now?  Where are you working?” I had heard he had a job on a farm.  I held my breath.

              “I work over at the dollar store part-time.  And I work in the vegetable fields.”  He pointed vaguely towards the window.  The city rolled by and I felt a little disoriented.  Where amidst the tumble of streets and eruption of office towers in Osaka did Michi go to pick vegetables? 

              “Do you enjoy it?” I asked.  He froze in that way he used to in class when he didn’t understand.  “Do you like working in the vegetable fields?” I asked.

              “Oh, yeah.  It’s good,” he said.  He looked down at his bookbag.  All of the zippers were closed.  There were no stray pieces of rumpled paper poking out.  His shoes were laced up and knotted.  In the two years since he had graduated he had grown.  He seemed like he could take care of himself.

              “Do you have any work in the fields in this season?”

              “No.  Not now.  Now the plants are just starting to grow.  So I work at the dollar store.”

              And then my stop came.  “I was so happy to see you,” I said. 

              “Yep.”  He nodded.  And then I got off the train.


When Michi walked into my International Course classroom for the first time, he was functionally illiterate in Japanese and English.  He couldn’t read or write Chinese characters, and couldn’t get beyond A-B-C in English.  He took part in our first ER classes and read books about Floppy sounding out one letter at a time.  By the time he graduated, he could hold a simple conversation.  He could write a sentence.  But he never did figure out how to put his class notes into a folder.  And he never managed to get above 30% on the standard academic ability tests he had to take twice a year.  At that time, I had just started in my new job.  I had all kinds of ideas of what my students needed to know.  I had all sorts of lines in the sand by which I measured success and judged my students.  I was not always kind to Michi.  I was not always kind to myself.

I sometimes wonder if there is any job quite as bittersweet as that of being a teacher.  Do people working in other professions see the ghosts of their past all around them?  Is every success matched with the ache of “I could have done more?”

My friend Josette LeBlanc recently wrote, “Teaching can be a lonely profession. Often, we don’t have anyone to turn to who understands the challenges we face. Self-care may be the only strategy we can turn to when the job gets too hard.”  She ends her blog post this way: “I want to propose an idea to all teachers: be kind to yourself no matter what happens. No matter what.”  Her words come at a good time.  In three weeks I start my new semester in a new campus and I’m tired of seeing my students as a yardstick by which to measure my success.  I’m tired of hearing only part of what they say to me because I’m always also half listening to the whispers of what I said yesterday or last week or last year.  So I’m going to give it a try, this being kind to myself.  Maybe if I find a way to quiet the voice of self-judgment, even for just a moment, both the ghosts of the past and the bouquets of the present will take on a new hue, will stand out with a new kind of clarity.  Maybe, with practice, they will both reflect the joy of now the same way even the March frost reflects the morning sun.