Posts Tagged ‘teaching English’

Hola amigos, I’m pintxo de tortilla, an English Language Assistant placed in the north of Spain. Unlike my fellow bloggers, I haven’t left the comfort zone of Western culture, so my experiences will likely vary enormously from what they see and feel. Now, I’m no spring chicken to the English Language Assistant work. I was in the same region last year, albeit at a different school. I genuinely adore the work and find nothing better than the “Oh my goodness, I get it!”-face you (occasionally) see made by a student. I will be in a small, coastal, fishing town this year working at a local middle/highschool. Where I’ll be living remains undetermined and will depend on a number of factors.

So how does it feel? Last year at this time, I was terrified. I was packing and preparing lesson plans like a fiend. I was enormously scared to think that soon I would be off to a country and continent that I had no experience in, and that I’d be there for a year. This year, I’m far more relaxed. I know exactly what I’ve gotten myself into, and the only thing stressing me out is the thought of renewing my government documentation. Why? Oh my. Bureaucracy in Spain is a trip. “Three copies of this page, two of that, ten of this, three mini-photos of an unspecified nature on a pink background, preferably taken upside down by a eunuch from Tajikistan. Oh, and please pay $1.67 at the bank of your choice and return as soon as possible with twelve signatures, one from the mayor and one from the prime minister.” This MIGHT be a slight exaggeration, but I’ll tell you – only slight. As long as you bring a good book, a positive attitude, and a strong grasp of Castillian Spanish, things get done. (Eventually.) I’ve given myself ten days to renew my identification. Let’s pray that it works out.

So what was my experience like last year? I spent the first half of the year finding my feet. While I had worked in classroom settings before, I had never received any formal feedback and thus was unsure about what to do. I jumped in head first, and was thrown back out of the water with confused looks from the students, and a “you talk far too fast!” from my co-teachers. Ok, try two. Try two went better. A few “bombs” of lesson plans, but the students got accustomed to me and I started to learn how they were learning. By the end of Christmas break, I was finding my feet. Decent lesson plans combined with silly gesticulations and acting out concepts seemed to get through to the students – thank goodness I have no shame! By the end of the year, I had it figured out; no ska songs as cultural/vocabulary lessons because the kids look at you wierd, and there’s only two kids in the class who like anything that’s not pop. “Pick on” the troublemakers and they’ll begin to pay attention and… *gasp*… contribute in class! I could spend all day talking about the things I learned as a teacher, but I’m sure many of you aren’t so keen on the classroom experience.

What about culture? Holy cow. It took a bit to get used to. I went to Spain armed with a largely Mexican/South American Spanish, a Spanish that is neither widely understood nor widely respected in Spain. I was lost the first few weeks, trapped by my own vocabulary and terror. Trying to find an apartment was a nightmare. I hardly understood folks on the street, how on EARTH was I going to understand them on the phone? Thankfully, I was lucky enough to stumble across a roommate (re-)named “O” who was kind enough to deal with my terrible Spanish and show me the apartment anyhow. I ended up living on the outskirts of town, a five-minute walk from the beach, with a Spanish masters student and a British girl in the same program as me. I made friends with a number of the British, Scottish, and Irish program participants, largely because I met them before I met any other Americans. Our English-speaking group of comrades provided a sort of linguistic and cultural comfort zone to fall back on and to party with on the weekends. For the first few months I was in Spain, I didn’t really do much with the Spanish, afraid to depart from my comfort zone. Thankfully, I threw myself face-first into Spanish culture around Christmas time and haven’t looked back since. Was it difficult? Yes. Do I always know what I’m eating? No. Do I mess up verb conjugations and say shocking things on accident? Of course. However, it’s been a great experience so far, and I’m looking forward to next year’s adventure!


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I must apologize to any readers that I may or may not have, now or in the future, for being so lax with keeping this updated. It’s been simply ages since I wrote anything. For that I’m sincerely sorry.

I have, however, been diligently keeping a paper journal. I’d like to keep this journal more up to date from here on out. Although I’m not sure whether Kimchi will join on, and I’m not sure whether the comic componant that we thought about will ever become a reality, I still think that my experience here in Japan is valuable and worth sharing.

That being said, rather than quoting my back-dated paper journal straight away, I’ll begin with a story that happened just five minutes ago.

Culture. It’s a loaded word. Its pronounced bunka in Japanese, and it’s a word that pops up a lot. Understandable, in a country rightfully proud of its culture.

The kanji for bun (文) stands for “art” or “literature.” I find this fitting, as it is indeed in these forms that the Japanese tend to express themselves. There are plenty of wonderful Japanese styles of painting, ceramics, flower-arranging, kimono wearing, music, calligraphy, and even martial arts that one could classify as art and/or culture here in Japan. I would even go so far as to say that they turn just about anything they do into an art.

But when everything you do is an art, there isn’t a whole lot of room for interpretation. This is a culture where harmony is paramount. There is a proper way to everything, right down to the very words you use, and there are some things that are simply not done.

Bearing that in mind, it is extremely fun to mess with their heads.

men-greeting-each_~1259879For example, shown a picture of how people in Saudi-Arabia greet one another and told to greet their friends in that same way, how do you suppose they react? By screaming at the top of their lungs, it would seem.

Fair enough. They only needed to make the gesture, anyway, and we did manage to calm them down after about 15 seconds straight screaming. You might suppose that 6th graders would react better. Well! Good luck getting them to even shake each other’s hands, especially if the other party is a girl!

However, this is precisely the reason why I think ALTs are a valuable resource for Japanese people, young and old. There aren’t a whole lot of foreigners around in Japan. More specifically, there are almost none in the rural areas of Japan. I think having a few about the place helps the kids realize that, outside of their little island, there is a whole world out there, full of culture other than their own. I think having a flesh-and-blood foreign person standing there saying, “Yes, in my country French people will greet you buy kissing your cheek,” is a useful eye-opener for them. It is not, in fact, muri (impossible)! You just get used to it. Whether or not they remember their English class when they actually encounter such a situation is hard to say, but I’m happy to have contributed in some small way to their global cultural knowledge. If I can leave them with one thing when I go, it will be with the desire to learn and with it the ability to think outside the box. At least I like to think the two go hand in hand.

I hope they’ll find ways to express themselves, and not just their culture.

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It’s been a while, hasn’t it?

I haven’t been very regular with posting since arriving! For that I am sorry. Things have been hectic, and it’s taken me a couple of months to get into a routine and get back to something like myself.

It’s been a crazy ride so far, but I think I’m finally settling in.

Bikes in Shinjuku.

Bikes in Shinjuku.

What can I say? When I first arrived in Japan, I have to credit JET for helping me make a smooth transition. Everything was well organized, and I rarely had to worry or wonder where to go or what to do. Spending four days in Tokyo was wonderful – I have never seen so many skyscrapers! We were staying in Shinjuku, so it was particularly fantastic. However, I want to go back and do all the exploring I missed out on due to having training seminars all day. To put it nicely, the seminars were not exactly as useful as I had hoped. There were one or two that were interesting and applicable but for the most part, I would have much preferred to be out exploring and soaking it all in!

My first day in Kochi, I was greeted by my Supervisor, my predecessor, and one of my JTEs (Japanese Teacher of English), who shall henceforth be referred to as “I-sensei.” They were holding an adorable hand-made welcome sign for me! I was so touched to see all the people there waiting for the ALTs when we arrived, holding their colourful signs and wearing big smiles. It really made us feel welcome and instantly took away a lot of my fears.

Tosacho's Sameura dam and the beautiful rice fields.

A view from my town.

My Supervisor works at the BOE (Board of Education). I shall refer to him as K-san. He is chubby and jolly and speaks almost no English. Instead, he eagerly gets by with gestures and hilariously mispronounced words. It’s quite comical. I am stationed at a Junior High School. I work with two JTEs. The one who greeted me at the airport that day is kind of a lower-level teacher. From what I can gather, there are two types of teachers. Those who have passed the first of the teacher exams, such as I-sensei, who can only gain short-term contracts with their schools. They spend a lot of time moving around from school to school as the prefecture requires. And then there are those who have passed the second-level teacher’s exam and seem to have more authority and longer term contracts. I’m not sure if this only applies to English teachers or not. My other JTE, N-sensei, has been here for 7 years! She is an excellent teacher, in my opinion.  Before coming on JET, I read a lot about how ALTs shouldn’t expect much from the classrooms. Basically, I was picturing antidiluvian teaching methods, where kids listen to boring recitation, sit neatly in rows, and boys and girls are totally seperated. Boy, did I have the wrong impression of my school!

The school courtyard.

The school courtyard.

I was told they are trying new educational methods. On my very first day teaching (after a long, hot, boring summer), I was pleased to see that the kids already sat in pairs, one boy and one girl. Furthermore, they already had groups they would get into when instructed! The teachers try to focus on student-oriented instruction rather than teacher-centered boringness. They try to challenge the students. I think I am really lucky in this sense! In fact, I think this JHS is pretty excellent (especially when I compare it to my own JHS experience.  Not that I’m bitter or anything…) Unfortunately these “new teaching methods” result in SOME less enjoyable things, such as demonstration classes where a whole bunch of strangers invade your classroom during the lesson. But that’s a story for another day. For the most part, though, I’m glad the kids are getting this kind of quality in their classrooms.

As for the kids themselves, they are adorable and so far I love them (most of the time!) Honestly though, kids are kids. I’m fairly sure no matter where you go in the world, 14 year olds are going to be 14 year olds. I would go out a limb and say that they have more discipline in their lives than Canadian kids, and I have been very impressed with their work-ethic and their general attitude so far. These kids work hard. They stay at school until around 6:00 pm for their club activities when they have them. What is more remarkable is that they come to school for long periods of time even on weekends, holidays, and during their vacation time! Despite it all, they stay positive and perservering (for the most part…again…kids are kids!)

As far as my schedule goes, they keep me pretty busy. I help with all three grades of JHS, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd. I also have a 2-hour elective English lesson on Tuesdays with the 3rd years. More often than not I only have 2 or 3 classes per day, but it can get pretty hectic some days as I also visit 5 different Elementary schools. For now, at least. The population has decreased so much that as of this

spring, all of these schools will be allocated into one school, right here at my JHS. As I type this, the construction vehicles are hard at work making the new building (loudly and distractingly, I might add).

Despite the busy schedule, I have managed to do lots of bopping about Japan and fun stuff :D. There are several ALTs in the area and we hang out regularly. There is a girl at the local bookstore named Meg. Her family owns the place, and I frequently spend way too much money there. I made friends with her almost right away. She lived in Canada for 8 years, and even had a boyfriend during all that time. She decided to return to Japan 5 years ago and left all that behind. She’s 30 years old, but we get along just fine. She really reminds me more of a Canadian than a Japanese girl! The CIR in the next town over is also Canadian, so I guess I lucked out. Represent!

MASSIES reunite!

MASSIES reunite!

I have also visited Hiroshima, met a live MUKADE (*shudder*), visited Nara, Osaka, and Kobe and re-united with 11 of my darling MASSIE friends! (MASSIE stands for “Mount Allison Sophomore Semester in English” – it’s an English study abroad programme for students from KGU University in Kobe). I have also gone surfing, hiking, and Amazing Racing since I’ve been here! It’s been a roller-coaster ride, and I’m sure there will be more to come!

Well, that is the setting and the plot so far. I must now move on to planning a Halloween lesson for my elective class. Tune in next time for more~!

Click here to see more photos

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