Monday, October 03, 2011

English - bad; License - good

So, my first job today was to deliver the exam results to the college. I ended up spending half an hour or so there, mostly trying desperately to convince them the students need LESS hard-out grammar memorization and MORE communication practice. Sigh. How many times do you have to have this conversation in Japan??? They are the first to admit they are no good at English, but keep on thinking that all they need is more grammar and more words and then it'll be alright and they'll know 'everything' and then be able to speak English. And we keep trying to convince them that no, they have enough grammar and vocabulary stuffed into their heads for now, to start with at least, and they need to jump right in and start USING it, not as memorized sentences, translations of phrases and words, and parsing sentences but using what they have in their head already like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle to generate unique, original language about their own observations and experiences.

Phew, rant over.

This stems from a meeting I had with the principal a few weeks ago, in which he noted our students' rather low English level, to which I agreed, but then he said we need to aim for reinforcing, or repeating, what they'd learned in junior high school. I tried to convince him we needed no such thing, that what they needed was to be taught how to USE what they had already learned to communicate with confidence, not being constantly afraid of making mistakes. Well clearly I didn't convince him. The plan was to continue with the communicative, false-beginner text I have been using, but to add something on. He said we would meet again to discuss that, and I thought it was getting a bit late in the break for that little talk, but I had no idea he'd just set someone else up with the task! I met today with another woman on staff to discuss the issue.

I had to give her credit - she'd listed all the grammar points covered in all 3 years of junior high school, and slotted them into the 32 weeks of my course. She asked that I hand out a simple explanation of each grammar point as part of each lesson, explain it, then pass out a simple fill-the-blanks exercise. Her initial concern was would I have the time to do it? I said yes, I have time, but... I just don't LIKE the idea! For one thing, the grammar points were totally out of whack with my text's - eg, she's got me handing out simple past tense the week after next, while I have it slotted in for next July.

On the other hand, it's true that my students have trouble, not just with keeping up, but with understanding what's going on. Of course the MAIN reason for that it that they just don't listen to me - I often explain what to do, then go around the class explaining again to everyone individually, using the same words and pointing at the same part of the book, but 'teacher talking in front of class' seems to be a universal symbol to switch off and daydream (or actually sleep) while they HAVE to listen when I am standing right in front of them!

So I thought perhaps the way to meet in the middle here (consensus and compromise being a much preferred solution in Japan) was to cut back the amount of handouts and have them line up with what I am teaching. I offered to hand out the first one in my introductory lesson, give it to them as homework to be tested the next week, and then use my textbook to practice and back up what they hopefully learned from the handout. This way I can use the hard work this woman has done, and hopefully benefit the students, without the classes turning into more pointless rote memorization. (can I have another little 'grrr' here - why on earth do they think it's going to work this time when it didn't work the first time! SIX YEARS of 4-5 hours study a week, and 95% of Japanese student not only cannot speak English, but they have become convinced that English is intrinsically difficult and that they, genetically, cannot ever learn it).

So... the woman gathered up her papers to ask the principal if this compromise would work for him, and I will hear back later in the week.

Through all of this stress about content, I forgot to be relieved that I wasn't fired. I was actually a little concerned that the principal's observation of my class and discussion changing the classes would end up with the whole English program being cancelled.

Chore No.2 today was much more pleasant - I got my license renewed. I was in a bit of a panic actually, as I was supposed to go to the safety seminar last Wednesday, and was sure, what with the Japanese preference for sticking strictly to the rules, that I would have to start the process over (at least my NZ license is still valid, so I would only have to get that changed again, not actually sit any tests). So I was mightily relieved that all I had to do was stamp my inkan in the right spot on a list and they handed it over to me!

1 comment:

Helen said...

It must be something about the way that English is and has been taught here that makes it so hard to learn.

DH and I have been doing Postcrossing for the last couple of months and we're both amazed at the postcards we get from other countries. The writing on them is not always perfect, but is perfectly understandable, yet when I read some of the profiles written by Japanese people I'm a little embarrassed. (And I'm talking about countries where English is not the main language...places like Russia, Belarus, Germany and even China.)

In Canada, we'd rarely have a French teacher who hadn't either been to France or to Quebec for some kind of immersion program. It just makes sense! Yet here, it's common for teachers of English to never leave the country. ARGH!