A day in the life: English Communication Lessons

I’ve been working on preparing information for my successor as an ALT and have been reflecting a lot on what it is I do here as a language teacher in Japan. Most of my work is preparing and teaching lessons to the first year students at both of my schools. These students are 15 or 16, about the same age as grade ten students in Canada. Every week I teach a new English Communication lesson to them. I also occasionally teach second and third year students. My other responsibilities include English club, speech contest and test preparation, exam preparation and marking and English composition marking. My favourite, by far, is teaching English communication. It is so much fun.

All our lessons here start with the opening routine. A student representative calls out ‘be quiet and close your eyes’, then ‘open your eyes and stand up’, ‘bow’, then I say Hello and the students say ‘hello Ms. Heather’ and the student say ‘sit down’. This is a rough translation of what the students say in their Japanese classes, but Japanese schools have a definite routine to them which is a lot more formal than schools in Canada.

After the greeting, I pass out name cards and try to talk to a few of the students individually, while the Japanese teacher usually returns their homework.

Then it’s fun time!

We usually start the class with a warm up game, then we move on to new vocabulary. I have tried so many ways to make this fun, but usually we start with translation, comprehension checking and repeat after meing. Then the class does a vocabulary review game and its time for a speaking or writing activity. The writing activities are usually pretty simple, starting with fill in the blanks and progressing to writing full sentences. The speaking activities are almost all one on one with the teacher, which is achievable because our small class size – 15-20 students, and necessary because when left to work with a partner, most classes dissolve into Japanese. That usually takes up all our time, but if we have left over time I do extension activities with the higher level students and review with the lower level.

 Throughout the class I use participation board to check the students progress. They get a sticker for contributing to the class in any way – winning a game, asking a question, answering a question, talking to me in English, completing their worksheet, etc… At the end of term I give prizes to everyone, and a larger prize to the top 5 students in every class. I think it works great for motivating these students, even if it’s not a system I would use  in a school in Canada.

While the lessons themselves are fun, the best part about teaching here are the students. Not all of them are really happy about English class, but they are very enthusiastic in class, and produce the best English compositions. This week they were to write about their favourite possession. One student wrote me about a KitKat bar her sister gave her which cemented their bonds.

I feel like lately I have ended every post with how much I am going to miss something about Japan, but I really am going to miss the students and classes here. They never fail to make me smile. 🙂

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Even More Sports Day!

Sports Day: So enjoyable, I’m still writing about it a month later.

On of the more ridiculous events was Samurai Rides a horse, in which three students sport another student on their hands and shoulders, who then fights against a boy from the other team riding his own horse. Immensely dangerous, this event is banned at many schools, and is carefully supervised. I was still worried.

Another favourite was the teacher’s relay race. Teacher’s are all assigned to a team and some compete in the obstacle course. Women ran half a lap and completed three obstacles and men ran the full lap and all 6 obstacles. The teachers had to stack cans, jump rope, crawl through a tube and blow up and pop a balloon, but the best obstacle was only for the men.

They had to stick their whole face into a pan of cornstrach and search with their mouths for a piece of candy. Of course this resulted in their faces being covered in cornstarch for the rest of the race, which added to the hilarity. All day the red team had been trouncing the blue team, and the teachers race was no different. The red team anchor made up some ground and slid into the finish line.

At the end of the day, there were special routines by the team’s captains, who wore robes and danced in front of the teams stands. At the same time, the rest of the team was displaying their carefully choreographed panel routine.

At the closing ceremony, the students from the red and blue teams switched robes and danced together as a group. The day was amazing because I saw how much this tradition meant to (some of the) students. The blue team seemed genuinely happy when the red team’s inevitable win was announced, and the head student organizer cried when he gave his farewell speech.

Here’s a  video of the students singing the school song while doing another choreographed panel routine. I wish I could be here again next year!

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Japan and Canada – Cultural Adventures

One of the side goals of the JET programme is ‘grassroots internationalization’, a phrase I have heard so often this year I forgot it wasn’t a thing that people elsewhere said. Regardless of any slang I picked up, interacting with students and the community and teaching them a little about Canada was one of my favourite parts of living in Japan. While I am not sure that they understand what poutine is, or that it’s not cold in Canada all the time, at least they can accurately draw our flag, which is more than I can say for many Canadian students, or me.

I held a quiz this morning and the students could tell me that the most famous sport in Canada was ‘ice hockey’ and that the most famous food was ‘mapalru syrupu’, and that the capital was Ottawa. Of course, they also know that Avirl Lavigne and Justin Bieber are from Canada, and I think that endears them to the country more than I ever could. It was my last class with the second year students, and I am going to miss them a lot.

Teaching here definitely has it’s frustrations and disappointments, but it’s all worth it when a student finally greets you with something other than ‘how are you?’. My favourite new saying this month is “What’s cup Heather? What’s cup?”

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Sports Day again!

It’s sports day season in Japan!

Every year each high school puts on a day packed with events, songs and ridiculous acrobatics. The students get two weeks of afternoons off classes to practice, and they organize everything themselves. They are split into teams that they stay on throughout their high school years, so a lot of pride and energy is involved.

The day started off with a group warm up. The students followed the radio taiso program, which each Japanese person seems to know by heart. Retirees practice this routine in the courtyard outside my apartment at 7 am, and by now the chants and movements are becoming familiar to me. 

After the warm up, all the of the students marched around the field in formation, saluting at the Judges table, before settling into their bleachers.

One of the most interesting aspects of Sports Day was the group mentality. Even the individual running races are scored as a team. After finishing, the students sat behind a flag indicating their place in the race, and after the last racer, the points were counted up for each place before declaring the winner of that event.

There were some interesting races too, including this obstacle course with potato sacks, a cardboard box which the students had to caterpillar themselves in, spinning around a baseball bat and crawling under a net. The teachers participated in an obstacle course with many of the same elements, but they also had to stick their face in a bucket of cornstarch and find a candy with their mouth.

My favourite race started out as a three legged race and half way around, the students had to pick a scavenger hunt item out of a box and retrieve an item from the audience. Seeing them hobble together with their parents cell phones and purses was amusing to say the least.

There were even events for the parents and friends of students, like this game where you had to get as many balls as you could into the net. The red teams parents trounced the blue teams.

The highlights of the afternoon were elaborate choreographed routines, dancing for the girls, and marching for the boys.

I had a fabulous time at sports day, and took way too many pictures, so there will be another post soon!

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Sports day

Sports day is an annual event at Japanese schools, and students are split into teams and compete against each other in a variety of events.

Today is the first practice I have witnessed, and it consisted of dancing, marching, panel working, singing and formation walking. What a day!


Here is a short video of the entrance ceremony which gives you a view of the courtyard and some marching. Sorry for the shakiness and the part at the end where I cut off after a bug falls on me.

Japanese children practice this kind of marching every year for sports days and other ceremonies, and apparently the Japanese Olympic team has received criticism for their ‘military’ style marching in the opening ceremonies. So much so that the team is apparently reminded every year to walk ‘more casually’.

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Graduation Ceremony

Students and teachers have talked about the upcoming graduation ceremony for months now, and on Tuesday it finally happened! Although I understood almost nothing of the speeches, the preparations and the ceremony, it was still a very moving experience. Students here graduate after three years in high school, and they ended formal lessons in January to spend the last few months of their high school career preparing for University entrance examinations. By now, all the students have been accepted, or not, and will spend the next month getting ready for their life at University, or starting their careers.

On Monday we had a full day practice ceremony with the first, second and third year students in the gym for three hours rehearsing their ‘Stand up, bow, sit down cues’ and singing the school song. On Tuesday, parents began arriving early in the morning, some dressed in Kimonos, to take their place in the gym. I checked in one last time on the third year students, to find them all taking photos together and signing yearbooks. The similarities between graduation at home and here were very interesting.

Students signing yearbooks!

Students signing yearbooks!

The actual ceremony was much more formal than those at home, with students only standing up when their name was called, and not crossing the stage or receiving their diploma. One student accepted a diploma on behalf of the others, and another student made a speech that even had me tearing up as she struggled to get through it.

After the formal, and long, ceremony was over, students went back  with their parents to their home room classes where they received their diploma and some mementos. Each student made a speech to their classmates, parents and teachers. It was so interesting to see the bonds these students had with their teachers. They generally have the same homeroom teacher for their three years of highschool, and teachers here are much more involved in students lives. For example, if a student gets in trouble with the law, the police call the school before the parents. Also, students may spend up to 10-11 hours a day at school due to extra classes and activities!

Standing up as the student representative receives the diploma for all the students

On of the teachers at my school said to me that ‘although you can not understand the words, you can understand the emotions,’ and as cheesy as that sounds, it perfectly sums up my experience!

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