Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Learning/Turning Japanese

Yesterday I went back to elementary school for the first time in two months. I had the last two months off from the little ones because there was a two week break between the end of last school year and the beginning of this one, then we had Golden Week recently, which is another week off from school, and then in the business of the schools starting a new school year, the five elementary schools that I visit had to each make schedules for the next year for me before I could come, what dates and times they'd like me to be there. I go on Tuesdays this year.

I had gotten used to not having to prepare for elementary school in two months, though, so I found myself the night before without any lesson plan. And I had three fifth grades and two fourth grades to teach the next day. Usually I would come up with a lesson plan several days before having to teach, then I'd have a Japanese friend or coworker help me translate some key phrases I would probably need to use in the classrooms while explaining what I'm trying to get the kids to do and say. But I didn't do that this time, and I had a moment the night before when I thought I might have a really bad day at school for my lack of preparation. I'd have to write the lesson out in Japanese myself.

So I sat down and wrote the notes for myself about the games and phrases I'd be teaching in English, and then tried to imagine what they'd need to know, and tried to imagine possible confusions and explanations I'd have to give about one thing or another in the outline of the lesson. Then I came up with what I felt would be appropriate responses to these imagined interruptions to the flow of the lesson and wrote them out in Japanese next to each section of my outline. I wondered briefly if any of my responses were way wrong in some way, but they all felt fine to me, so I decided I'd done my best and that was that.

So the next morning I headed off to Numasato Shogakko and the first thing that I found was that Mr. Okinobe, the vice principle last year, had left the school to move to another one. I was so disappointed. He was so sweet. So the new Vice Principle introduced himself to me and he seemed very nice and I liked him immediately, but I will miss Okinobe sensei a ton. He always came back to my desk and would pull up a chair and we'd try to hash out a conversation between the two of us in our broken English and Japanese.

I started teaching the fifth grades first off, and came into the room and greeted them as usual in English, but followed up with a little Japanese greeting as well, telling them it had been a while since we'd seen each other and wondering if they were all well and how their breaks had been. They were so surprised. One boy got bright eyed and shouted, oh Chris sensei has gotten really good at Japanese, hasn't he! They were all excited, which was a good way to start the class off, because however a class starts is how it will mostly go from there on out. As I taught, I had no problems whatsoever with any of the explanations I'd written out in Japanese for myself. Kids had questions and I was able to answer them before the teacher tried to intervene and puzzle something out. Questions came up that I hadn't been able to imagine, too, and I had no problem explaining those on the spot, after a moment of reflection where I looked at the ceiling and tried to group everything I wanted to say into Japanese. When a kid would raise his or her hand to answer a game question, I'd understand what they said when they couldn't answer suddenly. "Ahh! I TOTALLY forgot it suddenly!" and could follow up with a, "Oh that's too bad, but don't worry. Next time." All of this added up to probably the smoothest teaching day at the elementary schools that I've ever had, and I felt particularly happy because I'd done it all by myself, without even someone to check over what I'd come up with. I was able to improvise on the lessons I'd planned as well, adding things I hadn't thought to talk about the night before. I was able to show the kids how to distinguish between the sound of "b" and "v" and where to place their lips and teeth and tongue for their "r" and "l" sounds. These are the four most difficult sounds for Japanese kids to learn. "R" and "l" sounds the same to them. Same with "b" and "v". I was also pleased that I could look up from the kids from time to time and see that their teacher was just standing happily in the back, free to just enjoy the kids having an English lesson, rather than the pained look of concentration that they had when I first got here and didn't know anything and they had to do their best to figure out what I wanted the kids to do. The last English teacher before me had a hard time, I guess, and didn't learn much Japanese past the very basics to get by here, and the coordinator of the English program for the elementaries had had to ask the elementary school teachers to help her more by listening during her lessons and trying to figure out what she needed the kids to do.

At lunchtime I sat with a block of kids who had won the Paper, Scissors, Rock game in order to get me at their table. Early into lunch one little girl and a boy were having a little mean argument between them, and another girl put a halt to it by telling them, "Hey, he understands Japanese now. You better watch out or he'll tell sensei on you." To which the arguers looked at me with wide eyes and asked, "You understand Japanese really?" I nodded and they quickly made up and the boy turned to me and said, "Well then, let's have a conversation," a little like he didn't believe me. One of the girls posed the first question. She wanted to know what the most surprising thing about Japan was when I got here. So I looked at Tomoki, the boy who seemed to be challenging my Japanese ability, and said, "The thing that surprised me most when I got to Japan was when I met Tomoki. I thought, Oh no! Are they all like him?" The whole table cracked up, even Tomoki. A moment of pride. I have told a lie in Japanese before, and now for the first time I was able to be witty. Progress. After lunch Tomoki challenged me to arm wrestling, which then inspired all of the boys to want a turn at arm wrestling. I beat them all, except I let one boy win because he was so damned little and the others were all like, why are you even trying, Naoki? And when he won they were all impressed with him. Afterwards, Tomoki gave me a shoulder massage for all the hard work.

They then insisted I play at recess with them, so I trotted out with them to the field where eight months ago when I first showed up at Numasato elementary school and was asked to get on a little platform back in that dusty field and introduce myself to hundreds of little Japanese kids lined up like soldiers. (This was way back in September when I told them to do their best, and they all responded by throwing their fists in the air and shouting that they would and I suddenly felt very much like a communist). We played dodge ball, which is very different from American dodge ball in rules. The last time I tried to play I was clueless. This time I knew what I was doing. Still, in the end, Tomoki's and my team lost, and as we walked back in to school after recess he hung his head and kept saying, "There's no excuse for this. It's a shame, such a shame."

I was happy to exchange more than a sentence or two here and there with some of the teachers also. They all kept telling me I'm just like a Japanese person now. I do love the elementary schools, where they get to wear sweatsuits and shorts if they want. So much more laid back. I would actually probably love teaching there more than the junior high, and it's always total Japanese immersion for me on elementary school day. Which is good for me to get the practice I need. It's always so much more comfortable for me to practice Japanese with non-English speaking people. It means I can't switch back to English even if I want to, so I just have to get into that second language headspace and stay there until I start to think in it more naturally. Which is why I wish I had at least two days a week at the elementary schools. I need more of that.

Arriving back at home, I was hailed by a little old man on a bicycle while I collected my things out of the back of my car. He stopped his bike and started speaking English to me. He so wanted to have an English conversation and was so upfront about not having as many chances in his old age to talk in English as he did when he was a young man and more out in the world. I began to suspect that he had seen me coming and going from my apartment and had premeditated the drive by bicycle English conversation. He was very sweet, though, and invited me to play tennis with him sometime. I told him I didn't know how to play tennis and he said he would teach me, so apparently I may be forced into English conversation/tennis lessons sometime in the future.

And that was my Tuesday. Today, to cap it all off, I got chocolate and music and an advance copy of Carol Emshwiller's next novel delivered to my door. Yay! (Thanks Gavin!)


Blogger elad said...

Seems like you're getting better and better at this whole thing, Chris. Like your fellow teachers and your little students, I'm proud of you. We're all rooting for you.

12:13 PM  
Blogger David Moles said...

Trading English for tennis doesn't sound bad.

12:41 PM  
Blogger Christopher Barzak said...

Hey Elad, thanks!

And I thought the same thing, David.

6:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is this the same son that never wanted to be a teacher?? How proud I am that you are working with kids in the classroom! Their good fortune, your great experience. Chip off the old block. Love ya, Mom

7:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow. Your mom sounds just like mine. :) And congratulations on the continued Japanese ascendancy. From reading here, it really sounds like being in Japan is a second adolescence.

I've got a nosy couple of questions, if you don't mind...have you always planned your own lessons? Have you got a menu of lessons to choose from or do you make them up wholesale? When you walked into class on the first day, what did they expect from you?


3:50 AM  
Blogger Christopher Barzak said...

You're right, zo, it is a sort of second adolescence, for me at least. I'm not sure if everyone has the same experience as I'm having. Probably not. At the same time, it's also very much a growing up into adulthood for me. I feel all responsible in so many ways here because I'm working with kids and they look to me for answers and guidance. That really put me on a fast track to feeling adult. Learning the language and basically being able to communicate like a youngster, though, that definitely feels like being a kid again though.

As for lessons. When I first got here, they sort of just threw me in the pool to see if I could swim. There were days when I thought I would drown in the beginning. My company didn't really do any prepping of any use to me, and worried more if I'd act appropiately Japanese, which is actually the opposite of what the schools really wanted, which was an American. Actually I know how to code switch behavior wise, so my behavior is more Japanese at times and more American at times when it seems appropriate (i.e. in front of the kids).

As for lessons, my coordinator tried to help me with my first one, and it sort of was okay, but I didn't like it. They gave me books of game and lesson ideas, but a lot of them seemed lame to me, so I soon started to come up with my own hand-made lessons based on what *I* would want from a foreign teacher if I were the kids. A lot of the games and lesson ideas they have in the lesson recipe books are way out of date and have been played in schools here for thirty years or more. Some are very useful and never fail to be fun. Others suck suck suck. There were few that I liked, so I started to make my own up. I try to think of ways to have the kids use the English they're learning in realistic fun ways, rather than just aimlessly memorizing and repeating. So for instance, at the end of the year, the fourth through sixth graders all had to give an interview with another student, whereupon they pretended to meet each other for the first time, exchange pleasantries and introduce themselves to each other, then one would commence to ask the other one a series of questions, taking detailed notes, which they would later report to their classmates. Some were earnest and serious about it, others had a lot of fun asking silly questions or giving silly answers. So that's the other thing I go for, lessons and roleplaying situations that have breathing room for different personalities among the kids to all engage with what they're learning.

I do research the web alot, looking for ideas. A lot I don't like, but sometimes I find something that I think I could make more interesting and just take part of a lesson and then fix it up to my liking. My best lessons are the ones I make myself. Whenever I've tried to use one taken wholecloth from someone else, it doesn't go over as well. I'm much better when I've devised everything myself.

First day of class was mainly to introduce myself. At the elementary schools I did this in Japanese with a text to refer to (since I knew nothing) and then I played a game with them. At the junior high I did this in English and the kids would ask me questions afterwards.

5:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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7:34 AM  

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