The Cheeky Child
At the beginning of every one of my classes (at all levels of education from preschool to high school), I ask each student, “How are you?” This would take too much time if I had more students, but as things stand it’s a good, regular way to start the class. The fact that all the students know it also gives me a way to use English with them every time I see them around town. Unless a kid is obstinate and doesn’t want to respond — which happens sometimes — I’m guaranteed to be able to toss some English back and forth with every kid in town.
Rather than just teach them the stock “I’m fine. (And you?)”, I teach them to respond with things like, “I’m happy,” or “I’m hot.” I got this idea from the 5th grade textbooks. It seemed like a good idea, because rather than just teaching them that sentence A in English is the same as sentence B in Japanese, the interaction between question and answer must be explained. In Japanese, if you ask the equivalent of “How are you?”, what you’re really asking is “Are you healthy/energetic?”, to which the other person answers in the affirmative or the negative. Skipping the stock response and pointing out that you can really answer in any number of ways sets the students up to realize that learning a foreign language is more than just substituting the words in one language for the words in another language.
Several weeks ago, Googly Ears made me really proud by connecting a couple of random dots on her own. One day, during recess, I asked her how she was doing.
“I’m sorry!” she replied.
I was taken aback for a moment. She was clearly doing it on purpose. Her face was crinkled up with impish glee, and I realized that she had noticed that responses to “How are you?” and “I’m sorry,” all start the same and had turned it into a joke. It was one of my happiest moments — giving the students opportunities to notice stuff like that and therefore get a head start on junior high school English studies is exactly why the Japanese government wants native English speakers to visit elementary schools.
It also really was funny, partly because it was so unexpected.
A couple of days ago, I had class with the 6th graders. When I asked Dodgeball how he was doing, he meant to reply with “I’m so-so,” but accidentally said, “I’m sorry.” Everyone busted out laughing and he hid his face in embarrassment, but I told them about third grade Googly Ears doing it on purpose. Which then caused another student to hide *her* face in embarrassment, since Googly Ears’ is her sister.
I wish I had better explained myself — made it clear that I thought Googly Ears is awesome for her running joke (she still likes to do it) — and pointed out that people sometimes say the wrong thing in their own languages, too. But I didn’t. If another opportunity comes up, I will.
The Troubled Transfer
I’ve discovered a downside to working with an awesome teacher at the junior high school level. It really sucks to watch a newly transferred student struggle with the class.
The new girl has been here for such a short time that she still wears her old uniform to school — I’m sure a new one has been ordered for her, but it hasn’t arrived. On the plus side, she’s originally from this town, so she didn’t have to worry about making new friends. Everyone remembers her and she remembers them. She’s even comfortable enough to nettle one of the boys about his crush on another girl in class.
It didn’t take much to get her comfortable with me, either. The first time I met her was in class on an open house day right after she arrived, so her first exposure to me was in all-English-all-the-time mode. I made sure to give her some encouragement and a よろしくお願いします (“I look forward to working with you.”) in Japanese after class and then chatted with her at lunch that same day. Now, less than a week later, she’s initiating tickle fights with me. (And losing, but that’s neither here nor there.)
I’ve only had two classes with her at time of this writing, but it’s clear that she’s had little to no exposure to natural spoken English. She can’t understand anything I say. She always guesses from context and asks her classmates for help after every sentence. In our last class, when we were going over the pronunciation of new vocabulary, she had a devil of a time understanding the pronunciation of “waiter”. Even with me standing at her shoulder and pronouncing it over and over again, slowly, she just couldn’t get it. I ended up having to spell it out sound by sound and she still missed some, but ended up with something good enough for government work.
Kitty and I teach the classes with as much English injected as possible. We use English for repeated class commands and in explaining activities. We also introduce new grammar by engaging in dialogues entirely in English and making the students figure out what we’re saying based on what they already know. It’s going to be hard for her until she gets used to it, which may take a while.
From what I understand, her written English isn’t up to par, either. Kitty expects her to have a great deal of trouble on tomorrow’s test. The thing is, she will already have studied the same things at her old school as her classmates have here. Kitty can’t afford to cut her any slack.
That’s one of the benefits of federally mandated curricula; everyone progresses at about the same rate across the board. In an ideal world, students all over Japan, and certainly all over a given prefecture, would not only have studied the same things but have equal mastery of the material at a given point in the progression. But that’s not the case. Teacher quality varies, as does the availability of ALTs like myself to give the students a boost at the elementary school level. In the new girl’s case, it seems that she has been among the disadvantaged until now.