Thursday, November 23, 2006

What is important

On Monday after work I hurried home. I knew I had a lot of work to do, because I hadn't done it on the weekend. I had to write a test. I had already written it, actually, but I had to check it, do the layout, and print it out. I planned to use it on Wednesday (today) and knew I would not have time (or energy) to do it on Tuesday evening. (It was not an important test. It was a MOTIVATING test, to wake up the students who have been getting a little lax about staying awake in class.)

I got home, did all the necessary, and felt virtuous. Then I ate dinner, relaxed for a while with a book, read a few blogs, watched a little TV, and started to prepare for bed. Then I idly wondered what I had planned for the next day's classes.

I checked my notes, and discovered to my horror that I had very good plans for Tuesday's classes. The horror was caused by realizing that these plans involved some OTHER work I hadn't done. I had to type up four classes' worth of homework.

So instead of going to bed, I got busy.

This homework was based on something we'd done in class. The students had done a worksheet which involved describing things. The idea was to teach them to use descriptions rather than stop and look in a dictionary when they didn't have the word for something. They are very bad at this sort of thing, and are quite likely, in the middle of a conversation, to stop suddenly and spend five minutes looking up a word. By the time they find it their conversational partner has wandered off, fallen asleep, or forgotten what they were talking about. (This is the better students. Most of them are more likely to give up when they do not know how to say something in English. They just ... stop.)

For homework I asked the students to write descriptions of five more things. The idea was that I would then type up their descriptions, and they could have a sort of game where one would read a description and the others in the group would try to guess the word.

It seemed like a good idea to me until Monday night. As I sat at the computer, way past my bedtime, it didn't seem quite so wonderful. What kind of idiot dreams up a lesson plan that involves so much WORK? I typed five pages of descriptions, correcting them, adding to them, and abbreviating them where it was called for. I also added a few, to get a good number for the game. (Quite a few of the students had not taken the homework quite seriously enough.)

Not surprisingly, on Tuesday morning I wasn't feeling too good. I had that spaced-out feeling you get when you have not slept enough. There was a mild buzzing in my ears, and I had the feeling that I was observing the world from behind glass. My eyes were gritty. I was also worried about the classes. This lesson plan was a new one, and I wasn't quite sure if it would work. If it didn't I was in trouble, because I had no backup.

When I got to work I made several copies of each of the five pages. When the first class started, after the initial 'conversation' stage (a weekly activity where the student are supposed to talk in English about whatever they want, with several partners, and sometimes even actually do), I put them in groups of four or five and handed out the pages of descriptions so that each student in a group had a different page. "This is your homework," I told them, and they boggled. They were sure they had not done such a neat job, or so much of it, and they were right.

I explained the rules of the game, which were simple. ('Read a description. The first person to give the correct answer gets a point. Give more clues if necessary'). When I was sure they understood, I told them to start.

Then I sat down.

It went WONDERFULLY. Days like yesterday make me unsure about whether I am a good teacher or a very bad one. I didn't actually DO anything. It quickly became clear that the students did not want my help, except with the pronunciation of certain words. They were teaching each other and did not want my interference.

One problem with this sort of activity generally is that the students tend to read rather than speak - they will show the question to the other students rather than read it aloud. This time, however, I had typed the answers right beside the questions, in such a way that it was hard to show the paper and not also show the answers to all the questions. This meant that students were forced to read the descriptions aloud, and they quickly learned that if they read them woodenly and without inflection (as they tend to do) the others in the group did not understand. Also, because they had the answers in front of them they felt clever, and were not inclined to give away the answer too easily by using Japanese. Instead they gave clues in English and mockery in Japanese. There was a lot of laughter.

The biggest problem was me. (This is often true.) I had nothing to do, really, except listen and offer help when it was asked for. This was not often, as they were figuring things out for themselves and doing very well at it. They were teaching each other, helped along by the knowledge that they had written these clues themselves, so therefore COULD figure things out. (I did not tell them that I had sneakily added a few of my own, but they got those, too, which just goes to show that they know a lot more than they think they do.) Being in class on Tuesday was like being at a party to which you were not invited and are tolerated rather than welcome. The students did not need me most of the time. They were perfectly happy on their own except when they needed a human tape recorder to demonstrate how a word was pronounced, and they were learning things without any help from me. They were also having a really good time, and I felt about as useful as nipples on a bull.

So I just sat there, wishing it was acceptable for the teacher to have a nap. I think I might have sprained my jaw in my attempts to yawn without opening my mouth. This kind of yawning is very difficult to do, as I'm sure you will know if you have ever tried it. I was extremely sleepy, and had to fight the urge to nod off. It would not look good for the teacher to fall asleep or to spend the entire lesson yawning extravagantly, and I was determined not to, but it was a real struggle.

I tried to keep myself awake by taking note of the styles my students were wearing. I don't usually notice things like that unless they are startling, but one of the textbooks a couple of weeks ago had a unit about fashion, and the answers the students had given to the questions in the book had given me a context.

One of the boys had some of his hair (but not all of it) tied up in a ponytail right on top of his head. His hair was quite long, so that the ponytail stuck straight up and then curved over. If his hair had been water it would have been a perfect fountain. (I mentally added a gnome.) Most of the other boys had dyed hair, worn in a tousled style. The explosions on their heads are carefully controlled. When you think of the expression not a hair out of place you would not think of these guys' hairstyles, but that's exactly how it is. I have seen them styling it on the trains, and, sometimes, in class. They carry mirrors, and each hair is in EXACTLY THE RIGHT PLACE. You see them fiddling with one of the strands, getting the 'random' look just right. They look sort of like this, or this. (I recommend the rest of the photo gallery at JapanWindow, too. There are some excellent photographs.)

The boys spend far more time on their hair than I do on mine. (I haven't had a haircut since, er ... when? April? I know I meant to get it done in the summer, but never quite got around to it.)

The girls have been sweating in skirts or dresses over jeans all through the hot months, but now that it has become cooler many are wearing high boots with low-cut shorts and short tops, usually with some bulky but short sweater or jacket on top, leaving their goosebumped thighs bare and also, frequently, an expanse of lower back when they lean over. A couple of times I got up and wandered around the classroom, trying to stop myself from falling asleep, and noticed something rather worrying: a couple of the girls have hairy backs. Is that normal? Is it cool? Are they showing off their hairy backs on purpose? Is it the latest thing? I wondered about this, and then it occurred to me that perhaps they didn't know. It is not easy to see your own lower back. Maybe I have a hairy lower back myself. (Must ask The Man.)

Fashion in Japan is, I suspect, extremely time-consuming. My students do not wear clothes, they wear costumes. They spend a lot of time on their looks, and a lot of money. I know, because that was one of the questions in the textbook (at a women's university), and my jaw practically came unhinged when the students consulted each other and decided that they spent, on average, at least ¥30,000 a month on clothes. I heard a group of them discussing the question in Japanese. One of them said that it depended on whether she had a successful weekend shopping. She sometimes spent ¥60,000 in just one weekend, but usually it was more like ¥10,000 or ¥20,000. Many of them go shopping every weekend, and while I knew that, I had assumed they were window shopping. They're not, and none of them seemed to think the amount they spent was excessive. And they were not particularly rich students, or at least they said they weren't. They are supported by their parents, as most students are here, but told me they paid for their own clothes from their part-time jobs. (For those who are wondering, ¥30,000 is about NZ$380, UK£135, US$260.)

Of course there are always exceptions, and there were a couple of girls who did not spend very much. But they were not the popular girls. It must be the same with the guys, I realized as I looked around the classroom on Tuesday. Nobody was dressed cheaply except the nerdy, friendless types.

And me. That explained why I felt like I hadn't been invited.

Another of the questions in the unit on fashion was, "Do you think fashion is important?" All the students, without exception, wrote, "Yes." That made sense when I looked around the classroom. To have friends you need to be dressed fashionably.

But never mind all that. The lesson plan worked, and I will be using it again. And really, it's not true that you need to spend a lot on fashion to have friends. I have proof.


PA said...

He he! Cats spend a lot of time grooming themselves though, but tend to spend less on clothes, I guess.
I think the art of a good teacher is to not take over the class but to guide it - sounds like a good lesson!

Wiccachicky said...

I often plan discussions or games and sit back - they almost always work, and I always feel like a fraud for doing it...but at the same time, there are just days that you need to let your brain rest and put the burden on the students to carry the day.

kenju said...

Nipples on a bull? Oh no, you were very important that day because you did all the hard work in advance. You know they probably learn better (or remember more) when you have sessions like that.

Faerunner said...

Discussions and games, yay! I'm adding this one to my list of things I can do to impress my supervising teachers next year when I'm student teaching :D Badaunt, you're a wonderful influence.