Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Japanese Education: For the Loss

Think about a school. All of the subjects that are taught and the teachers and students that work there. It is a junior high. Now picture a subject. Let's go with math. It is a big school so we will say that there are twelve math teachers. Eleven of these teachers have a reasonable exposure to math. One of them can do trigonometry. Some of them can multiply fractions. The majority of them know some simple algebra and all of their work has to be checked by the twelfth teacher who is completely proficient in the discipline of math. This teacher might make a mistake or two, but they know how to check on it and correct it and they understand the underlying principals involved. Not only can they do calculus and trig, but they use it in their life daily. The other teachers pretty much forget about math the second they leave the classroom. They don't read math books, or watch math on TV or navigate ships or moonlight as accountant. The one teacher who is capable of all this stuff, what do we figure about them? Are they the head of the department, or responsible for lesson planning? Do they get paid a higher salary? Are they tasked with making sure that the teachers who are weaker in the subject, much weaker in some cases, get up to speed and that their classes are imparting the correct information? Do they get bonuses like the other teachers? Is their job secure? If they find that some teachers are teaching students that 2 +2 =5 or that 20% of 100 is 33, do they have the ability to solve that issue and get things back on track? If the answer to all of these questions was a resounding belly laugh of a "no" would you be surprised? You should be. It would be absurd. Imagine the whole country hanging their heads and wondering why their math scores were so low and that their economy had been passed by China. Now, change the word "math" to "English" and substitute whatever you like for the equations. That is everyday that I am at work.

I am not saying this to aggrandize myself, although I think that I am good at my job, or to blow of some steam, even though the pot has boiled out and over and is burning through now that the last drop has evaporated. I want people to understand what a backwards, counterproductive, self-defeating system English education in Japan is. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, ridiculous. Laughable. A farce.

It is test time here at the junior high. It has been going to be test time for the last half of this week since the schedule was made at the beginning of the school year. This means that with an English listening test happening first thing Wednesday morning, English teachers will be scrambling to throw something together about four in the afternoon on Tuesday.

It has just occurred to me that before telling you about the listening test debacle of yesterday, I should first take you on a tour of how the listening test is recorded. I will substitute our hypothetical math teacher with me, a somewhat hypothetical English teacher at the largest junior high in Osaka prefecture. Look it up. One of my jobs at school is to provide the voice on the listening test. Why? Because I can actually speak English. Not that every teacher can't. Some can, surprisingly. Usually a script is handed to me as we walk into the recording room and I realize how fraught it is with awkward or even mistaken English which I try to correct on the fly. The recording room here is like the recording room in most junior highs I have been in, a small, dusty room with stacks and stacks of unused, expensive equipment lining the walls and piled on the floor in boxes and cases, left sitting where they were brought of the truck. There is always a large soundboard, like in a radio station with an MD player and other audio equipment attached. Dust covers this pricey table as no one has touched it. Cardboard covers the inside of the windows but the sound of balls whacking of of the fencing on the outside echoes. Through this room is a door to a smaller room, like a closet where stacks of unused audio equipment, mixers and mic-stands and chords, take up the majority of the space. In the corner behind the door is an old desk, with its metal drawer smashed in. On the desk sit two VCRs, a mic and a small, two-channel, audio mixer. The VCR on the bottom is used for playing an old tape that someone made years ago of hand drawn letters on a piece of poster board that read "Listening Test" in Japanese. A line runs through the middle of the tape when it plays but sometimes it bounces up or down. It dances around and turns to a covering of static. Sometimes it disappears. The video output of the bottom VCR feeds into the top VCR which is there to record this image over and over for as long as it takes to degrade into nothing and then someone will wonder how to make a new one and probably rig it up just like this tape was in the first place. The little mixer and Mic, one you would probably pick up for your home karaoke set, has an RCA out which goes into the audio in of the top VCR so that its audio is recorded over the slowly dying video image. That is how we record listening tests. When it is finished and the time for the test has come, the tape is transferred to another VCR which broadcasts to all of the TVs in the school. It is much the same system that we used when I was a junior high school student and we found that we could record 1970s funk songs over TV ministers and laugh as they coincidentally jumped and pranced in time to the music. That was at least twenty years ago. But it isn't the worst that I have seen. At my last school they would carry cassette decks into the recording room, set them on the mixing board and record the test into the little mic embedded next to the speaker, as tens of thousands of dollars of equipment set unused in boxes on the floor.

I have tried to change these practices wherever I have been. The other teachers look at me as if I just suggested that viruses were caused by germs and not seasonal temperature changes and revert back to their old ways as soon as I turn my back like children sneaking cookies from the jar.

I was surprised last week when the older lady who teaches the third years, let's call her "T-sensei", asked me to make the listening test. She is one of two third year English teachers. The other is younger and went to college in America and, for the most part, teaches English very well. I praised him highly to our principal last year, and now he is the head English teacher and a year or two younger than me. Let's call him "O-sensei." I don't mind making the test. I was glad that they think enough of me to find me capable. However, I teach every class in the school, all 28 of them. All 1,053 students. When making a test it is very difficult for me to dead reckon the general ability level and what material has been covered in which class and so on, so I asked what was to be included. It was determined by T-sensei that there would be ten questions; four pertaining to "_______makes me______." Four on the subject of "______is called ______" The last two would be about how to give directions regarding trains. I prepared a rough draft and showed it to T-sensei on Monday.
"Hmmm. mmmm. It would be nice to have pictures."
"Let's not do ten let's do eight."
"Eight total questions?"
"Yes, let's do two on 'make' two on 'is called' two on directions and the last four on the present perfect tense."
"So ten questions total?"
"Yes, eight."
"Two plus two plus two plus four. Ten"
"Yes. Here are some examples in the book."

Needless to say this conversation between two professional English teachers took place in Japanese because one of them would have found it impossible in English. I ran out of time on Monday and was left having to skip a first year class to clear time to make it on Tuesday afternoon. Tuesday morning on the staircase T-sensei says to me, "I am thinking we should make the listening test easier this time. Their level isn't so high." That was okay with me, however all I have ever seen of their English tests is the script I am given to read. I have never seen the answer sheet that the students will read from or the grading system that will evaluate and process it. In this vacuum, I made the test, skipping two hours of classes, going over the teacher's edition of the text books, which I am not in possession of as non-Japanese are not usually issued teacher's editions and importing lots of pictures for the answer sheet as requested. I attempted to adjust the dialogues to subjects we had touched on in class. For example, instead of "I have a dog who is fat and white, but we call him 'Pochi.' Do you like foreign countries Ratna?" Or whatever oddness usually surfaces, I made the statement, "His name is Obama, but I call him Mr. President." As we had talked about in class how it is rude to call a head of state "Obama."

It was a very nice looking test. I returned to my desk, satisfied, with final drafts copied and scripts prepared. Not being able to locate T-sensei, I saw O-sensei at his desk. I brought the test over. We are on fairly good terms.
"Here is the test I came up with, tell me if anything needs to be changed."
(Again, this is all in Japanese. This teacher is the head of the English department but cannot converse in the language without a great deal of patience.)

He hung his head in his hands. "This won't work. This is no good. I can't understand it."
"In what respect?"
"What is this question asking? I don't understand. The students will never figure it out. This. It is too easy."
"Is it too easy or too hard?"
"I don't understand it."
I was fairly upset. "Then don't use it. Make a new one, but don't ask me to make a new one as the only guidelines I had were issued by you."
"I don't know anything about that. Who told you to do what?"
"What did she say?"
"She gave me a rough outline and some examples."
"It won't work."
"I am sorry. I am not in class everyday. I don't know their level."
"It isn't a level problem, it is a test making problem."
"Then don't use it. Make a new one. It won't hurt my feelings if you throw it out, but you can't asks me to make something and give me no information on what you want or need and then say it isn't what you wanted because I don't know what you want."
"Maybe we can use the middle two questions if we change the answers."
"I am not asking you to use my test to make me happy. I don't care. I have other things I could have been doing. If I am not helping you I have other work to do."

I will spare you the remainder, but anyone who has been in a Japanese conversation understands that the degree of forward progress is better measured with sundials and farmer's almanacs. It was agreed that it was T-sensei's job to make the test, and not mine. That I am here to help rather than to contribute and that they would call me when it was time to record.

It was now three in the afternoon and the second year teacher who had set-up a time with me the week before stopped by my desk and we went over the script and recorded without a hitch. Around 4:30 the first years teachers came to find me and asked if I could record. This was the first I had heard from them, but that had been expected. The teacher in charge of the listening test is fresh out of college and had never recorded anything before. I am not sure I have ever heard him speak English and I had to show him how to work the double VCR dubbing system. Going in to each recording I always tell the teachers that we are going to knock it out in one take. Partially to encourage them. Partially because the room is small and sweltering and smells like dust. But really, mainly, because I worked for years in radio and adults stumbling over a 5 minute script makes me bleed internally. Teachers whose job is to speak in front of 40 teenagers every day saying that they are nervous when presented with a mic strikes me as foolish.

Halfway through the script, the young teacher began a panic-stricken motion for me to stop. "I forgot that we never taught them question three." It had to do with "Where" and no one could remember if they knew "where" and it was supposed that maybe they learned it in elementary school, or not. As a picture of a cat was already on the answer sheet I suggested that we just ask "Do you like cats?" Everyone chuckled and then considered scrapping the whole thing and rerecording me doing a self introduction. It was now 5pm and I am supposed to leave by 5:15. No third year teachers are in the office. The questions are changed, we go in, knock it out and it everything we recorded disappears from the cassette tape. It takes a while but I find it, an oddity of cassette tapes that things can be lost on them. It is now 5:10.

I find T-sensei in the hall, checking whether students memorized sections of the book that they never understood the meaning of. I ask her if we can record and she cobbles together the scraps of paper that are now the listening test. I glance over them. I realize that some sections involve a part A and a part B so that I will need her to record with me. As we sit down to record she tells me she hasn't come up with questions so I will just have to make them up as we go. Fortunately I am a pro. Halfway through she ask that I stop the recording.
"What happened?"
"You forgot to say 'Number 2'"
"No, I think I said it."
"You didn't. We have to go back and record it again."
"I am pretty sure I said it, but we will check."

After rewinding at restarting, it is there "Number 2" and we are off again. As usual, the script is awkward and flawed. I will try to represent the last question to the best of my ability,

"Mr. Kato has visited Australia and India but he has never been to any other country. How many foreign countries had Mr. Kato visited?"

To me this sounds like a trick question involving a Mr. Kato who happens to have dual citizenship with Australia and India but a strong dislike of travel. T-sensei couldn't understand the issue. It strikes me as a very Japanese question involving several assumptions that could just as easily be not true and an clumsy use of "foreign" which can only be used to solve the problem by making sure that Mr. Kato is Japanese and that other countries only exist in relation to Japan. Maybe I am overthinking it.

It is now past 5:30 and I get my things to leave. This is an tricky point too. It states in my contract that I have to leave by 5:15. Sometimes I stick around when I am helping with soccer or working on something, but I usually take off. Mainly because there is nothing to be done. But it is a barrier. Japanese teachers, in my experience, are terrible managers of time and take great pride in how busy they are and how late they stay at work. So my time being wasted and mismanaged and under-utilized, shouldn't make me angry when I view it as a waste, I should feel satisfied that I did less than I could have and think up ways to do things more inefficiently and cause myself to stay later garnering more respect.

Sometime this week there will be a TV show where experts wonder how it could be that Japan is slipping. How could it be?

Saturday, September 25, 2010

UFC 119: St. James Infirmary

Commissioner White rode to the podium on a plastic toy firetruck carry a go cup full of Micehlob and declared, "We may have left Iraq, but bitches still be dying" He fell off sideways, losing his top hat, beer coating his AC/DC t-shirt and denim vest.

Tavares vs. Audinwood

Hard to care. Not enough data. Tavares has tried to derail his promising career. A toss-up. Tavares by split decision.

Hunt vs. McCorkle

What people tend to forget in their jaded critiques and professional observations is that Pride was really fun to watch. Fun. And the big, fat jester in the middle of it all, atomic butt dropping Fedor and eating Cro-Cop high kicks like they were tasty cakes, was Mark Hunt. He was also a very skilled striker with nothing to offer on the ground. I like the guy and I want him to do well. I also think his striking is levels above McCorkle. Hunt by KO round 1.

Grant vs. Paulino

Again, not really enough data. We have been hearing about Grant for a while and he shows some promise and a nice single leg. I think it gets him the decision over Paulino.

Lowe vs. Lopez.

Really? Lowe should lose based on his belly-button tattoo. Lopez's record in indicative of nothing. So he beat The Gooch. So what? Errrrr. Lowe by decision.

Mitrione vs. Beltran

I enjoy Beltran, but he is particularly good. Mitrione has actually been fairly impressive. I like his hands. I think he gets the KO in round 2.

Dollaway vs. Doerksen

Which is worse, Dollaway"s sub defense or Doerksen's chin. That is the real battle here, and I don't really care. I have little faith in either. Let's say Dollaway by TKO in the 3rd.

Stephens vs. Guillard

I tried to dislike Guillard for a while, but he is fun to watch. He is also a fellow Gulf Coaster, and a gifted liver puncher. Stephens is a mean little bastard. I would like to think that being at Jackson's will help Guillard develop a plan and fight smart, but has that worked for Cerrone or Jardine? No, not really. However, Guillard's true weakness is sub-defense. Will Stephens threaten him there. This will be a real test of Guillard's chin. Hard to call. Stephens by KO in the 3rd.

Dunham vs. Sherk

I have missed out on the Dunham hype train and I briefly rode the Sherk hate train. I think Dunham is a little overvalued right now, and Sherk is undervalued. But, Sherk has been on the shelf for too long and I rate that pretty high against people. Dunham by decision.

Serra vs. Lytle

I love both of these guys and I think people are a little too cynical about their careers. Enjoy them for what they are. This is an awkward match-up for Lytle, whose skills I respect as much as anyone fighting. Serra is hard to KO and can hit back, hard. Serra is almost impossible to submit and is good at regaining position. I think this goes to a split decision in favor of Serra. I am looking forward to it unabashedly.

Nogueira vs. Bader

I wouldn't say that either of these guys as at a cross roads, but I could say their careers could take either path. What? Nogueira can prove that he deserves his reputation and that he can hover around the top. Bader can prove that his talent will be fulfilled and he can hang at the top. I think there are major holes in Nogueira's game, mainly his defense. I think Bader is a better physical talent. But, I need this fight for Bader to prove it to me. I am picking to Nogueira to get a clever sub in the 3rd.

Mir vs. Flipovic

Is it bad form to say I don't care? Not that I don't care about the fight, I am excited to watch it. However, it doesn't really matter to me who wins. I think Mir has the better shot, but he alternates between solid game plans and brain death. Cro-Cop seems to have had his intimidating uber talent sucked out of him. I would like to see Cro-Cop win, but I don't know how that unfolds. I don't know if his sprawl is still there. I think he can tag Mir on the feet though. Mir seems to love his boxing, but we'll see. Cro-Cop's sub defense has always been sufficient, but he is aging and Mir is much stronger. Errr....I don't know. I am going to call Flipovic by fracturing of Mir's orbital bone with a straight left in the 2nd. How's that?

Take it to the fake bank.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

I-10 in NOLA

Here are some articles on the plan that David brought up. I will have to do some more reading on it. Having not lived there it is hard for me to really weigh in, but I am generally in favor of this kind of thing. When I lived in the Jackson Ward in Richmond a lot of older residents, and younger residents in the know, talked about the way the neighborhood was before they ran the interstate through the middle of it and put an on ramp like a stake in its heart. Around the period of time that interstates were going up, the thinking about planning was rather obtuse.

Update: I just found this Facebook group related to the issue. Maybe they will be the place to get updates. However, their latest status is just an add for working stay at home moms, so....

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


I finally got a chance to sit down and start watching Treme this week. It took me a while, but Natsuki was at her folks for the week and I don't have enough money to pay my gym fees, so I figured it would be a good chance.

I am going ahead and writing this as a half-assed post now since if I wait until I have time to give all of my thoughts I won't come out with anything until the last episode of season 5 in which NOLA Actual takes off into space with Kermit Ruffins sparkin' a J off of the exhaust.

First, let me single out the Times-Picayune's superb "Treme Explained" which is an essential companion to the show, even if you know the city well.

The Wire touched a special place in my heart, not just because it was exceptional television, as almost everyone acknowledges, but also because it was an homage and a eulogy for the great city of Baltimore that had impacted me so much as a kid visiting there and as a proxy for Richmond which I lived in the worst neighborhoods of as a young adult. It seemed to be about people I knew and spoke in a language that I understood.

Treme is a thicker stew as I already find myself loving it and yet have to question whether my affection for New Orleans is just a hackneyed reaction to a real tragedy. An effection maybe. I am definitely on record before the storm of declaring my hate for the city and my lack of a desire to be there. That is true, and looking back, I feel justified. Growing up on the Gulf Coast, New Orleans was like the brother that I didn't want to share the back seat with. However, it turns out, if said brother was torn from your home and unable to be found, you would miss them terribly and want more than anything to hold them close. Let me explain. I have been going to New Orleans since I was a little kid as my Godfather and his family are from Slidell. They live in a house on stilts in the swamp and say thing like "butta" and "watta" and eat cabbage even with worms crawling out of it. They are Cajuns; sturdy and round. We used to drive into the city for Mardi Gras and I can remember rolling through Algiers in the early '80s with a pistol on the front seat. Country paranoia or shameful reality, the city loomed. We would still stand on the parade route and soak in the sights and the sounds most of all. In Northwest Florida the doctors all have Carnival paintings on their office walls and are members of a Crewe that they bought or influenced their ways into. Hippies drive over to get high at Jazz Fest and rednecks to get drunk on Bourbon. Punks? New Orleans had nothing for us except for kids who enjoy playing at being homeless. So I tired of New Orleans. It was a rich fantasy and a drunk's toilet. At 15 they wouldn't let me check into a motel that I had reserved and so I spent all day at the fairgrounds after a downpour in a flooded muddy field with 90,000 other music fans trying to pull pizza boxes out of the garbage to sit on. New Orleans was parking lots and underpasses and interstates and gas stations with bullet proof windows where men with bottles in bags lurked just outside of the brightest lights. It was one wrong turn from being in more trouble than you felt like being in and panhandlers getting it in their head that you weren't poor just because you were white. Or white panhandlers thinking you might give up some change since you were young. It was being stuck all night, tired in Jackson Square while GG Allin played one of his last shows and his fans came out and made fun of us for not looking like them. That New Orleans never did much for me. The one where the police might kill you instead of the criminals.

Of course there were other times like when I went to see Bela Fleck in a park and Pensacola and Rebirth opened up. It was probably the best live music I have ever heard, but it was tennis tanned, khaki-shorted doctor's wives who lined up to dance behind them. There was also the empty, sunny New Orleans on the day after Christmas at Cafe Du Monde. Row after row of buildings making neighborhoods, full of people who knew each other. There was running into Winona Ryder in a used clothes store and finding a Crucial Youth record in a bin on some back street in Iberville.

Let me be specific, I didn't resent New Orleans for being dirty and poor and dangerous. I resented it for being idolized by people who didn't have to endure its dirty and poor and dangerous. Under those circumstances, it is no wonder that New Orleans doesn't love outsiders and tourists. Nowhere on the Gulf Coast does. We don't in Northwest Florida. Just give us your money and get back on the bus heading North. But New Orleans has done better than the rest of us in keeping its soul. It has had to be hard and cold at times. Making outsiders feel like they are on the outside, anyway, good for them.

And then my friends lived there. And then the storm came. And I won't lie and say there wasn't a part of me like Bill Clinton who cried on 911, partly because of the awfulness and partly because it didn't happen when he could have done something about it. Florida, so ready for the hurricane, so prepared will never be remembered for how it handled the big one. New Orleans will be loved and strangled and almost destroyed and certainly vilified for how it lost. So now, like the bother of a stolen child I can only love it while I still hate driving around under the interstate and the neighborhoods that can go from bad to worse and hearing about how drunk somebody got on Bourbon.

Back to the show itself. It makes the point that The Wire couldn't and that is more complicated in New Orleans anyway: The city is fueled by and unique because of the culture of the lower-classes who live there and are unwanted by the power structure except to the extent that they bring tourist dollars to the city which is fueled by and unique because of the culture of the lower-classes who live there and are unwanted by the power structure except to the extent that they bring tourist dollars to the city..... and on and on.

So far, the music has been exceptional and the amount of times that I have said "Hey, there's _______ where I saw_______ play." has been enjoyable. With few exceptions it has felt real to me, but I am only a visitor. There are lots of dynamics that I would like to see discussed but the scope of the show is limited and I think that is to good effect. There has been no game changing character like Omar Little to appear yet, but this is a different kind of show. Khandi Alexander is wonderful and has a real kind of strength. I have also enjoyed the Delmond Lambreaux character showing a very real divide between "serious jazz cats" and their feelings about the city's vernacular canon. Also, mad props for showing Galactic going off at d.b.a.

The Warning

Not posting in two weeks seems egregious. If only I knew that I wasn't posting while I wasn't posting, then I probably would have posted. Nevertheless.

A warning came down from the company. I don't listen to my company, ever, so it really doesn't matter. They say that the Board of Education has a way of seeing what everyone who uses the internet at school is looking at so that we should be careful and only use the internet for school related purposes. Hmmm. While I don't doubt that being able to remotely track a computers history, or even being able to watch a screen in real time is a reality, in fact I know it is, let's examine the reality of the situation.

I work at a school with at least 73 teachers. Right now five computers that are connected to the internet at the computer station are open and running. In addition we have about 25 laptops that are available for teachers to use at their desks and WI-FI that runs through the whole school. Add to that teachers personnel computers at their desks and the numerous teachers that use their iPhones off of the WI-FI. That is one school around 43 or so in the school district. Are we to believe that one person employed full time could even keep up with the activity at this school? Are we further to believe that they could interpret what was actual use and what was useless. I sometimes mail other teachers using Facebook to ask about lesson plans. I sometimes use Gmail and ask about school and then an unrelated question or two. Sometimes when I am using Wikipedia to research a grammar point I stray off topic but end up learning more that I talk about in class. Some teachers use the computers to watch basketball. Then again, they are basketball coaches. Are we really to believe that one person can not only see all of this information but also analyze it? Is there a team of 40 or so people just doing this at the school board? If so, does the money wasted there not eclipse, by far, any productivity lapses by internet surfing teachers? I suppose my real question is; Why they gots to play me for a stupid?

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Economics 1010101010101

I think that this article is well in the right of it. I was fortunate in my choice of college departments in many ways. One of which was that the thinking on economics was deep and varied. Often people treat economics as if it were math, even though it just involves math. Economics also involve human psychology and morals. Next door to my department was the business school, which had a monster of a new building paid for by alumni. I was somewhat repulsed by it, although to be fair it had a nice atrium. Occasionally I ventured into their basement to use their vending machines which, unlike their economic thinking, were more varied and complex than ours. In the basement study are hung pictures of Vince Lombardi employing people to win, although in a vastly different context. The people from this business department probably weren't stupid, but when our paths did cross I found their thinking on economic issues, among other things, quite oversimplified and robotic. Not that they were ignorant, but that they had been given lots and lots of very shallow information.

To extend the shovel analogy, mightn't it also be that a wealthy person could buy up all of the shovel supply and offer to rent them out at high rates to the poor people who couldn't afford them? Always keeping the shovels a step out of their grasp. Or, isn't it also likely that the same individual or conglomerate would offer to sell the shovels to poor people during storms, but on a loan payment basis and at a high rate of interest? Therefore to make their rent and other needs for the month, poor people would be forced to buy the shovels to dig out of the snow and then be saddled with payments for an object they won't always be in need of. Maybe the same or another individual could get them in debt on fans in the summer and rakes in the fall and allergy medicine in the spring. All things that the rich would have in abundance and chide the poor for not making do without. That is economics too. What if a neighborhood of poor people decided to go in together and buy one shovel for the neighborhood and set-up a rotation of shovelers to free everyone from the snow at a low cost? What if the powerful shovel interest influenced lawmakers to ban these kind of organizations and a PR firm to taint them as socialist? It sounds absurd, but it isn't far off of reality. Keep in mind that we have seeds that are sold to farmers that intentionally won't generate new seeds so that the farmer has to buy seeds again the next year. We have underprivileged homeowner organizations like ACORN destroyed through the media and congress. These are economic issues. I could go on and on, and I am sure you could to. It just goes to show again that knowledge of something is not mastery of it, or even complex understanding.

The JET Issue

I must be back to work because we are back to Debito Arudo columns. This one is especially applicable however. As a former JET who would cut off a pinky to get back on the gravy train that gave me envelopes full of tax free cash, a subsidized apartment and a seemingly endless supply of badusi, you might expect me to be a vocal advocate for the program. Well.... Then again as a frustrated educator who believes that Japan should throw its English program out with the bathwater and into the sewer you might think I would be calling for torching the program....not really. There is more I want to talk about in this article than the survival of the JET program. To sum up the topic quickly, JET brings some rotten people to Japan. It brings a lot of lazy people and drunk people and immature people. It is also responsible for everything I either have or don't have, most of my friends and surely my marriage and everything that came along the way. It is, in the end, a great tool for soft power, placing people with Japanese sympathies in various positions all over the world. Don't give that sentence another reading. But, it does that too.

The real issue here is what Debito has to say about English learning in Japan and the fact that he is 88% correct. And where he isn't correct he isn't exactly wrong.

The point is made that many JETs aren't trained English teachers. This is very true, and it could be a problem if they were often called upon to be teachers. Sadly, this is usually just a cudgel for Japanese teachers to ridicule them with (do you ridicule people with cudgles?) even though the teachers have very little real training themselves, especially in teaching English. Most teachers that I have encountered are still stuck in the grammar translation method of teaching, which disappeared along with Latin classes in the West. If they were asked, though, most teachers wouldn't even know that this is the method they were using. They would just think of it as teaching. It might be hard for you to picture a class in Japan, but just imagine it as somewhere between algebra and Latin, being written on the board and described by someone who has a loose grip on the subject to students who have neither clue nor interest. It is amazingly counterproductive.

On my first day as an ALT the superintendent of schools told me "Please tell us how to make our education system better." That was nine years ago and no one has listened once. I had a conference with all of the English teachers this year and typed up a list of what we should concentrate on. Everyone thought it was great that I could write in Japanese, but nothing has changed.

One thing that has changed is that the teachers are no longer as dead set against ALTs as they used to be. Some here and there are and there are still a lot of stereotypes and generalizations ingrained in the school system as a whole, but most seem more accepting these days. I am still often told, however, that there used to be "some problems" with an ALT in the past. I sometimes ask "You mean like the problems with Japanese teachers?" Which could mean the one who was selling drugs in a hotel room, or the one who was caught in the school pool with the girl's soccer team or the one who was drunk driving or the one who killed the kid in judo class and on and on. But as we know, these are different things. Japanese people operate as individuals and foreginers are a monolith.

This is not just a bitter jab, this has to do with a failure of the overall system. As Arudo correctly points out, "Now add the back-beat of Japan's crappy social science." Agreed and super agreed. I have often said that non-Japanese are not here to teach English we are here to teach Japanese. How do I mean that? We are here to reinforce how English and foreignness are separate from what the kids in class are learning to be, Japanese and Japanese. The prevailing Japanese view is that nationality and ethnicity are fundamentally inseparable. We can engage in cultural exchange but only in so far as it is illustrating differences. That is where I rock the boat slightly. I usually try to point out in class that I don't understand what "gaijin" means and that we grow up eating rice too, we just have more kinds. My most repeated phrase is "I don't know, it depends on the person." Which seems to be almost ungraspable, even to adults. I don't know what Americans eat for breakfast, because I usually don't go to my neighbor's for breakfast, much less a stranger's house. I can only answer for my family. That kind of thing. In this atmosphere, it is very hard for kids to see English as something that they can do just as well as anyone else learning a language. English is crazy and separate and bears on them very little.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the fault I find with television in the whole dynamic. I blame Japanese TV for many things I find repellent. This is not to single out Japanese TV in the world, but to single it out in Japan. What you need to understand is that TV in Japan has about 4 channels, so everyone is pretty much watching the same thing. These channels are all populated by the same people, as the same 'talent' are on every show, every day in Japan. Non-Japanese show up from time to time but they fall into two general categories, comic relief and strange gaijin. If you struggle awkwardly in social situations and misuse the language, like Bobby, you are comic relief and beloved. If you speak Japanese fluently and have an opinion, you are strange gaijin. Maybe there is a small third party of those fluent in Japanese that play the game well and talk about how great Japan is and how there are no problems anywhere like this muppet, who I used to have an email exchange with and now makes me scour in shame. But maybe I am not being fair.

In any case, in this environment, the kids see most things in the context of the TV that is on at their house constantly, they struggle to view ALTs as teachers or even as adults. They are assumed,by both teachers and students to be the comic relief. This isn't said explicitly, but it is reinforced constantly. At meetings, it is usually coached as "ALTs are here to expose the kids to English so you should have upbeat and fun classes." Or by teachers as "Today the ALT is here, so let's play a game." I once taught at a school where I was told, "Our image is that foreigners smile a lot, so you should smile more." I never went back. I was told at my school now, "Your job is to stand there and smile and speak English." This was a large fight. I have many more stories but I am sure I have had it relatively good.

In the excellent, "You Gotta Have Wa" by Robert Whiting, which I consider and essential text on Japan, the author illustrates the practice of bringing average or failed American baseball players to play in the Japanese league. Their role is to continue to be average, be hyped as saviours and then to be blamed for all of the teams struggles and then be sent packing and told they are great disappointments. I think a lot of that is what has been going on with ALTs. It is easier to talk about the problems with them and their lack of certification and how they use the internet at work than to look at the internal problems weighing down the halfhearted attempts to teach English. It is easier to invest your hope in someone and then send them home like you burn your good luck charms at the end of every year.

The only place where I think Arudo gets it partly wrong is his image of the Japanese classroom. It might still hold true some places, but most I have worked in, failure isn't punished at all. Not even enough in my opinion. Answering, "I don't know, I don't speak English." Is often acceptable and the height of humor. "This is Japan." Is also a popular one. Failure is not only accepted it is expected. As I have asked many times, "What happens if you show up to a Japanese school and fail every test and never turn in your homework? You graduate."

It is a large issue that I could write on for a while, but debating JET is just another why that Japanese education can avoid debating itself. Last question: Of all of the board of education, school-wide and English teacher meetings I have been in over the years, how many times has a native English teacher been asked, "What can we do better?" Do I even have to tell you the answer? Zero. Do you think the cowboys ask the rodeo clowns how to ride a bull?

Further Adventures in Edumucation

Here is a stat the surprised me. As much as I take issue with aspects of the Japanese education system, I never thought that funding was one of them. The amount of funding directed at me, sure. I would like to see these stats laid out more, to see if there is anything behind them or any other way they can be read. I always think of Japanese schools as rolling around in money and just being dingy as a style choice. The part at the end about high private spending rings true, however.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

I Give

I used to front on Cee-Lo. I even had a line in a song that declared, "Cee-Lo, you look like your butt 's soft, is that how you really sing or did someone cut your nuts off?" Which in a fairer world would go down in rap history, but that is a selfish digression. Like millions of others I enjoyed Gnarls Barkley, but I gave most of the credit to Danger Mouse, who I had always been sweet on. However. However, Cee-Lo, you have done it. You have turned the tide. Me who hasn't liked anything he has heard in forever decree this day: F'ing masterpiece my friend.

He is killing it, in case you didn't notice. This is one of those moments I miss having a radio show and being out of my mind over a terrible person so I could just play this over and over.

Speaking of music, Ed recently reminded me of Brother Ali whom I had liked and forgotten about. He is quite good.

Friday, September 3, 2010

It is Feeling Cold and Hot

Back at school with broken air conditioners and little to do except grade papers that are either blank or make little sense. I often bemoan the state of English education in Japan and then I always forget the examples. Here I am back at school grading the kids summer reports on retaurants in their neghborhood and I am clutching a hndful of examples. Here are two. And kkep in mind that they are two of the best, the most comprehensible. Most kids didn't even bother.

1. Restaurant name is Coco's. There is Nakashingai. Best food is package ware hamburger and caramel christean. Those is very delicious. Those is wester food here. Package ware hamburger is brand-new. So, it is delicious. Caramel christean is caramel ice cream and caramel sauce. It is feeling cold and hot! -end-

2. The parfait is dellcious. The glass in the drink bar is beautiful. Atmosphere is good. It is early for a moment to come. European food specialty. You only have to go to go.

These are 3rd year students who have had English class everyday for 2 and a half years. These two are in the top 95% of the essays I read. Do you understand why I think we should stop doing English in Japan. What is the point if this is the result?

attempting to silence the voices in my head.