Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Hirakata, You're Cut. Part 1.

I don't think I have made much of a secret of my new (year-old?) decision that the best course for Japan was to give up on English education, at least at the junior high level. My reasoning behind this decision, again for the record, is that it doesn't help to do something half-assed and then rate it and judge the results as if it was being done appropriately. In fact, I think more damage is being done by teaching English than the benefits gained from it.

Let me quickly run through my main points regarding this issue.

1. Most English teachers can't speak English. That is just the reality of the situation and everyone knows it. This situation would not be tolerated for any other subject.

2. English programs are controlled by bureaucrats at city hall, not by English educators. This generally means that they try to get things done on the cheap with more attention paid to appearances than results. This applies to lots of things everywhere, however.

3. The teaching methods are outdated. Most teachers still use the Grammar Translation Method, which went out in Western schools in the 1960's and was being criticized in the 19th century. In fact most text books only really lend themselves to this method. More modern teachers use ESL methods, but ones usually geared towards college students.

4. Whither the ALT? My job is a cipher. Sorry to say it. It doesn't have to be that way. I am reminded of a passage in Jarhead, where the author describes the military having no idea how to use snipers in the First Gulf War, so they would just be told to 'go do something.' I think that I have been able to turn this vagueness into something constructive but it is a bit like needing to build a dam and settling for dropping a boulder in the river.

5. Japanese society is still too immature in its approach to an international society. Again, I am sorry if that sounds vague and general and insulting. Let me tell you a story. I was called in to an impromptu meeting with some very high-ups in the city's education department. They began asking my opinions on different things regarding the English program. I was a little off guard, but thrilled with the opportunity. I began by saying, "As you know, Higashi Osaka has the lowest scores in the country." I was immediately stopped and told, "We don't care about that. Japanese people can't speak English. We were just thinking that maybe on Wednesday afternoons we could have a program were moms came to the school to play with their kids in English. Whadda ya think?" A completely normal answer to a question in English in class is "I don't know what you are saying, I am Japanese!" Television constantly hammers in ideas that the world is divided into Japan and Gaikoku. People in Gaikoku all speak English. To be Japanese is to not be a part of that. I am probably going a little far afield with this one, so I will get back on track.

6. The only text books allowed have to be made by Japanese companies. And they suck. We are not allowed to use the decent ones made by Oxford, or any other company.

7. The high school entrance exams are flawed. Deeply. And that is the endgame of all of junior high.

Let's look at a page from the text book for 2nd years. I won't get sued if I name it will I? It is New Crown. If you make this text book I am here to tell you that, as many hours as you might have put in, your product is garbage.

This page is in some ways an aberration. My objections to it are largely philosophical/political. First: Have a gander.

You can see my notes on the subject. Remark on the lovely handwriting. It would be nice to get some fresh eyes on the subject. What problems do you see? Or is it solid and I am a crank? That is possible.

My large issue with this is the whole "foreign people" angle. Not just because I am a "foreign people" but because what this is trying to convey only really makes sense in Japanese. That is a larger problem with these books, if you don't understand Japanese, it is hard to grasp them. The priority is not to teach speakable English but to reinforce Japanese. Which seems an odd goal for a foreign language textbook.

Of course, the word they want to say is "gaikokujin." The letter writer wants to teach Japanese to "gaikokujin." But how can this be clear to a world that doesn't divide itself into Japan and everyone else? I would contend that there is a large amount of people in Japan who would be very surprised that that isn't how the rest of the world thinks of things.

Scan down to the last sentence. In the future, just thinking about it in English, where does this person want to go? Do they want to go to Korea or Australia? I don't know. Do they want to stay in Japan, which is foreign to 98% of the world? Probably not, but I don't know. What group of people will they be teaching? Will they go to America and teach Japanese to Brazilians? There is no way to know. Usually other teachers' eyes glaze over when I talk about this page, but I can't understand how you don't consider these things. If they want to teach Japanese to foreign people, and they want to go to a foreign country and do this, do they mean the people of that country or non-natives who have come there? It seems peculiarly awkward to me.

The real trouble is that the people who gave the okay to this never had to consider it because they all knew exactly what they meant because they thought about it in Japanese. Japanese is a language that is in no way related to English. This becomes an overarching problem in these books.

On a brief side-note: As an American teaching in Japan I have refused to teach this lesson. I think it is rotten. Of all of the times that I have had to teach Japanese children about their own history and culture to then be forced to put stuff like this into their heads seems insulting. I know that most will take that as an overreaction, but I have to fight for every ounce of respect I get in the schools I teach in and I won't surrender it lightly to text book authors who put very little consideration into the matter from quite a great distance. I had to explain to a Japanese teacher, who has job security and bonuses, what the difference between a temple and a shrine was when he couldn't answer students' questions about it. I had to teach elementary school kids what Setsubun was because they didn't celebrate it at home. I should point out that the Japanese teacher's approach matters a lot in this lesson as well. When I have done this class, some teachers have used me as an example. You have to think about what you are teaching when you are teaching.

In my opinion the lesson would be more effective with the sentence, "I would like to go to another country and teach Japanese." What country they are going to is a little vague, but it is somewhere that is not where they are now and it carries little of the pejorative aftertaste.

If you are new to Japanese textbooks, this will be your introduction to the puzzling practice of beginning an inordinate number of sentences with "So", "And", "But," and other things we are taught to not begin sentences with.

Let's look at another page from the same book.

Certainly I don't object to the subject matter. It was my major in college for Christ's sake. I applaud the effort of discussing environmental issues in junior high. What's my beef then? This is indicative of two other major issues in these books. First, there is a group of social issues that they are compelled to address: Ainu, Okinawa, guide dogs, landmines and the environment, to name a selection. The problem is that they do it in such a ham-handed way. Second, the books introduce way too much superfluous information in a subject that is already overwhelming for kids. It is hard to separate what is important from what is filling. Again, if you are familiar with Japanese, you will recognize the influence.

Let me point out here, when considering these two pages, that most students will struggle to answer the question "How are you?" A good number of them can't write their names in English. The majority of kids doing this chapter right now have trouble with "I play. You play. He/She/It/ plays." What are they supposed to do with this?

Look at this page. What is the focus of the lesson? What grammar is being taught here? Can you figure it out? Any luck? The answer is comparatives. In this case "good, better, best." This is the introduction to the concept. Most new grammar points are taught this way in Japanese schools. This mass of disparate information will be shown to 14 year-olds who haven't mastered any basics. Some rules about the grammar will be quoted to them. These rules might be accurate or they might be something someone told the teacher once. The students will then read the passage out loud and then copy the whole thing in their notebook. Now they will be expected to know it forever.

I have no confidence in this method. I don't think mine is perfect, but here is how I did the lesson. I made a Powerpoint presentation with sets of pictures of three things. "Fuji is tall. Denali is taller. Everest is the tallest." "The dog is big. The cow is bigger. The elephant is the biggest." Once the students got the pattern- and it is the pattern that is important here, not the grammar rule-we changed it into a game. I also made sure they understood why 'the' is used for the superlative. I would show the first slide. "Kamakura." They would guess. "Kamakura is old." "Kyoto is older." "Nara is the oldest." After about 5 minutes even the lower level classes would get it. The game went on for 30-40 minutes. If I went to classes more than once a week, I would come back to this game for 1o minutes or so once a week.

This kind of lesson is known in Japanese schools as "a game." Games are what people like me are in schools to do. Real lessons involve sitting around and copying dialogues out of textbooks. You know, real learning. Our school is lucky to have a ton of laptops, projectors and screens. I would estimate that, including me, about 5 teachers use them. 5 out of 70+. A lot of older teachers are either amazed that someone can use Powerpoint, ashamed that this kind of goofing off is allowed in schools, or both.

As a teacher, another objection I have with this lesson is how many irrelevant things I would have to teach to do this dialogue. Do the authors consider this? I am all for conversations about outside stuff, and going off topic, but this isn't easy for the students. I have to explain: roof, sand,surface, degrees, heat islands, fight, green, and regular, just to get through this page. Again, to kids who can't answer "How are you?"

What did all of this have to do with Hirakata? Let's take a break and I will get there.


Astrology☆Perception said...

A-ha! Reading your excellently written article brought back a zillion memories (NIGHTMARES) of teaching at the JHS I was at.

First, thanks for putting it all down so succinctly. The 'Japanese/foreign' basis of Japanese culture is so strong. An example in brief: JHS grade 3 class (who can't read script or answer 'How are you?') are shown a video, all in Japanese, in the ALT lesson time, the horrors of Hiroshima with the narrator repeating the phrase, 'the CHILDren'. I wasn't linched but close to it.

There is a total absense of respect and I do my best to overcome the barriers with fact and fun. This being much easier for me now I'm a business English instructor, not an ALT.

Until there is a wider drive to question the methods of the dissemination of culture, I really doubt the entrance exams, mindsets or funding will change in any way. It was the mid-90'2 when the Department of Education of Japan ordered more conversation skills building classes, but as evidenced from that example text, not much has changed.

Why am I here? I asked a bilingual Japanese friend if it was OK to be here in Japan and teach English. (Yes, actually a Japanese person who is actually bilingual Eng/Jp!) He said, 'Yes. The Japanese need to be taught that there's more to this world than only them. They need to know.'

In short love your article and let's hope you stay here!

P Blabby said...

I appreciate the rational analysis. My own personal experience in the USA learning French was similar. The foreign teachers were treated worse than any others (worse than sub teachers often) by the students. This was absolutely a reflection of our own culture's discomfort with anything foreign. I wonder if this happens everywhere? Looking back, I really regret not taking the opportunity to learn more in that class- not just to know French better, but to have been able to handle otherness better. There are a whole range of skills involved with that, many teachable, that would have served me well and saved me time/grief in life. I see many American adults who, when confronted with otherness in various forms, are completely unable to question their own assumptions about the world. When those questions are forced upon them, many react with violence or anger. I would encourage you to pursue your gut feelings on this and pursue this, as you obviously feel passionate about it- in whatever form you are able to.

Anonymous said...

I agree that there are a lot problems with the English education in Japan and you do mention some very valid points like the entrance exam system.

However, I also would like to point out that some parts of the grammar translation method is worth preserving. I have studied 5 foreign languages myself and there is only so far you can get without learning proper grammar and have it explained in your own native language.

Also, even if you situation is not ideal and the text is not that great (I have had to use it myself) I think you are exaggerating a lot and focusing in the negative points too much. To the first example you could simple have added your suggestion about "another country" and been done with it. Why waste your energy?

Finally, some of your expertise sound a bit strange when you state "It (environmental issues) was my major in college for Christ's sake" when talking about education and how poor the Japanese teachers are at teaching English. I hope you have a double degree...

Bear in the Woods

tas prada said...

Until there is a wider drive to question the methods of the dissemination of culture, I really doubt the entrance exams, mindsets or funding will change in any way.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed this post. You describe this topic very well. I really enjoy reading your blog and I will definitely bookmark it! Keep up the interesting posts! Accident I witnessed

attempting to silence the voices in my head.