Friday, July 24, 2015

Being an ALT in the Classroom

July is an exciting time of year in the JET world. We're saying goodbye to old friends, and getting ready to welcome new ones in the coming weeks.

Nestled in among all the excitement and vigor are the usual fears of starting a new life and job, chief among them just how the actual job will go. As most JETs will hear ad nauseum, every situation is different, but here I'd like to describe how a typical class goes for most ALTs working with the Sunshine curriculum as of spring 2015.

Physical Space:

Let's start with the space you'll be working in. Here's a typical Japanese-style classroom:


You'll spend most of your time in the lower third of the space, but feel free to walk around the room during free activity, tests, projects, etc. Teachers will usually stand on the right of the chalkboard (facing the students) with you on the left. 

DON'T feel like you have to stay in your little corner of the room though. It is team-teaching after all! Try to stay just left of center as much as possible unless the JTE needs the room to write or your students are trying to copy things down.

Always be aware of your JTE's movements. Some will write only a few key points, but some (especially third-year) will fill the entire chalkboard with text. Often, you'll find yourself moving farther and farther to the left as the period progresses. Sometimes they will need to reach for a piece of chalk right behind you or demonstrate a key point with actions. Depending on the classroom, it can feel a bit cramped so it's important to be constantly aware of where you both are and where you're moving.

If you get there before the period starts, chances are you students will be bustling around handing back assignment and tests and preparing the blackboard for class. Considering they will be wandering around and going back and forth to and from the front desks and the blackboard, it's best to stay out of their way until they've finished (or offer to help!).

A Typical English Class:

-Greetings- Japanese classes always begin with a declaration of the beginning of the class. In other classes, the students call everyone to attention (the students will stand) and declare the beginning of class after which the teacher will start the day's lesson. Your English greeting may follow this mold exactly or be entirely different depending on your JTE. My JTEs simply initiate it with a "Good afternoon, everyone!" to which the students reply, "Good morning Ms. [   ] and Ms. Tierra!". My schools also like to ask them, "How are you?" after which they reply "I'm [fine]! And you?". After you and your JTE reply, they will be asked to sit and then the lesson will begin.

-Day, Date, and Weather- these will always be on the board in some form and the lower years will usually have you ask the students before writing them on the board.

-Today's target- the JTE will go over the day's topic and possibly the agenda for the day's lesson.

-Warm-up- Many JTEs will start with a small game to get their brains on track. These can take many forms such as Hangman (using a different object since the hangman is bad juju here in Japan), telephone, bingo, etc.

-Any short tests/quizzes

-Main lesson- again, your JTEs may very loosely follow the textbook, but at the very basic level will consist of two main parts: learning the grammar point and vocab, and reading a brief passage. Some JTEs can stretch everything to cover two days while some may rush through both parts in one class. Needless to say, if you have any control over lesson planning, the longer they can study each grammar point and practice the vocab in a variety of contexts, the better.

Let's take a look at an actual page out of the first-year textbook:

  • Basic Dialogue
As you can see, first we start with a basic dialogue passage. This serves as a model of the grammar point in the lesson. Some JTEs will simply read it with you to the class while some will come up with their own version or get really creative with it. After the model reading, JTE will translate the meaning onto the blackboard and explain the grammar. Then the students will repeat after you and the JTE for practice.

  • Vocabulary practice
Students have a special notebook that corresponds to the Sunshine curriculum with pre-drawn tables to write down each vocab word and its meaning in Japanese. The words appear in the textbook activities and the reading passage on the next page. Games can be used to reinforce memory.
  • Practice Activities
After basic dialogue practice, you'll usually do some sort of activity to reinforce the grammar and practice communication. There are three sections underneath the basic dialogue: listening, speaking, and "let's try!". Many JTEs like doing the listening section because it is good ear training. The other two activities can be a bit on the boring side, so it's a good opportunity to come up with something fun and interesting.

***This should conclude day one of the section**

  • Reading the Passage
Hopefully in the next lesson, you'll get to reading the main passage on the right-hand page. If there is no dialogue, the JTE should have you read the entire passage (unfortunately, some may use the CD even while you are there). If there is dialogue, they'll split the roles between you. Again, the JTE will go over the meaning of the passage and point out where the key grammar point appears. After that is more reading practice.

Good JTEs will have a more engaging way to practice the reading For example, the students can do a reading relay race with their rows where the front pair will stand and read the passage and then the next will start when the front is finished and sits down. Or you can go around the room having each of them read a sentence and time how fast it takes them to get to the last student.

Supplemental Activities

In the back of each Program are extra activities to enforce and expand on what they learned. These take the form of Speaking where the book presents a common situation and corresponding dialogue such as shopping or asking for directions, Writing such as writing a diary entry or self-introduction, or Listening where students listen to a passage such as a commercial, public announcement or some other common dialogue and answer comprehension questions, or a My Project where students may take two or three lessons to complete and perform a more presentation-oriented project. Chapters may have a special activity or reading unique to that chapter as well.

In all of the supplemental materials, students should be encouraged to produce their own original work and make it relevant to themselves.

Corresponding Materials

The Sunshine and Hi Friends! (elementary school) curriculum come a plethora of visual aides and other materials such as flashcards, the aforementioned notebooks, and huge picture cards to go along with all the chapters. These can usually be found in your school's 準備室 ("junbi-shitsu") or prep room where all school materials are stored.

Making it Work for You

There are many viewpoints on the English curricula in Japan, mostly negative. While many aspects of the textbooks can seem outdated (even though the Sunshine series was last published in 2012!), have questionable phrases and grammar, and straight-up spelling and pronunciation errors (it's tur-"bine", not tur"bin"!), you can still work with the material and use whatever you deem useful and make things up in places where the book just isn't up to snuff.

Also keep in mind that these books were designed to correspond with Japanese standardized tests and entrance exams. If it seems like the book or your JTE is teaching some strange phrase that no one uses, check the tests your students take; chances are it's on there. For example, I saw on one test that one of the correct answers was "make a trip". Thankfully, my JTEs are nice and will give them a point if the student actually wrote something that makes sense ("take" a trip).

It Is What it Is

Japan's unrelenting exam system has been the subject of controversy for a long time now. As Japan continues to revise it's English curriculum, it's going to have to come to terms with the fact that language-learning less about testing and more about the organic flow of communication. This isn't just an English problem either; pretty much every foreign language is taught with this same paradigm and students can ace every test and still have no communication skill.

Until Japan comes up with a system that can teach students to actually communicate in a foreign language and work around the test system or throw out the exams altogether, we're stuck with a typical culturally Japanese phrase: しょうがない("shou ga nai") or "there's nothing to be done" or in a broader sense, "That's just the way things are." This a concept that can be very frustrating for foreigners, but it's a way of coping with things beyond your control.

A mere ALT in a sea of Japanese beauracracy isn't going to change the way things work. In my mind, ALTs are here not to "teach English", but to facilitate an atmosphere of interest in foreign cultures and a broader world-view in not only your students and teachers, but your community as a whole. Your mere presence is enough of a spark to ignite that interest. Use that to your advantage, and you'll be able to create an enjoyable learning atmosphere for your students.

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