Monday, July 22, 2013

Seitotachi (Students)

Students...the bread and butter of the English school.  Good students can make classes fly past, teach their instructors as much as they are taught, and leave their teachers with warm, fuzzy memories.  Bad students can make time CRAWL, cause sleepless nights and tearful worries, and make teachers wonder why they left the comforts of their home countries to teach in the first place.  Every English school has its own different collection of classes, students ranging in ages from just a few months old to well into their 80's.  At ECS, I taught classes for several different groups.

                                             Sometimes you even get invited to a students wedding!

*Salaryman (Business men/women)
     There are several different kinds of business classes I taught at the companies I was sent to by ECS.  Private lessons, group conversation, English certification classes, freshman classes (freshies are the new employees in their first year with the company).  The common theme running though all of the different kinds of classes, however, is usually the same.  The students themselves didn't choose to be there.  Most of the time, these students are ordered to study English by their companies.  For whatever reason, they have been chosen for lessons.  Salesmen often find themselves in these lessons due to the need to converse with international customers.  Most employees at shipbuilding companies find themselves studying English at one time or another, since both the customers ordering the ships and the crews of ships coming in for repair are often from foreign countries.  Occasionally, I have also had the four hours a day, 12 week long slog for a group of employees being sent over seas on business trips.
      Generally speaking, these classes are somewhat difficult for me, since the desire to learn the language in the classes is pretty low.  The daily life of a business man or woman in Japan is pretty brutal by American standards.  Technically, the work day is from 9 to 5, but you should only leave "if your work is finished."  And even in the rare instance that you are finished at 5, no one wants to be the first person out of the office... encouraging people to find work for another hour or two.  So you might work until 7... or 9... or even later, depending on how much you have left to finish.  And this extra time?  Yeah, usually not paid.  While there is overtime in Japan, usually this kind of over-work is deemed "service," meaning your gift to your company.  You didn't finish your work on time, so you will continue on unpaid!  Yikes!  Add to that there is no guarantee that when you do finally put the last touch on your work you can go home.  If your boss wants to go out drinking, guess who's going with him.  Or if your customer has come into town, guess who gets to take them out for dinner and drinks until THEY decide it's time to go home. With all of this, it's easy to see why the excitement level for a 90 minute English lesson might be a little low!

*O-toshiyori (Elderly)
                                             Oh no, a fuzzy picture!  My lovely "Sunflowers"

      Many classes at ECS are for groups of elderly people that want to study together.  Even my current company, Solina, has many elderly students, though now I usually teach them in private, one-on-one lessons.  At ECS, the classes were often of two types.  The first was those people who wanted to keep themselves busy and their brains working even though they had retired.  Their classmates were often friends, or would soon become friends, and they might make a day of their lessons, going out to lunch or coffee after English was over and chatting together.   Often these lessons were enjoyable for me, as the students were very relaxed.  More than trying to learn the language for communication purposes, they were looking for a good time, were quick to laugh and friendly.  Rarely they had anything in particular they wanted to practice, and were happy to leave every detail of the class up to the teacher.  Sadly, this was not always the case, and one class in particular stands out in my mind as a group of grumpy students who were quick to point out my faults and unwilling to accept a lesson that was different from their previous teacher.  The class was named "Dream" but in reality, they were my nightmare!
      The other type of elderly classes I have taught were for those people who were planning on spending their retirement traveling to many countries (or the same country multiple times) and wanted to be able to communicate during their travels.  Unlike the previous class type, the students are there to actually learn English, but still these classes were very often equally enjoyable.  My students could talk indefinitely about places they had visited and trips that they wanted to take.  Often they would come to class with specific questions, or conversations they wanted to practice, and would often return from their travels with pictures (and if I was very lucky, little local snacks they had picked up along the way).

*Hoikuen/ Yochien (Nursery/ Kindergarten)
                                             Graduation day at a kindergarten in Onomichi

      By far, my all time favorite lessons were when I was sent out to visit different kindergartens or nursery schools.  These were the lessons that I could really let loose.  The kids like to dance and sing and be silly, and they think their teachers (especially teachers who only come once a week, like us English teachers) are the coolest things ever.  It really helps boost moral when the moment you walk in the door the kids are jumping around cheering "Eigo no Sensei!  Eigo no Sensei!"  (English teacher!!!)  Good for the self esteem.  I got a chance to visit several different pre-schools for these lessons, and I always looked forward to going.  Usually the students normal teacher would stay in the classroom with us in case of trouble.  Some teachers would join the lesson with their students, and others would take a little break while I over.  The most important thing I learned from these lessons was TPR, or Total Physical Response.  It's a technique that encourages students to physically use their bodies to remember the lesson rather than just memorizing words.  For example, in teaching colors, practice the words a few times, and then have them race around the classroom looking for things of the color you call out.

*Bukatsu (English club)
      Very rarely I was asked to go to a school (most often a trade school or a high school) and teach their English club.  I didn't have to go often, but the schools I went to didn't really have much interest in English.  Sadly, most of the students wanted to join tea ceremony, dance, or calligraphy clubs, but all the spaces were full, and the only club with space left was... English.  So they would come to club, sit in the back, and chit chat with their friends, do their homework, or just put their heads down and sleep.  I was a bit surprised by this reaction, but my company had prepared me a little.  "It's just a club," they had said.  "There arn't any tests, or grades, or anything else, so if they don't want to pay attention, don't worry about them.  Just teach the students who are interested."  Well, I didn't think that was a good idea, but who was I to say so?  So, half of my club would check out for the 90 minutes, and the other half would have a good time.

Currently I'm again teaching at an Eikaiwa, but it's a little different than ECS.  My main focus now is Elementary and Jr. High School kids.  I have a small classroom, and the kids come to see me after their normal schools are over.  Every day has a few small classes of pre-schoolers and a private adult or two, but the main focus is first to ninth graders.  While it's nice to have my own classroom, and a little more control over what I want to do in my lessons, I do sometimes miss going out to other kindergartens.  I will always have good memories from my very favorite kindergarten of all time.  
                                           The highlight of my week.  I adored these little guys!

Good students and good teachers.  I often wish I could have become the English teacher for them, but they didn't have enough classes to keep a full time English teacher.  Alas!

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Tanabata (Star Festival)

What do you see when you look at the night sky?  There are as many answers to this question as there are cultures around the world. The moon alone holds a variety of images depending on who you ask.  In America, we see the face of an old man looking down on the earth, while in India they see the hands of a goddess.  And here in Japan, a rabbit pounds rice cakes with a mortar and pestle.  Add that to the multitude of constellations, astrological phenomenon, and human creativity, and the night sky becomes a tapestry of imagination.

But look up into the Japanese sky tonight, the seventh of July, and stargazers are captivated by Amanogawa- the River of Heaven- known in English as the Milky Way, and the stars Vega and Altair.  This is the night of Tanabata, the star festival, an ancient Chinese story of two lovers (our two stars) named Orihime and Hikoboshi.  Star-crossed lovers, indeed!
                                                                       Tanabata festival decorations in Fukuyama
Gather round, all, for story time!

Mukashi, mukashi ... (Long ago and far away...)

The princess of the heavens, Orihime, was the daughter of Tentei, King of Heaven.  She would go every day to the Amanogawa to do her weaving, which was of the highest quality.  It always pleased her father to see how seriously she took her responsibilities.  But one day, while she was weaving on the banks of the river, there appeared Hikoboshi, the heavenly cowherd, bringing his cows to the river to drink.  They gazed at each other across the river, and instantly they fell in love.  At first, King Tentei was overjoyed that his daughter had found her true love, and blessed their match with all his heart.  The two were quickly married, and lived together happily, their love growing every day.  However, as their love grew, they began to neglect their duties.  Orihime stopped weaving in order to spend more time with her husband, and Hikoboshi did not attend to his cows, allowing them to freely roam across the heavens.

At first, Tentei didn't mind, thinking that the two lovers would return to their work once they had had a chance to settle into their marriage, but as time went on and the two showed no signs of returning to their duties, he became angry.  In a rage, he seperated the two lovers with the Amanogawa, and vowed that they would never again meet as punishment for their irresponsible behavior.  Cry as she might, Orihime could not sway her fathers decision, and the two remained seperated.  As the years passed, Orihime became more and more despondent, until she no longer smiled, or laughed, or sang, but pined for her absent husband.  Finally, her sorrow reached her father, and he agreed that one night a year, the two lovers could be reunited, as long as they completed their work to his satisfaction before the night of the meeting. Gratefully, Orihime and Hikoboshi agreed to the terms, and spend the year diligently attending to their tasks.  On the night of July 7th, if the sky is clear, then Tentei bridges the Amanogawa, and the two lovers are united until sunrise.

Medetashi, medetashi! (And they all lived happily ever after.)

So the story goes.  Of course, there is the small matter of what happens when it rains on the night of the lovers meeting.  Sadly, the two remain separated, as the river cannot be bridged in the rain.  And July 7th lies smack in the middle of rainy season here in Japan.  In the seven summers I've spent here, it has failed to rain only three times I believe, leaving our two little stars only meeting about half as often as we hope they could.

                                                                                                Little Huka enjoying the Fukuyama Tanabata Festival
As with all festivals, the story is only half of the fun.  Tanabata Festival has a series of traditions that make for a fun evening, even if the rains.  The main event is the decoration of bamboo branches with foil shapes, paper chains, and tanzaku, which are colorful strips of paper on which people write wishes.  Usually done by children, tanzaku were originally for wishes like, "I want to be better at handwriting" or "I want to become a great seamstress," (following the tradition of Hikoboshi and Orihime vowing to be diligent about their work.)  These days, however, those kinds of wishes are rarely seen.  Much more common now are wishes like "I want to get more Pokemon cards" or "I want to become a hip-hop dancer."

Every year for Tanabata, I have my students write tanzaku in English.  The kids seem to really enjoy the exercise, and I try to encourage them to think of wishes beyond their current English ability.  Nothing helps you remember a foreign language better than using it to express something that is really meaningful to you.  So far, my favorite has been, "I want to be a super hero," from a 10 year old girl, complete with drawing of her standing on top of the planet in a cape. 

In the days, weeks, and sometimes even a month leading up to Tanabata, most cities offer a night festival, where kids and their parents can write out tanzaku and hang them on waiting bamboo branches, buy festival food (always a favorite) such as snow cones, fried noodles, or takoyaki, play games like goldfish scooping, shooting games, and lottery chance games, and so on in the evening.  Usually these mini festivals are Saturday and Sunday evenings only, though it depends on the city.  Kids usually dress up in traditional clothing, either a yukata which is a colorful cotton kimono especially for the summer, or a jinbei, an outfit with shorts and a wrap around shirt.  My first year in Japan, I really enjoyed visiting the Fukuyama Tanabata festival, where a kindergarten I taught at (contracted through ECS) had put up their own decorations, and I ran into many of my little students having a great time with their families.  

Sadly, this year my son is too young to enjoy the Tanabata festival.  Alas, for the sky is clear today, and it's very likely that Orihime and Hikoboshi will cross the Amanogawa.  I haven't had the chance to go to the night festivals in several years now, though I think that I should every year.  I'm really looking forward to going in a few years, and for the first time, I'll go not alone, but as a family.  

                                              Two of my students, the girl in a kimono and the boy in jinbei at the Fukuyama Tanabata Festival