Recent Teaching Experiments


There are many reasons why I enjoy working at the three high schools I’ve been assigned to but my favorite perk is the freedom my teachers grant me to create and implement lessons.

Generally my lesson plan is based on whatever the students happen to be studying in their textbooks at the time.  In the past week this meant that I needed to sneak English activities into lessons on such topics as Rosa Parks, superstitions of Western culture, and the humanism of Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa.

Of those three, the Kurosawa lesson was far and away my favorite.  In fact it was my best lesson since the “Good Day Sunshine” activity I did a few months back.

The students’ textbook focuses on the story of Ikiru, a movie Kurosawa released in 1952.  It is considered by many to be a cinematic masterpiece due to its timeless message, rich character development, and beautiful cinematography that continues to hold up fifty-seven years after its original release.

The movie takes place in what was then modern day Japan and centers on an old man diagnosed with stomach cancer.  He is given six months to live.  As the man reflects over the course of his life he begins to notice all his missed opportunities.  He decides to live his life for the first time, but he needs help.

Eventually he befriends a young, happy, energetic woman.  Desperate for answers and purpose he begs her to tell him the secret to her happiness over dinner at a restaurant.  She basically says, “I make toys,” and shows him one of the rabbits she makes on the assembly line at a nearby factory.  The man is at first crushed by the simple answer but then realizes that he can make something too.  He storms out of the restaurant, determined to build a public park he had previously assisted in rejecting earlier in the film.

The park is eventually built and towards the end we learn that the man died happily there upon its completion.  In perhaps the movie’s most famous scene, the old man is seen alone in the park on a swing.  It’s snowing and he’s singing “Gondola no Uta,” an old, sad song with a subtle smile on his face:

“…life is brief
fall in love, maidens
before the raven tresses begin to fade
before the flame in your hearts
flicker and die
for those to whom today
will never return…”

Anyway, it’s one of my favorite movies and this boring little synopsis doesn’t due it justice.

Getting back to the lesson plan, I decided to show them key scenes of the movie and have a class discussion about how we can describe them in English.  Thanks to the textbook they were already familiar with the scenes so although it was a challenge, they were able to do it.

It took us about half the class to get through the small, digestible chunks of video I selected.  After that I had them create a four panel comic book (manga) about one of the key scenes from the movie.  Their comics were absolutely fantastic.  Many groups decided to pick cartoon characters to depict the old man including Doraemon, Anpanman, Elmo, Pikachu (but with a mustache), and Spongebob Squarepants.  They somehow managed to capture the essence of a serious movie that asks us to confront our mortality and made it cute.  And the students exceeded my expectations with some remarkable English dialogue.  The experiment was a success.

Note:  I wish I could post pictures of the comics, but I don’t think my students would appreciate it.


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