Archive for the ‘Education’ Category


November 1, 2009


On Friday I went to school dressed as Abraham Lincoln and gave away pennies and candy to teachers and students in my free time.  Students would come up to me as I roamed the halls and ask me, “Trick or treat?”  After I ran out of pennies I searched my pockets to see if I had anything else to give.  I found a plastic baggy with tiny pieces of paper containing random English words.  It was from a lesson we did a while back on parts of the body.  For the rest of the afternoon, whenever a student would ask me for Halloween candy, I would give them a piece of paper that said “face” or “knee” or “ankle.”  Their response?  More often than not:  No thank you.

I got a rock…



October 30, 2009


This week I wanted to incorporate some sort of Halloween theme into my lessons without going over the top. I asked Julie for some advice and she came up with a great idea: Describe a monster to your students (It has one big eye, a triangle head, snakes for hair, and three arms, etc) and have them draw it on a piece of paper. It was a perfect warm-up before diving into some more conversational English.

However, one of the classes where I conducted the activity was a little restless. They’re the kind of class that quiets down when you tell them to and then thirty seconds later start back up again. They’re good kids, they’re not trying to be mean to me and the other teacher, they just can’t help themselves.

Anyway, during the warm-up I told them to be quiet a few times and decided to change it up a little. In a quiet, almost whispering voice I told them that we needed to be quiet because we didn’t want to wake up the monster. The room went completely silent and I had their full attention. It was great, but the weird thing was that they had no idea what I just said. I’m pretty sure I could have said anything (for example, “Yesterday I watched the trailer for “Tron 2″ and was disappointed because it looks like they’re trying too hard.”) and the students would have reacted the same way.

The teacher I was working with was equally surprised and when I looked at her she was trying very hard not to laugh, which made me laugh, which made the students laugh, and thirty seconds later they resumed their good-natured but disruptive small talk.

Mt. Eboshi 2009

October 13, 2009


My entire school climbed a nearby mountain a few weeks ago.  We did this last year too but this time I was able to climb with the students up to the top and back down again.  The hike, to and from the school, was 24 km.

Mt. Eboshi in the distance

At the summit. Mutsu Bay, Noheji Town, and Yokohama Town in the background.

More Mutsu Bay, Hiranai Town, and Natsudomari Peninsula

Most of Aomori Prefecture looks like this. When the lighting is just right, you can see why they call it the "blue forest."

Awkwardly smiling in the wind.

As you can see, at the summit we were treated to a glorious view of Noheji Town, Mutstu Bay, Shimokita Peninsula, Natsudomari Peninsula, and our neighboring towns of Hiranai, Shichinohe, and Yokohama.  To see all the places where we spend the vast majority of our time all at once was breathtaking to say the least and made each kilometer on the hike worth it.

As for wildlife, no frogs this year.  However I did get a few photos of some large grazing mammals.

Where have we been?

August 10, 2009


We haven’t posted in a while and with good reason.  Two weekends ago we were busy planning for an English barbecue at our apartment.  Our friend in town who teaches English privately to elementary and junior high school students invited approximately fifty people over for hamburgers, hot dogs, chips, and soda.  Yes, that’s right, we celebrated the 4th of July…in August.

A few days before the big barbecue, our friend Britni arrived from the States.  As you can imagine, we’ve spent a lot of our free time showing her all the good things Aomori has to offer.  Since it’s August, this included participating in the famous Aomori Nebuta festival, watching the brilliant Tachinebuta festival in Goshogawara, attending a tea ceremony, exploring Hirosaki Castle, meeting Julie’s coworkers, meeting our ALT friends, watching wacky television shows, and of course, eating delicious seafood and ramen.

On top of all that, I helped out at an English camp for junior high and high school students in Aomori City over the weekend.  When I wasn’t running English activities I was running around in the gym playing basketball, American football, and wall ball (a game I taught them how to play).  It was exhausting, but a ton of fun.

Highlights of English Camp

Eight other ALTs attended English Camp this summer.  In addition to running activities, we were each put in charge of a group of ten students who competed against other teams in various English activities.  This included writing and performing a skit with props.  My team, team Ultraman, had to write a play incorporating the phrase “Does he have influenza?”  In the skit, Winnie the Pooh invites his friends over for a Halloween party where they decide they should go skiing later.  Two months later, they go skiing, Pooh gets lost, rescued, and it is feared he has influenza.

The main activities I was in charge of included an English logic puzzle and a shopping simulation.  Of the two, the shopping simulation was my favorite.  A Japanese teacher and I sold Alaskan products to students including totem poles (badminton poles) and bear meat (sold by the kilogram).  Towards the end of the simulation, my coworker would steal an item.  I’d wait for my students to yell “Help!  Help me!” and then I’d chase after the teacher and arrest him with some toy handcuffs.

But my favorite part of the weekend was just hanging out and talking with students.  As far as camp counseling goes, I’m not the kind that exudes enthusiasm and effervesces Fun! and Excitement! everywhere I go.  I take a much quieter approach and try to get to know the students.  It’s a balance.  Those rowdy leaders are certainly necessary for a successful camp but I think having a few people take a more subdued approach helps make it more inclusive.

Look for more updates on the blog soon.  I’ll be typing up posts for Nebuta festivals in Aomori and Goshogawara soon.  Tomorrow I’m attending a Go tournament for the teachers of Aomori Prefecture so I’ll be sure to post a few pictures and comments on that as well.

As I alluded earlier, Julie will be sightseeing with Britni in Kyoto and Tokyo this week.  When she gets back, I reckon we’ll have even more blog entries for you to read.

Culture Festival

July 27, 2009


This weekend my school held their annual culture festival all day on Saturday and Sunday.  Ordinarily I might complain about working on the weekend, but when your only major responsibilities include judging a karaoke contest and talking with students and teachers in the hallway, I’d say it hardly qualifies at work.

In fact, we had a blast.  The past few days have been packed with karaoke, fried food, jaw-dropping dance routines, weird skits, garage bands, fashion shows, club displays, drama club performances, funny speeches, and even a haunted classroom.

I wish I could post pictures and videos of the events, but out of respect for the privacy of my students I can’t.  Intead, here are some photos that are in no way reflective of the culture festival, but I hope you find them interesting nevertheless.

My new favorite pencil. I used this for karaoke judging.

Flowers on the walk to and from work.

Our students are now on summer vacation but we have to continue going to the office for work days along with the rest of the teachers we work with.  It’s ok though.  We have more than enough to keep ourselves busy.  For instance I’ll be running a few activities at a summer English camp in a couple of weeks.  Julie and I also have listening tests to write, lesson plans to create, and a friend from the States will be visiting us at the end of this week.  We’re also hoping that we’ll find more time at work to study Japanese and converse with our coworkers who will be slightly less busy than usual.

Looking Ahead

March 27, 2009


Yesterday marked the official end to the 2008-2009 school year.  I attended a farewell party after school where all the staff said goodbye to the ten employees transferring to other locations around the prefecture.  It was a fun evening but I’m sad to see them go.  I was particularly close to a few of the teachers leaving this week.  It looks like we’ll be able to keep in touch though and for that I am very thankful.

Also, Julie and I will be leaving for a week long vacation to South Korea on Sunday with three of our friends.  We’ll try and give a few updates on here while we’re there and then make larger, more informative posts with pictures once we return (just like we did before).

Have a great weekend.

Solicitors Welcome

March 24, 2009


People solicit our office at school for business on a daily basis.  In a culture where teachers are sometimes expected to put in eleven hour shifts and commute an hour each way to work, these solicitors aren’t an annoyance, they’re a convenience.

Every Monday and Friday a woman comes to sell healthy drinks to the staff.  Most customers select a yogurt-like beverage that helps calm the stomach and aid digestion.  I pass on these days to save money for Thursdays — when a representative from a local bakery comes to peddle Japanese pastries.  I refer to this day as pan no hi (day of bread) with my colleagues.

Other solicitors come more sporadically.  They include people who sell textbooks, novels, travel deals (mostly for student field trips), bank deals, and even a few people who let us know what we can expect to see on television this month.  One day in the winter a man came by to sell ties.  When I first saw the ties I wasn’t very interested but after some persuasion from my vice-principal and noticing they were dirt cheap, I bought one with pink ducks.

Walking Through Culture Shock

March 18, 2009


I recently submitted an essay for a contest sponsored by the JET Programme.  It was a good excuse to write something longer than a typical blog post entry that was reflective on our overall experience in Japan.  Anyway, if you’d like to read it, please click on the link below.



March 18, 2009


Last week I walked to school in tennis shoes for the first time since early December on account of warming temperatures.  The next day we woke up to nearly half a foot of snow on the ground.  The snow melted away quickly the next day and then over the weekend we experienced a cold blast of wind mixed with a little more snow.  Now it’s warm again.  In fact, on her way to work this morning, Julie saw between thirty to forty swans flying Northwest and most likely beginning their seasonal migration back to Siberia.

All of that fluctuation may sound strange, but it’s actually normal weather for Aomori during the month of March.  In fact there’s an expression that describes this seasonal phenomenon:  sankan-shion.  When translated literally, the expression means “three days of warmth, four days of cold.”  This particular interpretation comes from China and is used to describe that country’s own peculiar weather patterns in between the seasons of winter and spring.

According to my coworkers, at some point Japan borrowed the expression but changed the interpretation to “one day of cold followed by one day of warmth, repeated three times, and on the fourth day it will stay warm.”  From what I’ve seen and heard, the expression seems to be more or less accurate (not the specific number of days, just the oscillation within a short stretch of time).

Japan’s weather is very predictable.  When we asked a coworker about when we should have snow tires put onto our car in late October the response was, “Well, it will snow for the first time sometime between November 22nd and 24th so maybe the week before that.”  Sure enough, we saw snow for the first time within the specified time frame.  Also, as we’ve probably mentioned before, the seasons here are very distinct.  Summer, even up here in Aomori, is hot and humid.  So hot, in fact, that people often go swimming in the ocean at a beach on the Northern edge of town.  Then, practically overnight, the temperature drops and the leaves of deciduous trees explode in color.  Of course our experiences working and relaxing in winter have been well documented.  This year we received well over a meter of snow which was actually less than the average annual amount.

I’m a firm believer that landscape influences more than individual emotions; over time it effects how we think and process information.  Although it’s certainly not the sole reason, I believe Japan’s admiration for formality and predictability is linked to the predictable weather patterns and dramatic changes in season.

Take, for instance, the month of March.  We’ve already established that March is a transitional month between winter and spring.  However it’s transitional for teachers and students as well.  High school, junior high, and elementary school graduations all take place in March.  At the end of the month schools across the country will conduct their end of the year ceremonies.  Students will be given a brief holiday and return to school in spring, a seasonal of growth and renewal.

March is a time of saying “hello” and “good bye.”  For the students it’s not uncommon to have to say “good bye” to old friends who won’t be attending the same high school or university.  However, teachers have to say “good bye” to each other, too.  In Japan teachers teach at the same school between three to five years before being transferred to a new location.  It’s their way of preventing complacency and corruption in the work place.  At the end of the month I will probably have to bid farewell to three to five of my colleagues and of course welcome three to five new ones who will take their places in April.

Soon after, the cherry blossoms will finally bloom.  We’ll celebrate briefly and then it’s back to work.

High School Graduation

March 2, 2009


Yesterday the san-nensei (3rd year) students at my main high school graduated.  In the United States, or at least in my graduation experience, attending the graduation ceremony was optional if you were an underclassmen.  The ceremony was also optional for some teachers at the high school where I worked in Oregon for the past two years.

At my high school in Japan, attending Sunday afternoon’s graduation ceremony was mandatory for every staff member and student.  It was such a big deal that every teacher had to put in a full office day on Saturday so that every detail could be planned to perfection.  Although graduation did not begin until two o-clock, we also had to arrive to work by 8:00 am on Sunday morning for similar reasons. To compensate, all staff and students were given two days off on Monday and Tuesday.

In Japan it is very traditional for male teachers to wear a white shirt and a white tie on graduation. Female teachers dress formally and are encouraged to incorporate the color white somewhere in the outfit.

The centerpiece of the formal and traditional graduation ceremony was the singing of the school song.  Students had been preparing this since at least August, when they came back from their summer vacation.  It was not just a matter of learning the words and singing in unison — our choir director did a fantastic job of actually teaching them how to sing including when to sing louder and quieter as well as how long they should sustain notes.  Reading that last sentence again, that may not sound too impressive but it is if you consider that I’m referring to one person trying to teach 421 teenagers how to sing at the same time.  They nailed it.

I absolutely love our school song.  It’s beautiful, both in terms of melody and lyrics.  The words offer poetic reflections on Noheji’s beautiful natural surroundings before addressing some of the more harsh aspects of nature that can make life difficult in Aomori, especially during the winter months.  This nicely sets up the third and fourth verses that discuss unity among peers, a reverence for tradition and those who have come before us, and respect for cultures outside of Japan that can also help students grow in their understanding of the world.  All the while there is a fantastic melody with a hint of sadness just below the surface.  For all these reasons, it is a perfect graduation song and it often pops into my head when I think of people persevering through difficult circumstances.

Getting back to the ceremony, the students were also required to sit silent and motionless, rise in unison, bow in unison, and stand and sit as quickly and quietly as possible.  This too took practice, and again, they did an excellent job.

There were plenty of tears as well.  Perhaps the most moving part of the program was a speech delivered by the leader of the graduating class.  About halfway through he began fighting back tears and tried his best to continue.  Finally he couldn’t fight them back any more and just let it out.  He had to adlib the rest of the speech before returning to his seat.  For the rest of the program you could hear sniffles coming from every corner of the room in between speeches and songs.

Afterwards the students tracked down their favorite teachers for one last chat and photograph together.  During the evening the teachers went out to dinner with the parents of the graduating students.  Julie and I were both in attendance for the festivities.  It was wonderful to hang out with my colleagues in a more relaxed setting and get to know some of the parents.

Fine dining and relaxed conversation at Makado Hotel.