Archive for the ‘Elementary Schools’ Category


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.


Halloween Lesson

November 12, 2008


During the last couple weeks of October and even into November, I had the privilege of teaching a Halloween lesson to many different classes of elementary school students.  Even though Halloween is a Western holiday, it has become very popular among the youth of Japan.   This is exaggerated in the area where I am teaching because of the influence of the nearby U.S. Air Base on the merchandise sold at local stores.   The nearby mall in Shimoda caters to its Western shoppers with an abundance of Halloween costumes and treats, which started taking over the shelves in mid-September.

The vocabulary list for the lesson included: Happy Halloween, Trick or Treat, candy, ghost, witch, monster, bat, black cat, spider, and jack o’ lantern.

The older students learned about All Saints Day and the harvest. I was able to prompt them to come up with Halloween costume ideas, saying:

“Some costumes are scary.” (Besides the vocabulary words, they came up with Dracula and Frankenstein)

“Some costumes are beautiful.” (kimono, princess)

“Some costumes are movie characters.” (Doraemon, about 15 anime characters that I didn’t recognize, Batman, Spiderman, Superman, and The Little Mermaid)

“Some costumes are famous people.” (Michael Jackson, “Obama,” one sixth grader stated and then continued, “Yes we can!,” Beyonce)

A couple of times I was able to bring costume material for the little kids to use. I brought toilet paper and black and white trash bags. They had a blast!

Be afraid, be very afraid!

Flute music for my students

November 12, 2008


During my introduction lesson, which I give during my first time to a new class, I mention that I like to play the flute.  One teacher asked me to play for her students the next time I came.  She requested that I play some Christmas songs.  I incorporated this November Christmas Special in a lesson with the target phrases “Yes, I can,” and “No, I can’t.”  For the first part of the lesson, my flute was hidden away from the 6 and 7 year-olds and a box full of maracas, tambourines, castanets, jingle bells, and a harmonica were up front.  I would ask a student, “Can you play the tambourine?”  If they responded, “Yes, I can,” they were then able to demonstrate for the class.  As you might imagine, the other target sentence, “No I can’t,” was neglected.

At the end of the lesson, their homeroom teacher asked me, “Can you play the flute?”

After “Jingle Bells,” “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” a classical Japanese New Year’s song, and “Hedwig’s Theme” from Harry Potter, I played what turned out to be their favorite: the Doraemon theme song.  Everyone, including the teacher, enthusiastically sang along.

I’m pretty sure that someone at every school that I’ve visited (8 in all) has asked me if I like Doraemon.  This television series, starring a time traveling cat robot, is something that I have yet to see other than on YouTube or in various plush forms, often adorning dashboards and phone charms.  I get the impression that his popularity in Japan can be comparable with Sesame Street in America.  The two actually debuted one month apart from each other in the winter of 1969.  At that time, Doraemon was a popular manga (Japanese comic) and was later turned into a TV series which still runs today.  The popularity of Doraemon is widespread.

Everyone sing along!  Pay attention to the tricky flute introduction.  Yikes!  I played up until Doraemon and the boy are flying over the clouds into the sunrise. Watch the whole episode if you like; I found one that provides English subtitles.

Wakaba Elementary School Festival

September 29, 2008


This past weekend one of my elementary schools in Noheji had a school festival.  Taylor and I were invited to attend.  The teachers and students were particularly interested in having us participate in the “English Games” portion of the festival.

Before I talk about the games let me set the scene.  Usually when I visit a school, the appearance of the outside of the building makes it look like the inside could be vacant.  There are only a handful of cars parked outside and the only sign of activity is revealed at the moment when the students inside realize I am right outside their window and venture out of their seat to shout, “Hello!” On the festival day, however, cars lined the streets surrounding the entrance to the school.  There were pop-tents set up outside and colorful banners hung on the side of the building.  The windows were filled with colorful paper decorations, and many people were milling around outside.

We entered the school to find the hallways packed with children and their parents, and sometimes grandparents, waiting to participate in the game stations set up in the classrooms.  The hallways and classrooms were covered wall to wall with student art.  I was particularly impressed with one fifth grade class’s art project.

One example

One example

As with all of my school visits, we were first ushered in to wait for a formal greeting, and in this case, from the principal in his office.  We immediately found ourselves with cups of delicious, hot green tea in front of us to enjoy while we waited.

After the greeting and introducing Taylor, we proceeded to the “English Games.”

The first game was “Magnet Fishing.”  I was greeted at each classroom and hallway corner with a chorus of young voices declaring, “Ju-ri sensei! Ju-ri sensei!”  I can’t deny that I enjoy that greeting, each time.  The students in the magnet fishing game incorporated English into the game by telling us the name of the fruit, vegetable, sea creature, or color that we lure into a catch.  I caught asparagus and grapefruit.  Taylor caught a tuna.



After that game, we went to “Ball Toss,” where the student congratulate the participant when they toss a ball and make it into a compartment by saying, “Great! Nice ball,” in unison.  My horrible aiming disability was highlighted in this activity.  My shooting average was a healthy .333 from the field.

Next we went to “Bowling.”  The pins consisted of large, plastic bottles with laminated artwork taped to the front.

Our last event was “Pin the Parts on the Face.”  I must confess that this title came out of a conversation that I had with a translator and a teacher.  It went something like this:

Translator: What do you call the game, in English, where a person is blindfolded and they must put a mouth on a face?

Me: Oh… um… the name of the game?

T: Yes, when there is a face with no mouth, and the person has to… put… (motions a person feeling around in front of them, holding a mouth).  What do you call this game in English?

Me: Hmmm… I think traditionally, we call it “Pin the Tail on the Donkey” because there would usually be a donkey, and you have the tail.  So, I guess there isn’t one, specific name for that game.  It depends on the picture.

T: So… Pen? Pen the tail?

Me: Oh sorry, Pin.  Pin.  Like a needle, but no hole (motions the loop on the end of a needle).  Pin (motions pinning).

T: Pin! Oh, okay! (Translates in Japanese to the teacher working with us.)

Me: So, I guess we would say, “Pin the Mouth on the Man,” or, “Pin the Nose on the Lady.”

T: Oh, but we have many face parts.

Me: Okay, so, how about… “Pin the Parts on the Face”?

This became the official English name of the game, printed on the festival schedule and on a poster outside the classroom where the event took place.

Taylor's face

Taylor's face

After a delicious lunch of curry rice at the school, we made one last circuit through the hallways, returning “hello’s” at every corner, and headed home.

Students at lunch

Students at lunch

Want to see more pictures including our first ever video on Flickr?  Click here.

Small Miracle

September 19, 2008


Last Thursday I visited a first grade class and a fourth grade class at an elementary school in Noheji.  In the first grade class, I tried out a technique to quiet down the students during a lesson.  It’s called “Quiet Coyote.”  The basic idea is to hold up your hand in the shape of an animal’s mouth (like what your hand looks like inside a sock puppet) and then hold up your pointer and pinky fingers.  This is a quiet coyote.  The point is that its mouth is closed and its ears are open.  When you don’t speak the same language as your students, it really helps to use picture to explain these kinds of things.  Here’s what I came up with:

I couldn`t resist having them demonstrate what they thought the crossed out coyote sounded like.

I couldn`t resist having them demonstrate what they thought the crossed out coyote sounded like.

The teacher of the fourth grade class was amazing!  He had each student pick a nickname and use it to introduce themselves to me.  This is how it went:

Hello, Julie!

My name is [normal Japanese name].

Call me [love, soy sauce, anime-superhero`s name, taiga (tiger), etc.].

Nice to meet you!

Each student then recieved a handshake and a sticker.  The small miracle happened during this part of my day.  The teacher had warned me before class that one girl would not participate because she is too shy.  She did not even try to introduce herself when they were practicing the day before.  He said she never speaks English in front of other people.  However, when it came to her turn in line, she piped up and said the whole thing.  The teacher was so impressed and kept saying, “It’s never happened before, it’s never happened before!”

You never know what you can do when you have a few stickers for motivation.

After class I stayed to eat lunch with the fourth graders.  The elementary students eat lunch in their homeroom classes at their desks.  It was during this time that I got a chance to ask some of the girls who had drawn the beautiful welcome sign for me on the chalkboard.

The very energetic, middle-aged man-teacher drew this for me.

The very energetic, middle-aged man-teacher drew this for me.

Julie’s turn

September 4, 2008

Hello everyone! Julie here.

Sorry I’ve been so blog-shy for the past month. I’d like to break that trend starting…


My Job

While here in Japan, I’ll be working at the Kamikita Education Office, based in Shichinohe, a small community near the center of Kamikita County.  This office has a first and second floor.  The people working on the first floor are educational professionals and past teachers who help students (and their parents) plan their educational path.  The second floor workers are past teachers, principals, and financial experts who counsel and mentor the teachers in the area and also manage finances.  I work with the group of people upstairs.

My office

My office

My desk

My desk

“But I thought you worked in a school?”

Although my employer is the Kamikita office, the biggest part of my job is to visit the junior highs and elementary schools in two communities in Kamikita County.  I will be teaching in three elementary schools and one junior high in Noheji, and four elementary schools and one junior high in Yokohama, a small coastal town about 45 minutes from Noheji.  I am only at the office on the days that I do not have a school visit.

While at the office I have plenty of time to plan out my school lessons, work on side projects from teachers in Kamikita, practice Japanese with my coworkers, and catch up on all of my internet needs (except for Facebook because my work computer blocks it).

Everyone in the office has been really friendly and curious towards me. They like to practice their English with me (which is much better than my Japanese) and often have little tidbits for me related to teaching or to living in Japan in general.

For example:

“Japanese students arevery shy. It will be difficult for you.”

“The students only see igloos and the white bear when they think of Alaska.  Show them what you see when you think of Alaska.”

“You’d better prepare your own chopsticks.”

“Drive slowly; it is better.”

School Visits Thus Far

I’m nearing the end of my first week of visiting schools.  I’ll be averaging four school visits per week. So far this week I’ve visited a junior high on two separate days, an elementary school the next day, and then tomorrow I’ll visit a different elementary school.  It’s nice to get a taste of the pace I’ll have to keep for the next three months or so.  My schedule slows down a bit starting in January.

Taylor gave you a good description of the lesson format that I tried out on my first class.  I was with a group of energetic first year students at a junior high in the area. The night before I had been really stressed out thinking that the students would be intimidating and that my whole lesson might not go as planned.  Although I did have to alter the lesson as I went along, I no longer have any fear of smart mouthed kids who try to foil my lesson.

I have two main reasons for this:

  1. They speak Japanese 95% of the time, so I can’t tell if they are trying to coax me into furthering their disruption.  I just act like they are going right along with the lesson, and we all keep moving right along.
  2. They are little children.  They aren’t that scary.

The elementary school students have a really hard time controlling their curiosity when I visit. I have found that the younger students are very curious about me and are not embarrassed to try out their English, but they don’t have very much vocabulary to work with.  What happens in this situation is one of two things: 1. They start blurting out question after question in Japanese or 2. They say all of the English phrases they can think of, even if it doesn’t quite fit in with the conversation.

My favorite out-of-place comment came from a 4th grader.  While passing him in the hallway, our conversation went something like this:

He shouts to me, “Hello! How are you? I am fine. Thank you!”

I was on my way to another class, so I said while walking quickly, “Oh good! I am fine, too. See you!”

He was not happy that the conversation was ending so quickly and so responded heartily, “I love you!”

A quick, “Thank you!” was all I could think of to say.

The older students know their numbers, their colors, and other basic adjectives, but they are much more shy and do not seem to care very much about learning English. It’s been a bit of a challenge. If the student can figure out an interesting topic to bring up using the basic English that they know, they will get into the lesson.

This happened during one of my introduction lessons. I talk about my favorite animal, which of course is a whale, and the students all think it’s weird and interesting that I worked as a guide on a whale watching cruise. About 10 minutes after I finished my talk with this one particular class, we were in the middle of a lesson about colors. The students were asked to name things that are a certain color.

“Green, green, what is green?”

The students respond, with a lack of passion: “Grass. Tree. Leaf. Wasabi. Cucumber.”

Then, one student, catches my eye and says loudly, “Green Peace! Green Peace! Green Peace!”

Yep, he got a sticker for that one.

Fire Drill

I was able to observe a fire drill at the elementary school that I visited earlier this week.  The drill involved a “Safety Place” flag that was my duty to hold, smoke machines, and a large canvas chute that allowed two teachers and three students to safely make it out a third story window to the ground.  The end of the chute was thrown out of the window and anchored to the ground about 25 feet away from the building.  It was steep! Five people safely made it down while the whole school watched standing in rows outside.

I wish I had a picture.

Everyone in Japan carries a small hand towel on their person at all times.  This is used for drying hands, as most public restrooms to not provide towels.  The students all held their hand towels over their faces as they made their way outside.

Toyota Starlet

It takes about 40 minutes to drive from our town, Noheji, to Shichinohe.  I’ve had to ride the bus to the office everyday, which means getting up very early in order to catch the bus at 6:48 a.m.  Yuck.

The bus stop near my office

The bus stop near my office

Riding home from work
Riding home from work

That will end today, though.  This morning I met with a car dealer who is handling the exchange of a 1995 Toyota Starlet from a past ALT in the area to me.  Starting at 4:00 p.m. today, I will be able to legally drive in Japan.

Introduction Lesson

September 1, 2008

Julie and I have both completed our introduction lessons.  Our teachers gave us 50 minutes to tell a classroom of forty students about our country, state, hometown, family, interests, and hobbies.  How did we do it?

Following the advice of a former ALT at an orientation meeting in Portland, we decided to make cards that look like this:

My cards do not look as nice as Julie's...

My cards do not look as nice as Julie's

As you can see, one side of the card contains a number while the other contains a question.  We each made about 12 cards and distributed them at random to our students.  Rather than just talk for fifty minutes, we called on students to read their question to us.  After we would answer the question, often using photo pages created before we left the U.S., we would ask the same question to the student sitting next to the student who had the card.  Afterwards we would walk up to each student, shake their hands, congratulate them for their bravery and pronunciation, and inform them how nice it was to meet them.

We each had two to three cards that allowed the students to ask any question.

Julie's "wild" card.

Julie's "wild" card.

The cards allowed the following to take place:

  1. Instead of one person talking about themselves for fifty minutes, at least twenty-four students actively participated in the presentation part of the lesson.
  2. The students practiced their pronunciation.  It was a great way to sneak in an English lesson.
  3. Having mostly prearranged questions helped filter out questions that may have been difficult or uncomfortable to answer.
  4. The cards provided a nice structure and helped the lesson move at a quick pace.
  5. Asking questions helped us get to know the students a little better, too.

What else did you do?

Introducing myself took about half an hour.  Then I took five minutes to say a few encouraging words to the students that mostly centered on the difficulty of learning a second language.  I tried to explain how we can learn from our mistakes by using a colorful example of me trying to speak Japanese my first day in Japan.  On that day, when I was formally introduced to a coworker (my superior), instead of saying “nice to meet you” I accidentally said “mornin’ pal, let’s eat!”

I also wanted to use my lesson to get to know the students.  Although the cards helped with that I decided it wasn’t enough for me.  I gave my students an interest survey that took them about ten or fifteen minutes to fill out.  With the extra five minutes at the end of class, I quizzed them over my interests and rewarded them with stickers for correct answers.

How did it go?

Great!  If you are an ALT who happened to stumble upon this blog looking for ideas, I highly recommend this lesson.  The students were interested and eagerly participated.

Julie taught a very similar lesson to junior high students.  It went great but there was one striking difference:  her students went gangbusters over the stickers.  Mine simply thought they were amusing.

Her students also recognized me in the pictures she presented.  One student in particular became very excited when he saw me.  He pointed to his ears, pantomiming a use of headphones.  Apparently he sees me walk to and from school everyday while I listen to my iPod.

Introduction pages

July 30, 2008

I created a few pages via Photoshop to help introduce myself to students and colleagues.  Here are two examples:

Where we are from...

Where we are from...

I also created pages to introduce my family, Julie, her family, and my personal interests.