Archive for the ‘Junior High Schools’ Category

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.



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.

Slowing Down, Speeding Up

February 25, 2009


We’ve mentioned that our activity here has slowed down a bit in recent weeks.  The winter weather is one reason.  Another is that junior high and high school graduation is just around the corner.

Tomorrow all of the san-nensei (third year) junior high students who want to attend Noheji High School next year will take an entrance examination at Noheji High School.  Those who fail to make the cut the first time can try again.  If they don’t pass, their options are to attend a private high school (either in Noheji or Hachinohe) or wait a year and try again.

High school seniors who desire to go to college have most likely already taken their entrance examinations.  If they’re not continuing their education, chances are they have (with the help of my high school staff) found a job and have been receiving training this month while they don’t have to attend classes at the high school.  Although these students have finished their studies, the teachers are working very hard to ensure the graduation ceremony is well planned and runs as smoothly as possible.

Generally when the teachers are occupied with events and activities, Julie and I aren’t quite as busy.  This means many office days spent studying Japanese and helping out the teachers as much as possible.  For me, today, that included some major cleaning.  Since a couple hundred junior high students will be visiting our school tomorrow for tests, we had an extra long and thorough cleaning period in the morning.  I’ve mentioned this before, but in Japan the students clean the schools.  Schools employ custodians but they tend to focus only on building maintenance and landscaping.

After both high school and junior high graduations, it’s time to give the underclassmen their final exams.  Finally, at the end of March, a new term will begin.  I’m sure the pace will pick up for everyone again by then, including us.

Update: A friend told me that every junior high in our region is testing today.  In accordance with this important day, police officers have been asked not to use their sirens and people who fly private planes have been told not to fly during test taking hours in an effort to optimize student concentration.


October 22, 2008


I’ve mentioned in earlier posts about the declining school population.  This week our staff received some data on the issue in the form of a colorful, optimistic-looking newsletter.

The numbers below represent how many junior high students were enrolled in the given school year.  Why junior high?  Some students don’t go on to a traditional academic high school after junior high so these numbers do a better job of reflecting the demographics of the general population.

1983:  26,649

1993:  22,148

2003:  16,776

2008:  14,719

Projected for 2018:  11,948

This information is available on the prefecture’s website, but in order to find it you will need to be able to read Japanese.

The newsletter appears to be a gentle reminder that changes will need to be made to the system soon to accommodate the decline in population.  Several people have repeatedly told me that this is happening in just about every prefecture in Japan.  The main reason seems to be that people are having less children.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with a nation producing less children.  But it is interesting and has ramifications in our current professions.

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.