Monday, March 30, 2015

Love being a "foreigner" in Myanmar, hate being one in Japan

Friends I made at Mahabandoola Garden in Yangon
I am 12 days into a long business trip to Yangon, Myanmar. I have been living in a hotel. On the weekdays I am in the company of my work colleagues but on the weekend I can find myself alone for over 24 hours. As a father of three young kids living in an overcrowded apartment in Japan,  I am not used to having so much time alone. Although it can be nice to wake up at my leisure, as the day goes on I usually start to feel the need to talk to one. Near my hotel in Yangon is the Mahabandoola Garden, a very well maintained park in a city whose mouldy European colonial style buildings cry for maintenance. The reason why I do there is that I know that if I sit down on the grass, someone will likely come and talk to me. Today, I young man who I will call Stanley approached me and asked if he could practice his English. He wanted to attend a US university and said he was always looking for foreigners to talk to. With me, he got to practice his English and I got to ask him questions about Myanmar and his English learning experience. Stanley is from the Shan state, his father is Shan and his mother is Lahu. He spoke Lahu wit his mother and siblings but preferred to speak Burmese with his father rather than Shan. He now regrets this. Three of his friends joined us and I heard more interesting stories about the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual nature of Burmese identity. They also told me about their English education, which, given the nature of my mission here, is necessary information.

After talking to these wonderful young people, I started to think about similar experiences I have had in Japan: Japanese people I do not know or barely know approaching me to practice their English. I know that their intentions are the same as the Myanmar people I met in Mahabandoola Garden. I am always polite and cordial but not very friendly to people who do this. To be completely honest, I absolutely detest when people I do not know in Japan or acquaintances I do not know very well approach me to practice their English. Why? I know why now. In Myanmar, I am a foreigner, I do not understand any Burmese and will probably never know more than a few words or phrases. I don't mind that people approach me and tell me directly state that they want to practice English with a foreigner because I do not live here and even the most routine tasks such as ordering a bowl of noodles is a challenge for me. On the other hand, I have lived in Japan for 16 years and have made a fairly substantial effort to learn the language. I live apart from my family and friends in the US and it is not for the sake of being a "foreigner" in a "foreign land." I dislike being called a foreigner because Japan is my second home. I want to be accepted as a functioning member of society and not as a conversation partner. I know I am not "Japanese" but I do not feel like a foreigner either. What should I be called? I don't know, but in Japan, I am not the person who I was in Mahabandoola Park. 

I will end by saying that if I were in the shoes of the Japanese people who try to speak English to me, I would probably do the same thing as an enthusiastic language learner. I also understand there are (American/European) non-Japanese in Japan who have lived there longer than me who chose not to learn the language. I think that people who want to practice their English or other foreign language in Japan have to judge on a case by case basis whether or not it is appropriate.  

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Day trip from Yangon to Dala, Myanmar

I am in Yangon, Myanmar for the next couple of weeks working on a textbook project. On the weekdays I am at work but on the weekends I am completely by myself in my hotel in downtown Yangon. Yesterday, when I was walking near the Pansodan Jetty I met a 13 year old boy named Jeim. From the Jetty, there was a ferry which crossed the other side of the Yangon river to Dalah.
He was selling postcards. He said that he used to live in Dala but his dad died in the tsunami (referring to the super typhoon of 2008 which everyone calls "a tsunami") and he quit school to support his family. He said that he had a brother and sister who lived with their grandmother in a rural area. He and his mother were squatting in Yangoon and living off his income. He asked if he could be my guide because he does not make much money from selling postcards. I was very surprised at how good a communicator this boy was. In fact, to be articulate as he was, I thought that he likely had a talent for learning languages that most people do not have. A couple of hours before meeting Jeim, I had talked with a university graduate for about 30 minutes who could not communicate as well as the thirteen-year-old postcard seller. 

To make a long story short, I agreed to go on a tour of Dala with him leaving at 9:00 AM the next day. Dala is a collection of villages and offers a glimpse of the traditional stilt houses that the Burmese live in outside Yangon. He told me that he would show me how Myanmar people really lived.  

When I showed up at our meeting point a little past 9AM Jeim was not to be seen. As I started to cross the bridge over Strand st. Jeim appeared out of no where. We took the ferry across the river and Jeim told me we would need to hire Trishaws (bicycle taxis) to see the village (he was right). We ended up hiring two trishaws, one for him, one for me, and spend 90 minutes riding around the village. He was right, I could see how the poorer rural people lived and it was fascinating. The trishaw driver and Jeim also did a good job explaining to me every thing we drove by. I saw one pristine looking pond and Jeim said that was where everyone got their drinking water. Free water and food were also supplied to people by the local temples. There were a couple of things about this experience that bothered me.

First, when we stopped in one of the villages, Jeim asked me if I would like to buy biscuits for the children. The children were poor and hungry. I said yes but felt a little strange because it felt kind of like someone asking the dumb tourist if they wanted to by animal feed to give to the wild animals. We arrived at a stall and about 20 adorable children made a line. Jim told me that one back of biscuits (15 packs inside) would cost 4000 kyat (about 4 dollars) and I knew that this was an exorbitant price. He asked me how much I wanted to buy and I said two. The children wanted to eat, I wanted to give them food, but I also felt I was being had and they were using the cute children as a means to make a big profit off me. The day before, I had eaten a bowl of noodles and two pepsis for 1500 kyat (about $1.50). I ended up buying two bags of biscuits for 7000 kyat and giving them to the kids. The trishaw drivers and Jeim made sure that each child only received one pack. Jeim told me that the kids parents were working in Yangon and they would not eat until they came back home. 

Second, the Trishaw drivers tried to charge me an incredibly exorbitant sum which I negotiated down to just an exorbitant one. I should have negotiated beforehand but I had thought Jeim would be looking out for my interest. The trishaw drivers were basically older kids (late teens or early twenties) and obviously had some kind of prearrangement with Jeim. I had a feeling as a little thirteen year old kid he did not have much leverage over them.

After settling with the Trishaw drivers, we went back to Yangon and had a pleasant talk on the ferry. Jeim thanked me repeatedly for hiring him as a guide. We settled to price in a secluded place on the Yangon side of the river. He said that he did not want others to see because they would talk and it would be bad for him. Jeim seemed to know all the ferry officials, the children peddling random merchandise on the ferry, and the young mothers, some begging for money, on the other side of the river. I could understand why he did not want them to see our transaction.

Jeim had asked me to pay what I thought he deserved. I told him how about 20000 khat ($20) which I thought was VERY generous but he then begged me for 30000 kyat or $30. I thought that Jeim had been ridiculously overcharging me the whole day, but the reason why I paid because in a lot of cases, from the trishaw drivers to the woman in the food stall to his mother, it really seemed like he was trying to spread the wealth around to people who desperately needed it. The day before, when I met Jeim, I tried to give him 5000 kyat and he refused it. As a father of three kids, I did not have the heart to bargain down an enterprising 13 year old who was forced to be the man of his family (I do believe he has told the truth). I do not think he is always able to find guide work and his next big payday might not be for a while.

Anyway, I wondered if I was doing more harm than good by overpaying. Will this encourage people to pray on sucker tourists like me rather than perhaps engaging in more honest endeavors? Or, am I just being cheap? These people are poor, do not have the opportunities that I have, and did provide me a bonafide service. 

Today, the Jeim and the Trishaw drivers seems to take a sincere interest in learning about the USA and Japan from me as well as learning some English and Japanese. They also taught me some Burmese language. The children and adults in Dalah all went out of their way to say either "hello" or "Mingalaba" to me. Thanks to that, I learned my first Burmese word. Every time we passed a school, Jeim or the Trishaw driver Sam would point it out to me. For someone who is helping to develop English textbooks for Myanmar children, it was an incredibly valuable experience to see this side of Myanmar and imagine how an English class might occur in this kind of situation. Overall, I am glad that I did this. Next time, though, I'll make sure that I pay a good price but not a ludicrous one. 

Here is a picture of me and Jeim, I really liked the kid and hope things work out for him.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Who am I to criticize my students' English when my Japanese stinks?

  Yesterday, I had to write a letter to a junior high school principal requesting that he permit a teacher at his school to present at a conference with me. I wrote the letter in what I thought was fluent and persuasive Japanese. I asked my wife to take a look at it just to make sure there were no typos. Immediately she took out a red pen and started to correct. When she got to what I thought was the most compelling part of the letter, she asked if I has used a translating program. I, the teacher who curses the invention of translating programs often when he reads his students' written work, was being accused of using what I despise the most. Although she did not mean to insult me, my wife's appraisal of my Japanese felt, for a moment, absolutely devastating. It was like working your whole life to become a Picasso and being told that you can't even finger paint. 
  The past few years, in my teaching methodology courses, I have been very strict in correcting students' English. In my evaluation of their writing, I have designed rubrics that frankly tell them if their English has shortcomings. I thought that even if the criticism was a little tough, it would be good for them. To be hired as English teachers, to be superior English teachers, they must possess a superior level of English. However, being on the receiving end of the tough love has made me reexamine this notion. The semester has just ended but next semester I would like to talk to my students about this.   

Thursday, December 18, 2014

My Labor of Love

I attended the JALT (Japan Association of Language Teaching) between November 21 - 23 in Tsukuba city and on the way back home on the bullet train tears started to fill my eyes. I reflected on the thousands of hours I have spent correcting and commenting on my students' writing and asked myself why. I have read plenty of good student work but also plenty of awful writing by students who are likely more unmotivated to do their assignment than I am to read it. I also reflected on the thousands of hours I have spent reading and commenting on the response cards students write at the end of my classes. I have my own research, my family, my own hobbies, my PhD, university projects, and the classes themselves to prepare for. Why do I spend so much time on something that I do not really get any reward for? I realized that it is because I care about the people in my classes and I want them ALL to get something out of my classes. Giving assignments, commenting on assignments, and the students writing response cards at the ending of class gives me a chance to help the students one on one and show them that I care about their learning. Often, I am so busy commenting on assignments that I cannot prepare as well as I should for class (I cannot make snazzy powerpoint, eye-catching handouts, conduct an engaging introduction of the material, etc.). However, I feel it is my duty for students to get something out of my classes. The best way to do this is to encourage them to delve into the material themselves and encourage them through commenting on their work, opinions, thoughts, etc. I have to show them that I care and will ALWAYS take whatever they produce seriously. This brought tears to my eyes as I felt like a complete ass crying on a full bullet train back to Morioka.

Friday, August 02, 2013

Researching what constitutes real and meaningful learning in the Japanese EFL Classroom

 Recently, I watched an online lecture by Rod Ellis titled "Micro-evaluation of Tasks," basically he was teaching methods that teachers can use to see whether or not their tasks actually work. You might have noticed that the title of this post does not have the work task in it. My understanding of Communicative Language Teaching or CLT and Task-Based Language Teaching (TBLT) has changed this past year. CLT is a range of principles about language learning and tasks are a way in which teachers can try enact these principles (Kumaravadivelu, 2009).  Therefore, I am applying Ellis's principles for evaluating tasks to a "communicative lesson." In the lecture, he discussed three perspectives from which a task can be evaluated:
  1. whether students enjoyed doing the task and found it useful
  2. the extent to which the task results in the type of learner behavior that the teacher had in mind when selecting or designing the task
  3. whether the task contributes to the students' acquisition of the L2
For me, number two seems to be the most worthy to investigate. Why? Well,  of course three is what everyone wants to know. Did my lesson facilitate the acquisition of a certain type of knowledge or skill? In my opinion this is difficult to prove because learners show improvement in the pre and post tasks themselves rather than the actual skill being mentioned. Furthermore, by focusing exclusively on techniques that foster the learning of a specific skill or language item, we are missing the big picture. What is the big picture? I think number 2 is.

Dick Allwright's (2003) theory of exploratory practice is very close to what has been in my mind but up to now I have been unable to articulate. Allwright says that rather than instructional efficiency, we should be concerned with the quality of life in the classroom which I interpret to mean that teachers and learners find classroom practices rewarding and meaningful. Therefore, instead of doing research which tries to develop improved teaching techniques, we need to develop our understanding of the quality of classroom life. There is no cause and effect relationship between quality of classroom life and teaching technique, but teachers and learners understanding what quality of classroom life is will benefit them.

This is kind of deep stuff! The past four months, I have recorded 5 classes at the junior high school affiliated with my university. Four of the classes were taught by my students and one by the head English teacher. I used three video cameras in each class. One camera was focused on the teacher and two were focused on a learner each. The learners wore wireless microphones so we could hear their interaction. The point of doing this was basically to investigate "2" or learners' behavior during the communicative activities. The fundamental principle of CLT is that classroom practice be real and meaningful to the learners (Hiep, 2007). Therefore, I wanted to analyze learner interaction to determine the extent to which the communication was real and meaningful to them. This involves transcribing their interaction which is a lengthy process I am still involved in. I also looked at the nature of the activities the students were engaged in using principles from Csikszentmihalyi's (1994) flow psychology. Flow psychology is the study of the mentality of people when they completely devote themselves to a particular activity and even lose track of time. This state of mind is called "flow." I first learned about it in van Lier (1996) and read more about it in Csikszentmihalyi (1994), which, by the way, is a good read. Basically people are most likely to experience flow when the activity in which they are engaged has
  clarity: concrete goals and manageable rules
  flexibility:  it is possible to adjust opportunities for action to our capacities or abilities
  feedback: we know how we are doing in the particular activity while we are doing it
  concentration: we are able to screen out all distractions and focus on the particular activity

In addition to recording student interaction, at the ending of the class, students answered a questionnaire about their experience to help me ascertain the extent to which they felt there was activity had clarity, flexibility, feedback, and concentration. In my opinion, students do not necessarily experience flow because a teacher employs a superior activity. Rather, students experience flow when they perceive that the activity facilitates clarity, flexibility, feedback, and concentration.

At two conferences in August, JASELE and JACET, I will make presentations related to these classes. My goals in the presentation will not be prescribe superior teaching techniques to produce fluent speakers of English but rather to consider 1) What constitutes real and meaningful L2 communication in the EFL classroom in Japan and 2) What is quality classroom life in my particular context. I think these questions are the most important ones to answer. Looking at learner behavior can tell us the extent to which students find the class meaningful as well as provide feedback to the teacher as to whether or not their expectations are unreasonable.  

  • Allwright, D. (2003). Exploratory Practice: rethinking practitioner research in language teaching. Language Teaching Research, 7(2), 113-141. doi: 10.1191/1362168803lr118oa
  • Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1994). The Evolving Self: A Psychology for the Third Millennium. New York: Harper Perennial. 
  • Hiep, P. H. (2007). Communicative language teaching: unity within diversity. ELT Journal, 61(3), 193-201. doi: 10.1093/elt/ccm026
  • Kumaravadivelu, B. (2009). Understanding Language Teaching. London: Routledge.
  • van Lier, L. (1996). Interaction in the Language Curriculum. London: Pearson Education.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Collapse of English Education in Japan

Today, I went to a symposium by Kumiko Torikae, Haruo Erikawa, Yukio Otsu, and Yoshifumi Saito. The title was 英語教育、迫り来る破綻ーーみんなで考え、行動しようーー or "The Coming Collapse of English Education: Let's think and act together [to prevent it]." They recently wrote a book with the same title and the symposium was sponsored by the publishing company. The speakers discussed the following topics which were based on what they wrote in the book:
  1. Prof. Haruo Erikawa: Protecting children from the reckless demands global corporations are making on English education 「グローバル企業の無謀な英語教育要求から子どもを守るために」
  2. Prof. Yoshifumi Saito: The Puppet Show of Confusion in English Education  「英語教育混乱のカラクリ」
  3. Prof. Yukio Otsu: Three reasons why I am against Elementary School English Education 「わたくしが小学校英語教科化に反対する3つの理由」
  4. Prof. Kumiko Torikae; The Chronic Reformatory Sickness and Global Syndrome that Plagues English Education
 All four speakers are very famous in the Japanese English education world. Their reason for publish the book is this year's proposed reforms in English education. For the sake of developing "global citizens," this year politicians have proposed using the TOEFL test as either an entrance exam for universities or an exit exam for high schools. They have also proposed that English become a subject in elementary schools (Currently, fifth and sixth graders have English activities once a week but this is not considered a subject). The speakers argued convincingly that TOEFL is not the right test for high school students. High school students graduate knowing less than 3000 words but TOEFL requires a vocabulary of about 8000 words. This incredibly brief summary does not do these speakers justice. They were witty, well-informed and very convincing. They presented a range of issues with current English education policy. I did buy the book they were selling and I think that it is a worthy read for anyone who is interested in English education policy reform. I definitely look forward to reading the book and discussing it with my seminar students (advisees). 

The criticism I have of this symposium was that the title was to think and act together but we were not really able to do this. The speakers spoke for 25 minutes each and after that the participants wrote questions for them to answer on paper. Many participants wrote questions and I can understand that this enabled the speakers to get a general feeling for what the audience wanted to discuss. We had 90 minutes for question and answer in which the speakers gave their insights into the questions and problems written by the participants. At the very ending, the speakers opened the floor for further questions and comments. Five people spoke and the second to last person, quoting the Japanese teacher's union (Nikkyousou), said that he felt that the most important role for English education in Japan was to improve students' ability in Japanese. First, I will say that this is definitely one of the benefits of studying a foreign language: learning to look at your own language more objectively. At least two of the speakers answered and said that they agreed that this was very important. This actually really disappointed me because I feel that if this goal is made a priority then learners' English abilities will not be developed at all and classes will be primarily focused on translation. The speakers have all criticized "communicative English," and I think a lot of their criticisms are valid. However, I also worry that at the ending of the symposium they were encouraging teachers to maintain the status quo instead of really improving English education.

Postscript: After writing this I stumbled upon a blog post by Prof. Yosuke Yanase  which raises the same point I do (although much more convincingly) and also summarizes the main issues of the symposium very well. If you can read Japanese, check it out!

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Practice Lessons for Pre-service English Teachers

Today was our last day of classes at the university. In my English teaching methodology class I have been experimenting with different ways for students to do practice teaching in the class. It is extremely important for students to experience teaching because that is the only way they can link such theories as learning strategies, communicative competence, etc. to English teaching. However, practice teaching is not easy because I have 43 students in the class. This means that it is not feasible to have one or two students do their practice teaching in class and have the others pretend to be students. If we did this, then maybe each student would teach no more than one 10-minute lesson a semester. Therefore, I have decided to have students do their demonstration lessons in small groups. Here is what I did for our practice teaching day:

First, I chose four activities from the Internet TESL Journal:
Lesson 1: The Bragging Game
Lesson 4:  The Syllable Game

Then I divided the class into 5 groups of 8 students. Each group had 4 teaching pairs.
Lesson 1Lesson 2Lesson 3Lesson 4
Group AKota and AiriMay and YuiHaruka and EmiMiki and Saki
Group BMai and ChikaKotaro and ShoheiHiroki and MakotoHamaya and Matsun
Group CShunsuke and HikaruMasato and TatsukiShunta and SatoruTakumi and Eiki
Group DTakahiro and AiFlowers and MachikoMarin and YurikaYoshi and Ryouhei
Group ESatoshi and WataruAyu and MoeShiho and KanakoYui U and Takayuki

Then, each student was given the following blogging assignment (taken from our class blog):
I would like you to write the lesson plan in your blog specifying the following. Next week, you and your partner will conduct a 10 minute lesson based on your plan.
Activity:  What kind of activity is it? Adjust the activity so that it encourages acquisition, interaction, or focus on form. Your activity can cover more than one of these.
Strategies: What kind of learning strategies does it encourage?
Learning styles: What kind of learning style is most appropriate for your activity?
Communicative competence: What kind of communicative ability does it encourage and why?
Procedures: Write the steps you will take to carry out the activity. At the ending of your activity, there should be some kind of reflection to help students realize the skill/strategy you wanted them to practice. 
See my sample lesson for an example 
Although you will be team-teaching, you should write the lesson plan in your own blog. It is ok to write the same thing as your partner.
The text books we use are the TKT Course and 新しい時代の英語科教育法と実践 . The items that I asked students to specify(Activities, strategies, learning styles and  communicative competence) were concepts that we studied in the textbooks. When we did the actual practice lessons, all groups did Lessons 1, 2, 3, 4 in that order. We were able to finish on time easily. What impressed me was that each pair of students taught their lessons differently depending on their goal. This meant that they were thinking very deeply about their teaching which I think is great. The problem areas were first, with five groups teaching at once it is hard to understand what each group is doing. I had two other teachers come to class that day to help me but I will not always have these kinds of resources. Second, I was not able to look at all the blogs before the class and give feedback on the lesson plans. I was just too busy. I was fortunate in that one of the other teachers volunteered to read the students' blogs. Third, sometimes when you are so busy orchestrating students' group work, keeping time, etc. it is hard to give students good comments on their lessons. Despite the problems, I am going to continue to use this format next semester. Although I need to think of ways that I can follow the students' lessons better, the most important thing is that the students, themselves, learn from this experience and determine themselves how they should improve.