Long Ago Lessons in a Japanese High School

Part of the series: Lessons Learned from Students

Back with the ink was barely dry on my MATESOL, I had a group of students from whom I learned many, many lessons. This post is about three of those lessons…

The setting: A once-a-week English class at a high school in Japan, in the mid 1980s.

The characters: Sixty 16-year old boys who had never seen a foreign person “up close and personal” and me, a teacher who still thought she actually knew something about teaching and whose Japanese repertoire consisted of hello, thank you, and I’m lost.

Scene One: Why are you bowing to me? I’m not your leader!

I felt uncomfortable the first time my students stood and bowed to me at the start of class. Because this was English class, I decided that my class ought to be a little island of American culture (meaning, in my mind, no obsequious bowing).

The next week, I entered the classroom and waited in vain for my students to stop talking, face me and make eye contact. I spent most of the next few lessons trying to get the boys to take class seriously. Finally, I reinstated the class-beginning bow, and all was well. As long as they had the nonverbal signal that this was a real class (they bow at the beginning of every class) my students were ready to try whatever I asked of them during class.

Lesson learned: Don’t take away one nonverbal signal unless you replace it with another. If I had started by respecting the structure my students were familiar with, and gradually introduced another way to signal the beginning of class (like becoming quiet and looking at the teacher), I could have most likely replaced the bowing without disruption.

Scene Two: This is English class. Why are you speaking Japanese?

I’m a child of the communicative and natural approaches (MATESOL in the 80s). So, of course, my students did pair work, information gaps, jigsaw activities, and meaningful tasks. But, whenever my students were working in pairs, or in small groups, I heard more Japanese than English. I coaxed, I threatened, I separated, I even deducted points from games. But still, when I gave them an activity, I heard whispered Japanese. What were they saying? Were they totally ignoring me and my instructions? Were they making rude comments about me? It’s easy to become a bit paranoid when people are whispering in a language you don’t understand. Gradually, my Japanese improved enough to understand the gist of these conversations: What the heck does she want us to do? Do you know what we’re supposed to be doing? You ask her. No, you!

Lesson learned: Know enough of your students’ language to understand when they’re lost. Classroom language is largely repetitive, and it doesn’t take long. Regardless of your personal feelings about English only in class, it really, really helps to know what your students are saying. And, if you want your students to do an activity in English, be sure they 1) know the language they’ll need to complete the task and 2) know what they’re supposed to do during the activity

Scene Three: Picture Day and the one-finger peace sign

By the end of the year, I had finally figured out how to work within my students’ notions of class structure to create a environment where they were communicating with each other in English. The boys were willing to do what I asked, as long as they understood what it was I wanted them to do. Picture day seemed a perfect opportunity to document our growth as teacher and students.

I was thrilled when my students asked if they could decorate our class chalkboard with English quotes from movies. They had gone beyond my lessons and made a connection with authentic English! Being the mid-80s, my students’ favorite American movie was Beverly Hills Cop, and all of the quotes included variations of f**k. They’d conjugated the verb perfectly, and had even managed to include most parts of speech. There were pictures, too, to support meaning. I was mortified, but everyone else, including the head teacher and photographer, seemed quite impressed with my students’ efforts.

We stood in front of the board for our class picture. The photographer said cheezu and the boys raised their hands. Looking at the pictures in this post, you can imagine the gesture I expected to see–the ubiquitous Japanese peace sign. Unfortunately, my students only used one finger. It was quite the class photo :-)

Lesson learned: When 16 year old boys as a group ask to do something that constitutes work beyond the requirements of class, get details. Ask follow up questions. Set parameters. And when you still end up with a chalkboard full of profanity and a class photo of cherubs giving the middle finger salute, laugh. A sense of humor really helps.


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13 Responses

  1. David says:

    Great reflection and I especially enjoyed number 3! Yes, we got to laugh.

    About number 2. I also have learned the lesson to not just learn some of the L1 BUT more more more more more more more importantly, allow them if they are communicating about the task/activity/learning – to speak their L1.

    Yeah, many will question me but it I’ve come to the conclusion that great teachers really focus on “meaning” and not the form. Then, when students are comfortable to produce / output the target language, it will come. Until then, let them use their L1 – in all cases they will be getting receptive language and progressing. Too often teachers “strangle” learners with one language (even if not explicitly but by manner, philosophy). Let them communicate , whatever, so long as on task…. took me a long time to learn this.

    Your lessons are not long ago. Still pertinent.


    • Barbara says:

      Good point, David. I’ve also noticed that understanding my students’ language helps me to identify what my students want to be able to say English, especially with my younger students!

  2. danilyra says:

    Thank you for making me laugh after the lousy game I had to watch yesterday. Nobody was really happy about it down here in Brazil… I’ve been an EFL teacher for ages and I truly benefit from people’s experiences in a different cultural environment. Yes! a sense of humor will always help!

    • Barbara says:

      Thanks, Dani. Happy to give you a laugh! A sense of humor helps with everything, doesn’t it? Even soccer :-)

  3. Colin Graham says:

    Oh how I identify, Barbara, and it’s not just Japanese 16yr old boys either!

    One of my first experiences with Japanese boys of that age was when they were visiting my place of work for the typical 2-day package… My lesson was supposed to be ‘Homestay’ English. Their class teacher had two groups to supervise and once we got started, she disappeared to the other group.

    Three of my 24 decided to make paper planes with their worksheets and started a trend. We ended up having a paper-plane throwing contest. Their teacher returned, watched for a couple of minutes and asked me why we (=I) had departed from the agreed upon (and paid-for) lesson. I explained. She just said “I see” and encouraged the use of target language, organized the boys into teams and helped explain the competition rules.

    I was pretty new to teaching in Japan, and I learned a couple of things – the importance of group-work, teenage boys are the same the world over, and most importantly: experienced teachers observe, ask “why?” and then (re)act.

    Funnily enough, the boys’ teacher said they’d probably spoken more English during that 90 minutes than they had during the prior year. She thought it was probably because they forgot it was supposed to be an English lesson!

    • Barbara says:

      What a great addition, Colin!

      This group is also the first class to have given me a nickname. I didn’t learn about it until I discovered that we had a seating chart. Everyone had nicknames, actually. Mine was “barabara hochikisu” which was a nice play on Barbara Hoskins, I thought. Apparently, my fast English felt like staples shooting across the room (barabara meaning scattered and hochikisu meaning stapler, for readers not familiar with Japanese).

      The seating chart also FINALLY solved the mystery of which of Takashi Takahashi’s names was his given name and which was his family name :-)

  4. Hi Barb,

    This post made me miss my high school English language learners from Texas! They were from 12 different countries including Japan, but the ones from Mexico were the ones I had to watch out for! I’m so glad I was never easily offended and could laugh things off. They did the same thing, except with post it notes so it was easy to remove! :-) Some of their journal articles, though, still had evidence. I remember doing an incredibly cool project they loved where each student chose a commercial and identified the stereotypes, hyperboles, and biases. They wrote papers identifying these then proposing how they would improve the commercial rectifying the things they identified. Then they actually redid the commercial. I have some incredible essays and video commercials that I can’t show because of one little thing here or there since they got all their dorm buddies to participate! Some weren’t even in my class but we were a tight community since there were 70 of them. Arggh they’re my favorite commercials I still treasure and get a laugh from and are pure genius but they will remain off my blog so as not to offend.

    • Barbara says:

      Gotta give them credit–post it notes are clever!

      Maybe some day you can post the commercial videos with a disclaimer–if you’re easily offended, don’t push “play” :-)

      I’m sure many of us would enjoy them!

  5. I love this post, and so à propos. My dear friend Jennifer Yphantidis did a presentation at Nakasendo 2010 about an action research study she did about Japanese use in the classroom. It was great. I tweeted a bit about it, and Colin lead me to this post in reply to one of those tweets. Thanks for this!

    • Barbara says:

      I actually saw that series of tweets, and appreciate Colin mentioning this post. You did a great job with Nakasendo this year–wish I could have been there with you all.

      I’d love to hear more about Jennifer’s action research study on Japanese use–always a fascinating topic :-)

  1. June 16, 2010

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Barbara Sakamoto and chuck sandy, David Deubelbeiss. David Deubelbeiss said: RT @barbsaka: New post: Long Ago Lessons in a Japanese High School (Lessons learned from students) http://ow.ly/1ZaBJ #efl #esl #edchat […]

  2. June 19, 2010

    […] But, whenever my students were working in pairs, or in small groups, I heard more Japanese than English . I coaxed, I threatened, I separated, I even deducted points from games. But still, when I gave them an activity, I heard whispered … Read more from the original source: Long Ago Lessons in a Japanese High School – Teaching Village […]

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