I’ll Show You Mine if You Show Me Yours (by Steven Herder)


Steve in class 2 copy

Committed to learning

After 20 years in the EFL classroom, I still learn new things all the time. Certainly, here in Japan, the students are completely different than they were back in 1989; in those days, they all sat up straight, had their hair braided back and always made an effort (or pretended to, anyways) whether they liked English or not. These days, things are a little more… normal,  for want of a better word. The students make me work harder to get their attention, and they don’t try, if they are not interested in my lesson. I’ve had to grow as a teacher and adapt my lessons over the years. Here is a glimpse of my context, my approach and my challenges with my junior high school students at this particular point in my career:

Stairs

My context

I teach in an all girls, Catholic, junior and senior high school in Osaka, Japan. I’m in my 16th year in this school. I currently teach all grades 7 – 12 (called Chu 1, 2, 3 and Ko I, II, III). There are only two Native English-speaking teachers in the school and we have earned complete autonomy to decide and implement our own syllabus and curriculum. I teach both Oral Communication and Writing II & III. Our students are generally “nice” girls from “decent” middle-class families. That is not to say that we don’t have our share of puberty, friendship angst and other typical teenage syndromes. Additionally, we are constantly battling against a very busy school calendar where English competes with something pretty exciting almost every month.

Seibo

What I’ve learned after 20 years (finally…)

Here are 10 things that I’m quite sure of – in my classes with my students:

  1. They want to get to know me and are willing to share things about themselves IF I can become a meaningful person in their lives.
  2. They love to work in pairs or small groups because it is safer, less stressful and more social.
  3. I need to ask myself 3 questions when I plan what to bring into class:
    Is it interesting enough to cause an emotional connection in their brains?
    Does it lead to giving opinions, sharing ideas, or exchanging information between us?
    Can they succeed at it and add another layer to their small, but growing, confidence?
  4. They need to trust me before they will learn from me, and therefore I must spend as long as it takes to make a connection with them.
  5. Knowing their names is not only helpful, but is invaluable. For both praise and for discipline, nothing works better than a name at the beginning or end of a statement to a student.
  6. Praising effort is the only way to go. Acknowledging results and outcomes is great, but highlighting a student’s effort leads to further efforts by that student and by other people.
  7. Motivation is king: there is quite simply nothing more important in my EFL classroom.
  8. Classroom interaction is where I have the biggest chance to make gains: learning to improve how I interact with students, during lessons, is the key to becoming the best teacher I can be. Planning lessons and evaluating lessons are both important, but pale in comparison to the return on investment that comes from improving my questioning, feedback, correction, listening, discussing and eliciting skills.
  9. A balanced 4-skills approach is vital to succeeding in an EFL context. Without a balance of input (reading and listening) and output (writing and speaking), students invariably lose interest in studying English, or worse case scenario, come to hate English.
  10. Junior high school students need a lot more input practice than output practice. Piling on the reading and listening really adds confidence to their young minds. Of course, there are outgoing types in every class who need and thrive on output, but that can be easily accommodated.

What I do specifically in my classes

I focus on specific things for each grade, starting with a motto:

Chu1

“Everybody – Think BIG – Maybe you will be an English teacher, a translator or a flight attendant. Maybe you will live in Canada or get married to a foreigner. Many of your seniors still use English today (gesturing ferociously and using Japanese when my gesturing only scares them)”.

IMG_0171 copy

They all learn that I want them to focus on 3 things in their first year: 1) to learn to write English quickly, 2) to learn to read English, and, 3) to learn to talk a little about themselves. Everything I do in the first year is somehow connected to one of these goals. For example, last week they had to introduce a classmate in front of another class. They asked questions to their partner, wrote about their partner, memorized it by practicing it, then performed it in front of another class.

Chu2

“Some girls give up on English this year. Chu 1 is very easy. Now we start to learn the past tense this year, and some students don’t make an effort. IF you try, you CAN do it. At the end of Chu 2 we have two kinds of English students: the girls who give up and the “Yes, we can” girls (gesturing ferociously and using Japanese when my gesturing only confuses them).

My classroom

In the second year, I really focus on learning to manipulate language between tenses, especially the past tense. There are countless opportunities to talk about their weekends, school events, family outings, etc. I also tell many stories about daily happenings with my two young children (son, 8 and daughter 6), then elicit to check their comprehension. Last week, they read some writing by their seniors – the grade 12 girls (Ko III) – who wrote “100 things about me”. It is ALWAYS exciting and meaningful to show students their seniors work. Then, in pairs, they had to write 50 things each about themselves. When they finish, they’ll have to present their list in front of small groups of friends.

Chu3

Consolidation is a guiding principle in Chu 3. I expect them to be able to put more together in their final year of junior high school. I don’t introduce very much new material, but I do expect them to be successful with longer, denser material. Last week, they were reading graded readers in pairs (Cengage – Foundations Reading Library Level 1 & 2) and then retelling the stories to friends in Japanese (focusing on meaning rather than straight translation). In another class, they were translating “Frog and Toad” stories (A. Lobel) so their juniors (Chu 1) could enjoy them. For a recent final test, they had to design a poster, “Things that make me happy” with at least 150 words of text. The poster stays on the wall of my classroom for a year!

steven cherry blossoms

I hope it is easy to see that I want my students to use English to enjoy interacting with me and with each other. I want them to clearly understand that I care about them and expect them to improve and ultimately succeed at English. I’m willing to share my world with them and hope to learn more about their lives as well. As for challenges, I still want to learn how to get the most out of students who are pulled in so many different directions. I also hope to see the day that all teachers in Japan take a more balanced approach to teaching English – for the sake of the students, and in order to get more reasonable results that we can all be prouder of as teachers and as learners.

Herder SSteven has an MA TEFL from Birmingham University. He believes that being a teacher means a never-ending commitment to learning. “First, we must connect with our students, then expect them to grow in some way; the rest we just work out day by day.” He is an avid collaborator and is always looking for new ways to grow.

You can learn more about his TOL and TOP on his website and his blog.

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  1. Thank you so much, Steven!I really appreciate your willingness to share your experience with us.

    While you (quite wisely) talk about what works in your classroom with your students, I think the steps you’ve outlined can benefit us in our classrooms with our students as well.

    I know many parents who would love to have you as their child’s English teacher–and many students who would trade their classes for yours!

    • Thanks for the kind words, Barbara. It is a pleasure to collaborate with you. I hope others who enjoy reading these stories will take the opportunity to both reflect on their own experiences in the classroom, reap the lessons that are available, and consider sharing some of them with our online community. I know I’m eager to read what others have experienced.

  2. Wow! I love hearing about great teachers. And I appreciate your writing down in an organized fashion what you are trying to do with your classes. When I have done teacher training, I have told the teachers-in-training that teaching used to be called one of the “discipline”, and that it starts with self-dsicipline. Your disciplined (in the positive sense) approach to your teaching is very refreshing.

    • Thanks Margaret,

      Discipline has been the single, biggest challenge in both my personal and professional life, thus far. Hearing you praise mine caused quite a chuckle – thanks!. Perhaps, for me, the key to following these tenets in my classroom practice became easy once I stopped focusing on MY teaching and shifted my cognitive energy over to the students’ learning. Watching them closely, and reacting to their reactions has been a dramatic lesson in itself.

      Cheers.

  3. An interesting article that raises a lot of issues that JHS and HS teachers need to consider. I spent half the time (8 years) teaching in a boys’ JHS (double the trouble?!).

    These were the issues I never managed to resolve which came to mind as I read about Steven’s teaching life.

    1. The extent to which a teacher can, should, and needs to make personal connections with students. Some teachers see this as undesirable and as not part of their job whereas some couldn’t imagine doing the job without making these connections. I had colleagues who saw this as really important and did it brilliantly as well as some who rarely formed any relationship with the students beyond the material. This seems to be an area where teachers differ greatly. Can you be a good teacher without making these connections?

    2. The need for input to predominate over output at this level. I was always keen to encourage output as much as possible. Was this unadvisable? Was I pushing students too far, too early? I wonder if there’s anywhere to find additional information on this.

    3. Look at your classroom walls! Wonderful! It must be lovely for your students to come into a room like this compared with the usual gray environment of their other classrooms. Shouldn’t all classrooms look this stimulating? Or should they?

    4. I agree that the best work can be done by students of this age in pairs and groups. Why is this seen as such a quantum leap by the majority of teachers in Japan? Is it that it gives an unacceptable level of variety of expression and freedom to students?

    5. When you say that students are behaving more ‘normally’ now do you mean that students are behaving in a freer (more Western?) way that you see as healthier? Were things ‘abnormal’ before? Has this new-found freedom been beneficial to students’ language learning or have standards slipped?

    6. Barbara states that your students are lucky and I’m sure they are! How about your colleagues? Have you had the opportunity to influence the way that they see language teaching? What sort of communication takes place between your independent department and the main body of English teaching at your school? Are your methods treated with distrust or have you managed to make converts? Is there a healthy give and take going on?

    7. Your article describes a lot of activities where students talk about themselves, their own lives and their classmates. Is this ‘expanding horizons’ progression from me to the wider world effective? Shouldn’t there be a balance at all levels between the skills reqired to talk about one’s own life and the skills required to talk about wider situations.

    Woops! I did it again. Sorry, Steven!

    • Hi Patrick,

      Here’s my feeble attempt to keep up with you:

      1) Can you be a good teacher without making these connections?

      Sure. I believe you can. I had good teachers who didn’t connect with me, but were still good teachers. There are many ways to get to the goal of having our students learn. For me, however, and particularly within my JSHS context, making emotional connections is very important.

      2) The need for input to predominate over output at this level. I was always keen to encourage output as much as possible. Was this inadvisable? Was I pushing students too far, too early?

      I think there is too much pushing, pulling, tugging, demanding, threatening, etc as far as speaking output is concerned. I have had a much better relationship with more students since I learned to be more sensitive to those who showed visible discomfort with being asked to speak. If I offer them a choice between speaking or writing, both equivalent forms of output in my book these days, I get better results. BUT THAT’S JUST ME AGAIN.

      3) Shouldn’t all classrooms look this stimulating? Or should they?

      Well, some days the JHS girls can’t take their eyes off the boys plastered around the room, but I still prefer it to the typical gray walls.

      4) Why is pair work and group work seen as such a quantum leap by the majority of teachers in Japan?

      No idea. I dare readers to try both, watch the results, survey the students, and then decide.

      5) When you say that students are behaving more ‘normally’ now do you mean that students are behaving in a freer (more Western?) way that you see as healthier? Were things ‘abnormal’ before? Has this new-found freedom been beneficial to students’ language learning or have standards slipped?

      I felt pretty spoiled even at the time when students did everything we asked without actually deciding if they were interested or not. Everything is different these days, but I’m learning that different doesn’t have to mean good or bad – it’s just different. There are a whole new set of pos & negs to be dealt with.

      6) How about your colleagues? Have you had the opportunity to influence the way that they see language teaching?

      As most people might agree, it is probably most difficult to affect change in your own school where the dynamics are complicated by any number of other factors. I have exchanged ideas with a large number of JTEs who were interested and ready to share. I try to always stay accessible and approachable for other teachers.

      7) Your article describes a lot of activities where students talk about themselves, their own lives and their classmates. Is this ‘expanding horizons’ progression from me to the wider world effective? Shouldn’t there be a balance at all levels between the skills required to talk about one’s own life and the skills required to talk about wider situations?

      Yes, I can see your point. For me, however, learning about oneself and one’s classmates is the most important FIRST STEP, bar none. Again, the context is what I always fall back on.

      Thank you, Patrick. Your comments and questions are excellent. I hope we stay connected for a while from now.

      Next stop, on to Karenne’s post.

      • Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions Steven (very diplomatically if I might add). I think what I’m getting from your answers is that you see most of these things as largely a matter of a teacher’s personal style. As for the changing nature of the Japanese JHS student, I look forward to following your and their progress on your blog and will continue to enjoy your tweets.

        • Thanks Patrick,

          I wasn’t trying to be as much diplomatic as I was trying to recognize that, just like for our learners, what works for me may not work for you.

          I strongly believe that if you and I have reasons, reasonably well thought out reasons, for doing what we do, then we’ll be much more successful than many of our counterparts who consciously or unconsciously may be running on auto-pilot or a false set of assumptions with no underlying theoretical or practical basis for their classroom practice.

          (If that’s actually a sentence, it may be my longest ever, at 57 words!!)

          Cheers,

          Steven

    • Hi Patrick,

      I need to go eat some spinach and take a long nap before I tackle responding to your comments. gnight, mate.

      Steve

  4. As much as I dislike comments like”Great post!” It really does do the job here. Thanks you for your reflection on your practice and for presenting it so clearly. I felt a part of your experience, albeit without knowing a word of Japanese. The ELL world works directly with the elements of reading, writing, listening, and speaking. As a kindergarten teacher, I try to find this balance as well. Patrick Jackson talked about the importance of output and I wholeheartedly agree. For your experience output is the practice that will take them out into an English speaking world. In kindergarten, we need to be thoughtful and attentive listeners since we have very little to actually read, apart from pictures. My class loves pair and small group work as well. The real value there is no one gets to sit back and let others dominate. Everyone gets their turn to speak and share their thoughts and ideas.
    A couple questions: how do your students feel about recorded English conversation? HAve you tried Skype?

    • Hi Gail,

      Thanks for the comments.

      I often record pairs conversations with my iPhone. I use three different recording apps: one for my junior/senior high school students, one for my university classes and one for personal use.

      They don’t like it so much, but they always make a bigger effort BECAUSE they are being recorded… so what’s a teacher to do? LOL

      As for Skype, personally, I use it every day, but haven’t thought how to use it with them, unless I paired up with a class abroad that wanted to talk with my students.

      Cheers.

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  6. While I enjoyed most of this article the “Think Big” reminded me of some rather dubious cultural incompatible issues we see in text books… why does Steven’s students have to “think big” ?

    Is it because someone thinks of them as small… or that they, his students, think themselves as “small”… No, I don’t like this.

    Why should thinking BIG = marrying a foreigner? OMG. I’m getting off the computer right now – the rest of this post was cracking but really, really, thinking big equals leaving Japan and getting to live in Canada?

    Lovely.

    Am so NOT impressed.

    Karenne Sylvester

    • Hi Karenne,

      I’ll try to address your concerns and put my “Think BIG” poster into context. I hope you’ll try to see it in the, “One never knows where the future will take us” sense that it is meant to be.

      Twenty years ago, when I arrived in Japan, English was cool, exciting and the dream of many young people wanting to explore the world beyond this little island nation that we live on.

      Somewhere along the way, that coolness has worn off. There are probably many articles out there dealing with this subject, but in my little world, I noticed two things specifically in my classroom:

      1) The built-in Japanese sense of patience or perseverance, called “gaman” has almost completely disappeared among young people – at least the students who I see these days, and consequently, they don’t make enough effort in all of their studies, and

      2) There is no shame in giving up on English before even getting started. Every student has countless relatives who have failed at English. Therefore, too many students have no expectation at all about learning English. They simply throw up their hands and say, “I give up.” I can’t accept that from 12 or 13 year olds and so I began to try to introduce a theme for each grade, designed to address the psychological stage of their development.

      Right from the opening class, I want to raise their expectations, motivate them, inspire them and offer them possibilities that are not even on their radar. I spend the next 6 years telling them stories – success stories – about their seniors who have graduated and are using English, about famous Japanese who can use English, and about Japanese friends who are using English even though they could never have imagined doing so.

      For my students, the two examples that I gave in the article are based on real stories of students who are living in Canada (my country) or in international marriages. I also tell stories about students who:

      - have become English teachers
      - have become flight attendants
      - have become translators and patent writers
      - have done working holidays abroad
      - have studied abroad for 1-4 years
      - have written graduate dissertations in English
      - have become TV personalities and used English

      However, in the first class, I have to choose things that I can simply communicate and things that they can grasp on to. I would much prefer to say, “Dare to dream” or “Imagine the possibilities” but again, “Thing BIG” works for me and for them.

      Lastly, I may not quite understand your comment, “reminded me of some rather dubious cultural incompatible issues we see in text books.” However, I would be interested to know what you mean if you choose to respond. If my message to my students is in some way damaging, I’d certainly re-think it.

      Thank you for having taken the time to share your feelings rather than just dismissing my article altogether.

      Cheers for now and see you in the twittersphere,

      Steven

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  8. Hi Steven,

    I’m rushed off my feet this week but I didn’t want you to think that I didn’t see this.

    I think your ideas regarding thinking big are completely, culturally out of order – in fact, have been muttering about to myself about this issue since reading it as I truly find it to show no cultural understanding and even, on your part, culturally arrogant to suggest to your students that thinking big should include “your” ideas of what being big means.

    I do very much appreciate that you took the time to write and I am so sorry that I can’t be more explicit – am allowing myself a 10 minute break before back to working ’til midnight and have very long days this week.

    However basically, if you really want for your students to think big I suggest that you ask them what being “big” means to them and let them tell you if they want to be “big.”

    We can’t send people to the stars: they must long to reach them by themselves.

    …marry a foreigner… move to Canada… mutter, mutter.

    K

  9. Steven,

    As much as it can seem trite (as another commenter stated) – Great Post.

    I read it awhile back but the blog carnival (and a little leisure) has given me time to revisit and comment. I’d add two thoughts.

    1. Making a personal connection. I think this can mean many things. It doesn’t have to be touchy/feely warm and heavily personal. I think of many teachers I connected with that were quite colder/formal. But we connected and I think it was how they “gracefully” created rapport. Their look, their manner, their attention to us students. But I think we should look at this in a broad way.

    2. I’d add to your list – giving each and every student a feeling of achievement and success. Maybe not every lesson but overall. I find too often in classes, so many “bewildered” students, turned off from learning because they don’t get positive feedback and a sense they ARE learning. This might fall under your point of motivation but I’ve found it becoming so so so important in my own teaching. Not dumbing it down but making sure through repetition, formative assessment, open ended and leveled planning – that each student sees themselves as being successful at communicating with others through English….

    Hope you are also enjoy a little break. Cheers,
    David

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  16. This post just made my day! I’m quite young and not so experienced in dealing with young learners and I found it very helpful.

    I’ve been teaching English to teenagers (9-15) for about a year now and it made me realise how much I need to bond with my pupils.

    I try to keep up with their world as much as possible, but while reading this post, I came across 2 great pieces of advice.

    1 – No matter what your pupils contribute with to your classes, they’re practicing and making an effort to speak/write/read/listen to in English;

    2 – If they can’t trust their teacher, they won’t be motivated to engage in any activities.

    I know everybody has been saying this, but this was an EXCELLENT post indeed. Congratulations and thank you for sharing!

    Cheers.

    Rafhael.

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  18. Some kids will be glad for this when I teach their middle school (in Korea next month)! MS’ers can be a nightmare to motivate and some already suffer what the West would call personality disorders, but it’s also, to me, where their potential as human beings really starts to actualize in one way or another. For the kind of teacher who would like to contribute to kids’ human development (or would like to try at least) I think it might be the best age group to work with. 8-10 years are more of a delight but the triumph comes through difficulty.

    I wholeheartedly agree on your points and only worry over the implementation/elaboration.

    I’m wondering how I can keep up the energy levels in class since in past I was reputed as a boring teacher with some, or, at best, spastic… Hopefully I can pick up more of the kinds of jokes Korean kids like =)