School & Students
The main School and Students page is here. I keep two versions of the web site: one for readers back home and one for my students. There are a few things I don't want them to see, but mostly the "adult" version is simply because I don't want to always limit myself to junior high school English.
Made & stuck to me by Yasuka at Bunko Elementary. Click here to see why I like Bunko so much. The girls below tease me mercilessly. I love these kids!

Two of my favorite "invitations" from a recent 8th grade assignment--from Haruka (left) and Yuri (right; click on either for a larger version). Check out the Bosch details in Yuri's work. These are here rather than on the student version because Yuri asked me not to post hers where her friends could see it, and of course Haruka will turn pretty shy, too, when she figures out what this "sleeping with" business is all about. For reference, "Misaki" is a Japanese word meaning a tall, pretty, angular girl with a really weird affect (OK, it's her name). Chino is the cute girl all the boys are in love with.

My Job

I'm an assistant language teacher with the JET program. I'm now in my third year at the same schools. As the program is limited to three years, this is also my last year. My base school, where I go three days a week, is Manyo Jr. High, at the eastern end of Takefu. My visiting school is Dai-go Jr. High ("Go-chu") in Shirayama, a group of small villages at the western end--indeed, closer to the sea than to the rest of town. Both are in farming areas; while Manyo serves some small, rural villages, Go-chu serves the out-and-out boonies. Kids from Go-chu marvel at the 8-story hotel downtown when they go by on field trips. I also visit two elementary schools. I go to Shirayama Elementary, close to Go-chu, three times a year; I go Shirayama Elementary's tiny branch school even farther out in the country once a month.

I enjoy going into work every day because my kids are so wonderful. From conversations with other ALTs and regular teachers, I've realized that my kids are, in fact, abnormally wonderful. Some of my Japanese colleagues say it's because the kids in these rural areas tend to have much stronger, more old-fashioned families with live-in grandparents. I'm amazed at how nice my kids are to each other. While they're not all diligent students, they're respectful to teachers, although there is a wonderful closeness between teachers and students that allows the cheekier kids to get in some good-natured teasing (though occasionally about things that would be extremely disrespectful in my native culture). At Manyo and even more so at Go-chu, where the kids have been in the same class together since nursery school, there is a real family atmosphere.

Every ALT has a chance, to some extent, to create his own job. The way I see mine, a lot more than half of it is interacting with kids outside of class, both to give them a chance to use their English for real communication and to encourage them to be interested in foreign people and places. Not only do I feel like I'm having a real effect when I do this, I also enjoy it tremendously. The kids can be pretty entertaining.

Between classes and after school, while the kids are busy with their clubs, I wander around randomly, assaulting passing kids with English conversation and jokes, teasing the kids who respond well to that, and getting kids in the clubs to explain what they're doing or teach me some Japanese. I occasionally carry some kind of prop as a conversation starter (for the kids who are too shy to just walk up to me and start talking but actually want to, props offer a great excuse to approach me, and they also help me out when I can't think of anything to say to kids I don't know well). I find that in many cases the relationships I'm able to form with students encourage them to try a little harder to develop their ability to communicate in English. It's easy to develop a good rapport with the kids who are interested in English and the outgoing kids who are just interested in the weird foreign teacher, but I try to talk to everyone. Some students are too shy for more than, "Hello. How are you?" and some don't seem to be interested in any more than this, but I've been surprised many times by students who, after months or a year of little response, suddenly become enthusiastic. I find that the kids who have some trouble fitting in with their peers or lack confidence in their abilities respond especially well; a very little acknowledgment from the "special" teacher can seem like a lot for them. (I've become kind of a magnet for minor misfits.) At Manyo, I can't have a real relationship with every one of 420 kids, but it's easy enough to have a good relationship with everyone who wants to have one with me, and to have enough of a relationship with the others to see who is interested in or might benefit from a little more attention. In this way, Go-chu is a dream assignment for an ALT. There are only 88 kids, so even within my first year, I was able to get to know almost everyone well; and after a year and a half, I was able to know everyone very well. The kids there, especially the girls, are more shy than at Manyo, but after a while, the feeling of walking the halls and knowing everyone you see is wonderful. In the same way, my branch elementary school is a dream assignment. Although I go only once a month, the school is so small--28 students, 4 teachers--that getting to know everyone isn't hard at all, especially since the kids are so outgoing and enthusiastic to see me (getting to know all the names, especially my first year, was more difficult, but knowing the faces and personalities is a snap). The main elementary school kids are just as enthusiastic and affectionate, but since there are more of them and I see them only three times a year, I can remember the names of only the few cutest or strangest children.

This is a view of Go-chu in summer; click here for the panoramic view from Go-chu in winter; click here for a panorama stretching from Go-chu over the mountains to the sea.
Go-chu, January 2001
Manyo courtyard, January 2001
Of course, part of the job is also teaching English classes with the regular English teachers. This is something else that will be different for every ALT and every Japanese English teacher. I'll generally discuss an upcoming lesson with the teacher a day or so ahead of time, rarely for more than three minutes. He or she will tell me what we should cover and what the goals are, then each of us will suggest ideas for what to do, or at least we'll agree on who will be responsible for coming up with something before class. Usually, we have to cover the textbook lesson, but there's also time for activities or games to reinforce the lesson. Shortly before class, we'll go over who'll do what, but only loosely; in class, we'll wing it a little bit, and it all works out. We have to communicate with each other in class to coordinate what's going on in, and it's good for the students to see that. We also illustrate a lot of the grammar by having conversations in front of the class, and occasionally one or the other of us will stray off topic if something useful or interesting occurs to us. I try to ensure a high level of communication in class, between the regular teacher and me, between students and me, and among the students themselves.

If you're about to come over as an ALT, the only practical advice I can give you is not to worry about lesson planning or what to do in class. It will all work out seemingly by itself. Your JTEs (Japanese Teachers of English) will give you a lot of direction and help when you begin teaching, and before long you'll get the hang of implementing your own ideas and ideas you adapt from all your orientation workshops, JET books, and whatever your predecessor has left behind (and there's always the internet when you get desperate). I've been quite lucky in that my JTEs are not only quite good at English (which isn't as rare as it used to be before teachers had to talk to ALTs every day but still isn't universal) but that they're also creative teachers open to new ideas and willing to let their assistant have a role in planning and conducting classroom activities. If you find yourself playing "human tape recorder" for a JTE who has no idea how to use you, don't stand for it. If you don't like the role they give you, then make your own. The JETs I've known who were unhappy at work were people who, however miserable, kept waiting for some sort of magical intervention instead of taking responsibility for themselves. I'm sure they're almost as miserable back in their own countries, or anywhere else in the grown-up world.

Bringing new ideas and experiences to our Japanese colleagues, as well as learning from theirs, is part of the job, too. Beyond that, we give them daily English conversation practice, which will benefit their students for years after we leave (I really think this is the most important educational benefit of having us here). Even interacting with people outside of work, in the stores and bars, making them more familiar and comfortable with foreigners, is explicitly part of the job. If you read my letters, you'll see how much I enjoy that, too.

Maki, Saki, Yuki, and Moe--all now in high school.
I expect Akiyo to become Prime Minister someday, unless she prefers Secretary General of the UN (she'll shape it right up).
Clockwise from the top: Yoshie, Mayumi, Chiaki, Saki, and Mari. Saki's the girl so concerned about the dog-eating problem in Takefu; and, yes, Chiaki does always have that cat-that-swallowed-the-canary look, and yes, there's usually a reason for it.
Maki (l.) & Saki. These are two of the nicest people I've ever met. They're also smart and funny. I joke that I want to be like them when I grow up, but to some degree I really mean it. I'd be thrilled, as a parent, if I had one kid like this, but to get two of them? Wow.
Mika & Hitomi
Miki & Shoko
One of my fourth graders serving tea to her friend's dad. I think that smirk says it all.


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