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Think Tank

This Month's Think Tank Panel

January 2010

Topic: Nice things that happened in my classroom in 2009

Marc Helgesen

What are some nice things that have happened in your classroom/ (in your teaching) lately?

As they year winds down, I guess I like classes to “end", not just “stop." By that I mean I like them to have closure. We’ve been a community for the past year or at least the semester. There are a couple small routines I have that end the class in a positive way. One involves thanking the people at school who help them. We don’t focus on the teachers. Teachers and students all have a lot of interaction with each other. The students know we care about them and they care about us. I’m thinking more about people like the cleaning staff, the department secretaries, school guards, and bus drivers, the cafeteria workers, etc. Students brainstorm a list of the people they want to thank. I bring small packages and candy to class. The students decorate the packages and fill them. They design bilingual thank you cards. The recipients may or may not be bilingual, but I want to make sure the lesson has clear language goals and that the students are aware of those goals. Doing bilingual messages is a good way of having students notice whether they can say what they want to say in English with the same nuance they can in their first language. After class, the students – usually in pairs – deliver the presents and cards. They explain that they did an activity about gratitude in English class and they want to say “thank you" to that person. Then they give them the present.

I find this a nice way to notice all the people who help us. After doing this a while back, a department assistant showed up at my office. She was teary-eyed. In twenty years at the job, she said, no students had ever done anything like that to thank her before. Some might criticize, saying, “the students didn’t do it spontaneously. The teacher set it up." But isn’t that what we are supposed to do? Set up students to use English (and, in this case, the L1, too.) to successfully communicate what they think. Everyone wins.

I do another activity where students thank each other. Every person gets a worksheet with four medals and trophies printed on it. (You can get a copy of the worksheet here. (Click on “An award for you.pdf"). They think of an award for each person they work with regularly. It may be for helping the group. It might be for being creative. How about “a good listener" award? (In every sense of the word). At times, the awards are not even language related: Great smile or Nice fashion sense. The activity acknowledges that everyone is part of the community and contributes in some way.

I like using this as a way to encourage my students to thank each other. When I was doing it at the end of term last year, one student gestured for me to come over to her desk. She handed me one of the awards. It said “A Great Teacher". Of course that felt good but what she said next really touched me. In a fairly soft voice – talking to me but not wanting to be heard by everyone, she said, “You taught me to love English again. I used to, in junior high. But then English became all about the tests. I studied for the tests but I didn’t like English. But now I love English again."

It was one of those moments when you remember why you became a teacher. And why you stayed.

Curtis Kelly

Something nice that happened in 2009

At the beginning of this year, something happened that touched me deeply. The story involves a rather unusual student, who I will call Aki, and a normally, rather conservative professor.

Last year, Aki was a first year student at our university. She is a delightful girl and she added charm and warmth to our class. Everyone liked her. I had the good fortune of being able to teach her three times a week in the second semester. She did well in all my classes, but at the end of the last one, she said she had something to tell me. In a quiet voice, Aki told me that she would not be there the following year.

I was completely surprised. I asked her to stay after class and talk to me. If she had some problem with other students, I told her I’d help her, or if she was going to transfer to another school, I said I’d write her a letter of recommendation. But, no, she said, she wasn’t leaving for any of those reasons. In fact, she quite liked our university, but she had to quit for another reason.

You see, Aki is a different from the other students. Even though she looked and spoke Japanese, she wasn’t. She was Peruvian. Her parents, both of Japanese descent, brought her to Japan twelve years ago, when they came to seek work. They both worked hard at manual labor jobs to put her through school, and later, into our rather expensive university.

Then, last year brought a disaster for the Peruvian and Brazilian residents of Nagahama, in Shiga, where Aki’s parents work: the economy went into recession. For most Japanese, that meant they’d suffer bonus cuts or longer working hours, but for the foreign community in Nagahama, it meant losing their jobs. Both of her parents were fired along with 80% of the other Peruvians working in local factories. Poof! Just like that: The life Aki’s family had built over eleven years of hard work was shattered in an instant. Aki could not afford to continue her education, and now she was wondering if she could even stay in Japan much longer.

I was rather upset at the news, so I told a couple of her other teachers, the wonderful Professors K, K, & T, and the normally traditional, but warm-hearted dean of our department , Professor A. Almost immediately, this group of teachers looked into every possibility for a loan or scholarship, but they found out it was too late to apply for one for the next academic year.

It looked like there was nothing we could do to keep Aki.

Then Professor A, said, that as Dean of the department, he had a budget of about a million yen. He said he would give it to her as a special scholarship for 2009 so that she could stay long enough to find other means of support. We were flabbergasted at his generosity, but also a little nervous about how other teachers might see this bending of the rules. We tried not to think about these sticky issues and put his plan into action anyway. We had a meeting with Aki’s parents to confirm their financial need, and on that tearful day when we told them that we would help Aki. I felt better that day than I had for a long time, and I was proud of my colleagues.

Then, I learned later that something was not quite right. I am fairly sure now that we had been deceived about the money, not by the family, but to all our surprise, by the Dean. Now, at this point in the story, you probably think I’m going to tell you that he embezzled the money for himself, but that is not the kind of deception I mean at all. It seems there is no such thing as a “Dean’s budget." We suspected, and later confirmed that Professor A gave her the money out of his own pocket.

That tricky guy, Dean A, duped us. As a result, Aki is back at school this year, still believing she got a special scholarship from the “Dean’s budget." One of us asked the Dean if he would let Aki in on the secret when she graduates from our university. “No," said the Dean, “Let’s take it to our graves, OK?"

This professor that I thought was a bit old fashioned, that I sometimes argued with at meetings, that I never expected would break the rules, is now, my hero.

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