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The Uni-Files

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

May 01, 2009

Notes from the new academic year

1. The true meaning of FRESHman
I teach a lot of 1st year students, which is fortunate, become they come into the university virginally innocent, idealistic, ready to fulfill their dreams. They are compliant and curious, eager and effervescent. This honeymoon period lasts for about two months after which, like most people, students lower their expectations and fall back into their old habits. This is not a condemnation of “the system” or “kids these days!”, it’s human nature. You know, the way in which you’ve attacked something new with promises and passion many times in your life only to see that flame of idealism either smothered or tempered into something more balanced and realistic. Like when you started learning the guitar and swore that you’d practice three hours a day and become an accomplished musician even if it took you twenty years.

In the first few months at universities, students have yet to develop cliques, learn what they can get away with, see through any holes in the system or develop attitudes. This is the time when I tell them that if they are planning to be doctors it is expected by the surrounding society, and medical professionals worldwide, to have competency in English. They trust me on this, believe me, and you can almost hear the rustling of sleeves being rolled up. Until day-to-day drudgery takes eventually hold, it’s a nice classroom atmosphere, one that I don’t encounter with most classes 2nd year and up (although some about-to-graduate students suddenly develop a lot of earnestness just before they are about to enter the fray of the real-world).

2. Good classroom cop, bad classroom cop

This is also a time in which I have to set about applying classroom rules and root out those questionable and annoying behaviors (I start out more bad cop than good cop- something you can’t do when students are more perceptibly ‘customers’ first and foremost). These include:

a. Not allowing students who I call upon to immediately turn to the person next to them for consultation.

b. Not letting students do the absolute minimum to complete a task and then begin chatting in Japanese as if it’s now Izakaya chinwag time.

c. Not allowing students to hold up papers to their faces or even scan them for non-existent answers when a paper has preceded a communication task (You gotta love it when both partners eyes’ remain steadfastly fixed on an instruction sheet throughout the actual activity as though their open-ended communicative responses are somehow going to magically emerge from the fibers of the paper).

d. Not writing down everything that I write on the board or stopping an activity because I am jotting down something like a monitoring note.

e. No sleeping. Duh. My classes are definitely not boring and I do not play that equivalent of teacher 10 minute drum solos: lecturing about the language. Not banning the head down position can let loose a virus of permissiveness. It’s rude to me and others. If you are very sleepy, even for the best of reasons, stay home please! (Sidebar- I am shocked how many students can nod off almost immediately after the lights are dimmed and the PowerPoint comes on).

f. Not being late (double duh!). Some students think that because any university class is described as a ‘lecture’ that they can walk in the back unobtrusively ten minutes after the lesson has started and just catch up on their note taking. Of course, it doesn’t work that way in a normal English class. In those first ten minutes I will have outlined today’s plan and goals, given a brief demonstration or instruction, have handed out some accompanying print, and made groups. When a student walks in after all that has been done and start with the “What am I supposed to do?” routine I become a bad cop.

g. Not allowing something I call ‘The English Sandwich’ which is the case where, in a communicative activity, students surround a tiny morsel of English meat with an enormous slab of preceding and post-scripting Japanese bread. Something like this (the bits in parentheses are said in Japanese).
A. (Hi. OK are you ready? I’ll go first. OK. Number one. This one I guess)
B. (OK. Go ahead)
A. Have you ever been hospitalized?
B. Yes. (I was once)
A. (Really!)

3. The good, the bad, the otakus and the jocks
During the first activity in my first class a few weeks back I heard one girl speaking English much like I’d expect to hear a British-educated Indian to speak. Curiosity piqued, I asked here whether she had lived abroad. Raised in Pakistan it seems. We get a handful of students like this who have extensive English-speaking experience each year. These students are either a delight (they catch on to things quickly, help lesser lights, and can converse with confidence and insight on a wide range of topics) or a curse (they become know-it-alls, lack respect for the teacher, and affect a ‘been here done that’ posture).

On the other hand, some of our kids from very rural high schools where their only real English experience might have been a few fleeting communication classes with an ALT or JET before the juken prep kicked in. I’ll take these tabula rasa types with good attitudes, basic intelligence and curiosity, and general good naturedness, over the fluent-but-I’m-not-impressed-by-anything returnees anytime.

Med classes are generally 55-60% male, although some years have seen a slight majority of females. Now, I’m willing to bet that most of you teaching in Japan generally find females to be more Eigo friendly, with less of that sullen classroom posturing and an uplifting sense that English is accessible and engaging. But among Med students I’ve noticed a very positive upswing recently in the skills/abilities and general attitude of the males. They seem to be more assertive and less stand-offish than before. They tend to create the energy and can-do atmosphere in the classroom, which in the past, was the product of the ladies.

The usual sub-types persist though. While medical studies might attract a few more otaku types than some other faculties, we get our share of school spirit/student council member types, wanna-be-your-buddy puppy dogs, jocks, achingly cool surfer dudes, ‘hot babe’ gals, fashion plates in designer clothes, finishing school debutantes, a few biker-like toughs of either sex, and some international backpacker-cum-borderline hippies. It’s a pleasant mix, as they come from all over Japan and tend to be a little older and more mature than the other faculties’ students because many spent years at yobikos, are transfer students, took time off to ‘find themselves’, or have already graduated or worked but now want to change the course of their lives.

4. The nursing students
The nursing students are very different, as you might expect, from the medical students. Most are local (South Kyushu accounts for the vast majority), right out of high school, have very limited experience with anything (including English) and are 90% female. Before entering the classroom the contrast with the med students is startling. The Meddies tend to be rather subdued before class but the nursing class sounds like a hen party. A very drunken hen party- which can either be quite a laugh or an annoyance depending upon how you approach it.. Don’t get me wrong- these classes have a lot of energy and the nurses seem to be less shy about trying out English and making mistakes (and just seem to be enjoying the whole process more). If the nursing students are ‘with’ you, the teacher, they are with you all the way. There’s more of a party atmosphere in these classes and I think that teachers who are too uptight or regimented would bristle in these sessions. Fortunately, my vast wealth of experience (wink wink) has taught me how to engage these potentially unruly classes and get the most out of them. There’s a lot of ‘go with the flow’ involved, but also the harvesting of anything of sustenance that flows down that stream with you.

(*More on varying teaching styles according to classes and teaching highly mixed-level classes in the future).


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It's a bit frayed around the edges, the myth of Japanese homogeneity, but it still endures, and in the sense that myths embody in their metaphors some eternal verities the student types and their behaviours (culturally-updated) you amusingly limn, Mike, attest to that similitude.

To add to your typifications, how 'bout that other one, the variant of immediately consulting with a seat mate when called upon to answer a question, when the student does an about-face towards the back of the classroom? I usually counter by doing a double-take on the blackboard ;)

On a slightly more serious note, there is also the (rare) type of student who will challenge a sensei's implicit claim to authority, to knowledge that is. During the last break I received an email from a former student who had graduated a couple of years ago. She wanted to know the publisher of a writing textbook I had used in her class, in particular with regard to the grammar component it included. Intrigued, I replied with the question of why she wanted to know. Somewhat evasively, she answered with even more questions, the kicker being whether I had ordered the textbook or had the university prescribed it. I was getting a little worried at this point so I asked her quite directly what this was all about. Finally she answered: she and her brother, a student at another uni, had had an argument about a grammar point and the brother had insisted that what she had learned in my class was wrong. With a little sigh of relief-cum-recognition, I then wrote back the needful, and that was that.

Such incidents do keep you on your toes and though every seasoned instructor has his or her own bag of tricks, one skill worth honing is the ability to think on one's feet, pedicurically-speaking ;)

Hi Walter.

An interesting thing about students challenging teachers in Japan...
You know how we Westerners are supposed to enjoy and encourage challenges as a sign of the students' independence and active minds? That we are not supposed to take an authoritative air into the classroom thanks to our liberal educational principles? Well, I don't know if I've been in Japan too long or if it's the 'I've become my parents!' syndrome- but I bristle when I get challenged now (inwardly, not visibly).

I suppose part of it is the student violating their own norms, where criticism, doubt, questioning of authority is usually expressed more indirectly, an approach that I personally find very civilized. I have NO trouble with a student quickly pointing out a mistake I made, such as me writing the wrong page number on the board, or jumping over an item in a list. And of course I have no trouble with students who are confused and ask for clarification when they find something I've said not to be in accordance with what they've learned elsewhere (or, ubiquitously, with what it says in the dictionary). But those rare outright challenges on English are...well... they just seem like challenges, power posturing to me.

Of course, if and when we are dealing with social or political issues (and not just English as English) I prefer a questioning of what I've said (which is the whole point of such content-based classes) although in reality I tend to actually reveal very little of my own positions in such classes.

"in reality I tend to actually reveal very little of my own positions in such classes." -- very wise, Mike. Back in the 'really" old days, the late 80s, as a teacher trainer for what was then known as Time-Life, I had occasionally to troubleshoot company-client relations. One of our otherwise quite competent teachers had ruffled feathers by using his classroom as a soap box for his environmental hobby horses. He was on his own way out in the boondocks teaching factory workers. I spent a couple hours with him gently feeling out the situation and suggested he take his activism out of the classroom and into the local community. This he did, in fact organized a successful protest march against excessive wrapping and throw-away hashi in the town, and the client had no further complaints.

Practicing what I preach, I too rarely take explicit stands on topical issues in the classroom, at most taking a devil's advocate role. There is teaching and there are teachings, the two, in my opinion, best kept separate.

Walter, hi. While I understand your position regarding taking a stand on topical issues, one of the best lessons any student can learn is that of the well thought out opinion, with evidence. This is a large part of the Greek tradition in education, i.e. western education, and I believe it is as valuable as teaching one's verbs from one's nouns. Culture cannot be separated from isolated language skills in my opinion, particularly for advanced students, which Mike, you and I seem to deal with. Cheers.

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