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January 2010 Archives

January 7, 2010

Monitoring the classroom- perceptions vs. reality

There are a few students who regularly visit my office for chatting. These students are usually either returnees or those with a bubbling motivation to improve their English. It is often I who end up asking them questions about student life or their English educational experiences and I've learned a lot about what goes on students' brians this way.

Take some recent impromptu student discussion about my classroom monitoring for example. And what I mean by monitoring here is my habit (principle?) of walking around the room and observing closely while students are carrying out tasks. While I think of it as normal, even indispensable, for my teaching the students apparently find it a bit unnerving- partially because only a small percentage of their teachers actually monitor in this way. Partially.

The issue in question was what I am doing when I'm wandering among the students. You see, my students were sure that my monitoring was purely disciplinary. That I was trying to catch anyone who was cheating, sleeping or doing something 'wrong'. In other words, my intentions were seen as mostly negative in nature, looking for someone to scold, like the Zen priest and his 'big stick of satori', waiting to whack any wayward miscreants over the shoulders.

Of course, my perusals through the aisles might end up have this effect on student discipline but it hardly my primary intention, as I explained to my students. In monitoring, my purposes are in fact as follows:

1. For timing. To see how quickly the average student is getting through a task so that I know when to call time and/or move on.

2. To make sure that students are carrying out the task correctly- that they are on the right page, understand the task or assignment correctly etc. If not, I can point them in the right direction before they waste time and effort.

3. To allow for questions. Most students will never ask a question while I'm standing at the front of the class but are more likely to make a question gesture if I am strolling nearby. Making myself available for a few 1-on-1 moments is essential.

4. To see which aspects of the task the students are understanding well and/or struggling with. If I see common mistakes being made I can make a board note for the whole class or address the problem area post-task. This, to me, is the primary purpose of any pedagogy- to guide. And if it is some vocabulary that is stumping them I might address the unknown lexical entity immediately.

(Sidebar- For this fourth reason I often like to glance at what students are checking in their dictionaries while I monitor- so that I might learn what terms might be confusing them or are unknown to them. This, of course, helps me with my future lesson planning and classroom management, particularly since I often teach the same lesson three times in a week to different classes. But when I try to glance, most students tend to shut it down immediately, as if I've caught them cheating somehow, and am about to scold them).

I'm curious as to whether readers have other reasons for monitoring their classes or monitor in other ways...

January 14, 2010

Japan- Love it, Leave it, 'Change' it, Or...?

Japan- Love it or leave it! Does the old redneck adage hold any water?
I think it might.

OK- Today's entry is not about English teaching or universities but I hope you'll let me indulge in a little socio-political discourse anyway.

I think we've all come across NJs who are so unrelentingly and persistently negative about Japan, with the badmouthing becoming so predictable and boring that we can't help but wonder, yes I'll say it out loud: WHY DO YOU STAY HERE? After all, I can't imagine many of us are refugees, who can't return to our countries of origin for fear of losing our lives. And we are not usually so destitute or neglected that we are economically forced to endure (Yes- I am talking about English-teaching types here). OK- some have been assigned to Japan by a company but those 'sentences' are usually temporary. I also can't imagine too many such people would be reading this blog.

Does this then mean that the choice to stay here forces us to be non-critical, appreciative of whatever Japan puts in our paths? Obviously not. But I certainly think there is an heirarchy for complaining- that is, some bases and motivations for critique are more legitimate than others.

So then, what exactly are my criteria for legimiately carping about Japan?

First, the legitimacy of a complaint has to be connected to how much one has invested in this country. So, greater complaint legitimacy resides in the following order:
1. Citizens- those who have gone through the naturalization process have the greatest right to present their beefs. They've made the ultimate investment in the country. Score a 10/10 for griping privileges.
2. Permanent residents- they have also made their intentions of full participation in this society known. Their beefs may not carry the same pure weight as that of a citizen but they have still made a notable investment.
3. Other NJ tax payers- These people either haven't yet or don't wish to make the same commitment to this society that the above two categories show. But as tax payers and participants in this society they have some legitimacy in complaining, although it cannot- and should not- resonate as much as that of a citizen's.

Running parallel to the above are those who can answer 'Yes' to the following questions:
1. Do you have children who are Japanese, and especially, do you intend to have them grow up in Japan? OK- That's an investment. Give yourself some legitimacy points.
2. Is your spouse Japanese? Ditto- but not quite as big an investment as with the kids.
3. Are you a land, house, or business owner? Yes.You have legitimate interests too. Give yourself some carping kudos.
Of course, you will generally find that those with the greatest 'citizenship' commitment to Japan are those who have the family, business, land/house cards to play as well.

But wait, there's more...
What is the scope of your critique? If you are, say, a land owner and you want to moan about land reform practices or deed titling in Japan the fact that the content of your beef and your investment match adds more credibility to your rhetoric. But if your scope is a critique of ALL OF JAPAN, INCLUDING EVERY INSITUTION AND THE PEOPLE THEREIN, then you're just bitchin'. OK- This might be acceptable in a bar or some such place where a certain whining quotient is a given but don't expect it to carry any social or political clout. Don't whine when 'nothing is done' about it.

Next- what's the motivation for your complaints? Is it truly out of concern for 'building a better Japanese nation'? OK let's be VERY careful here (tangential rant warning)--

If this is your motivation I will argue that this is the mandate of the citizen first and foremost and those with immediate family as citizens close behind. But for others who take this line let me raise the missionary, neo-colonial charge- and this applies in particular to pasty-faced, melanin-challenged Westerners like me. Listen up- how do you think it looks when folks like us presume to be 'saving' other nations by demanding the establishment of attitudes, institutions, and values that only had validity 'back home'? "Look Japan, we want to lead you on the path to light and righteousness which we know of, for we have seen its shining virtue back in Flin Flon, Manitoba". A bit patronizing n'est ce pas?

Imagine, if you will, some VietNamese people in Australia saying that they are protesting Australian human rights to 'help Australia become a fully modern nation'. And imagine that this notion of saving Australia and changing it into a fully modern nation consists largely of telling Australians that they should have more VietNamese values, that they should adopt more progressive VietNamese traditions and institutions. Add to this the fact that most of these protestors have not taken out Australian citizenship, nor do they plan to. Pile on top of that a hypothetical in which many of the whingers have little or no English ability or understanding of Australian society or history- or that they get most of their alleged insights from dubious internet websites written in VietNamese.

So, people who want to think of their complaints as somehow being beneficial to Japan, that you are gracing this country with your noble spirit of opposition, that your protests operate under the banner of personal largesse, think again. (rant concluded)

The above applies of course to those who say they don't want to leave Japan, but to 'change' it. I mean, if someone married to a Japanese calls for reform of the koseki system, this kind of call for change seems reasonable. But to 'change Japan' as a whole, as in alter the very fabric and foundations of this society? Uh no. (Prepare for tangential rant #2)

This is for you, Mr/Mrs 'I want to change Japan': When you first chose to come to Japan (and for 99% of us it was a choice) were you not aware that Japan was not a Western country? That the society was based upon certain principles and values that were, shall we say, less familiar to us? And wasn't this in fact part of the attraction? That you were truly living somewhere else and not in a facsimile of Adelaide, Milton Keynes, or Columbus? If so, why would you want Japan to become 'not Japan'? Did you not expect that as a visible minority (don't play PC games with this term please, you know what I mean) you would be marked as different- positively AND negatively (just as you will be in most of the non-Western world)? Did you not expect to be thought of- and even think of yourself as- an outsider? If not, why didn't you do your homework before you came?

Now- does my little rant above excuse those occasional cases of out and out hostility and exclusionism that we all know of and perhaps have faced? No. But the NJ who claims he/she wants to 'change Japan' is talking about reforming the very country they have chosen to live in, not just how to deal with the occasional bigot or ignoramus (I suppose some may feel that ignorance and bigotry are systemic here, a wholesale national violation of 'human rights', and is therefore endemic to the populace at large- such attitudes usually reveal more about the speaker/writer's own prejudices rather than 'human rights' issues per se).

Anyway, don't you think that most Japanese would find this attitude at best arrogant, and at worst, threatening? Hell, I do. Sure as eggs is eggs, I wouldn't want Japan to suddenly change into Vancouver- East. Because, with warts and all, I chose to live in THIS society and within THIS culture. Now that doesn't make me an Uncle Tom or a willing punching bag. There are some things that I think could be improved here and in my small, grass roots way I can and do work for change in those narrow areas (especially those which I'm knowledgeable about and have a vested interest in) but I'm not on a God-given mission to 'change the country', especially into a version of what I left behind.

(rant #2 finished)

(Back to the main script)
You also lose credibility points if your motivation is smugness or sanctimony. Let's face it some people just love, in fact make a virtual cottage industry of, telling others how wrong and backwards they are. Such people actively hope for, actually go out of their way, to try and induce racism or ignorance in others so that they can them triumphantly claim 'victim' moral highground. These are the kind of people who are trying very hard to get offended, to find fault as a matter of course, and then interpret it in the worst possible way. This way they can feel justified when they put their hands on their hips and shout 'xenophobe' (which apparently is supposed to shock the alleged xenophobes into becoming tolerant, accepting people). Yeah, right, sure.

You also lose brownie points if you are doing nothing about whatever you find so objectionable. And, damn it, too many people conflate whining or bitching with showing concern, with 'activism'. As if those who don't chime in with the bashing are apathetic or tacitly accepting the status quo.

OK. Visible in-your-face protest might fall under the rubric of 'doing something' but here again we are subject to the legitimacy criteria I've outlined above. Is your critique focused or just a verbal volley of spittle launched at Japan en masse? Are you doing it mainly to point the smug finger of accusation at 'them'? Have you invested enough in this society, or that aspect of Japan that your objection addresses, to make your protest relevant?

There's more to consider. Is your oppositional rhetoric based upon sufficient knowledge regarding the background to the situation you are questioning? Or is it just a sophomoric knee-jerk riposte against Japan Inc. (or the comic-book villain-style 'Team Japan')? Can you read and speak the language sufficiently to make a well-founded, informed claim? If so- kudos. Your claim has a stronger foundation. Are you familiar with the background to, and the wide-ranging function(s) of, the object of your wrath? If it becomes apparent to Japanese associates that you aren't you will obviously lose legitimacy points.

And guess what. At that point, if J or NJs start thinking, "If you don't like it here, why don't you leave?" it will be because you've actually lent credence to that old redneck adage.

January 21, 2010

'Misses' and 'objectivity'

The Center Shiken (National University Entrance Exam) took place a week back and I'm sure many readers were involved at some level, most likely by proctoring. And if you were proctoring, (even if you were a back-up proctor, yes, there are benchwarmers in Japan's Center Shiken proctoring world) you will know the intricate protocols, steps, conditions, and general hoop jumping that is involved in what many might mistakenly think of as an easy process.

The key notion is of course that the Center Shiken must be fair and fully objective. That's why it is held nationwide with the same subjects being tested at the same time in over a thousand locales Japan-wide with over 500,000 students taking part. In order to maintain this integrity the surrounding system has to be airtight. Details are meticulous and must be adhered to under threat of your photo appearing in newspapers regarding a breach of Center Shiken protocol. No compromises. Nothing slipshod is allowed.

Lengthy protocol explanation sessions, complete with instructional CD ROMS, are prepared for proctors. The instruction booklet is the size of a small telephone book and, as far as I can read, contains provisions regarding appropriate actions to take if an examinee freaks out, becomes physically ill, if an alien lands in the testing room, and if an examinee suddenly morphs into The Dave Clark Five.

You know, the Japanese are generally very good with this type of thing. One old school generalization about Japan that I hold on to is the fact that the couuntry is pretty risk adverse and great lengths will be taken to ensure that there are no 'misses' ('miss' being the standard abbreviation for 'mistake', and it is the default term used in Japanese). If you've ever been involved, or merely watched, a kindergarten or elementary school undo-kai (sports day) you can see the meticulous, orderly planning manifested in a seamless- but somewhat tense and regimented- performance. (Whether people actually ENJOY it is another matter).

The thing is though, the more you try to avoid 'misses' by fine-tuning, tightening the screws, or devising manuals that try to cover every contingency, the tighter the system the more likely that a 'miss' is likely to occur- precisely because you've created a huge checklist of protocols that now could go wrong. As analogies, think of pure-bred dogs and how finnicky they are. Think of the guy (it's almost always a guy) who tweaks his computer to a T but it's always malfunctioning when any new software is introduced. Think of body builders where each muscle teeters on the brink of both 'perfection' and complete physical breakdown. The fact is, the tighter you build the foundation, and the more pieces that you use, the greater the likelihood that one piece will falter and lead the whole thing to collapse.

Hence, the near fetishistic emphasis upon 'miss' avoidance can actually induce scenarios where more misses are likely to occur. At the Center Shiken we proctors were quite tense, with almost every second accounted for and formally backed up in some way, making sure that the myriad steps were taken in precise order, with military obedince to the manual. This meant that we had to act with speed and efficiency but also meant that any screw ups would lead delays or claims from examinees of some breach of norm. And the more nervous, cluttered, and time constrained you are, the more likely that a 'miss' will occur. (There was also a ubiquitous stretcher placed outside the examination area, as if to underscore the severity of it all).

Now, here's the twist.
A miss in the test administering protocol is considerede a huge black mark. Therefore, about 95% of the pre-test information sessions and meetings focus upon the avoidance of a 'miss'. But, as an English teacher, I am more concerned about 'misses' at the larger level. Let me explain.

At the orientation sessions for teachers making the second-stage university entrance exams (NOT the Center Shiken orientation sessions) the overwhelming emphasis is also placed upon not having any 'misses' in the test. There is, in my opinion, too little emphasis placed upon producing a test that is valid and reliable. In other words, the overriding rubric is negative: "Don't have any mistakes on the test. That's all we ask". The endless fix-up and follow-up sessions are designed to make sure that no misses get through.

A big, get-called-before-a-committee mistake would be something like the following:
Match the four paraphrased sentences below with the undelined sentences (1,2,3,4) in the passage.

Although the lack of a 'c' answer should not really confuse students or cause them to answer incorrectly, this would be a huge black mark for the test makers.

Anyway, administrators usually want 'objective' style tests because objectivity, it is believed, reduces the likelihood of mistakes. So, in order to meet the heavy 'no-miss' criterion you could make discrete English language test questions like the following:
1. The Montreal Canadiens last won the Stanley Cup in [ ].
a. 1998
b. 1984
c. 1993
d. 2004

2. Hitler's [ ] regime lead to the restructuring of Europe's political boundaries
a. nebulous
b. soporific
c. pernicious
d. sendentious

As you will see, there are officially NO misses in the above questions. But they are clearly absolutely crap questions for an English test. (I've exaggerated the samples- I can't imagine any exam actually making such questions although they did come close in the not-too-distant past- to make a point).

The first question does not measure English skill in any way but rather teasts localized knowledge which happens to be presented in English. And even if this was accompanied by a passage containing the answer (c) it still would not be indicative of English skill, especially in terms of measuring suitability for university entrance. Also, if the answer was contained in the passage 99.9% of the examinees would get it correct which renders the stratifying force of the question meaningless. So, while there are technically no 'misses' in the question it is nonetheless both invalid (it doesn't measure what an English entrance exam is supposed to be measuring) and unreliable (it's either too hard, based on chance specialist knowledge, or -if the answer is in the passage- it is too easy) and thus cannot have any stratifying function for placing examinees.

But it IS 'objective'. It contains no 'misses'. Also, the answers can be immediately measured numerically: 2 out of 2. Administrators love this type of thing and consider it somehow more 'objective' because the results can easily be rendered as numbers- even though these numbers basically indicate NOTHING about actual English ability. "Hey, if it's mathematical it must be objective!"

In the second example, the vocabulary choices are obviously way over the students' heads which means that if the correct answer is chosen it will almost certainly be chosen randomly (and of course a trained chimpanzee has a 25% chance of getting the correct answer on a 4-item multiple choice question).

Hey, but it is still 'objective' and contains no 'misses'--- despite the fact that it is thoroughly invalid and unreliable.

OK- I can't imagine any university entrance exam test maker making such egregious errors (in fact, in my research I have found that many second stage entrance exams and recent Center Shiken are quite valid and reliable). But the point is that an inordinate focus upon avoiding misses and maintaining this surface, shallow notion of objectivity can obscure the bigger picture- that of makng valid and reliable tests that acuurately or reasonably measure a wide range of student English skills.

Questions that demand deep thinking or skills such as making inferences, reading between the lines, predicting, summarizing and so on tend to be both more complex and nebulous than simple kigou (so-called because they can be answered by a letter mark- a,, b, c, d) questions. This complexity or lack of clarity can often led to what overseeing commitees think of as 'misses'. Overseeing commitees don't like the alleged 'subjectivity' or interpretive element that such questions demand. Hence the safety factor in making more discrete TOEIC-type questions

I find this fear of alleged subjectivity odd. After all, as trained professionals it is precisely we who should be expected to be able discern which students display the greatest ability in a subjective or essay-type question. By taking away the subjective evaluation element from a trained, experienced pro (who is supposed to be an expert in the field- that's why you've hired them to teach at a university) you've basically narrowed the scope of the test. You're no longer measuring extensive English skills but discrete item knowledge. You're no longer testing English ability but knowledge about English.

Your emphasis on 'no misses' at the expense of greater test validity and an artificial sense of objectivity that in fact often reduces test reliability means that you've messed up the bigger picture of measuring holistic student English ability.

And that's the biggest 'miss' of all.

A QUICK FUNNY- My all-time greatest classroom mistake

A long time back, when I was new to Japan, I had a small class in which I asked the students to tell me about the Japanese person who they admired most. One of the students answered 'I admire Chiyonofuji'. At that time I had no idea who Chiyonofuji was, so I asked. "He is a small restaurant," came the reply. "Non, no," I responded. "He OWNS a small restaurant or he runs a small restaurant. Not 'He IS a small restaurant'". The student looked both frustrated and amused. "But he IS a small restaurant" he insisted. A few seconds later another student spoke up. "Chiyonofuji is a sumo wrestler," he explained.

Oh (blush).
But come to think of it, some sumo wrestlers are actually like small restaurants.

January 28, 2010

The Politics of 'Hello'

When Professor X, head of the English department, sees me in the hallway he gives a Japanese grunt of acknowledgement and waves his hand briefly, Ed Sullivan-style. I'm cool with that.

When Professor Y from the Anatomy department greets me he always says "Hi" or "Morning" in an unforced and friendly way. He recently spent a sabbatical in the U.S., enjoyed it, and is comfortable working within that idiom. No problem. More on this later.

But when Student Affairs official Z and I pass by me he invariably offers up an awkward 'Hello'. I've always felt a bit uneasy about this and reply in Japanese. Here's why:

First and foremost, can we please stop teaching Japanese students that 'Hello' is the standard English greeting, an equivalent to 'Konnichi ha/wa'? It isn't. 'Hello' is used to hail someone, to confirm the other parties' presence- not as a greeting per se. That's why you use it when answering the telephone. That's why you use it when entering a room, a shop or place of business, and no one's in sight. It's what you might well say to the unconscious or semi-conscious (Note how all these cases approximate the Japanese 'moshi moshi').

When it is used as a greeting (rare among English NSs) it is invariably marked. It's what Grandma says when visiting the grandchildren or what careworkers shout at the institutionalized elderly. And it's what native English speakers teach/tell to non-natives.
And that's why 'Hello' just plain sounds odd when someone greets you with it in passing.

Another, more socio-politcally based reason that I feel uncomfortable about (not "offended" please note) this 'Hello' is that it may be that the speaker thinks they HAVE TO talk to Westerners, even veteran Westerners in Japan, this way. Some such folks may feel it is burdensome ("Why do I have to greet someone in my own country in another language?"). I've sen this used as a platform for criticizing the alleged linguistic arrogance of english-speakers. The answer is of course that you don't have to do this- and in fact you shouldn't.

Some 'Hello-ers' may feel that it is a bit of a novelty. "These are the words you say to a Gaijin so let's use them". This comes off to me though as being a bit childish and as such doesn't reflect well on the speaker. (Or to be uncharitable, one might say it's on a par with making animal sounds when visiting a zoo- but I'm not going too far down that road).

Some might feel that this is my role at the university. That I am the guy you talk to in English and practice your English with- a token of internationalization. This one presents a little bit of a dilemma. I understand that most NJ teachers do not want to be treated as the walking eikaiwa school but rather as teachers, fully functional members of the institution. At the same time, there is an understandable undercurrent that I can help people with their English or bring an outsider's perspective into things that the school finds valuable. I suppose I'd say that it is a reasonable role but not one to be exploited for novelty. (In fact, special English help is expected to be reciprocated with some help from whatever that person's area of specialization might be).

At university-connected parties and extra-curricular affairs I am spoken to in about 50% J and 50% E. (These affairs usually involve university bigwigs- many of whom are quite good at English). Now, I am always happy to be talked to in Japanese, even when the content gets dicey in terms of my comprehension, for the simple reason that such people are not harping on my gaijin-ness, which can just get tiresome. Nor can they feel that it is burdensome for them or complain (explicitly or implicitly) that they are 'forced' to speak English with Westerners.

Worst are those whose English is clearly inferior to my Japanese but prattle on in English despite my attempts to ease the conversation (for their own benefit) into Japanese. Now, I don't want to discourage anyone from using English who wants to but not only is the pace of communication frustrating but I often get the impression from such people that they do not accept, that they refuse to hear, my Japanese. For obvious reasons, I feel like I am being targeted for an awkward, clunky after-hours English conversation lesson by these people and am not being treated as 'another worker at the bonenkai'- which just starts to piss me off. Not because 'my human rights have been violated by a racist xenophobe' as some would have it but because I'm being used, manipulated in perhaps the most boring way known to mankind.

As for those who address me in English, it depends. If their English is better than my Japanese AND if their manner of discussion isn't one of those overly affected J-Gaijin 'let's be international' schemas (like Professor Y above), then I'm fine. But I DO want them to know that at any time, should they choose so, speaking Japanese is absolutely ok and hey, I can take it! I always want them to be aware that there is no obligation to speak to me in English.

Students represent another dilemma. The extant goal in most schools is of course to have them improve theiir English communication skills and thereby to have NJ teachers, at least to some extent, provide them with opportunities to do so. As a result, 95% of my classroom language is in English. But, as a part of their wider understanding regarding NJ's living in Japan I do want them to be aware that there is no social obligation to speak to me or any 'visibly foreign' person in Japan in English.

So, what about outside of class, when it's about anything from administrative matters to just passer-by greetings? Here is a sample of what I tell all my new students in the first class:

"OK. Now I'm going to speak in Japanese" (ears perk up):

"I do speak Japanese, not perfectly, but for most matters Japanese is not a problem for me. Now, obviously I want you to improve your English so I will use English in almost all cases inside the classroom and expect, or at least hope, that you will do the same.

Outside of class though- well this is Japan and if you want to speak to me in Japanese that's perfectly fine. And if you want to challenge yourself or feel comfortable using English outside the classroom that's also fine. It's your choice. Whichever you choose, I'll respond in that language.

I do want you to know though that you have no obligation to speak to people who look like me in English at your part-time job or, after you graduate, in hospitals or clinics in Japan. Many non-Japanese can and will speak very good Japanese. If they don't, fine- you can switch to English.

I say this because I want you to underatand that English is not just a language for 'foreigners' but is a language for Japanese people too. And likewise, Japanese is for anyone who wants to use it- especially those who choose to live in Japan. Of course, we will usually be imperfect in second languages but that doesn't mean we have to stick to the idea of a Japanese code for Japanese people and an English code for 'others'. In fact, that goes against the basic idea of internationalization. Ok- I'm going to resume speaking English now and will not use Japanese much more inside this classroom".

Oh- I also tell them that if they want to greet me in English (which is perfectly ok with me), not to say 'Hello' but rather 'Hi' or 'Good morning'.

After all, would you say 'moshi moshi' to someone you can see?

About January 2010

This page contains all entries posted to The Uni-Files in January 2010. They are listed from oldest to newest.

December 2009 is the previous archive.

February 2010 is the next archive.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

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