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Interview with Bert McBean

bert_mcbean.jpg Bert McBean is from Michigan, USA. Following several years as an elementary school teacher in Los Angeles and Hong Kong, he first came to teach English in Japan in 1972. After getting an M.A. in ESL from the University of Hawaii, he started working at Oita University in Kyushu in 1983 where he still teaches. He recently finished, after three years of research, a reader for Japanese university students on the subject of Douglas MacArthur and the Occupation of Japan.

He is also the author of Healthtalk: Health Awareness & English Conversation (Second Edition), published by Macmillan Language House.

ELTNEWS
How would you describe Healthtalk?
Bert
Healthtalk is a content-based conversation textbook intended to increase the health awareness of Japanese students and give them practice in English conversation. Like many other conversation texts, it is communicative, student-centered, and written for young Japanese at the intermediate level. The difference is the subject matter, the content. The text covers eleven important health themes: Longevity; Cancer Prevention; Active Smoking; Passive Smoking; Exercise; Nutrition; Alcohol; Stress; Obesity; Dental Care; AIDS.
ELTNEWS
What made you decide to write the book?
Bert
The idea came from a feeling of disgust at watching my university students lighting up cigarettes – harming their health the minute they left my classroom. Walking behind them, I often had to gag through a trail of smoke. I took a survey and found that about a third of them smoked, which is close to the national average for university students in Japan. About 50% of adult Japanese males smoke, and breathing second-hand smoke is one of the things I find most irritating about living in Japan, so I decided to try and do something about it.

That was about 15 years ago, at which time I began giving a one-time anti-smoking lecture every semester. Through subsequent discussions and questionnaires, I learned how little they knew about health and physical fitness in general. It's not an important subject to kids whose student lives are concentrated on passing university exams. I started writing lessons with health as a theme, and those lessons – all tried out on my students – culminated in the textbook. Two other factors were my strong interest in health and physical fitness, and a desire to write a text that utilized all the methods and exercises that worked for me in my years of teaching in Japan, a total of 26 to date.
ELTNEWS
What is the rationale for content-based teaching?
Bert
Content-based language instruction assumes that language can be effectively taught through the medium of the subject matter. It further assumes that information the learner considers relevant increases motivation, and that language can be taught through contextualized use rather than simply through examples of correct usage. I have found these assumptions to be true. The key point here is "relevant." Everyone is interested in living a long, healthy life, but not all know how to go about it. Students seem to have enough interest in their own wellbeing to take the material seriously, so they have been getting the health message. The hope is that they act on it.
ELTNEWS
What problems did you experience in writing this kind of textbook?
Bert
Preparing the content itself – the facts, figures, and basic health advice – took a long time to research and organize. The most difficult part, though, was devising conversation practice activities for the specific subject matter. Imagine, if you will, making up pair practice activities, dialogues, etc. on the subject of AIDS. It was a real challenge to get students talking about the information in a natural way. I constantly had to worry about vocabulary level and information overload: You can't talk about cancer's seven warning signals without using words like sore, heal, lump, wart, and hoarseness. Because such uncommon words were essential, I put an English-Japanese glossary in the back of the book.

Also, the presentation had to be authoritative, but not "preachy;" light-hearted, but not frivolous; repetitive, but not boring. Illustrations had to be relevant and informative, yet comical for interest. Integration of content and conversation activities was a struggle. A resource book that provided help in this regard was D.M. Brinton's 1989 Content-Based Second Language Instruction (Newbury House).
ELTNEWS
What kind of courses/students would you recommend this book for?
Bert
healthtalk.gifAs the teacher's guide says, Healthtalk is ideally suited to university students because their health habits are still being formed, and they are at an age that they must make independent choices about their lifestyle. It is ideal as a second course or adjunct to your everyday conversation textbook. Actually, it can also be used productively with just about any type of conversation class of intermediate level and above. I think the material is of special interest to students at medical/nursing schools, physical education universities, and the like.
ELTNEWS
Did you have any problems getting the book published?
Bert
In the beginning this was not a problem because I did it myself. It was a desk-top operation, and I was able to do everything except the illustrations, including spending my own money to get it printed. I thought Healthtalk, being a special-interest text, would not appeal to the broader market enough to attract a publisher. After a few years, Macmillan Language House found it and asked to publish it. What that did was make it available to the thousands of students all over Japan who have used it and, I hope, benefited from its message.
ELTNEWS
What has changed or improved in the second edition?
Bert
Through the years that I used Healthtalk I kept a notebook on what worked and what didn't, what was too difficult or too easy and other such aspects. I ended up with about ten pages of notes. That, along with feedback from teachers and students themselves, provided the basis for the improved Second Edition. Fortunately, Healthtalk has been a steady seller, which provided the economic justification for its revision.

Another point is the up-to-date data and information. A text of this type needs some hard-hitting figures to get students to sit up and take note; however, figures are subject to change. For example, you can say smoking kills a lot of people, but it doesn't have as much impact as saying that one person in the world dies every ten seconds as a result of tobacco smoking. In the lesson on stress, I cited a suicide figure of 25,000 per year in the first edition. Now, it is well over 30,000. Much of the information had become dated, which was a major reason for the revision.

Lastly, a new book on health would be remiss without dealing with the 21st century's new plague: AIDS. Ten years ago, I considered a lesson on the topic, but decided against it because I thought it too sensitive a subject in a mixed classroom. Since then, two things have changed. Firstly, the AIDS crisis has become catastrophic in parts of the developing world and a major concern in Japan as well. Secondly, Japanese young people these days are much more open in their attitudes toward discussion of sexual matters. In addition to the usual facts, figures, and warnings, this lesson has sub-topics such as these: "How is HIV/AIDS Transmitted?", "What is Safe Sex?", and "The HIV/AIDS Test and How it Works." Considering that we have only seen the "tip of the iceberg" regarding HIV/AIDS figures in Japan, it may be the most important lesson in the book.

I am confident that Healthtalk will continue to meets its goal of teaching Japanese students good health habits through English conversation. It is the ultimate "kill two birds with one stone" text. Students won't learn how to introduce themselves, but they will learn how to live a long, healthy life and get plenty of speaking practice in the bargain.



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