Today, with agisai (hydrangers) blooming madly in the damp air as the rainy season sets in, I am crammed into a tiny classroom with inadequate air conditioning with 30 students. They are cheerful despite the incredible humidity, but quite excitable and much more immature than students of the same age in Europe and elsewhere. It is presentations day. They have been preparing for this during the last 3 weeks, so they are both nervous and excited because they can earn 7% of their grade for their performance.
Some colleagues may think that using presentations as a means of evaluating students in Japan who have few chances to practice or use their English, is a bogus exercise, but I find it to be an authentic communication ‘window’ if set up properly. It is true that many of them may never give a presentation in English in their working careers, but as their peer group view is so crucial here, it is valid to develop self-confidence and strive to not lose face.
In Japan, it is absolutely key not to lose face in front of anyone. This is one of the most shameful things that can happen in life and must be avoided at all costs. Students will usually do anything to maintain their image and not to stand out above anyone else either for meritorious or demeritorious reasons. They should at all costs blend into the muchness, their individuality only expressed in private. So, given this mind-set and the importance of ‘being yourself’ in English-style Education, it is important to prepare them for ‘standing out’ when they go to study overseas or encounter foreigners in the work place. If there is trust between teacher and students, these kind of presentations work well. Of course, it’s the preparation and practice in the process of getting ready that are the most important elements of this activity. There is little notion of preparation or practice in education here sadly.
To describe the task, 5 weeks ago they were asked to choose an English book (student reader of about 30-40 pages) and read it as quickly as possible. Meantime, in class we prepared the elements of the presentation. The introduction and conclusion are to be memorized, while the body of the presentation is scripted so they can add their individual book details and make a numerated memo from it later. We practise the introduction and conclusion extensively in class, adding gestures and intonation, and working on their memorization of these two short texts, which they enjoy. First they imitate me in chorus, then they give their introductions and conclusions to a partner/partners, and finally I spot check them, asking them to perform them to the whole class.
So, gradually as they finish reading their book, they add the details to the body of their presentation and we spend time making their small memo card which will be held in the palm of their hand at the performance. This may be referred to to guide the body of the presentation, and is useful to practise work with eye contact – look at the memo, look at the audience, look at the memo, look at the audience, on and on. Exercising this skill helps to develop their reading memory, extending the number of words they can store while looking away from a text.
I have developed these techniques here in Japan based on a music learning model. Sight-reading is an important skill to acquire as a musician. This requires looking at an entirely new piece of music and playing it at sight. Success with this skill depends entirely on how quickly the eye works. It needs to move ahead steadily and quickly while the hands/voice execute. As a professional musician myself for many years, I am very familiar with the practice discipline used to hone a physical skill, and so I apply this to language learners in terms of speaking.
After all this practice and preparation, they are hopefully ready to perform. Timing is a key element in preparation and practice. They have worked to fill up 3:40 minimum-4:00 mins maximum with fluent speech, ie. smooth and fast, adjusting it as they become more fluent by adding a little more information to get closer to their target. Timing constraints give them something concrete to work with. Their grade depends on this factor.
First, they will warm up by giving their presentation to a small group of 5 or 6. I walk around assessing and encouraging them. Then once more they perform to the small group for their grade. I prepare an assessment sheet for each student and have become fairly adept at filling 5 or 6 in at one time. I screen their performances and select at least one good presentation from each group to be performed to the whole class. During this process of warm-up and performance, the whole class is filling in a chart with details of the book they are hearing about, and will later choose their next reading book from this list.
By the end of the process, and by listening with full attention to the cream of the performances, they really know what they must do to be selected to perform next time. They also have a great sense of achievement and a sense of their fluency. Students tell me often that they really enjoy their debut as presenters and, though it is hard for them, they look forward to the next opportunity. It is amazing to see how much latent skill they have, and how they suddenly realize that they can practice and perfect their English in this way.