The presentations have continued all week; the motivation to take up the opportunity to communicate in an authentic way has improved. It is the greatest reward for a teacher to walk into a classroom and see every student working on their memorization, clutching their small memo card containing keywords in their hands, preparing for a performance like actors or musicians; and it is one of the greatest challenges of my career to be able to stimulate such motivation to communicate in real English here in Japan, the land of ‘English Conversation’ classes!
In one of my advanced classes, I have a student who has just been formally diagnosed with a chronic muscular degenerate disease, but her motivation to communicate is huge. She can no longer do the body language and gestures I teach to the class because she cannot raise her arms unaided, but instead she is gesturing with her head and eyes, and loving it. Japanese communication formulae are quite strictly observed still, so English free-flow communication is perhaps a breath of fresh air, a release, like getting a new passport.
One of the main aims of this speaking task is to improve fluency. The skill of speaking often lags behind those of reading and listening in Japan exactly because there are so few opportunities to speak. As with most skills, the important thing is to be able to experience that skill operating perfectly. Getting a taste of fluency and open communication often moves students here to study harder and to make up their minds to apply to study overseas, or to apply for work in international companies where they might use English in the future. Studying in this way with sincere motivation to improve rather than reach the short-term goals of passing examinations, is completely different to what they are used to.
‘Study for Life’ (MizuYama Sangyo, 2012) is the title of my textbook and course for first-year communication. My aim is to inspire them to enjoy the process of studying and acquiring skills for their own sake. I take them on a rocket ride to initiate that desire to take control of studying for the joy of it
I have learned that it is important to give feedback to students about their speaking skills and performances, so I give both verbal and written feedback. During these sessions I invite them to look back at their very first presentation in April, in week 3, semester 1, of the course. They can also compare their written feedback to see which skills have improved and which still need to improve.
Asking the students to close their eyes and think back to that first presentation, for some students their very first presentation in English, allows them to get a sense of how their confidence has grown. Foreign language improvement is notoriously difficult to detect for the exponent, so it helps to go back to feelings, and ask how it felt to stand up and talk to a small group in English. Presentation 1 is inspired by a Japanese culture topic which I assign them, e.g. soba (Japanese noodles), geta (Japanese footwear) etc. They are handed the entire responsibility of explaining their topic in English, translating any Japanese vocabulary, for 2 minutes.
For their first experience they learn about the elements of a good presentation, ie. eye-contact, memorization, speaking not reading, starting with an introduction and ending with a conclusion, voice level, gestures, most of which are new to them. They quickly understand what is needed and go about trying to practise it. I provide them with various models both on video and performed by myself.
As I mentioned, afterwards we ask how they felt, and for the first presentation they use words like ’scared’ and ’nervous,’ and confess that they are not scared of me, the teacher, but of their class-mates- peer pressure and accountability is paramount in this society – but quite quickly they learn how to prompt each other and some simple practice techniques. I find prompting a good strategy to break the ice socially, especially between boys and girls who keep well away from each other at first, and an excellent way to make their own memorization and intonation secure. An example of this in pairs is, sitting or standing opposite to check each other, one of them referring to a script while maintaining eye contact over the top of the script. Another is the whole class standing and giving their presentation or part of it, e.g. the introduction or conclusion, to me. Meanwhile I time them and encourage them, prompting their gestures and helping them to manage their time. It’s fun! They especially like ‘blah-blah-blah’ which they need to say instead of individual names and topics, etc. when we are practicing in unison. The energy of the group can really liven up with these activities.
After their second Book Review presentation, they have to grade themselves on a scale of 1-5 for each of the important elements, and then they tell their presentation groups about what they promise to improve for the next presentation. Gradually they come to know their strengths and their weaknesses, and have tangible goals for improvement. These performances are so similar to music performances for me. Everything depends on them stepping away from their collective Japanese spirit in which everyone is equal, into the limelight, where their unique spirits can shine. I believe that it is one of my responsibilities to give them this experience of shining and standing out so that they will thrive in the international community they will inevitably circulate in during their adult lives. It is wonderful to see them all opening like beautiful lotuses at varying rates in the muddy pond of the classroom.
This coming week is the testing period, so they are busy preparing for vocabulary and listening tests, which throughout the semester constitute 40% of their final grade. I have adopted what according to my knowledge is an innovative approach to improving the listening skill in Japan. Testing will be the topic of the next episodes of Japan Teacher Project.
The heat in the months of June and July is punishing, but we will continue on with increasingly frozen classrooms until almost the end of July. Especially during these hot times I often get that strange feeling of how come I’m here on a group islands in the north Pacific at this time in globalization! It is truly an amazing epoch to be involved in education in Japan.