...from out on the branches, fifteen feet above the ground, i could see a larger horizon, i could further imagine the vastness of our many landscapes...

17 February 2010

becoming a teacher

What do you think of when you imagine the United States? Maybe you think of New York. Maybe San Francisco. Picture these cities. The image in your head is probably of crowded streets, bustling shops full of people black, white, Asian….

This was not the United States of the 1960s, 1950s, 1940s….all the way back to the beginning. Try to imagine instead a New York that is divided: a white half and a black half. Imagine this written on restaurant doors, bathroom doors, school house doors: BLACKS OUT, WHITES ONLY. Imagine a street where blacks and whites don’t walk together.

A student in the back of the classroom covered her mouth as she choked back her tears. I stood at the board, holding a worksheet I had made to teach about Black History Month and Martin Luther King Jr. I had to stop, take a deep breath and hold back my own tears. I asked her if she was ok, not sure whether I was.

How do you teach something as complex and multi-dimensional as the Civil Rights Movement to a class of low-level, non-native English speakers? I had been toying with this dilemma all week, trying different variations of my lecture/activity with my different classes. In the past my students would quickly doze off or start chatting with their classmates if I spoke for more than five minutes straight. Textbook activities have always been torture for both parties in the classroom: I’m not sure how to teach them and students just regurgitate sentences while their brains fall asleep. Teaching this activity was a huge risk: the vocabulary was high-level, the material emotionally stirring, and the students were required to sit and listen rather than move around the classroom. I really wanted to teach this topic though, if even for only one fifty minute class period. All of the Japanese teachers with whom I work were skeptical, some even a little unenthusiastic. I sold the topic as a good listening activity for the students who take a lot of oral dictation tests.

Indeed, the vocabulary was a struggle. “Please repeat, se-gre-ga-tion. Good. Okay, dis-crim-in-ation.” The students were captivated…and tongue-twisted. Not all of them, of course, but there was a level of interest and curiosity in the classroom that I had yet to experience after almost six full months teaching. Students found it challenging—they told me after class—but they enjoyed the lesson, they participated, they asked questions, one student almost cried.

I was moved and encouraged. I was also frustrated that there are so few opportunities to actually teach these students, rather than simply have them repeat after me, their live English tape recorder.

During the next month (students are preparing for their final exams and my classes will not be held) and during the student’s summer vacation, I will be thinking about these lessons and searching for the loopholes that allow me to teach topics that get students to raise their hands, choke up, ask questions…and of course, use English! I am not sure that this is the norm, expectation, or goal for a typical Japanese classroom (I know it’s not). But, they were the ones who sought an American English teacher!

04 February 2010

Setsubun, the bean-throwing festival

February 二月 (nigatsu)

Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi...evil out! good luck in!

February 3rd marks the beginning of spring according to the traditional Japanese (or rather, Chinese) calendar. Japan follows multiple methods of tracking time. There is the relatively modern use of the Gregorian calendar that was adopted in 1873, and the Chinese lunisolar calendar that has been employed for centuries. Additionally, there is the measure of the imperial year which reflects the ancient and mythical traditions of the founding of the country beginning around 660 BC. Japanese time is also tracked by the ever-confusing "era name" that revolves around the current emperor's enthronement. It's 2010. Or, as my bankbook refers to it, Heisei 22. When I came here only six months ago, it was Heisei 21. My birthday is June of 1986 but it's also Showa 61, I believe, reflecting the later years of the Showa era. Confused? Try doing business here. (Actually, there are cheat sheets for reference when the Japanese nengo is needed).

Back to February 3rd. Yesterday was Setsubun, the beginning of spring, and the opportunity to cleanse your home and life of the evil oni, demons. Part of this cleansing process involves throwing beans around your home and garden, putting dried sardines on your door (the smell scares away bad spirits, and your foreign neighbors who might be the equivalent to demons), and visiting local Shinto shrines to make good wishes. Families gather and each person eats the equal number of soybeans as their age.

While I was told by my students and coworkers that this tradition is beginning to fade, it is still popular for families with younger children to visit shrines. I went to see what this bean-throwing ceremony is all about.

As I approached a major shrine in nearby Kofu city, I was confronted with nearly dozens of men wearing demon masks, devil horns, and crazy wigs. A dense line of families formed in front of the shrine and all around me stood parents thrusting their screaming, crying, and terrified children into the arms of these demon-masked men. While these "demons" were gentle and quiet, they looked rather intimidating and the thought of being thrust into their arms as a young child was a little unsettling. But to my left and right amused mothers and fathers dropped their children into the demons grasp, stepped back and snapped their digital cameras. Cheese? It seemed to me a bit like a child initiation ceremony.