Tuesday, February 07, 2012

America vs. The WORLD: U.S. Measures Chart

I found this picture online and had to laugh. Having lived in Japan for six years, I have become accustomed to the Metric system... which is sooo easy! When I went back over to the States for Christmas my family kept asking for conversions, because I kept using the metric system. Needless to say I had more than a little bit of trouble trying to get back into the weird U.S. systems--which make little sense once you go metric.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Grandmother of the Forest

Digital Photo by the Polish artist Katherine.

Helping my students translate their own renditions of the Little Red Riding Hood fable compelled me to write my own version. I hope you have as much fun reading it as I had writing it.

by Tristan Vick

One day, Little Red Riding Hood, who wasn't so little but rather on the plump side, was picking herbs in the forest. As she gathered special herbs needed to make tea and medicine, she noticed a very handsome man coming out of the woods. He was tall, had dark hair, and soft brown eyes which betrayed a certain innocence about him. His fashion was impeccable, and he wore the latest fashion of eighteenth century England, with a charcoal gray suit coat  with an inside waistcoat. The waistcoat was of a slightly lighter gray, which helped to enhance the contrast of his fancy layers. Pulling out a gold pocket watch, he checked the time. 

As Little Red Riding Hood gazed upon his beautiful face, her cheeks blushed and her heart rushed. With a rosy complexion she made her way toward where he paused to check his pocket watch.

To Red’s dismay, however, the young man startled at the sight of such a large mass lumbering toward him through the wood. Before she could reach him, he clapped shut his pocket watch and abruptly turned around and fled back the way he had come. Red was heartbroken. None of the boys ever wanted to talk to her. She broke down in the woods sobbing. Admonishing herself, she said, “Nobody will ever want to be your friend, you’re too fat and ugly.”

After collecting herself, Red promptly headed to her grandmother's house. Grandma would know what to do, she thought.

Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother was a very beautiful sorceress, who looked far more youthful than her true age. This was due to the art of black magic, and a powerful spell that her grandmother knew of which kept her perpetually young. If she had such magic, thought Red, perhaps she will have something that will make me beautiful and desirable.

Having told her grandmother the story of how nobody would be friends with her and the young man in the woods who would rather tuck tail and flee the scene than speak even two words to her, with a warm smile her grandma consoled her, saying, “There there now little one, I shall fix everything.”

Standing up, Red’s grandma, with her elegant waist, slender arms, and dainty hands, began gathering powders, jars filled with dried roots of the extremely potent variety, and bottles of elixir, and threw them all into a black cauldron cooking upon the fire.

Looking at the basket Red held in her arms, her grandmother asked for a few of the special herbs. Red gladly handed them over, and asked, “Are you making a love potion?”

Stirring the pot, her grandmother crumpled up the dry leaves and tossed them into the pot. “Something like that, my dear. This is a magic soup! It will cheer you right up.”

“Will it make me beautiful?” inquired Red.

“It will make your deepest desires into reality!” her grandmother replied with a great big grin. Then handing Red a bowl full of magic soup, she said, “Now drink this and think of the think you most want in the world!”

Since Red was feeling hungry from her long day in the woods, she greedily gulped down the soup.

Poof! Suddenly Red vanished in a cloud of smoke. To the grandmother’s surprise, Red had turned into a large black wolf.

“I didn’t expect that,” grandma said with a curious sort of admiration. Bending down she rubbed the wolf’s mane and scratched behind its ears, then opening the door to the cottage, she said, “Off you go!”

Feeling free as the bird, Red, who was now a wolf, dashed through the forest with great speed. The exercise invigorated her and the fresh air felt great! She found a pack of wolves to play with and they gladly accepted her into the group. All day long they ran up and down the hills and through the trees, until they all fell asleep curled up in one large pile. As she dozed off, Little Red felt happy, she was no longer a lone wolf.

The next day a handsome man was walking through the woods. As he walked into the darker area which was heavily shaded by thick trees, he began to feel like he was being followed. Spinning around he shouted, “Who goes there?!”

Although he waited for a reply, there was none. So he turned back around to hurry on his way. But just in front of him, from behind a tree stepped a large black wolf. The man froze in his tracks, as the wolf slowly walked toward him, as if it he were somehow familiar to it.

“D-don’t come any closer!” the man said, raising his hand in a show of caution. Strangely enough, it seemed to work. The wolf responded and then sat in front of the man as if it were as tame as a friendly beagle sitting by its master’s side.

Getting close the man crouched down and put out his hand toward the wolf. It smelled his hand and then, in a show of submission, gently licked the man’s hand. “Well, I’ll be!” exclaimed the man. “You aren’t so bad.”

Rubbing the wolf’s mane, and scratching behind its ears, the man said, “Maybe I’ll keep you and take you home with me.”

Just then the wolf spoke in human tongue, “You smell good.”

Alarmed, the man had leapt back a considerable distance. Pointing at the wolf with a shaking finger, he asked, “Did you just speak?”

Casually, the wolf got up and started circling the man. “I feel awfully hungry. Do you have any food?”

“I beg your pardon, but I do not,” replied the man timidly. He began to fear for his life as the wolf continued encircling him, edging closer and closer.

“Are you sure you don’t have anything to eat?”

Pulling out his pockets, as a friendly gesture to show he hadn’t a single thing in them, the man said, “See, nothing at all. I do apologize.”

"You're sorry?" the wolf said gruffly.

"Yes," said the man. "I am terribly sorry."

“Sorry, indeed!” snarled the wolf. The man stumbled back in fear.

“Ah, um… I think I had better get going,” said the man. Slowly stepping back, away from the wolf, the man made hasty retreat. The wolf merely seemed to be grinning at him.

“You know,” said the wolf, “It’s not safe in these woods.”

With that, the man turned and dashed away. His fancy suit jacket snagged on a nearby branch and tore. But he didn’t stop to look back. All he wanted was to escape that wolf and get out of the woods.

Thanks to his youth the man was able to run several kilometers without tiring. But even his young lungs couldn’t keep up the pace, so he decided to rest against a large tree. As he sat there, he looked up to see a beautiful woman pass between some trees a few yards ahead of him. She was dressed in black, but had a bright red shawl draped over her head and shoulders.

“Hello there!” he shouted out. “Don’t be afraid!”

Stepping out from behind a large tree came a beautiful raven haired woman. He noticed her hair, for her red shawl gently slipped off her head and came down around her shoulders. She not only was beautiful, with her midnight black silky flowing hair, but had an elegant waistline, slender arms, and small gentle hands too. Her dark eyes were smoldering, and seemed to hide a special kind of wisdom and maturity which only comes with age. The man instantly fell in love with her.

“What is such an elegant woman like you doing in the woods alone?” he asked.

“Oh,” she said, blushing slightly. “I am looking for my pet.”

Taking her hand, the man bowed slightly and kissed the white of her skin with soft lips. “Come, now,” he said. “Fear not, for I shall help you find your stray. What kind of animal is it?”

“I’m afraid you might not like me if I told you.”

“What could you possibly say to me that would turn my opinion against such an angelic complexion and the sweetest face I have ever laid eyes upon?”

“Still, I must warn you, no man has ever been able to subdue my spirit.”

“Don’t be so silly,” the man said authoritatively. “How could anyone not love someone as beautiful and fair as you?”

“You see,” the woman said stepping close to the man, and putting her lips near his, “It is no ordinary animal. She is very special to me, and I cannot bear to imagine her getting hurt in these immense woods all alone.”

“Well, come out with it,” the man said, trying not to sound overly agitated. Women were fickle, he thought, but he didn’t want to arouse her suspicions that he was short on temper, or anything less than a gentleman, so he gathered himself and asked with a pleasant voice, “What manner of beast is it? Is it a cat or dog?”

“I'm afraid it is something far less tame,” replied the woman. Pressing her body against his in a manner quite sensual for a stranger, she ran her fingers through his hair and caressed his soft face. Without warning she suddenly leaned in and kissed his lips. Looking into his eyes with her piercing gaze, she asked, “Won’t you help me with my precious darling?”

Feeling light headed from the kiss, and having never met such a woman before in his life, he replied without a moments hesitation, “Sure! I’ll help you find it.”

“No,” said the woman, a sinister smile forming upon her luscious lips. “I am afraid you have misunderstood me. I don’t need you to help find my wolf--I need you to help me feed it!”

“Wolf?!” cried out the man, flying back with fright. Just then the black wolf, whom he had met earlier, appeared from a nearby thicket of trees, and growled at him menacingly. Alarmed, he scurried backward until his back was pinned against a large tree.

“What’s going on here?!” the man demanded to know. But the mysterious woman simply caressed her wolf exactly like she had been caressing his hair moments earlier, then she looked up at him with her dark smoldering eyes and smiled a chilling smile.

Feeling a terror overcome him, he felt like running away, but for some odd reason his legs had stiffened to the consistency of lead. Something about her kept him entranced--frozen to his patch of mossy forest. Slowly the woman put her red shawl over her head, and without breaking eye contact disappeared into the woods. As she vanished into the shadows before his very eyes, her voice called out, “You know, it’s not safe in the woods.”

High above the forest a rustling below upset the birds and sent them flying into the air. From below came the snarling of a beast and the screams of a man—a man being torn to shreds as he was made the wolf’s dinner.

The End

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

The Japanese Education System and the Infamous Kenshukai

A friend of mine, who has diligently taught English in Japan for three years, emailed me a confession detailing her immense frustration with the Japanese education system. 

As someone who has taught ESL (English as a Second Language) for over half a decade in Japan, I greatly sympathized with her frustrations. The following is my reply to her initial letter. 


The demonstration classes you are referring to, if I understand your meaning, fall into the category of happyokai (発表会) which is an extension of kenshukai (研修会) of the Ministry of Education, Sports, and Science (文部省), also called MEXT.

As far as I can tell, the only difference between the happyokai demonstration class and the kenshukai is that the kenshukai demo is usually presented before the Prefectural Board of Education, whereas the hayppokai is usually presented before the PTA or the local city/town boards of education.

I only point this difference out, because like you, the demonstration classes bother me to no end. I used to make little distinction between the happyokai (HPK) or the kenshukai (KNS). Although both are pretty much useless, when it comes to learning new teaching methodologies or as a means to improve pedagogy, I still feel I can benefit, although perhaps indirectly, from a good HPK demonstration.

The way I see it, the HPK has the pretense of showing how much the students have learned, but as we both know, in actuality this amounts to little more than sheer wishful thinking. A rehearsed class is a recitation of memorized facts, not a demonstration of accrued knowledge. But why the emphasis, I ask myself, on memorized facts?

Testing. The fact of the matter is, Japan judges its success on whether or not its students can pass tests. Not on whether or not they have a general grasp of the information, but whether or not they know what information will be the focus of their testing. So the aim, it seems to me, becomes restrictively narrow to cover only the information they know will be on the tests. And of course the Ministry of Education knows what will be on the tests, since they are the ones who design and issue the tests. Literally all of Japan's education curriculum is predetermined by the government and the educators have no say in the matter. Anything which strays from the parameters of the mandate is not meeting the testing standards of the Ministry of Education, which usually spells trouble for the school. Therefore the school boards are keen to make sure all their schools within their districts are following the official guidelines. God forbid somebody teaching something different--something novel--something original even. If it doesn't fit within the narrow parameters which have been set, then it simply isn't allowed.

I find this hinders the education system in Japan in more ways than I care to count.

Another aspect of the education system which bothers me is, as you mentioned, the rehearsed classes. It seems to me, over the six years I have spent teaching in Japan, the HPK is of utmost importance for teachers who wish to keep their contracts and stay at the same school. They have to *impress the PTA, since one complaint could technically get them fired (i.e., transferred to a new school). But maybe worse than irrelevant classes are ineffective teachers (I should specify I am thinking mainly about English teachers in the context of the Japanese classroom).

Unfortunately, as we both know, no teacher, no matter how insufficient or poorly educated, will likely maintain their position indefinitely; as per custom here. No matter how horrendous, how unskilled they are, their ineptitude is usually overlooked and they are passed on to other schools only to become somebody else's problem. Personally, I have always felt the embarrassment of being out of one's depth and being completely ineffectual as an educator would cause some of these "educators" to re-evaluate their carrier choices, but apparently not. I don't know, but it just seems common sense that one who is not properly educated may only be pretending to be an educator, since we know that all good educators first require a good education themselves. Yet if good teachers are as hard to come by as they are in the U.S., I could imagine Japan having more than their fair share of lackluster teachers. The problem is, as you probably have observed, is the lackluster teachers almost always seem to be English teachers. All the other teachers are usually pretty decent. Why should this be?

Because English learning in Japan isn't about learning a language--like I eluded to above--it's about passing tests! The teachers, unfortunately, come out of the same broken system. But their poor English skills aren't the only thing interfering with their English education. In my estimation, their strict adherence to the MEXT mandates is another challenge. No teacher is willing to be a radical and start a rebellion of English learning. Indeed, with the issuing of Eigo Noto, the horrible textbooks meant for elementary fifth and sixth graders, the freedom of English education has been restricted even further. While teaching in Hiroshima I was using the wonderful English materials by the MPI (i.e., the Matsuka Phonics Institute). Regrettably, that all went away when Eigo Noto was pushed on us--and the English education has suffered horribly for it. Other places had not English education for elementary level learners, so Eigo Noto in many places is viewed in a positive light--but I wish to dispel this myth. Eigo Noto is horrendous and would be better suited as kindling to keep the fire going during the frigid Japanese winter.

Now we have teachers with almost no English education required to teach English from a textbook which looks like a team of illiterate monkeys typed it up. All this has become a total nightmare! The Japanese teachers are wondering how the hell they can teach something they don't know anything about, and all the native ESL instructors, such as myself, are wondering how the hell we are supposed to teach from something so horribly devised that it is actually working against our goal of improving student English ability!

Over the years, whenever I have tried to introduce new material to a class, even having given notice weeks (sometimes months) in advance, on the day I am usually told we do not have time for my lesson plan. Indeed, the teachers are under the stress of having to get through the mandated material. Usually I am reminded that they have their semester tests, their mid year tests, their finals, or their high school entrance exams to prepare for. With trying to meet so many testing requirements, which focus on mainly on grammar and vocabulary skills and never on language ability, it is no wonder they can't seem learn any English!

Additionally, the teachers have the additional burden of trying to keep their jobs--and this requires them to show off how amazing their classes are and how much the students have learned and how proficient they are appear!

Yet this sort of pin points the frustration we have, as Western educators. We place emphasis on actual results, that is, real proficiency and real ability. Not the mere appearance of it. We practice things like teaching methodologies and study ways to improve pedagogy. We want the students to learn, but what’s more we wish them to comprehend!

This involves teaching students to think independently. That is, individual problem solving comes with it the prerequisite of thinking on ones toes. Language, being something spontaneous and organic all at the same time, often requires one to make split decisions. Since individual problem solving isn't cultivated in Japan, language becomes doubly hard for Japanese. Their tendency is to group together to solve problems, as two minds are always better than one. But this works for solving word problems in a test book or for planning for meeting or in forming think tanks to solve social issues. It is not suited for acquiring language or having to deal with the spontaneous obstacles of everyday life.

If they can't think for themselves when it comes to trying to understand something, then gaining any sort of comprehension seems all but hopeless.

Comprehension of a subject is NOT a part of the Japanese education system. It simply isn't designed with comprehension in mind. Especially when the system is all top down. It simply isn’t designed with the students’ needs in mind, rather, it is designed with the need to pass tests. 

I (strongly) feel that this is the wrong way to go about educating our children.

After decades of slipping test scores, however, The Ministry of Education eventually noticed that while their school systems appeared to be doing great, and while their students were oh so excellent at reciting memorized knowledge, that when actually called upon to show proficiency rather than mere performance they found disaster lurking.

Over the last several years statistics have shown that Japan is being out performed by nearly all the other Asian countries with regard to English learning. A huge embarrassment, for sure. But instead of correcting it with new programs and new teaching methodologies, they issue more and more kenshukais, as if this would be enough to make them fluent in English.

My guess is that kenshukai was initially started as a way to keep track of the Japan's overall progress with regard to standardized testing, probably as a means to better gauge which Japanese schools were classified as academic or not and then rank them accordingly. But it seems that it has now become a way to rank itself among other nations as well. Not only this, but because of the slipping test scored and the poor English ability, Japan keeps issuing English based kenshukais. I have personally been to over a dozen in less than five years. 

But the issue is being looked at the wrong way around. Instead of asking what methods they can adopt to improve overall education, they are focusing on the areas needed to improve test scores. If Japanese students score bad on vocabulary nation wide, then the government starts issuing new textbooks with better written vocabulary, more vocabulary, and so on and so forth. Yet this only bogs down the already heavy saturation of grammar and vocabulary they already are required to learn. It simply ignores the real problems. Imagine trying to stop the Titanic from sinking by patching each individual compartment without ever addressing the large gaping tear in the main haul?! 

That seems to be exactly what The Ministry of Education is doing with regard to English learning as a second language. Instead of fixing the large obvious problems, they are patching irrelevant, unimportant, problems--meanwhile English education in the country continues to sink to new lows.

Perhaps this is the Japanese Ministry of Educations greatest mistake--micro managing English education. It has led to useless hours upon hours of pretend demo classes, all rehearsed performances which completely fail to gauge proficiency. 

Two things. If you don't know the students actual ability before the class you can't gauge their improvement. So what's the point? Second, if the class is a scripted performance, then you really can't know for sure whether or not they have comprehensively learned the material. They may simply all be good at memorizing the script on the day. So the question becomes, what are we adjudicating them on exactly?

In the numerous kenshukai post meetings, I inevitably always get asked to add to the discussion and comment on the class *performance. They want to hear it from a native speaker how wonderful they all did! Although I can pour compliments onto my students, and boost their confidence, I have nothing good to say about these post kenshukai meetings. But what can one even say? The class either appeared to go well or it didn't. The students either appeared to know what they were doing or they didn't. But in the end, nobody at all (apart from maybe the homeroom teacher) can tell how much the students actually improved (or didn't improve). So, again, what's the point? 

One who is new to the Japanese education system might remark, in their naivete, that the kenshukai could be used as a way to share teaching methodologies. You and I, however, know better than this. No teaching methodologies can even get off the ground without the Ministry of Education's approval, and only then only if the plan goes all the way up the bureaucratic chain, and only after it meets all the mandates. It's impossible to share teaching methods, because they simply aren't allowed. Even if they are brought up in casual discussion, teachers simply lack the authority to implement them. 

Sadly, every semester they are disappointed in the lack of proficiency gained and the total lack of English comprehension. Thus another kenshukai is scheduled, and the vicious cycle of futility repeats itself.

Honestly, the only thing I have found kenshukais to be good for is for catching up with other ALTs and flirting with cute, young JTEs.  Actually, correct that last remark. It may have come off as overly sexist. In truth, they don't have to be young JTEs, just cute. ;) 

All this is just to say, I share your frustrations.


Tristan Vick, Professional ESL Educator