REaChing for the stars
Empowering English Language Learners
This year is a busy one! With seven different classes and five textbook free curricula, it's bound to be exciting.
As always, I make getting to know my students my number one priority. Learning English is a great challenge, and it's important that all of my students know I value the effort they will make in my class and more importantly the goal of our time together, which is communication. I felt that this year got off to a particularly great start. This was in part due to the time I spent planning activities, but also to my fantastic students and a bit of help from a small rubber chicken. It's amazing what a little laughter can do!
These are some of my favorite beginning of the year activities:
This is by far my favorite time of year in Japan. My husband and I just returned from a ten day vacation in Thailand, and both of us were feeling a bit depressed about a return to colder temperatures and rainy weather. But, outside our apartment there are two large sakura trees, and both were showing signs of blooming cherry blossoms. Our mood was lightened when we remembered that cherry blossom season was just around the corner!
In Kanazawa, there are some particularly lovely places to see cherry blossoms along the Saigawa River and in Kenrokuen Park. In the distance, snow capped peaks can be seen in the background of the petite light pink blossoms of the sakura trees. While these places become crowded with hanami (cherry blossom viewing) participants, it's a lot quieter than in the bigger cities at this time. In Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, hanami parties abound, and blue picnic mats crowd all available space in the popular sakura parks. No matter where you find yourself, observing this fleeting gift of nature is a delightful experience.
For the school bulletin board, I created an article about hanami in Japan and the cherry blossom forecast this year. This article teaches students "bloom" and "predict". As I read through Input-Based Incremental Vocabulary Instruction by Joe Barcroft (TESOL), I'm reminded that "the number of times a target word appears in...input is critical." With that in mind, I repeated use of these vocabulary terms throughout the article.
Now that classes have finished, I have a little more time to work on materials development. As teachers, we often get so bogged down with the cycle of planning, classes, testing, grading, that we don't have time to realize all of our ideas. However, it is in curriculum creation where I thrive in expressing my imagination and personalizing resources to use in my classroom. This morning, I worked on writing up an article about the Sochi Winter Olympics to post on the English News Bulletin board. It may be of some use to other teachers, especially of Japanese students since there are some key word translations. Please note that I made this for educational purposes and have borrowed some photographs from new sources, which I've sited throughout.
Classes have finished for the year and that means that all the final units and projects are complete! In the Advanced English II class, it also means we say good-bye and congratulations to the graduating students. In the Comics class, to graduating students made their own comic, a culminating activity after a year of reading, narrating and analyzing the comics of others. In this final challenge, as a follow-up to reading the fantastic graphic novel, American Born Chinese, by Gene Luen Yang, students are asked to think about their favorite Japanese folk tales and examine them for the lesson, or moral, of the story. They then choose one such folktale to update in comic form.
This year, students chose the story of Warashibe Choja, "The Straw Millionaire." In this story, a poor peasant who is a devote worshiper of the god Kanon finds great fortune through simple acts of kindness. Everyday, he goes to the temple and prays to Kanon with a meager wish for shelter and work the following day. Impressed by his modest wishes, Kanon tells the man that the next day, the first thing he touches will bring him great fortune. The next thing he touches is a piece of straw. What follows is a series of generous trades, in which the man gives of his gifts and receives something even more valuable in return, until eventually he is married to a beautiful wife and has a farm of his own. I love the story. It has been compared to the One Red Paperclip project, but the stories are actually quite different. In the One Red Paperclip reality, a man traded one red paper clip for various other objects of ever increasing value and had adventures in the process, making Japanese television news, a blog, and a book. But, the goal was to trade up and to have this adventure. However, Warashibe Choja was just a man with humble wishes and a generous heart, who was willing to give up the things he had to help others.
Now, my students shifted the focus a bit, their title revealing that in their story "fortune comes to an honest person." They tried to keep the trade aspect, with strict limits on story length. Over about 8 hours of class time, students first brainstormed their story outline and page plots, then I transcribed the script as they dictated to me, telling me when the text would be in a caption, thought bubble or speech balloon, and generally what would be in each panel. Next, one student focused on fine tuning the script with me while the other, chiming in when needed, worked on sketching out the design. They both worked on the final touches, adding text in pencil and then going over all their work with black markers and color. The results can be seen below. A great accomplishment for a first comic!
In my second year classes, we finished the year off with a unit entitled "International Agent Training." In this unit, students learn the names, geography, nationalities, languages, capital cities and landmarks of various countries around the world through partner activities and information gaps. At the beginning of each class, students go through customs to a new country, where they fill out a visa form in their passports outlining country facts and then practice greetings in that country's most common language. We also review the present perfect vs. simple past when talking about experiences. The final assessment is a peer "job" interview where classmates interview and score one another on their ability to be international agents. First, students must write out a "resume" of their experiences in training. They are encouraged to think about the countries we visited, the languages we'd learned and spoken, but also to be creative, to imagine what sort of difficult and exciting experience real agents have had. Then, after a few practice runs, they start their interviews. I love to listen to these as students are asked "What's your international experience?" and respond with "I have spied on the Pentagon" or "I have swum the Pacific Ocean." I think probably the aspect they like most is playing the senior agent doing the interview. They get very into their roles as interviewers. One student this year, unimpressed by the lack of adventurous experience of his interviewee, said he did not recommend him for an international agent position because "playing tennis" was not good experience. Of course, I check all of their scores after the fact via recorded replays to make sure they scored fairly.
As part of this unit, I had been searching for a good book to do a choral read aloud to review the grammar point of present perfect. Last year, I had found a children's book titled, "Have you ever...?" that was set to rhyme but, I couldn't find again this year. I decided to make my own read aloud story in PowerPoint. I thought it would also be fun for students to see some of my travel pictures and hear about my experiences. Travel is a passion of mine, and it's a good to share this. Maybe I'll inspire some of my students to travel too. Below is the PowerPoint I put together.
It is the end of the school year here in Japan, and the final question posed to students in Advanced English class is "What does it mean to be a global engineer?" In class, we discussed this with concept webs, and then we did some reading and watched some videos to help us think about the idea. Now, students are tasked with creating their own definitions for what it means. This is rather timely this year, as the school administration looks to a new era of curriculum reform, with a greater focus on global understandings, relationships, and English development.
As students finish their definitions, they will post them here as comments. Do you agree with their definitions? Feel free to post comments as well. Who are global engineers? What do they do? Why are they important? I urge you to help students explore these questions.
We've sure been busy around here at KTC. In the past two months, we had two fantastic rounds of student presentations before the holidays, and lots of fun with holiday parties for Christmas. Then, was off on my trip to Taiwan for the winter holiday, where I had a great time exploring the cities, culture and foods of Taiwan. Now, we're back to work, getting ready to finish up the school year.
Before the new year, my fourth year students in two different classes: Presentation and Advanced English I, both made noteworthy presentations that I wanted to write about, but didn't have the chance until now.
At the beginning of this year, I also finished making the second year skills class school video diary, pulling together videos from all of the students. I used these for a class listening activity.
Read on for more about these projects.
4th Annual Gaming Conference
First, for the fourth year in a row, Presentation class students created posters on their favorite video/computer/cell phone games. Proving once again that focusing on topics that interest students is a fantastic motivational tool. This year, students did a fabulous job creating poster designs inspired by color schemes and imagery from their chosen games. At the conference, two sections of the class took turns presenting their posters in English, and teachers were also welcome to come and hear the students poster presentations. Students were encouraged to treat the presentation as a professional poster presentation, where they needed to grab audience members' attention, hold it, and think on their feet to answer questions and respond to comments. Visitors to the conference could vote on their favorite poster designs in each section and the best English presentation. In addition, this presentation is graded with a peer component, where each student is assessed via checklist by a few of their classmates. Scores are averaged and are a percentage of their final grade. The following week, in class, winners were announced and received a 500 yen gift certificate to Baskin Robbins, simply "31" here in Japan.
Junior High School Presentations
In Advanced English I: Collaborative Learning in English and Engineering, students train for much of the year to become English engineering teachers. Their goal is to learn how to teach a hands-on engineering project in English to local junior high school students. They work in teams, each on a different project. They learn important skills for teamwork, communication, presentation and teaching. It's not easy! This year we had the same three projects as last year: a rubber band car, to teach about energy and prototypes, a marshmallow tower, to teach about shapes and forces, and a computer animation project, to teach about the concept of frames in animation. Each group of KTC students worked incredibly hard to plan these projects in English, typing several drafts of their plans, presenting portions to each other, and doing a trial run with first year students at school. In December, they took all their planning and practice with them as we presented to three eager groups of junior high school students at Takamatsu Junior High School. Advanced English students had on their biggest smiles, despite their nerves, and drew junior high school students into their topics with ease, creating a fun atmosphere for learning and English practice. Afterwards, they all reflected on the experience, noting how difficult it was to be a teacher, but, how rewarding it was to see students smiling and having a good time. They wrote about their learning, teamwork, project concepts, and gave advice to students next year. Here are some excerpts from their writing:
Below, please find some pictures of students at the junior high school presentation.
KTC Video Diary Project
In the second years skills classes, we have a several week project where students get into small groups, of two or three students, and are responsible for planning and implementing video interviews about topics of interest to the students for a KTC video diary. Students have to borrow a video camera from my office, plan time outside of class to create their videos, and interview students from different grades and classes. I then pull all of these together, editing them, adding background music and titles in Windows Movie Maker. The result this year was a 12 minute video, on six different topics, with interviews from all of my second year students. To make viewing this video more interactive, this year I added a listening component. I created a set of questions for students to answer about the interviews, and the results were great! While at first students were a bit shy to see themselves on the TV screen, they were all engaged in listening and trying to answer the questions, which was also a great review of language we'd studied in class. My goal for next year is to spend a bit more time on planning and training for recording the videos, and to also gives students more choice in topics.
This is always an invigorating point in the school year for me. I am able to see students' cumulative progress, reflect on what worked and what didn't, and start brainstorming how I can improve curriculum for next year.
"It’ll actually be easier to learn a foreign language than to compete domestically." Says Dai Yoshida of Japanese youth ("Between Dreams and Discrimination, Japanese Build New Lives in the City by the Bay", Nicolas Gattig, The Japan Times, December 3, 2013.)
My colleague Robert shared this article with me and some graduates of KTC that now study abroad in the U.S. The article follows the stories of three different Japanese people living in San Francisco, and how they view and experience life in the U.S., and their native land of Japan. This quote particularly caught my eye, because it is an important thing for my students to hear, but, also, because I believe this could be said of American youth.
At the JALT conference I attended in November, one of the plenary speakers, Carline Linse, discussed the various ways in which multilingualism is an asset to our lives. Both in offering us different views of the world and ourselves, and by offering us numerous new job opportunities. There is tremendous capital in learning another language, and it doesn't apply only to the youth of Japan. However, for many, learning another language can seem an unimportant or impossible task.
If we are not lucky enough to be born into bilingual households or communities, live abroad, or to live in Europe (hee hee), than, we must take the initiative to learn another language ourselves. Our school systems don't do it successfully, but, it's not necessarily the fault of the schools, is it? For, learning another language means exploring the unknown and embracing alternate identities as we embrace different ways of communicating and viewing the world, and this is best done when we are immersed in that language. This article ultimately tells the tale of those who are willing to embark into the unknown by doing just that.
The question is, how can we encourage that exploration as teachers? How can we inspire self-motivation and self-discovery through language learning? How can we help students be open to
This is the second year of Comic class and despite a very small number of enrollment, only two students, we are accomplishing amazing things. At first I was rather nervous about only having two students, especially since one student did the New Zealand study abroad program and one did not. However, I was lucky because both of these students are friends, and they are in a band together, so, they have a certain camaraderie that is an asset to our class environment. They are always willing to push one another and help each other out. This was very apparent through our most recent project, narrating the first chapter of the wordless comic of Sshhhh! by Jason. Last year, when we did this narration, I split up the story pages between different groups of students, and, did the introduction and conclusion myself. This year, I decided to do some shorter, alternate wordless comic practice with students prior to narrating Sshhhh! so that they could narrate the whole story themselves. For this purpose, I used some Bubbaworld Comix extras, short wordless comic strips, to model narration and have students practice some on their own. As we narrated, I took notes on their narration and had them read what I'd written, self-correcting grammar, adding details and descriptive language, and using context to teach key vocabulary.
Before we began our big narration project, I had the students "read" the first chapter of Sshhhh!, which is a dramatic love story about a crow and an evil nemesis. I put "read" in quotation marks here because there are no words to read, but pictures to view and interpret. We discussed the general theme of the story, and I encouraged them to remember the whole story as they narrated each part of the story. While I had only planned to spend a few weeks, two hours a week, working on this project, students became so enthusiastic about their task and dedicated to creating an accurate and exciting account of the pictures, that I decided not to worry about time. We ended up going over our deadline by two weeks, but, the results were worth it. Both students used an impressive amount of English both to narrate and to discuss narration. Each week, I continued to record what students said, and encouraged them to do the same. Writing out new words or sentence patterns helped students remember them. When we met the following week, I would have them reread what they'd previously said, and they would again self-correct grammar and work to make their words more clear and vivid. They never got bored or shut down, but continued to work diligently on this project. I sat with them as a guide, helping them when they got stuck or showing them how to reword things so they made sense, but, my input was purely supportive, they did the hard work themselves. I also provided some translations and pictures to explain vocabulary I thought might be useful and otherwise unknown to them.
In the last two weeks, we began working on pronunciation and intonation, with a focus on consonant endings (Japanese alphabet doesn't have consonant endings so this a continual problem for Japanese students studying English,) and the importance of stressing meaning words. We also worked on adding emotion and drama to our voices, to tell the story through our tone of voice. We did this by listen and repeat and also through students independent practice.
Finally, I recorded the audio of students narrating the story, and converted this audio to WAV files to then embed in a PowerPoint. I uploaded this to AuthorStream again, as I'd done last year. Here are the results: Sshhhh! Narration by Kanazawa Technical College Students 2013.
We also watched last year's narration and the animated version of Sshhhh! so students could see and hear different interpretations of the story.
This past weekend, I went to Kobe to present at and attend the 39th annual JALT conference. This was a great international conference hosted by the Japan Association of Language Teaching, and, as always, was a valuable learning and networking experience. For my presentation, I held a workshop on "tapping in to students' interests with comics," where I discussed the Advanced English II course I teach at KTC and shared activities from the course, in hopes that other teachers would find some useful and fun things to bring back with them to their own classrooms. I was lucky to have time slot right after the plenary speaker, Penny Ur, and more people attended my workshop than I expected. I had a knowledgable and enthusiastic crowd of participants and I hope everyone enjoyed it. Through the comic activity jigsaw participants completed in the workshop, lots of great ideas and resources were shared for using comics in various teaching contexts, and we didn't have time to fully discuss all the possibilities. This blog post will hopefully allow us to continue our discussion. Please feel free to post questions and ideas here for others to respond to. The PowerPoint and hand-out from the workshop are posted below.
It is mid-October, and there is a chill in the air. With that chill, comes shorter days, colored leaves, and Halloween! Around the world, Halloween is one of the most marketed holidays. In the U.S., children dress up in costumes and head out to the streets on October 31st to "trick - or - treat" and get scared in haunted houses or haunted walks through the woods. They carve pumpkins and put candles inside to decorate their front steps. Halloween parties and parades are plentiful, for all ages, it is a time of good fun and disguises. In Japan too, and other places around the world, signs of Halloween abound, with paper banners adorning store windows and Halloween candy and costumes for sale. But, do you know the history of Halloween?
According to the History channel, Halloween comes from the Celtic festival of Samhain. For Samhain, people would make big bonfires and wear costumes to scare away ghosts. Later, in the 18th century, Pope Gregory III from Syria chose November 1st as All Saints Day, a day to celebrate saints and martyrs. Some of the rituals from Samhain were used in All Saints Day celebrations. October 31st became "All Hollow's Eve" and then Halloween. Over time, it slowly changed to become what it is today.
While in Japan Halloween is a highly marketed holiday, meaning Halloween "stuff" is sold and displayed everywhere, it is not fully celebrated. However, my birthday falls on October 29th, and so, Halloween has always held a special place in my heart. I miss the hot apple cider, the cool fall walks among the colored leaves, the plentiful pumpkins for carving, and the spooky feeling in the air on Halloween night in Vermont. My students helped me feel that spooky feeling a little bit at the Haunted House at school festival, and now it's time to return the favor. Usually for Halloween at KTC we have parties with our classes or do something special, which the students love. I made a box of Halloween costumes and students raid it and get a good laugh out of trying on various masks, wigs, and outfits. They especially love the free candy. We also tell scary stories. This year, when I was looking for a good Halloween comic to share with my Comics' class, I found a list of "7 Short and Spooky Webcomic Stories to Keep you Awake all Weekend." As I scrolled through a couple of the stories, I felt that Halloween chill. I can envision rolling through the panels on the big screen in the classroom, reading aloud the text to students, with the lights down low, and allowing the "jump factor" to take affect. I can't wait!
Here are some other Halloween stories I've found that are great.
For younger students:
Please leave comments if you have other good suggestions. Also, I created a fun Halloween music playlist on YouTube. Use it if you'd like!
I'm Sarah Forbes. I'm the