Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Life in a Bubble


So why am I feeling so blue right now?

Yes, this is definitely exam season. It seems a number of people in my rapidly-expanding blog "family", such as YD, Saba, Pink Panther, and others, are either heading into exams or just finishing them up. As for me, I just finished my three days of hell. I should be celebrating. Instead, I'm sitting here wondering when the walls are going to start closing in.

I realize that giving exams is completely different from taking them. For one thing, it qualifies as sadism rather than masochism, so it's much more enjoyable for people like myself who don't really care to suffer. At least it should be. Unfortunately, there are times when being the test-giver is actually a lot more stressful. Having to plan the test, decide on the grading standards, make the materials, distribute them, collect them, mark them, and compile the results can add up to one heck of a chore. That much is obvious. Unfortunately, there's an even bigger worry:


You see, teachers and especially parents can be a very shark-like lot. Give them a whiff of blood, and next thing you know they are tearing you to pieces. That's a danger we have to live with all the time, but it's particularly acute during exam season. One false move, and you're a little red smear on the meeting room floor. That makes many people wonder why I dare to be so mold-smashingly, boat-rockingly bold with my Oral Communication classes, especially with the 7th graders. What I do in that course is completely different from anything else, so I'm constantly playing with fire. That flame burns hottest right around now, the first midterm of the year, and I may have just gotten my fingers burned...badly.

Since "Oral Communication" is supposed to be "oral communication" (how profound), I try my best to make class content and exams that deal with just that. Therefore, at exam time, I don't just give your usual "fill-in-the-blank" pattern and vocabulary problems or your basic dictation. No, "communication" means listening to and understanding what someone says and then responding to it. Therefore, my listening tests are always of the Q & A (question and answer) format, i.e. I ask or say something, and the students write down their response.

Sounds easy, doesn't it? It's not. Actually, 7th graders here seem to have a lot of trouble with the concept. For them a "listening test" means dictation, pure and simple. Either that or it's a listening comprehension test with multiple-choice answers provided on the test sheet. Listen and respond? What does THAT mean?

Well, every year I go out of my way to make sure the students understand. During the weeks leading up to exams I give them explanations, more explanations, and rehashes of explanations. I show them examples. I give them practice problems and quizzes. I even ask them over and over again, "What kind of listening test will it be," and I repeat it till I get the correct answer: "Question and answer!"

It never seems to be quite enough. From the beginning there were always a few that just didn't get it. Then two years ago about half a dozen students still tried to take the first midterm as if it were a dictation test, trying to write down my spoken questions without answering them even when I used words they obviously never learned to spell. That provoked a bit of controversy among my fellow teachers, some of whom wondered whether I'd been thorough enough with my explanations. Last year I was even more thorough, and the count went up to about a dozen. The grade chief called an emergency meeting (to which I wasn't invited, since I'm not attached to that grade) to decide what to do, but apparently they decided to leave it in my capable hands.

This year I was thorough to the point of nausea...even to the point that students were complaining about my being so repetitious. Guess what? The number of students that tried to take my Q&A test as if it were simple dictation rose to more than 80...almost half the total number of 7th graders. (More than half in two of the classes.) Needless to say, the average score was abysmal...far worse than it has ever been. There was also a record number scoring below 35%...the school's officially recommended "no-pass" line. Bottom line: the exam was a bust.

Even worse: one of the teachers that was a proctor (supervisor) for my test noticed the problem while it was in progress and, after it was finished and collected, asked the students in the class if I had actually explained to them what the content of the test was going to be. The entire class erupted into a chorus of no's...until one boy said, "Yes, he did...over and over again!" Then there was some hesitant denial followed by a moment of confusion followed by sheepish smiles and cries of, "Oh, yeaaaaahhhh!"


That teacher is trying to defend me now, but I doubt it's going to be enough. I'm fully expecting to be roasted alive for this, especially when the report cards go out. I don't follow the (useless) traditional line, and I take risks, so I've been on thin ice from the beginning. This time, despite increased precautions, I seem to have fallen through. There's also the fact that the English chief for this year's 7th grade wants to be very proprietary (He's new...and fresh from a cram school position, i.e. education = rote memorization) as well as the fact that the grade chief of this year's 7th grade has never liked me very much. (He's a responsibility-shirking, ill-mannered egomaniac who is famously greedy, and I have insulted him to his face before.) I don't fear losing my position. That's not going to happen. However, I do fear being marginalized...or being forced to conform with the (hopelessly outdated and useless) traditional line. That would almost be the same thing. I'm not prepared to make rote memorization the core of my lessons, not now, not ever.

I'm still puzzled as to why it happened. This year's 7th graders are actually showing more mettle than last year's. They're both more capable and much better behaved. However, while they are good at studying things on their own and taking tests based on rote learning, they seem to have a serious problem with listening to what they're told and remembering it. Also, an increasing number seem to be unable or unwilling to interact with anyone else, including other students. This is a problem which has existed for some time and seems to be getting worse year by year. It's like they all live in enclosed universes or something. Have their cellphones finally taken over their whole personalities? Are they cyber-autistic? Are they all living in their own, opaque bubbles now, totally oblivious to the world outside? Heck, I bet if I'd given them the exam explanations via cellphone e-mail there wouldn't have been any trouble at all.

Hey, maybe that's an idea...


  • haha... A very nice de-stressing post to read, for the one taking the exam!

    I can understand how hard teaching English is in Japan. A friend of mine studied in Japan, and he took up job as English tutor for kids. He used the normal teaching methods that put emphasis in all aspects of speaking, listening, writing, etc (like what the rest of the world is doing), but the director of the tuition centre complained that he never teaches properly - a.k.a THEIR method, dead memorizing. Jesus!

    Stay alive! Don't let them trample you.

    By Blogger YD, at 4:33 PM  

  • Have a Yebisu.

    That must be frustrating and certainly is a 'puzzlement' (as the King of Siam would say). Perhaps they feel a need to write down the question as they can't grasp it quickly enough. But that would be the whole point of test. Hmmm.

    Ah well, you have a Philharmonic concert coming up. Think about that. And have another Yebisu.

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 7:10 PM  

  • Years from now these students will be thanking you.

    Well, no, not really.

    I suppose you could give them pictures and have them write cute little stories about them.

    By Blogger Pa've, at 8:55 AM  

  • Or perhaps make them present something (movie, computer game, pets etc) orally... To the class.

    It may be easier for them to talk about something they like than something they do not like.

    Like yourself, I believe in education. What I do not agree with is how our education factories (schools that follow the norm) 'mould' our kids.

    Reading your blog entries (this is the 2nd one) is really a pleasant experience.

    Thanks for the insightful entry.

    By Blogger Kurakat, at 9:48 PM  

  • Different country has different Education system which is to adapt their students there. Sometimes can’t be coerced.

    You did your best that would be enough.
    Take a drink and relax!!! Yebisu or Coffee ?

    By Anonymous L.C_D, at 7:54 PM  

  • fascinating read....

    interesting to hear/read how technology has shaped these kids' lives and what's happening because of it.

    i can't imagine teaching there... and i thought it was difficult here.

    By Blogger tooners, at 3:26 AM  

  • YD
    It's a very common tale, and one which has been going on for quite some time. Japan can really make or break would-be English teachers.

    That sounds like sound advice. Will Suntory Malts suffice?

    Trying to get the students to write creative compositions is far more difficult than trying to get them to answer questions. When it comes to serious students here, ironically, if there isn't a clear-cut, predetermined answer that they've memorized, chances are they'll be at a total loss. That's why, ironically, the poorer students often make better writers because they simply don't care as much.

    Oral presentation is something I do a lot of in my 9th grade classes. Right now my 7th grade students are still learning basic "be"-verb patterns. I do try to throw in oral presentations from time to time, but it tends to freak them out. It's also not something I can put into an exam format to satisfy the grading system.

    Thanks for your comments!

    I know it can't be coerced, but they've supposedly been trying to revise and upgrade English education here in Japan for at least the past twenty years. Not a whole lot has changed.

    I like your advice, too.

    The influence of cell phones on kids' personalities is still a matter of debate, but now virtually every kid has one, and they tend to be the core of the kids' existence. I know that, since the rise of the cell phone text chat room as the center of youth culture, kids have become much more detached from the real world.

    I don't know much about school life in Bahrain, but Saba said her classmates drove at least one of her teachers to the point of red-faced screaming fits every other day. (At least that teacher didn't throw a desk...)

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 3:46 PM  

  • Sorry for the late comment and I'm sorry if I'm wrong. Perhaps Seishin students have so gotten used to listening comprehention tests that have printed answer options on them, (such as Eiken or a certain kinds of achievement tests). Some students may try to write down the questions before they forget and then choose the right answers.

    Maybe, you should print "Please write your own
    answers on the sheet" or something.

    By Anonymous j-apricot, at 4:54 PM  

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