Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Friday, June 15, 2007

Something to Harp On

I'm enjoying a very nice, little mini-concert during lunch break here at Ye Olde Academy (D major harp arpeggio). Two student teachers, both graduates of our school and former members of the music club, are performing a violin & harp duet in honor of the fact that their training period here is coming to an end. It was something thrown together hastily at the last minute (and someone misspelled "violin" in the flyers they printed up), but it's sounding good. They've also managed to attract quite an audience.

Student teaching in Japan works differently from that in the U.S.. The student teachers are only here for a period of two to three weeks. During that time they're expected to observe as many different classes as possible and hopefully also get some hands-on experience. Then, at the very end, they take charge of a class for a "study lesson", i.e. a demonstration lesson that is observed and critiqued by a number of members of the faculty. At the very end, their performance is graded by their assigned supervisor.

Actually, this time I am such a supervisor, and it is the first time for me. I asked to be in charge of one particular student teacher, Ms. S, partly because no one else wanted to do it (man...but our English department staff know how to make excuses and complain...) but mainly because I had given her individual instruction when she was a 12th grader. My main responsibility is oral English communication, and I figured that would suit her perfectly. There is also the no small matter that she is a former member of the music club. In fact, that's her sitting behind the harp.

The first tune they perform is "When You Wish Upon a Star". The violinist is training to be a music teacher. I don't remember her as having been such a skilled performer in her days as a student here at Ye Olde Academy, but she has learned and grown. Now she plays quite well. Ms. S is also doing an excellent job on the harp, which is amazing considering she hasn't touched one for at least five years. The fact that that huge mass of students piled into that hot, humid lobby is listening intently is a testimony to just how enchanting their performance is.

Yes, we're at the end of Ms. S's three-week tutorial period. It hasn't been a cake walk, and it has had its shares of accidentals, unexpected meter changes, and brutal sixteenth-note runs. It was bad enough that I had never trained a student teacher before, so I wasn't really sure what to expect or what I had to do. There was also the no small fact that we had never had a student teacher focus on oral communication before. It turned out that Ms. S was doing her graduation thesis on the use of public speech training in the English classroom, something I already happened to be doing in my 9th grade oral communication lessons. However, we also found out at the last minute that, thanks to combination of politics, apathy, underhandedness, and a serious scheduling screw-up, a different student teacher had been assigned to teach MY 9th grade oral communication classes (in place of the Japanese teacher with whom I usually team-teach those classes)! That left my own student in limbo, so she decided not to bother with the public speech bit and concentrate instead on my 7th grade O.C. classes.

The next song they play is the theme from Disney's "Beauty and the Beast". It's hard to go wrong with Disney when you're playing for kids, but it is a nice tune (that I have performed myself a number of times). The crowd is still growing, and I can't help but notice it's mostly 7th graders. We must have more than half of the entire grade!

Ms. S definitely seemed cut out for the teaching profession. She speaks English fluently, which isn't surprising since she just came back from a year of college study in Bellingham, Washington. When we met for the first planning session she also couldn't help telling me all about her visit to Portland. She seemed pretty excited about it, since she'd known it was where I'd grown up. She also had a ball pointing out that she'd noticed people there talk in very much the same way I do, i.e. the words I tend to use and the way I tend to pronounce them. (I got my revenge by pointing out that she pronounces the word "bank" the way they do in the Pacific Northwest, not like it says in the dictionary.) She also has a positive yet very determined attitude and really likes the kids. She did have a couple of weaknesses that needed serious attention, though. One was her gentle, high-pitched voice, which neither carried well nor conveyed much authority. The other was her tendency to lose her certainty on occasion and look a bit lost during the lesson, particularly if the students weren't being responsive. Most teacher trainers in our faculty focus only on lesson content from an academic standpoint. I have never agreed with that approach, and I hardly touched it at all. Instead, I concentrated mainly on voice coaching and image training figuring she'd be bright enough to get it and hoping I wasn't making a terrible mistake.

The next tune in the mini-concert is "Moon River", a sentimental favorite of mine. The two performers still sound tight even despite the 9th grade attention whores chimpanzees who have suddenly decided to start kicking up a fuss in the neighboring partition.

During the first week Ms. S mainly just observed my lessons and took notes. After that we tried team-teaching, with me leading and her assisting. Finally we reversed roles. Team teaching is virtually the rule rather than the exception in Japanese English education (except at Ye Olde Academy). It is also normal in my 9th grade lessons, but I had never tried it in the 7th grade classes. It seemed to work well from a practical standpoint, but I could tell Ms. S was finding it difficult. It was bad enough leading a lesson in an unfamiliar format with any degree of confidence. The fact that her "assistant" (i.e. me) was older and more experienced than her...not to mention both her former teacher and her current trainer...proved more than a little intimidating. She had some trouble finding her legs at first. There was also the problem with her voice sounding thin and whiny when the students started getting a bit worked up. I occasionally had to fight the temptation to bring the class back under control for her because I knew that wouldn't help. Instead, I just stepped up the "image coaching". Toward the end she finally seemed to be getting it, though she still wasn't very confident.

The final piece of the mini-concert is announced as "Ave Maria", and I feel a bolt of dread go through me. There are two different tunes that bear that name, one using a melody by J.S. Bach and the other by Schubert. Both are lovely tunes, but the Schubert one poses a dilemma. It is one of a few musical pieces that, for some reason known only to my subconscious mind, always brings tears to my eyes. (Maybe it has something to do with the fact that it accompanies that agonizingly tear-jerking ending to the animated movie "A Hound of Flanders"...though when I was 7 years old its appearance at the end of Disney's "Fantasia" sent me into a mad fit of weeping which my mother still misunderstands even after all these years.) It's pretty much a given that hearing a beautiful violin and harp rendition of the Schubert piece performed by two former students of mine (and a current trainee) would end with my being humiliated in front of all those uniformed students. Fortunately, they play the Bach piece. It's lovely, but the tears stay just where they're supposed to...on the surface of my eyes. Of course, those damned 9th grade apes are still trying to make a rival spectacle, so maybe my mad longing for a spray can full of chloroform is helping.

Yesterday was the day of Ms. S's demonstration lesson, which was to be in the fourth period in Room Five. Luckily, we also had a lesson in Room One in the first period that would serve as a handy dress rehearsal. We'd decided to stick with the team-teaching format, so there weren't many changes from what we'd already been doing. Unfortunately, Room One has always been a somewhat cold, apathetic, and unresponsive class. Ms. S got greeted with a lot of mumbles and blank looks. I tried to hint that that's perfectly normal for Room One, but she took it very personally. Once again, her resolve started to buckle halfway through the lesson, and she looked visibly lost. When the lesson was over she was more than a little distraught. We quickly retired to the English department office for a final briefing (and pep talk) only to have the department chief, Mr. U, angrily boot us out. (Apparently my coaching, all in English, was annoying him. For[expletive]give [expletive] me, your [expletive] highness!) Needless to say, when we headed off to the demonstration lesson just before fourth period she looked almost about ready to fall apart.

As it turned out, there was quite a crowd of observers, more than usual for a demo lesson. I think a lot of people wanted to see the first-ever English O.C. demo class, not to mention the first-ever team-taught demo class (controversial enough as it was!). Unfortunately, very few of the guests were from the English department. Mr. Ogawa was there, as were several social studies and Japanese language/lit. teachers plus most of the other student teachers. It was quite a crowd. However, our own department chief, Mr. (expletive) U, wasn't there, and I was dismayed to notice that the few English teachers present were all members of the old guard (including one youngster who thinks like the old guard). It was pretty much a given that we were doomed.

Fortunately, Room Five is always a great bunch of kids to work with. They're smart, enthusiastic, interested, and responsive. They also ask lots of questions. That did a lot to buoy Ms. S's confidence, and she looked firmly in control from start to finish. She spoke with a strong, authoritative tone and stayed on her legs the whole time. As for me, I did my best to assist but ONLY assist, leaving the conducting of the lesson in her hands as much as possible. I think she did a very good job, and she seemed quite happy about it. The fact that most of the observers stayed in the room clear till the end of the lesson despite the total lack of seating spoke volumes. A number of them even questioned students after the lesson was over, which I took as both a good and a bad sign.

The comments that came in afterward were generally good. Many if not most of the other student teachers said that they envied her. The teachers from non-English departments all said they thought it impressive, if perhaps just a little too slow paced (which was also my own, single critical comment). Even the deputy and vice principals, who had both observed the lesson, had mostly very positive things to say. Wouldn't you know it, the English teachers weren't in agreement. We got mildly flamed during the English department follow-up meeting. One of the old guard teachers said that the lesson pace was "just right" but griped that we'd spent too much time with "irrelevant" matters (such as making sure the students understood what to do). Another teacher blasted as "irrelevant and confusing" a quick review point I'd thrown in directly related to the students' just-completed studies in phonics. One younger teacher with a bizarrely old guard mindset complained about the fact that we'd team-taught the lesson, saying that team teaching was obviously too distracting and unmanageable to be practical. Only one younger and more progressive-minded teacher had seen our lesson, but she kept her positive comments to herself till after the meeting was over. By then it seemed moot.

After that, the teacher who had criticized our having team-taught the lesson took Ms. S aside and proceeded to flame-broil her for almost half an hour. I'm not sure what exactly he said (and Ms. S either can't quite figure it out or doesn't want to tell me), but she wound up coming to me in tears afterward. After that there really wasn't a whole lot to be said.

The mini-concert is over, but the mostly 7th grade crowd isn't going to let them go without an encore. They play "Somewhere Over the Rainbow", that heartwarming classic that offers a naive yet very pleasant feeling of hope for the future.

Ms. S and I had our own chance for an encore today. We had one more lesson together, this time an O.C. class in 7th grade Room Two. Room Two is a unique and interesting class. Those kids are truly live wires. They are wild and crazy, and they don't hesitate to say just what's on their minds. More than one qualify as potential problem students. (In fact, one of them has already more than qualified as a problem student!) However, they're also the top-scoring class by far. They're nutty and noisy, but they're also bright. They also love engaging the teacher (as opposed to spiting or ignoring him or her). Ms. S and I didn't bother making a plan. We just sort of winged it. I wound up leading the lesson for the most part, but we traded off some. Meanwhile, the students treated the lesson material like a new game to be played. They also kept up an almost constant stream of good questions. We got through the textbook lesson without any trouble or boredom, and we were able to conclude with a game of "I Spy". When it was all over, Ms. S looked exhausted but happy.

She was even happier when a trio of girls from Room Two followed us outside as we were returning to the staff room and said, "You have to stay at [Ye Olde Academy]! You just have to! You and [Moody]-sensei have to be a team, and you have to teach us until the end!" When Ms. S informed them that she had to go back to her college to complete her course and get her teaching credentials, they suggested that she get a job at the academy as a cleaning lady...but one with classes (, classic Room Two words of wisdom).

The mini-concert really is over now, as is Ms. S's student teaching endeavor. But at least she's leaving here with a sense of hope for the future, no matter how naive or pleasant.

Pre-post update: Ms. S went and had another talk with that English teacher who'd roasted her, mainly so she could confirm just what he'd been trying to get at. In a nutshell, he accused her of being lazy and not taking her efforts seriously because she'd team-taught with me instead of doing everything herself. He said something like, "If you really think you want to be a teacher, then you have to learn how to teach through your own efforts, not by working with anyone else." Considering many if not most of the other student teachers had simply mimicked their trainers using materials prepared by their trainers, I don't see what the problem is, particularly since I'd made her plan our team-taught lesson herself for the most part! Oh, well. You can't teach an old dog new tricks, even if it's a young dog pretending to be old.


  • I like both versions of Ave Maria, but the one you've helped get stuck in my mind today is the Schubert version.

    As for Ms S, coincindentally I knew a Japanese classmate who had gone to university in Washington state and her English was better than that of my much younger Japanese classmate who had attended a posh British boarding school!

    Has anyone else noticed? Non-native English speakers learn it better in the US (and Canada) than in the UK?

    By Blogger Olivia, at 11:37 PM  

  • Hey Moody, the Byzantine & hierarchical rules of Japanese seem strangly similiar to the French educational system (which I do love for it's academic rigorousness, but can be maddeningly stuffy & pompous at times). *sorry for any spelling errors!

    While certain pedagogical approaches might be different, there certainly is an "old guard" which reminds one of some old musty 17th century classroom (except for the beatings...)

    I'm inclined to think the critics were actually embarrassed by your (you and the student teacher's) great work, and just "attacked"; none of their "reasons" even held water from a logical standpoint...

    By Blogger ladybug, at 12:27 AM  

  • We're just happy to get teachers into the classroom here... and of course it was a guy slamming a woman. pig

    By Blogger Swinebread, at 12:50 AM  

  • Your system of student teaching, while shorter is still better than ours; namely in the fact that participating teachers are forced to evaluate the students. When I student taught, the teachers killed my career by simply refraining from turning in the evaluations despite constant reminding from me.

    It worked out though. I realize in retrospect that I had spent enough time in the public school system and I was ready for something else (even though it took several years to materialize into a decent career).

    By Blogger Don Snabulus, at 1:05 AM  

  • Ms. S's problem appears to be that she went to a foreign school to learn English. The other teachers are obviously prejudiced.

    In a place where communication is so important, those old guard teachers do a terrible job.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:15 AM  

  • Olivia
    I'm not sure the problem is the country, m'lady. I think it probably has more to do with the personality of the individual. I know a couple of Japanese who learned English in the U.K., and their ability in the language is awesome (not to mention the fact that they speak beautiful Queen's English)!

    Just don't start humming the Schubert "Ave Maria", please. I don't know if it would coax tears out of me or not, but why take the chance?

    What, you mean the French are capable of being conservative stuffed-shirts??!?

    You're probably right about the critics. Some of them have been very harsh on my own work in the past...till I managed to produce demonstrable, concrete results. Now they don't give me too much least not directly.

    There is that, I suppose, but it's hard to say. That particular teacher doesn't seem overtly sexist (but it's never easy to tell here).

    Was that what happened? I remember you telling me your supervisor gave you negative comments that didn't make sense, especially since the principal had praised your efforts and successes. Maybe it was something similar to what Ladybug said, a green (as in envy) critic.

    That's why I'm here. Traditionally, Japanese English education has had nothing whatever to do with communication, which is why their average student English proficiency has long been the laughing stock of Asia. The traditional grammar/translation-based method of English education here is no longer sufficient even for college entrance exams, but it has been very hard to get both the education fraternity and the parents to accept that. Ironically, my oral communication classes have had a clear, concrete, and inarguable positive effect on the students' exam scores, but there are still teachers (and parents) that think I am just wasting the kids' valuable time with irrelevant nonsense.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 10:43 PM  

  • wow..the training that teachers go through ..I wish I had good teachers..they could not even control the class..I also wish I could attend a classical music concert too.. always been one of my dreams..just never had anyone who would want to go with me..sigh..

    By Blogger memo, at 8:28 AM  

  • As Soupy Sales Sez, "a harp is pretty but it's hard to play".

    A frustrating experience for you and Ms S, but your review is very instructive of the intricacies of the education system.

    Lucy: Why are you hitting your head against the wall?
    Charlie Brown: Because it feels good when I quit.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:45 AM  

  • Memo
    Being a disciplinarian is one of the things I hate the most of the teaching profession. It's bad enough as it is, but a combination of bleeding-heart "just keep smiling at the poor dears and they'll come around" idealists determining policy and increasingly irresponsible and incompetent parents sending their dysfunctional, spoiled brats our way make it even worse. Most teachers here in Japan were cheering when the Ministry of Education and Technology announced a few months ago that we now had the right to remove disruptive students from the classroom. Unfortunately, now the angry debates and lawsuits have stepped up...

    Yes, a harp is hard to play, and being a teacher is a lot more difficult than one would think. Unfortunately, as I said, our student-teacher trainers tend to focus too much on purely academic matters, meaning we're sending people into the profession who have little or no classroom presence. I think that's a big mistake, and Memo has given a very good reason why.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 9:43 PM  

  • "Ave Maria"... hmmm... lovely tunes, and to think that I only got to listen to them seriously a few years back... duh!

    By Blogger Lrong, at 12:59 PM  

  • Pssssttttt.. guess what? I got tagged and supposedly you are being tagged by me but instead you are the one who can pick who should do that tag, isn't that great? *wink* Check out my latest post, ok!

    By Blogger Selba, at 1:59 PM  

  • Good luck Ms S. The student comments carry more weight than those of the stuffed shirts.

    Sounds like a good concert. Harp/violin duets would be nice.

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 6:47 PM  

  • Moody, I predict that you will some day become PRINCIPLE! You are all ready doing everyone else's job.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:24 AM  

  • Selba
    That's the most proactive tag I've ever experienced!

    Perhaps in the long run the student comments carry more weight, but the teacher comments are the ones that decide whether she gets her license or not.

    Do you perchance mean principal ? I already have principles, and they keep getting me into trouble.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 10:35 AM  

  • A student teacher class brings back memories of one I sat thru as a primary three pupil.

    It was an English class and the student teacher was teaching us comparatives and superlatives. She asked for the comparative and superlative of the word 'good'. Without hesitation, one of the pupils answered 'good', 'gooder' 'goodest'. This pupil is now a court judge.

    By Blogger Happysurfer, at 3:49 PM  

  • Moody, yes, I meant principal. Dang it, almost did it again. Mighty PUN!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:06 AM  

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