Wednesday, October 27, 2010



So, two days ago, a massive cold overtook Japan from north to south. It snowed in Hokkaido! It even snowed on a mountain nearby! And it's even cold in Kyoto! :-(

Speaking of, I was there last weekend! It was fun to visit my girlfriend. On Friday, we saw the Jidai Matsuri, which was surprisingly short. It was just a parade of people in various attire from the olden days to pre-modern days. Later that evening, my girlfriend and I went to Gion, where the Geisha roam the streets. We saw one, actually! She was a Maiko, an apprentice geisha.

Finally, that night, my girlfriend had a small pot luck dinner, where she invited three of her Japanese friends over, and the four of them each had some sort of dish to share. My girl made her awesomely cheesey mac-and-cheese. There was also chirashi-zushi, hot cakes, and Ritz crackers. *nice* We also watched The Hunchback of Notre Dame; fun times.

On Saturday, I got to eat ramen at what as become my favorite ramen shop. SOOOOO GOOOOOOD. Then later that evening, we hit up Fushimi Inari, which is the famous shrine with hundreds of torii gates along the trails that lead up the mountain. My girlfriend and I walked the ENTIRE LENGTH of the trail! It took THREE HOURS. And it was COLD. And DARK. It was really, really creepy and surprisingly scary at some points. Plus, there are families that live up there, who tend to the various shrines. So sometimes we could hear them make sounds, which, in the dead of night, is damn frightening. Anyway, the whole trip with breathtaking. It was amazing. And near the top, there was a beautiful view of western Kyoto.

So yeah, Kyoto was awesome. And the cold is not.

Yesterday, Shoe came over and taught me how to use the kerosene heater. We cleaned them up (I have two) and turned them on. It is surprisingly efficient. It heats up instantly, heats the room up quickly, and is relatively inexpensive compared to the electric heaters. But the problems are that the kerosene smell is awful and the room must be ventilated every hour to insure that the toxic fumes (carbon monoxide) don't kill me. But in ventilating the room, the heat escapes. To deal with this problem, I was told that if you just keep the window a little open, the room is both ventilated and keeps the heat from escaping too quickly. Nice. But man...the smell sucks. And so does the cold.

Word of the day: 灯油 「とうゆ」 "touyu," or "kerosene."

Monday, October 18, 2010

So busy!

Wow, I've been so busy these past couple weeks! My time at the Junior High has been spent helping my students prepare for the Culture Festival that happened this past weekend. It was basically a collection of performances by the students; mostly musical. Some danced, some played an instrument, all of them sang; it was a good time. I was the camera man. At one point, I was recording video using both the school's digital camcorder and my own iPhone. Hah! Hilarious. And kinda difficult.

And this week, both of my elementary schools are throwing a show with singing, dancing, and acting performances, too! I saw the dress rehearsal today; I was impressed by their ability to remember all of those lines! Especially the ones who were doing rapid-fire paragraph-long speeches as comic relief. They were also wearing various types of clothes, from school uniforms to kimono, to farmers' clothing. It was very interesting. Oh, and the fifth graders did a taiko drum performance followed by yosakoi dancing. Rock on!

Ah, Yosakoi. So, there was a yosakoi festival last week in Sendai. It was splendid. I will post a video here so you know what yosakoi is; or better yet, just do a search on google and youtube so you can read info and watch some dances. It's awesome.

This week, I just got my JET Programme Japanese Language Course Textbook and Workbook. Being placed into the advanced level, I have been given text books whose lessons are in Japanese. This will provide good reading practice and introductions to a wealth of new vocabulary. What sucks is that the first few lessons will be super tough, 'cause I'll have to stop every 30 seconds to look up a word I don't know that's in the lesson. >.< The workbook I was given has 504 kanji; most of which I've never learned before, or even seen. This is gonna be a challenge! I need to figure out how to pace myself for this. Let's break it down.

The course is split up into six textbooks, each distributed one month apart, from October 18 to March 17. We are given about a month and a half to complete each book, take a 50-question multiple choice test, and mail the test to the language center. The lessons in the book are designed to be completed on a daily basis over a span of four weeks; each lesson is four pages long, and there are five lessons per week, for a total of 20 lessons per book. So, it's already established that I'll be doing 4 pages of lessons per day. But what's unclear is the kanji workbook.

The kanji workbook was designed for self-study, and it is not included in the test. There are 504 kanji that the book gives. So if I split it up as evenly as possible, that means 84 kanji per month, or 21 kanji per week. Which means 4-5 kanji per lesson. That's not bad. I think.

The thing is, this is the breakdown for the kanji if I want to study them in the traditional fashion. But I've observed that it's much easier to forget kanji when it's learned in this way, and Heisig's method seems to actually work; it works in both remembering the meaning and how to write the kanji. So, I think I'll supplement my JET kanji studies with lessons from Heisig. This ends up doubling the amount of kanji I learn per day, and I'll go through 1000 by next April. But actually...I had this crazy idea in my head that I could get through all 1945 joyo kanji by this time, next year. Which, I guess is possible, if I maintain that pace of 42 kanji/week. Damn, that's 8-9 kanji a day. Back in college, we had 13 kanji a week, or so. Then again, I usually didn't study until the night before for an hour, and I managed to remember them. Alright, it's doable. I just have to bust my ass. :-)

Let me end this post by circling back to the topic I opened with: festivals. There is a massive Jidai Matsuri in Kyoto this weekend. Actually, it's this Friday. And I REALLY WANT TO SEE IT. So that means I'll be calling off work for the first time this week. Neat. I'm also excited to see my girlfriend. She's planning a little get-together/movie night with some friends, so I'll get to meet them and watch a good ol' Disney movie. We'll also check out another temple this weekend. It'll be great!

Side note: please read the comments of my previous post to find out what I learned about the milk here in Japan!

Word of the Day: 忙しい 「いそがしい」 "isogashii," which means "busy."

Thursday, October 7, 2010

October already?

I can't believe I've already been living in Japan for over two months! It really doesn't feel like that. It feels more like...a couple weeks. I was expecting that my language ability would be spectacular by now. But really, it still feels like it's plateaued, though I know that I've gained a few things, like new vocabulary, a bit of new grammar, some local dialect, and new kanji. So I guess I have improved a bit. But I suppose I'm just frustrated about not being able to understand everything that people are saying around me, or even directly to me.

Today, one of the teachers was asking the other teachers what he should do or where he should go for this three-day weekend. After some discussion, he was excited to have decided to go to Tokyo Tower. But besides those main parts, I couldn't understand what they were talking about. And just a few minutes ago, I got back from the convenience store, having purchased some food. When I was buying the siopao (a Chinese pork bun; I forget what they call them here), the clerk was asking me something. I had no idea what she said. The only thing I caught was the "-masu ka" at the end of the sentence, indicating that it was a question. So I quickly explained that "I had just moved to Japan (so my language skills suck)...", so she said "ah" and pulled out a plastic bag. I didn't even hear the word for bag (fukuro)! Maybe she was asking something along the lines of, "For here or to go?"

Then there's my students...I don't understand half of what they say. Especially the little ones, 'cause they mumble or they're so quiet or they're asking me something using little-kid vocabulary. Don't talk about bugs, ask me something about the embassy or the library! Speaking of students, I keep forgetting that one of my junior high kids (3rd year, so, equivalent to a 9th grader in the US) lived in the US for five years! The reason I keep forgetting is because whenever I see her, she rarely ever speaks English to me. Even when I grade her homework, she is always one of the top students, but not significantly better or more creative than the others.

Change of topic; I've discovered something that's baffling, amazing, and after further thought, a little troubling: I can drink the milk here. For those who don't know, I suffer from adult-type hypolactasia, also known as lactase non-persistence. Or, in layman's terms, lactose intolerance. Because I am lactose intolerant, I cannot drink a normal glass of milk without having intestinal discomfort. I won't go into detail, but lactose intolerance SUCKS. Especially because I love milk and dairy products: ice cream, cream sauces, cheese, milk-based drinks (including my awesome White Filipino). It's not very severe, so I can actually enjoy the foods without too much of an issue, but it's when I drink a glass of milk that I really feel the effects of lactose intolerance. So, to get around this problem, I take lactase enzyme supplements when I eat or drink dairy products. They work fantastically well.

At school, in both the JHS and ES, milk is provided as the drink that accompanies the school lunch. I made sure to pack a two-month supply of lactase enzymes in my suitcase before I moved to Japan. Welllll, it's been two months, and my supply is incredibly low. So I searched online if it was possible to buy lactase enzymes (or Lactaid brand milk) in Japan; and I even looked at various stores, including a large pharmacy (like a big CVS or Rite Aid), but it was a no go. One of the things I found online, though, was that someone had mentioned that a friend of theirs who was lactose intolerant didn't have problems in Japan. I pondered this. And I needed a solution to my problem of running out of lactase enzymes. I wanted to test it. So, I did.

I drank a tall glass of milk, into which I added this coffee mix (turning it into "coffee milk," a delicious drink you can find at any convenience store or supermarket). After having finished it, I didn't feel a thing! Normally, I would feel the effects within 15 minutes of drinking it; sometimes even before I finished the drink. But no, nothing. So, I tested it again the next day, and drank another coffee milk drink from a carton. Again, no issues. Hmm... Okay, the best way to test it is to use the real, pure, genuine milk that we get at school. During my first week of eating school lunch, I actually had to run to the bathroom after having drank the milk, even though I took a lactase enzyme tablet. The stuff was so thick that I could swear it's cream. (Japan loves its whole milk.) So, the day of reckoning came.

Two days ago, I drank the carton of milk at the ES. I accidentally left my lactase in my bag downstairs, too, so I had to drink it straight. I was a little nervous, because I had to teach classes in the afternoon. I didn't want to feel discomfort or have to run to the bathroom during class. Well, thankfully, the test provided good results! Again, I didn't experience any problems! I was happily surprised (or rather, relieved for the lack of "surprise"). I tested it again today, at the JHS. Again, good news.

So what's the deal? Why am I lactose intolerant in the US, but seemingly, not in Japan? What's the difference between the milk in the US versus the milk in Japan? Is it 'cause it's so damn creamy? No, that can't be it... Oh, I know.

The milk in the US is pasteurized.

What does this have to do with anything? And how can stopping a drink from being made safer possibly improve its drinkability? Well, I heard from my Canadian and American friends this past weekend that the milk here in Japan is not pasteurized. Having heard this, I was a little troubled. I know of a man in Pittsburgh who was hospitalized because his family drank a batch of bad unpasteurized milk. Not that it had "gone bad," but rather, it still contained microbes which were responsible for making his entire family get sick. So, I am well aware of the dangers of unpasteurized milk. For those who don't know, the process involves heating the milk to a certain temperature to kill all of the bacteria and other microbes that might be inside. Well, if milk is left unpasteurized, placed into a milk carton, and is consumed by someone, then that person is also drinking whatever microbes may still be present in the milk.

Now, keep in mind that not all microbes are bad. We use bacteria to make many products, including yogurt. So I speculated that perhaps the milk here in Japan contains a certain microbe that metabolizes the lactase sugar in the milk and produces very little or no bad waste products that would make us experience discomfort. If it metabolizes the lactase, then the bacteria in our intestines can't use the lactase. Normally, if the bacteria in our intestines eats lactose, the process of metabolizing it produces waste products that lead to the symptoms of lactose intolerance. But lactic acid bacteria will turn the lactose into fatty acids and other useful things without creating any troublesome products. So yeah...I'm thinking that perhaps because the milk in Japan is not pasteurized (so I've been told), then maybe it contains the wonderful lactic acid bacteria that allows me to drink milk without any gastrointestinal problems! Yay!

Now, this is all just speculation, and the only proof I have to back this up are my own experiences. There is no true scientific evidence. And I still believe that the risks of drinking unpasteurized milk outweighs the satisfaction, and if I had a choice, I would rather drink pasteurized milk with a tablet of lactase enzymes.

Speaking of scientific evidence (and such), I want to wish Richard Heck, Eiichi Negishi, and Akira Suzuki a huge congratulations for winning the 2010 Nobel Prize in Chemistry today! Dr. Heck lives in the Philippines (Professor Emeritus, Univ. of Delaware), and the two other winners are Japanese; one is from Purdue University and the other is from Hokkaido University.

Word of the day: 牛乳 「ぎゅうにゅう」 "gyuunyuu," or "milk." Literally, "cow milk."

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Lesson Planning and Teaching

Well, 'tis been a while since we last chatted! Or rather, since I wasn't too lazy to write a new post. Also, it's October! I've lived here for two months already! I can't believe it! A few things that have happened recently are that I bought a track suit, and I wore it for the first time two days ago when I went jogging. Well, I also wore it over the weekend to sleep in (just the pants). Today I am wearing them again because the kids at the nursery school are "training" for their field day this weekend. I will also teach in these clothes at the other elementary school today.

This may sound strange to you. You know, wearing a track suit at school. In the US, we would only see gym teachers and the like wearing track suits. Everyone else was usually in business casual or business formal. But in Japan...ho, that isn't the case. Nearly everyone at the elementary schools wear track suits (even one of the school advisers who sits next to the vice principal!) and even at the junior high, the teachers change into their track suits as soon as they get there in the morning, or some time around lunch. I found it interesting. And kind of strange. Strange, because the vice principal at the elementary school allows us to wear track suits, but he doesn't allow us to wear jeans. What's the deal with that? Some dressed up in dark-wash jeans with a polo shirt and a blazer looks far more "proper" than someone in a track suit. Blows my mind. And thinking about it kinda pisses me off, 'cause I really want to wear the above-mentioned outfit at school, haha.

Anyway, I got a request and dedication. The request was to make this blog post about teaching. So like, lesson planning, teaching methods, and what I actually DO at school. Aaaaaaand, this post is dedicated to all of the people teaching English, from American English teachers teaching English in the US, to English teachers teaching English as a foreign/second language in non-English-speaking nations.

So what do I do as an ALT? Well, one must first consider my title as an ALT: Assistant Language Teacher. I am an assistant. Therefore, the bulk of the work is (supposed to be) done by the JTE, or Japanese Teacher of English. A concept known as "Team Teaching" is emphasized at my schools. In Team Teaching, the JTE, ALT, and home room teacher all work together to teach the students the lesson. But depending on the school, the roles of everyone may differ drastically. The difference may occur at different school systems, or even within the same school district.

For example, a friend of mine who is also a fellow ALT is responsible for creating the lesson plan and presenting it at one of his many elementary schools. But at another one of his schools, the homeroom teacher barely uses him; the teacher even plays a CD (with recorded voices/readings) while the ALT is there! I have observed that there is a JTE at the junior high and high schools, but not necessarily at the elementary schools.

So, what's my case like? Well, I teach at four locations currently; soon to be five. My base school is a junior high (which I'll refer to as JHS), where I teach three days a week. On my other two days, I visit two elementary schools (which I'll call ES1 and ES2) and a nursery school (NS) every other week. I was told two months ago that I'll be holding weekly (or biweekly?) eikaiwa "English conversation classes" in October. Not sure when that starts, to be honest.

So, at the JHS, there are three grade levels, 1, 2, and 3. These grade levels are equivalent to 7th, 8th, and 9th grades in the US, respectively. At the ES's, it is K-6, like the US. There are two JTE's at my JHS; one for 1st and 3rd grade, and one for 2nd grade. Though sometimes, all three of us will Team Teach together; actually, this only happened once, so I'm not sure when it will happen again (it was on a Monday, and nearly all of the Monday schedules have been messed up over the past two months due to holidays or special weekend events that cause Monday classes to be canceled). Because Mondays are messed up, I have only had the opportunity to work with the 2nd grade JTE a few times. That said, I can't really describe how he uses me in class...besides this: he hasn't discussed with me any real lesson plans. Every time I was in class with him thus far, we had a simple activity were I wasn't really needed. Like...making name cards with an English introduction. Or...playing computer games/typing games with the special needs kids. Or...watching a DVD with them. Anyway, I digress.

I work pretty closely with the other JHS JTE. He has me produce the "Mr. Harold version" of text book conversations/paragraphs for both the 1st years and 3rd years. Then he passes them out in class and has them translate my English sentences into Japanese! It's great practice. Oftentimes, I'll use interesting or difficult vocabulary that forces them to look up the words. He believes that because I wrote the sentences, the students will be more motivated to translate it to see what I wrote. Oh, and he also makes them write their own versions in English for homework, which I review and grade. It's actually kind of fun to see what they write. The first years have a tendency towritelikethis,forgettingtoleaveaspace or sometimes putting s p a c e s i n t o o m a n y p l a c e s. It makes it really difficult to read. Then there are the misspellings and confusions of one letter for another. Like r and n. One of my kids wrote "hambungen." Anyway, so I make new stuff like that every week. And we follow the "New Horizon" series of English text books pretty closely, with two new pages a week. It sounds slow, but the books are only a few lessons each, so the timing is actually decent. Plus, more time allows them to grasp the new material better. Theoretically.

Now the ES's. My situation with the ES's is very, very different from most ALTs'. And I am very grateful, 'cause it saves me TONS of time, though the lessons themselves are kind of silly. So at ES1, there is a JTE (again, there is not always a JTE at a Japanese ES), an ATE (Assistant Teacher of English) and an ALT (me). The three of us work together with the home room teacher to teach the lesson plan which was prepared by the JTE. The lessons are based on a ridiculous/hilarious series called "Eigo Noto" 「英語ノート」. (Noto, or nooto, is actually short for notebook.) Please watch this awesome video to see how hilarious it is:

So anyway, back to what I do. Basically, the JTE, ATE, and I take turns at going over various parts of the lesson plan. A note about the ATE: this position is extremely uncommon in schools, I think. Especially for someone like him; he lived in the US for 10 years, so he is pretty fluent.

At the beginning of each ES lesson, we do the usual introduction of "Hello/Good morning/Good afternoon" and asking the day, date, weather, and year. Then the ATE and I start the lesson by having a short dialogue and asking the students what we were talking about. Then we proceed with the lesson using their text books, large picture cards, and the Eigo Noto interactive computer program on a touch-screen television. Usually, I say the new vocabulary words and have the students repeat what I say. Sometimes we play games, but most of the time, we're following whatever is up next in the Eigo Noto lesson plans.

One thing that I don't think is helpful about Eigo Noto are the "chants." For some reason, there are weird chants/mini songs from the lessons. If you watch the video above, you'll hear a chant with, "What's this? What's this? It's a pen, it's a pen, it's a pen," and the students have to repeat it or sing along.

At ES2, the ATE and I teach the lesson with the homeroom teacher (the JTE stays at ES1). At the Nursery school, I basically just sing songs and play games with the kids (who are adorable, by the way). And at the eikaiwa that starts this month, I will prepare everything; lessons and activities. I'm a little nervous about it, because working with adults is faaaaaaaaaaar different from working with kids. I was a "Talk Time" leader back at college, which is similar to an eikaiwa, but I believe my students back then were a bit more seasoned with English than whoever might show up this time around. I also heard that the eikaiwa isn't a very popular activity for the townspeople; it's offered at the town center, though, so hopefully more people will find out about it and be interested. I'm also the first male ALT this town has ever had. So maybe this little change will bring in more people? Here's hoping!

Word of the day: 授業 「じゅぎょう」 "jugyou," which means "lesson" or "class."