Thursday, December 14, 2006

Could have been Better

I rarely write about my work in here. My work is fairly routine, and not the most exciting thing to report on. But today I would like to reflect on and relate a mistake I found myself making. As I learn more Japanese, I am losing patience with my students, and must put a stop to this trend immediately.

My first year in Japan, I found myself infinitely patient with my students. Perhaps my inability to communicate in Japanese necessitated the need for more patience with their English. My second year I noticed this patience waning somewhat as I learned more Japanese. Translating, explaining, and communicating grew easier for me, so my student’s English was no longer required. Now going through my third year in Japan, I find myself losing patience with students more than I probably should.

Outside of the classroom, when I speak with them at lunch, in their afternoon clubs, or elsewhere, I almost always speak Japanese now, even when it is something they know in English. If a student is struggling to explain something to me in English, I often just ‘break out the Japanese’ if only to get the conversation rolling again. As my job and presence at the schools is partly to promote conversational English, I am in a sense neglecting that duty by doing this.

In the classroom, the opposite problem exists. I often think to myself, “I learned this sentence structure and vocabulary in Japanese, so why can’t these kids do the same in English?” Especially when it is a simple concept that the students can reasonably be expected to know and understand.

I was in a class today and conducting my own lesson designed to let students practice a particular sentence the students had previously learned. It was a game for the students to play, but it required them to finish writing several partially completed sentences. The students would fill in blanks in the sentence for certain missing words. During the game, they would translate for each other.

Problems surfaced when few of the students could successfully write (and sometimes understand) the required word or words in the sentence. I helped them as best I could, but I had little sympathy or patience for them, as most of them demonstrated that they could translate a completed sentence prior to this activity. What was standing in their way now? Moreover, the same activity was very successful at a different school, so why couldn’t these kids do it?

I asked the teacher, and she said the students were not accustomed to “writing on their own.” She is probably correct on that account. Japanese students are typically required to memorize and regurgitate information. English goes a bit further in requiring students to translate grammar. Rarely do their teachers in any of their classes require them to produce any sort of written product beyond a correct answer or solved math problem. And even if it is a written product, it is rarely something that allows creative control.

While I didn't get angry with the students, I did get somewhat patronizing. One particular instance occurred when I was helping a kid with this particular sentence:

When Mr. Tyler went to Tokyo, he ate sushi with______________.

The student was obviously required to write a name of their choosing when this student complained that he didn’t know what to do. After initial efforts failed, I painstakingly made him translate each word and then the clause. This was certainly unnecessary and may have been insulting. I then arrogantly drilled and questioned him on every pedantic detail of the sentence until he couldn’t possibly dismiss the requirement to fill the space with a name. My efforts still failing to bear fruit, I asked him in Japanese, “Who do you like? Who’s your favorite TV star/soccer player?” He still said “I don’t know.” So I responded with something like, “Throughout the entire world, you don’t know one person that you like? Do you KNOW ANYBODY in the world? Do you know him (pointing to someone nearby)?” I told him to write that boy's name. I'm sure it sounded even more outlandish in Japanese than it does in English.

After this episode, I eased up a bit, but I still wasn’t in the best frame of mind. Ultimately we weren’t able to play the game, because the students were unable to finish the writing part. While I don’t think the failure of this lesson was entirely my fault, I do think I am at least partly responsible. I wasn’t as patient and understanding of their difficulties as I could have been. I didn’t account for their lack of certain skills when planning the lesson. I MAY not have adequately explained to the students what was required of them.

More importantly, I didn’t respond correctly when the student needed help. Frustrated as I was when I felt the students should have been more capable, the patronizing attitude was detrimental and disrespectful. As doltish as this student was acting (and admittedly he was being especially dense), he still deserved better than his teacher’s condescension. In a culture where one’s reputation and dignity are very important this was wrong. And for that I am most chagrined.

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