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Deborah Lea

English Fun Hour
By Deborah Lea
Jun 26, 2005 - 7:58:00 PM

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Were I to live in the world of my choosing, I would be a recluse princess, and my car would be a pegasus. I accept that this is merely a dream and that my dreams should be lived in at most half the time. On weekends, that ratio may be higher, but on weekdays, there are real-world matters which demand my physical and mental presence. This truth is as unfortunate as it is inescapable.

The misfortune is diminished by the fact my job, for its utter lack of mythical beasts or magical hairpins, is one I thoroughly enjoy - at least in the meantime. Sometimes I actually disbelieve I am paid for what I do. My disbelief is intensified by the fact that I am paid an above-subsistence wage. I was six years old the last time I believed I could be paid well for a job I enjoyed.

I often forget there is a correlation between the time I spend at my school and the money that mysteriously appears in my account at the end of each month. There is, one might say, some magic in that.

Five days a week I am an "Assistant Language Teacher" ("ALT"). Many people have heard of the JET program, a government-sponsored program which brings native English speakers into Japanese public schools. ALT work is the same kind of work but is contracted through private corporations instead of the government. Each route to working in the public schools has its benefits and detriments. I would recommend interested parties seriously consider each. Don't dismiss working as any ALT simply because the pay may be lower. There is recompense in other realms, such as allotted time off.

My work - and I use this word lightly, though it can be taxing - is split between two schools. I spend two days a week at the town elementary school (shogakkou). The remaining three days I spend at the junior high (chugakkou). I am at the shogakkou briefly each day for lunch, which is typically both healthy and delicious, if a little bit high on sodium. My coworkers are frequently incredulous when I tell them pizza, hamburgers, french fries and chocolate milk were frequent guests on my childhood school lunch menus. "Honto-ni?" They often ask incredulously, trying to gauge whether I might be teasing them. Alas, I am not: I grew up loving those very menus I now find suspect.

I haven't yet bothered trying to explain sloppy joes. With my limited grasp on Japanese, I doubt I could.

There are trade-offs here, too. I won't deny it. At least in the States I didn't have to face a bowl of rice on my lunch tray every day. A year in Japan has filled my personal rice quota for a lifetime. The mere thought of rice is enough to make me queasy some days. In fact, I'd better just move right along to more digestible matters now.

My workdays at the elementary school are filled with laughter and games. Confusion tends to be a primary ingredient, but it is seldom long-lived, and seems actually to enhance the thrill of eventual understanding among my students. Some days I have only one lesson. Other days, I have four or five. I prefer the latter as, no more than an oversized child myself, desk time deeply unsettles me.

There is no set English curriculum within Japanese elementary schools. English time is basically considered cultural enrichment, and is at least as much about exposing children to new and wacky ways of thinking as to teach them actual English. At my shogakkou, I recall laughing (whether from pain or amusement I don't now recall) when I saw that my class isn't simply English class. Instead, it's called "English Fun Hour." Indeed, as I was instructed first by my company and later by reference to the Japanese government-issued manual for ALTs, this relatively recent requirement of elementary schools is meant to instill in students a sense of enthusiasm for life and learning. What this translates to in practice is: Games. Then some more games with songs and chants thrown into the mix for good measure. At first I mocked myself as I tried to figure out what on earth I was doing. Now, even understanding, I continue to mock myself heavily but at least with humor and some greater degree of confidence. This is, in fact, what I am paid to do.

The games certainly have their merit. Students often begin English classes with some terror or trepidation. This fades quickly for some children, but others, expecting perfection from themselves by the ripe old ages of 6 and 7, are much more difficult to lure out of their shells. Games relieve pressure on such children and encourage them in an environment where emphasis is off perfect language production and instead shifted to a task much more manageable: winning one set game. It is easy to criticize this approach, but given its real aims, the methods do the trick. How many U.S. elementary schools, after all, have regularized language-learning opportunities? It is a good start, I think, and that is all it is meant to be at this point.

The enticement of stickers for trying English after class should surely not be understated. Fear is easily forgotten in the glimmer of sunlight off a shiny new cartoon sticker. English oppourtnities are hence not limited to the few hours of English most children will be exposed to in elementary school classes. My favorite attempt of today? "Is this your monster?"

Why, yes, it is!

Many favored games involve "janken" - Japan's "rock, paper, scissors." Janken can be used to advance a game piece, to win cards, to earn a chance at shooting a hoop or making a goal in soccer. Janken introduces an element of chance and again diminishes pressure by equalizing chances for students lacking confidence or the speed of some quicker learners. It is, in fact, used for all kinds of solutions in Japan - from elementary school straight through, sometimes, to management decisions, to a degree that can initially be perplexing. The element of chance, I suspect, fosters group cohesion through shying away from more divisive, time-consuming paths to a decision.

There are an abundance of Internet sites with excellent game ideas, songs/chants and even entire lesson plans. One of my favorites is genkienglish.com, which came up repeatedly in my company's more recent regional staff meeting. The contributions of hundreds of teachers sharing what has worked for them in the classroom make this site and others like it irreplaceable to ALTs. Some of my most frustrating concerns have been resolved by a quick browse through that site and others similar to it. Most of these can be found within seconds using any search engine.

My days at the junior high school are much quieter by comparison, and my responsibilities more limited. There is a government-issued curriculum in junior high, and English is one subject tested on high school entrance examinations. As the high school a student attends dictates which colleges or universities will later be open to her, the chugakkou English class atmosphere is decidedly different from at the shogakkou. The approach is much more book-oriented, and my involvement tends to be minimal. Still, I enjoy my days at the junior high and relish the opportunities I have to interact with my endearingly sweet - uhm, I mean cool, definitely cool - junior high students.

Regardless of which school I spend my day at, I much more often leave grinning than not. Along the walk home, I make silly conversation with students from both schools, lost in a mess of similarly dressed students with matching caps and backpacks. I may have a lot left to learn, but one thing I have leaned so far is that beneath all that is mandatorily matched lie bright, genki children whose distinct personalities shine in the classroom - and outside it. I am blessed to "teach" them... but much more so to learn from them.

That is the heart of what, happily, I am paid to do.

Deborah Lea may be reached at deborahlea_jp@yahoo.com.

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