Okayama – Teaching 2000 kids in day

When you do school visits, you sometimes have bad days and sometimes you have good days. To be honest today didn’t start very well as I had to spend the first 30 minutes wiring up the schools broken sound system – I can’t remember the amount of times I’ve had to do that!

But then the first 1,200 kids rolled into the gym and everything went magically from there. This school is actually one of the Ministry of Education’s test schools and they are the school that is testing out the DVD versions of the Genki English CDs. I also did a two day workshop here two years ago and they have a fantastic lady in charge of the programme. And boy does it show! Even just in the setting up the kids were actually answering when I asked questions ( instead of the usual running away!), and were asking me stuff themselves, and not just “Say this to the foreigner” type things, but the normal things that kids ask me in Japanese.

The show we started out with Rock, Paper, Scissors just to check they all got the Genki English rules. They sailed through this, which is a bit cheating I suppose as they’ve already done it loads of times in their normal lessons. But I was also asked to teach a new theme that they hadn’t done yet and the request was for “How did you get here?“. This is a fun theme, but having all the grades together meant introducing the vocab is a little tough ( e.g. you need different jokes for each grade level!). So I just decided to whiz through the vocab and mini lesson and get them onto the music as quickly as possible, the para para techno music always gets them awake. And as was to be expected from a first run through a new theme after only 5 minutes they were a little lukewarm to say the least. Which is fine of course, if they could sing it all perfectly straight away there’d be no point teaching it! So then I came in with usual motivation talky bits and rule number two of “Try again!” came into play and we tried it again. And my goodness, they were amazing. Going from being quite unconfident and hesitant to blasting out all the words, including the chorus, with really great pronunciation and perfect timing. In fact they were so loud they broke the sound system. But no problem, these kids proved that they could tackle even a new theme straight away.

So then to finish off it was How old are you? and Mingle. Which like Rock, Paper, Scissors I didn’t have to teach as they already new it. And they did great. One nice touch is that the teachers give them cool hand gestures for the chorus and then only have them jump on their own age. At first I didn’t figure out what was going on, but afterwards I realised why there was this ripple effect from front to back!

Semi Immersion

Right, now it’s on to the second school before the teachers’ workshop this afternoon. This second school is trying things in a different way. Instead of introducing Genki English they are doing a semi-immersion class where they teach the music lessons all in English. Now I can’t really see how this works myself but it will be interesting to see how they get on!

This time we had 900 kids and no sound system set up ( “We thought you didn’t really need it so we set up the speaker in the projector machine for you”) hmmm. Luckily they had a several thousand dollar PA system at the side of the gym being unused ( after they were complaining they have no money!) so I rigged that up and it sounded really nice. When you have a nice sound system you don’t have to have things so loud, which can make the whole experience much clearer and much more like a movie. The show was OK but the kids lack of experience with Genki English showed through ( e.g. “Can you do it?” and half the kids go “No!”), so I just did the basic first step show. After that they were really good but the very nice head teacher came up to me afterwards and said “Wow, that was great. Was it the same content as this morning’s school?”. To which the answer was of course “no, they’re way more advanced” but I had to say that diplomatically of course. But this throws up the problem in this city that both these schools feed into the same Junior High School and there is a huge gulf in ability and attitude between the two schools.

Teachers’ Time

Most of the teachers at today’s schools had been to a two day Genki English Bootcamp 2 years ago and they were all well up to speed with few worries about how to teach English. There were however quite a few new teachers, but they very quickly got over the fact that I’m not going to take half-heartedness as a valid excuse and pretty soon their questions turned to practical things that they can fix, compared with general worries that are un-founded. Activities wise we did the Genki Disco Warm Up, Do you like? + the Genki English version of Karuta, and the new Time 2 song and game which they loved. Then it was finishing on why elementary school English and International Understanding is so important, which worked out great. They are a very good bunch of teachers.

After spending so much time abroad recently and hearing the same old same old stories in the Japanese press about how elementary school English hasn’t moved forward, I had sometimes had thoughts of “is all this working in Japan?” and “shouldn’t I spend more of my time in countries where they are more serious about education?” but going to this morning’s schools was confirmation that things are indeed moving forward and Japanese teachers with the right attitude can, and are, making a huge difference. So that’s good and it gives me the confidence that I’m not wasting my Summers doing all this training and the good teachers are taking a lot of ideas away and using them to great effect in their schools. Ganbare and keep up the good work!

Richard Graham

Hello, I'm Richard Graham. And when I was a kid I found school to be sooooo boring... So I transformed my way of teaching. I listened to what the kids were really wanting to say and taught it in ways they really wanted to learn. The results were magical. So I'm sharing it all with you now...