A Smooth Class Greeting

This is a small tip I learned today from a JTE I work with. During the class greeting at the beginning and end of his classes, this JTE always allows  his students to remain sitting in their seats. Since this is a departure from how most other English classes are run, I asked him to tell me why he did it that way. These are his reasons:

“The first merit,” he said, “is that it saves time. In English classes, time is precious so even 30 seconds counts.” The second reason comes from an observation he made. “When I worked for 3 years at another school I noticed that students would only grudgingly get out of their seats for the beginning and ending greetings. I could tell by their faces that they felt like they were being forced to do something they didn’t necessarily want to do. So I decided to allow them to always remain sitting during these times.”

He believes that if the students feel annoyed about having to get out of their chairs, that this unpleasantness not only carries over into their greeting, but also through the rest of class. By allowing the students to stay seated, he thinks he can evoke a more natural (and usually friendlier) response from students. Then he is able to jump straight into the lesson without any interruption.

I think it is a great trick and I’ve seen it work wonders on classes. So please try it out if you can.

Tendo Orientation Handouts

Check out the NEW CCM heading to view useful handouts prepared by Yamgata’s Conference Committee Members.

Did you think the New JET Tendo Orientation was super helpful, but you lost all your handouts?

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How to Build a Monster

Level: JHS 1st grade

Time: about 1 class period

Materials: drawing paper, pens, pencils, coloring markers or crayons

I just observed a teaching demonstration for first grade JHS students. The target was teaching the difference between plural and non plural nouns (i.e. “two cats“, “three cats“, “one cat“). Japanese doesn’t have plural nouns, so the concept can be quite confusing for students. The tendency, therefore, is to dig deep into a lesson about English grammar with a class full of 11 and 12 year old kids.

I think I counted about 5 students sleeping, although the student teacher giving the lesson had tried her best to make the near 30 minute grammar lesson well-organized and fast-paced. But grammar is boring and hard to understand, and maybe only a special few teachers are able to get away with teaching a dense lesson about it. So let me tell you about a different way.

How to Build a Monster: Introduction

Note: You can do it in the same lesson, but a nice prep-lesson for this activity is to teach the students the body parts (head, arm, leg, eye, nose, mouth, ear, etc.) and how to spell them.

If you have that foundation down, then the class begins with a demonstration.

Draw a stick figure on the board with just the head and the body, like this:

Start off with this template

Ask the students what parts are missing. Get the students to say the words like “arm”, “eye,” etc. Then, if a student says “arm” draw one arm; if a students says “eye” only draw one eye. Do this until you have a stick figure with half of all his body parts (except the nose and mouth, of course), like this:

Only add half of the body parts

Then ask the students if they think the man is “okay.” Of course, the man isn’t okay because he only has one arm, leg, eye, ear, etc.).

Now it’s time to blow the kids’ minds. Tell them that when there is more than one of these things, you add an “s” to the end of word. Complete the stick figure and write the words next to it with the appropriate numbers, like this:

Blow your kids minds by telling them how to add the “s”

Wait for the collective shock to dissipate a little, then you can use your own methods for drilling this point a little with the kids (i.e. flash cards, etc.)

Main Activity

After drilling this concept, practicing pronunciation and so on, you can spend the rest of the time on the main activity, which is for each student to draw a monster and to list its attributes (i.e. how many arms, legs, eyes, etc. does it have?). Put your example monster on the board and count his various attributes as a class (a disguised review activity).

Now it is time for the students to draw their own monsters. You can give the students a blank piece of paper or a handout that you prepare yourself. The object is to draw a monster with multiple hands, arms, legs, etc. Spend about 10 – 20 minutes allowing the students to draw their monster.

When the students are getting close to finishing their monsters, you can stop the class tell them that they are going to describe their monsters using English. Tell them to flip their papers over or give them a separate worksheet. Tell them to write out sentences describing how many of each attribute their monster has. For example:

I have 1 head.

I have 10 arms.

I have 200 eyes, etc.

If it is a class that has trouble using English, you can use a worksheet with sentence templates that allow them to fill in the blanks (e.g. “I have _____ ______”)

Walk around the class, checking the students’ work, to make sure they are describing their monster correctly and to see if they are having any spelling or grammar issues.

You can finish the class by having a few students present their monsters to the class.

**You can spend another class to finish this “monsters project” by having the students color in their monster and describe it again. This follow-up activity shows the students how to use adjectives with plural nouns. For example, “I have two blue eyes” and “I have 6 green heads.”


I think it is important to remember that we are working with children when teaching 1st grade JHS students. Just 6 months ago they were in elementary school. There is plenty of time for them to listen to long lectures about English grammar. Starting too early on this course decreases student motivation for English and makes it harder for them to learn. With simple, creative activities like this, students can enjoy themselves while learning about English, and have something to show for it — a cool monster that they designed and described themselves. The lesson is flexible, so you can take the concept and use whatever topic you like and teach it whatever way suits you best.

Use the Class Greeting to your Advantage

At the beginning of most classes I’ve seen in Japan, there is a class greeting, where students and teachers say “Good morning/Good afternoon!” and students sometimes answer a few questions.

In my case, the boilerplate questions are:

1) How’s the weather today?
2) What’s the date today?
3) What’s the day today?
4) What time is it now?

Although genuine in their attempt to reinforce some common questions students may encounter in daily life, it’s easy to imagine how they get boring beyond belief. That’s why I decide to mix them up a bit.

The way I do this is by using this greeting time to my advantage. I am typically given free-reign during this time to go down the litanty. Since it is the beginning of class and I have the students’ attention, I found it is a good time to introduce some new phrases.

The two phrases I’m working on in my classes are:

1) “Long time no see!” and
2) “Nice to see you!”

Considering how frequently Japanese people use the phrase “hisashiburi” (the Japanese equivalent of the first phrase), it is shocking many students will never learn how to say this in English if they stick by the New Horizon textbook (other textbooks may vary, though). Since I visit each class about 1 time a week (meaning one week passese before I see a class) I consider it appropriate to use this phrase and have the students echo it back to me during the class greeting.

A variation on this phrase is “Nice to see you!”. After I have “Long time no see” down pact with a class, I’ll move on to this next phrase. The idea came from my myriad experiences running into students downtown on my free days. I found myself always wanting to say “Nice to see you!”. But since students didn’t learn it in schools, they heard “See you!” and waved goodbye — a very funny misunderstanding, indeed.  So I use this phrase with the students to help them learn the distinction between, “Nice to see you”, “Nice to meet you” and “See you!”

Other ways to mix up the class greeting are to throw in simple yes no questions. For example, if I ask, “How’s the weather” and it is sunny, I will ask a follow up like, “Do you like the sun?” or “Are you happy it’s sunny?”

On Mondays, I will ask classes if they enjoyed their weekend. I’ve found that “Did you enjoy *fill in event here*” is always a good question to ask students.

On Fridays, I’ll ask 3rd grade classes what they will do during the weekend.

Of course, the flexibility one may have in tweeking this morning or afternoon ritual will depend on the level of the class and their general mood toward English on that day. That’s why I’ve found that consistancy and enthusiasm are key during this exercise.

“High Five!” not “High Touch”

Write it on your hand so everyone always know what your going for. Photo credit: via tumblr

I have tought English in Japan for two years now. I encountered the phrase “High Touch!” early on and even adopted it for a while when I was met with more than one blank stare at the request of a “High Five!” However, I’ve reverted back to the old form recently because I’ve discovered that using the phrase “High Five!” is an interesting topic as well as a easy way to initiate conversations with students.  Once I got them with the old “High Five !” routine, I can continue talking about handshakes or try out some other conversation threads.

So, the next time you get a chance, go up to one of your students and say, “High Five!” and when they do you can ask them, “Hey, do you know why we call them that???”

Then you can go on to tell them about “low fives”, “skin” (if you’ve ever seen the movie ‘Stand by Me’ you’ll know it), “taps” and any other funny handshakes you know. You might even be able to give them a crash tutorial on giving a proper handshake.

It may be an old trick or new, but it is a great way to connect with students, share culture, and start a conversation. All your students will say “You had me at ‘High Five!”.

Clusters and Islands – An improvement on the classic game of “Criss-Cross”

Wouldn't it be great if students always thought this when you asked a question? photo credit: via Baubauhaus


…Basic Rules…

This is a two-part review game that takes 5-10 minutes. The first part is called “Clusters.” You can transition into this game from the class greeting, so tell students to stay standing.

In this game, teachers will switch off asking questions, ideally based on a grammar point that the class just learned.

Students will raise their hand if the can answer the teacher’s question. Call all a student that raises their hand. If the student gets the question right, he/she can sit down as well as 4 friends standing around them (i.e. in a “cluster”). If not, ask the same question again and allow another student to respond.

****With the exception of this “Cluster Rule” it sounds exactly like the criss-cross game you’ve always played, huh? Well, as the game progresses and more and more students sit down, the magic of this game reveals itself.*****

Because of this 5 person “Cluster Rule”, about 5 to 7 students who don’t have anyone standing around them will gradually emerge. These are the “islands.” and this is were the second part of the game starts.


At this point, you can switch to one-by-one questions, where each of the remaining students need to answer one question. So, 1 correct answer = only 1 student gets to sit down.

The following rule is key to a succesful “Islands” game. Since the remaining students can sometimes have trouble speaking English, tell them each person will answer the same question, one-by-one. For instance, “What is fun for you?” — a question for 3rd grade JHS students. This style reduces the stress and gives the remaining students a chance to practice the grammar point, and allows the game to end smoothly without any tears or frustration.

So, have students raise their hands to answer the question when they are ready. “Islands” finishes when all remaining students have answered the final question and have sat down.

What’s the point of this variation?

It may not be clear at first, but the structure of this game is actually pretty clever, for this English activity is secretly geared toward getting students that may tend to have trouble with English (i.e. the “islands”) participating in English class games. Think about it. In the standard criss-cross game, the strong English speakers  can answer all the questions and take down whole lines of students, allowing 4-5 students who never make a peep to slip through the cracks every time. If you have the final line that remains answer questions one-by-one, you can accomplish a similar affect of geting the “islands” to participate, but in my experience this can easily become a tedius and stressful experience that lowers the mood and the pace of the entire class. The standard version of criss-cross then, allows the strong students to benefit from the game every time, while only putting pressure on the unlucky students that remain standing.

The balanced format of “Clusters and Islands”, however, allows high-level students to particpate at the begining, while giving space for other students to participate in the end. Unlike the high stress, one-by-one endgame of standard criss-cross, the answer-the-same-question-format of “Clusters and Islands” removes the stress from the equation.

Also the “cluster rule” makes the outcome of who will remain standing for the “Islands” part of the game less predictable, and therefore more interesting. With few exeptions, criss-cross can be fairly predictable, especially if there is large gap in a class between strong and weak English speakers. So, “Clusters and Islands” allows many types of students to participate with a different outcome of remaining students each time.

What questions to ask?

This game can be used to reinforce a grammar pattern.

The third year JHS students just learned “It’s difficult for me to…” so we played “Clusters and Islands” recently, using this grammar. The first question, then is “What is difficult for you?” A correct answer, therefore, is “It is difficult for me to *fill in the blank here*”

More question examples are:

  • Is it difficult for you to play soccer?
  • Is it difficult for you to get up early?
  • Is it fun for you to play games?
  • Is it interesting for you to read comics?

PRO-TIP: Don’t be afraid to ask a question two or three times in a row. If it is a good question, and many students raise their hand to answer, just say, “Same question” or repeat the quesiton for the students.

Please put comments or questions in the comments section below. Please let me know if you use this game in your class.

Clusters and Islands: Demonstrated

Thanks to one of the staff at my school that wanted to practice her English, there is this really great slide show, demonstrating how this game is played for all those visual learners out there. Check the slide counter in the bottom-right hand corner of each image and view the slide show from the beginning (i.e. Slide 1). From there, you can use the arrows in the gallery box to click through the slideshow.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


Connecting with Students

photo credit: via Baubauhaus


Making an effort to bond with your student pays in dividends. It makes your job fun and easier because students who feel connected to you not only pay attention to your lessons, but enjoy them more.

Just think of how much more of an impact your classes would have if inside and outside the classroom you worked to cultivate relationships with your students. This is something that I think a lot of the sempai ALTs know very well. Here are the 3 tricks I’ve found. So if you’re a new ALT or you’re looking for some new ideas, why not try out some these for yourself or post your strategies in the comments below?

  1. Always say “Hello” to students and maybe even wave when you pass them in the hallway. I’ve found that a big and friendly greeting will be mirrored by students over time. Are you tired of saying “Hello” all the time? Try a different language: bonjour! Ni how ma! Konichiwa! Kalimara! are fun to throw into the mix and can help start a conversation (i.e. “Can you speak *fill in foreign language here*). Slang greetings are also brilliant (“What’s up?”) — especially if you can get individual students to share the original greeting with you. They all know “Hello, how are you?” So you can make more connections by establishing unique greetings with different groups of students.
  2. Help out with lunch clean-up. If your school is like mine, then after lunch large groups from each class will carry their lunch supplies back to the cafeteria. I found that this is a good opportunity for face time with the students. I like to stand at the entrance where all the lunch groups are streaming in. I can help out by checking the various boxes and trays of dishes, and make small talk with the students as they pass. Also I have something of a captive audience with those students that are helping out around me, so I really make an effort to talk with them, either to make them laugh, teach them something new or make up a handshake (which by the way is another fun idea).
  3. Attending end-of-the-day class meetings (i.e. owarinokai) — this is a trick I discovered on a visit to other schools. When it comes to making connections, face time is key. So if you can attend these meetings with different classes (on a rotating basis) you can not only feel more involved but the students will notice that you are taking an interest in them beyond the scope of what they have probably seen before. Plus, these meetings are fascinating. You can get a chance to see your students in a completely different light. And if you feel like giving a speech or some words of  encouragement to the students about studying, I find that the teachers will make time for me. Start by asking the teachers you are close with. If you like the experience, you can gradually expand your attendence to include all the classes.


Connecting with the students may seem hard at first. In fact, it is something I still struggle with. Sometimes I give the most cheerful greeting in the world to a student and get nothing but the cold shoulder. But that is natural. Building relationships takes time. In a school of 30 students it’s hard enough to build these relationships — let alone a school with 500, 600, or 700 students. I’d like to continue this subject in a later post because I’ve discovered it is a key part of our jobs here. For now, however, I’ ll leave you with these 3 ideas. If you’ve discovered a great trick for connecting with students, please explain it in the comments section below.