Emotional Contradiction

Isn’t it funny that a rainbow makes the shape of a frown?? And it’s supposed to be such a happy thing. Photo source: Jenn and Tony Bot, flickr creative commons

At times funny, surprising, cute, hilarious — or even sometimes scary — emotional contradiction is a great teaching device.

As when your students say, “Fine thank you, and you?” while scowling or slumped over their desks.

It just doesn’t make sense to say, “I’m angry!” with a million dollar smile on your face. Or to cheerfully shout, “Lucky you!” if someone says, “I failed my English test.”

More than just a great source of entertainment in the class, emotional contradiction is a great teaching tool.

Rather than letting these strange interactions to take place without comment, we try to point out these emotional contradictions in class to illustrate a variety of important lessons about communication. For example:

-How do we connect emotion with our words?

-How does our behavior effect communication?

-What is does a good, appropriate, engaging in a particular conversation?

-What is strange, inappropriate, unfavorable?

Native speakers are experts of emotional contradiction. Start pointing out the contradiction to lighten the mood and get students connecting the right emotions to their words. A textbook isn’t going to teach them that.


Learning because they Want to

William Kamkwamba, source: wikipedia

This is a picture of William Kamkwamba, giving a lecture at TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) in 2007. He’s from Malawi, a small country in southeastern Africa. He’s an inventor, engineer, designer, author — and from what I can tell, a genuinely kind-spirited individual. He’s famous for teaching himself basic physics and engineering from a book he found in a library, and rigging together a electricity-generating windmill with scraps of material he found around his village and at a junk yard.

Kamkwamba’s self-designed windmill, 2002 Source: wikipedia

Kamkwamba’s story is a classic tale of ingenuity and how self-directed energy can lead individuals to discovery, invention and greatness. Kamkwamba pursued a dream with zeal, so it didn’t matter what his resources were. Passionate people tend to be pragmatic ones as well. He used what he had available and accomplished what should have been impossible. When someone has passion — or a will to do something — resources are secondary.

When I hear stories like Kamkwamba’s, I’m reminded of students living in the first world. In many cases, their situation is completely opposite of people like Kamkwamba. These people often have all the resources but none of the will — none of the passion.

I’m also reminded of Japanese English classrooms. The resource to passion ratio is stunning. Students have all the resources they need (and more) to become fluent in English, yet so many don’t.

There’s a tendency to blame results on resources. But what about the passion?

Give someone passion but few resources and anything is possibleBut the opposite isn’t really true: Give people every resource but no passion and everything is impossible.

I’m tempted to say if we could simply inspire passion in students to learn English we could basically throw them scraps of newspapers and they would teach themselves. It’s an absurd  notion, but I think you get my point.

There is a passion deficit in English classrooms. Students have every resource they are going to get. The missing link? You guessed it – Passion. Figure out how to bring that to the table and we’ve just changed the game of English education in Japan.

Survey Results: What do junior high students think about communication classes?

It sure does feel good when 98% of students say your class was enjoyable. Click to view the PDF version.

I finally finished tabulating and analyzing the results of our survey of students who participated in our communication classes during 3rd semester of last year. For those of you who don’t know about the survey or the class, there is an explanation of both within the survey document. Basically, we designed a custom communication class for 2nd and 3rd grade JHS students and then asked them their opinions. These are the results.

Click to view the survey results in:

PDF or Word (2003)

What are your reactions?

New New Horizon and the Status of the Communication Revolution

I’ve given each book a good read-through and done a bit of analysis. Here are some of my reactions. I don’t want to start off this post complaining, so I thought I’d cover the stuff I like so far. Here’s:

The Good

-There are updated pictures and cultural references to *more* recent films, music, events and so on. This might pique the interest of students more.

-They include more reaction words like “Oh!”, “Wow!” “Oh Really?” These words add emotion to texts and make them appear more natural.

-The reference materials in the back off each book are well organized and appear to make it easier for students to study English.

-The content incorporates stuff from more parts of the world, although it is still pretty American-centeric.


The Questionable

I haven’t seen this book in action yet and don’t know how my teachers will embrace it/use it so instead of saying “stuff I don’t like”, I’m going to put up some question marks.

-?-There is a lot more material and a lot more reading. Just a quick glance through the book will give you the impression this is a more weighty book than the last. And in fact, it is true, according to my initial analysis of books 2 and 3:

More Reading Comprehension in new New Horizon (word doc.)

-?-This focus on reading comprehension means that a lot of grammar and sentence models are centered around “reading” English to the detriment of “spoken/communication” English.

-?-There seems to be a bit of information overload in general. These new textbooks are packed to the brim with grammar explanations and reading. Consequently, they don’t seem to give much weight to anything in particular. Everything is presented pretty much as “study this because it is English.” An interesting method, indeed, which one might compare to giving someone a dictionary to learn English. Yes, all the words are English, but you have to admit that words like “baseball” should be given more emphasis and priority than a word like “ascetic.”

-?-They moved the 2nd year “giving directions” activity to the 1st year textbook. This activity was hard enough for my 2nd year students. I have a feeling it is going to flop in 1st grade.

Preliminary Conclusions:

New Horizon appears to have doubled down on the “prepare students for the test” approach to teaching English with the amount of emphasis they put on reading comprehension and grammar in the new textbook. It’s a little disappointing and frustrating because it is going to suck up class time and probably overwhelm students.

I’d say one of the best things ALTs can do right now is to do a little filtering for students and teachers. As native English speakers, we have a good eye for what is relevant and useful in spoken English, so we can perhaps sort out some of the mess and help students/teachers prioritize some of the material here. For example, I have gone through each book and created lists of all the best conversation questions that appear and what page they’re on.

Where does this put the communication revolution? Perhaps it’s a bit of a setback, but the need for more communication is still here more than ever. It doesn’t make our job any easier, but maybe this book will highlight again the absurdity of the “dead language approach” to teaching English.

What are your reactions so far?

English is not a Dead Language

Video: Agricola… Agricolae…. Agricolarum…. Footage of the Latin classroom in Dead Poet’s Society. Every time I see this, I can hear myself melodically intoning, “Be… is/am/are… being… been…” to dozens of classrooms across Yamagata (oh, what have I done!?)


Latin died with the decline of the Roman Empire. During the Renaissance, Latin was briefly resurrected, and, as a consequence, it became a required course of study in most universities up until the 1900s.

This was good news for scholars. But bad news for any person who had to endure the grueling task of memorizing thousands of obscure words and jumping into the bramble bush of Latin verb stems. It’s no surprise, then, that Latin class often serves as the stereotype of the impossible language class.In fact, a lot of the mistakes made in teaching this language to hundreds of thousands of students are what give language classrooms a bad rap.

From this course of study, we of course inherited the infamous “grammar-translation method,” whereby students are required to study arcane grammar rules and long lists of vocabulary so that they are able to create create word-for-word translations of any text. It guaranteed snappy explanations for busy teachers, but was loaded with pitfalls and shortcomings.

The problem? Essentially, taught nothing but grammar, reading and translation, many people threw in the towel early on. And as for those crazy savants who actually succeeded in mastering byzantine mechanics of the language? Well, they could read and write as well — but they couldn’t actually speak Latin.

It’s funny that I mention it because, hey! this sounds a lot like Japan! If one looks at a lot of Japanese English classes, anyway, you’d think you had somehow traveled back to the 1850s and you were standing in a Latin course at Cambridge University. There’s the teacher at the front of the room, pacing back and forth in their comfortable suit and sweater vest as the students repeat words from an endless list. The books full of arcane grammatical descriptions are there, too. And so is the sea of ghostly faces in the audience, staring, gasping, wondering how they are ever gonna make it out of this next English class alive…

I think it’s high time we ought to wake everybody up and say for once, “Hey! It’s not the 1850s anymore!!  You don’t have to study English like Latin or ancient Greek! Why? Because there are over a billion English speakers out there and English isn’t a dead language!!”


Communication IdeaVirus

Communication classes are an ideavirus*. So, if you can convince just one teacher to take the leap, and you materials and ideas are successful, the idea will spread to other teachers and you will have a brand new job.

*Ideavirus is a term coined by Seth Godin to describe ideas that are so influential and so remarkable that they spread quickly to others like a virus. Check out Seth Godin’s blog and free ebooks. He will change your life.

Guess What?

By John Hatanaka, ALT, Yamagata City

"Guess what?!"This is the poster I printed off for my kids and put around the school.

I’ve had a breakthrough with my students recently. When I see my kids in the morning, they no longer say “Good morning!” to me. Now, instead of just, “Good morning!”, they usually ask me a second question. “Guess what?!”, they say. I ask them, “What?”. And then they have to tell me about something from their day.

Instead of a teacher, I become a listener, and a conversation starts as I reply with follow-up questions. It’s kind of like physics, I think. “Guess what?” is an easy English phrase that all students can say. And it gets the ball rolling. An object in motion stays in motion. And if you can find a clever way like this to get the conversation rolling, you are already off to a good start.

I like the English passport idea. Maybe I’ll start to offer a “Guess what?” stamp if my students use a “Guess what?” question. Passports are Great!