KISS (Keep it Simple Stupid)

It seems every time I teach something I have to fight the urge to give too many examples. The temptation is great, after all it seems that examples form an elixir to quickly understanding something. The truth, however, is that too many examples can be overwhelming.

The 2nd grade students are about to learn “if” statements now (as in, “If it’s sunny, I want to play baseball”). This grammar is very useful, and of course there are many examples and variations. Let’s take a look at some:

If I were rich, I would buy a house,
I would buy a house, if I were rich.
If I had money, I would buy a house.
I would buy a house, if I had money.
I could buy a house, if I had money.
If I had money, I could buy a house.

The list goes on and on, with various constructions, verb and tense uses and so on. To native English speakers, the list is easy to follow. Perhaps it’s even interesting to see the possibilities.

But to people learning this for the first time, too many examples can be like pouring too much water in a cup. The water spills out and makes a mess.

So I have a mantra for myself. Keep it Simple Stupid (KISS). Simple examples and few of them are essential to people grasping a concept at first. After that, more examples are the essential building blocks of learning.

Students aren’t always friends

It’s an obvious truth that’s easy to forget. But when students in a class don’t connect, it makes just about everything about a class harder. Making pairs becomes a chore. The choir of voices repeating phrases dims to a whisper. The fact is, bad relationships between students shrivel the mood of a class faster than a dying rose. And without intervention, the problem can become near-intractable.

But all of the Japanese teachers I’ve ever met have been acutely concerned with this problem. This means that if YOU want to improve the atmosphere in a class, you and your JTE are probably on the same page.

This also means that you have resources at your disposal:

1) you can work with your JTE to encourage students to work better together
2) you can ask the JTE to talk with the classes’ homeroom teacher about the atmosphere (if they aren’t already)
3) you and your JTE can work with other teachers to help improve conditions in the class.

In my experience, there is a fairly regular process for dealing with classes. Tap into it and you can improve inner-class relations as well as the effectiveness of your teaching program.

What other kinds of problems have you encountered? How have you dealt with them?

School Trips

Most schools have their 3rd year students out on vacation right now. Some teachers might not have much happening at work. You can treat this as a week from hell and crushing boredom. Or you can take an opportunity to connect more deeply with some students and colleagues. With less busy people running around the school, this is the perfect time to connect with others who might have a smaller workload. Take a chance and reap the rewards.

Passion is the key to Unleashing the English Virus in Students

I’m sure we all have some Japanese friends who speak fairly fluent English. At the very least, we know our JTEs who have dedicated their lives to learning and teaching the subject.

What got them there?

As with any long endeavor, patience was indeed a factor.

What separates them from the rest of the Japanese English learners, though? How did they succeed where their fellow classmates on the 6 year stretch of English ed. from middle school to high school apparently failed?


Pure and simple, it is the one thing they have that the others lack.

And if you’re passionate, who needs patience?

Patience is reliable and it is easy to pass on. All we have to do is administer a lot of tests and threaten people with failure. People tend to suck it up and take it.

But patience doesn’t get us the same thing that passion does.

Patience gets us “competency”. Passion gets us fluency.

So, if we know what students need, how do we start giving it to them? How do we get students passionate about English?

English Teachers are Salespeople

My JTE told me something enlightening today after I explained a project idea to him.

He said, “Japanese students are busy, so if you make everything about ‘if you have time…’ or ‘if you’re free…’ they are just going to say to themselves, “I’m too busy for that…” or “No thanks…”

I often think of my students as kids and don’t appreciate that their lives consist of tons of deadlines and activities (as if they were grown-ups working at a real job).

I hate to admit it, but yeah, they are pretty busy, huh?

That means two things:

One, when I introduce new activities I have to realize that students are thinking, “Oh no! It’s another new pattern that I have to learn…” No matter how good the idea is, the sale for students is going to be in how easy it is to explain and the immediate gratification it satisfies.

Two, I gotta stop presenting ideas in the “if you have time…” passion. No, of course they don’t have time, so I shouldn’t even start down this line of thinking. Instead, I (and we) ought to be more creative in our sales pitch so that the new idea is presented as satisfying a need or want or presenting an opportunity.

I think the pattern is fairly similar to how marketers present messages to sell their products. In that way, English teachers are pretty much salesmen, marketing in ideas and activities rather than commodities and services.

I think the more we study some of the effective ways of presenting ideas, and the better marketers we become, the more successful our messages and ideas to students will become.

So, I recommend two books,

Seth Godin, Free Prize Inside

and Dan and Chip Heath’s, Made to Stick: Why some ideas survive and others die.

Both of these books discuss at length how to make messages that are effective and that move people to action.

New Year, New Connections

With the 3rd years gone and a new wave of 1st grade students, it’s time to connect and re-connect with students. For I’ve learned that bonding with my students in these first few weeks and months is actually one of the best things I can do to ensure their success in English and my success in teaching it to them. Students that feel connected to me learn so much more than those who aren’t. So I got to try hard to bridge those divides, even if it means I speak more Japanese with them than I’d like. Let me tell you some of the strategies I use to connect with students.

-Learn names. I can’t even begin to tell you how many times busting out a student’s name has helped give me credibility with a student so they listen to the advice I have to share.

-Insist on big greetings and big reactions with students in the hallway, even when it isn’t reciprocated. Over time, everyone knows that when they see me it is time to wave and say “Hello!” to me in a big, cheerful voice.

-Speaking Japanese with students *gasp* during lunch time. I know it has its pitfalls, but if I can tell students more about me, how I learned Japanese, how I love travel, etc. I know that students feel more comfortable because they know a bit more about where I’m actually coming from. Understanding like this builds the foundation for trust, which is essential in teaching.

I’m always searching for other ways to connect with students. How do you connect with students?

Spring Cleaning

Today I did something so refreshing and wonderful. Today I took almost all the teaching papers, lesson plans and materials that I stacked up over the last 3 years and threw them in the recycle bin. I don’t want to be stuck teaching from the same materials forever. No, I think it’s time to take a fresh perspective and approach classes with new stuff I create. Why don’t you clear out those cobwebs and do the same?