The Hectic Days

I’m getting to that point in the year when I want to just come home and pass out after work. For the next two weeks, I’m looking at no days off and a whole lot of overtime. Interactive Forum requires that I train students until 5 or 5:30 p.m. Also, I went ahead and agreed to be an Iris Princess (Ayame Musume あやめ娘) to make this the third year I represent my Japan hometown. And lastly, I signed up for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) level N3 (a.k.a Conversational Level).

For Interactive Forum, I’m trying to increase the level of my students’ English abilities, but it can be difficult to do that and keep the training times fun. If the students aren’t having fun, the entire hour can become this awkward affair where no one wants to talk, and the whole point of it is to make students converse in English. As you can well imagine, it’s frustrating as all get out when they get into this strange funk.

Usually I can bring them out with what I like to call “Crazy English,” where I introduce myself as someone famous and pretend to be that person instead of myself. For example, “Hi! My name is Sailor Moon. I fight evil in my free time. I like sweets very much. Nice to meet you!” The students get a kick out of that. However, I’ve got to be careful to balance having fun and keeping them focused on the task at hand.

My third years, who are fourteen or fifteen years old, can really help me out with doing the harder parts. At both of my schools, I’ve designated a third year student as the sempai of the Interactive Forum group. If I’m not there for some reason then they’re in charge until I show up, and if I need a translation they will be the ones who do so to the other students. It’s actually very important, I think, for ALTs to utilize the sempai system set up in the Japanese classrooms. It can be a great tool to utilize when you want to get things done in class or clubs.

It is really rewarding to watch my students’ progress from simplistic sentences to having actual full conversations. To have a student go from answering “Do you like AKB48?” with just “Yes, I do.” to him/ her responding “Yes, I do! I like them very much. My favorite member is ______. Do you know her?” That’s just one of the most awesome experiences to have as an ALT, to know that you’ve been able to guide your students to that point where they can take what they’ve learned in class and actually use it.

Still, as rewarding as it is, I feel a little bit worn out from coaching sometimes. Last week turned out fine, but I can recall a few moments last year when I showed up and I knew from the get go the session was going to be a fight to speak. I’m anticipating that next week, when the Sports Day (undōkai 運動会) practices get rolling, the whole group will show up exhausted and not wanting to do anything. And it’s my job to make them, hooray!

That’s going to be a problem for me since I’ll probably be extremely tired as well. Last year, I worked for the Itako Iris Festival (Itako Ayame Matsuri 潮来市あやめ祭) on Saturdays and Sundays. I went with the wiser choice this year to work only on Sundays, since I know I’ll need one day devoted to planning on moving to Tokyo/ Chiba, depending upon where I’m placed for my new job. However, this weekend requires that I work both days since it’s the opening weekend. I’m glad to be doing it one last time, don’t get me wrong, but I’m not looking forward to not one single day that I can recharge my batteries.

This year the city wasn’t able to find another foreigner to be an Iris Princess, so I’m the only foreign woman working this year. As such, I’m probably going to be featured a little more for campaigns than in the previous two years. I feel torn about this possibility, because on the one hand I’ll be kind of given special treatment, but on the other hand the expectations for me are higher than previous years. I’m not sure how it’s all going to work out. I’m nervous about it.

I’m not so nervous about the JLPT, though. Honestly, I meant to take the test back in December, but I missed the deadline for registration. This time I was on the ball and got my application in on time. I’ve already been studying for it since before December, so I’m confident that I’ll at least pass. I’ve bought all the books and test materials for it.

But on top of everything else, I wonder if perhaps I jumped the gun a little bit.Two years ago I tried for the N4 (Upper Basic Level) but I didn’t pass. I did the same kind of schedule I’m going to do soon, wherein I work six or seven days a week along with studying for a test everyday. Back then I actually hurt myself from the stress. I couldn’t study kanji for a good month afterwards. My brain actually flat out refused to process any new Japanese, so I took a break. I feel like this time will be different, since I started studying way back months ago and because I know I will get Saturdays off, eventually.

With the 31st being Sports Day, it looks like the rest of the month of May is just one big block of WORK. And then in “free time” it’s actually “study time.” Next month looks like work unless it’s Saturday, but even then I’d imagine the Saturdays will be devoted to the very long list of “Things Jessica Must Do Before She Moves.” I’m praying that when all is said and done my students will have better English speaking abilities than before we started practice, I get through the Iris Festival in one piece, and I pass the JLPT with flying colors.

An Interactive Forum How-To Guide

Interactive Forum is an educational program designed to help Junior High School students in Japan gain confidence in conversational English. The usual Interactive Forum I’ve encountered has two rounds, the first round using easy topics such as school, family, friends, and etc. The second round involves a little more challenging topics such as TV programs, music, and etc. I will be coaching my group of students until August, trying to prep them for the stage.

All too often, I’ve been asked how exactly Interactive Forum practices should be done, and honestly I don’t think there’s one set way. I’ve done it for two years now and I still have trouble every once and a while with my students suddenly going silent and forgetting to speak. I have picked up some tricks and tips along the way, so I hope that these will help others trying to coach as well.

How to Set Up a Practice

Before you even start talking, I recommend setting up the students in a half circle. Let them get used to sitting like this and talking to each other comfortably. It will make it easier to transition onto a stage if they’ve already got some experience talking in that formation.

Also, make sure you’re in a room where you can write on a board. You’ll most likely need to stop and give some grammar points throughout the practice session. If you don’t have a board it takes up much more time to explain a grammar point (especially if you’re coaching alone like I am).

Make sure you have all your materials before you start practice:

-stop watch

-notebook

-dictionary

-pens/penicils

-dry erase markers/ chalk

-(Optional) Interactive Forum Pamphlet

I’ve made a pamphlet for my students that has all the previous years’ topics with English questions and answers. I’ve left some places blank for them to fill in with their own experiences. It’s not absolutely necessary to use one, but I think it makes things easier for students to prep. Also, I like that they can look over the pamphlet to review for practices.

How to Do an Interactive Forum Practice

First, choose a topic. It can be anything from previous topics to something you made up yourself. Then, have every student go around and introduce themselves quickly.

The introduction should go like so:

Hello! My name is (full name).

Please call me (first name or nickname).

I go to (school’s full name in English).

I am ____ years old.

Topic sentence: (Ex. I have four members in my family).

Thank you!

Use the stopwatch and have to students talk for a set amount of time (between 3-5 minutes is best). At a competition, students have to talk about a topic for five full minutes. However, at first it’s best to just get the students talking, so if they’re a little nervous start at 3 and work your way up to 5.

When it’s the first few practices, be involved in the discussions and help keep the flow of conversation going, but don’t be the one dominating the conversation. Try to make sure everybody talks. It’s really important for everyone to not only get a chance to speak but also that the students take the chance they’re given.

It’s a good idea to take notes on things the students have issues with during the conversation. It also helps if your JTE(s) or English Department Head want a report after the practice. If you’ve already got a JTE there, it’s still a good idea to take notes to compare with the JTE after practice.

When you’re finished with one topic, give feedback. If your students need help with a certain grammar point, go over it on the board and have them write it out in their notes. If you need to look up what a word is in English, go ahead and have the students look it up in the dictionary. It’s also important during this time to give praise for what the students did well. I know I’ve made the mistake often of going all American and pointing out everything that’s wrong so they can fix it and we can move on. Don’t do this. It makes students feel like they’re doing nothing right.

After that, move onto a different topic and start the whole process over. Usually, I practice for about an hour each day after school, so I do a topic for five minutes followed by about five minutes for feedback and then a new topic.

Use Different Tactics for Different Types of Students

Students chosen for the Interactive Forum competition are sometimes really confident at speaking. If you’re lucky enough to have a confident communicator, then make that student a kind of co-leader of the practices. Give the student a responsibility to help out the other students. In the Japanese education system, sempai (older students or more experienced students) are often expected in most sport teams and club activities.  Using this cultural element in your Interactive Forum can make your coaching experience smoother than if you try to lead all on your own, since the sempai can help the students later when you’re not able to be there.

Most likely, the majority of students chosen for Interactive Forum will have some trouble speaking up at first. It’s very important that you DON’T FORCE THEM TO SPEAK. They will shut down if you push too hard. Even when you wouldn’t consider yourself being forceful, remember that in Japan forceful and aggressive behavior is scaled in a whole other way than almost anywhere else in the world. Try to make a relaxed atmosphere. When you talk to a shy student, take time to get them to come out of their shell by bringing up things they like.

For shy students, it’s also important to not overly correct them at first. If you spend so much time telling them what they’re doing wrong, they will think they’re failing. Don’t let them think that. Correct small things at first. With more practice sessions will come a better understanding and relationship with your students, and then you can correct whenever you please.

The Non-Verbal Portion

Notice that the competition is about communication. Communication is 63-90% non-verbal communication and students will be scored on it in competitions. Gestures, smiling, eye contact, all of these are important to keep in mind when students are practicing. Make sure you use gestures when you talk with your students. Students will pick up on them if you use them.

I made a sheet of Hand Gestures for my students and we’ve been practicing using them. It’s awkward for Japanese students since they’ve been taught since they were very young not to do hand gestures. I’m not entirely sure why, but hand gestures are generally discouraged in Japanese culture. Getting them into the habit of using them can be a little challenging, but if you are consistent in how you use them then the students will be too.

Make it Fun

The last thing you want to do is make English feel like work. Even though you have so much to teach in a short amount of time and it’s for a competition, be sure students enjoy practicing. Make them laugh with a corny joke, get them to open up about something silly they did with their friends, trade “scandals” about various TV dramas, talk about “who is your type” of guy/girl, and so on. Remember, even though it’s a competition, the best thing you can do as a coach and an English teacher is try to make the lessons you teach stick, both in and outside the classroom. Make it an enjoyable memory that they can associate with English in the future.