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.

My Schools, Student Stories, and ALT Issues

In Itako, I work at two junior high schools, Itako 2nd Junior High School and Hinode Junior High School. Right now I’m at Hinode JU, and next month I’ll rotate over to Itako 2nd. I love both my schools. Itako 2nd wasn’t damaged very much by the earthquake, so by the time I got there everything was fixed.

Hinode JU has construction going on right now. Basically, Hinode is rice fields all around. When the earthquake happened on March 11th, the ground actually collapsed downward. Poles are still drooping left and right all over the place. Some sidewalks are nearly vertical. The roads are a mess, with pot holes and gravel all over the place. I have to be careful when I drive, too, because sometimes the roads suddenly have huge bumps that could be mistaken for hills. I can go air born if I’m not paying attention.

Even my school is still undergoing reconstruction. When I first arrived here, the entrance had a space from the floor level to the ground. That’s been covered up with asphalt. There’s luckily no structural damage done to the building. The gymnasium was unusable for a little bit. The gym had a massive crack up the side, like it was torn in half (and I suppose it kind of was). That’s all fixed up now. Slowly but surely, Hinode is recovering.

My kids are great. At Hinode JU I’ve got the more shy crowd than with Itako 2nd. Hinode students will take to me more often when I’m at the mall and at 7/11 than at school. I’ve started eating lunch with them so that they will speak more English.

Lunch at my school goes like so: Students don’t go to a cafeteria like in America. Instead, they eat in their classrooms. Some students in each class are selected to dish out the food. These students dress up in white uniforms that include hats, gloves, and face masks. They dish out the food onto other students’ trays. When that’s all done, the class says a big, “Itadakimasu!” (I humbly accept this meal!) And they eat. When they’re done, they say, “Gochisosama deshita!” (Thank you for the food!)

If you read manga or seen a single episode of a anime series set in high school, it will come as no surprise to you that Japanese students have to clean their schools. At Itako 2nd, students usually clean the school after lunch. At Hinode, students usually clean the school after all six periods are done.

It’s fun to watch them do it. Teachers supervise the students, making sure that they actually clean instead of play. Students wipe down windows, sweep, mop, and so on. When they have to sweep the gym, they’ll race each other to finish. They also like to janken (play rock, paper, scissors) for the tasks they hate. Loser, of course, has to do it.

I walk around when they’re cleaning sometimes and talk to them in English. I’m encouraged to talk to them in as much English as possible at my schools. From these conversations, I’ve gotten some pretty interesting questions. For example, one student asked me for my bust size in perfect English. I rewarded her with the correct answer and giggled for the rest of the day. I have boys asking me if I like them, which is adorable. Other students want to know if I’m eating KFC for Christmas (insert raging expletives here). And so and so forth.

I try out my Japanese on them sometimes, which makes them all kinds of surprised. I don’t use it that much with them because I want them to talk in English, but sometimes I can’t help myself. One time, I used an expression my friend, Nobuko, taught me on a boy. He was not looking at my eyes, so I said, “Anata sukebe ne?” Which basically means, “Oh, you’re a perv, huh?” And he shook his head and said “No! No! No! I am good! I am good!” I rewarded him with a sticker for the English and for suffering the shock of a lifetime.

Right now, we’ve got testing going on, so my schedule’s a little erratic. I can have anywhere from one class a day to five. The five class days are killer. I don’t know why, but it’s so draining. Just one class right after the other and talking to students at lunch, there’s barely anytime to go to the bathroom. When I have just one class, I try to use the time wisely by studying Japanese, but I might meander onto Cracked.com or Facebook when I get bored.

I’ve started staying after school to play some sports. I played volleyball yesterday, and tomorrow I’m going to play basketball. The students are happy to see me, and the coaches help to encourage them to do English when I’m there. I love sports, I really do, but I’m bad at them. My volleyball girls would giggle whenever I completely failed at a maneuver (which was often). One girl, Kanna, helped me out with the footwork by trying to tell me things in English. In the end, she would say the Japanese, and I would say the English, and then she would repeat the English. Close enough, right?

At one point yesterday, I had a ball just fly left and keep going. I said, “Sumimasen. Sorry.” And one girl smiled at me and said, “It’s ok! Ball likes to go!” I wish I could’ve given here like a thousand stickers in that moment, because that was awesome.

When I leave Itako 2nd, I go home by taxi service. No, it’s not because I’m that important, but instead because of this safety clause in my contract that states I can’t drive myself during school hours. When I’m at Hinode, I walk to school because I live so close. When I went to the elementary school, I would walk there, too.

I’ve only been to the elementary school once, but I want to go again really bad. They’re so adorable! Oh my god, I want a Japanese child! They kept asking me questions in Japanese, so I had the greatest test of my Japanese skills with them. I managed to make it through pretty well. Luckily, elementary Japanese is around my level of equivalency.

I got a lot of, “Are you married?” and “Boyfriendo?” questions that made me sigh. That question will never die. Unlike my junior high school kids, my elementary school kids really couldn’t believe it. They were so confused. I tried my best to explain, but I think I failed that part of the interview. Instead, I moved onto talking about MatsuJun and Arashi.

Most of my students and I get along pretty well. I have a couple of disruptions every once and awhile, but I’ve been figuring out ways to solve them as I go. In class, one of the best ways is for me to just move and stand close to a students that’s misbehaving. Out of class, I yell out in Japanese and startle my kids to cut it out. It’s the power of being a foreigner. People pay attention when you do anything. It’s a little unnerving at first, but I’ve started using it to my advantage at school.

I love my job. I love getting up and working everyday. However, there are a few issues. People who are interested in the JET program and teaching in Japan in general should know the job can be challenging. After all, even the best schools and best students won’t be perfect 100% of the time, so sometimes you’ll find yourself feeling like maybe you’re all alone with these problems, exacerbating the already kind of isolation you get by living abroad.

Some of the issues I’ve faced as an ALT in my schools include getting time to discuss future lessons with Japanese Teachers of English (JTEs).  I’m lucky with my placement. I can usually get time before class to discuss a lesson with the English teacher in charge. However, that’s not always the case, and many ALTs are not so lucky. It’s not unheard of for an ALT to get no information on a class at all before having to walk in and start teaching. Sometimes I’ve just had to wing it because the teacher’s been too busy with his or her other responsibilities to tell me the plan. After all, the teachers have to do so much. They have to plan out lessons, grade everything, keep the grades straight in the grade book, and so on. Also, most teachers aren’t just teachers. They’re also coaches, supervisors over school projects, members the Parent Teachers Association, and so on.

For times when you can’t grab a teacher to find out the plan, just give it your best guess and plan accordingly. Make two lessons, one which is grammar point oriented and another that’s much less difficult to do, just in case the JTE says, “Oh no, that’s too hard!” and you’re not left in stunned silence with nothing to do for that class.

One of the things that will be a little frustrating at first is trying to figure out the students English level. Students will know some words but not those words, and they will know this basic bit of grammar but something very similar is too difficult, oh and this cannot be said the way you usually say it because students get confused…You get the idea. It’ll be frustrating, but it’ll be alright. If you get a textbook and flip through it, you’ll get an idea of what the students know and don’t know. If all else fails, ask the JTE. They will probably tell you a lot at first, “Can you make it easier?” and you will probably think, “But it is easy…” but what they mean by “easier” is actually like shorter words and shorter sentences. Think less complex and more elementary school English.

Also, you will speak English too fast when you first get there. It’s just a fact. You will speak English too fast at first for students to understand. Your JTE will inform you that you have to slow down over and over again at the beginning, and you will think, “But I am talking slow.” Sorry, still too fast. Don’t worry though because after about a month you’ll develop Shatner-esque style of talking that will become your default mode for students. It’ll take a while before you can get it to feel a little less robotic, but you’ll make it work somehow.

In JET, there’s this saying that they use at orientation called E.S.I.D. (Every Situation is Different). Meaning every class is different and every student is different and every teacher is different. When it comes to conversing with Japanese Teachers of English and other Japanese co-workers, the task is daunting at first. At Hinode my teachers are a little more shy and nervous around me at first, but after while they’ve gotten used to me and ask me about my day. Itako 2nd embraced me wholeheartedly and it feels like they never stop talking to me. Since I’m shy around people at first and a natural introvert, I had to force myself to speak and interact, with can be terribly difficult with the language barriers.

Miscommunications can and will happen. That’s just part of it, but they can be hard to work through. For me, the miscommunications I have the most pertain to class and how to teach during class. There are some fundamental cultural differences between the Japanese style and the Western style of teaching. In Japan, it’s usually lecture style, with the teacher at the front telling students what to learn and no interruptions allowed. I tried when I first got here to ask questions when I was at the front to get a more discussion style class going, but that quickly died. Japanese students are really not trained like Western students to be active in class. It’s actually considered rude to interrupt or ask questions because that means the teacher didn’t do a “good enough” job teaching. My JTE at Itako 2nd actually sat me down to talk with me about it, and said even though the Japanese schools want a more Western classroom for English classes, it’s a going to be a while before it actually happens.

At the end of the day, I do my best to say goodbye to as many students as I can before I go home. I love my job, but I will say it’s draining some days. I try to remember my trump card: “I’m tired, but I’m tired IN JAPAN!” It still manages to perk me up. Also, when my students are shouting, “Goodbye!” and “I love you!” I feel a little proud that I’ve got such great kids.

And now, I’m going to go dive under my kotatsu.

TTYL!