Sunday, April 29, 2007


For the past few months, I've been experiencing serious fatigue. Besides having to endure what has seemed like the longest winter of my life, there are some very real causes that all have very manageable solutions. Here's what I need to do:

(1) Establish a regular sleep routine. Since I have to leave for school early twice a week, it means getting up at 6 a.m. I try but often fail to get to bed by 10 p.m. those evenings. (Too many books to read and movies to watch, which can't wait until I'm retired.) This morning I forced myself to get up for 6:30 a.m. "radio exercises," even though I didn't get to bed until after midnight and to sleep until around 1 a.m. Going to bed at a decent hour is much easier when I have the whole evening free, but that's almost never. Two or three times a week I have rehearsals until 9 p.m. and, well, by the time I get into bed, it's time for lights out when I want to read! It doesn't help that my cats often decide that 10 or 11 p.m. is a perfect time to start playing, including charging around the apartment making sounds that would easily provide competition with that of a couple of elephants.

(2) Stop eating chocolate and other sweets. I cut out caffeine years ago, since a hyperactive person like myself doesn't need that extra boost. In fact, when I drink caffeine, I end up making circles around my friends with both my mouth and everything else. Sugar and caffeine have a similar effect, resulting in my taking on (and sometimes even accomplishing) endless projects. Get me started on a slideshow of my cats or a Keynote (similar to but better than PowerPoint for those who are Apple-challenged) presentation, and I end up working on it half the night. (See point #1.) Then I wake up tired and use cacao as a way to energize myself for getting through classes - well, it becomes a vicious cycle which can only be solved by refraining from sweets altogether. (sob)

(3) Get more exercise. Another vicious cycle I've been caught up in is feeling too tired (or too lazy) to exercise, and then sleeping poorly because I haven't exercised, and then not having the energy to exercise the next day. This gets aggravated by the winters in Sapporo where fear of walking on icy sidewalks keeps me imprisoned in my apartment. Of course, I could always exercise in my apartment - in fact, have a number of yoga and other exercise videotapes. It's much easier, though, now that spring and classes have started because I get a lot of "natural" exercise just going to and from school, including climbing at least 8 flights of stairs (at subway stations and schools) most days. From where I live, in fact, I can walk to a number of places, including my hairdresser's (half an hour each way), downtown (about half an hour, depending on the stoplights), and a couple of friends' houses (about an hour away).

It's when I take a trip somewhere that I get a great deal of exercise because of all the walking that I do. I've walked all over Paris and, when in Singapore last September, my friends and I spent more time walking than riding (in taxis and on the subway) - around the botanical garden, the bird park, Chinatown, Little India, and numerous places every day. The walking I do in Sapporo is more to appointments, meetings, and the like, rather than for "entertainment." Nevertheless, my overall condition, particularly the fatigue, will improve enormously this spring/summer if I make a policy of walking rather than taking public transportation when I have the time.

Meanwhile, I miss my ballroom dance lessons. Since they fall on the same evening as rehearsals for Sapporo Symphony Chorus, I've had to quit since I got into the chorus after auditioning last summer. The rehearsals provide a great workout for my lungs, but the dancing stretched all sorts of muscles. I had wanted to take private lessons in February and March but, in addition to my fear of navigating treacherous sidewalks to get to the studio, I was spending hours getting used to all my new toys (DVD recorder, iPod, iMac - and all the software that comes with it) that are ironically keeping more sedentary.

With a holiday week beginning as of yesterday, I have made a renewed commitment to Spark People - at least for the week. Even though I eat fairly well (not counting the chocolate), I find that when I record my food intake and exercise regularly on the site, which calculates all the calories, etc., for me, I eat much more consciously. The same goes for exercise. It helps to get all those Spark points. My goal: 1000 for the month of May!

Monday, April 23, 2007

Reflections on Presenting

Yesterday (Sunday) a colleague and I gave a presentation at the local JALT (Japan Association for Language Teachers) meeting. Our presentation was, in fact, on how to present, which, in a sense, put more pressure on us because the way in which we presented might be scrutinized more than in the usual presentation.

Basically we were satisfied with how well it went. Our strongest point was sticking to the time limits which we had set for each activity. Also, the pacing was generally good - too slow, according to the feedback of one participant, but we had to take into consideration that nearly half the audience consisted of non-native speakers, including 6 Japanese university students.

My co-presenter, Wilma Luth, and I made the decision that, if we were giving on presentation on effective ways of giving presentations (forgive the redundancy), it wouldn’t do for us to stand in front and simply give our listeners a bunch of tips. We wanted to demonstrate an effective presentation. In other words, the medium was the message.

Unfortunately, even though the presentation itself was well-received, the message was a little too subtle for most of those present. Some wanted more actual tips, and one person commented that it was rather thin.

There are three ways that our presentation could have been more effective, even great. The first is that we broke one of the “rules” of presenting in that we didn’t make it clear the direction we were taking. In fact, the notes I had written beforehand on Presentation Points included, “Give the audience an overview of what's going to be covered.”

The participants were particularly confused when it came to the second part, which started with 20 minutes by a different presenter on the topic of writing abstracts. They didn’t realize that Wilma and I were going to continue with moving from everyone talking about what excited them in their teaching to thinking about how they could turn that into a presentation. We knew, but it would have been nice if we could clued the audience what we were doing!

Another way in which the presentation could have been improved is by giving more examples, either from our own experiences as presenters or from presentations, both effective and ineffective, that we had been to. Our assumption was that examples were something that would come up in group discussion, which they did. What was lacking was sharing those with the audience. Everyone seemed to enjoy hearing the “war stories,” and concrete examples make the points more memorable.

A final way in which the presentation would have been truly effective is to give some questions to the participants at the end about the way in which we had presented. Although they were aware of how we were managing time, since that was what we used as an example to introduce the brainstorming in small groups, there was too much on the subliminal level that escaped the awareness of all but the most experienced presenters. A few of the questions we might have asked include:

o Where did the presenters stand during the presentation? [possible answer: not behind the podium, but generally in front when giving explanations and moving around during group discussion]

o How did the presenters get the participants involved immediate? [possible answer: by taking a poll]

o What did the presenters do with points elicited from the audience? [possible answer: repeated and rephrased them, then put them on a screen for all to see]

o What was the effect of the pacing of the presentation? [possible answer: participants had times for interaction, times when they could sit back and listen, with none of the segments being excessively short or long (taking into consideration the varying language levels of the participants)]

o How was humor used during the presentation? [possible answer: “touch one’s nose” during the initial poll, photos of the cats during the Keynote slideshow, anecdotes]

At any rate, if our presentation stimulated those who were present to think more about what and how they could present, we achieved our goal. Rather than flaunting ourselves as experts in the area, since nearly two-thirds of the participants (we discovered by a show of hands) had presented, we wanted them to reflect on their own experiences and be aware of what they already knew about what makes an effective presentation. As for novices, we hoped they would gain the confidence that they could give presentations and actually begin to think about doing so.

By sharing these reflections on our presentation on the JALT website, we also want to show that a presentation is an on-going process, including planning stages, the actual presenting, and reflection afterwards.

Friday, April 20, 2007

TGIF the 2nd

With the second week of the semester over (as of half an hour ago), I can look back on some amazingly good and some amazingly bad experiences.

To start with the good, students at Sapporo University gave their presentations on the background of To Kill a Mockingbird. Five groups each had to do research in a particular area – geography (of Alabama), history (especially The Civil War), economics (including the Great Depression), law (such as the Jim Crow Laws), and culture (food and clothing of the 1930s).

Having taught the class for 2 years to students of a much lower level at a different school, I didn’t have very high expectations. My experience had been that students spend however much “research” time (generally very little) basically translating a lot of the terms into Japanese. That’s acceptable, since they at least gain some understanding of the location and period of the novel.

The presentations given by the Sapporo University students were remarkable. Many of them had made PowerPoint slideshows, complete with graphics and animation. While some of them need to work on presentation skills, such as speaking to the audience rather than reading everything from their notes and facing the audience rather than the screen, they had obviously done their research.

The students' enthusiasm has made teaching exciting for me, and I now feel that the time spent on preparing the materials – some 4 months (since questions about all 31 chapters, including feedback for both correct and incorrect answers, are on the class website) – was time well spent. In fact, teaching this class is somewhat the pinnacle of my career.

At the other extreme, at the University of Education, where I should be teaching methodology courses for future English teachers, they have me teaching required English conversation classes. The ones for the first year students went well because there were 22 students in each, and since I’ve been using, and improving on, the same materials for years, I can really have fun with the class.

Then came 3rd period. (I’m groaning inside even thinking about it.) Last week there were far too many students. I’m not sure of the exact number, but around 50, until everyone learned that the class was not English composition AND listening comprehension AND English conversation. (I was only told to teach English conversation.) This week, in addition to perhaps 40 students in the classes, there were others at the door asking to join.

I had a kind of break down. I know it was very unprofessional, but I was simply at a loss as to what to do. I walked in ready to teach, only to be accosted with decisions about letting more students into a class that’s already too full. I was at a total loss as to what to do and said so to the students. They said to go to the office, but which office and where. (For anyone who thinks it should be obvious, I can only say that the departments don’t even communicate effectively with one another, much less lowly part-time instructors. The girl [sic] at the place where I check in every week is capable of little more than getting a CD player or envelopes for me.)

Finally, one of the students in my class went to get Professor Sato from the Global Education Department (why Global Education, I’m not sure, since it’s an English class). His solution, which he explained to the students in Japanese, was to have an intensive summer course (which will be a combination of composition, listening AND conversation, so all I can say to the person who teaches it is, “Have fun!”). A few of the students left at that point, willing to take the summer course, and we thanked them.

However, I was still faced with a class that was way too big. My decision was to cut students who hadn’t done any homework, and I was ruthless. In the end, I was left with a workable number of 32 students.

It didn’t end there, though. After class, one of the students who had been late (for a 1:00 class), so hadn’t been allowed into the class, appeared at the door with Professor Sato to interpret for him. His reason for being late was that he had been at the doctor’s and had a long commute from Otaru, a seaside town.

Once more, I felt forced into a decision that might result in adding more students to an already overcrowded class. I hadn’t let another student enter because of being late, and yet another, who was absent because of illness, had text messaged me (which I ask students to do on the first day of class, giving them my email and cell mail addresses as well as examples of messages to write). This student hadn’t text messaged me that he was going to be late, but he said (through the interpreter) that he didn’t understand.

Then I asked to look at his textbook. He had done no homework. Again, he said he didn’t understand. At that point, I became relentless. If he didn’t understand my directions well enough to know that he was supposed to do chapter 1 for homework, he was very unlikely to understand most of what I said in class. Further, he missed my point when I was saying that I had high expectations and thought I was saying that the class was high level. Well, that too.

My biggest concern is not really about all the hassle with which I was faced in that class the first 2 weeks, although it took a small toll on my mental health. It’s that these students are required to take English conversation for their teaching license and end up with only 14 weeks (or a huge total of 21 hours) IF they attend every time. And that’s in a class with over 30 students (I’ve had up to 65, until I begged for the school to provide at least 2 classes), so their chances for talking with me end up being about 10 minutes 4 times a semester. Since they’re in groups of 4, that’s only about 10 minutes of conversation with a native speaker, if they talk at all.

In other words, speak English with a teacher in a class for 10 minutes, and you’ve met the government qualifications for getting a teaching license in Japan. Several comments come to mind, including that it’s the students, and, if they end up teaching, their future students who are getting cheated. My primary reaction, though, is, what a farce!

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Nan de?

Japanese students are generally so polite that it can be jarring when one is overtly rude. Of course, there may be the lazy students, the ones who try to get away with doing the minimal amount required. There are also the passive-aggressive ones, who can be spotted immediately by the hostile body language before class has even begun.

In the case of Miss Nan De, neither she nor her friend looked at me while I was introducing myself and the class materials the first day of class last week. In fact, as I recall, she was late, came in through the front door (there are 2 doors to the classroom), and clomped past several others to an empty seat. I thanked her for being able to use her as an example of how NOT to come in late.

The second week, she and her friend were sitting way in the back. I always get my students to sit closer for a number of reasons, including making a more cohesive group. Also, I don’t have to travel as far when I move around the room, which I do frequently, and I can get students’ attention more easily if they’re sitting close to me.

That day, I addressed her as “Miss Pink,” since she was wearing an attractive bright pink sweater, and asked her to sit closer. She moved up one seat. Then I indicated an empty seat near the front of the room and asked her to move there. She replied, loudly, “Nan de?” It can be simply translated as “Why?” but actually has nearly the same effect as if an American student replied, “What the hell for?”

I was momentarily stunned, realizing that there was no way I could explain all my reasons to her – in either English or Japanese – nor should I have to. I simply repeated the request, and she made a great show of reluctantly moving forward.

After that little incident, I tried my best to treat her just as I would any other student, even though I was still reeling from her retort. Would she would have delighted in knowing the effect she had accomplished? Or was it truly a matter of misunderstanding on her part? I have no way of knowing.

When the class was over, an older woman who’s in the class was helping me by erasing the board and straightening chairs, as “good” Japanese students used to do. She told me she was shocked when the young woman had asked, “Nan de?” Knowing that made me feel better about my own reaction.

Upon reflection, what I learned the most is that I need to save my energy for those students who are motivated, attentive, and doing their best. This is actually a lesson that has come up many times for me. Attempting to “cure” or pacify the disgruntled students, when I have no way of knowing where they’re coming from, is simply a drain on my energy and not worth it. Giving such students more attention is a waste of everyone's time. When will I ever truly learn that?

[Note: The following week, I had slept well the night before, was in a really good mood, and the class went especially well, with students being active in group discussions and asking me as well as each other a lot of questions. It wasn’t until later that I found out, from the older student, that Miss Nan De was absent that day. What’s the expression? One rotten apple can spoil the whole barrel. I discovered how true that is!]

Go, Melinda!

At last I know what all the fuss is about. For a couple years I've been hearing about this American Idol program. Now that I have cable (for the first time since I've been in Sapporo), I'm able to watch it. The show is so much more impressive than I had expected, and I can easily see how people get caught up in it.

I'm not sure which I enjoy more - watching the young people's performances, especially as they develop vocally (at least most of them) as well as become more stage-savvy, or the judge's critiques, which are so often right on the mark (even when they disagree).

My only complaint is that I'd like to see more thorough critiques, and not ones that just seem made for sound bites.

I would also LOVE to see all that goes on behind the scenes, especially in terms of blocking. As someone with a graduate degree in Theatre and long-term member of a semi-professional chorus, I've been on stage more often than in the audience. My fascination is not with the performance itself, but in all that went into making the performance, particularly the choice of song and outfit, but above all the vocal training.

Each week (even though, in Japan, we're about 3 weeks behind the American broadcasts so I already know the results), I look forward to seeing what each of the contestants is going to come up with. And I look forward to the reactions from the judges. I can't help but adore Simon (Cowell), holding my breath with the contestants as to whether he's going to tell them in his frank way that the song was a mess, or come up with his delectable comments such as, "You naughty thing" or "You little tiger." Simon is, of course, the real star of the show.

As for Melinda, she had me on "My Funny Valentine," the 2nd time I heard her sing. Another favorite was "I Am a Woman." Since I've performed "I've Got Rhythm" myself (in a medley of Gershwin tunes), I can't wait to hear that one - which will be broadcast in Japan in a couple of weeks.

If Melinda Doolittle were to cut a record today, I'd buy it for sure. Her performances take my breath away. Go, Melinda!

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Hokkaido - One of the Most Popular Cities in Japan

On an "ice-melting trip" to Japan, Chinese students chose Hokkaido as one of their favorite cities. That would be wonderful, except that Hokkaido is a prefecture (like state or province), not a city. Perhaps they meant Sapporo, the city where I live.

What's more, when asked about national pride, "80.3% of Japanese respondents were 'proud' or 'very proud' to be Chinese!" [exclamation point mine]

You can read the whole People's Daily Online article, about cultural exchange between Chinese and Japanese students, at: How far and how close are China and Japan?.