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!

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