Teaching English to Japanese Students: Activities

When I started teaching at university in Japan, I made an effort to understand the students’ expectations and to take into account various demands on their time. And I adjusted my own expectations accordingly, as I noted in part 1 of this series about teaching English to Japanese students.

As the university term went on, I found myself developing rituals. These were activities that students grew familiar with and became used to doing, so that there was efficiency in them. The initial time spent demonstrating and explaining them resulted in less set up time overall relative to the time that students spent engaged in them.

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The two main rituals were mind maps and short dialogues, and they were used at the beginning of class. They often accounted for the first 30 minutes or so of class time.

I had various reasons for structuring my classes this way.  For one thing, I wanted to give the students a chance to ‘warm up’ their English using familiar activities at the beginning of class, keeping in mind that aside from our 90 minutes together, many of them didn’t speak any English.

I chose a theme to work on throughout the course.  I felt that no matter how much variety I infused it with, working with that theme and that theme only would be potentially stifling, for all of us.

The students had lots to express that fell outside my theme, and I too wanted to teach some things that I had trouble incorporating into it.  And because our classes were longer than an hour, it afforded us ample time to include these activities.


As a learner, making a circle was part of my graduate school experience from start to finish, and I suppose that whenever I think of that time, I’ll think of the circles we made and how it facilitated communication.

In my small group conversation classes, I taught in a cozy room that was at one time someone’s bedroom, in a traditional style Japanese house. There was a large dining table that people sat around, making a cozy circle.

At university though, I was confronted with a large room, often larger than needed, with chairs in rows facing the board, each chair with its own desk in front of it. From the first day, I asked students to move the desks away to an unused part of the room and to make a circle with their chairs.
I asked them to rearrange the room this way as they entered before each class, so that we would be ready to start when it was time to begin class.

This was a new format for some, and took a little getting used to. They inevitably had to be reminded to do this at times, and so I made a habit of popping into the room five minutes before the lesson and if there were students there seated in the usual way in rows, I wordlessly made a circle motion with my finger and walked out. This was enough to get things in motion and in place by class time.


As I mentioned in connection with identifying student expectations for the course, the chance to make new friends was a significant aim for most. One student told me that students tend to make friends and join informal and more organized social circles in the first year, and that those relationships form the bulk of their social lives throughout university.

It was therefore a rare chance to be able to make new friends after that, and he mentioned that that opportunity was one of the things he most appreciated about my class. The fact that the students came from different majors and would have otherwise had little or no contact with each other made this even more valuable to many of them.

Mind maps became a key way to facilitate this interaction. Before I went to grad school I’d heard about mind maps, and seen examples of what a friend’s students had created.  A mind map is a way to arrange ideas and their interconnections visually. Starting from the center of the page, a focus is identified.  In my university classes, the focus was ‘My Week.’ Various ‘bubbles’ connected by lines emanate from the center, giving more detailed information.

Mind maps can be used in various contexts to organize and present thoughts graphically, help clarify thinking, and also importantly for this exercise, are easy to read over.

In my conversation school classes, I would routinely set aside the first 5-10 minutes of class for students in lower level classes to talk in pairs about a topic of interest to them, which usually was something they’d done in the past week. The students there were all very familiar with this format, and also with the importance of keeping the conversations going by asking follow up questions and giving additional information.

During this time, I didn’t correct, but I listened and helped with a word if needed, to keep the flow going. At this beginning level, there were often words or grammar forms that came up that we’d been working on or that were ‘ripe’ for them to be exposed to. I often noted these things after the exercise, and sometimes expanded on them to give additional practice.

I wanted to give university students a chance to use their English in this way to freely talk about whatever they chose with each other.

I knew that due to the emphasis on written testing in Japan in all things including language learning, most university students have a storehouse of vocabulary and grammatical knowledge that has rarely been put to use in actual, spontaneous conversation, and I wanted to provide a forum for practicing accessing this knowledge so that it could be used in speaking and listening, which are the two skill areas that are least taught throughout compulsory school years.

They also happen to be the areas that students most often want to study and become more proficient at.

I knew though, that I’d need to make adjustments to suit the university classes. I couldn’t monitor all the conversations as well as I would have liked to, since an average of 24 students meant 12 pairs talking at the same time. So it would have been easy for students to begin to feel that it was ‘free conversation’ and nothing more, more akin to chat than a learning experience.

I obviously couldn’t monitor everyone closely enough to identify all of the significant chances for learning that flowed from their mistakes. In this way, the potential for students to see it as a ‘time killer’ and an unfocused free for all and even as a chance to speak Japanese was there.

There was also added challenge because of the varying levels of motivation and language ability that existed within a single class. I needed to add some structure to the exercise to help lower level students and to keep the less motivated ones focused by making the task more concrete, and to add an element of accountability to it.

This is where mind maps came in. I had never used them before with students, so I found myself developing new ways to work with them as I went along in response to the feedback I was getting from students.

I began by presenting a mind map of my week on the board, and asking students to predict with partners what I’d done.  After sharing these ideas together, I told them what had actually happened. This gave them the basic idea.

Then I asked them all to stand and for each person to ask me one question to get more information. Things like ‘how was dinner?’ ‘What time did you meet your friend?’ etc. I used this technique a few times during the course as a way to get shy or reluctant students to ask questions.

It was also a very effective way to suddenly change a quiet classroom into a boisterous one, with usually reserved students often the ones who were most eager to be noticed and called on to ask a question, so they could sit down and not have to worry about their question being asked first by another student, which would have meant having to come up with another!

Once the importance of follow up questions was established and they had a feel for how to transform their experiences into mind maps, I asked them to make one of their own to share with a classmate in the next class.

The mind maps were a new concept for almost all the students, so their novelty lent a fresh angle to the idea of chatting together in English. In the opening weeks of class, students brought in a mind map every week and exchanged it with a classmate and then each partner looked at the other’s map, predicting what had happened before listening to their partner tell of the week’s events.

This gave students a chance to talk with different classmates, about one one of everyone’s favorite subjects, themselves. Students who didn’t bring a mind map or scratched one out halfheartedly just before class were at a disadvantage and their partner had less to work with, which gave them some impetus to prepare one in advance and to put some thought into it.

But as the newness wore off, I could sense that fresh elements had to be added to keep it engaging. I began to collect the mind maps at the beginning of class, and then randomly redistributed them. My only concern was that a pair was indeed working with two mind maps other than either of theirs. They worked together trying to make sense and sentences out of the words and fragments on the maps. Topics such as part time jobs and fun with friends were typical, but there were always surprises.

The second stage of this exercise was to individually write at least three questions they had for the person whose mind map they were holding. This was a rare chance to write in a class that emphasized speaking and listening, and it often provided me a chance to quickly point out mistakes as I circulated, making for another learning chance. These were often ‘simple’ mistakes that the students could self correct.

This done, they all stood up and went over to the mind map’s owner and asked the questions.  This inevitably turned into a mini conversation in its own right. There was often a short wait when the mind map’s owner was engaged in another conversation, but it was minimal and the vast majority of students seemed to be doing something at a given moment. Waiting time was also a chance to listen to a conversation between others.

The energy of a classroom of students standing at once and immediately setting out to find a certain classmate and having an animated chat before changing partners was an invigorating way to start class.

In this way, mind mapping grew to incorporate the four skills of language learning(listening, speaking, reading and writing), offered a chance for students to get to break the ice with all of their classmates at least once over the school term, and gave them a chance to creatively use language that they’d learned over the years, as well as picking up select new vocabulary on an as needed basis.

Because they had an immediate need to put these new words into service to express themselves to classmates in the moment, they were more likely to retain them.  They often discovered these words when they were writing their mind maps, and just as often, conversations in class surrounding them prompted them to ask me for a word or check a dictionary.  My intermediate level Japanese came in handy, as I was often able to quickly give a word without disrupting the flow.


I was the first native English teacher that many of my university students had had. Because Japanese English teachers usually don’t know many of the expressions and colloquialisms that are part of everyday conversation, and perhaps more importantly, because tests focus on more formalized speech, my students had a real hunger and enthusiasm for learning such things.

I incorporated these elements into the theme that we worked with, but wanted to give students a more focused, regular chance to not only pick up new words and expressions, but also to get a feel for the rhythm and intonation that native speakers typically use.  This is where short dialogues came in. After mind map exchanges, I presented a dialogue that I’d written on the board. I created these dialogues earlier that same day to reflect something topical, like the day’s weather or plans for an upcoming school break, etc. The following is an example:

A Hey, you’re soaked!

B Yeah, it’s pouring outside.

A Don’t you have an umbrella?

B No, according to the weather report, it was supposed to be sunny today.

A Well, don’t believe everything you hear!

Students worked briefly in pairs to try and guess the meanings of new expressions and vocabulary with the help of known words. In the above example, The word ‘umbrella’ could function as a clue to the meaning of words like ‘soaked’ and ‘pouring.’ In this stage of the exercise, I encouraged students to have fun guessing together and to use their imaginations, stressing the mindset of being a language detective and making inferences. Dictionaries were not used during this process; Japanese students are often quick to look something up and are inevitably as quick to forget the word as soon as knowing its meaning has served their immediate purpose. The ubiquity of smartphones has only made it easier to fall into this trap.

Exploration and discovery are not concepts that are compatible in a system where according to one survey, 70 percent of students can’t keep up with the massive amounts of information that they’re told to memorize. Therefore, although this notion is a bit intimidating to some students at first and they hesitate to ‘take a stab’ at an answer even in pairs where the spotlight isn’t on them, there’s a novelty and freshness to it that seemed to appeal to most and they brainstormed more freely with each other as the weeks went on.

I then gave them a chance to come up with the answers as a whole group, and inevitably at least one or two were on the mark for each phrase in question. The next step was to act out the dialogues on their own. Knowing the meaning was a good start, and I asked them to try and convey that understanding in acting it out. This sometimes involved body language that was often as foreign to them as some of the text, and intonation and emotion that they weren’t used to using when speaking English.

As I tried to prepare students for these tasks, I remembered my ‘Four Skills’ class during my second summer as a grad student at the School for International Training(SIT) in Vermont. I recalled listening to my teacher as she read a passage from a short story to us, and I was struck by how neutral the reading was, with nary a nod to what the characters might be feeling as they uttered the lines.

I reflected at that time on my own teaching and how I often infused my reading with with my own interpretation of what was happening. I did this to help students to understand the meaning and also to entertain them, to keep their attention as a storyteller would. But I realized from this experience as a learner that being ‘spoon fed’ an interpretation can rob the listener of the chance to conjure up their own image of what’s going on, and can raise their dependence on the speaker for cues to the material’s meaning. Of course there can be multiple interpretations, all equally plausible, So, I had to consciously walk a line in the university classroom, modeling something on one hand, to provide some sense of possibilities, but not short-circuiting their own creative process or visions.

Another element that went into working with the dialogues was working with blending words as native speakers might. Invariably, students pronounce words in English as distinct, separate entities, just as they typically appear on a page, or are spoken by many Japanese English teachers. In fact, many native English teachers do this as well, whether consciously or not, to facilitate understanding. The contrast between this and a blended version can be seen in the following:

What are you going to do tomorrow?

Wada ya gonna do damorrow?

As an illustration of how ubiquitous blending is, songs like the Beatles’ ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ can be presented. Since most students express an interest in learning English to understand foreign movies and music, calling this to their attention and giving them some basic rules about how native speakers blend words and a chance to practice can be both meaningful and fun. It was familiar enough in a vague way through exposure to movies and music for my students to get a handle on, the motivation to learn it was high, and its novelty brought an energy to the lessons.

If a native speaker were to utter the example sentence above, it would probably be split into two intonation groups, as in:

Wada ya gonna/do damorrow?

The existence of intonation groups, of the tendency of native speakers of various languages to group words in a sentence according to the sound, is usually another new concept for students.  But like blending, it can take on a familiar quality quickly in that it involves calling attention to something that’s been there all the time, maybe something that they have even unconsciously used themselves at times.

The phenomenon of intonation groups was something that my students could quickly master once they were introduced to it. To illustrate it, I asked them to take a pencil or pen and hold it in their hand as if they were a conductor about to lead an orchestra. Then, I moved my pencil back and forth like a windshield wiper, two times in the case of the example sentence. For contrast, I then mimicked the way some learners approach sounds in English, by keeping them separate and keeping it monotone, as in:


This invariably prompted laughs of recognition, as most seemed to relate to this ‘metronome’ approach. When students started moving their pencils back and forth and playing with dialogues in this way, it brought kinesthetic learning into the equation, which provided another opportunity to connect with and visualize the material, in a way that had an element of play to it.

Another exciting part for students was that once they noticed intonation groups, they could in very short order intuitively grasp and use this concept. If there was a case where the grouping wasn’t clear to someone and they asked me, we often went through the process of experimentation and discovery together with our pencil ‘wands’, and the answer wasn’t always clear, making the process itself as important as the result.

In working with a short dialogue in so many ways, I recalled the notion of ‘doing a lot with a little’ that I found so intriguing in my studies at SIT. Another phrase a teacher used then, ‘milking the content’ also came to mind. Before looking at this, I had the somewhat typical tendency to go through material more quickly, which made my job as a teacher harder because I had to constantly search for new lessons. Once I put the principle into practice though, I could use my energy to creatively mine lessons in various ways, which made teaching much more fun and rewarding for me.

Hopefully, this has had an effect on the students’ reactions as well. Working this way can also foster the feeling among students that the amount of material covered isn’t what’s important; it’s the learning that is. I was fortunate at the university where I taught to be able to prepare my own syllabus and I had no prescribed amount of material to plow through, so this was admittedly a great help. Teachers who have less control over the content and pace of their lessons will need to consider ways to work within those confines.

Working with dialogues gives a teacher a lot of choices, even on a basic level. There’s whole group practice, pairs practicing simultaneously, and pairs performing in front of their classmates.  Since the dialogues were short, they could quickly be memorized so that students didn’t need to rely on what I’d written on the board, and they could be paraphrased or altered. I used all of these variations at one time or another. I also occasionally had a pair present a dialogue in front of the class without actually vocalizing the words! It was up to them to mouth the dialogue with expressions and gestures that they considered fitting, as the rest of the class in chorus said the words. This allowed the ‘audience’ to actually participate and required their attention to what was being played out in front of them.

Whatever rituals a teacher chooses to incorporate into lessons, it would serve them to keep in mind that there will be a learning curve, and maybe even some resistance or hesitation on the part of students if they aren’t used to doing something.  Explaining and/or demonstrating the activities can, along with time, address this. I found that if I allowed for such reactions at the beginning, dealt with them in this way, and was committed to what I was doing, things fell into place well and these rituals became useful tools in serving my students’ learning.

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Originally posted 2019-04-26 23:32:02.

Teaching English in Japan: Community Building

This is the third in a series of posts on classroom techniques and perspectives that served me well as a new English teacher at a Japanese university. If you haven’t read part 1 yet, you can find it here.

My graduate school studies not only exposed me to new ideas and practices, they  also made me more aware of things I had been doing all along in the classroom.

Through this, I was able to see how my inclinations were a reflection of the values that I naturally placed importance on in my teaching. One of these was community building.

Helping to foster a supportive, secure, warm environment has always been central to my teaching, and to the extent that it reflects who I am as a person, it hadn’t always been something I’d consciously thought about.

But from the moment I started student orientation at the beginning of my first summer as a student at grad school, I was struck by how much effort my teachers made to give us a chance to forge relationships and build familiarity with our new classmates.

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Cooperative assignments like going out into the local community to gather information to put on a board about local events and facilities, and simpler tasks like standing and lining up according to some criteria like height, hair length, etc. without speaking stand out in my memory.

Working as a member of a group in my own student life gave me concrete experience to draw on as a teacher at university in Japan, and reaffirmed the importance that I’ve always placed on this facet of teaching.

Until my year teaching at university, my eikaiwa conversation school classes in Japan had been the extent of my teaching experience with group dynamics and community building. In that context, small groups of four to six or so motivated adults who see their weekly hour of English as a refreshing shift in their routines are often eager to talk with one another. And the small class size makes changing partners in the course of a single hour an easy thing to do logistically as well. Students sometimes extend these relationships outside of class, and even go overseas together on occasion when they hit it off with someone, though feeling a sense of community and shared experience in the classroom is enough for many.


In his classic 1993 book What Matters in College, Alexander Astin reviewed the literature on college teaching and found that two things make the biggest difference in getting students involved and instilling a sense of community. They are, greater teacher-student interaction and greater student-student interaction. Though Japanese students weren’t the focus of the research that this work is based on and the book is a bit outdated in places, I’d venture to say that these two aspects of the learning environment are still universally significant, and teachers who start from this macro level are way ahead of the game from the very start.

Learning names may at first sound trivial and unworthy of special thought, but it is a powerful way to nurture both of these important interactions.

With small conversation school classes, learning students’ names and giving students a chance to learn the names of classmates almost takes care of itself. It’s a matter of introducing a new classmate, and in my teaching I used students’ names often, so there was ample chance for students to hear them again and again if they didn’t get the name the first time. Few names to memorize means that teacher and students need put little effort into it. Beyond this though, I liked to create an opportunity in my conversation school classes for students to actually use each others’ names.

When I asked conversation school students to discuss something in pairs and then switch pairs and repeat to their new partner what their previous partner said, they started by using the person’s name, as in ‘Tomoko said…..’ This helps the listener to keep the image of the person in mind as they listen, and it also happens that in such a small space, the classmate, Tomoko in this example, can hear her name being uttered.

In a separate post about rituals in the language classroom in this series, the mind map activity that asks students to look at a classmates’ map after I’ve handed them out randomly gives such a chance to put name recall into practice. When students stood to go and ask the person additional questions that they had based on their map, they had to match a face in the room filled with 25 or so scurrying young people with the name on the paper, and go up to them!

If they hadn’t known names at this point in the semester, this simply can’t have worked. So it served to show me that they knew names, and gave them a chance to confirm this to themselves. This activity can also build community in giving students a reason to approach a particular classmate, who might be someone they don’t know well or even feel hesitant or shy about talking to.

Then the question becomes how to get students to this point, where they have a basic handle on names? I think this is important, because in my experience, teachers put more focus on finding ways for themselves to learn their students’ names than on giving students ample opportunity to do this with each other.

I should add though, that I actually heard through the grapevine about a teacher who didn’t focus on either aspect of this issue. He said bluntly to a classroom full of university students that he simply didn’t have time to learn so many names and so wasn’t going to try. This could be one of those ‘I heard about a guy who….’ stories that ultimately is just a product of someone’s imagination. But in any case, I think most teachers would agree that it wouldn’t do much in the way of community building, unless it were to unite the students in their disrespect for the teacher!

It’s much more common, though, for a teacher to take the step of learning student names but stop there, not devoting enough conscious effort to allow for the students to learn the names of their peers.

Let’s look first at some possibilities for helping the teacher to learn names. I chose to ask students for an ID sized picture that I glued to a piece of paper and wrote names underneath. I had a sheet for each class that I could keep on my desk and quickly glance at if I wanted to ask something of someone whose name hadn’t stuck yet.  This seemed to work well enough for me.

A friend who seemed to foster a strong sense of community in his classes made more of an activity out of this process. He put students together in groups of 5-8 or so, and had them pose for a picture together in the classroom in their first meeting, holding name cards in front of them. Then he printed these group shots out and put them on his desk for easy reference during future class sessions. University students routinely take pictures on the last day of class, and this is a nice twist on that. And to level the playing field and give students the same chance to use pictures to learn names, of course students can take photos of the groups holding their name cards as well.

Another friend used some class time early on in the semester as students were working quietly on a reading passage to walk around and focus on connecting names with faces, and I happened to be observing her class on a day she did this. When they were done reading, she challenged herself by spontaneously calling out names as she looked at  students.

The point was not necessarily to be perfect. In fact she couldn’t quite remember a name or two, but the students saw clearly that she was willing to put in the time to do it and that she considered it important.  And it also showed them that there was nothing to be embarrassed about should they forget someone’s name themselves. Seeing a teacher willing to put herself in a position like that fostered respect and a desire to live up to her example. I could see in that moment how her students admired her for taking such a risk and for the sentiment behind it all.

One of the first activities I did with students was in the spirit of the ‘lining up without words’ games from my first summer at grad school that I mentioned above. In our first class, I asked my students to line up alphabetically according to first name, without speaking. Since most of them knew at most only a couple of their classmates at that point, this required lots of sign language. After they lined up, we checked accuracy by reciting our names and greeting that person in unison, with a ‘Hi, Yuki!’ etc. I had no expectations about students remembering names yet, but wanted to put the names ‘in circulation’ as my own teachers were fond of saying.

Another early activity was ‘find someone who…..’.  I’ve used this standard icebreaker before with groups, preparing a sheet with instructions geared toward specific age levels, interest, etc. So in this context, I included such things as ‘find someone who works part time at a restaurant’ etc.

Students were asked to walk around the classroom and approach classmates, first introducing themselves and then asking a question. Students could ask up to three questions of a particular classmate, hoping to find a match to one of the directives. This exercise gives students a chance to make associations between names, faces and traits or experiences, so there’s a greater chance that they’ll remember them.

Later in the semester I found myself with some spare time before class ended one day, and got the circle together to try a memorization chain with names. The first person said their name, and added something they like, as in ‘I’m Yasuhiro and I like fishing.’ The next student repeated that and then added his own information, and this grew and grew. The concentration on students’ faces was obvious as they prepared for their turn by listening and trying to remember the information in sequence.

As a teacher, I wanted to learn students’ names, but invariably some came more easily than others. As the semester went on, I found it harder to admit to individual students that I didn’t know their names yet, and I felt embarrassed about this. I imagine that students shared these feelings at times, and I wanted to make it easier, acceptable, for them to openly acknowledge they didn’t remember a classmate’s name, in order to learn it and feel more comfortable.

This also involved a language component, and I wrote on the board the phrase ‘Excuse me, can I have your name again?’ Having armed students with this, along with the permission to use it, I asked them to circulate around the room and approach classmates whose names they weren’t yet sure of. They were additionally motivated to do this by the knowledge that afterwards, we were to get back in our circle and they’d be asked to show how many names they knew.

After a burst of commotion, everyone seemed satisfied that they had it. Then, with the person sitting down next to them in the circle, they went about looking around them and starting at a certain point in the circle and working clockwise, one by one wrote the names of their classmates as they conferred together about it.

I walked around, amused by the discussions and speculations and occasional head scratching, and when a pair seemed stumped, I let them know it was alright for one of them to get up and walk over to that person and ask, using our magic question. This chance came as a relief to some, and I hoped it would instill in them the idea that it was OK to ask.


Another community building activity that we did together was a poster project. Students were asked in the first class to make a poster at home to bring in the next week. I supplied the paper to give them some parameters as far as size went and therefore, the amount of information to include. I showed them a poster I’d made to introduce myself that included things I consider important in my life that are central to who I am.

My name was written prominently at the top, going back to the idea that it would be useful for them to learn names early on and to be able to connect them with something about that person.  My poster featured pictures of family, friends, and pets, and under each picture there was a short description with my comments.

The next week, all of the students present had done a poster. We had a ‘poster session’ with students taking turns manning their posters as classmates circulated, looked at the posters and asked questions.  Often things in common were discovered, like hometowns, hobbies or pets.

As an exercise in getting to know each other and as an outlet for them to creatively express themselves, the exercise seemed to work. If I were to do it again, though, I would add a task, such as I did with mind maps, when they were asked to make three questions for someone, or to find things that they had in common with a certain number of people and then write about those things at home, etc. This would have added a gamelike element and greater sense of purpose to it, and it would have given students who didn’t put as much energy into visiting their classmates at their stations and engaging in conversation another reason to participate.

I also wonder if I could have gotten more mileage out of this exercise by bringing the posters back in some way later in the semester, or even at the end.  From my own experience walking around the room and looking at the posters while chatting with their creators, there was a lot of information to absorb, and since the students were still new to me, as they were to each other, I had very little context to go on, and many of the details of individual posters ran together in my mind.

I could have, for example, covered the authors’ names, and put the posters on the walls at the end of the term, for students to look at again and to identify the owners. And going back to what I’ve written about names, this would have been a way for them to use that knowledge, and also to realize how much more familiar they’d become with each other over the term, and how the information on the posters had come to take on a deeper meaning now that they’d formed relationships.

A ‘surprise’ activity like this would be in a sense a walk down memory lane, bringing back memories of the beginning of our time together, and could give a feeling of having come full circle.


Helping students make groups in the university classroom required appreciably more thought and effort than at the conversation school, and therefore was probably the thing about university teaching that required the most conscious thought. This sounds strange to me, in that making groups with small groups of adults has always been so straightforward. In a class of four people for example, I’d start by making pairs of people sit next to each other, and switched at least once during an hour class to lend more variety and to give students a chance to communicate with their classmates.

Simple logistics when dealing with 25 or so students complicates this task. Add to this a shyness among some university students, and throw in gender dynamics in a co-ed group, and the situation calls out for firm, clear directions from the teacher in order for students to interact over a semester with different classmates, and to do it without wasting precious class time that could be better spent.

The concept of ‘control and initiative’ was something that made a strong impact on me in my grad school studies. The idea that a teacher must provide enough structure to give students a basis for action, while giving enough space for them to have the freedom to express themselves and creatively use language was something that I wanted to develop at university. I considered this valuable especially since most students, even at that late point in their schooling, were still given precious little initiative in classes and had gotten used to a passive style of learning.

I soon discovered that having students stand and announcing ‘OK, make a pair with someone you don’t know well’ was just asking for hesitation and blank stares. From the beginning, it was clear that if left to their own devices, boys would generally sit with boys, and girls with girls, and that this would carry over to their choice of partners. I learned, though, that this didn’t mean that they didn’t want to cross gender lines and get to know those of the opposite sex.

In fact one boy wrote that very thing to me in his feedback, saying that although they wanted to, it was difficult for them to take that initiative and that they would be glad if I did it for them. This was an important realization for me.  It showed me that there are times when students are uncomfortable initiating things that they in fact would welcome doing if told to do so!

I experimented with making choosing partners a sort of game at times. I’d write names of fruits and vegetables on slips of paper and students would circulate, calling out what was on the slip, so the room was filled with shouts of ‘banana’!  ‘broccoli!’

When they found the student with the same word, they sat down together ready to begin whatever activity was in store. I tried this with various things, including matching a celebrity’s first name with their last one. The more background knowledge necessary to find a partner though, the more potential for snags, and the purpose of this after all, was to set up an activity rather than become a full fledged activity in itself, as far as time and energy were concerned.

Another tactic that I sometimes tried was looking at the attendance sheet and calling out names in a straightforward way, based on pairings I thought would be suitable as far as level went, or in terms of getting two students together who rarely talked, etc.

As well as deciding who talks with whom, there’s also the matter of how often in a given class groups are changed. One student wrote in feedback that she felt less of a need to change partners multiple times in a class during our second semester together, because thanks to such frequent switches in the first term, she’d already become acquainted with everyone to one degree or another. While most students seemed to enjoy the chance to change partners, it does deserve some thought, and the comment I just mentioned also made me aware that partnering is something that can and should evolve as students’ needs do.

More Posts in this Series:

How I Survived Teaching English at a Japanese University Part 1: Expectations

How I Survived Teaching English at a Japanese University Part 2: Classroom Rituals and Activities

Originally posted 2019-04-17 07:04:17.

Teaching English in Japan: Classroom Expectations

Welcome to part 1! In this and the posts to follow in this series about teaching English in Japan, I’ll go into detail about the challenges I faced as a neophyte university teacher in Kyoto, fresh out of grad school.

I was already a veteran conversation school teacher at the time, and needed to quickly make various adjustments in order to succeed in this challenging new environment.

I’ll give concrete examples of strategies and activities that served me and my students well, and also look back on what I could have done differently.

I hope you’ll enjoy reading along, whether you’re already in Japan, are considering taking the plunge, or are just interested in getting a bird’s eye view of what it’s like to teach large classes of Japanese university students.

Teaching English at a Japanese university, like anything else worthwhile, requires patience, humility, flexibility and hard work. Even as I struggled to adapt at times, I pushed myself to get through the rough patches.  And now I can see how that process served my own learning in lasting and significant ways.

I’ve lived in Kyoto since 1998 and it’s truly my home. My experiences teaching English at conversation schools as well as university have given me lots of wonderful memories, insights into the culture and people, and some good friendships, too.

Teaching is learning, and teaching in a foreign country where there is already so much to absorb can be incredibly stimulating, but also overwhelming at times. I hope that the following reflections will prove helpful on a practical level, and maybe even inspire you to meet your own challenges head on.

Here’s to not just surviving in the classroom, but thriving!

Societal Expectations of University Students

One common expectation of teachers everywhere is for students to study.  This is a laudable and understandable goal. But keeping in mind that one of the Japanese university’s main functions is to provide a place and time to mature will help in making a teacher’s expectations more realistic.

It can also help motivate students to strive to make their best effort. Students also have various other demands on their time, and it’s all to easy for a teacher to overlook this when assigning work. Reacting reflexively and angrily when students fail to live up to a certain standard tends to just make things worse.

A pillar of the business world, Toshihiko Yamashita, once said that university graduates are all but useless when they’re hired, being no better educated than when they left high school.

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Accordingly, the expectation of business when hiring university graduates has been that they have already proven their ability to withstand the rigor and discipline of high school life and thereby shown that they will be able to withstand the demands of the workplace, by passing what is known as ‘exam hell’ and gaining admittance to a prestigious university. The actual grades that are received at university have often had little or no bearing on hiring practices.

Students are aware of this, and after three years a heavy high school homework load plus added hours of instruction at cram schools for many, it’s easy to understand why some students come to feel like they’re entitled to a break before putting their noses to the company grindstone.

The Growing Necessity of Part Time Work for Japanese Students

In recent years, this scenario has been further complicated by the breakdown of traditional employment norms, with more and more workers working for fewer benefits and under temporary contracts that deprive them of the sense of security that past generations felt upon landing their first job.

And in fact, nowadays fewer and fewer students have the luxury of focusing fully on their university studies, with more of them working while they are in school at part-time jobs, often in the service sector at casual restaurants, etc. And It’s not just about the sheer number of students that work, it’s also about their motivation for doing so.

In the past, those who worked often did so primarily in order to refresh themselves and make new friends. Because working part time while in high school is rare, most young people have never experienced being part of the labor force before. Places like restaurants that traditionally rely on part time student labor have often highlighted this aspect of the work in their hiring posters.

These days, it seems that students themselves are bearing more and more of the financial burden that their education creates, and in such cases working is an imperative. Seen through this lens, such students being less willing and/or able to keep up with a given teacher’s demands on their time can be viewed more sympathetically.

What do Students Want Out of University Life?

But wanting a break doesn’t necessarily mean that students are content to come out of university with nothing tangible besides a diploma to show for their time. The rigidity and intense focus on memorization and tests that often characterizes high school here leaves many students hungry to develop themselves in other areas such as forging friendships, devoting time to hobbies, and experiencing romance.

They also often yearn for experiences outside their own culture and the rules that they associate with it, and foreign languages, specifically those from western countries like English that are so obviously outside the bounds of the system they grew up in, can offer a window onto this.  To the extent that a teacher can tap into some of these expectations and adjust their own accordingly, student motivation can be cultivated.

Identify and Examine Your Own Expectations as a Teacher

In identifying my own expectations, it was useful to reflect on the teaching I had done to that point.  Before my stint at university, I had been teaching in Japan for four years in various contexts, including a year at a large conversation school chain, and another year as an assistant teacher working with Japanese English teachers at public elementary and junior high schools in a small town.

Being that the bulk of my teaching experience had been with small classes of motivated adults at conversation schools(eikaiwa) who chose to be there, I immediately had to adjust to larger classes, which in my case meant about 20-25 students.

Until that time, I’d only taught 50 minute to hour long lessons, and so it was also important to develop activities to keep the flow going over 90 minutes lessons at university.  And because I had never given grades before, I had to form clear guidelines and convey them early on to the students so that they would be clear about what I expected of them in return for various grades.

Another difference was that my conversation school classes were ongoing, and students could join and quit at anytime.  In that university classes have a finite beginning and ending and are filled with students of more or less the same age, there is a greater potential and also perhaps a greater demand for fostering a sense of community that in many cases results in students striking up relationships that extend beyond the classroom.

Ask Your Students for Feedback Along the Way

Knowing where the students are coming from scholastically and culturally is a good start. Otherwise, teachers can be prone to take things personally and react in unproductive, reflexive ways that can exacerbate problems.

Getting structured feedback from students as the term goes on is another valuable way to assess what they expect and respond to, as well as what doesn’t work or could work better.  The issue of eliciting feedback will be discussed more in my post on student motivation strategies.

Originally posted 2019-04-17 06:57:48.